september 14, 2005

Dimashq - Damascus

Written on September 14th, on board of flight JXX155 to London Stansted.

I really think no matter how much I try, as soon as I return from a trip abroad I just cannot be bothered to write the “travelogue”.

It’s roughly four months now since I returned from Damascus but finally I’m going to use this opportunity to write the story, since there isn’t much else to do onboard, except reading.

So, the second part of the Lebanon-Syria story follows:

When the 35+ year old Dodge taxi arrived I soon realised that there wouldn’t be much of a discussion between me and the taxi driver. He absolutely didn’t understand a single word in English. So, another chance to practice the Arabic.

It seemed so much easier to get out of Beirut this time. The road to Damascus is rather narrow and steep. On the part that lies the highest we actually drove behind a snowplough for a while.

When we were driving down the mountain again the driver stopped at a local taxi/truck drivers’ café, which didn’t look like a place of interest, shall we say. But never underestimate the Lebanese! At this small café they served us complimentary espressos and the loo wasn’t perhaps the best according to Lebanese standards but in Egypt one would have to pay for such luxuriousness.

Back on the road again. Right before we came to the Syrian borders the driver stopped again, this time to buy some bread! I later understood why, when I saw Syrian bakeries. With four or five bags full of bread in the trunk we drove to the borders. He must have made a fortune on this pastry business.

The Syrian borders. “Man I had a dreadful night, I’m back in the U.S.S.R.” Having obtained a visa from the Syrian embassy in Cairo, I though I would slip through like a guinea in an official’s pocket. Okay, let’s give it to them, they’ve computerized the system. They even register you out of the country when you leave. That’s a big difference from the Egyptian system, which is manual. But whereas the Egyptian in the worst case try to get few guineas for themselves the Syrians seemed to only know how to stall the process. Maybe they are trying to convince themselves or others that all these border control officers are needed. There weren’t many people at the borders this time and the process maybe took only ten minutes, but still, I had entered Syria for sure.

On the road to Damascus we passed numerous army trucks, full of soldiers evacuating Lebanon. The road is surprisingly wide and long actually. And not with a nice view as on the Lebanese side of the borders.

I arrived safely in Damascus and checked into my hotel. A cheap but clean hotel called [can't remember, will look it up later]. It was cold and in some ways I felt like I had slipped into another world. Almost nothing Western, apart – for some reasons – advertisements from Canada Dry, a soft drink I knew as a child (not only Ginger Ale but also Cola!).

To be honest I think I’ve never been as lost in any city as Damascus. As soon as I thought I knew were I was (and my “internal compass” usually doesn’t fail) I realised I was lost. I didn’t do much, except walking around the area around the hotel and driving to “smell” the culture. Walked into the old city and bought a shawarma from a Kurdish run shawarma place in the Christian quarter. Also bought a bottle of Lebanese arak from a small supermarket there. Ended up getting COMPLETELY lost in the old city and thought I was in the western part of it when I walked out of the area but later found out I was north of it. Hassled with a taxi driver to take me for (the equivalent of) $1, since I though I was close to the hotel. Succeeded but found out I was three times farer from the hotel than I thought. No wonder the taxi driver was a pit pissed off.

The second day the plan was to explore the old city and the Omayyad Mosque. First I went to the Ministry of Interior though, to get a permit to visit the Golan Heights. Then it was off to the Omayyad Mosque. On arrival there I was approached by a guide. Having lived in Egypt for all those months “guides” are synonymous with “crooks”. So at first I wasn’t all that keen on employing this guide. But there was something about the man that gave me the impression that he wasn’t a guide in Egyptian standards. So I decided to accept his offer and give him a chance. And what a wonderful guy he was. If anyone wants I’ve got his phone number, just send me an email. I wrote it down to be able to contact him “next time in Damascus”.

Mr. Jamal showed me the Omayyad Mosque, all the quarters, gave me a personal tour around the Jewish quarters where he himself grew up and after a while we were talking like old friends quite freely. A very pleasant day. I saw pretty much everything in the Old City, but skipped the “market tour”. With the Khan “back home”, I was interesting in other things. He also showed me the Danish Institution in Damascus, which is in a beautifully restored old house. Spoke with a couple of Danish students (in Danish of course!) who were doing their studies there. After many churches and the striking condition of the deserted Jewish quarter we had a shawarma at the same Kurdish stall I had eaten at the night before (my luck to find the best shawarma place in the Old City). We had some tea together; I thanked him and gave him something for all his time.

A bit funny of an incident happened to me at the shrine of John the Baptist in the Omayyad Mosque. A young Syrian guy (probably aged 20) approached me and asked me (in English) why I had put money into the shrine (like most people to there). I tried to explain to him that it was accustomed to do such things when you were in a house of God. “Are you a Muslim?”, he asked, but I explained to him that I wasn’t but as a Christian, a person of the book, John the Baptist was a sacred man to me too. “But what about Syria”, he asked, “the television and the papers tell us that the West hates us. Why are you here? What brings you to Syria? Don’t you think we’re all terrorists and criminals?” I explained to him that while some people in the West believed all Arabs/Muslims were terrorists, where I came from people generally didn’t generalize like that. And I didn’t believe that Syrians or Arabs were bad people, I even lived in Cairo. And no matter what one thought about the government of a certain country, one couldn’t judge the people on the government. So just like we shouldn’t think Americans were bad people because of George Bush, one shouldn’t think Syrians were bad people because of the Syrian government. The guy smiled and shook my hand. “I hope you like Syria. Welcome!” That was a good example of the feelings of ordinary people you encounter in the Middle East. One of the best things to draw attention to this issue is to compare it the view on Americans. I once met a taxi driver in Cairo who put it quite simply “People… all good. President… all criminals”. Another taxi driver put it “America car good. Kentucky [KFC] good. America people good. George Bush terrorist!”.

The day after I rented a car to visit the Golan Heights. First I had to fill it up with petrol. Which wasn’t a problem at all, except I realised I didn’t have enough money to pay for it (although in this part of the world the litre of coffee is more expensive than fuel). So I had to find the next INTERNATIONAL teller machine. Which meant I had to run down to the Station, which was almost two kilometres away (and not get lost). Oh well, I made it.

On the road again, with a full tank. Next problem: getting out of Damascus. A bigger problem: get to the highway that goes to Qunaitirah.

After almost an hour on the highway I realised I was on the wrong road. Saw on the map that I could make a turn soon which would lead me to the right road (and not into the occupied areas, inshallah.

And then I was stopped by the Syrian army. Let’s not forget that the army cannot afford to train the soldiers with all their equipment. But that doesn’t stop them to call every Syrian male to service for 18-36 months. University graduates being the ones with the shortest service time and those can also slit the time into three six months periods, according to the Syrian soldier/architect I gave a lift south to the Jordanian borders. The soldier I gave the lift to gave me another chance to meet “real people”, since he also spoke English surprisingly well.

I dropped him off in his village few miles from the Jordanian borders. Took a road that was supposed to lead to Qunaitirah. Well, it did actually, but a mud road it was most of the time. I managed, with a great deal of patient to get to Qunaitirah On the way there I saw some interesting sights. Syrian peasants. “Waiting for Gordo” so to speak. The only solid example that showed you that anything had happened there during the 20th century were the Korean pickups that collected some of the products.

Qunaitirah, the city the Israelis bulldozed before returning it to the Syrians. It’s now virtually an open air museum. With Japanese signs as well as Arabic and English, explaining the misdeeds of the Zionist Imperial Army.

The pictures I took can be viewed here.

I rang my family, through the Israeli Vodafone network. After driving back to Damascus I didn’t have the energy to do anything except locating the sole pizza place in the area and getting a pizza to take away. Locating the hotel again turned out to be another challenge.

Again, I’ve NEVER been as lost in any city as Damascus. And don’t even dream about getting an espresso there. Instant coffee is the only option – so stick to the tea.

The last day I spent looking for a souvenir cup. In every country I visit I buy a souvenir cup. They’re practical. You can drink coffee or tea from them, so you can drink from a different country every day!

Again, don’t even dream about getting such a thing in Damascus. Instead I bought Iraqi money and drank tea and chatted (in my fragmented Arabic) with the coin salesmen. I gave them, a grandson and a grandfather in his 80s, an Icelandic coin each (which a happened to have in my bag for some reason. I have them one 100 ISK and one 50 ISK. But I had managed to hassle the price of the Iraqi moneys from 700 Syrian liras to 500. Then I gave them the equivalent of 130 Syrian liras. Funny how the same real amount of money in one currency can mean something to you but nothing in another. In Syria it bought you two nice meals of food, in Iceland it doesn’t buy you a cup of coffee!

The International Airport in Damascus was full of Iranian pilgrims. There are some Shia’a shrines in Syria and the flight to Tehran was packed with (obviously rather poor) pilgrims. Few of the older men had two wives. One seemed to have three. But who knows, not even the immigration officers saw their faces. Could be their daughters or granddaughters, who knows! But the ones in their 20s and 30s who didn’t cover their faces… Well, my view of the beauty of the Persian stock didn’t suffer this time.

Arriving in Cairo was a great feeling. I felt like I was back to the civilized world, with Italian espressos and American junk food. Didn’t know how much I like junk food until when I was out of its reach.

I must visit Syria again. And Lebanon too. Next time I want to go to Palmyra and Aleppo. Explore the Northwest of Syria and Northern-Lebanon. Next time, inshallah!
Agust skrifaði 14.09.05 19:38 (GMT+2)