The long road to Damascus

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Where I stayed
al-rabie guesthouse

Flag of Syria  ,
Monday, November 2, 2009

You know you're suffering a mild logistical hiccup when even your Turkish taxi driver decides to dump you and forgo the rest of his fare.

Crossing national boundaries is normally a case of submissively following the little arrows from window to window, genuflect, genuflect meekly at all appropriate times, and carry a particular state of pofaced nonchalance.

Patience is the real key. Make it plain (especially if your documentation is tickety-boo) that you are quite prepared to wait as long as it takes to 'get processed'. The real barb is to not-so-subtly insinuate you are quite prepared to wait quite a lot longer than that.

Passing from Turkey to Syria is multi-layered: from central Europe into greater Arabia, European language to Arab, First(-ish) World to Third, pastures to parch-lands, from possible EU partner to a state "beyond the axis of evil".

Bussing along, you need a taxi to take you across the few kilometres of no-man's land between the two border posts and into the accompanying villages.

Out of southeast Turkey, near Iraq, and hit the Syrian border.

Hand over the passport, and wait.

Five minutes, 10 minutes ... any problem?


Half an hour ... any problem?


A little runner scarpers from one dusty office to the next clutching my little green document.

At one hour, I peek in, and see a shoulder of pips and stripes on the phone while perusing a fax printout.

"Please recite to me, in order, all the countries you have visited in your passport."

Dribble them out as they get written down in Arabic.

"Where is this?"

Amritsar, and the daft border stamp does not say it is an Indian frontier town.

Any problem? "A little one. We are talking to Damascus."

My taxi driver, having already shown remarkable patience, opens the trunk, points his finger at my bag and mimes "take out".

I take a little lesson from Sun Tzu's Art of War and try and turn adversity into opportunity, checking out a little dictionary.

Sit in the shade, and smoke. At three hours, 'pips and stripes' ambles over, beaming, hand over heart: "Welcome to Syria."

I am ready. "Shukran kteer (thank you very much)." Beams all round. And mutter "al hum dillilah" (thanks be to God).

The world takes on a new meaning, I am blind again, akin to China. Turkey and Russia carry mostly Romanised alphabets, relatively legible and prounouncable. To the inept eye, Arabic script is a lovely scrawl of loops, lines and dots. All road signs, shop signs have just become totally illegible.

But I have a personal interest in the language.

Play the game: what is your very first memory?

Most people seem to offer up something with a visual context.

My very first memory is my ability to count to 10 in Arabic, have spent my first two birthdays in Khartoum, Sudan.

I can remember reciting these 10 words since the very beginning of my fog, and always wondering whether they were correct.

I have no idea where this memory comes from, and have no memory of my parents ever reciting the numbers to me … which I suppose they must have once … unless it was an Arab helper.

With a tiny, solipsistic thrill, I discover the words work in real life.

Hit Aleppo, in northwest Syria, sit back and shake off some dust on the verandah of the venerable Baron Hotel. The cool of a set sun filters over the grand crossroads of the Old Silk Road. A chilled, milky white arak (Pernod-like) to hand, and the head trundles off on a camel, to return and ruminate on the guests who have graced the same paved balcony stones: Lawrence of Arabia, Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie. It was from the balcony of room 215 that king Faisel once declared Syria's independence in 1918.

The camel trains of old trod through the old part of town, through the market place, from ancient Europe and Egypt to India and China and back. The old souk (Arabic market) is barely changed, still bargaining and bartering silks, satins, perfumes, spices and jewels.

Through here, the milky mist of my third arak reminds, also passed pilgrims, missionaries, soldiers, ideas and diseases.

From Greece, Cairo, northern Italy to Afghanistan, Kashgar, Beijing. East to west to east, forging the new world. The dots somehow begin to join up.

Modern Western nations issue government warnings against visiting Syria. There is a peculiar vacuum in the incredible hub-hub of thousands of feet on ancient, smoothed granite walkways, lanes and alleys. Between the hawkers' cries and haggling, there is no sound of a United States accent.

After that nation's masses in Turkey, the twangy vocal void is starkly apparent.

Yet Syria is a tourist paradise, now part of the north-south dollar-dropping route via Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. The classic passage of antiquity.

Almost unnervingly, doddery old foreigners prod through the throngs, their fancy camera lenses extensions of their navels. Each camera is probably worth more than most locals might earn in a year. Cameras are carried just so because they can be, without fear.

Try that in downtown New York, and then try and get your head around the travel safety warnings.

Everywhere one goes, a passerby offers a light smile and his (always his) hand moves captivatingly over the heart. An understated return of similar gesture, and all is in harmony.

There is no word in English to express this gesture. "Hi" doesn't cut the mustard. "How do you do" can be full of pomp and expects a time-consuming reply.

The Indian head-wiggle, gently rocked sideways and back, seems to imbue similar characteristics to the heart-hand.

Both imply ignorant acceptance. You're OK, I'm OK. It's fine. No problem. I acknowledge you, and may blessings be upon you.

How many words must one express to convey this simple, all encompassing friendliness?

I find a little bottle of hooch in this archly anti-alcohol society.

Sniffing the aniseed odour on me, my hotel desk clerk, the slightly odd Wahid, asks: "How can you drink something that drinks your brain? It makes you dance like a monkey, sleep like a snake and talk like a dog." Fair enough, guv.

The different approaches to life by the different sexes, however, continues to puzzle. It is often like the one-eyed travelling through the land of the blind. I can only speak to men. Female travellers converse with either sex, with males often taking a rather more than casual interest in their hopeless gazing at a city map. But infidel males cannot transgress into the Muslim woman's world. The one-eyed, one-eared rambler.

Many women wear a full covering, including gloves and black veil "to protect against lechery, and negate potential lustfulness in males", a so-called hallmark of imploding Western morality.

Yet sit quietly and watch at a market stall, and see some strange logic evolve. A customer of this ilk takes an interest in some children's clothing. Trousers for a child around 7-years-old. She drops her head slightly, and lifts the bottom rim of her veil so that she might peek at the garment in clear light. The same too, in a restaurant. Sit, lift the veil so that nobody can see her face, and yet can pass a morsel of food up into the mouth.

A sidebar to this custom rears an uncomfortable little head.

"The niqab (full face veil) is a tradition, it has no connection with religion," says Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, an Egyptian Sunni Muslim spiritual authority, on seeing a young girl wearing the drape at a Cairo school. After his comments recently, Egypt moved to ban the veil from public universities.

I inquire with a few Syrians about this: that's just another example of Egypt adopting US attitudes, goes the summarised replies.

On towards Damascus, a very long road to Damascus from Asia, and it dawns that the road here is a thief. Its collusion with time will not permit the traveller to see all - especially in this history-filled corner of the world.

For Syria is a country of ruins, pre-Greek, Roman, Umayyad, Ottoman, 20th century. How many can one visit? How many must one visit to get a take on history, to even begin to get inside the soul of the nation?

How can one compress thousands of years of history into a two-week visa. I feel I have short changed the country.

A Roman ruin is a Roman ruin, and all are flogged, with their entry fees, for one reason or the other, as are the other ruins: biggest, oldest, first, most important, best preserved ...

Pop into Apamea. A city of 500,000, 2,000 years ago, the 2km main road was once lined with 1,500 columns. Conjure up images of fountains on the roadside, colourful drapes in front of shops, marble busts of nymphs and gods and goddesses in abundance, the thousands of steel rims of wheels that left ruts in the road paving that are there to walk along today.

There are Crusader's forts potted about the place, and hunting lodges and caravan stopovers all over the wild desert lands.

One can't see them all. It would take a lifetime – and that just in this tiny piece of the great empires.

Time, the thief, the road, partner in crime.

But then a long road is just as much a journey of the mind as it is kilometres of dirt-tracking, and perhaps this is thinking country.

Into Damascus, that courts itself along with Nazareth, Harrab and a host of other settlements as the world's oldest city. Local relics have been dated to 10,000BC.

The city has played host to all the regional players since then, rising and falling in importance.

The Umayyad Mosque, inside the Old City, is one of the most important in the Islamic world and crosses religions, with the head of John the Baptist inside one of its shrines.

Great walls surround the inner city of old, some 3km by 2km. It is a warren of passages, tunnel-like lanes. Labyrinthine. Toss any map out the window and drift down cobblestoned paths lined by undulating mud walls. Getting lost is essential, and inevitable. The lanes suck one in, branching into narrower and narrower corridors, rotting logs holding ballustrades off passers-below.

Nothing is straight. Nothing. The continuous concertina effect of thicker and thinner and thicker and thinner plaster, mud and wall feels like the city is breathing, slowly, like a very old man that has got one foot in a bucket of eternity, the other in a chronic ailment ward.

There are walls and walls of turned-in houses, lanes and lanes of souk, and then a show of tolerance – a Christian quarter, where schoolchildren wear crucifixes openly, bars flourish and Virgin Maries grin out of into corner after corner.

Dream of the finest of olives, green, black, fleshy, firm, barrels and barrels of them lining sidewalks, in tandem with some delightful local cheeses, tasty, chewy or smooth, and breads of heaven. Chick peas, masters of humous, baba ghanoush to die for.

Spend some time at a bus stop, next to a music vendor. The sound is grinding, driving, Turkish, cross Indian, cross Nubean, cross Algerian. Unknown string instruments wail and thrum, like heavy metal guitarists who have nibbled on a piece of the Taj Mahal peppered with a few grains of desert sand, read William Blake and turned it all into a skin-trilling thrill rhythm backed and fronted with the sweet roughness of rasping Arabic vocals.

It's an overpowering sound born of the senses that flies on the wings of multiply-synchopated backbeats.

Stuck between Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, there are doubtless tensions, pushes and shoves played out at some rarified political level. This is the nexus, almost midway between the points of the compass. Not a faultline, more a fault point.

Yet on the ground there seems a fatalistic calmness. There are no public zealots parading their ideological wares. Regional strife, for the time being, is absent, Iraq being the exception, with rather exceptional external forces at work.

But modern ruins don't allow a visitor to veer too far down the 'all seems fine' path.

In 1967, Israel niggled its way into the Golan Heights and taunted Syria into what became known as the 6-Day War.

Jordan was expelled from the west bank of the Dead Sea, and Israel overran the strategically crucial Golan hills, around 70km southwest of Damascus.

A UN buffer zone was drawn up, with Israel ceding 450sq/km back to Syria, now a Syrian-maintained UN buffer zone between the two states.

But before leaving, Tel Aviv left a little farewell gift, evacuating the town of Quneitra of its 50,000 inhabitants, then systematically razing it, bulldozing most of the buildings after stripping all removables, rendering the town unliveable. It is now a visitable ghost, still strewn with mines, and pocked and blasted by the shells it endured in its capture.

Syria, too, to carries its own ghost of modern day ruins. In the 1930s, Syrian students joined the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, seeking Shariah (Islamic) law in Syria. Tensions slowly rose over 50 years, until the Brotherhood declared Hama, a central Syrian city, as "liberated" under their own control.

In 1982, the Syrian government laid siege, shelling the city at length, killing 20,000 of their own, and destroying mosques, churches and archeological sites.

Razing is a local past-time of the millennia, an area gripped in the clichéd 'history repeats itself'. Yet, yet, when will we ever learn?
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Andrew on

Brilliant read. Great pics too, as were the ones in the last post.

the rambler on

chuffed you are enjoying. bit of a mission to tear myself away from life to sit at PC, but what's the use of travelling if you don't tell anyone

Marta on

Hi Lance, now back in London, so I would love to see Africa through you. Happy travels!

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