Syria: Worth the Wait
Slides are here.
I’m back in Amman after an amazing three-day weekend. Three of my classmates and I went to Damascus, as you know. Two of us are American, one Australian, and one Danish. We met down at the Abdali bus station on Friday morning, and a cab driver said he’d get us to Damascus for 9 JD each. That seemed a bit steep, but we wanted to go. S, the other American asked him, “It’s no problem for us [Americans] to get a visa at the border?” Then the famous words of woe: “No problem!” We drove northish through Zarqa, and to the border where we were stalled for over an hour as the midday call to prayer sounded, and the bureaucrats disappeared. Everything shut down long enough to allow mobs of people to “line” up. Our taxi needed to be inspected, the driver needed documentation, and we needed exit stamps. That done, we drove through a sort of no mans land to the Syrian bureaucracy building. There, the Syrian guy asked both S and I why we didn’t get visas in “our country.” I tried and ran out of time? I really just thought perhaps you’d let me in since I didn’t vote for Bush? What does one say at a time like this. I just shrugged. He squished up his face, and said, “This could take 4 or 5 hours.” He looked at our companions Danish passport and said that was “ok,” then he looked at our companions Australian passport, and he said, “Welcome to Syria!” Both J and S2, the Dane, had their visas in 20 minutes. We sat in an office with elementary school-style seating (little wooden desks with uncomfortable wooden chairs) well past sunset. The guy told us they had to wait for a fax from Damascus. I was worried since S had been to the West Bank, and had a replacement passport issued in Amman. I was sure he was not going. 7.5 hours later, all of us starving, the night crew of Syrian bureaucrats announced that we were in! They made us tea. We were all suffering from caffeine withdraw, and S2 had smoked his last cigarette hours before. The guards kindly gave him smokes. He told them he’d never travel with Americans again. S told him that someday our tanks would roll down the streets of Copenhagen. Then, I reminded S2 that his embassy was more trashed than ours in Damascus. The Syrians were laughing! Oh well. We were in Syria in a border town, and no taxi. The guards on this side made us more tea, and we all practiced our Arabic. They were so nice, and the guy in charge insisted on paying our way to Damascus. He stopped a car, and told the driver to take us to the bus station, and gave him money for the ride and to buy us tickets. The driver didn’t seem to mind having his vehicle taken over. We picked up another hitchhiker on the way. This fellow was studying classical Arabic at the University, and we chatted on the drive. He invited us to his home to stay the night and eat. The people are so kind. By the time we arrived at the bus station, these two men made sure we were on the right bus, and gave us some hotel advice.
I passed out on the bus, so I don’t know how long the trip took. Perhaps just over an hour? We arrived at the bus station in Damascus, and a young man gave everyone cigarettes, and walked us to a hotel (probably half a kilometer from the station) and made sure we were ok before he walked back. The people really were so amazing and kind. As we schlepped our stuff through Damascus, people handed us food. We must have looked awful and in need of food! After we got a hotel, we went up the street to a French restaurant. The four of us had drinks, and tons of food (S2 had beef medallions, J had an amazing chicken dish, and S had a Saudi style meat dish that looked like Mansif). The bill was 700 pounds, or about 14 USD. The mix of French and Arab food was perfect for me.
The next morning we walked passed the Hijaz Train Station to the Old City via the amazing market there. We walked through the market early enough that no one was there but the shop keepers who sell Nescafe. We stopped for coffee at a place that looked like an old fashioned American ice cream parlor, but it was plastered in Hezbollah posters. There were also two pictures of King Abdullah eating the sweets there. One of the young men asked me where I’m from, and I said I’m an American living in Amman. He grinned and said, “I’m glad you came to see Syria.” Me too. The market gives way to one side of the Umayyad Mosque in front of which is a marble courtyard where people were feeding birds. It was so tranquil. We continued on until we found a restaurant where we had an amazing European/Arab breakfast for almost free. The great thing about Syria is that even though we are paying tourist prices, I still feel like I’m getting an amazing bargain! We spent our only full day in Damascus walking around the Old City. It is divided into quarters. Every shop is beautiful. There are grapes, or some viney plant that reach over most of the overhead space, making the walkways really beautiful and quaint.
We went to the Umayyad Mosque, where J and I had to dawn silly suits to gain entrance. I probably could have just put my scarf over my head, but I think the folks there assumed I didn’t know how to do it properly. Fair enough. Suited up, we went in. We four spent almost an hour sitting on the marble outside in the sun. It was beautiful and quite, and the sun felt good. We walked through the mosque. The tile work is indescribable. Amazing.
Continuing on, we went into a souvenir shop that seemed to specialize in Hezbollah goods. The shopkeeper talked with S and I for a while. People wanted to know about the States. The Syrians have many polite ways of asking, “What the hell is wrong with you people?” We didn’t get into politics directly, but instead talked about the “culture” of America, which I took as code for the “politics” of America. We walked out of there with t-shirts and key chains. These are interesting times.
For lunch we went to a place where we had a fondue sort of thing with chicken and fresh bread. Tea, coffee, and smoking followed. By this time, my stomach hurt from laughing so much. My traveling companions were really suited to me, and I’m pretty picky. They are all wicked funny, and there was a great mix of making fun of each other and bonding. Both S2 and J made fun of S and I for being American, we insisted they were insecure because they “hate our freedom,” and all that other stupid stuff Bush says. S and I decided, quite coincidently, not to fib to anyone about our nationality. Only once have I actually lied to a person (in Jordan) about my nationality. I was at Hasham’s alone, and a man approached me and asked me where I’m from, and everyone turned to watch me answer. “I’m from Vancouver!” I don’t think it would have made any difference, but at that moment I decided to be Canadian. But, since then I decided that I don’t want to live here if I’m afraid. I don’t ever want to feel that way here. I never have, and I don’t want to indulge that great love for fear Americans have. So, I told everyone that asked. Not a single person was rude to us. I had about 80 gallons of tea this weekend. People were interested in talking. One shopkeeper asked us where we’re from, and S answered “the States,” and the man stood up and said, “Well, then we must have tea!” We sat in his shop and had sweet tea while we asked him about the city, and he asked us about the States.
Later we decided to see the other Quarters. I’m not sure which Quarter we were in, but it was the Quarter opposite the Umayyad Mosque, when a man walked by us carrying a Kalashnikov with the magazine in it. I’ve never seen that before. S, I should say here, went to Iraq for a year, and nearly jumped out of his skin upon seeing this. He didn’t look at us, or say anything, but it was strange. It was so strange that I wasn’t afraid; it was surreal. We walked into what I presume what the Christian Quarter from there (there was beer for sale). Then we headed back toward the Mosque, and got lost in the “suburban” parts there. A little kid rounded the corner and saw us 4 and said, “Mafi Taraq,” pointing behind him. “There’s no way there.” Thanks to small children, we found our way back onto the streets of Damascus, and headed back to the hotel.
Later that night we met up with two American students and went to dinner. The only thing I don’t like about Syria is this: they put bowls (bowls!) of mayonnaise on the table which fool me into thinking there is yogurt in front of me, and then I eat it! Ick! What the heck? One American was really nice, and the other reminded me why I don’t like Americans. The restaurant was cool. It was the size of an airplane hanger, and it was packed. We headed back to the hotel where another American showed up, and S2 argued with them until about 3 am. I fell asleep.
The next morning, we packed up and headed down to the market one last time. I picked up three skeins of hand-dyed yarn for 3 USD. We looked into renting an apartment in Damascus so we can visit often. For those prices, I will need to visit often. S2 bought a coat that is reversible. It’s navy blue on one side, and white on the other. The blue side has a picture of a helicopter, and it says “ARMY” on it. We made relentless fun of this jacket for the rest of the day. That jacket is perfect for him.
We walked to the bus station and got on a bus headed for Amman. Big mistake. We drove for about 30 minutes and stopped for an hour. Then, we made it to the place where we needed to be stamped out, and that took an hour. Then we drove about 500 feet and stopped for an hour. For reasons I still don’t understand, a man got off the bus “for 5 minutes,” and one hour later returned. The other passengers gave him hell! Then we drove about a mile to Jordan where we waited an hour for people to get their paperwork done to enter Jordan. Then we drove about 50 feet to a market where we sat for an hour. We left Damascus at 4, and arrived back at Abdali at 9. Madness.
I don’t care if takes 7.5 hours each time, I would go back in a minute. Still, I like Amman, and I’m happy to be “home.” It was good to come in on the bus and see things that are familiar. What I liked about Syria is that there is a sort of liberal attitude that is still not quite Western. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the Arabs there can have fun and they don’t need to go to Starbucks or KFC to do it.