Sunday, November 30, 2008


Travel is, in its most clichéd definition, intended to broaden one’s horizons, to lift perception beyond its current level of perspicacity. Syria took most every stereotype I harboured about it, and the Arab world, and blew them away, quite like the recent car bomb that exploded two months ago in the streets of Damascus. Syria is in no way perfect, but nor is it the axis of evil; it is merely a country, full of people, full of culture, run by a government that occasionally opposes American policy. My experience was lucid, in the way a rock drops into a crystal pool, spreading ripples across the surface. The further I ventured beyond the confines of my own insularity, the clearer my experiences became.

Alright, I think that’s enough metaphorical jargle; let’s get down to what actually happened. Several of my friends who had trekked up to Syria before spent 6 hours waiting at the border for visas, and had not reached Dameshq (Damascus in Arabic) until midnight. So, I left my flat at 6:30 am with my roommate (لو كانت صاحبي انك تحكي العربية فتعرف اني سافرت وحيدة ولكن امي تظن اني روحت مع جسكا. هذا سر بيننا, صاح؟)
We took a cab through the pale morning sun to Abdali, where services, or taxis, wait to bring passengers to Dameshq and Beirut. We waited until one other passenger arrived, bringing the total number to 4, and then slid into the rather comfy backseat (it was a Mercedes) for the hour ride to the Syrian border. The driver, when learning I am American, frowned slightly and said (in Arabic), “It’s sometimes difficult for Americans at the border.” I suppose we deserve it, though, as most Arabs try, in vain, to enter the U.S. The least I can do is wait a few hours to gain entry…

My first difficulties arose on the Jordanian side of border. You see, I was 20 twenty days illegal; yani, my 1 month entry visa had expired 20 days previous, but I had failed to renew it. As I strode up to the departure window, the officials opened my passport, poised to stamp it, and paused, mumbling amongst themselves. In broken English, they explained I was ‘late’. “I know,” I said in Arabic, and they all beamed. “Oh, you speak Arabic!” After a bit more discussion on their part, they directed me to wait to the side while they summoned the shorta, or police. After standing around for 5 minutes, I became tired of waiting and found the shorta myself. “Your visa, it is bad,” the officer said. “I know, I am sorry,” I replied in Arabic. “I am a student…” We chatted for a few minutes, and then he led me through a labyrinth of hallways to the other side of the building, which is the Arrivals Hall. They charged me a 22.5 JD fine (it should have been a bit more), corrected my immigrant status, and ushered me over to Syria, after many shukrans on my part.

Syria didn’t appear that different from Jordan. The scruffy dirt under my feet wasn’t magically more hostile, and the endless plain of desert was merely an extension of the same Jordanian monotony. The Arrivals Hall in Dar’aa, Syria, greeted me with a large poster of the current ‘president’, Bashar Al-Assad and a sign, in semi-lucent English, that kindly welcomed foreigners in to Syria, and, if we had any complaints, to kindly fill out a form and drop it in the comment box. How lovely. At the foreigners’ window, the official looked at my passport, looked at me, and said, “Go make copy.” “Wayn?” “Building next door.” So, after bumbling into several incorrect buildings (it was more like 4 down and off to the right), and flirting with several officials, I found the copier and returned to the immigration building. “Please, sit,” directed the official, gesturing to a row of chairs on the side wall. At least he offered a ‘please’. The Syrian in the car breezed through security, and the Iraqi received his visa about 15 minute later. Only Jess and I waited…After half an hour, our driver came to sit next to me, and I had a lovely conversation with him for awhile. Alas, my Arabic practice was insolently interrupted by the other two passengers, who claimed to have business in Damascus. Sigh. My driver went up to the window, asked about the delay, and received a ‘who knows’ shrug. So, I tried, and told them my car was leaving. They at least appeared sympathetic, but said they needed confirmation from the intelligence office in Damascus before they could process me. So, the car left, and we waited through the morning. About three hours after we had first traversed the threshold of immigration, one of the officers, with whom I had been making googly eyes at for the last hour, motioned me over. “You pay that man,” he pointed to the bank window behind me, “16 dollars.” Before he could change his mind, I flashed him a smile, paid my fee, gave the receipt back to the official, and received my visa. Wicked! To buy a visa from the Syrian Embassy in the U.S., Americans are charged 130 dollars.

“But wait! You need a car!” They asked, concerned. “We will find you one.” They walked outside with me and found a service that had two spaces for Jess and me. With many shukrans, I bid the surprisingly amiable border guard good-bye, and waited for the other passengers to arrive. I had paid 11 dinars for the first car, the fixed price for all services to Dameshq. I bargained the next driver down to 7, which didn’t seem too unreasonable. We waited for about an hour outside immigration, soaking in the delightful sunshine, chattering in Arabic, and feeling fairly successful. Finally, the other passengers arrived, we passed through the final border check, and drove to Damascus. Damascus!!!

I’ll confess I dozed somewhat in the backseat, jolting awake at random intervals as villages, mileage signs, crumbling bridges, and gravid effigies of the president flashed by. And then Damascus arose from the flatness of the desert sand- a cacophony of sounds, sights, and scent; a tumbling city of precarious buildings, soaring mosques, and ancient treasures; of ceaseless honking, booming muzzeins, and Arabic pop; of freshly baked bread, incense, and the occasional whiff of the sewer. We arrived by cab to Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of the old city, and disembarked at Straight Street. Following the hotel’s excellent directions, we ambled down a narrow alleyway (not so unusual; most of the city is a confounding grid of narrow alleyways and dead ends), turned right, and found ourselves in front of the hostel, an innocuous building with a cross at the top. The owner greeted us warmly, ushered us in, offered us tea, and explained the hostel’s procedures. Jess and I deposited our bags in the quaint and very clean room, visited the shared bathroom (gasp, I know! But true) and set out to explore the city.

The only way to explore a new place is to get lost, and we had a delightful time becoming utterly befuddled by streets that abruptly ended, branched into multiple alleys, and changed names. Eventually, we found the heart of the old city, the Umayyad Mosque, one of the most famous mosques in Islam, first constructed in the 7th century with various additions through time. It is the (insha’allah) resting place of John the Baptist and a contemporary gathering place for Muslims. Foreign females ‘get’ to don bulky, hobbit-like robes to enter the mosque, but the uncomfortable attire is soon forgotten when one enters the mosque and glides across the expansive marble courtyard, sitting in the long afternoon shadows as children play and Arab men stare. Brilliant mosaics adorn the octagonal treasury and one wall of the mosque, depicting scenes from paradise. Inside a shadowy hall lies the grave of John the Baptist and another famous martyr, lavishly entombed in carved wooden screens and elaborate sarcophagi.

After regretfully returning our hobbit gowns to the tourist office, and exploring the Roman ruins abutting the mosque, we headed to the main souq, or market, of Damascus, an infusion of noise, color, and jostling crowds. Damascus, and Syria in general, is littered with Roman ruins, which have simply been incorporated into more modern constructions. For instance, the main gateway to the souq actually leads through an impressive collection of Roman pillars, shopkeepers selling their wares between the columns. The main souq is covered, which merely echoes the confusion through the twisted streets of gold and lingerie shops, decadent ice cream stands, housewares and children’s shoe stores all cramped into tiny stalls with aggressive shopkeepers.

Soon, dusk fell, and the muzzein’s voice of the Umayyad mosque filtered through the alleyways of the old city, calling the faithful to prayer in the same words used 1500 years ago. After a ‘circuitous’ route home, I stopped in an internet café near Bab Touma and also texted my friend, Tom, who is studying Arabic in Damascus. Tom and I suffered through two years of Arabic together at the U before venturing abroad to more immersing language experiences. I met him at the corner of Bab Touma street and Straight Street, spent a few hours getting caught up in the courtyard of his house, and then attending Thanksgiving at another house in the old city. Perhaps here I should explain living situations in Damascus. There are certainly plenty of apartments; however, from what I have gleaned, it is more common to rent a room in a restored house, at least if you prefer to live in the old city. If properly maintained, these houses can be quite charming, with tiled courtyards surrounded by various rooms, snaking staircases and trailing vines leading to the upper floors. Alas, or perhaps not, Thanksgiving was not over until 3 am that morning, an utterly delightful affair of mashed potatoes, grilled chicken, fish, Indian curries, plentiful wine, and good company.

Which merely meant that my desire to by up the next morning by 6:30, and onto a Roman ruins site called Palmyra, did not seem nearly as inviting as it had the previous afternoon. So, we slept in. Jess decided to spend the day around Damascus, exploring it a bit more, but I decided to seize the advice of the inveterately helpful owner and make my way to Bosra, a town in southern Syria. Which entailed deciphering the minibus network of Damascus, a rather daunting challenge to someone who had only arrived a day ago. However, with the advice and directions of the hotel owner, I found the correct station, and the correct bus, and waited for it to fill up. Minibuses are a very inexpensive and safe method of travel, if somewhat uncomfortable, but they never leave until full, often accruing a wait time of 20 minutes or more.

I took the bus to Dar’aa, and from there transferred to Bosra, seating myself by the window at the ramshackle bus station, watching the wind whip debris into little whirlwinds outside. While I had encountered many unveiled women in the streets of Damascus, hijabs prevailed outside the liberal walls of the city. Eventually, the bus became full, and we headed off to Bosra. I had unfortunately run out of change, and needed to give the driver a 500 SP note for a 30 SP fare. 50 SP=1 USD. I turned to the young man seated next to me, apologized for my lack of change (in rather decent Arabic, I thought), but he responded back, in perfect English, “Don’t worry. I think the driver has change.” Oh! The lack of English speakers in Syria is actually refreshing as it forced me to communicate only in Arabic.

Indeed, the driver had change (a rarity in Syria, trust me). However, the silence broken between us, my seatmate and I began talking, mainly in English, as his was quite impeccable, being a graduate student of English lit at Damascus University. His sister lives in Bosra, and he and his brother (also on the bus) were visiting her for the weekend. As we neared our final destination, he invited me to lunch with his family. There was something genuine about him, something anti-Creepy Arab Man. So, I accepted. We clambered out of the bus, walked about 5-10 minutes down the street, and came to a moderate house protected by leafy shade from the arching trees in the yard. He rang the doorbell and an adorable girl around the age of seven smiled up at him. “Hello!” We removed our shoes and entered the home. He introduced me to his sister, Manal, who didn’t speak English, but nonetheless welcomed me with a gentle smile and soft eyes.

I found two more equally adorable angels in the reception room of the house, devoid of furniture (except for the heating stove in the center), instead lined with comfortable rugs and mats for guests and a picture of Nasrallah (Hezbollah leader) hanging on the wall. Noor was 9 months old, with impossibly wide, sparkling eyes and a gurgling laugh, while her sister, Fatima, behaved with all the gravity of a sleepy four year old, reserved until you told her she was beautiful (she was), lighting up with a shy smile that warmed the room more than the cozy stove. Their older sister, Sarah, diligently studied her English homework and pushed aside her almond hair with impatient hands, eying me somewhat suspiciously with gorgeous, light brown/bluish eyes. I was, as you may be able to tell, instantly enamored. Manal had prepared maglooba, a delectable concoction of rice, meat, potatoes, and nuts in one giant lump. She apologized for only offering one dish (aside from the customary green salad and yogurt), but I told her it was more than enough and was rewarded with the beautiful smile that she had passed on to her daughters.

The food was, of course, delicious, and Manal plied me with several helpings until I, in preservation of my comfort level, politely declined. After lunch, we reclined on the cushions, sipping tea and laughing at Noor as she gazed at me with limpid, innocent eyes and a smile which revealed her two teeth. The girls proudly showed me their new clothes for the upcoming Eid, or holiday, and then my friend, Mua3tezil (for ease of everyone, let’s just call him Mu) asked if I was ready to leave. Regretfully, I left their warm hospitality with many shukrans, and bundled against the chilly air, pure from a recent rain shower. “Never trust a Syrian weather forecaster!” Mu said with a laugh. “If they tell you it will be sunny, don’t forget to bring an umbrella.”

We soon arrived at the Roman ruins of the city, a large Roman theatre (the largest in the world, in fact, that is still wholly intact), regretfully closed, and a whole city beyond. “Wow, I didn’t know there was this much,” I commented, and he laughed. “It would take hours to see it all. I’ll show you the most important stuff.” With that, we embarked on a ruins tour, peering into vacant doorways and admiring still-erect columns and archways that framed the approaching dusk. A mosque sat in the center, dating back to the 8th century, a row of men faithfully performing the sundown prayer. Interestingly, many Arabs actually live inside the ruins, converting the half-crumbled walls into homes, placing satellite dishes next to Roman capitals, and somehow blending the old and new harmoniously.

A direct bus to Damascus left at 6 pm, so Mu led me to the ticketing office, where a reserved seat awaited me. Rather than wait around the station for an hour, we left to see a bit more of the city. He led me to a small stone building in the center of a traffic circle. “Look in there.” I poked my head into the doorway, saw a few tomb-like structures several feet below street level, and shrugged. “Cool.” “No, look at the door!” As he gestured, I saw why he had brought me there. There was a giant stone door, still hinged with etchings on it, that had once entombed the dead. And then it hit me, really hit me. Mu didn’t have ulterior motives, he wasn’t hitting on me, he wasn’t taking advantage of me. He is one of the few Arab men I can call my friend, and mean simply that. No sex, no offers of sex, no questions of marriage. We sat on the edge of an old Roman stoop next to a traffic circle and talked. We covered everything- Syria’s nuclear policy (زاد الطين بلة), marriage, the future, jobs, religion, extremism…He looked at his mobile once. “I’m glad the time is moving slowly.” And I was too. It was pure enjoyment. The cold and my impending departure chased us back to the bus office, where my bus soon arrived, surprisingly on time. I looked at him, he looked at me and shook my hand. “It was so nice to meet you, Laura.” And then I raced to catch the bus. We didn’t exchange contact information. It was enough, I think, what we had.

After reaching Damascus, I visited the internet café briefly, grabbed some dinner on the walk home, and curled up in my room, spending a quiet evening in front of the heater, studying Arabic and smiling over a perfect day.

I slept in a bit the next morning-hey, it’s vacation, right?-unsure of my plans. Jess had needed to return to Amman the previous evening, so I was by myself. The ever gracious owner inquired about Bosra, and I thanked him profusely for the tip. “Today you can go to Maalulaa. It’s maybe an hour outside of Damascus. It’s built on the edge of a cliff. Very nice monastery there. And they speak Aramaic.” I was sold. I finished breakfast, fended off the hops of the resident rabbit, stored my luggage in the office, and set off to find the bus station to Maalulaa. After half an hour of waiting, I again found myself as the only foreigner on the bus, but I was an old hat at it by that point, so I watched the scenery out the window change from flat plain to hills to sharp, white cliffs. Maalulaa slowly filtered into view, a city indeed perched on the cliff face, row upon row of houses climbing up the rocks, the occasional church steeple and minaret soaring above the streets. I left the bus in front of a monastery, toured it briefly, and then followed the road until it stopped, entering a gorge. St. Sekla’s gorge. Somewhat like the siq in Petra, with smooth, towering walls confining a narrow pathway. I soon emerged onto a spring, and road, which I followed up to another monastery, this one overlooking the town below. Inside, an ancient stone chapel glowed with candlelight and dim lamps, the simple wooden altar somehow more beautiful than the gilded ones of Europe. On the trip back down through the siq, I encountered a rather cute Arab couple photographing each other. “Would you like me to take a picture of you together?” I asked, in Arabic. “You speak Arabic,” the woman breathed, brightly adorned in a pink hijab. “Please!”

So , I snapped their photo, and then they asked me where I was from. “America!” “Ma sha’allah!” the man whispered, which translates, sort of, like a ‘wow’ or ‘oh my goodness’. That’s me, spreading American goodwill wherever I go J

I wandered into a few of the shops near the first monastery, asking where I could catch the next bus. “Right here!” the owner said. “Would you like to sample some local wine?” Well, I couldn’t see any buses in the vicinity, so I deigned to try a glass, having drunk perhaps two sips when the man asked me, “Are you tired?” Horrible thoughts of being date raped and drugged crossed my mind, even though I was sitting in the window of a shop, and tourists frequently bopped in and out. “No!” But I set down the wine, a bit regretfully, because it was good, bought a bottle (hey, for 3 dollars, you would have too), and raced to stop the minibus that had just pulled up outside the monastery.

Back in Damascus, I wandered through the old city one more time, purchasing a lusciously rich navy blue scarf and some sweetly-scented olive soap to perfume my clothing drawers. Then, it was back to the hostel, good-bye (and see you soon!) to the owner, hello to the two Aussies who had just arrived, off to the bus station, into a service, and over the border to Amman. And home.