Thursday, June 17, 2010

Syria

It was just past 9pm when I crossed the small bridge on a crowded, main street in Aleppo. All through the middle east, I had never felt even the smallest threat in the darkest of alleyways. But, passing briskly by a group of middle-aged men in button-down shirts leaning on the railing, I felt a hand roughly grab the shoulder strap of my bag and pull, hard.

I stopped and looked over at the guy, the tallest of them, with a cocked eyebrow, thinking I was just being harassed playfully. He smiled back, but it wasn't playful. He pulled it again, and started telling me in broken English that he wanted my bag. I told him in regular English to fuck off. His friends moved in and grabbed my arms. He smiled and asked me if I was going to call the police.

It's tempting to talk about this like it was a dramatic physical confrontation, but it wasn't. They just wanted to scare me, thinking I would just back down and hand them my things. But there were only four of them, with no knives or guns in a crowded street. These were not odds that I would worry about. As I was taught, with a flick of a wrist I pulled one hand free and pushed away from the group. They backed off. I turned and started walking the other direction.

One of them, the shortest of the four, came at me, his face contorted and red with anger. He caught my arm and held on, intent on dragging me back to his friends.

There's a move any six year old will learn in his first week of karate: I turned my shoulders and pulled the man's arm across his body, blocking his other arm from doing anything more than scratching his ass. I raised my free arm far back and made a fist. With no way to protect himself from a blow that would carry all the weight I could give, the damage would be catastrophic.

After a long moment I saw in his face that he knew he had made a mistake. He released his grip and backed off. Without pausing I turned and walked away. My pulse, flat as a board before, skyrocketed and my heart felt like it would leap from my throat. The five blocks back to my hostel seemed like a year, with every shadow causing a nervous jump. I sat in the terrace that night and drank a large beer slowly, smoking a dozen cigarettes one after another to calm my buzzing nerves.

I don't tell you this story out of pride. There are a million more graceful ways to handle the situation that in the moment I did not consider. Maybe a smile and a joke to diffuse a tense confrontation. What I did was stupid, and could have been much worse. But I suppose I can't change my nature.

I'm not a violent person, and would never hurt anyone else. No possession is worth enough to justify harming another person. But as visible foreigners in a rough country, we all often speak of the need to show that we are not a low-hanging fruit. We feel responsible for each other. If I let these guys simply take my things and walk away, they will surely be emboldened to do it again to someone else.

But every time I walked by that bridge I wondered if they would be back and I would regret how I handled myself.

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"Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth,
and still she lives.

She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires,
and
will see the tombs of a thousand more
before she dies.

Though another claims the name,
old Damascus
is by right,
the Eternal City."

Mark Twain
The Innocents Abroad, 1869

The espresso in the Damascus airport was fantastic. Thick and almost black, with a small layer of crema on the top and so strong that ice-cold it would burn going down. The caffeine made my heart pound, then going on 27 hours without sleep. It was absurdly inexpensive, as is most food in Syria.

Not so much the cabs, who wanted a fortune to drive you in luxury the 30 or so kilometers from the airport to downtown. I chose to take the bus, which cost about a dollar. It was a familiar ride, watching the countryside and the farms turn to buildings and highways. We were dropped in the 'old bus station' which is now just a street next to a fenced-off pile of rubble that was once a station.

Cab drivers swarmed the bus when it pulled in, and I grabbed the guy that seemed to speak the best English. It of course wasn't really good enough and he didn't really understand that I wanted to be taken to Al-Merjeh square, the center of the city, where I had arranged to meet my couchsurfing host.

Couchsurfing is a wonderful tool for meeting expats and travelers and local people interesting in meeting the former two. In conservative countries where young people have few options socially, the internet is the place to gather. I have precious little experience, though, actually calling someone up and crashing on their couch. However, Syria is not listed on any hostel websites, and the 'budget' recommendations by lonely planet seemed qualified and begrudging.

In what would become a pretty common move, I just called him on my cell phone and handed it to the driver.

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Damascus is very much two separate cities. The so-called 'new city' is a modern middle-eastern city with little to distinguish it. I can think of almost nothing to say about it.

In contrast, the 'old city' is almost exactly what your imagination would create if given a blank sheet of paper and told to draw the oldest city on the planet. High walls surround it, a visible remnant of 13th century defenses but rebuilt many times before over the ages. Inside, narrow alleys wind through with alarmingly leaning houses shoehorned in one after another.

Just inside the entrance you find yourself in a wide bazaar, typical of any middle-eastern city except for the corrugated steel roof covering it with hundreds of tiny holes that, according to legend, are bullet holes from French air raids during the revolution 100 years ago. Believe that if you will, but it creates a dazzling effect in the dusty afternoon sun, rays of light shining through the open air.

Elsewhere, the requisitely exquisite mosque gives way to sidewalk cafes, where tourists and locals sit smoking and drinking tea and talking away the hours. Continue on through the alleyways and you'll find yourself in the Christian quarter, where the ex-pat Arabic students gather after dark and drink cheap beer in the park and play guitar late into the night.

This was pretty cool, but in my state of extreme sleep deprivation, the level of appreciation was low. When my host suggested that we go home, I was elated.

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Little did I know. I followed him from a public bus to a street corner where we hailed a 'microbus' a minivan that follows a specific route. From there we walked another 4 or 5 blocks to his building, a concrete structure that had remained in a shockingly unfinished state for what appeared to be a very long time. I'm speaking literally - his apartment was one of two or three with walls and a door, the rest were bare concrete columns and exposed steel rebar.

This was all fine. I don't have a problem with rough accommodations. My complaint was chiefly that I had been looking for a place to stay in Damascus, not 7 or 8 miles outside the city. My host Rabi, a very nice guy all around, cheerfully pointed out the Lebanese border over the next hill.

I accepted this as another bit of texture in an already quite textured adventure, a tidy little bit hubris that in many ways would characterize my time in Syria.

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The next day I woke up feeling like a human again, rather than a bag of organs suspended in molasses. Rabi had long since left for school - he was a pharmacology student at a university even farther away than his house. The ascetic lifestyle necessary to be a student in this part of the world made his generosity in hosting foreign visitors touching. I paid little mind to the offhand remark he made the night before about going out of town the next day to visit his family. He left me a key and wrote out his address so I could get back on my own while he was away. No problem, right?

In my reinvigorated state I found the old city completely charming and spent the entire day wandering without direction, taking photographs and drinking coffee. I discovered stands that sold tiny pizza-looking things for tiny amounts of money and partook liberally of the fresh juice stands that litter every street corner in this part of the world. The bazaar boasts an ice cream shop that is about 115 years old, young by Damascus standards but ancient by ice cream shop standards. I found it a little watery but good - I have no great affinity for dessert and it takes a history lesson to make me try ice cream.

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That evening I met with some other couchsurfing people that had contacted me and we sat in one of the town's precious few bars drinking well into the night. I left for home around 1am, jumping in a cab and handing him the paper Rabi had written for me. The driver seemed to know where we were going and we haggled the price down to about three dollars.

Ten minutes later we pulled up out in front of a mosque and the driver motioned to me that we had arrived. I looked at him and shook my head, pointing to the paper. He nodded and pointed to the church.

It dawned on me at that point that Rabi did not an address, there was no name for the road he lived on and no number that would signify which building was his. He had written down his neighborhood and a landmark that most any cab driver would know, a church. I didn't have the first damn clue where I was. Quietly, I started panicking.

Thinking I would start recognizing landmarks I had only seen briefly during the daytime, I asked the driver to go around the block. He did, and I didn't. I decided to just get out and start asking people, so I handed the driver money and a modest tip and jumped out. As I started walking down the street to a shop that looked open, the driver of the cab jumped out of his car and started following me. He chased me down and grabbed my arm.

The conversation was a little hard to follow. In his mind, since I had asked him to drive around the block, I owed him more money. Cab driver math apparently works out such that a 15 kilometer ride plus an extra 50 meters increases the price approximately 50%. I suspect that a foreign face is a variable in that particular equation.

This transaction did not go as smoothly as he hoped. I laughed in his face, and told him he should stop ripping off tourists. He started pushing me around, grabbing my arm and shoving me. I made it quite clear I wasn't intimidated. He started to shout and my panic turned fully into anger. I shouted back, knowing full well he couldn't understand a word, telling him to get back in his fucking car and leave me alone.

Cowed, and probably feeling a little in over his head with the suddenly furious American asshole screaming over two dollars, he suggested meekly that we could go talk to the police. Sure, I said, go get the police. He gestured that we could go together in his car. I laughed at him again, and threw, literally threw, a few coins at him (probably half of what he was asking for.) Satisfied, he left.

I'm not very proud of myself over this episode in retrospect. Moreover, I still had absolutely no idea where I was. Thankfully, I had my cell phone. I called Rabi, apologizing profusely for waking him up - though it sounded like he was out. In the next half hour, I would be given bad directions twice and end up on dead-end streets in what is clearly a poor neighborhood in the middle of the night. Finally, I caught another cab and handed the phone to the driver so Rabi could narrate turn by turn where his house was. I made it inside a bit past three.

In the morning I collected my bags and wrote Rabi a very nice note thanking him for his hospitality and telling him to keep in touch. In another cab I returned to the old city.

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The next four days went by in a blur, seeing the city and getting to know the motley group of people that called it home. Damascus enjoys a certain amount of popularity as a place for students to learn Arabic, especially the obscure colloquial forms that are impossible to master without living under the endless stream of slang and idioms. Others are an assortment of people from all over the world, working and living for a variety of reasons. (This statement is about as vague as you can get, but true - it was remarkable to me the number of different answers to basic biographical questions you would get. Given the very small number of gathering places, the characters-per-square-meter measurement was very high indeed.)

Highlights include: a 4am drive up the mountains to overlook the sprawl of the city at night. A night at a club called "La Vida Loca" which was somewhat less than "Loca", except for all the local men taking hookers out for a night on the town. I fell down some stairs and busted my laptop. My new hosts were absolutely awesome, a young student and his family who lived in a very nice neighborhood.

But rather than talking about that, which would be really way more interesting, I'm going to tell you about shoes instead.

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Though I live in California now, my New England upbringing lends itself to heavy, waterproof boots much more than the flip-flops that are now my constant companion for the beach life. Long before I uprooted, though, I grew to love the tree-hugging joy of not wearing shoes. I suppose it has a lot to do with the years of east Asian martial-arts that occupied my adolescent years into adulthood.

I understand that this is a certain amount of quackery, but I just can't imagine humans evolving millions of years with a need to strap a slab of rubber to their feet. The foot is a tough thing, and perfectly capable of handling itself, thanks very much. Wrapping it in layers of insulation causes all manners of problems, from posture to circulation. Moreover, the ground is an interesting, textured place that offers it's own tactile experience. Think - cobblestone streets, desert sands, forest undergrowth. You wouldn't go around wearing gloves all the time, right?

Then again, you don't usually grab broken glass by accident, so I concede the point and simply prefer to wear thin-soled shoes. The heel, in particular, drives me insane, because we're not meant to walk on it - the muscles in our legs are immensely strong and the balls of our feet can take quite an impact. The heel, in contrast, is quite fragile and not at all meant to bear the brunt of a stride. So I thought I was pretty smart a few years ago buying shoes that had a thicker sole in the front than the rear, rather than just the thin layer of rubber I was used to.

I also also mention that, by tradition, I walk a lot. My grandfather walked incessantly until just before he passed. My parents walk, without destination, like crazy people. I think nothing of traversing 10 miles in a day on foot, especially when I travel. So after a few months of travelling, my shoes literally fell apart. A very nice old man in Cairo tried to patch them together with some thread an a few nails, but that solution lasted barely more than a week.

Without a second thought I bought some shoes in the old city's vast bazaar, a minimal few strips of leather with a pitifully thin rubber sole, for $20. I failed to consider that my old shoes were much thicker and more supportive. All the muscles I had built up in my feet to allow being nearly barefoot without consequence had long ago lost their resilience.

Within a day or two of walking in them I realized my mistake, and by that time I had surely bruised or broken one of the many sensitive bones in my toes. Walking became excruciatingly painful. Liberal use of surgical tape and paracetemol, a codine derivate that the rest of the world uses in abundance, was of limited help. Not being able to walk very far makes solo travel daunting. Me being myself, I did not think to simply buy different shoes.

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A little more self-flagellation: I really fucked up on the bus to Palmyra. As you spend more time in a place you get to know who you can trust and who you can't. Taxi drivers, as a group, will take your kidneys if you blink too long. Bus drivers, though, are generally pretty dependable.

I did not know this, when I decided to head out from Damascus to see Syria's star attraction - a giant ruined city far out in the desert at what was once a crossroads of trade in the ancient world.

It happened like this: I walked into the bus station and a guy immediately asked me if I wanted to go to Palmyra. I said yes, and he asked for about $4 and my passport. I gave it, and lacked change so I gave him $10. He ran out of English and gestured me to follow, out of the station and onto the street where he literally flagged down a passing bus. At this point alarm bells in my head were ringing loud and clear. I walked on and was gestured to sit down, all eyes on the sole foreigner. The driver took my passport and put it on the dashboard, and the bill I had handed the stranger he stuffed in the glove compartment.

At this point I reached my breaking point. I started trying to explain that I wanted to keep my passport and he needed to give me change. This was met with dismissive annoyance, so I started raising my voice. I can only imagine the sight of the obnoxious foreigner loudly demanding his money and his passport while the bus was stopped on a busy city street. They relented almost instantly, and gave me what I asked for. But the look of disgust on everyone's face told me I had overstepped the boundaries of politeness. When the assistant came around to pour water for everyone, he walked by me and turned away. I lacked the language skills to apologize. It was a long, red-faced four hours.

But, Palmyra was worth it. I hired a car for 2 days, and went around to some spectacular ruins. I watched the sunset that night from a castle on a hill. The driver spoke good English, and gave me an excellent and weird introduction to small-town Syrian life. He told me good-naturedly about his clandestine affair with a married woman, and spoke in glowing terms about his new motorcycle. I had the best kabob in my life from a tiny storefront, where the lone cook, an old quiet man, saw a commercial on TV for an expensive restaurant in Abu Dhabi and said he had worked there, many years before.

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Late on the second night, I was invited to a local wedding party. This sounds like a touching cultural experience, but in the end it was more than a bit creepy. The food was spectacular, though, and I was given the honor of eating with the groom and his father, which was touching. We ate a huge pile of rice with a roasted whole baby sheep on top of it, with our hands. One of the other guests, a doctor, remarked drolly that I would probably spend the next day in the hospital.

Afterwards, we all gathered out on the street where a singer belted out Arabic tunes and all the men joined arms and danced in a circle. I brought my camera, which I knew was a mistake, and ever time I took a picture all the young boys would run up to me and want a picture or to hold my camera, not in a fun way but a very aggressive sort of angry manner. After a few times, the fathers started intervening and smacking the kids who came near me. This did little to deter them, they seemed to be ok with simply misbehaving and accepting a slap for it.

More than that, though, was that the women in the wedding, the bride and all her family, were locked (locked!) inside the house. I saw a few glimpses of them, a huge group crowded into a few small rooms that cracked the door open to peek out and see the foreigner that had come for no particular reason. I make no judgments about a culture's practices, but it still made my skin crawl.

After an hour, it felt intrusive and strange. I shook the groom's hand told him congratulations and made my exit.

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And that brings us to Aleppo. From Palmyra I rode the bus to Homs, Syria's 3rd largest city that as tourist attractions boasts absolutely nothing at all. From Homs I went to Aleppo, where I expected to spend a day or two at most. I ended up spending five.

There are two things that need a lot of care when travelling: feet, as I've mentioned, and the digestive system. Neither of which I'm known to take particularly good care of. So it should come as no surprise that my stomach gave out in Aleppo about the same time my feet did. This happened in a particularly bad way in Aleppo's scenic hilltop castle, an episode of which that I shall make no further mention. As low points go, this was pretty low.

I couldn't do much besides sit in my hostel for a good couple days. Fortunately, it was a roomy and welcoming place. No, wait, the opposite of that. Five dollars a night in Aleppo will get you a balcony overlooking a tire shop in a really bad neighborhood with some plywood nailed over the opening. It was basically a concrete and wood box with a bed and a stool. Whatever. The staff seemed to detest me particularly, except for one very sweet guy who, he explained to me one night, is Kurdish and likes all Americans because of Iraq, and everyone else hated me for precisely the same reason.

Dear George: I appreciate the gesture, but this was not a net benefit to me.

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In any case, what I did do was post again on couchsurfing, looking for anyone who could relieve me of boredom. The sole reply I received was from an Armenian girl, a student of English literature at the local university who seemed as enthusiastically bored as I was. I met her and her sister at The Baron Hotel, a once-grand structure built in 1909 and counting the famed T.E. Lawrence ("of Arabia") as one of it's guests. We talked a while that afternoon, walking around the more-liberal ("more Christian") section of the city and seeing some old Orthodox churches.

We met again a few times during my long-ish stay in Aleppo, and I grew increasingly shocked by the stares, shouts and deliberate pushing she received, being an uncovered woman walking around with a foreigner. I'm not exaggerating that the harassment was more or less constant in some areas. I wonder if those guys that grabbed my bag hadn't seen me with her. But I wouldn't let it deter me, I enjoyed her company.

Another time, or perhaps in private conversation, I will tell you all about opinion of how women are treated in the middle east, especially in Syria, especially non-Muslim foreigners. I am far from alone in these experiences - one woman in my hostel was in a park when a man walked up to her and licked her face. Another had stones thrown at her. Others spoke glowingly about how men were so friendly and invited them into their homes for tea - I kept my opinion about those stories of warn friendly strangers to myself. As I will now.

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My health eventually got better and my time was growing short. I was due in Jordan in a few days to meet Chris, my friend I visited in London, who would be travelling with me for a few days. There was much left to see in Syria, though, and I promised I would return in a few weeks, on my way through to Lebanon.

From Aleppo I traveled to Hama, a small town with some picturesque but ultimately really boring waterwheels. I spent the night there, and the next morning joined a group from the hotel touring a few of the local castles.

If I had paid better attention in school, I would tell you now all about the holy crusades that shaped this region for a good 1300 years or so. Look it up on wikipedia or something. What I can tell you is that they left behind some really spectacular castles. The largest of them, "Krak de Chevaliers" is everything your 10-year-old imagination thinks of medieval castles. It has been rebuilt and used as recently as the 19th century, so it takes very little to picture the gigantic castle's glory days. As anyone should do, I immediately climbed to the tallest tower and simply stood for a long while.

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In the morning I returned to Damascus, and sat once again in the old city, soaking it in one last time. I caught up with the few friends I had made and had one last night in the park, drinking cheap beer and smoking endless cigarettes and telling stories of our travels.

I wish I could tell you my last memory of Syria is a fond one, but it is not. Crossing the border with Jordan was a nightmare, with three taxi driver in succession trying to rip me off in the process. Even the Syrian border guards tried to pocket a few dollars from my $10 'exit fee'. The ordeal took an entire day, and finally the driver dropped me off quite literally on the side of the highway and told me to take a cab to my hotel in Amman. I tipped him with my middle finger.

I also wish I could tell you that I would return to Syria, but I didn't and won't. Three days before I crossed the border with Jordan, the government changed the rules regarding foreigners, especially Americans, getting new visas on the border. Some have suggested this is both in response to America's tightening of visa regulations for Syrians, and the US Senate stalling on the confirmation of a new Syrian ambassador.

I received my existing visa by painstakingly applying (and paying $130) to the consulate in California, but it was only single-entry. The visa office in Damascus quite rudely denied my request for a new multiple-entry visa, and confirmed that I would not receive one on the border if I tried.

No looking back now, then, on to Jordan.

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