A Syria Roadtrip

An Indian, a Croatian, and an American were lost, barreling through villages in northern Syria.

“Peace be upon you! Sir, is this the road to al-Ghab, to Apamea?” Ali asked a bearded man on a motorcycle.

Even though Ali hailed from India, people often considered him Arab — khaleeji, from the Gulf.

The bearded man stopped, shook his head, and said to follow him. “Up this hill, my friends, is the shrine of Job.”

The Faster Times has just published a long Syrian road story of mine, based on a memorable cruise around the country with two close comrades. Read the rest here. The photo is of the rental Kia on the trip, dusty from the sands of Deir az-Zor and elsewhere. The photo is somewhere between Serjilla and the Ghab, probably near al-Bara.

Beirut-Damascus

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I sat in a backseat with two older women, muhajabas. We talked about the sea and language. I probably communicated the hardness of accents and grammar and agreement, but at least I said or should have said that I love the sea, as they said ‘But there is no sea (there).’ Up the road, across the anti hills not really mountains, and down to the oasis that has dried up: concrete. But the olive trees (are they olive trees?) or the shrubs at least, along the road, they scarlet in fall.

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Obama apparel and opinions

They’re selling Obama T-shirts at the knick-knack tourist shops on Qaimaria in the Old City now. Alongside grey “University of Damascus” tees (“since 1923″) and tees with the Iraqi flag now hang red tees and white tees and blue tees with Obama in raised white lettering across the front, in Arabic and English. They’re hot commodities, and the vendor who otherwise sells overpriced scarves must know the value of the shirts: he’s charging 450 Syrian lire now, almost 10 dollars. A friend on his way of the country bit the bullet and bought a few; a good welcome-home gift from Sham for friends in America. The shirts might say something about Obama’s popularity here; wearing his white and blue Obama tee, my friend was the target of plenty of warm hellos and congratulations in Damascus and especially over the weekend in Beirut. Every news stand from here to there is plastered with magazine and newspaper covers of Obama’s serious or beaming face (okay, they’re more numerous in Beirut). There were slurred high fives from night-lifers in Lebanon Saturday night, offering the typical line of Bush destroying America’s standing but Obama offering more than superficial redemption. One bartender said Obama’s election was the first time that he thought Americans had finally “made the right decision.”

“I’ve been following the news in the States since the early 1990s, since the first Gulf war. And I’ve been following the NBA.”

His dream was to move to LA and finally see a live game.

“I love the NBA, the Lakers, Kobe, Shaquille O’Neal. He plays where now? Arizona?”

“Yea, Phoenix.”

“Ah, the Suns.”

“What about the Celtics?” I had to ask. My brother scored season tickets high up near the roof of the new Garden last year just before the playoffs. We took in a few Celtics drubbings although both of us missed Game 7.

“I hate Larry Bird. I hate the Celtics. I follow the NBA for a long time: Jordan, Magic Johnson, Dr. J. But I hate Larry Bird.”

I didn’t argue, took another sip of my drink. At least he liked Obama, and here, now, in our time, isn’t that what matters?

“As if on cue..”

What I wrote from an email exchange with Josh Landis on Graham Bowley’s ridiculous Times story:

“This Times story was a crock. the protest was government-orchestrated — university students and working people were encouraged or even shooed into the Square and it dispersed pretty quickly. No surprises. But the tone of the article disregards any Syrian grievances. Bowley’s last article was filed from New York, he’s cribbing off of the AP and BBC reporters here and projecting his weirdly aggressive bias thousands of miles away, based on the anonymous US officials’ story.

Large scale popular protests may not be permitted… a fact of politics here… but that doesn’t mean people aren’t anrgy over the raid. I haven’t talked to a cab driver here who thinks the family in Abu Kamel was connected to this shadowy Iraqi smuggler. People are genuinely angry: their country was invaded. Why would the Times doubt that?

Bowley seems to delight in scorning Syria; the government and the people, whose anger is somehow illegitimate because their protest was “apparently stage-managed by the government.” Maybe Bowley, like BBC’s Paul Wood, should actually go to Deir az-Zur, to Abu Kamel, and interview people. He’d hear outrage and the widely held view here that the Americans killed civilians. He might even interview some of the wounded, or the relatives. But it’s a story the Times doesn’t want, so they don”t send their reporter.

Why is it that all of the articles about Syria this week in the Times are filed from the States or from Baghdad? As you wrote, where is Robert Worth? Damascus is no so far from Beirut.”

What will shut down

We were standing outside in the increasing cold tonight, the regular break in colloquial class. The sundown adhan, the evening call to prayer, had just gone off, coinciding with seven o’clock and the halfway point in our two hour class. We were standing there, on the roof of the American Cultural Center, where we take our class, when we heard the news that SANA was reporting the government’s decision to shut down the “American School” and the American Cultural Center.

Below and across the street, beyond the high walls and Jurassic Park fencing around the building, there was a party on at the Chinese Embassy. Chinese guest workers have been busy on the building for weeks and this was the new grand opening, it seemed. They’d installed a pool that lit up the embassy’s yard, even though it’s too cold for swimming now. Tables were being served by a team of waiters; everyone looked dressed-up.

When we went downstairs, an hour later, after class to collect any mail that we might not be able to get tomorrow, or the next day, if indeed the cultural center is closed, the shrill voice of a Chinese opera singer rang outside the window. This building might be cleared out tomorrow, or the next day, or maybe the government will just block the street and prevent people from going inside, and meanwhile next door the Chinese were having a party; a woman in a high voice was singing opera that echoed through the diplomatic neighborhood.

We were shooed out of the office by the cultural center’s staff readying for a long night. As we left I heard down the hall, from one office to another: “Where’s the pizza we ordered?”

It’s hard to gauge all of this, the stream of news stories and television coverage. Last night Syria One produced a dramatic montage of a camera panning over a farm house in the dark, the camera’s lamp illuminating scattered possessions, before cutting to close-ups of dead bodies and medical examiners pointing out bullet wounds. The dead bodies at the farm, according to the news here, are a father and his three children, the farm’s guard and his wife, and a fisherman. These were glossed over in today’s New York Times article, in favor of salacious CIA reports of tracking a terrorist smuggler.

The White House’s shrew spokeswoman revealed what some of us are thinking here: that they have done it, they have struck Syria finally before they expire and retire, and now they will sit back and smile, and offer “no comment.”

Question: What is the likelihood of more raids into Syria like the one we saw this weekend?

Perino:  The United States government has not commented on reports about that and I’m not able to here, either.

Q: So we’ve talked about Pakistan, the raids into Pakistan, whether by ground or by air. And there’s been some acknowledgment by U.S. officials that those are happening. We’re now seeing this sort of thing spread to other countries. Can you not — you can’t shed any light on why, when, where, how, whether we’re going to…

Perino: I can’t comment on it at all, no.

Q: Have you heard anything about whether the target was successful, that it hit the target?

Perino: I’m not going to comment in any way on this; I’m not able to comment on that.

Q: You’re not even able to say that there has been some decision taken by the administration that ‘If you guys can’t clean up your act, we will clean it up for you’?

Perino: I’m not going to comment on the reports about this, no, I’m not. Anybody else?

Q: Can you comment on Syria’s protest?

Perino: I’m not going to comment on it at all. This could be a really short briefing.

Q: Has anybody from the White House spoken to anybody from Syria?

Perino: I don’t know. I don’t know.

Q: Let me ask you this one: You have another government making claims. At some point, you either have to confirm or deny the claims they’re making, no?

Perino: Jim, all I can tell you is that I am not able to comment on reports about this reported incident, and I’m not going to do so. You can come up here and try to beat it out of me, but I will not be commenting on this in any way, shape or form today.  Or tomorrow.

Q: What about another agency, nobody — if it comes, it’s going to come from here, and so it’s not going to — nothing is going to come out of this?

Perino: I don’t believe anybody is commenting on this at all.

Q: Dana, why can’t you comment? Is it a reason for national security, or is it political?  I mean, why –

Perino: To give you an answer to that would be commenting in some way on it, and I’m not going to do it.

Q: But, I mean, Dana, you can’t give us anything? I mean, this is a major issue –

Perino: Nothing.

Q: This is a major issue –

Perino: I understand the reports are serious, but it’s not something I’m going to comment on in any way. [VIA]

Meanwhile here in Damascus we read the news and wait. A cab driver yesterday, after two of us told him when asked that yes, we were American, was not confrontational. He cackled a bit, tinging his critiques of toppling Saddam and stealing oil with sarcasm and dark humor.  Like so many people here, he asked us what was wrong with our government. What was Bush doing? Why don’t the American people stop him?

“With Reagan, with Clinton, things happened, okay. But never like this. In Iraq, in Palestine, now here in Abu Kamel… this American government will do anything. It will attack everything.”

Steam Machine

The train reversed down the tracks, the engine facing backwards, and passed the collected Swiss tourists, cameras ready. It returned five minutes later, the engine, circa 1896, facing forward this time as it pulled four aged, wooden passenger cars. Here was our ride, a relic of the Hijaz railway, the Zabadani Flyer.

“Why do you ride steam machine on weekend holiday?”

We had been picked up at the Hijaz train station in central Damascus by a bus, which took us to the “steam machine” station someway up the hills toward the Barada River Gorge. The man in the bus told us that he lived at the railway musuem, the steam machine museum, near the station and would utter that description — calling the train the steam machine — maybe forty times during our 2 and half hour ride north up the Gorge — through the remnants of the Barada River — to Ain El Figeh, the source of Damascus’ vaunted water supply.

The tap water is good to drink in the city — it shuts off around midday, since water is scarce and the desert is eating Syria — and Damascenes are proud of their potable public water. It’s nothing like Cairo, where a carton of bottled water was among the weekly purchases at the market down the street.

The Zabadani Flyer is the last running narrow-gauge steam train in Syria, on the famed Hijaz railway tracks that steamed out of Damascus to Medina, the target of so many bombs by Lawrence and his Arabs in revolt.

The Flyer used to push all the way to Zabadani, a mountain resort down 50 kilometers north of Damascus, but stops at Ain El Figeh now, where spring water is visibly scare. A service taxi can get you there in less than half an hour; the relic train takes more than two hours as it chugs along slow enough for families to stand and wave, say hello, and even ask how you are, as they line the tracks which run through suburban Damascus and along a main road that runs up into Wadi Barada.

The stops for tea, and to pump more water in the old steam tank, slow the trip even more, but this is the point: every Friday, departing officially at 7 or 8am — we left around 9:30 — and returning to Damascus by 4pm. Families and tourists are the target audience, and between the Swiss tour group, the Syrian television crew, and the clapping and singing consortium of teenage Syrians, the ride was as advertised.

I ate peanuts and battled a few hours of sleep for the first hour, sitting on a wooden seat, my arm out the window, and occasionally my head, into the morning light and the exhaust of the steam machine.

Stuck in Latakia, or starting to agree with the line from “In Xanadu”

A pot-bellied Syrian in a brown shirt is calling out tickets for Damascus, but we’ve already lost ours with the company.

“Sham! Ash-Sham! Ash-Sham!”

He has a teenager’s wisp for a moustache, slicked hair and fake leather shoes that curve so much at the toe, ending in a square tip, that they look like witch boots.

We had bought four tickets for a bus scheduled to leave at two-thirty, then proceeded on a servees to Qardaha to see the former president’s tomb with two hours to kill. The lion’s mausoleum beckoned.

By the time we got back to town at two, the bus was filling up. Our tickets were presented and promptly refused. They were for the one-thirty bus, another pot-bellied but stubble-bearded man told us. The transvestite behind the ticket counter had told us two-thirty but sold us one-thirty tickets. We hadn’t taken the time to notice, to decipher that hand-written ticket.

The ensuing hour of arguing, in which we tried and failed to get our money back.

Mustafa, our host in Latakia, was darting purposefully from the untended police station across the cement lot – the bus station – which smelled powerfully of urine, in the hallway outside the office where two men smoked under a portrait of the president, checking foreigners passports, saying hello, and smoking more cigarettes, in rhythm with glasses of tea.

New tickets were finally secured and we sat on a metal bench under a brick roof which was the bus station.  Mustafa told raunchy jokes and some one else chimed with his own, obscene Balkan jokes. Nothing nice about Montenegro.

Peddlers at the rival bus companies barked destinations.

“Homs! Homs! Homs!’

“Haleb! Haleb! Haleb!”

“Ash-Sham! Ash-Sham! Ash-Shaaam!”

Hours earlier, as we tried to buy our bogus tickets, we had tried every single of these companies, standing in little offices that lined the brick overhang, creating the closed space of the station, mostly a parking lot. All tickets to Damascus were sold out, we were told one by one, until buying the doomed set from the office abutting a decaying bust.

Now, hours later, tickets were for sale.

We were treated to a Steven Segal movie on the night ride back to Sham, and stopped at a rest stop long enough to meet a sole French tourist, Arab, who was couch-surfing around Syria. We wished him luck as we returned to our bus and Segal, who was looking badly out of shape in his old and B-movie age.

in Lattakia

I’ve started reading William Darymple’s “In Xanadu,” which is a pleasure so far although his travels in the Levant, Bilad ash-Sham, end by the third chapter. Kublai Khan’s summer palace in China is a long way from all this. After leaving Jerusalem where he discovers that the oil burning in the eternal lamps in the Holy Sepulchre has been modernized (it’s no longer olive oil from the Mount of Olives, but sunflower oil from a box, siphoned into spare plastic bottle from the Body Shop in Covent Garden), he travels from Cyprus to Syria. He lands in Lattakia, the primary coastal city here, and opens his chapter with a most unfortunate line, that “Lattakia is a filthy hole… the town smells of dead fish: you can smell it three miles into the Mediterranean.”

Now perhaps much has changed here since the Eighties, but Lattakia does not smell like fish. In fact I think we’ll go each some nice catch for dinner tonight. His description doesn’t fit the current place: a rocky beach in a rented apartment (“chalet”) outside the city center, with Turkey wide in view up the coast, marked by a mountain, Jebel Akra, across the water and behind the remaining points of north Syrian coastline. It’s beautiful here, the water is warm like a tub, and after getting here on Tuesday, the night before the start of eid, we sat with a gracious family on their veranda, breaking fast with piles of salads, rice dishes, and meats, while twenty-one cannons went off between the muezzins’ wails of two neighboring mosques stationed at each end of the street. The cannons signaled the start of the holiday that ends Ramadan.

saturday morning

A bomb goes off in the sun before noon, you get a text message to check in, but traffic keeps moving in the central neighborhoods in Damascus. I was walking to buy, of all things, litter and food for a new cat when I received a vague message from the embassy to check in. Knowing something had happened, I ducked into an internet cafe where I saw the news: a car bombing south of the city, towards the airport, near the popular Sayed Zeinab shrine, a beacon for Shia pilgrims and a neighborhood home to maybe a half million Iraqi refugees. There is disconnect, to be sure, whether in the Old City or in the upscale shopping area of Shaalen, popular with foreigners, like Cairo’s Zamalek or Dokki. The state television coverage offers a glimpse into a scene on a main road you passed on your way from the airport less than two week before. The next day, in small groceries, the requisite satellite television carries a goverment minister, being interviewd on a set with fake plants, explaining that the perpetrators were foreigners.

Joshua Landis at Syria Comment writes: “A friend who recently opened up a hotel in a renovated Ottoman house in the old city of Damascus called and said that he had lost $40,000 worth of business overnight due to the car bomb. All his October reservations have cancelled.”

More importantly:

In general, Syria has been one of the safest major Middle Eastern capitals. The US State Department has maintained a travel advisory against Syria, but that is largely for political reasons. Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Israel-Palestine, Saudi Arabia, etc. are much more dangerous than Syria and have suffered more al-Qaida attacks and dead Americans than Syria. It should be said that no American has been killed by terrorists in Syria throughout the entire history of the country. At least I don’t know of one. Perhaps a Syria Comment reader will correct me?

The fear sparked by this attack is that terrorism has returned to Syria. During the late 1970s and early 1980s Syria experienced a steady and violent period of terrorist strikes, carried out by the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

There have been a number of political assassinations and several failed terrorist attacks in the last decade, but extremist Sunni groups have not been successful in Syria. Some of the assassinations and explosions are commonly attributed to Israel. See al-Jazeera’s Timeline: Syria attacks. In this group we can place the most recent  Mughniya assassination, the authorship of which is disputed, the “nuclear” facility bombing in Sept 2007, the September 2004 car bombing in southern Damascus that killed an official of the Palestinian Hamas movement and three passers-by.

The al-Qaida type explosions or attacks are:

  • April 2004:Three assailants and empty UN building in Mezzeh. Apoliceman and a woman passer-by die in the gun battle. The government blames al-Qaeda, but the attack is claimed by a group which says it wants to avenge the government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982.
  • September 2006: The US embassy was attacked by three armed men, which was botched. All three were killed and a member of the Syrian security forces was killed and 14 people wounded in a failed attempt to set off a car bomb.
  • There have also been a number of round-ups and gun battles between security forces and “al-Qaida” types, but not successful extremist opperations that have done much damage.

According to the official SANA news agency, the blast occurred on the Mahlaq road in southern Damascus in an area crowded with civilian passers-by. The site was near the Sayeda Zeinab neighborhood, which is popular with Shiite pilgrims from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. No group has yet taken responsibility for the bombing. It may have been an Iraqi Sunni group targetting Shiites or a home-grown Syrian group. We don’t know.

i found a way onto my roof

via the balcony and a ladder that looks like it was carved from an old tree. i was told to store anything i didn’t want in the house (like a rusy old bedframe residing on the balcony) on the roof. there is an out-of-use satellite dish up there and piles of wood and metal rubble. the roof is my basement, since the basement is my kitchen.

cham traffic not as bad as cairo

that doesn’t mean a great deal, however. since it’s ramadan around sundown the streets quiet, but aggression seems to be taken out here on the roads; syrian politeness and hospitality are otherwise renowned.

i got a kitten today. she’s very small and black, 3 months old. a friend who has been here a while took a few of us to see the woman who gave her her cat about a year ago. the family’s house was an old beit arabi, beautiful courtyard, outside the old city near a market. like so many houses here, just a door on an alleyway that opens up to greenery inside. only this house was also full of cats. maybe a half dozen kittens running around plus the same number of full grown cats. the father of the family met us in the market and led us to the house, where he met his wife and their daughter. we had coffee with them while we played with the kittens and two of us picked two out, from the same litter, 3 and half months old, but mine is all black and seems the runt of the litter if her tiny frame is any indication. later the family brought out two of their taxidermied cats. one was the grandfather of the kittens. it was mounted on a block of wood. this seemed too much out of seinfeld. the second one was not mounted but stuffed in its curled-up floor position. the faces of both looked crazed, the taxidermy job a little odd. they really love their cats here.