I heard that the US had discouraged all non-essential travel to Syria, but the UK Foreign Office was cool with it as of 31 March 2011, the day of my departure, so I went with that. My mother told me not to go. I told her that I’d stay far from trouble, avoid the cities where people have been shot. I told her not to worry.
I first saw President Bashar al Asaad on a street corner in Jermana, south east Damascus, just off the bus from the airport. It wasn’t really in person inasmuch as he wasn’t really there, yet somehow coming straight for me at a considerable speed was his face, huge, spread across the windshield of a truck as I crossed the street Syria-style (read: hurl your person into traffic and the cars, mostly taxis, will probably slow down a little; there is no other way). He was crew-cut and thick-necked in fatigues and aviator glasses. Most of the images are of the fearless leader in a suit, sometimes looking stoically east or west, as if towards some utopian future just out of frame, less often bending a friendly smile from underneath his Ned Flanders moustache, extending his arm in a wave that I found slightly defensive. Maybe he needn’t be. He is well-loved.
I stayed with friends who speak good Arabic. We watched the news on the state TV channel and they translated for me. One night early in my stay, an anchorwoman said something to the effect of, “Syrians all over the country are surprised and puzzled by calls for anti-government protests announced via social networking sites like Facebook.” The pictures in the background showed life going on peacefully, rivers flowing, folks out shopping, a few westerners strolling through the Old City, as if to say, “Why would anyone protest against this? I mean, that’s just weird.”
I heard that business was bad. A friend, Damascene tour guide, toyed with the idea of getting drunk. This should be the high season, he told me, but the travel advisories led to a spate of cancellations. He and another Syrian friend came out to dinner with me and three other Americans among the coloured lights and sparkling festoons of the Midan district. We ordered a spread to share but the Syrians didn’t eat anything. One said he was tired. The other, after a few beats, said he was too. Midan; it was pretty then.
I’d been in Syria for three days when I decided to take an excursion out to Krak des Chevaliers, a crusades-age castle about three hours north of Damascus. I had to take a bus to Homs and then a taxi or minibus to the site. I was told that I should try to hook up with other travellers to share the cost, and I should not pay more than 2500 lires for a taxi there. But when I arrived in Homs there wasn’t another tourist in sight. The drivers pounced on me, as I heard they would, offering to take me, deriding the others’ driving, undercutting each other’s prices. I didn’t even have to open my mouth to haggle and get a round-trip journey for 1000 lires.
The driver spoke excellent English. He narrated the landscape engagingly and seemed to know when I just wanted to stare out the window. He stopped and bought us both a coffee, wouldn’t hear of it when I tried to pay. He offered me cigarettes and called me a cowboy when I rolled my own.
A truck pulled in front of us with a picture of Bashar in the rear window. One of the fatigues and aviator glasses ones. “You know him?” the driver asked.
Got it on the first try.
“In Syria, everyone loves Bashar. But on Friday, foreigners come.” He clarified, lest I felt implicated: “From Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey. They come and try to make Syria weak. But all Syrians love Bashar.”
On our way back to Homs he indicated two skyscrapers, the only two in the distance, tended to by the only two cranes. “That is the future. In ten years, all of Homs will be like this.”
Thursday came and the police presence in back in Damascus was substantial. I wondered if the tension in the air was just my imagination. Then came Friday and the demonstrations. In Homs, where I’d just been, two people were killed and Homs went on the list of places I shouldn’t go.
On Saturday I headed to Aleppo in the north, not to avoid trouble (there had been no trouble there, not yet) but because of the food, the souk, the olive oil soap….
In the bar of the Hotel Baron (of Agatha Christie fame) with its restrained colonial décor of tan leather armchairs and antique posters, I met a group of fellow travellers. One tells me that he’d just been in Damascus as well. He’d been waiting for a friend in the Old City district when two plain-clothed officers bookended him and took him to a nearby police station. They flipped through his notebook and all the pictures in his camera. Another said something like that had happened to someone he’d met last week, a local. Back at the station the police had a print-out of all of his Facebook chats, a list of his friends, all the groups he liked.
We whispered even though we were the only ones in the bar.
My Arab Spring smelled like diesel fuel and sweat, orange blossoms and fresh Iraqi-style bread. I averted my eyes, keep moving, took photos selectively, which was difficult in a country as beautiful as Syrian. What I heard people say in public was the same as the message on the state news, or on this one Syrian television station where they seem to play patriotic songs non-stop, with a montage of Bashar being applauded by parliament, the sand dunes and ruins of Palmyra, Bashar at a school for learning disabled children, the green hills of the Orontes Valley, Bashar and his wife getting out of a car and waving that wave of his to an adoring crowd, the sunrise over minarets, Bashar in the Old City, trying to shake the hundreds, thousands of hands extended to him. But he is only one man.