Travel to Syria .
I - The delusion is shattered
by Rhea of
I had been looking
forward to visiting Syria and particularly Damascus for some time. I almost
took the 3 hour bus ride from Beirut to Damascus when I visited
Beirut last year, but I was so disappointed with Beirut
that I decided not to go. Billed as the Paris of the Middle East (since fallen after
the war), I saw every reason why a backwater Middle-Easterner
might find it attractive, but nothing that a person long-acquainted
with modernity would find of interest. I stayed in the old
section of Hamra, the Muslim area
- no traditional dancing, no belly dancing at the hotels,
no traditional music except at one restaurant-café in a wealthy
area populated by chic boutiques and expensive restaurants. One
could, however, as in Cairo, find places that were not 5
star hotels to buy a glass of wine or beer.
In Damascus, one can buy alcohol only in the duty free
airport, the hotels (3 of them - Meridien,
Sheraton, and Cham Palace)
and probably some black market venues which would have
required a longer stay to ferret out,
and Junieh, the Christian section
of Beirut was worse. It looked like a Middle Eastern
attempt at Las Vegas and Disneyland, upscale
discotheques where attractive Moldavian that aforementioned
familiar tributary, than go on to another one. I
was not aware of any difficulties with my visa.
Rhea buys her ticket from Mina tours, my trusted go-between
for Egypt and Lebanon, and was not informed that there is no way that
I can enter Damascus without said visa. Syrian Airways
in Athens airport blithely checks me through without asking
me for evidence of this visa or they assume I have it,
or they assume that a lifelong dream of mine is to remain
in limbo in the Damascus airport for 34 hours while becoming
better accustomed to the folkways and mores of the Syrian
people at close hand.
I go to passport control. "Where is your visa?" "Yes,
yes. Where can I buy a visa?" Imagining, silly me, that
it is a formality easily dealt with. After all, Greece and Syria have just further cemented their economic and cultural
relations with a state visit to Athens by Bashar Assad, and Greece is on the side of the Palestinians. How much more
persona grata can I be?
After 15 minutes of diva-ish huffing
and puffing that usually works in Middle Eastern countries,
I am told I must go to transit and await
the emigration officials at such time that they deem appropriate,
which will be sometime tomorrow. I am told that I can
stay at the airport hotel for a mere $127.00 a night. By
this time it is 3:00 in the morning and sleep is the last
thing from my fuming mind. I resolve to spend the night
on the airport cushioned benches (Thank god they weren't
those molded plastic, one-person-one-seat chairs!), determined
to rise early and resolve this problem. Maybe the night
staff is not so knowledgeable
as the day staff. Ha ha! They
are the same, they sleep in the
airport just like me.
I attempt to
solve the problem by telephoning Greece. One of my students is in the Ministry of Education,
another works at the airport, and another is married to
a Syrian. Surely someone of all these people can help
me or know someone who can help me. I buy a phone card,
only $10.00 for 6 minutes. Of course, I have Euros which
are looked at suspiciously but finally accepted at the
worth of the dollar. They are actually worth more. This
fact cannot be conveyed and I fork over my 10 euro note
and get my card. Can
I get through to Greece? Greece, which shares with Syria so many shared values, economic ties, etc. cannot
be accessed. I have an inspiration, I'll
call my daughter in Boston. She has moxie. She
can help me. A message greets me. I leave a short message. Now
what? My sister. She's sleeping
so I tell my relatives to wake her up, it's an emergency
and I'll call back. I want to speak with my sister because,
if I speak to anyone else in my family it will be
in Damascus, Syria? What
are you doing there? And why did you go there?"
implication being that anyone crazy enough to go to Syria in these troubled times deserves everything they encounter. By
the time they say all this, my 6 minutes will be up and
I only have 50 euro notes. Yes, I am in trouble but with
the hotel at $127.00 and the euro now equated with the
dollar, I can envision them taking my 50 euros and giving
me back 5 cards at 6 minutes each. I wait until I imagine
my sister has woken up and can halfway think and I call
Strange, but that friendly country, Greece,
cannot be accessed but that hated country, America, is still available.
In a heartbeat,
it is like I called next door. "Please call Maria at the
Ministry of Education. She'll know what to do." "How
can I reach you in Syria?" asks my sister. My inquiries as to what the telephone
number at the telephone office is are met with bemused
wonder and a little intolerance. The man in charge of
the phone office wants to sleep so I hang up, holding onto
those precious remaining minutes and go in search of someone
who can speak English and who is awake. My quest is successful
and I have the telephone number in hand. I call back, give my sister the telephone number, and wait, and wait,
I spy a family with a sick little girl in the airport transit. It
turns out they have been stuck in the airport for days,
unable to afford the airport hotel and not allowed to leave
the airport, although the very kind airport personnel have
provided them with food, but no blankets and now, with
the illness of their child, a stomach medicine.
I give her some of my amoeba destroying capsules on
the off chance it is a simple food reaction and listen
to her mother pour out her tale
while her husband and child sleep fitfully in the harsh
glare (but warmth) of the airport lights. My heart begins
to sink as her story unfolds and Damascus looms ever more
distant and my holiday in Syria seems doomed.
To be continued...
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