EssaysJohn Massaro

Experiencing the Middle East: Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt – part 1

by John Massaro

“NUSAYBIN Hudut Kapisi,” the fresh Turkish exit stamp in my passport read. Straight ahead was El Qamishliye, Syria, a remote, sleepy frontier town near the desolate point where Turkey, Syria and Iraq meet. It was 1984 and I was not feeling confident. What was Syria going to be like? I couldn’t find a single guidebook to the country in any New York bookstore; I had to settle instead for a few sheets of skimpy information provided by the Syrian U.N. consulate – and in all my travels, until three days before, I’d met only two people who had been there. In Kahta, Turkey, I’d run into an odd, crew-cut Irishman who had just completed a year of voluntary service in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. He had come up through Syria, and while his trip had gone smoothly, he told me that the Syrian people consider themselves at war with America. This concerned me, but turning back now was out of the question; I’d come too far and waited too long for this moment. How would the border officials react to an American entering their country, and especially in these parts, I wondered. Well, the Syrian embassy in Washington (which no longer exists) had issued me a visa without any fuss, but a visa means nothing if you show up in the wrong place at the wrong time. That much I knew from experience.

Fingers crossed, apprehensive, knowing three words of Arabic (tea, hello, and thank you) I walked into never-never land, towards three uniformed men sitting under the shade of a tree sipping tea – Syrians! I handed my passport to the one on the right. He examined it for a few seconds, then looked at me and said with a little surprise, “American!”

“American, yes,” I replied, smiling. He made a face as if he was thinking, “Well, what do you know,” and directed me to a small building nearby. I went inside and up to the counter, behind which a young official was tending to some paperwork. He took my passport and flipped through the pages. Then he looked up.

“American?”

“Yes.” He examined the visa carefully, then walked into another room, where I heard him discussing the situation with some other men. In a few minutes he emerged and handed me my passport, freshly stamped, and an entry card to fill out. I was in! From there, it was just a matter of red-tape border formalities: a mandatory exchange of $100 into Syrian pounds, a visit to the inquisitorial log book man, who took down all the information I had already written on the card, and a cursory bag inspection, which ended with the question, “Do you have gun?”

“No, of course I don’t have a gun!”

This man spoke decent English. He was friendly and curious about my itinerary in Syria, which was wide open. I told him I wanted to spend the night in Deir-ez-Zor, and continue on to Aleppo the following day. There were a few empty taxis sitting nearby, their drivers off drinking tea and chatting with the officials. I asked him if he would be so kind as to write a message in Arabic that I could hand to one of the drivers, indicating that I wished to go to the station in town where I could find a bus to Deir-ez-Zor. He offered to accompany me instead so we piled into a taxi, a ’56 Pontiac, and drove into downtown El Qamishliye. As we raced through the streets, I instinctively knew there’d be nothing to worry about traveling around Syria. A great adventure was just getting started.

El Qamishliye was different from the Turkish border towns; it seemed more squalid, congested and animated. I was excited to be in a new country after five weeks in Turkey, and one that promised to have few travelers. There was no mistaking that it was indeed a different country: Arabic script everywhere, Arab dress, and – old American cars! The number of American automobiles of fifties’ and early sixties’ vintage astounded me. I always got a kick out of seeing them.

We reached the bus station, a dingy and chaotic affair compared to the efficient Turkish system. It would be hours before the next scheduled bus left for Deir-ez-Zor, but a jitney was set to depart for El Haseke, a town halfway to my destination, as soon as enough people filled it. This didn’t take long, and soon we were zooming through the northeastern Syrian desert on a narrow tarmac road. My friend from the border post had told the driver I was American, so I was given the best seat up front and offered cigarettes, grapes and nuts the entire way. Sitting in front gave me a good view of the small, nameless, sunbaked villages we passed through, and the women in dazzling dress walking along the road. That grating Arab music blaring from the tape deck was hard to take, but it added character to our dilapidated little bus with the imitation marble paneling, the carpeted dashboard decked with plastic flowers, and the windshield frame plastered with small stickers of veiled women, sayings from the Koran (I presume), and family photographs. Glancing at our mad-dog driver, his kafiyeh flying in the wind, I was thrilled to be here.

In El Haseke I had to wait some time for another bus to fill. Groups of tough-looking women dressed in vivid colors, strings of coins and pendants dangling across their foreheads, sat on the ground, minding their sacks and goats and crying babies. I wanted to reach for my camera, but knew I’d be asking for trouble in these parts if I started taking pictures of women. Instead I wandered over to the food stalls for a sandwich, watching in disgust as the vendor crumbled a couple of hard-boiled eggs onto a blotter of bread with his dirty fingers. I was too hungry to turn it down.

Why go to Deir-ez-Zor, you may be wondering. Because the name tantalized me. The city is a major crossroads; you can continue driving southwest to the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, and eventually to Damascus; you can go west to Aleppo, which was my plan; and the road to the east follows the course of the Euphrates River for eighty miles before reaching the border of Iraq, a country almost impossible to visit as an independent traveler, even back then. The Irishman had told me he met a German traveler who had gone to Abu Kemal, near the Iraqi frontier, and said this man told him he was threatened with death if seen in town the next day – such was the suspicion the Syrians had of a foreigner in the proximity of their hated enemy, Iraq. The boy from Belfast also told me I’d see dozens of Russian advisers and plainclothes Arabs toting Kalashnikovs on the streets of Damascus. Well, every Syrian I spoke to expressed solidarity with their Arab cousins in Iraq, and told me that the government’s support of Iran in the war raging then between Iran and Iraq was due to a personal feud between Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein that the people couldn’t have cared less about. As for Damascus, I wasn’t to see a single man who looked Russian – although there were Russian advisers in the capital – and the two Arabs I saw with rifles were wearing military uniforms. The more time I spent in Syria, the more I became convinced that this Irish refugee worker had serious psychological issues, and had been trying to scare me for his own amusement.

Deir-ez-Zor! You’ll never read about this city in any tourist brochure, but for me, places like this are the most fulfilling of travel experiences. I arrived at the bus station at 5:30 and went inside to ask about a ticket to Aleppo the next day. It was surreal inside: a cavernous, largely empty building supported by huge pillars covered with posters of Assad; stenciled Arabic on the walls; the fragrance of spices mingling with the stink of neglected toilets. As expected, there was a communication problem at the ticket window, but I pulled through with the help of my English-Arabic dictionary. I think the message was that I could come down at eight the next morning to buy a ticket. Well, I’d worry about it then. I took a cab into town, and by golly, we drove right over the Euphrates River, that magical stream where civilization began, or so I’d been taught in fourth grade. There was a graceful suspension bridge crossing it upstream, but naturally my camera was buried somewhere. I did manage to buy a nice postcard of the scene later in Damascus.

“Fondok,” I told the driver, my newest Arabic word – hotel. I was looking up the word for cheap, but before I could find it he stopped in front of a building which could have been the town’s only hotel with a star. I went inside and as soon as I started speaking English the miserable creature at the reception desk made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with me. So I left and quickly decided to grab the first fondok that would accept a foreigner, whether it had three stars or three beds.

After ten minutes of tramping around and attracting curious stares – who comes here wearing a backpack? – someone pointed me to the Hotel Al-Arabi, a second-story establishment on a dusty side street where donkey carts creaked and men smoked hookah pipes and played backgammon. A kind old man who spoke a little English ran the place; he was taken aback when I handed him my U.S. passport, but warmed up and we passed a pleasant evening later chatting over mint tea. I spent the remaining daylight wandering the wonderfully weird streets of this undiscovered outpost. You couldn’t ask for more photogenic scenes, but I decided to leave my camera behind and enjoy my stroll, rather than fret over taking the perfect photo and possibly causing problems.

Intriguing as Deir-ez-Zor was, I was itching to move on. There was a little travel agency beneath the Al-Arabi where I managed to buy a ticket for the 6:15 express bus to Aleppo. This time I went on the government-run Karnak line, whose coaches are the equivalent of our Greyhounds. Besides the usual amenities, an attendant periodically came down the aisle with a water jug and a tray of hard candies (never got that on a Greyhound!), but it’s a more impersonal journey than riding aboard one of the circus wagons. That didn’t matter because I was very sleepy, not having been in the habit of rising at 5:00, and I missed the Assad dam that I wanted to see in Raqqa. I did see large splashes of green in the desert – crops of some kind – which owed their existence to elaborate irrigation systems. The Arabs are very good at making the desert bloom.

In Aleppo I took the advice of a cabbie and got a room at the Venicia Hotel, near the landmark Bab el-Faraj clocktower. The hotel printed a cute little brochure which contained an inadequately detailed map of the city, and some disconnected blurbs in shaky English: “Private suits of one bed-room guest-room and a bath room is equiped with a telephone.” I took one and headed for the covered souk, which was supposed to be one of the best in the Middle East. I had my mind set on an engraved copper tray or a dagger, but discovered that in a country where tourists are extremely rare you’re not likely to find any exotic souvenirs, at least not in a place where local people do their everyday shopping. I did pick up a nice dagger later in Damascus.

Soon I was hopelessly lost in a maze of dark alleys. I was trying to decide whether a cut of brocaded tablecloth linen would make a suitable gift, when I heard a voice ask, “Excuse me, are you Italian?” I turned around and faced a neatly dressed Arab man in his twenties.
“Well, yes, I’m Italian by descent but I’m American. Why do you ask?”

“Oh. I saw you are holding something that says Venicia, so I thought you are from Italy.”
“Oh, this. No, it’s just a little map from the Venicia Hotel where I’m staying.”

“I see. Yes, I know the Venicia. It’s a nice hotel.” I figured he had to be a tout or a con artist, but I was grateful to meet someone who spoke English so well. “Do you mind if I talk to you?” he said. He seemed sincere, but I’d been fooled by this type before.

“Alright, why don’t you help me find my way out of here, and we’ll go to a cafe.”

Sami turned out to be a sincere fellow indeed, and a vein of information about Syria. He had just returned from a year of medical study in Connecticut, where he had lived with an American family, and was serving his mandatory two-year stint in the Syrian army. We sat at a cafe across from the ancient Arab Citadel, Aleppo’s most famous landmark, drinking tea and chatting for hours about many topics. Much of our conversation was in hushed tones, for as Sami informed me, there were quite a few plainclothes secret police lurking, and talking against the government could get you into big trouble. In fact, what he was confiding in me he wouldn’t dare discuss with anyone except his family and closest friends. He told me that Assad was a bloody tyrant and had little support among the people. (Upon Assad’s death in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad became president, and is apparently much more popular.) I asked Sami if what I had read about Hama was really true, that Assad’s men had massacred 10,000 of the Islamic Brotherhood.

“Of course it’s true. It was more than that. But this is what I’m saying. The government will crush anyone who tries to change things.” It seemed that Sami was critical of his leaders and his country only because he could make a comparison to America, where dissent was tolerated (much more in 1984 than now), and which he had seen for himself while in Connecticut. To live in a world of uncertainty seemed to me the birthright of all Arabs in the Mideast, but I couldn’t say this. Some of his sentiments I would hear over and over in Syria and even in Jordan. One that surprised me was the widespread contempt for Saudi Arabians: the poor ones because of their backwardness, the rich ones because of the way they flaunt their money and create the stereotype of the wealthy oil sheik, a stereotype that upsets ordinary Arabs. Another was the positive feeling towards America, which was more pronounced in Sami, having lived in the States for a year. Most Arabs realize that Americans are basically nice people, that they’ve merely been duped about events in the Mideast by the Jewish-controlled media and the Jewish lobby (they love that word “lobby”). “We are at war with Israel,” Sami reminded me more than once, but neither he nor any other Syrian I spoke to seemed to be motivated by virulent hatred; rather they expressed concern over Israel’s territorial designs, and a seething resentment of the way the Palestinians have been brutalized for so long.

A tour bus pulled up near the entrance to the Citadel, and well-dressed men and women began filing out. “Iranians,” Sami said. “You’ll see many of them in Damascus. Nobody in Syria likes them. This is what I mean. Assad hates Hussein so therefore he tells us we must support Iran in the war. But this is not how we feel. We like the people of Iraq because they are Arabs like us. Nobody likes Iran, but they won’t tell you that.” Another bus pulled up and let off a group of neatly dressed schoolchildren. Some of them got out of line and started scampering around. Their teachers ran over to break up the horseplay and scold them; it reminded me so much of the field trips I took as a child.

It was great talking to Sami and watching the world go by on the streets of Aleppo. Sometimes you’d see a silky-haired, fashionably dressed young lady in high heels walk briskly past a waddling old woman draped under black sheets. Syria was like that – a pleasant mix of ancient and modern.

“What about the Russians?” I asked. “What do the Syrian people think about them?”

“Nothing. We don’t like them, we don’t hate them. But we must buy weapons from them so that Israel does not become stronger than us.”

Sami had some afternoon business to take care of, but offered to stop by that night with some friends. “Sure,” I said. “Why don’t we make it 7:30?” When he left, I crossed the street and climbed to the top of the Citadel for a view of both the old and new sections of Aleppo. I paid a visit to the fine archaeology and folk-art museum, mailed a few postcards (with stamps commemorating the Olympic games in Los Angeles), and to my surprise, stumbled upon a newsstand selling the International Herald Tribune, along with Time and Newsweek. And whose face was on the cover of Time? None other than Geraldine Ferraro’s, the first female candidate for vice president in American history. I’d never heard of her. The article was typical fluff.

Right on time Sami showed up with his friends Yussuf and Hosam, both well-mannered and educated young men who like Sami, spoke fluent English. Yussuf was a practicing doctor, who had graduated from medical school in Detroit. I almost found this hard to believe – not one but two Syrians who had studied in America. I’d never met a Syrian in my life before, anywhere. We sat at a large, crowded outdoor cafe, and we could’ve been in any European city – young people drinking beer, sipping espresso, or digging into an ice cream, waiters rushing about, the air noisy with conversation. I ordered a tall, label-less bottle of Syrian beer, which was quite good. We had a pleasant chat which continued as we walked around town. I couldn’t get over how modern and Western-oriented everything seemed, though many streets were ripped up for plumbing repairs, and it was treacherous walking in places. We passed a music shop stocked with the latest Japanese stereo equipment. There was a large display of cassettes in the window; most were Arab, but there were several of Western rock groups. I wanted to buy a few cassettes, more for the Arabic script written all over them than for auditory pleasure,

“Do you like Arab music?” Yussuf asked me.

“Not really. Well, sometimes I can like it, when I get in a certain mood.” After listening to several tapes, I bought a recording of the 1972 Baalbeck (Lebanon) Festival, and another with a picture of a lovely Arab woman with flowers in her hair. I would’ve bought one of the cacophonous music I’d heard on the bus from El Qamishliye, but I had no idea what to ask for.

“I think you must like American country music,” Sami said to me as we left the store.

“Yes, I like it. Some of it, anyway.”

“So do I,” he said, rattling off a list of his favorite artists. “The family I stayed with, they took me sometimes to the concerts in New York. Very good. I don’t know why so many people in America laugh when I tell them I like this music. It is very rich.” His use of the word “rich” intrigued me. Is it that one must grow up in a volatile land to understand the folk expression of a people? How many Americans, even among country music fans, would know what Sami meant by that word?

“Look, Jewish people. I know some of them.” Sami nodded toward a group fooling around in front of a green 1957 Chevrolet. Only when I looked at them closely did they look like Jews, and even then I wasn’t sure. Sami had told me earlier that there was a small Jewish community in Aleppo. When I asked him why they didn’t pack up and leave for Israel, he explained that they had no wish to become second class citizens, though relations between them and their Islamic countrymen were sometimes tense. I did a double take when we passed a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor. Well, I don’t recall that I saw the name Baskin-Robbins, but with all those pink and brown circles and large variety of unusual flavors, there was no mistaking where the idea had come from. Every time we turned a corner after that, I was prepared to see the Golden Arches, but happily Ronald McDonald was unknown in Syria.

We parted at the clocktower. It had been a most satisfying day. Sami and I agreed to meet the following evening for tea on the terrace of the Baron Hotel, which he told me quartered the French administrators in the old days when Syria was a French mandate. It certainly had that nostalgic colonial look. There were several U.N. soldiers drinking beer on the terrace, most of them Austrians. What I learned that night, among other things, was that the difference between an Alawite and a Sunni Muslim boils down to the authenticity of a certain obscure prophet. As often as I tried, I couldn’t get to the root of all the feuding sects which bedevil the Arab world. Sami himself was at a loss to explain them.

“Why don’t you stay here?” he asked me. “This is a very famous hotel.”

“It must be very expensive.”

“No, it’s not so expensive. Why don’t you go inside and ask?” This I did, and couldn’t believe it when the receptionist told me there was a room on the third floor without private bath for only ten bucks, with the stipulation that “you must pay in green dollars.” Not bad for a fondok whose guestbook includes names like Lawrence of Arabia, Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, Kemal Ataturk, Lady Mountbatten, Agatha Christie, Gene Tunney, Cardinal Spellman and Yuri Gargarin. I made a reservation and moved in the next day. I spent several hours of my last day in Aleppo on the terrace, filling in the gaps of my deprived childhood. It was the first time I ever read Alice in Wonderland.

* * *

My destination was Hama. I wanted to see the famous water wheels, and visit a city where some horrible things had recently happened. The literature I’d obtained at the Syrian Consulate stated that the wheels were two thousand years old; Sami told me it was more like two hundred. They were in plain sight from the bus station, where I arrived in mid-afternoon, but my first task was to find a room. “Fondok?” I asked a passerby. He grabbed my arm and gestured straight ahead, then turned his hand to the left. I took that to mean go this way one more block, then turn left. At the second cross street I looked to the left and sure enough, there were two hotels, the Cairo and the Riyadh. They looked the same. It was an old habit of mine to pass up the first hotel and check out the second, but I said to myself, “Let’s be different this time and try the Cairo.” I walked up two flights of stairs. The man behind the desk spoke no English, but gestured for me to wait while he made a phone call. He spoke at length in Arabic, then handed me the receiver. The voice at the other end said he was the man’s brother-in-law, and that there were no singles left, only one large room with six beds. He added that only one other person, an Englishman, was staying in the room. This sounded interesting. I told him I’d stay one night. He said he’d be in later to work the night shift, and was looking forward to meeting me.

I went to a restaurant where whole chickens revolved on spits in the front window. I ordered half a chicken served on a bed of rice and a plate of pickled vegetables. After finishing my meal, I wandered over to the water wheels. They looked ancient, though it was hard to believe that Saint Paul had seen them on the road to Damascus. They filled the air with a dreamy, creaking sound, which complemented the pleasant surroundings. There was a large park through which the Orontes River ran; boys jumped off the bank and cavorted in the shallow water. There were families picnicking in the grass, black-shrouded old women walking hand-in-hand with their grandchildren, young daddies carrying their little kids on their shoulders, vendors selling nuts and grilled corn on the cob. I bought a bag of pistachios and sat on the low stone wall by the groaning wheels, watching it all. It was a scene that Ronald Reagan and his lunatic Christian Zionist supporters would never want to see, because it would undermine their image of Syria as a land of terrorists. But I knew there was a dark side to this pleasant scene that my own eyes weren’t seeing: a river of blood had run through this city recently. I wanted to learn more about the massacre of the Islamic Brotherhood.

I went back to my room after dark. The Englishman was there, along with two Arabs who had just checked in. He was actually an English boy, a spaced-out college kid who quickly got on my nerves with the way he spoke: every word sounded like he was struggling to stay awake. He tried to make small talk with me, asking who I supported for president in the upcoming election. Reagan was the lesser of two evils, I told him. He was shocked. “I liked Hart,” he said. As much as he put me off, I was intrigued by the fact that he was traveling alone around Syria. He was the only other solo traveler I’d come across.

Daoud was the man I had spoken to on the phone. He invited me and the English boy into the office for a chat and brought out three cans of Heineken. He had a two-year-old daughter whose photo he proudly lifted from his desk, and said his wife was expecting another child. He was a goodhearted man, a decent family and community man. “So what do you think of the women in our country?” he asked me. I didn’t know how to respond. I said that some were pretty, some weren’t, and some I couldn’t even see because their faces were covered. He laughed. “You know, the Saudis come here for holiday, and they think because they bring all their money, they can buy every beautiful woman they see. The Arab men, they are very bad in this way.”

“Before I am married, I have taken a trip to Egypt and I stay in a luxury hotel in Cairo. The women who work in the hotel, they want you to give them money for sex because they are so poor. One night I am in my room and the woman knocks on the door. I open the door and she says, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ (He spoke the woman’s part very sensually.) I said, ‘Yes, maybe you can bring me a bottle of beer.’ She comes back with the beer and she says, ‘Is there anything else I can get you?’ I said, ‘Yes, I would like some nuts to eat.’ So she returns to my room with a dish of nuts, and then she says, ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like something else?’ (We were both laughing at this point.) And I said, ‘Yes, I need a pack of cigarettes.’ But then she puts her arms around me and says, ‘Don’t you really want me?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t want you because I don’t love you.'”

We were discussing religion and politics in Syria when I broached the subject of the Islamic Brotherhood. “Oh, it was a terrible time,” Daoud said. He walked to the door and ran his fingers over the jamb. “Look, here are the bullet holes when the soldiers came in like crazy men and started shooting everywhere.”

“When did this happen?” Stephen said, coming to life. He paled when I said two years ago.

“You didn’t know about it?”

“No. My God.”

Daoud was reluctant to discuss it in detail, so I didn’t press it, curious as I was. He changed the subject and asked us if we would like to spend the next day with him; he would show us all around Hama, and later in the afternoon we could return to his house where he gave English lessons to the neighborhood children in his free time. We could make sure he was teaching them correctly, he said. In the evening, we could stay at his home instead of the hotel. It sounded like a wonderful opportunity, and Stephen quickly accepted the invitation. This made me hesitant. Being around this sap all day would ruin the experience. I thought about it for a while, and decided to leave town the next morning. It was the one decision of the entire trip that I regretted.

There were no buses, not even the circus wagons that made the short run from Hama up through the Ansariye Mountains and down to Latakia, a resort town on the Mediterranean coast. You can only get there in bits and pieces by irregular transport. Consequently, I found myself in a Buick Roadmaster station wagon with eight other passengers and two sheep heading towards Masyaf, a fairly large mountain town. The driver wanted to put the sheep on the overhead luggage rack and tie them down, but their owner, a tall man in flowing robes, wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, he opened the tailgate and stuffed the discouraged animals behind the rear seat. They stank.

We passed a remarkable castle on the climb to Masyaf, which was a colorful, authentically Arab town at a pleasant altitude. The narrow alleys teemed with life, and I wondered where to go next as I watched the man unload his sheep. I walked up to people and asked about Baniyas, a coastal town west of Masyaf. They tried to help me but gestured with conflicting directions, none speaking English. My problem was solved by the appearance of a Datsun pick-up truck inching its way through the crowd with horn blaring. A tout stood on the open tailgate yelling, “Baniyas! Baniyas! Baniyas!” I swung my pack on and climbed aboard, taking a seat on one of the benches. The truck was covered overhead, so I only got to see the cool green countryside sloping to the sea as it receded out the back. Baniyas appealed to me for some reason, and for a few minutes I considered going there. But I had this image of Latakia, which was on the way to Baniyas, that I couldn’t shake: a cool dip in the Mediterranean, a nice room in a charming, seaside hotel, a Chardonnay at a boardwalk restaurant to wash down a grilled fish dinner. There were two passengers in the Datsun who were also going to Latakia. The evil-looking one spoke a little English, the other none at all, but both of them took an interest in me and were very friendly. On the bus ride, the English speaker opened a newspaper and tried to translate for me. “Here it say forty million people in America is” – he searched for the right word – “not rich.”

“Poor, you mean.”

“Yes, poor!”

“Oh, come on. Do you believe that?” He smiled and shrugged as if to say, “Why shouldn’t I?”

He turned the page. There was a photograph of Reagan a few inches away from one of Meir Kahane, the Brooklyn-born Israeli politician and crazed Arab-hating fanatic. Now that was going a bit too far. “And what does that say?” I asked, pointing to the Arabic script between the photos.

“That say Kahane criminal, Reagan criminal too. Palestine, Vietnam, Nicaragua, all American criminal.” He smiled in smug self-assurance. I let it go without commenting. “Staying at my house?” he asked me for the second time as we reached the outskirts of Latakia. I had already said no, after he said he wasn’t married. I didn’t think he was queer, I just didn’t want to be around him day and night. Besides, I really wanted to stay by the water, and he lived in the middle of town. We made vague plans to meet later by a grocery store near his home, but I’m sure he sensed that I had no intention of keeping them. I simply didn’t like the man.

Latakia let me down even before we reached the bus station. I had no idea it would be such a large, modern city. Nor did I have any information about hotels. Nor a map. Nor could I find a taxi driver who spoke English. One passenger seemed concerned about my plight and motioned for me to get in the back of a taxi with his son. Nobody spoke any English. We tried hard to communicate but it was hopeless. They were dropped off at their house, and then I was alone with the driver, a man who lacked patience. The only message I managed to get across was that I wanted to go to a hotel, but I had no names. He brought me to the Meridien, Syria’s version of the Hilton. “No, not here!” I said. I don’t know who was angrier. He zoomed through side streets and I had no idea where he was going, nor how much this was going to cost. I didn’t even know if he was driving towards or away from the beach. I went through the motions of a man swimming. He braked hard, cursed, and made a sharp right, tires squealing. One block further there was a building with a large sign that miraculously read TOURIST INFORMATION. “Hold it! Stop! Stop!” Fearing that he might charge me sixty dollars for the ride, I flipped open my dictionary to try to decipher the Arabic numerals showing on the meter. He growled and threw out ten fingers twice, and then five. Was that all? Twenty-five pounds? Three and a half bucks for all that?

A dumpy man with bad teeth sat alone in the tourist office. “Speak Ingleezi?” I asked him. He pointed his chin at me and smacked his tongue: no. “Francezi?”

“Arabie, Arabie.” Just Arabie, eh? Great! Then what the heck are you doing in a tourist office? He tried to be helpful, and I tried to remain civil, but Latakia was hopeless. The fish dinner, the gentle sea breeze, the flapping tablecloth was waiting for me somewhere else: this city had all the charm of Queens. I decided to take a bus all the way to Baniyas.

(to be continued)

* * *

Source: End the Shots

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