EssaysJohn Massaro

Experiencing the Middle East: Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt – part 2

by John Massaro

THERE SEEMED TO BE only one hotel in Baniyas, the Hotel Baniyas. Please, oh God, please have a room, I prayed. They did. I showered, took a nap, woke up, read for an hour and went to the market to buy a melon for tomorrow’s breakfast. Seeing me return with one, the manager brought a knife and tray to my room to cut and put the peels on. The Mideast has to be the finest fruit-growing region in the world. I ate fresh fruit most days for breakfast and never felt finer. The melons in Syria were awesome.

English is by no means spoken widely in Syria, but seems to have replaced French as the second language. Of those who did speak English, many were fluent – Ahmad, the manager of the Baniyas, for example. He was concerned that I not miss the important historical sites of Syria, such as Marqab Castle. This was a Crusader castle just a few miles inland from Baniyas that I knew nothing about. He rang up two cousins to serve as guides; unfortunately, their English was not as good as Ahmad’s. We drove south of town then turned east and began climbing, five of us holding onto the roller bar of a small, beat-up truck that made regular runs between the villages. Then we walked uphill for nearly an hour until we reached the castle, lying in ruins at the top. There was a splendid view of the Mediterranean here, but the castle itself was a huge disappointment. In all fairness, after five weeks in Turkey, an archaeological paradise, the Pyramids would’ve made me yawn. We walked around piles of rocks, poking into dungeons and passageways; I asked questions, pretending to be interested. I finally suggested we start back, and we all agreed that was a good idea. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at Ahmad’s house. He was home with his wife and infant son, on a long lunch break. He made Turkish coffee for me (which the Arabs flavor with a piquant herb called cardamom) and had his cousins pull a few pears off the tree in his yard. I told him I wanted to return to the hotel before noon, check-out time. He asked me to come back to his house and I said I would. On the way back from the hotel I passed the small bus station, and when I learned that a bus was leaving for Tartus shortly, I decided to leave town. I felt like a rat for not keeping my word, especially after Ahmad had been so kind to me, but I was afraid he was going to pressure me into staying overnight at his house, and I had no desire to spend another night in Baniyas.

The coast road to Tartus was boring. Tartus must have been even duller because I don’t remember a thing about it, except that I hopped on another bus to Homs, a city halfway between Aleppo and Damascus. The highway between Tartus and Hom skirts the northern Lebanese border; I expected to see lots of military activity and checkpoints but there was nothing of the kind. It was hard to believe that heavy fighting was taking place then in Tripoli, thirty miles away.

The Krak de Chevalier, Syria’s most impressive Crusader castle, lies just a few miles north of this stretch. I wanted to see it, but was fast asleep as we drove past the turn-off. I didn’t care. What was I supposed to do anyway, walk there? We pulled into the busy station in Homs around four, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. According to my literature, Homs was a city of “great historical interest,” but I saw nothing but modern buildings, had no map, and no idea where the tourist office was, or even if there was one. It struck me as absurd to be traveling like this; the prospect of seeing new places was becoming a headache.

I bought a falafel sandwich stuffed with tomatoes and pickles from a pushcart vendor and sat down to eat. How many times had I been before, watching life swirl past me in a strange land, feeling so lonely and yet profoundly glad to be where I was? I watched the touts on the platform, barking their destinations at the people rushing by, trying to fill their buses. I still couldn’t figure out what to do. The most attractive option was simply to find a hotel and crash, and worry about everything else the next morning. Damascus was a possibility – I could get there before dark – but my triumphant entry into this, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, would be the highlight of my trip to Syria, and I wanted to arrive there refreshed, in a better frame of mind. Then there were the ruins at Palmyra, the ancient Roman desert city, to the east. I’d seen a lifetime of ruins in Turkey, and was thinking about giving Palmyra a miss, even though it was the best Syria had to offer – kind of like visiting Pisa, and skipping the Leaning Tower, just to say you did it. I was too tired to trudge around looking for a hotel. I decided to postpone this dreaded chore and instead hopped on a bus to Palmyra. It took an hour to fill and the crying babies, bickering women and people bugging me about my seat number pushed me to the brink. Two men got on and started loading meal sacks in the aisle by the rear steps (they were too heavy to lift up to the roof); this provoked more arguing, and lots of high-stepping, but the sacks stayed. Finally we were off into the desert on a paved, bumpy road, the last rays of sunlight making the landscape incandescent. There were camels standing motionless not far from the road; they were the first I had seen in Syria. Exhausted as I was, I began to enjoy the ride; the babies were quiet, the afternoon heat was abating, and we were on a remote, lonely highway leading to a remote, lonely city.

From the outside I had my doubts about the New Tourist Hotel, situated directly across the street from the friendly neighborhood mosque, but there seemed to be no alternative. Once on the inside, I knew I had come to the right place; the manager was friendly, the locals were lounging on sofas in the foyer watching television, and the corridor was decorated with peasant dresses, swords, glass cases holding ancient coins and jewelry, and other Syrian folk art items. My room was cramped, the bathroom smelly, and despite the name, the hotel was neither new nor were their other tourists, but it was my kind of place. The manager asked me to come back for tea after I had settled in, but I begged off and collapsed into a deep slumber. I was awaken by a sound that nearly sent me through the roof. I writhed in bed, groping for the source of the blast, before I realized the loudspeaker of the minaret was aimed directly at my open window. Now I’ve always maintained that you’ve only half-lived your life if you’ve never heard the eerie wail of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer in some Islamic backwater. But at four in the morning?

Feeling refreshed and vigorous, I left the hotel to explore the ruins at the edge of town, which had looked most impressive the previous night silhouetted against the fading sky. The unusual feature of the Palmyra ruins is the main highway that neatly bisects them, so that you can take them in at sixty miles per hour if you’re in a hurry. (There’s an idea that would appeal to many American “Holy Land” tour companies, were it not for the fact that none of them would dream of going to Syria.) Just before the ruins was the Queen Zenobia Hotel, which I had missed from the bus. It was a beautiful, grand old hotel, the kind of place I don’t mind splurging on, but I didn’t regret winding up at the New Tourist. I went inside and ordered the set breakfast: soft-boiled egg, olives, goat cheese, rolls and coffee. There was a noisy French group enjoying their petit dejeuner as well. Camped on the hotel grounds was a British group of five, on an eccentric, three-week tour of Syria, Jordan and Iraq. I knew about this tour, which was run by an obscure English outfit; I’d read their brochure and considered taking it, but felt it was too rushed. Besides, the red tape involved in obtaining a visa for Iraq, which meant sending telexes to Baghdad and which for me, as a U.S. citizen, would’ve entailed getting a second passport, was overwhelming, and even then the group could be refused entry into the country without explanation. But they were confident about entering Iraq the next day, and all seemed to be having a good time.

“Would you like a guide to explain the history of the temple to you?” a local asked me as I stood at the entrance to the Temple of Bal. His English was excellent, his fee was reasonable, and he seemed like a decent chap, so I said alright. “And what is your nationality?”


“Oh, American. Welcome! There are not many Americans who come here.” We walked along. “So! Where have you traveled in Syria?” I told him about Deir-ez-Zor, Aleppo, Hama and Baniyas. “Very good! And how are you enjoying our country?”

“I’m having a very nice time. You know, I was scared about coming here at first, because in America we are always hearing how dangerous it is, and all the problems with – “

“Oh, this is nothing but all the propaganda in your newspapers and television,” he scowled. “Tell me, you have been to all these places. Do you think it is dangerous here?”

“No, I – “

“Well, when you go home I hope you are going to tell everyone the truth about what you have seen here, and how the Arab people have treated you.”

“Yes I will.”

“And now you know that when you read in the newspapers about the Arab people killing everyone, it is nothing but Zionist propaganda.”

“Well, sometimes I read different newspapers that most people in America don’t know about, and they say the Arabs are good people.”

“Oh, I see,” he grinned. “Special sources?”

“Yeah,” I laughed, “you could say that.”

He gave me a lively tour of the beautifully preserved temple, of which I retain nothing, except for a detailed astrological carving which he claimed was an invention of the ancient Arabs. Upon seeing four or five people from the French group pacing around at the entrance, he rushed through the last sites, and cranking my hand, wished me luck on the rest of my travels.

Early that evening I was reading in bed when there was a knock on my door. It was Saad, the manager’s nephew, whom I had met earlier in the day along with his brother Salem and their friend Mohammed. I liked Saad; he was a good kid. “Meestar, drinking tea?” Saad was only in the fifth grade, but was already studying English at school. I told him I’d be out in ten minutes.

The whole gang was there in robes and kafiyehs, crowded around the television set. Salem poured me a glass of tea flavored with a mint sprig. Word had spread about the American guest; I walked around shaking hands and saying “Salaam.” then took a seat between Saad and Salem. “Look Meestar, Los Angelees.” Here I was in a small hotel in a desert town in the middle of a country recently pushed to the brink of war by America, watching the gymnastics events of the 1984 summer Olympics with the friendliest bunch of guys you’d ever want to meet. Everyone was glued to the set – ooohs and aaahs punctuated every performance – and I was marveling at the sharpness of the picture, when suddenly the screen went fuzzy. Amid the groans and grumbles I got up and walked over to the box, which had a reception dish sitting on it – an aluminum lid rigged to a coat hanger – and lifted it off the set and aimed it towards the west. “Come in, Los Angelees,” I chanted, mixing in some high-pitched blips, “Come in, Los Angelees.” I had the boys in stitches, but unfortunately this didn’t restore the picture. (I might mention here that mindless TV shows are by no means confined to America; they’re an addiction throughout the world. Even in Syria one can watch soap operas, sitcoms and stupid commercials, not to mention “Dallas.”)

Now we had to find something else to do. Salem raced home to get his stamp album, which he was eager to show me. I went to my room and returned with my Arabic-English dictionary; this would be an opportunity to learn a bit more of that impossible language, while I could help the boys out with their English. We took turns. They laughed every time I came across a word which had a glottal stop between syllables; I just couldn’t say it right. I decided that Arabic was so difficult it wasn’t worth the effort to build a vocabulary. By comparison, Turkish was a breeze. I still retain about twenty Turkish words, but only four or five of Arabic.

Salem appeared breathlessly at the top of the stairs with his album, and we sat down to look through it. Nearly all the stamps were from Arab countries, some of them very colorful. The Libyan ones were especially sharp. We went through them individually, and when we were finished, he pulled out an Egyptian and Kuwaiti stamp and gave them to me as a gift. He asked me to mail him some American stamps when I returned home. I promised that I would, and I have.

Some time later the picture returned to the tube, but the Olympics were over. The nightly news program from Damascus was on. Assad was shown conferring with another Arab leader, as he was almost every time I watched Syrian television. There were boring clips of dams, construction, irrigation projects, that sort of thing. Meir Kahane, whose election to the Knesset was very big news in the Arab world, was shown spewing his venom in Israel. (The Arabs pronounce it with a long, vicious A – IsRAAAyil – as if it were a curse.) Saad turned to me and said, “Meestar, IsRAAAyil not good.” I told him to quit calling me Meestar and call me John. FInally, there were some shots of Reagan and Mondale campaigning, and I thanked Allah I was as far away from the nauseating spectacle of American electioneering as I could be. But I’ve always been amazed at the obsession with life in America which exists everywhere on the planet. Over a month earlier, I was watching a TV news program at a beer garden in Konya, Turkey (home of Mevlana, the 13th-century mystic who founded the order of the Whirling Dervishes) when a tremendous fireworks display appeared on the tube, followed by the Beach Boys playing to a huge crowd. I got to celebrate the Fourth of July after all!

Earlier I had taken a walk to the Karnak bus station to buy a ticket to Damascus. The clerk said he couldn’t sell me a ticket for a departure the next day; just show up at 8:15 and there’d be no problem, I could buy a ticket from the driver, he said. I opened the place at 8AM, ate a hard-boiled egg, and awaited the express on its way from Deir-ez-Zor. It pulled in at 8:30, and, and as the bleary-eyed passengers stepped off for a bite to eat, I asked the driver to put my pack in the baggage compartment. “I am sorry, bus is fill,” he said. So I walked back into town, sweating and cursing, but determined not to let this ruin the big day. I’d seen a place on the main street where the circus wagons seemed to arrive and depart occasionally. I went there and found that one would be leaving for Esh Sham (the Arab name for Damascus) around 11:30. I pulled up a chair sitting in front of a building and opened Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. A uniformed man came out of the building and looked at me quizically. He spoke a little English. I told him I was an American tourist waiting for the bus to Damascus. He went back in and came out with a glass of what looked liked boiled hay with a brass straw stuck in it, and offered it to me, saying it was from Argentina. I sucked up the liquid, unable to decide whether it tasted good or bad (I’ve since learned that it was yerba mate, an herbal tea made from a plant that grows only in South America), and thanked him. He went back inside and I resumed reading.

“Esh Sham! Esh Sham! Esh Sham!” the driver’s helper yelled from the open door. But everyone already knew where the bus was going. Luggage, sacks and boxes were handed up to the man on the roof who expertly tied them down. People started packing in, and in no time we were off to Esh Sham, commonly known as the Pearl of the Middle East, according to the Syrian tourist literature. I found myself in front again, on an uncomfortable makeshift seat that had no backrest, but with a friendly crowd. Nobody knew that I was American, only that I spoke a different language, and the seeds, nuts and cigarettes never stopped coming. (I smoked back then, and had my own cigarettes, but I liked giving them the opportunity to extend hospitality.) The countryside was not inspiring. There was nothing to see but the endless beige of the desert, and the occasional village cooking in the sun. The brilliant dress of the women in these villages – the iridescent blues, yellows and crimsons, and the golden glint of their facial jewelry – was a welcome splash of color, contrasting sharply with the dreary landscape.

About halfway to the capital was the first military checkpoint I encountered in Syria. An ugly man in dungarees and dirty shirt stood by his shack, holding his bandaged gun in one hand and waving us off the road with the other. There was a quick check of the driver’s I.D. and vehicle papers and we were back on the road. Further on was a junction where a few passengers requested to get off. As we slowed down, we passed a battered sign, in Arabic and English, indicating the direction to Damascus and Baghdad – a great photograph, I thought. I reacted instantly, grabbing my camera and telling the driver, “One second!” as the disembarking passengers were handed their luggage. I dashed fifty yards back to the sign, took the photo, sprinted back to the bus and fell under a heavy glare from nearly everyone on the bus. Why on earth would you want to take a picture of a road sign, their eyes seemed to be asking. When we were rolling again, a man sitting near me asked, “What your country?” I said America. “America,” he repeated in a low voice, and clammed up. So did everyone else. Suddenly I was a non-person. The snacks and tobacco supply were cut off. We rode on in dead silence. I felt miserable. What was the problem?

The probable answer came in ten minutes. The driver’s helper went around collecting identity cards, which he put in a plastic bag. I gave him my passport. Evidently there was a major military checkpoint ahead. A foreigner, an American, taking photographs near a military zone? I couldn’t blame all those folks for suddenly turning so suspicious.

There was a military zone ahead alright. We came to a large asphalt lot where three other buses were parked. Everyone had to get off the bus, and the I.D. cards were brought into a large building. Soldiers were making spot checks on the bags from the other vehicles. Nearby was the incongruous sight of an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the bed of a late-model Chevrolet pick-up truck. I tried to make small talk with some of my fellow passengers while we were waiting, but they wanted nothing to do with me. We were kept here for nearly an hour, then allowed to leave. There were no searches, no questions, no difficulties. We swung back on the road to Damascus. Soon we were into a large display of heavy weaponry on both sides of the road, barrels pointed skyward at every angle. No doubt these guns were here to protect the capital from an Israeli air strike.

We couldn’t be far from Damascus now. Damascus! What a regal name for a great world city. It rang with historical drama, conjuring visions of Alexander the Great, St. Paul, and Tamerlane arriving at the majestic gates. But for most ill-informed Americans, their minds poisoned by the media, Damascus is that infernal breeding ground which spawns every kind of Arab terrorist dedicated to destroying the holy state of Israel. Less noteworthy is the fact that people have been living in Damascus forever. To me, its reputation as the capital of a country renowned for its militant, implacable anti-Zionism made the magical name even more special. I imagined Alexander approaching the walls of the city on horseback in 333 B.C., and wondered if my entry would be equally triumphant. But as the city came into sight, I felt more like Joe Sixpack arriving at his factory job in Jersey City on a crowded commuter bus. Garbage-strewn streets, sloppy construction sites, traffic jams, honking horns – this was the Pearl of the Middle East?

Damascus was a pretty good place, actually. But it wasn’t the magnificent sister city of Jerusalem that I imagined it to be. The crumbling, neglected remnants of the wall surrounding the old city cannot compare to that of Jerusalem (which was rebuilt in 1537 A.D.), nor can the diminutive gates. Aside from the enormous Ommuyad Mosque, where St. John the Baptist is said to be buried, there is no outstanding historical monument. The streets and alleys display nothing predating the Middle Ages, and there’s no visible connection to the ancient past whatsoever. But I did stumble on a small area where traditional craftsmen were hard at work, and managed to pick up my dagger and a copper tray.

It’s a great city for walking: flat, manageable, well laid-out. The modern part of town is as nice as any I’ve seen in the Middle East. The streets are safe to walk at any hour, although African students were not an uncommon sight. Fifths of Johnny Walker Red and cartons of Marlboro were sold openly on the black market. Foreign newspapers and magazines covered the newsstands. You could buy a poster of Rocky or Michael Jackson as easily as a slice of baklava, but if you wanted to hang Marx or Lenin on your wall you’d have better luck shopping in London or New York. The obviously Western orientation of the populace, in contrast to the government’s lukewarm ties to communist countries and the Third World, was what made Syria such an enigma.

(to be continued)

* * *

Source: End the Shots

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