EssaysJohn Massaro

Experiencing the Middle East: Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt – part 3

by John Massaro

SHEM WAS A frail, unattractive man who worked in the quiet [Syrian] government tourist office on Port Said Boulevard. I asked him if Zebdani, a resort town in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains – just a few miles from the Lebanese border – was worth a visit. He said it definitely was, but that nearby Bloudan was even better, and offered to accompany me there when he got off work at two o’clock. He didn’t look like much fun, but he was a solution to the possible language problem of getting there and back so I said okay. We drove for several miles on the road connecting Damascus and Beirut, but saw no soldiers or weapons of any kind. Bloudan was frequented by what you could call the jet-set stratum of Syrian society. There were Saudis there as well, many driving around in Cadillacs. Their cars were identifiable by the license plates, Shem explained, which bore only Arabic letters and numerals. There were several expensive restaurants and boutiques, and one luxury hotel. We ate lunch and Shem waited for me to pick up the tab. I couldn’t believe it. In Turkey, where I was forcibly prevented from paying my own way for many light meals and glasses of tea, a man trying to pull a trick like that on a foreign guest would be run out of town. I paid for my meal and walked away, leaving him to reach for his wallet.

Shem was a miserable little man with a wormy envy of anyone who was better-looking and richer than him, which amounted to everybody. I wondered how I was going to endure his company until 9PM, when the only public bus to Damascus departed, but we found ways to kill time. There was an amusement park with lots of rides, video games and coin-operated macho machines that measured how hard you could sock a punching bag or kick a soccer ball. We walked around, had a few beers, and went several rounds on a foosball game and then on the bumper cars. He simply stood there and expected me to pay for everything, and most times I did, because everything was cheap and I wanted to avoid an unpleasant situation. Later, he argued with a shopkeeper who brought him the local brand of cola instead of Coca-Cola. Even his diatribe against the Zionists, which normally I was receptive to, irritated me: “Who asked them to come here? I hate all of them. Everyone hates them.”

I stayed in Damascus five days, which was two more than it deserved, but I knew I’d probably never return and I wanted to soak up as many impressions as I could. My best memories are the sidewalk juice stands where you could buy a glass of any combination of local fruits blended to order, as well as fantastic banana milk shakes. But I also remember Damascus as the city where typically Arab hassles kept mounting to the point where I wanted out. I think of the clerk at the post office who couldn’t be bothered showing me stamps I wanted for my collection, even though nobody was in line behind me; the moronic, constant horn honking; the petty cheating in the markets and pastry shops; the man at the bus station who wouldn’t sell me a ticket to Amman, Jordan because I didn’t have my passport with me. I remember too the rotten bastards who ran the Rami Hotel – plastered with posters of Ayatollah Khomeini and his son to make the Iranian guests feel at home – and raised the price the night before I checked out. (There were college students from Tunisia and Libya staying here as well, who were very friendly to me, and they couldn’t stand the management either.) Then there was the mutilated ten-pound note. This was given to me as change in a restaurant, and nobody would accept it afterwards. Every time I tried to pay for a snack or a glass of juice, it was pushed back at me. It may seem silly to get so riled up over a lousy note worth a dollar and a half, but as the saying goes, it was the principle. Finally I went to a bank to get it replaced, cursing the whole way, only to find the doors had been locked five minutes earlier.

* * *

If not for a border, the bus ride from Damascus to Amman would take no more than four hours. Unfortunately, there is a border, and this makes it an all-day affair. The Syrians detain you for three hours, the Jordanians for two. There’s no reason for this. Syria and Jordan are not the closest of neighbors, but they’re Arab pals nonetheless, so why the delay? The indifference or malevolence of Arab bureaucrats, like bureaucrats everywhere, seems to be the answer.

Incredibly, there was an American sitting right in front of me on the bus, an older man wearing a hearing aid and baseball cap. I heard him talking to the Arab man sitting next to him. When we arrived at the border and disembarked, I introduced myself as a fellow American. He was very eager to talk, saying he’d just been up for a short visit to Damascus; he’d been living and working in Amman for a year, supervising the construction of a hospital, and said he liked Jordan and its people very much. Of the hundreds of Westerners I’ve met in my travels, he was one of the very few who had some unkind things to say about Zionism. That was good; we had something in common.

Passport control on the Syrian side was absolute chaos. There were more than a hundred people in that office clamoring to get their passports back, passing them to the front, pushing, shoving their way to the counter, behind which stood nine or ten uncaring public servants. I was worried that my passport would be lost or stolen in that mob, but Walter and I had to get them up front somehow. To our amazement, they were stamped and returned to us in a matter of minutes, leaving that crowd howling with indignation. We walked out and went to a small restaurant nearby. From the looks of that office, we knew it would be hours before we crossed into Jordan.

The Lebanese man who had been sitting next to Walter on the bus came in and joined us. Apparently they had been discussing the Palestinian problem because they launched right into the subject. This man, a Christian (he was wearing a crucifix), was actually defending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. I couldn’t believe my ears, not only because of what I was hearing, but because I was hearing it out loud on Syrian soil! (I was very careful while in Syria not to mention that I had been to Israel four years earlier, and planned to visit it again. Such information could get you deported immediately. When people asked about my travel plans, I told them I had an air ticket from Amman to Athens.) When Walter tried to make a point, and poor old fellow, he got excited at times and trembled slightly, the Lebanese man (who had become a Jordanian citizen) just sat there smiling. I felt sorry for Walter because he was no match for the man’s wit, and didn’t seem to realize he was being gently mocked. No matter what Walter said, the man would take the opposite position. He claimed that everyday life on the Israeli-occupied West Bank was less of a headache than elsewhere in the Arab world.

“Give me an example,” I said.

“You go to change money in a bank in Damascus or Amman. They tell you to sit down and wait. Then there are ten people who have to sign things, pass papers around, this and that, and sometimes you wait for twenty or thirty minutes. If you’re in a hurry, they tell you too bad, sit down and wait. In Jerusalem you go to a bank and one person does the job by himself in a minute, and hands you the money. Just look what it’s like here. They treat the people like animals. If you yell at them, they make you wait another hour. If you ask them nicely to stamp your passport, they smile and say, ‘What’s the hurry?'” Although he was exaggerating, there was some truth about the nuisance of dealing with bank officials, though that was ridiculously petty compared to the issue of Israeli terror. I started wondering about this man. Who was he? How could he know about places like Damascus and Amman and Jerusalem? Could he possibly be an Israeli agent? No, that was stretching things, and in any event it would be impossible to meet a freely talking Israeli spy in Syria – or would it? All I knew was, I didn’t like this man and I wanted nothing to do with him on the ride to Amman. But his attitude troubled me. I knew there were bitter religious divisions in Lebanon, and that Christian Phalangists had massacred Palestinian Muslims in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, two years earlier, under Israeli military supervision.

And here was an Arab who had lived in the thick of things – not some American Jew who couldn’t see reality past his own nose – sticking up for the Israelis. I would meet a few more Lebanese like him a month later in Cyprus. They reminded me that it’s tempting to oversimplify the facts on the ground in the Middle East, that in spite of the Israeli government’s unbroken record of terrorism, the situation there is complex and it’s not always a clear-cut issue of the good guys against the bad guys.

* * *

Before leaving home, I’d led myself to believe that Jordan – stable, prosperous, “moderate” Jordan – would be a safe haven after the big Syrian question mark. After all, King Hussein was a nice man, as a former British colony English was widely spoken, and there was even a Fodor guidebook available for the independent traveler. Here I could leave thoughts of danger behind and relax for the rest of my trip. I was wrong. This is a country I would never visit again, period. To get ahead of myself, I like to tell people that Jordan is the worst country I’ve ever been to, though nothing terrible happened and maybe that’s not fair. It was just really bad chemistry. I have no regrets about going there – how could I? – but having planned to stay there two weeks, I stayed only eight days.

The border crossing deceived me – easier and more orderly than on the Syrian side, though still inexcusably long. We passed through Jerash, a city of Roman ruins, festooned with banners advertising an upcoming festival. An hour later we were in Amman. Walter’s car was parked near the bus station and he offered to drive me to an area where there were some inexpensive hotels. I checked into the Sunrise Hotel for one night, a sterile establishment in a business zone that looked like a shopping mall. The rate stunned me; it was double that of the Rami in Damascus.

Amman struck me as an Arab Houston, even though I’ve never been to Houston: modern, sprawling, energetic, lacking character. It’s one of the hilliest capitals in the world, and unless you’re an exercise freak, a taxi is the only practical way of getting around. I spent the entire morning on odds and ends – picking up mail from home, changing money, locating the tourist office, and applying for a permit to visit the West Bank. The permit application was quite a game. It takes three days to process (I planned to return to Amman to pick it up) and allows up to three weeks of travel on the West Bank – you never mention the word “Israel” – after which you’re allowed back into Jordan as long as your passport doesn’t have an Israeli stamp. Once you’re on the West Bank, you’re really in Israel, at least according to the Israelis, and you can go anywhere you want. The Jordanians realize that most foreign travelers have no intention of returning to Jordan once they’ve crossed over, and thus they’re unfriendly to applicants. (The desk-jockey who handed me the application wouldn’t lend me his pen.)

I finished my chores and happily left Amman around noon. But I became unhappy when my sherut (shared taxi) failed to exit for Madaba. Now we were headed for Kerak, 75 miles south of Amman, and I wanted to go there via the Kings Highway, the old, slower, more scenic route. One of the other passengers told me we would be passing through Madaba, but he was wrong. We continued to speed along on the Desert Highway which was newer, faster – and as drab as the Amman skyline. A man invited me to stay at his house in Kerak (mentioned twice in the Old Testament as Kir Hare-Seth), but after seeing the shambles of a castle perched high above rows of gray, dismal streets I decided to keep moving. There was no public transport out of Kerak in the afternoon, and hardly any traffic on the Kings Highway, so the only alternative seemed to backtrack to the Desert Highway and continue south. I got a lift with three men on their way to Amman. The passenger in the front seat offered me a large bottle of Henninger’s (a strange name for an Arab beer, I thought), prying the cap off with his teeth. It was good stuff. I guzzled it and he handed me another. When I stepped out in Qatrana I was in a good mood for hitchhiking. I had no idea where I’d end up.

A dignified old Mercedes-Benz pulled over. Behind the wheel sat a mellow older man in traditional Arab dress. There was a passenger in the back seat. I sat in the front, appreciating the roominess. The driver smiled whenever he spoke to me. Sometimes he sang with all his heart to a tune on the radio. It was the kind of lift I enjoyed, especially with a couple of Henningers in me.

The passenger handed the driver some change and got out at a small village near Ma’an. Ma’an, a city of 40,000, wasn’t listed in my guidebook. The driver pulled into a filling station on the edge of town and told me this was the end of the line. “Am I supposed to pay you?” I said.

“Four JD,” he said after thinking it over. (JD was slang for Jordanian Dinar; one dinar was worth $1.80.) Being somewhat naive, I expected him to say, “You are a guest in my country, you don’t have to pay,” especially because he seemed like a kind man. Worse, four JD was exorbitant for the distance traveled.

“Two JD,” I said.

He smiled. “Okay, two JD.”

It was getting dark, and I was in that fidgety mood that descends on me when I’m in a place I have no wish to be, but not sure where to go. I unfolded my map to take another look at my route. No place to go but Aqaba, the southernmost point in Jordan, on the Red Sea, which looked to be two hours at most. I waved down the first sherut. The driver was a maniac. There was one brief stop at a produce stall, where he and some passengers bought cucumbers and melons. The man sitting next to me offered me a cucumber. I was still gnawing on it when we pulled into the taxi station in Aqaba around 10PM. I asked the driver where I could find a cheap hotel. He took me aside and quietly offered to take me to a hotel he said cost five dinars – quietly because it was illegal for a sherut to operate as a regular taxi within the city limits.

“You are sure this hotel is only five JD?” I said.

“Oh yes. Even cheaper rooms they have.” I didn’t trust this guy, and then we rode only a hundred yards before reaching the Palm Beach Hotel. I was furious.

“You charge me one JD to take me here?” I said, as he took my pack out of the trunk. “I can walk here in a minute. Why didn’t you tell me it was so close?” He looked at the ground. “Alright, I pay you because I said I would. But I should go to the police. You are not a good man.”

“Goodbye,” he said, still looking away.

I went to the reception desk and the clerk told me the cheapest room was twelve dinars. Now smoke was billowing out my ears. He saw this and quickly offered to put me up in a tent for only three dinars. It was already pitched and furnished with mattress, pillow, soap and towel, he told me. It sounded like a good deal and it was. After settling in, I returned to the office and sat on the couch, chatting with the clerk in front of the television set. He was a friendly young Lebanese man who had recently fled from Beirut to escape the horrors of war; his quiet demeanor attested to the things he had seen. We were watching, of all things, the TV show “Bloopers,” hosted by Ed McMahon and Don RIckles, with Arabic subtitles. It seemed odd for this man to be laughing along with a Jewish comedian who often sprinkled his act with pro-Israel propaganda. Later I sat on the beach and drank a few outrageously expensive beers served by an indifferent waiter. What an absurd day it had been and what an absurd place to end up! Aqaba is a major port and there were several huge ships sitting in the harbor waiting to unload. The lights of Eilat, on the southern tip of Israel, glimmered in the warm, black air, just a few miles across the Gulf of Aqaba. The Israelis call it the Gulf of Eilat.

I went to bed around midnight. From the outside the tent looked like the perfect place to spend a few days figuring out why I was here. The inside was a different story. Between the heat and the whining mosquitoes, which had me wondering about malaria, I spent a miserable, sleepless night. After an early morning dip – the sun was already oppressive at 7:30 – I showered, had a breakfast of scrambled eggs and ful (fava beans), and walked along the beach to the less expensive but equally pleasant Aqaba Hotel, where I checked into an air-conditioned room.

“You will not believe Wadi Rum,” read the heading on one of the tourist brochures I had picked up in Amman. A glossy photograph showed some Arabs riding their camels across a sand dune into the horizon, flanked by purple mountains. I can be a sucker for this stuff. Wadi Rum, where Lawrence of Arabia hid out from the Turks, seemed like an easy day trip from Aqaba, but there were no organized tours to the site: one could only hire a taxi. Even this proved difficult. One of the hotel staff, a smooth young man named Fayez, overheard me asking about it and told me there were two Italian ladies, hotel guests, who had also inquired about Wadi Rum. He offered to take the three of us there after he finished work for 25 JD ($45), “only to pay for the petrol.”

I tracked down Celeste and Donatella in the afternoon. Both were petite, attractive schoolteachers from Bologna. I suggested we split the cost three ways but they claimed 8 JD apiece was way too much for them, they would pay only six between them. Are you kidding me? I returned to Fayez and he reluctantly agreed to 18 JD. “Believe me, petrol is very expensive and I am not making any money,” he said. “I only want you to have good time in my country, not to make money on you and your friends.” Sure.

Celeste and Donatella were still hesitant. How cheap can you get? Finally I offered to pay ten if they paid four each, and we settled on that. Actually, I would’ve paid the whole cost and gone alone: I really wanted to see Wadi Rum.

We drove for an hour before reaching the crenellated fort of the Wadi Rum Desert Patrol, where we had to register. I was impressed by the uniforms of the Desert Police, who sat atop caparisoned camels, long khaki kilts, red bandoliers studded with gleaming bullets, and huge boomerang-shaped daggers tucked in at the waist. They didn’t explain why anyone had to be armed so heavily in this huge sandbox where only a few Bedouin tribes lived.

Problems arose, naturally. After leaving the hotel, Fayez had told us that his friend would drive us in a Land Rover to the scenic area, a few miles from the fort, for one dinar apiece. That was a new twist, but not only was his “friend” absent, there was only a ramshackle pick-up truck at the fort whose driver firmly refused to take us out for less than ten dinars. While Fayez negotiated in vain, young boys badgered us to hire their camels at 4 JD each for the trip. It was all so typically Arab: the lies, the deceptions, the mounting costs. Meanwhile, daylight was fading, and with it the opportunity to photograph spectacular Wadi Rum. And the bitchy attitude of the Italian ladies didn’t help. Where did they think they were, Switzerland?

“I am sorry, this is my mistake,” Fayez gravely informed us. “I will pay 5 JD because I have told you the wrong price. But you must pay the rest. I do not pay any more.” I didn’t think this was a ploy; I believed that Fayez honestly hadn’t foreseen this problem and was genuinely upset, and at this point, the whole thing probably wasn’t even worth it to him. Nevertheless, Celeste and Donatella began squawking, Why do people take vacations if they’re such tightwads, and why can’t they just roll with it? I try to save money all the time too when traveling, without going to extremes. I said that I’d pay an extra three dinars, which meant that they’d have to pay one more each, though I didn’t say this. Finally we were off. There were narrow metal benches on either side of the truck; Fayez and I sat on the driver’s side, the ladies huddled opposite us. The track was corrugated and brutal, but the driver, a swarthy, unkempt man, barreled right along. After a mile I felt as though I’d been in a paint shaker and I stood up, using my legs as shock absorbers.

“Why you say Land Rove?” Celeste complained. “Dissa no Land Rove.” Oh will you shut up and start enjoying this, I thought. Fayez didn’t hold back.

“Please! Now you are making me angry! Do not say any more words!” His outburst startled the women and we bounced along in glum silence.

So we got to see Wadi Rum. What was there not to believe? Seeing it was anticlimactic but my obsession was satisfied and I’ll say it was worth the trip. Fayez showed us the well in a narrow gorge where, he said, Lawrence drank while eluding the Turks, but the ladies weren’t interested and wandered about on their own. Fayez said, “Perhaps we should leave them here tonight.” On the way back we stopped at a Bedouin encampment and were offered bread and tea. We had a lot of fun with the children, who laughed and giggled over our strange language and mannerisms, but I was put out when they asked for money as we got up to leave, especially since Bedouins are noted for their regal hospitality. I suppose they were tourist Bedouins.

It was totally dark when we returned to the fort, and I regretted the lost opportunity to take photographs. But one of the magnificently dressed elites of the Desert Patrol approached me to have his picture taken, so I had him stand under one of the light bulbs suspended from a tree and took a flash. All the fellows of the Desert Patrol were kind and friendly and asked us to sit with them and drink coffee, which they brewed over an open flame. It was a rewarding end to a long and difficult day, and we were all friends again.

There were long truck convoys crawling along on the drive back to Aqaba; their headlights blinded us and it was dangerous negotiating some of those rocky curves. Fayez explained that they were transporting war supplies and foodstuffs to Iraq. With all the fighting in the Persian Gulf, the materiel had to be shipped through the Red Sea to Aqaba, then loaded onto trucks for the long desert journey to Baghdad. It was intriguing to be watching the activities of war a thousand miles from where the bombs were falling. We drove along and Fayez spoke of the things that were a part of his life – of Israeli aggression and atrocities, of the suicidal tendencies of Arab drivers, of the pain of being separated from his family who lived in a town called Irbid, near the Syrian border. I couldn’t help but like him, even though he had deceived us in small ways. We had to stop at an army checkpoint once, and he instructed us to say, if asked, that we were friends of his and hadn’t paid him. But the soldier spoke only a few words, Fayez replied, and he waved us through,

As a finale to our probably illegal tour, Fayez said he’d take us right to the border of Saudi Arabia, a country where tourism simply did not exist and holy cities were closed to non-Muslims. It was only a fifteen-minute drive south of Aqaba. We were stopped at another military checkpoint, but this time only to be shown an ID card lost by a Greek seaman, and asked if we knew of his whereabouts. Fayez drove onto the beach, and we all sat by the warm, clear waters of the gulf, talking. Then, with a sinister, suggestive smile he said, “Maybe we can go for a walk?” I think he said this only to scare the ladies, as revenge for making things difficult for him at Wadi Rum. If so, he was successful. “Maybe we go back now,” Celeste offered anxiously. Perhaps they thought we two had conspired about this moment, but Fayez only wanted to tell us about coral reefs and poisonous fish.

Celeste, Donatella and I ended the evening with dinner on the sidewalk at the Ali Baba Restaurant. I had broiled fish, soup, and two side dishes. They were astounded at how much I could eat; they only had a bowl of soup each. They had a much larger appetite for travel stories, and I regaled them with tales of the Congo until closing time. I offered to pay for their soup, but they wouldn’t let me, probably figuring that if I did my next offer would be a detour to my hotel room. We walked back to the Hotel Aqaba at midnight, shook hands warmly, exchanged best wishes in our travels, and said goodnight.

(to be continued)

* * *

Source: End the Shots

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