No Syriana

Beirut, Lebanon – Germano’s head bobbed. He was drunk. We were all drunk. It was sometime past midnight and the bar had begun to empty as young people searched for livelier places in Gemmayzeh. But we remained, a group of eight foreigners sipping beers around a long table. I was bantering with Jeremy, a freelance journalist from Canada, about the conflict in Syria. It was seven months on at that point—about as long as I’d been traveling—but the worst was yet to come. Travel warnings had been issued long before, but Damascus was still a relatively safe place to travel and a few brave backpackers still ventured there. Jeremy and I planned to be among them. So it was a windfall when we met Germano, who had been living there as a student for eight months. Or so we thought, until his said in a near-whisper, with his head low: I’m a reporter. Conversation stopped. In Damascus.

There was high drama at Talal’s guesthouse, the hotel in Beirut where I stayed. The morning after my arrival I saw a young girl in a hijab sobbing near the front desk. She was Syrian, and the other guests told me she had been deposited at Talal’s by two men several nights before. According to the story, she was pregnant and unmarried and had come to Beirut to avoid bringing shame to her family. But after several unhappy days at Talal’s, where western travelers tried unsuccessful to console her with alcohol and cigarettes, she decided to return home. By 9am she was gone, and conversation shifted to other things.

Many in Beirut were focused on events taking place across the border in Syria. It might have seemed that the conflict was on a low simmer in those early months, but terrible things were happening. An estimated 3,500 had already died in the conflict, and the assault on Homs had been growing worse for months. There was little organized resistance at that point, but army defections were increasing and the conflict was clearly deepening. It was infecting Lebanon too. One morning I walked to Mahmoud’s pizza place to find him chatting somberly with a young Syrian man. The man had two brothers in Syria, and one had recently been killed by the military. The other, a soldier, deserted when he heard the news; if he was caught he would be killed too. These were some of the conversations taking place in Beirut at the time.

Most travelers were already avoiding Syria, but a few still went. Selwyn, an Australian I met at Talal’s, passed through on his way from Turkey. It smarted that I hadn’t done the same, but there were risks. While walking through a square in Damascus, Selwyn was arrested, questioned, and detained for several hours. What’s more, it wasn’t clear who they were letting in, at which borders, or why. A Canadian left for Damascus several days before I got to Talal’s, promising to report back on arrival, but nobody had heard from him since and this naturally created a little buzz. Jeremy and I intended to go anyway. We didn’t have visas, but we wouldn’t be the first to get them at the border (though it’s not technically permitted). Jeremy already had plans to leave in a few days, and Germano was offering his place as a crash pad in Damascus.

* * * *

When I met Germano at Talal’s he’d just arrived from Damascus. A Brazilian of Syrian heritage, he said he worked for a think tank there and was just in Beirut to handle some banking. I didn’t understand completely, but I didn’t want to pry. It was only later, after a couple nights of hanging out with beers, that Germano confided he was a reporter for the Brazilian newspaper, Folha de São Paulo. He had been living in Damascus on a student visa for eight months and filing reports under a pseudonym. He’d attended protests, seen clashes occur, cultivated sources, and he’d certainly been spied-on by informants. Before arriving in Beirut, his housemate in Damascus—a reporter from Japan—was arrested by and deported. Germano left for Beirut to let things cool off, but after only a week he was itching to go back.

Jeremy and I plied him with questions about the situation in Damascus. Although Homs grew more dangerous by the day, Germano said the capital was generally safe. If we wanted to go, he would help set us up. Germano offered only three pieces of advice: don’t take photographs, don’t do anything stupid, and don’t do anything on Friday. Otherwise, you’ll be fine. I took notes, followed news of the conflict, and drew up plans to visit Damascus. Unlike Jeremy and Germano, I had no intention of filed stories; I was more interested—quite selfishly—in seeing the city’s great historic places and absorbing the mood created by the conflict, or chatting about it with locals. It didn’t lessen my desire to go. And when Germano eventually left for Damascus, and Jeremy followed shortly after, I was deeply disappointed that I couldn’t go: there was one problem.

I had a wedding to attend, and it was in Chicago. My brother was getting married, and although I’d hardly attended a single wedding in past thirty years, this was the one I couldn’t miss. I wanted for all the world to keep traveling—to enter Syria while I had the opportunity—but you need to adapt to circumstances when you travel, and this was one of those cases. I bought a roundtrip ticket for the U.S. and arranged to stay on a few weeks to see my family. So, six months into my backpacking trip I boarded a plain from Beirut to Chicago and returned to the U.S. for the first time in a year and a half.

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Photo: A prominent building in downtown Beirut, famously bearing damage from the civil war in Lebanon.

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Photo: The famous statue at Martyr’s Square in Beirut, still riddled with bullet holes.

* * * *

During my time in the U.S., things started to change in Syria. Things were already changing, of course, but they changed more. In November there seemed to be a concerted “closing” of the country. Journalists were refused entry, while some of those already in Syria were expelled. Jeremy made it in and was staying at Germano’s, but otherwise I no longer heard of foreigners entering on tourist visas. November seemed to bring the siege of Homs to new heights, and the conflict entered a new phase. All of this was rolling around in my head a month later when my flight arrived in Amman. I worried that I’d missed my window of opportunity, and foolish determination only made me more resolute about reaching Damascus. It was the second of three great cities I’d always dreamed of visiting (the others being Istanbul and Cairo), and I wouldn’t be stopped.

* * * *

It was icy cold when I arrived in Amman—nothing like the Beirut I left behind. Sixty miles from the coast, Amman’s continental climate is a far cry from Lebanon’s Mediterranean condition. At an altitude of 1000 meters, it is among the coldest cities in the Levant. I treated myself to a rare luxury and hired a driver to pick me up from the airport at 4am. As we drove through the black Jordanian night, my driver—a Kuwaiti who had fled the country twenty years earlier due to the first Gulf War—stopped at a small shop to buy us coffees. It was instant coffee doused in milk, not the black stuff served in Turkey, or the espresso I had enjoyed in Beirut. Clearly this was yet again a different “Middle East” from the one I had seen in Lebanon or Iraq.

In Amman, I sensed a different, more cautious attitude toward the Syrian conflict. I was told that traffic crossing the border had slowed to a trickle, and none of the hotels downtown would arrange my transportation to Damascus. Young folks told me not to go because it wasn’t safe, and conversation about Syria made the conflict seem more distant (which it also was, technically). But it didn’t matter; I was going to try.

It took several attempts to find a driver willing to take me to Damascus. In a square near Amman’s center I found a private driver and two Jordanians headed there, and I told them I was French tourist going there for a week. Eager to get moving, the driver offered me a fair rate and I hopped in the car. We headed north passed several deep, green valleys where lemon and other citrus trees grew, then the land turned into the flat, dry expanses I’d seen elsewhere outside Amman. After several hours we reached the quiet border, and at the first checkpoint we were stamped out of Jordan. I cringed a bit when I heard the border patrol comment to my driver that I was American. Ameriki, he said, and the other passengers exchanged some strange looks. Then we continued on to the Syrian entry where we all filed out of the car. So far so good.

The border agent asked for my passport and I explained that I needed a visa. . I needed a visa, I explained, and opening the passport displayed four crisp $20 notes. Was it enough? He pushed the money onto the counter and lifted the passport. Wait here. While he was away my caravan grew impatient and I grew skeptical that my plan was going to work. The agent came back fifteen minutes later and explained that I could not have a visa at the border. Isn’t it possible? I asked, and pulled another $20 from my pocket. No, he said, without hesitation. My baksheesh was no good. In fact, it was a huge, embarrassing fail. For a moment I considered offering more money, but he didn’t seem interested in gaming me: he just wanted me to leave. He waved my caravan on and walked around the counter to escort me out. On the other side of the building he pointed back toward Jordan. Go. It was nearly 4pm on Friday and there was little of traffic, so I stood there thinking, Sure, but how?

There was a Jordanian businessman just entering Jordan on his way back to Amman, and he offered me a ride in his car. Ahmed was well dressed with moderate English and a kind smile. I had no other option, so I accepted. It turned out to be a fortuitous encounter, because when the Jordanian entry post saw me—rejected by the Syrian border agents—they were not enthusiastic about stamping me back into Jordan.

“Why didn’t you enter?” the border agent asked.

“They wouldn’t let me.”

“Why.”

“I don’t have a visa.”

“Why didn’t you get one.”

“They wouldn’t give it to me.”

“Why.”

“They don’t do that.”

“So what were you doing?”

“Trying to get in anyway.”

It was unclear whether they were suspicious of me or just thought I was stupid (probably both). They asked me to take a seat and spent some time talking to Ahmed. How did you meet this American, what do you know about him, where does he want to go, has he spoken about his work?At one point they asked Ahmed if he thought I was CIA, and I was anxious and a little proud when I heard it. It was a stupid suggestion. We waited for about two hours, and Ahmed was extremely generous. Even though his wife and daughter expected him at home on this Friday afternoon, he waited to drive me to Amman. I insisted he leave, and kicked myself for making such a mess, but he was resolute about helping me. Eventually the border patrol stamped me in—probably figuring I was just foolish or uninformed—and we returned to Amman.

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Photo: A mosque on a chilly morning in Amman.

* * * *

Syria was off. It was probably for the best, because shortly before I returned to Amman Germano had been arrested in Damascus. One day, not far from his apartment, he was pulled from a taxi and hustled off to jail cell where the Syrian authorities kept him for four days. He slept on the floor of a cell too small to stand up in and was not allowed to bath. And he was subjected to lengthy interrogations until the Folha alerted the Brazilian government of his disappearance and the ambassador worked through the Syrian Foreign Ministry to secure his release. The Syrian government explained that Germano was arrested for operating as a journalist without proper credentials, but really they were trying to get access to his contacts. Upon release he was told to leave the country immediately.

Jeremy was arrested too. One day, a taxi he hired to take him to another town instead drove him directly to the police station. He was held for nine hours and upon release made one stop at Germano’s place before heading for Beirut. Germano and Jeremy weren’t alone either. At the time, it was estimated that some forty journalists were detained or disappeared. Although the Syrian government had just made an agreement with the Arab League to end hostilities and remove tanks from cities like Homs, they were instead expelling international journalists in advanced of a heightened crackdown on the opposition. There was no way I was getting into Syria. I finally put my dreams of Damascus to rest: No Syriana.

I settled for the usual touristy things in Amman, like Petra and Wadi Rum, as well as a short hitchhiking trip into the dessert east of Amman to visit several crumbling Crusader castles and an oasis (Azraq) that was once the source of Amman’s water supply. Although I continued to follow developments in Syria through the media, I then turned and headed for the West Bank, leaving one conflict for another.

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