Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Syria - Seriously

It's been about a year since I completed the trip of a lifetime - a 50 day trek from Greece to Egypt, by land. Of the seven countries that the trip would take me through, I found myself most intimidated and intrigued by the only country I would enter and exit twice - Syria.

My friends and family were also intimidated - but far from intrigued.

"Why on earth do you want to go there?"

"What's there besides sand and terrorists?"

"You're going to get killed, white boy."

Funny enough, my intimidation sprung mostly from their fears and assured proclamations of my demise. Much of the criticism of my plans came from my relatives in the military, who were recently in the Gulf Arab countries. Understandably, it was offensive to them that while they were risking their asses fighting in a war zone, an American would want to go off "sightseeing" near the same war zone.

Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt - these were the "acceptable" Arab countries... and even then, they were to be avoided at the present moment, so the prevailing logic went. Yet I was resolved to visit Syria, an associate of the infamous "Axis of Evil," the key troublemaker in Lebanon via Hezbollah, and supposedly host to many a terrorist intent on destroying yours truly and his ilk.

A contrarian streak runs through me, and I was determined to show to the folks back home that Syria was not truly dangerous, nor devoid of things to see, but rather faced an uphill battle in global P.R. Indeed, I felt that there would be a strong parallel between the Syrian people and the American people - truly decent individuals who were wrongly perceived by the global community on account of their respective governments' actions.

Sentiment aside, I simply HAD to go through Syria to get between Turkey and Jordan (um, unless I chose to go through Iraq... I'm not THAT contrarian). Furthermore, I could not simply walk up to the border and request a visa, unlike at every other country I would be visiting (including Lebanon). Due to the poor relations between the U.S. and Syria, the Syrians charge Americans $100 for the right to visit their country. Fortunately, there was a Syrian embassy in southern California, so I mailed my passport along with a $100 money order to Newport Beach, and promptly received my visa.

And with that, I was ready to begin my adventure.

My journey through Greece and Turkey went quite smoothly - the tourist infrastructure of both countries was quite sound, and thus I was able to move briskly while still absorbing a great deal of history and culture. Following several days in Istanbul, I made my way through the bulk of Anatolia (the Asian part of Turkey), and wound up in Antakya, better known by its biblical name, Antioch. While currently part of the Turkish Republic, the land I was in had historically been Syria - even a glance at the region's location on a map will demonstrate this, removed as it is from Anatolia. From here I would make my way into Syria, first to its second largest city, Aleppo.

As we made our way to the border, certain preconceived notions became confirmed - mainly, that the land would become more arid, and the temperature much hotter. There was no denying this - Antakya's lushness was trapped on its side of the small mountain range separating Turkey and Syria. Still, I found it not unlike California in the summer heat - dry and a bit dusty. The bus was air conditioned, thankfully.

The border crossing was a bit of an ordeal, to put it mildly. Considering Turkey's push to become part of the European Union, their border with Syria (not to mention Iran and Iraq, I imagine) was quite elaborate, with several checks on either side of the line. Once on the Syrian side, I exited the bus (barely believing that I was really there) and made my way to have my passport stamped.

This was an exercise in patience. The Syrian border post was not a great introduction to the country - no one bothered with forming a line, but instead crowded the windows in the hopes of getting through sooner. My passport was actually handed back to a different white American - we all look the same, I take it.

Actually, allow me to digress on that point. One preconception that I was forced to abandon was what I thought Syrians would look like. I'm not in a position to talk genetics and such, but let's just say that I, Mr. White Boy, could pass for Syrian (this later turned out to be quite true). Of course, looks aren't everything - and yet I was surprised none the less to see red haired, green eyed Syrians amongst the border guards. I almost felt like I had stumbled into an Arab Ireland... almost.

Once in Syria proper, I couldn't help but be overwhelmed by the number of posters depicting the current president, Bashar al-Assad. If Americans had this many posters of Dubya floating around town, I would retch... they were simply EVERYWHERE. One poster on a wall would not suffice - there simply had to be a full dozen. Was this true devotion, or was there a sinister underlying motive? That remained to be seen for the moment, as we pulled into Aleppo.

Aleppo was a bit different from other cities I had experienced so far - it represented the unknown. Turkey was Muslim, ostensibly, if not Arab, but this was a true Arab city, with so much to understand and experience. The city as a whole is not exactly easy on the eyes, to be sure - but what I discovered in this city made me want to return, even before I had left.

Firstly, but not most importantly, everything in Aleppo is extremely inexpensive by Western standards. A taxi ride across town will come to about 50 cents U.S. A shwarma meal will be between 75 cents and a dollar (as a foreigner - which was evident more from my lack of Arabic than from my appearance - I was occasionally asked to pay a few cents more... one can always barter for the correct price, however!). Nice hotels are roughly ten dollars per person... I actually didn't stay at a hostel in Aleppo, though I know they exist. Entrance fees to the attractions (namely, the Citadel) are a couple of dollars.

So far, Syria was a boon for my wallet.

There are three principal attractions in Aleppo - the Citadel, the Great Mosque, and the Souk (marketplace). The Citadel is a fantastic fortress that juts up above a dried out moat, complete with a drawbridge-structure. I spent a very pleasant two hours wandering within and without. Nearby, the Souk is unparalleled in the region for its ambiance. Damascus' souk would turn out to be larger and more straightforward - but it wasn't nearly as fun or as mysterious as Aleppo's.

A short walk away, the Great Mosque's courtyard is poised to take your breath away - it was here that I first started to interact with average Syrians, and it was here that I became aware of how important religion - principally but not exclusively Islam - is in Arab culture. I was greeted warmly in the mosque, by both men AND women. "Welcome in Syria" was the common phrase, with its charming prepositional usage... never had so simple a greeting revealed such a warmness and hospitality.

Before heading to Damascus in the south of Syria, I managed to explore the vast mid-region of Syria, including the spectacular castle Krak des Chevaliers, the vast, ancient Roman city of Palmyra, and the truly relaxing and delightful riverside town of Hama.

Using Hama as a base, one can easily take day trips to the west (Krak des Chevaliers) or the east (Palmyra). To optimise my time and money, I opted to combine the two main sites in one very long day. My taxi driver - surely one of the nicest individuals I have ever met - was proud to show me his country, and introduced me to abandoned desert fortresses and Bedouin cities along the way. As we headed east, the landscape did indeed become more arid - we eventually came within 150 miles of the Iraqi border. A road sign for Baghdad shocked me into awareness of where I was in the world - before I realized that I actually needed that sign to remind me of how close Iraq was. In other words, I couldn't have been more at peace - with the exception of the border crossing, I had yet to have a stressful time in the country.

Palmyra, simply put, has better ruins than the finest place in Europe. The city - both modern and ancient - is expansive, and requires a vehicle to get around. To be sure, it was quite warm - even hot, but not more than one would expect for being in a desert. Here, I explored a variety of temples, in excellent condition considering their age (2,000 years old). The one thing I found off putting - the touts. They are ubiquitous, and their approach is contrary to the welcoming allure I found in other Syrian people. While harmless, they were persistent to the point of inspiring insanity... our taxi driver recognized this, and eventually took us to the west of the country.

As one heads west of Hama towards the Mediterranean, the arid landscape gives way to verdant hills that bleed into Lebanon. A Crusader castle, Krak des Chevaliers is remarkably situated on a pass in the hills, just a few miles north of the border. While there were touts here, to be sure, they were less pushy than at Palmyra, and thus I was able to wander the castle for hours - and hours, plural, are truly needed to explore this vast complex.

Despite the otherworldly sites I had seen, the most delightful memory I have of Syria's mid-region is from my nightly constitutionals around Hama's riverbanks, which would inevitably culminate at a riverside cafe, where one could smoke the hookah while playing backgammon and drinking copious cups of tea (no alcohol, of course). This was a fantastic way to meet locals, virtually all of whom have a working knowledge of English.

Finally, it was time to head to Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world (5,000 years). A sure sign that I wasn't the only one exploring this amazing country - Damascus' 3 hostels were full to bursting. I managed to take the last available room at a very pleasant one, just a short walk from the Old City.

Damascus is vast, crowded, but completely fascinating and friendly. The Old City is without par in the Middle East, if not the world - only Jerusalem can compete, as far as I am concerned. Cairo is a distant third. The layers of history inside the Old City's walls are so dense as to make a linear understanding virtually impossible. Indicative of Damascus' multi-faceted history is its most important site - the Umayyad Mosque. Currently a mosque (for many, many centuries), it was previously a Christian church (the Christian quarter is arguably the most well known part of Damascus' Old City), though it originally was a Roman, pagan temple. The site itself represents over 2,000 years of recorded worship. The mausoleum of Saladdin is within the complex, as well as the purported head of St. John the Baptist, which is the principle raison d'etre. I took full advantage of the fact that I, a non-Muslim, could enter such a sacred place... I was still too inexperienced in my travels to realize what a privilege it was to be able to enter such an important mosque (one of the 5 most important mosques in the world).

While Damascus has too much to offer to summarize herein, the most surprising and delightful of the city's many attributes has to be its bevy of restaurants. The cost-effectiveness of the rest of the country still applies, but not at the expense of taste or range. I spent several nights eating at Beit Jabri, which is housed in an old Jewish mansion (Jews still exist in Damascus, by the way, though most have left, presumably for Israel). The ambiance and the cuisine never failed to astonish - and the price was extremely affordable ($15 U.S. for countless courses, plus hookah).

All good things must come to an end, and my time in Syria was ending as well. I managed to steal away to Lebanon for a few days - though the roughness of the political climate during the time of my visit caused me to shorten my stay (ironically, my relatives corresponded with me, URGING me to get back into Syria!). Upon returning to Syria (the only way in and out of Lebanon by land), I visited a Christian monastery (yes, an active one - one of two I visited in Syria, not counting a ruined third) and a Roman complex at Bosra (not the more infamous Bosra), before journeying on to Jordan and points beyond.

Upon returning to the United States, I urged whoever would listen to visit Syria, as soon as possible. The potential for the country to become a tourist magnet a la Jordan (Petra) is undeniably there. The infrastructure is surprisingly good, the people are easily the friendliest in the region (and can hold their own with the Filipinos as some of the friendliest in the world), and the "tourist destinations" are unique and exhilarating. And did I mention that it is SAFE? I for one plan to return to the country with my future children.

If that sounds outlandish, reckless, or just plain stupid... you haven't been there.

To confirm that my sentiment towards Syria isn't unique, Diane Sawyer's recent visit to Damascus brought much-needed American attention to Syria's attributes. While there were occasional moments of sappy condescension (as when she visited a restaurant and gushed over each and every dish), I found it reassuring that she was able to dispel many of the preconceptions against Syria, using her credibility and interviewing talents.

If you visit Syria...

  • Make sure your passport does NOT have any evidence of travel to Israel (aka "Occupied Palestine"). If you HAVE been, get a new passport, and lie on the visa application (if you say "Yes, I've been to Occupied Palestine," you will be forever barred from visiting Syria - at least until the countries establish peace). NOTE = a land border crossing with Egypt is as bad as an Israeli stamp. It's best to go north to south, as I did, if you plan to visit Israel. Final note - the Israelis will hold you for 3 hours at their border if they see you've been to Syria or Lebanon. Bring a book, and tell them to go to hell if they say you shouldn't go to Syria.

  • If you are going to Lebanon (which I recommend, though with some caveats), make sure your Syrian visa is DOUBLE ENTRY. It should not come as an extra charge. I requested a dual entry visa, was assured I would get a dual entry visa, but when all was said and done, I did NOT have a dual entry visa... and was forced to wait at the border upon reentry to Syria. Still got back in, but it was not worth the hassle. I really cannot stress this enough.

  • Remember that Syrians are accutely aware of how they are perceived in the world. You would be wise NOT to refer to their country as part of the "Axis of Evil."

  • Don't insult Bashar al-Assad. As a foreigner, you'll probably be ok in the eyes of the law, but it's just plain rude - most people are quite pleased that he is president.

  • If you're American, you will be welcome in Syria - you don't need to hide your nationality. Saying you are Canadian when you are not is understandable, but ridiculous at the same time... and since lying is not condoned by religious people (most Syrians are religious), you risk being offensive if you are found out.

  • If you're American, AND you support George W. Bush, expect to have your sentiments firmly offended... though you will be free from actual harm. But then again, you're probably not likely to be in Syria anyhow.

  • Eat at Beit Jabri. Stay at least one night in Hama. Learn some Arabic... bouzal means ice cream!

  • If you're an English speaker (which you are, since you're reading this), you MUST locate Charlie at the bus station in Damascus. Just ask for Charlie - everyone knows him (he also has just one leg, if that helps). He speaks fluent English, but with a Chicagoan accent - testament to the man that taught him. And please get video - my single biggest regret of my travels is that I didn't videotape him speaking.

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