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Published: January 14th 2009
It must be said that when considering the myriad of cultures and peoples across the world that there will always be some sort of preconceptions, generalizations or biases. I even find myself, despite my rather extensive travel record, occasionally making statements which I cannot back up with fact. But nowhere did I come against so much unfair prejudice as when I dealt with Syrians. It seemed that most people assumed that when I walked across the border that the entire country would launch a mujahideen against me. In fact I found the opposite was the case. Of all the people that I have met in this world the Syrians were the ones with the greatest sense of care for a lone traveler that I have witnessed. I had the feeling that if I had come from the country to Canada’s south that I might have been less welcome, but as it was I was almost uniformly treated like a friend.
There should be no mistaking Syria for the world’s most progressive country. Their parliament exists as nothing more than a thinly veiled cover for the tyranny within. It is the kind of place where when the president dies, his son becomes the successor. Indeed the new president, Bahar al-Assad was the son of the former president, yet he nonetheless has taken great steps to modernize the country. Yet as always some vestiges of the old order still remain. And so my first contact with Syrians on my journey did not come in the country but rather at the Syrian embassy in Ottawa, as I sought out one of the world’s most frustrating visas to get.
I remember standing in the hallway, with my hand reaching out for the buzzer for the embassy, with my mind trying to tell my hand that it still wasn’t too late, that I didn’t need the hassle of travel in the Arab countries, that I could go sit on a beach somewhere and laze away my vacation without having to put up with a foreign culture and unusual living conditions. But the impulse was insufficient and I felt my finger land squarely on the button. Almost immediately I heard a voice directing me through a now visible door, which was otherwise hidden in the wall. Inside I found two bureaucratic women in charge of filing paperwork regarding visas. As it happened I was planning on leaving for my vacation in early January so that meant I was applying for the visa in late December. The woman informed me that as long as the information was correct that I could return to pick up my passport the following Monday. Not so easy, I observed. That Monday was in fact Christmas Eve and I expected to be busy with holiday celebrations of one sort or another. She therefore without any intention of humour offered that perhaps Tuesday would be better for me. This made even less sense I informed her in return, if Monday was Christmas Eve, then Tuesday must surely be Christmas. Finally she allowed that I could pick up my passport any time that I wished before I left for my journey. And so this formed my first impression of the Syrian people that I would encounter, eager to help and friendly if not always able to be of service themselves.
My next experience with a Syrian would be in a hostel in Istanbul. This fellow is perhaps best left unmentioned in a description of this group of people. He claimed to have been tortured in Syria by pretty much everybody until he was thrown out of the country. While I helped him write some documents asking for asylum with whoever he could think to ask, it also became clear that he was not entirely sane. And so as I took off on my overnight bus from Istanbul to Aleppo, the first Syrian city from the north, my mind expected a mixture somewhere between hospitality and tyranny, and completely not knowing what to expect.
Nowhere was I as nervous in this entire experience as crossing the border into Syria. Although not technically breaking a rule of entry into Syria it was clear that I was intending to. Syria maintains that the state of Israel has no legal right to exist and so anyone who has visited the state of Israel is thereafter refused entry to the country. Some other Arab countries feel the same antipathy towards the Israelis but in Syria they take it more seriously. Not only does visiting the country count as an offense, but even plans to visit the country are equally as deplorable, and so as I was about to cross the border with a plane ticket from Tel Aviv to Athens in my possession I was a little hesitant about what would happen if it was found. As it turned out this was a completely unwarranted concern. As I rode the bus on the final leg from Antakya in Turkey to the border an old man sat next to me and attempted to communicate with me in broken English. He turned out to be a very friendly man and aided greatly in helping me across the border. Instead of attempting to deal with officials myself he followed me to each booth and dealt with officials on my behalf. Not being able to master my name he referred to me solely as Canada. After sorting out the visa in a fairly efficient manner, we next had to pass through customs. As the customs agent approached my bag for an inspection, the old man and a few others simply shouted out “Canada!” and the custom official, with a knowing look, simply indicated I could take my bag and go.
Our short ride into Aleppo provided the last moments for me and this old man together and as he left from the station he wished me luck and I expressed my thanks. Now though I was faced with a new problem. Two years previously I had started my European adventures in the North African country of Tunisia, which at the time had frustrated me a great deal. All buildings were a nearly uniform three or four floors high. This made them just high enough that, concurrently, they could not be seen from afar nor could they be seen over. So the use of landmarks for me had not been an option. Also the streets were written only on in Arabic and a lot of makeshift streets populated the city which made the use of a map a challenging venture. And so just as it was in Tunisia, here it was in Syria. I could clearly see on my map that the hostel that I was aiming for was no more than five blocks away from the bus station, but with no landmarks it was impossible to know even which way to walk. After about 20 minutes of walking I came across an intersection where a policeman directed traffic, while another policeman maintained the overwatch to ensure everything ran smoothly. Surely one of thee two officials could help me I reasoned.
In fact they did help, just I didn’t realize the extent to which they would help me. The first policeman that I approached had absolutely no English ability and looking at the Western alphabet did nothing for him as he was used to reading Arabic. As he called the other cop over, the one who had been directing traffic, I expected chaos to break loose in the suddenly unsupervised intersection. As it turned out, it was as far from chaos as I could imagine. The police officer stopped traffic in all four directions and came to help me. Now I felt somewhat responsible for all these people being held up and I insisted that they go back to work and I find the hostel by myself. They would have nothing of my suggestion. Almost as if he had been ordered to be there for this exact scenario, the two policemen allowed one taxi driver to come forward and try to help me as well. He also was lost but he knew a man nearby that would help me. And so off I went in this man’s taxi speeding toward a hotel concierge that spoke English and knew the city well.
When we located the man he informed us that my hostel was in fact about 60 feet away from where I had stopped traffic in my search. Reaching for my wallet to pay the cab driver what I expected would be a fare far too much for the short distance traveled, he instead declared that the ride had been free, that he was jus trying to help me. Unsure how to proceed from this cab driver who defied all logic by refusing money I proceeded into the hostel and walked downtown, getting hopelessly lost just as I had expected.
The following day I was going to catch the bus onwards to Damascus and so I went and sat in the bus station. The people there spoke no English, but it seems at least an English speaking Westerner can pronounce Damascus properly. And so off I went. Little did I know that the bus seats were numbered and so I went and sat where I figured would be comfortable. As one of the men on the bus explained to me that one of the scribbles on the ticket that was given to me actually represented my number, once again an inexplicable bond was created between myself and random stranger. No sooner than I knew what was happening, this man had traded for the seat next to mine, and for the six hour journey to Damascus he engaged me in conversation about all things great and small. Upon arriving in Damascus he informed me that he was also heading downtown and that he felt obliged to arrange a hotel for me. I told him where I wanted to stay and he felt this wasn’t good enough for me so he went to a classier place and tried to arrange some cheap accommodation. Unsuccessful though he was, I anyway ended up at the place that I had first intended. Getting out of the taxi I asked him how much he wanted for the ride. Somewhat unexpectedly he replied that he also was not seeking any reimbursement, that it was his duty as host to his country, and I as his guest to pay for my taxi. So despite every attempt to do so, I would leave this country never having to pay for a taxi ride.
I do not make the claim here that Syria is a safe country to visit. Others have visited and found the situation not what they had expected and paid dearly for it. For myself I can say that I was lucky, lucky that I did not draw attention from the wrong kind of people and lucky that I did from the right kind. Syria is a place that demands one’s attention and requires vigilance. The only thing for sure in the country though is that the Syrian people will help those they can and those that have received this help leave the better for it.
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