Tuesday, August 04, 2009

More Middle East

Even though it seemed such a hastle to me, even though I didn't know if there were any direct busses or taxis, even though I didn't know if I would need a new visa to come back, if there would be space in a cheap hostel or if my arabic was up to it, everybody told me I had to see Syria. Or at least Damascus. Even for just a weekend. So I asked people if they wanted to accompany me, people who had been there and knew how to get there and where to go. But nobody could join me.
So last Saturday morning I just tried my luck and walked to the nearest main road to the East. I knew there were vans going that way. Unfortunately, the driver of the bus I ended up in didn't know much about it and he dropped me of far away from the road I needed to get on. So I walked back, found a van and continued my way to Damascus. At Zahle (still in Lebanon), I got a service (shared taxi) to the border. At the border, the officers took a long time figuring out that at the airport I had been given a one-month visa, even though I had already received a three month visa in Washington. So eventually, they let me through, promising that I could get back on the three month visa. Yeah, sure, I know you guys by now, but like you guys, I don't really care. We'll see.
The Syrian officers were more straight to the point. They made the life of British and American tourists difficult and expensive, but apparently they didn't have a probem with Dutch people on Syrian soil. Too bad I first had to wait until the British girl in front of me agreed to pay $100 for her visa (my visa cost me $40, let's hope President Abbad uses it wisely).
And then there were just one more van and one more bus seperating me from the bustling center of Damascus. During my two-day stay there, I was trying to make up my mind if it was too touristic or not. The most interesting part of the city, Old Town, contained the main markets where rich men and women - mostly women - bought clothes with delicate brocade, golden jewels, exquisite furniture with inlaid mother-of-pearl, richly decorated swords or musical instruments and cheap toys for their children. The lively, colourful streets filled with all kinds of merchandise were a beautiful sight, the women from the Gulf, completely covered in black and mercilessly making their way towards luxury, bargains and famous religious landmarks were a nuissance. They were like Japanese women storming a department store on the first day of sales to get that very expensive stuff for just slightly expensive prices. May God be with them.
But hasn't Damascus always been a grand market-place? A main commercial hub between the East and the West? And weren't the goods offered then and now local specialties? Surely the beautiful musical instruments or tapestries were not made in China. It has probably never been much different in those popular markets, people have always been trying to drain the foreigners of their money and travellers have always been looking for a bargain, except that the customers now arrive by plane instead of by camel or horse.
Nevertheless, I was glad to find out that most streets in the Old Town are just leading to houses, small tea- and food-stores, little mosques or public bathhouses. Places where no black-clad woman would be interested in (okay, I saw a few there as well, but at least they were not pushing their way through). And finally, I got a taste of what I had imagined the Middle East to be like. Small houses build against city walls that have been standing there for centuries. Much visited mosques where foreigners are invited to come take a look, even during prayer. Locals who appreciate it if you speak Arabic, even if it's just a little bit. Youth who entertain themselves with arguile and backgammon instead of expensive private beaches and nightclubs. Old men sitting in front of their house in a small street were cars don't fit through, protected from the sun by a baldaquin of ivy or vines. Streets where more traditional jewels than Rolex-watches are offered, and where the call for prayer always sounds from multiple directions.
So Damascus was a great place to be a tourist. Being there for just two days (or two half days even), that's all I could be. I don't know what it would be like to spend more time there, with Bashar al Assad staring at me from the many posters displayed on lamp-poles and shop-doors, and where even traffic police look stern and uncompromising. To be sure, the strong state in Syria has enabled better public transportion, better infrastructure and much better tourist facilities than the feuding political factions of Lebanon. And even for foreigners, health care is practically free. At least, when my roommate lived there he could get immunization shots before going to India for less than a dollar. States do have a function, and regulation can help to make life easier.
So maybe life in Syria is easier than in Lebanon, despite the fact that the GDP per capita is less than half of that in Lebanon, even when adjusted for purchasing power (so people in Syria can buy half the goods in their own country as Lebanese can buy in Lebanon. I guess they just spend less money on things they don't need). But Syria seems to be less dynamic and certainly less diverse. While the many different religions in Lebanon have always been a source of unrest, they also enrich the country with different viewpoints, different mentalities and different lifestyles. Of course there is diversity in Syria, but it's not as evident as in Lebanon. In Syria there are some Christian towns - in Lebanon, most towns contains a large number of religions, with majorities and minorities switching sides according to the region.
And I think I've gotten used to the chaos. In Lebanon, you don't have to wait for the traffic light to cross the road. In fact, there are scarcely any traffic lights. In Lebanon, you don't have to be afraid of the authorities when you criticize them. In fact, I haven't met a single Lebanese who doesn't criticize the government. And I like that in a way. I guess Lebanon is sort of the Wild West of the Middle East. Where people, including many Syrian laborers, hope to find their fortune, even if they have to fight for it.
So when I wanted to go back there, I even had to fight my way across the border. Or at least, it took quite some arguing before the superior of the officer I was dealing with recognized the mistake they had made at the airport and let me back into the Wild West on my three-months visa. Now I have two more weeks to find my fortune.


At 6:45 PM, Anonymous Loraine said...

Wat gaaaaaaaf! Je bent dus gewoon gegaan! Tof om te horen dat Damascus een leuke stad is, ben nu nieuwsgieriger dan ooit om er ook een keer naar toe te gaan!

Succes nog met je laatste momentjes Lebanon, en check je gauw weer in NL baas!

At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Harmke said...

Jezus Bram waar hang jij nou weer uit?????

Wel een hele lap tekst om te lezen hoor. pfff...

Ongelooflijk wat je allemaal doet, ik zit hier maar achter m'n computertje bij de Fortis en ben al blij dat ik 12 dagen naar Portugal op vakantie ga.. Ik voel me wel opeens heel burgerlijk:)
Hoe dan ook, doe je wel voorzichtig daar in het Midden Oosten?

Ik weet niet of je van plan was om dit koude kikkerlandje nog een keer weer aan te doen, maar laat het me ff weten als in NL bent, ok?



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