Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Surviving Syria

The Syrian Government showed last week it has no intention of conforming to democratic norms after the First Damascus Criminal Court sentenced a dozen leading activists on politically motivated charges. The 12 signatories of the so-called “Damascus Declaration” were found guilty on trumped-up charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country.” The Damascus Declaration is a coalition of political parties and independent activists whose stated goal is to build internal support for peaceful democratic change in Syria. There was brief hope in the Damascus Spring of 2001 just after President Assad came to power but security crackdowns put paid to any lasting democratic breakthrough.

The country itself occupies an ambiguous status between rogue nation supporting Islamist groups while at the same time providing refuge for the US extraordinary rendition program. That sense of imprecise belonging is obvious on the streets of Damascus and Aleppo, the countries two biggest cities. I was unable to get money anywhere in Syria from an ATM and I assume there is no reciprocal agreement between the banks of Syria and Australia (there is certainly no diplomatic relations between the two). Yet when stuck for local currency I was able to walk into the most prominent building in Aleppo – the $US300 a night Sheraton and change euros into Syrian pounds with ease.

However I did not carry a lot of cash and my entire supply of US dollars was wiped out at the border from Turkey when they charged me a whopping $50 for the privilege of getting a visa to enter the country. I tried haggling the cost but the border officials weren’t souk salesmen looking for my custom - they genuinely didn’t care whether I came in or slunk off on the bus back to Turkey. The guy at the immigration desk also stole my only pen as his one broke. This was after a three hour wait filling in forms and waiting for the head honcho to stop arguing with a gaggle of burqa-clad harridans so he could frown at my passport from several different angles before letting me into his country. Oddly enough the one question they didn’t ask was whether I was intending to travel on to Israel.

So with little cash and even fewer opportunities to use credit cards I knew my stay in Syria would be short. The planned visits to Krak des Chevaliers and Palmyra would have to wait for another time. I would have to make a beeline for the Jordan border. Arriving late in Aleppo I stayed the night in a fleabag hotel. I walked to the city’s highlight, the 13th century citadel that soars over the town. Passing through the undercover souk en route, I was accosted by a carpet salesman who claimed to be mentioned in Lonely Planet. I resisted all attempts to visit his emporium but he did provide the useful information the citadel was shut for “a holiday”. I would have to admire it from the outside only.

I then walked to the train station where I bought a ticket to Damascus at 6am the following morning. With any luck, there might be a connection to Amman later that day. I was up early the following morning and off to the station in plenty of time for the train. But at the station, the conductor point blank refused to allow me board.

It turned out that yesterday, I was sold a ticket back to Turkey not Damascus (it was all in Arabic so I hadn’t a clue of the destination from reading it). Having come from Turkey I didn’t want to backtrack – I was headed for Jordan and Israel (though I wasn’t telling the Syrians that). Anyway with the aid of a few helpers and a few more of my ever dwindling supply of Syrian pounds I was scrambled onto the already departing Damascus train which left at 5.45am (the 6am train was for Antakya, Turkey). After 5 hours of scrubby desert country (and a long and indecipherable pantomime followed by Tom and Jerry on the TV in the carriage), the train dropped me off on the outskirts of Damascus (there is a city centre station which is mysteriously closed).

I asked was there a train to Amman today. "No", replied the station master. "Ok, what about tomorrow?" He shrugged his shoulders and said "maybe..." Insh’allah!
Undeterred, I started walking in what I thought had to be the direction of the city centre. Barely 200m away I found a bus station which had a bus to Amman in 5 hours time. I used up the last of my remaining local currency to buy the ticket and had nothing left over for the cost of them looking after my bags for a few hours. I had to trudge the one hour distance to the city with all my luggage.

I had time for a quick look round before I trundled back to the bus. Many buildings had President Bashar Assad prominent painted on to them, I saw a statue hailing the liberation of Jerusalem (1184 from the Crusaders not 1967 from the Arabs), a very colourful local funeral, and drank a strong coffee next to the Umayyad mosque with my last change and chatted with a retired elementary English teacher from Azerbajani Iran.

Then it was the long chug back to the bus before we set off for Jordan. We were close to the border when the driver shouted something in Arabic. We stopped at a market where everyone got off. I assumed it was only to stock up on food but one passenger showed me what he got and what I too needed. It was an exit visa costing another 500 pounds (about $15). This was more than what I had left in local currency. At this stage I feared I would be spending time in a Syrian prison until I miraculously located 10 euro which was buried deep in my wallet. The market keeper was only too happy to sell me the exit visa for hard currency and I was able to make good my escape.

When the bus finally crossed into Jordan I saw an ATM at the border which gave me money and next door was a shop selling Heineken beer. Though I didn’t buy any, I knew I was back in civilisation again.

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