I am charmed, and a bit stunned, by Damascus, it’s massive socialist architecture and charming holocaust-denying businessmen.
The Road to Damascus is well paved, in most places, but it’s a bit scary. It’s a wide road, with cars driving in both directions. And I’dve never seen a highway so long that has absolutely no painted lines. It’s just a wide slab of asphalt for an hour and a half. I guess it makes sense, since Lebanese drivers never observe any sort of traffic law like a lane, so why bother painting it.
I’m in my hotel in Damascus. I met a businessman in the lobby and he’s taking me to the Jewish quarter for dinner. I’dm actually a bit stunned, I must say. I’dve wanted to visit Damascus my entire life and here I am. It’s nothing like what I expected. It’s actually a lot more modern looking’dat least the roads I took in are’than Amman or Beirut, even in a way than Tel Aviv. Unlike Amman, the sidewalks are well constructed and aren’t completely falling apart in places. The roads are quite wide with these box-light billboards that look cool and modern. Looking in any direction, you see miles of this massive socialist style architecture’these big concrete apartment buildings. They all look the same. They are rectangles with no color and no decoration. Each apartment has a thin, little balcony. The windows are quite large and are almost pleasing in their grid-like repetition. There are no Fast Food restaurants, very little neon light or anything. The place seems like a sort of backward socialist state, but one that’s thriving on a modest scale. Because that’s the other thing: there is business everywhere. It just has this manic, busy feeling. There are cars packed on every road, stores everywhere, people just walking around looking busy.I got here from Beirut by hiring a service cab, which means he’s supposed to take a bunch of passengers and each one pays $10. Right away, he decided I have too much luggage, so he charges me $20. And then he says if I want to be taken to my hotel in Damascus, I have to pay $30. I am getting sick of people seeing Americans as an easy mark. I’dm also a bit sick of not quite understanding the rules of the game. In Beirut I got really angry at the first few cab drivers for asking me to pay $7 for a five minute cab ride. It’s worse than NY prices. I figured they were trying to screw the American, so I’d say no way and storm off. Then I found out they were just charging me the standard fare. It has happened in Amman and in Beirut and now in Damascus, that cab drivers charge me infinitely more than what’s fair. But it’s on a low scale. Like after I arrived in Damascus I took a cab and was charged $4 instead of 80 cents. Oh well. So, the service cab was $30, and I paid it, I felt bad for the guy, since I was his only fare to Damascus. It’s a 2.5 hour drive. The driver spoke no English. He asked, in Arabic, if I’dm French. I said No. I’dm not French and don’t speak French. I said an American. He repeated it, American. And then he spoke to me in French the entire ride. I know more Arabic than French. I don’t think he knows much French either, so really, most of the ride we just stared out the window. Leaving Beirut, on that road to Damascus, Lebanon almost immediately starts feeling a lot more like a part of the Arab world. Beirut, of course, mostly feels like Europe with the occasional mosque thrown in. The rest of Lebanon is much more like Jordan or any other Arab country. The highway passes through town after town and there’s no sidewalk or border, the highway just passes right through the center of downtown. You whip pass people buying spices and fruit and recently chopped up animals. There are a lot more beards and hijabs, the buildings are Arab-world standard: low, wide, unadorned 2-story concrete buildings with shops on the first floor and homes above them. We drove four an hour and a half or so through this, stopping a couple times for juice and coffee. Then we hit the border, I go into a big building that could serve as the movie set for cold, unfriendly border office. They really study your passport here, reading it extensively and talking to each other hurriedly. But I was allowed out of the country. Then we get back in the car and, I assume, just drive a few feet into Syria. That’s what every other border crossing I’dve done is like. I also was on the look-out for signs of exotic, mysterious Syria. I did see a car coming from there with a bunch of brooms w/o sticks tied to the roof. That was the most exotic thing. I got pretty excited when the guy in the car in front of us got out and he was wearing a galabiya and keffiyeh. I wanted anything. We start driving, I don’t bother putting on my belt, but then we’re driving and driving. We’re driving up a mountain and there’s nothing. Just the mountains on either side of us and the road, no sign of any cities or anything, just nothingness. We’dve left Lebanon but haven’t arrived to Syria yet. I don’t know what that land is. I mean, everyone knows that Syria controls Lebanon, there’s no chance of military friction. I don’t know why they want such a separation. We drive and drive and it’s freezing cold outside, like Chicago cold. Top of the mountain, I guess. We turn a corner, after a couple miles I’d say, and there is a big gate with a huge, bad, oval painting of Bashar al-Assad on one post and another of his father Hafez on the other. I was pleased. This is exactly what I expect entering Syria’some massive reminder of who the dictator is. But then we keep driving through the fence and then next thing you see, I can’d believe it, is a huge Dunkin’d Donuts. It’s nothing like any Dunkin’d Donuts you’dve seen. It’s circular and super modern looking, made of white metal and glass. And the neon lights for Dunkin’d Donuts are just huge. I have no idea what this thing is doing there. Having been in Damascus, now, I know there doesn’t seem to be any other Dunkin’d Donuts in the country. It’s very odd. But next to the DD, is another cold, miserable border station and another set of young army guys flipping through my passport and talking to each other hurriedly and generally spending twenty or thirty minutes figuring out whether or not to stamp me in. But they do, of course.
I did leave the hotel with this guy I met in the lobby. He’s the Syrian rep for a big German firm and was taking a German technician’dwho is helping set up a textile machine’dout for a night on the town. He took us to the Christian quarter. He said the Jewish quarter is right next door and is even nicer and I must go there and walk around. He led us into this restaurant that is in an old converted mansion. He said most of the restaurants here are in old, converted mansions. I immediately fell in love with the place and with Damascus. The restaurant was filled with attractive, western looking people. Maybe not as western as Beirutis, but still not what I expected in secret, forbidden Damascus. I heard a lot of English walking through, people were well dressed’dbut not overly formal and perfume-smelling like in Jordan. In fact, there was an altogether free, fun air: laughter, easy conversation in the crowded place. Jordan feels much more uptight and as if everyone is watching themselves and watching everyone else. Beirut is kind of like that, too. (Although I will not turn my back on my new favorite city.) The food was alright, not great. This Chinese guy sat at the table next to us with two attractive women. My new Syrian friend explained what was going on. He said this is what local Syrian reps do for VIP business people coming from out of town. They hire a very attractive whore (or two, if the guy’s important enough) and have the prostitute(s) show him the town and whatever else. My Syrian friend paid close attention to what the guy was saying’dhe’s in the oil business’dand kept telling me that the guy is lying his ass off to them about how important he and his company is. He’s also boring them to death because he only talks and shows off about dull oil industry things. Eventually, my Syrian friend has to interrupt and starts talking to the women in Arabic. Turns out the blonde is a famous actress in Syria and the brunette is the Chinese guy’s secretary. My Syrian friend put his hand to his heart and apologized to me for misrepresenting these wonderful women. Then he insisted that he loved the actress, that she’s incredibly intellectual, and he must see her immediately, except his wife expects him home (in another city) tomorrow.
Once the women left and we had drunk enough arak to be pretty much completely smashed, we thought it would be smart to discuss politics. I really got to like this guy. He’s a salesman for this massive industrial concern, he’s obviously very wealthy and worldly. He’s lived in the US, speaks colloquial English. (‘dWhy don’t you scoot over’d, I was impressed by scoot.) And, at first, our conversation was pretty friendly. Shared grumblings about Bush. Shared grumblings about how bad Arab regimes are. And then he mentioned that he’s really interested in this book by a French guy that proves no plane hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11th and the World Trade Center was really attacked by US forces. (I see this book everywhere in the Arab world. It’s really popular.) He gave all the usual reasons: how could 19 men do it, blah blah blah. Usually it’s less educated, less traveled people who push these conspiracy theories. But he outdid himself. He asked me if I really think Hitler could kill six million Jews. There’s no way, he said. An American academic proved it was only 400,000 and now he’s on the run for his life because Bush has sworn to kill him. (Never heard that one before.) he got very angry at me when I tried to explain that America can still be a democracy if some of the people don’t agree with what their leader does. And that as an American, I can be loyal to my country and disagree with my president. He found this truly ridiculous and it made him furious. He kept shouting Loyal Oppostion, Ha!. I argued back on every point, but it was a waste of time. At one point, he said to me, ‘dI will tell you what I think, no matter if you are truly what you say you are or if you are my worst nightmare.’d I was trying to figure out if I actually am his worst nightmare. I think I might be. Maybe CIA agent would be worse, I don’t know. I made a point of looking him directly in the eyes for the rest of the evening, to show I’dm not his worst nightmare or whatever. Or if I am, I’dm not scared of him. He also lectured me on how all Americans hate Arabs and are stupid on the Middle East. He was outraged that he overheard me ask the hotel desk if it’s safe to walk around Damascus at night. How stupid and ignorant and fearful I am. But I yelled back at him and said I just don’t know. And, hey, I’dm here. I’dm trying to find out what the Middle East is really like. That must count for something. So, the rest of the evening, he’d say things like ‘dAll Americans, not you of course, know nothing and their brains are programmed like Schwarzenegger in Total Recall.’d The evening went on so late that I was tired all day today and tried to figure out if it was worth it.
This morning, shockingly exhausted, I went to meet the foreign press rep for the Ministry of Information. This building, the Ministry of Information headquarters, is so disgusting I thought what an embarrassment to have this be the government building that foreign press see most often. You walk in and it’s a huge lobby’dlike football field size or something. Maybe not that big, but big. And there are these massive columns everywhere, so you feel like you’re in a claustrophobic maze. And there is nothing in the lobby, no reception, no signs, no little candy shop. Nothing. And most of the light bulbs are burned out and there are weird shadows all over. You have to walk a ways through the lobby to find the elevator. It is so creepy. And the elevator is without question the oldest, dirtiest, slowest, most rundown thing I’dve ever been on. There’s garbage all over the lobby and all over the elevator. And a smell. It’s not roach spray or human sweat or rotting food. I don’t know what it is. Institutional decay, I guess. I ride the elevator up eight floors and it’s just as disgusting up there. Garbage in the hallways, crappy little dirty offices. The foreign press guy is waiting for me in his. He has a very nice suit and this showy purple scarf around his neck. He looks like quite the gentleman amid the debris. On the phone from Beirut, I explained that I only have one entry on my visa and am only coming to Syria to figure out what stories I want to do, so I’dll need to come back and I don’t want to waste this visa if it’dll be hard to get another. He was so nice on the phone, funny and charming, and said not to think about it, I’dll have another visa easily. In the office, he was stiff and cold. (Although every time the phone would ring, he’d become lively and nice. He has this weird phone/in-person split personality, I guess.) He wouldn’t talk to me until he reviewed my file, he said. He went out of the room. I looked around. The most interesting thing I saw is a sticker on his printer that has a lot of Arabic writing and a big swastika surrounded by an American and an Israeli flag. This can’t be good, I thought. I wanted to ask him to translate, but thought better of it. He came back in with a file. Several pages, maybe 10. as he flipped through it, I saw that each page was filled with writing and one of the pages was my letter requesting a visa from the embassy in DC. He looked through it and said that I would need to show my Jordan permanent resident card to be able to get a visa here, otherwise I have to get one in the US. I couldn’t believe it. He was basically telling me I’dm fucked after he’s the one who told me to come here. I don’t know if he saw something in the file that made him decide not to help me or if he was just being nice phone guy before and this is asshole in-person guy. Asshole is strong, but cold and unhelpful fits. He promised to set up these appointments for me, but he never called me.
Then I went to the old city of Damascus. It’s not like other old Middle Eastern cities I’dve been to. It’s more modern looking. Most of the buildings are probably 100 years old. But there is a big, old crusader wall around it and this massive Ummayad mosque which is impressive’sort of exactly what you picture when you imagine a grand Ottoman mosque. There’s supposed to be an amazing steam bath in there, a 500-year-old continuously operated one. I think I’dll try it tomorrow. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed by the old city. It’s just not exotic enough. Most of the merchants are selling clothes, cheap clothes. Just outside the old city was the coolest place. It’s this long street where people actually make tools for you. I mean, there’s blacksmiths who forge out metal hammer heads. And then you take the hammer head next door to a shop where there are all these bundles of sticks and the guy cuts a stick up and bangs the hammer head on and you’dve got yourself a hammer, or an axe, or a broom, or whatever it is you asked to have made on the spot. There’s sheet metal shops (each shop is about the size of a small single-car garage) where guys are banging out and grinding down ducts or whatever they’re making. Electronics shops where I think you can have whatever you want wired together on the spot. I think I’dll go tomorrow and do a radio story there. There’s such great sounds.
The info minister guy did set me up with the ministry of tourism. I went there, sat in the office of a woman big shot there. It’s exactly what so many Arab offices have been like. The big person sits behind the desk. There are a bunch of people sitting on couches around, occasionally talking or listening, but mostly just sitting there, drinking coffee and smoking. There’s a constant array of young assistants bringing in pieces of paper to be signed and stamped and gone over extensively. The Iraqi embassy is like this. Every Arab office is like this. The woman asked me what I think of Syria. I blathered on and in there somewhere said something like, it’s having an adventure without a risk. She said, I love that. We’re going to use that for our slogan in the US. So, if you see that slogan, I came up with it. Then she asked me to come up with a slogan for their women’s festival they’re having, where products made for and products made by women will be on display. The slogan has to be in Arabic, but she asked me to come up with one. I thought she was kidding and I laughed. And she said, no. get to work. So I sat there for half an hour writing out different ideas. The best I could come up with was ‘dWomen: You make the best things, and you deserve the best things.’d She thought it was brilliant. The silent men on the couches all said it’s beautiful. And it works much better in Arabic, she said. I felt quite proud. My first sloganeering job and it’s for the Syrian government.
I bought the second season of the Simpsons on DVD and I am very much enjoying it, but feeling a bit guilty that I’dm in Damascus watching the Simpsons instead of going out. So, I’dm going to go out.
By the way, I’dm getting on line by dialing long distance to Jordan and singing on through there. It’s expensive but makes me feel like this is safe to post.