Monday, March 29, 2010

"a most prominent tourist destination in the world"

When Paul was on the road to Damascus*, I'm not sure he was in a hired Chrysler listening to Taylor Swift. If so, he might well have wished for deafness as well as blindness somewhere a bit north of Mufraq. I'm just speculating here, though; the Bible isn't clear on this point. It is clear that, like me, he needed assistance entering the city. Fair enough. Syria scores better than Jordan on some indices of religious freedom, but it's never been big into proselytizing. Or in my case, big into US government employees.

At the border I went self consciously to the 'foreigners' window instead of the 'diplomats' one. A bit of a moot point as both were manned by the same person, a short-ish guy I judged to be in his early twenties. He dutifully stepped a foot over and nodded to me through the wavy glass. His thick, olive-yellow uniform looked itchy.

"Hello." I spoke in Arabic, bending down a bit so my voice would carry through the window's pass back tray. We both smiled. 'See,' I thought. 'All it takes is a little kindness; Syrian-American relations are improving already.' All such thought was banished, however, by the nearly audible blanch of his face when he saw what I was offering: two thin little eagle-embossed books. "Uh... I have two passports." Lamely stating the obvious is a particular gift of mine. I might as well have said 'I have two infectious diseases' by the way he picked them up. I pressed on: "One is for work, and one is for tourism. I work in Jordan, but I'm going to Syria for tourism. So my Jordanian stamps are in that one" -- pointing to the passport I had carefully not referred to as 'diplomatic' -- "and my Syrian visa is in that one" -- pointing to the blue passport. Then I turned my attention to completing the entry application as if this were the most normal thing in the world. Because in most parts of the world, it is.

Peeking up again, I watched the corners of his mouth turn farther and farther down as he leafed through one passport and then the other. He called over a supervisor, and then another... Eventually five bodies were collected around my travel documents. Having completed my application, I stood quietly at the window trying to look guileless and inoffensive. The bodies peeled off and the original attendant returned, automatically taking the application form I passed to him with a faked air of optimism. He instructed me to sit; I sat. I sat and read Steppenwolf, to be precise. Hesse is pretty far off ideologically from Kaiser Wilhelm, but maybe the Syrians still connect Germany with Saladin worship.

After twenty or thirty minutes, he motioned me back to the window. "We've called the Foreign Ministry; you need a stamp from Jordan in this passport." He cleared his throat and held up... the blue one.

Sifting through a few possible reactions, I decided on 'somewhat-pious-maiden-in-distress'. "Oh," placing both hands on the counter, I leaned forward earnestly and opened my eyes wider. Guileless, guileless... "But that's illegal!" If nothing else, I was pleased my Arabic was holding up. "Illegal?" he repeated, appearing genuinely pained. "Yes," a lot of grave nodding on my part. "According to the law, all stamps from Jordan go in my work passport, because I work there. I don't think it's possible to have a Jordanian stamp in my tourist passport."

He shifted back and forth on his feet, uncomfortable. Having worked a window, I knew precisely how he was feeling; I also knew he was too junior to make a decision himself. "I'm sorry; you'll have to go back to the border. The Foreign Ministry said so. It's just five minutes." I sighed, semi-theatrically -- but what can you do.

My Jordanian driver took the news well at first, using the opportunity to double up on cigarette purchasing stops at the border's duty free shop. Yet at each border check point -- and there are many -- he conveyed my story with a steadily increasing tone of personal affront. "Why are you leaving so soon?" suspiciously asked one Syrian border guard who had seen us drive across only a short time before. The driver snorted and shoved both my passports at him indignantly. "She's a diplomat, so they're making her get another stamp." I (in the back of the car and still about 100 yards away from being diplomatically immune) nearly choked. I suppose he felt he was protecting my honor.

"Syrians are crazy," he said to each Jordanian border guard we saw, who repeated it back to him sympathetically. "Syrians are crazy," he said to me as we approached the Jordanian immigration checkpoint. We were approaching it in reverse, driving backwards around a barrier and down a one-way street with oncoming traffic. I nodded agreement, having decided it would be prudent to narrow my definition of 'crazy' to exclude driving practices. A few sad faces and hand presses at the Jordanian border, and I had the stamp. The Syrian custom official's supervisor looked it over in a punctilious, officious manner that I hoped his junior would never learn to copy.

And then I was in.


Damascus proper lacks the faded grandeur I had imagined from reading Ibn Battuta and Herodotus; instead, it appears to have passed 'faded' and progressed on to 'rotted'. Buildings pile on top of each other thickly, in the distance clinging to the side of the ferrous mountain like dough to the side of a bowl. From the rooftop terrace of my hotel, one can view whole blocks of abandoned, semi-collapsed mud buildings given over to cats who pick their way from wall to roof to fence. In the paved lot below there's a communal sink, used variously by taxi drivers and private vehicle owners, who fill buckets and plastic bottles. One street over is a soviet-looking statue surrounded by four fountain heads. This was the focal point of yesterday's 'Viva Palestine' rally that I ducked into a hotel lobby to avoid.

What Syria lacks in grandeur it makes up for in Iranians**. The hotel lobby was awash in shapeless black bodies, some of whom would send their men over to try and communicate Farsi language requests to the Arabic speaking reception. As I was changing money to pass the time while the Viva Palestine rally likewise passed, the desk worker shook his head at me. "I can't understand anything they say." Throwing up his hands, he switched to English. "Five days, all Iranians. Stay five days only, many many, then finish." It appeared to be bringing him a great deal of business, but he didn't seem all that pleased with the situation. Still, I rather enjoyed mingling with them at the Old City shops and once in a press of bodies as they streamed out of the Umayyad Mosque and bore me almost bodily to the Sayyida Ruqayya Shrine. How often does an American get to say she spent her afternoon among the people of Iran? Two 'state sponsors of terrorism' in one go is pretty good, if you ask me.

At the end of the weekend, I'd bought nothing -- but I read 300 pages. That's a quality vacation.

*I suppose for the weekend of Palm Sunday I ought to have been more properly traveling to Jerusalem; in my defense, Jesus didn't have a soon-to-expire Syrian visa burning a hole in his pocket.

**There are two important Shiite shrines in Damascus, and my visit happened to coincide with the Iranian festival of Nowruz.

Monday, March 15, 2010

I have always relied upon the kindness of الشباب

Yesterday coming back from dropping a friend off at his hotel, I was shunted down a side street by some construction. In Jordan, being shunted down a street invariably means driving on for miles and miles with no turn around point. You really shouldn't fight it: it's like death and taxes and Fourth of July countdown meetings. You just have to ride it out.

Only this time the shunting included the added variable of a very low gas tank. Very low. Much lower than I had realized. As one identical city block gave way to the next, the gas gauge needle was falling in an inverse proportion to my anxiety. Which was rising. A lot. Gas stations are few and far between in Jordan, emphasis here on 'few' and 'far'.

By the time the gas light came on, I was in a semi-controlled panic. Here I was, set to run out of fuel on the side of some unnamed street in the middle of who-knows-where at 11 o'clock at night on a schoolday. I thought about calling a friend, but how would she ever find me? "Kate, I'm out of gas! Tell Dave to come pick me up -- I'm right next to a pharmacy. He'll know it by the adjacent pile of rubble and the loitering stray cats."

So I did what any smart diplomat would do in the middle of the night in the Near East on an unmarked road with no streetlights: I pulled up next to a group of youth and practiced my Arabic. To their credit, they acted as if this happened to them every day. And who knows, maybe it does.

"Excuse me -- could you help me? I'm looking for a gas station." It's worth pointing out here that implying you'd like directions is about the stupidest thing you could ever do in Amman. Earlier when I'd called my friend's hotel to get its location, I talked to three different employees before one finally admitted, "We're sorry; we just can't assist you." So what I was actually hoping was for one of the young men to pull a gas can out of his pocket. Stranger things have happened.

The group members exchanged a few 'have-you-got-a-gas-can?' glances, then one brave soul stepped forward and shrugged. "I'll take you there." And he reached for my keys...

At this point I had a split second decision to make. Get in a car (my car) with a strange guy who is going to drive me (presumably) to a gas station. Or run out of gas and be surrounded by a lot of strange guys without any real means of escape. Not, actually, that difficult a decision in the end. Though I did offer a silent apology to the RSO shop as I slid into the passenger seat.

"How do I adjust the chair?" my savior and / or abductor asked. "Ah, it's broken." "Oh," brief pause while, in lieu of the carseat, he adjusted his glasses. "Is this okay?" He indicated the oil light, which was blinking. "Umm, also broken." I may not have been smart enough to avoid buying a car on the local market, but I did pat myself on the back for having randomly memorized the word for 'broken' that morning. At this point he was probably wondering about his own safety, but we started off just the same. His friends' heads swiveled to watch us depart as if they were on a single collective pivot.

We chatted a bit in the car while he steered us through intersections and alleys, down a path I had no chance of retracing on my own; I figured if I was on my way to my death, I ought to at least enjoy the last few moments beforehand. "Are you here for work, or school..?" he asked. "Work; I'm with the US Embassy." No point in lying about these things. He told me he was an airline steward for chartered flights, though also did work as a tailor. The words 'steward' and 'tailor' he said in English, which made me wonder if he was using my old language class tactic of just saying what you know, not necessarily what was true. He would, of course, very much like to go to America some day. "You would be most welcome," was my reply, one of the few times I've really and truly meant it.

20 minutes later and 30 JD fewer, we left the gas station to return to his random street corner. His friends were stacked up along the curb like a glee club, clearly awaiting his return with some interest. "I am so sorry; I've been a lot of trouble." I wasn't sure what to do: offer him money? shake his hand? "No, it was a small thing; it's normal." He jumped out of the car and pointed down a street; "The Embassy is that way."

Part of your job as a diplomat is to remind foreigners that Americans are people, not just policies or movie caricatures; it's nice to be reminded of the flip side of that yourself from time to time.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Hosting a high level visitor turns out to be a lot like hosting a dinner party, only you don't get to pick the guests, and the guests happen to control your salary. There's a lot of talk of who sits where, who eats what, event themes, name placards... Suddenly the Embassy is very very clean. VVIPs and their entourages must be constantly woozy from fresh paint and floor wax fumes, which is probably why they feel we have the power to subvert basic laws of physics when incorporating seats at tables or getting bodies from one place to another in record time. But of course, we do have those powers: we're professional diplomats, after all. And that is what I reminded myself of while making "Restrooms -->" signs. I can't hang them up till closer to my event, however, since the paint on the wall still hasn't dried.

[Postscript: Well, that could have gone better. But at least everyone knew where the toilets were.]