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.

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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.

10 comments:

hannah said...

THEY LET YOU IN??? Damnit! They didn't let me in on vacation in 2008, due to the same double passport issue...

JEALOUS.

Katie said...

Eh, you didn't miss much. Damascus is a bit over-hyped as a tourist spot, truthfully.

I think the lack of stamp actually worked in my favor -- it gave them something to hassle me about. I've got one more entry, so we'll see if I can repeat the performance. Next time Aleppo!

Anonymous said...

Aleppo is amazing! The Souk is fascinating to walk through and I really enjoyed exploring the small back alleyways.

Funnily enough, Im pretty sure I have a photo of one of the same guys in the Ummayyad mosque. The one sitting down with the white headwear.

Hero to the Masses said...

Great story! I hope one day to have the onerous task of carrying two passports with me when I travel.

Katie said...

Yes, I sacrifice a lot for my country.

Joseph said...

I have a North Korean connection for your next vacation...I'm just sayin'

Katie said...

I'd be into that. I've always wanted to ride their metro.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon your blog and, like others, have spent the past 3 hours reading it from beginning to this latest post...and I thank you so much! I both laughed outloud and paused for reflection a number of different times. Your honesty shines through and was appreciated when I read the entry on the racial slur. Please keep blogging!

Hal said...

The funny thing is they gave you a hassle over being a diplomat, rather than a tourist.

See, a college friend of mine went to Syria as a tourist in... Hm. Must've been about 1985.

The Syrian response to him at the border was, "Ha, ha. We never see tourists. Who do you work for really, American spy?"

So at least they've gotten to the point where they acknowledge tourists come by every now and then. If anything, your diplomatic passport may even have been a relief to them, in a way (ie, you're openly a US govt employee, rather than one in disguise).

Anonymous said...

I had to write as another fan that has read every single post of your fantastic blog--not in one sitting however! I found myself sneaking peeks at later months when I was in the previous year for instance. Not having ever read anyone else's blog(except my own, which I stopped writing after a month), I found myself at various times of day and night thinking about books you cited and the conundrums of so-called diplomacy. A superb writer with exceptional wit, honesty, and wisdom, you remind me there is hope to be found in a suit and a desk...and a window. I trust that if and when I become an FSO, we might have a conversation, or three. Over coffee. Or mint tea. Please write more...Shukran jazeelan!