The Last Tourist in Syria

In search of old friends and new realities in a surreal and empty Damascus.


DAMASCUS — Is this your first visit to Syria, the passport control man asks me. No, I tell him, I came here once before over a decade ago. He stamps my passport. I had been very lucky to get a Syrian visa this time. The travel advice was not to visit. The Syrian regime is very wary of foreigners, fearing that journalists and spies are inflaming the situation further. I collect my bag and walk through customs, passing a poster, of modest size, of President Bashar al-Assad with the words in Arabic proclaiming: "Leader of the youth, hope of the youth."

I jump in a taxi. I ask the driver how are things in Syria. Things are fine, he assures me. There has been some trouble around the country, but things are OK in Damascus. As we drive, we chat. He points out the area where Druze live. With his hand, he waves in another direction to where Palestinian refugees live, and then again to where Iraqi refugees live. Alawites are over there and in villages. Christians this way and in villages. Sunnis are around 65 percent of the population. Kurds live in the north. Many different peoples live in Syria. I ask him how he knows who someone is or whether they are Sunni or Shiite. He tells me that he does not know and it does not interest him to know: there is no sectarianism here in Syria. We pass Damascus University. Outside there are lots of flags and pictures of Bashar and his deceased father.

Across the city, the Syrian flag is flying strong and photos of the president are omnipresent. As I drive through al-Umawiyeen Square, I see lots of young men and women gathering holding Syrian flags. It is not a demonstration, a Syrian tells me, it is a celebration — a celebration of the regime. Later, I watch the event on television. It has made the international news. Tens of thousands of Syrians have come out to al-Umawiyeen Square to show their support for President Bashar al-Assad in a lively celebration which includes pop singers and fireworks.

When I had visited previously, the city had been filled with huge pictures of Hafez al-Assad; and Bashar had been studying ophthalmology in London. The death of his elder brother, Basil, in a car crash, propelled him back into the family business of ruling Syria.

In the evening, I stroll down the street to a restaurant. It is very modern and western. All you can eat sushi for $20. I try to read my emails on my blackberry. I switch between two different networks. But can only receive GPS not GPRS. The restaurant claims to have WiFi. I ask the waiter. There is WiFi, he tells me, but it is not working at the moment. Nor is Facebook. Internet access is limited.

I walk through souq al-hamdiyya in the old city of Damascus. It is a wide, pedestrianized street, two-story high, and covered. It is buzzing with life. Store owners sit outside their shops, trying to entice potential customers. Traders sell their wares down the middle of the street. Walking with the flow of people, I emerge to find the Umayyad Mosque directly in front of me.

I go to the ticket office, pay the entrance fee for foreigners and collect a hooded grey cloak to cover myself. The cloaks come in three sizes. A woman sitting there directs me towards the smallest size. The cloak stinks and I wonder when it was last washed and how many women have had to wear it in the sweltering summer heat. I put the cloak on over my clothes, pulling up the pointed hood to ensure my hair is covered. I enter the Umayyad mosque — built on the site of a shrine dedicated to John the Baptist — looking like a member of the Ku Klux Klan except dressed in grey, and carrying my shoes in my hand. I wander into the covered area where hundreds of people are praying, men in one area, women in another. I walk out to the courtyard. In one area, a group is seated on the ground. One man is kneeling, raising his arms, weeping "ya Hussein." The others follow suit, tears flowing, looking quite distraught.

I pass three women sitting on the ground in their black abayas. One makes a rude comment about my cloak, saying I should be dressed in an abaya like hers. She is stunned when I speak back to her. Where are you from, she asks me. London, Britain, I respond. Where are you from, I ask her. Babil, Iraq, she replies. They are here for religious tourism, she tells me. She explains that both Sunnis and Shiites pray in the Umayyad mosque. She points to the Shrine of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and son of Ali, who was killed by the Umayyads at Kerbala in Iraq.

Another group is being addressed in Farsi by a man in a turban. Iranian pilgrims. While Western tourism has dried up completely, religious Muslim tourism appears to be thriving.

I walk down Straight Street, which is mentioned in the Biblical story of Paul’s conversion to Christianity. I observe a Christian liquor store with a picture of President Bashar displayed prominently. Turning on to a narrow cobbled street, I pass two men sitting on chairs, drinking tea. One turns to the other, asking: who says there are no tourists in Syria? There’s one! I turn around and tell them that I am the only foreigner I have seen. They invite me to join them, and bring me a chair and tea. One is a hotel owner. He recently converted an old Arab house into a boutique hotel. Last year, he rented rooms for $400 a night. Now he has reduced the rate to $100. But like all other hotels in town, his hotel is down to zero occupancy.

The other man is a tourist guide. He is deeply frustrated. We need change, he tells me. It becomes clear that these two friends, one of whom is Christian, the other a Sunni, hold different opinions. The hotel owner states that Bashar is a very good man. He is educated. He is decent. The problem is with the circle of advisers around him. He points to his friend, the tourist guide, describing him as one the "shaab yurid," (the people want), referring to the slogan of revolutionaries around the Arab world. What do they want? Freedom?!!! What do they mean by freedom? Who is better than Bashar? If he is removed, the country could descend into chaos like Iraq. There are hardly any Christians living in Iraq now. The tourist guide, however, insists that two thirds of the people in Syria want change. And he will continue to support the growing movement of opposition to the regime.

I do not immediately recognize the Iraqi Awakening Leader. We have not seen each other for two years. He has put on weight and is not dressed in military uniform. We greet each other warmly. He cannot believe that I am here, that I have managed to meet him. He is really touched. We first met back in 2007 in Baghdad when he set up his Awakening and brought peace to his area, working closely with the U.S. military. He always stood out as he was so professional. However, in 2009 he had been arrested in Baghdad on what appeared to be trumped up charges. He was released after ten days but the incident had made him nervous. He was fearful that at any stage false allegations could be brought against him leading to his detention. Along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, he had sought refuge in Syria.

We sit in a café in the Old City chatting about the past. He reminds me that I once called him "batal" hero for saving the lives of so many people — Iraqis and Americans. He talks about how he once went to Bahrain with the U.S. military and met with General Petraeus and Admiral Fallon; and how Ambassador Khalilzad once asked his advice on how to set up Awakenings in Afghanistan. He tells me that new Iraqi Army officers had said to him: just wait. The Americans will treat you like they did the red Indians. They will throw you aside in the same way as they discard a used match. I ask him: How did you expect it would end? He tells me that he had hoped that the relationship would be a long one, that he and other Awakening leaders would work together with the Americans to combat the Iranian influence. But he had been wrong. And they had been right.

We taxi a taxi to Sayda Zainab, 10 kilometers outside Damascus, which is the area where most Iraqis are living. It has the feel of Karbala. The mosque contains the grave of Zainab, the daughter of Ali and Fatimah — the grand-daughter of the Prophet. Markets have sprung up around the mosque. Restaurants are barbequing masgoof, with fish they have brought live from the Euphrates. There is a large bustling bus station, with offices selling tickets to Karbala, Najaf, Baghdad as well as other Iraqi provinces. The Syrian government claims that there are 1.2 million Iraqis living in Syria. International organizations, however, believe that many of these have now returned to Iraq and that the numbers are around 300,000 (60% Sunni, 20% Shiite, 20% Christian). Some have returned to Iraq to explore employment opportunities there. Some have left Damascus recently due to the increasing unrest. I hear that one community recently sent back six families to see how they get on. One member of a family was murdered so that deterred others from going. Others calculate that they receive better services in Syria than Iraq.

The Awakening Leader tells me that the Syrians are very good to the Iraqis. Iraqis are grateful to Bashar for giving them sanctuary. In Syria, Iraqis of different ethnicities and sects live together. However, the troubles in Syria are also impacting on Iraqis, increasing sectarian tensions within their community. There has also been some reports of Palestinians, expelled from Kuwait in 1991, beating up Iraqis, blaming them for Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait which then led to their expulsion (due to Yasir Arafat’s support of Saddam.)

The Awakening Leader has applied to the United States for a visa and is waiting to hear the response. I tell him that whenever I meet with U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq they always ask after the Awakening Leaders they served with. I tell him that if the decision was up to the U.S. military, he would get a visa to the United States. I assure him that the bonds that he has with those soldiers are real and genuine. He knows. He is still in email contact with them. We are brothers, he tells me. But the decision is in the hands of others. I advise him not to put his life on hold. But he cannot work legally in Syria. And he is afraid to return to Iraq. Where can he go?

Satellite channels show footage from around the country. In Homs and Hama tens of thousands are taking to the streets, chanting "Bashar, go." The government television tells people not to worry. Everything is under control. Al-Jazeera is blamed for spreading lies and sedition, pushing foreign agendas. The government urges people not to believe the propaganda that members of the military are deserting. State TV blames Islamic fundamentalists, criminals, and gangs for the unrest.

Seventy percent of us want change, the taxi driver tells me. He admits to participating in demonstrations in Damascus against the regime and asks me if I would like to come along with him to see them. As the only tourist in Syria, I tell him, I would be somewhat conspicuous. I tell the driver that I don’t want to see him on TV, lying dead. Up to two thousand people have died so far since the protests began a few months ago. He smiles as he tells me that he is not scared to die.

I walk by the U.S. Embassy. The level of security there is very high. A few days earlier, protesters had breached the Embassy compound and the ambassador’s residence to supplant the American flags with Syrian ones. This was in reaction to the visit by the U.S. ambassador to the city of Hama, where the residents have been organizing demonstrations. The ambassador had visited the city to see for himself what was happening in the town. Hama is renowned for its water wheels. And yet etched in most people’s minds, Hama will forever be associated with the Muslim brotherhood insurrection in the 1980s, which Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of Hafez al-Assad, brutally crushed. The exact number of people killed will never be known but many believe it was over 20,000 residents of Hama.

The government is furious about the ambassador’s visit. I hear differing views. Some claim that the Americans are deliberately stoking up sectarian tensions and causing the problems in Hama; others believe that the visit prevented more people being killed by showing that the international community was watching. One Syrian tells me that the Americans are supporting the regime — why else would the regime have allowed the visit to go ahead!

I jump into a taxi to go to the bus station mahatat harista to get a bus to Palmyra. The taxi driver is a smiling Damascene in his twenties whose ancestral origins, he tells me, are Turkish. He graduated from university in economics and trade but there is no work so he is having to earn a living as a taxi driver. It is not right, he says. There have to be reforms. The driver sees the difficult economic situation in Syria as part of a global trend. He points out the demonstrations taking place in different European countries.

There is no better man than Bashar, he tells me. He is an educated man. He studied in London. He is decent. He is not a killer. The problem, the driver tells me, is the people around Bashar. There is a circle of bad people around him. His brother Maher is a different character and is similar to their uncle Rifaat, who is notorious for crushing the demonstrators in Hama thirty years ago.

We talk about events in the region. The driver said that Ben Ali lasted three days, and Mubarak 17 days before they gave up power peacefully. Gadaffi is mentally ill, he thinks he is the king of kings. He laughs as he imitates the speech the Libyan leader made, saying he would hunt people down alley by alley, zanga zanga. As for Syria, the driver says, the regime will not give up power peacefully.

We discover that the station for buses to Palmyra has moved to the Pullman station due to current "events." The driver shows me the cost of the journey on the meter. I insist on paying him double. He refuses. I insist. God be with you, he says, as he waves me farewell.

To get into the bus station, I am surprised to find I have to put my bag through an X-ray machine and walk through a screen. However, there is no indication that the machines are working as no one seems to be paying much attention and no beeps or lights go off. Once through the entrance, I discover a multitude of offices selling tickets to the same destinations. I am immediately approached by touts trying to get me to buy from their office and offering me special VIP treatment. I shrug them off. I have not a clue which company to chose. I approach a man and explain to him where I want to go and ask him how I decide which company to take.

He takes me through to the back where the buses are lined up. Some are really modern air-conditioned large ones. Others are much less luxurious. He points to Ayman company and recommends I take that one. 250 Syrian pounds ($5) for the 250-kilometer trip. I am then directed to the police station "next to the picture of the president." Inside, I am asked to present my passport. My ticket is then stamped. In front of a few others, the officer tells me that next time I come I must give him a mobile phone as a present. I respond that I am the only tourist at the moment in Syria and next time he must give me a present. Everyone laughs, including the officer.

I spend the next 45 minutes sitting on a bench watching people go by. Young guys in jeans looking quite Western. Older men in dishdashas and kaffiya. Young women wearing tight fitting jeans and shirts, heads covered with veils. Others wearing more traditional abayas or long fashionable trench coats (in the summer’s heat) which cover most of their contours. A woman smiles at me as she passes. A man offers to sell me a lottery ticket before he realizes I am a tourist and grins. No one stares. Everyone is friendly.

On the bus, the assistant of the conductor gives each one of us a plastic cup, a black plastic bag for our rubbish, and a sweet. During the journey, he brings us water. He also tapes newspaper across the top of the windscreen to protect the driver from glares of the sun. First, we listen to recital of passages from the Quran. And then an Egyptian movie is shown. There are no headphones so everyone can hear it but fortunately the sound is not turned up very loud.

Before we left the station, a policeman had come on to the bus to check everyone’s identity papers. On the outskirts of Damascus, a military check point stops cars coming into town. Two soldiers are sitting under a canopy while a third sits on a little stool by the side of the road in the full blaze of the sun. On the outskirts of Palmyra, our bus is stopped. A man comes on board to check IDs. He barely looks at my passport, but examines closely the IDs of the Syrians. He is wearing a deep blue jump suit, with green webbing stuffed with ammunition. I look out the window. Two men in jeans, with rifles slung over their shoulders are stopping cars and asking to see IDs. I look out the front window and see a third man sitting under a canopy beside a pick up truck with a weapon fixed on the back. Initially, I think they are a militia. It is only when the man in the blue jump suit walks back past me to get off the bus that I notice the white initials CTU on his back. I assume CTU stands for counter-terrorism unit. I turn to the passenger next to me and whisper: are they with the government? He nods nervously.

After an afternoon siesta in my hotel in Palmyra, where I am the only guest, I head out to visit the ruins. I go first to Baal temple. The caretaker is surprised to see me and offers me a cup of tea. He seems glad for the company. He told me that they used to receive 300 to 400 people a day, prior to four months ago when the troubles began. I pay 500 Syrian pounds ($10) entrance fee for all the sites.

I walk alone among the ruins for three hours. No one is here. Just me. I marvel at the pillars. Some had been brought centuries ago from Aswan in southern Egypt to Palmyra. I never understood how. I am taken back through the centuries to the time of the Emperor Hadrian, to Queen Zenobia’s rebellion against the Roman Empire. I imagine people walking along the colonnade, chatting as they go about their daily affairs; discussions held in the theater; feasts in the banquet hall. I continue up to Diocletian’s camp, where his army once was based.

In the evening, I chat with a Syrian businessman over a bottle of wine outside on the balcony while the wind howls around us. He has met Bashar a number of times and thinks he is a really decent man. The problem is those around him who prevent change. The economic situation is causing disaffection. People are protesting and demanding "freedom" without any definition of what that entails. The businessman says that in Syria’s history it has always been the business class who determines who rules. If the business class withdraws its support from the regime, then it will fall. So far, the business people are staying with the current regime.

We discuss relations between the West and the Muslim world. Bin Laden destroyed the reputation of Muslims, the Syrian shakes his head sadly. When people in the West think of Muslims they think of bin Laden. But this is wrong. Muslims are peaceful people. Bin Laden and George W. Bush are two sides of the same coin. We should not judge Muslims nor Christians by them.

The businessman tells me that as much as every Syrian says there is no sectarianism, sectarian tensions in the country are rising. There are problems now between Sunnis and Alawites. I tell him that Iraqis claim they did not have sectarianism before 2003, but the introduction of "quotas" for different ethnicities and sects, the collapse of state institutions, and the targeting of the security forces and terrorists, led to the country unraveling into a Hobbesian world. The businessman tells me that many Syrians are waiting to see in which direction things appear to be heading before they commit to one side or another.

He says that al-Jazeera Arabic consistently runs stories about people being killed across the country, how bad the regime is etc. This incited youth in Palmyra to take to the streets and protest. He tells me that the problems in Syria began initially in Dera’a where some school children wrote on the wall the revolutionary chant heard on the streets of Tunis and Cairo: "as-shaab yurid isqaat al-nizaam" (the people want to change the regime). The local security official, detained the children, and had their finger-nails pulled out. This horrified people. The government did not respond in the right way. And protests began to increase across the country.

The businessman asks me if I think the United States will intervene militarily in Syria. I tell him that this is most unlikely. There is not the will in the U.S., nor the support of Russia and China. It is clear that the regime is not going to give up easily. Will Bashar be able to reach a compromise with the protesters, agreeing to significant reforms and free elections, without the Alawites deposing him? Or will the regime try to crush the protests through violence? Can Syrians prevent their country from plunging into a bloody civil war?

I am the only tourist I have seen during my visit to Syria. The beautiful boutique hotels, established in restored Arab houses, lie empty. The rug stores and galleries have no customers. There are no visitors to the castles and archaeological sites of Syria. The economy is reliant on Iran, Iraq and the Gulf. What should the international community be doing to help prevent conflict before it breaks out? Can the Turks or Scandinavians — or others — help bring the different parties together to mediate some solution before it is too late?

Driving across Damascus, my taxi pulls up at a crossroads. Suddenly, I notice a hundred or so men, meters away to my right, dressed scruffily in grey, and carrying large batons. They look menacing and I feel scared. A policeman in the car in front of me gets out and shouts directions to the gang. Who are these people, I ask the taxi driver. They are with the regime, he tells me. They are going over to the mosque to make sure there are no demonstrations after Friday prayers. He is not in the slightest bit perturbed.

The internal security are Alawite-dominated. The feared Shabiha are the regime’s deniable proxies. It is these people who are being sent to beat up demonstrators, and it is this that is increasing sectarian tensions. It is not clear if they can be controlled. The military has not yet been used in the cities for fear of defections.

I stand for ages staring at a series of paintings in a gallery inside a beautiful Damascene house. The paintings are by a well-known Syrian artist. He paints heads — heads without mouths and ears.

I climb up the stairs to another art gallery, entering a treasure trove of arts and crafts. I walk through the pottery and fabrics to the paintings. Some are displayed on the walls. Others are piled up against the wall. The manager is a Palestinian originally from Safed. He carries a Syrian passport in which is written that he is Palestinian. He is able to work in Syria — but not to vote. He is a self-taught talented calligrapher. Most of his paintings are by Iraqis, who fled the violence of their homeland after 2003 and took refuge in Syria. I examine the paintings of landscapes and faces, camels and chickens, images of a home left behind. And then I come across an artist whose work talks to me. I decide on a painting that he has done on canvas with coffee. Among the brown stains he has painted four little stripes of color. Rays of hope.

On the road heading out to the airport, I visit a house that friends call the "furniture graveyard." Turn off the road at the chickens, were the directions. Set back fifty meters is an inauspicious looking building with a few out houses. A man greets me, and invites me to come into the room. Two young men are sitting at a work bench, shaping small pieces of mother of pearl against a filing machine. I watch with fascination although fearful that a lapse of concentration will send fingers flying through the air. In front of them is a piece of wood into which they insert the different shapes and sizes of mother of pearl that they have so carefully shaped. Stacked against the walls behind them are beautiful boxes, tables and chests of drawers which they have so painstakingly restored. Beautiful Damascene furniture that the city has been famed for through the centuries — the mosaic of wood, mother of pearl and stone that makes Syria so unique.

As I sit in the beautiful courtyard of Beit al-Jabri in the old city, eating my last plate of fuul before I depart, I feel sad. Damascus is perhaps the most beautiful city I have visited in the Middle East. Syrians are the friendliest and kindest of people, as Palestinian and Iraqi refugees attest. Will the Syrians be able to prevent their country deteriorating into a bloody civil war, along the lines of Iraq? I hope so. But I really am not sure.

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