DAMASCUS, Syria — While in Aleppo I had the pleasure to meet Syria’s “shadow tourism minister” a 24-year-old university student named Hassan.
While the Syrian government fails to counter the Bush administration’s characterization of a rogue state terrorist training ground and other nonsense, Mr. Hassan spends hours on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree chat board extolling the virtues of Syrian tourism. I had contacted him a few weeks ago and we arranged to go for a walking tour, gratis, through the ancient city.
He took me up to the citadel, an ancient fortress, and to a medieval lunatic asylum that looked a lot more humane than its modern counterparts. It was adorned with water fountains — not for dunking heads in as I postulated — but because the sound of running water is soothing, he explained.
Later on we went to the university to cruise for chicks. We met his innumerable friends and I got to engage in the Syrian young-person’s favorite past-time of shyly making eyes with females at other tables. Romantically, Syrian youth have to move slowly, with kissing only permitted after you’re engaged, it was explained to me.
In the last dispatch, I was extolling the virtues of crossing Syrian streets. While walking along a busy street, Hassan and I were discussing the traffic hazards in the city. Along for the stroll was Bashir, a young Syrian who through disciplined self-elocution lessons, sounds like a broadcaster from BBC World Service when he speaks. Also was soft-spoken Abdul, whose family now lives in Chicago following his father’s release from prison following a 25-year stint as a political prisoner.
Hassan was telling me that in the past year, as many as 10 people have been killed in traffic accidents in his village, about 30 clicks from Aleppo. Just then, we heard the sickening screech of tires and a loud crunch. I swiveled to look as a car was peeling away and saw a man down on the pavement.
I ran over to him, he was writhing in shock, blood fountaining out of his head. He was trying to get up, but his left leg hung at an unnatural angle. I spun around and started to block traffic, while trying to tell the guy not to stay down. I wasn’t sure if it was just his leg or was in his death throes.
Hassan screamed for an ambulance, but when a taxi pulled up, began to lift him into the back.
“Don’t move him!” I cried, “wait for the ambulance!”
“No ambulance!” Hassan yelled, “or maybe one in an hour – no time!”
With the help of a passerby, they loaded the man in the backseat.
“You’re coming with me,” the taxi driver told Hassan. “Otherwise the police will blame me!”
“Follow us in another taxi!” Hassan commanded.
It was the middle of rush hour and it took us 20 minutes to hail another cab. We arrived at the university hospital, where there was the usual throng of grieving relatives orbiting the entrance just like any ER.
We muscled our way through the throng and past the guard. It was a dingy place, but looked sterile enough. Faded wooden paneling from the 1960s reminding me of my high school were the decor. We found Hassan with the man in the radiology room. His head was bandaged and his leg swollen huge, but they’d given him a shot for the pain.
“My leg! I can’t feel my leg! Is it with Allah?” He cried. Hassan explained to him that he’d gotten a local anasthetic. He was puzzled by my presence. I think I was the first person he saw after he got hit.
“I speak little English,” he told me. But his shock made it hard for him to say more. We took turns sitting with him waiting for his family to arrive. I looked at the graffiti over the X-Ray machine.
“U.S.A. Under Attack”
There had been a power failure, while the lights and fans worked, the X-Ray machine was down until further notice. Every few minutes the radiologist would come in and check the machine, but it was still dead.
The man kept muttering in Arabic how thankful he was to me, and I was trying to explain to him that it was Hassan, not me, that had gotten himself soaked in blood lifting him into the taxi.
This police arrived and took a description of the car. I was relieved when they showed me no interest.
His family arrived. The women in long black robes with only their faces showing. His wife/sister/aunt/mother figure saw the bandage on his head and wailed in grief. The doctor explained that his head wound didn’t seem serious and it was only his leg that appeared broken.
We filed out of there. I was thankful of being able to get the Syrian hospital experience in without injuring myself.
Look both ways, people.
That evening I traveled with Hassan’s friend Mahmoud to a village about an hour’s drive outside of Aleppo. His family cooked me a lavish meal and we went and smoked argileh (tobacco water pipe – really) on the village’s main street. A crowd of young men joined us. To most of them, I was the first American they’d ever met in the flesh. We discussed everything from small talk to geopolitics and I think it was good for them to have a face (mine) to associate with aggressive US foreign policy.
The next morning, Mahmoud and I got a taxi driver to take us out to the “Dead Cities” which are impressive 7th century ruins from a series of cities that were abandonded after the Crusades. After an hour’s scramble, I got my usual “marble fatigue” and was ready to return.
After hearty goodbyes, I got the bus to Palmyra, some of the most complete Roman ruins. The town funtioned mostly on tourism and it was the first time I encountered aggressive panhandling by five-year-olds in Syria. Marble fatigue soon set in, and I was off to Damascus — the capital.
Standing in line at a food stall near the old city, a well-dressed man struck up conversation with me.
“This food – I don’t know what it is, either.”
The cook was ladeling garbanzo beans into bowls.
“I think it is fool (beans), they’re good,” I said.
The man introduced himself as a gynecologists from Baghdad. He was on his way to Egypt to see about moving his family and practice there since things were so chaotic in Iraq.
“Here – we are friends,” he told me as he treated me to a bowl of hot fool. “But in Iraq – it would be different.” I was catching his drift.
I asked him who he thought was behind all of the suicide bombings that were targeting poor shi’ites. His answer was not untypical — I’d heard it many times from others in the Middle East.
“It is not Iraqis. It is CIA, Mossad, they do this in Iraq. You know about al-Basrah?”
He was referring to the capture of two disguised British soldiers who were allegedly planting explosives. They were arrested by Iraqi police and imprisoned. A British tank barged through the prison walls, freeing them. This sparked days of violent anti-British demonstrations in the city.
I asked him if the US troops left tomorrow – would this be a good thing? An Iraqi lawyer I’d met in Tartus, Syria, had told me that while he hated the occupation, he feared the consequences of a sudden withdrawal.
“Yes, it would be a good thing,” he said matter-of-factly.
Would there be civil war? I asked.
“Look, I am sunna. My father was shi’a. My wife is shi’a. We don’t have these differences, it is the Americans that want to make these differences,” he said.
I told him about the Iraqi lawyer I’d spoken to.
“There are many agents,” he muttered darkly. “They travel around and speak like this, how good the occupation is.” His comments betrayed how little Iraqis trust their fellow countrymen these days.
But what was the purpose of the war? The oil?
“It was not oil,” he said. “Because Saddam gave away oil for free. There are religious people, they want to destroy the dome of the rock in Jerusalem. It’s in the first book of the Bible, the Torah.”
Very few people believe in this kind of nonsense, I said, knowing that that isn’t completely true.
“Maybe,” he said. “But the people in power these days – they do.”
I’d rather think of the whole murderous adventure as a bloody get-richer-quicker scheme, and not a Amargeddonists’ doomsday plot. Because, the latter, I told him, is just too terrifying to consider.