BROOKLYN, New York — Capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Amman is just over a three hour drive from Syria’s capital Damascus. Both countries operate and maintain a fleet of comfortable air-conditioned buses that are efficient and inexpensive. Or you can take the train, which is even cheaper. Most Syrians give the train a wide berth. I decided to investigate.
Connecting Jordan in Syria is the Hadjez Railway. A twisted narrow-gauge stretch of track through some pretty unspectacular scenery, the railway was built by the Ottomans more than a hundred years ago as part of a project to connect Istanbul with Mecca. The “Sick of Man of Europe” fell before the project was ever completed, and what track was lain in present-day Saudi Arabia has long been abandoned.
These days there is a twice-weekly service connecting Jordan and Syria’s capital cities. A mere eleven hours’ journey, as soon as I saw my train I knew I’d be treated to a little living history.
At 6:30 a.m., I took a taxi out to the dusty Khaddam station on the outskirts of Damascus. At the end of the yard sat the train; an archaic Romanian diesel behemoth, idling beside scuttled wooden boxcars deteriorating from rot. The single passenger car had every one of its windows jammed open, not a pane of glass remained. Wooden benches passed for seats, and the WC … we don’t speak of the WC.
A family pulled up to the train in a miniature Japanese minivan, and proceeded to load its contents onto the single flatcar behind the locomotive and the passenger car. Behind the passenger car, three boxcars made up the freight portion were locked securely (I checked). So I shelled out the last of my Syrian money ($4USD) for the journey.
There is no buffet service or water on the train and for that I was grateful. For it was the third day of Ramadan and I didn’t want to be tempted during my fast.
I’d already succumbed to weakness once before; I was invited into a house and served lunch by a Christian family in a small village. There’s no polite way to turn down such hospitality and besides I was hungry. Though I’m not a Muslim, I hoped to show a little more willpower. The past couple days I’d done just fine and was feeling confident. No food, no water, no cigarettes until sundown. I was amazed how many Muslims were still smoking. They’d offer me one and I’d say, La, Ramadan! and try and make them look ashamed. Some were, others shrugged as if to say, ‘Hey, I’m an addict what can I do?
The Romanian locomotive growled and we set off, bouncing down the track, rolling through the southern industrial slums of Damascus. The children of the neighborhoods all ran out to greet the train, waving and grinning broadly at our passing. When they caught sight of me, a pale westerner with a bandana around his face like a train robber, their excitement seemed to reach a crescendo. They were courteous enough not to throw rocks. The track was in bad repair and we bounced, jostled, shimmied, and scraped our way south, never exceeding 25 mph.
A few hours later, we stopped and a man boarded, shouting at me in emphatic Arabic that I needed to get off the train. I was skeptical, but finally acquiesced. There was a bus parked outside, and he said I needed to board it. Some of the railworkers were on the bus, so I gave in.
I struck up conversation with a worker, who upon learning of my nationality wanted nothing more than to talk about his favorite bands: The Eagles, Michael Bolton, George Michael, and other Titans of Pop. When I was finally able to steer the conversation to the railroad, it got interesting. He had just returned from a month-long trip to China, to see the new trains the government was buying to replace the old Eastern European engines.
“These trains, they are from Romania,” he explained.
“The factory is– is–” he gestured wildly, “not open,
“Closed? Shut?” I ventured.
“Yes, shut. So we get no parts. We make them ourselves,” he said, leaning in close to tell me a secret, “but that’s no good.”
He was excited, he said, because he was about to travel to “Czechoslovakia” for six months for a train driving course.
After about ten miles or so, we hit the next town to meet the train again. Why did they pull me off the train to just put me back on? “It’s better for you — more comfortable,” he said. The few other passengers glowered at me when I reboarded. I couldn’t blame ’em.
Approaching the last town in Syria, I looked out the window and lo and behold there were at least 40 sunburned British trainspotters. Railfans, in American parlance. Or foamers, as freight riders derisively call ’em. (Their unabashed enthusiasm for all things “train” causes them to salivate Uncontrollably hence the term ‘foamer’). We pulled into the depot, and I spotted several 19th century steam engines, which appeared to be in good running order.
I got off the train, greeted by pandemonium of railworkers, passengers, foamers, and curious passersby. There was an open market in full-swing on the edge of the yard, and it was spilling over into depot. We pulled up next to a Jordanian train, which true to the Kingdom’s political alliances, was powered by two General Electric diesel-electric locomotives of ’70s vintage. The trains summarized their respective country’s Cold War stance pretty effectively.
Chatting to the Brits, I learned that they’d chartered the steam engine from Amman to Damascus. They were crawling all over the place, snapping pictures. Even waving me out of the way, so I wouldn’t spoil their shot. Damn foamers. I saw one of them almost get hit by the Romanian engine as it was pulling out, but a good blast of the horn got the guy outta’ the way
at the last minute.
We boarded the Jordanian train, and we were off, doing a healthy 30 mph — quite an improvement. As the afternoon wore on, I was getting pretty hungry and plenty thirsty. At about sundown, we pulled into a small Jordanian city and I was desperate for chow.
Jumping off the train, hoping to find a quick snack somewhere, the railworkers yelled out to me to sit down at a table on the platform. I did and a platter of chicken saut’ed in onions, tomatoes, and cumin appeared. A man stuffed bread into our hands, and the meal began. Ramadan being the Holy Month, you’d expect some kind of ceremony for iftar (the breaking of the fast), but people don’t seem to be too bothered with such ritual. A blast of fireworks from the nearby Mosque tells you the sun is down, and you shovel food into your face.
After sweet tea was served to us, we relaxed with our full bellies. A sliver moon hung over the station, darkness falls quickly in the desert. I got a Swiss chocolate bar out of my bag that a Swiss woman had given me the day before and handed out pieces. The Arab Nation has a big sweet tooth (yet most people seem to have all their teeth unlike some English-speaking countries I’ve lived in), and the chocolate was gone in a second.
After about 30 minutes of rest, we climbed back on the train and rolled towards Amman. Back inside, I was feeling like I knew the rail workers a little better, so I asked the conductor if I could sit in the rear locomotive with him. He looked around to make sure no one was watching, and I nodded yes. We jumped across the coupling and went inside. At crossings, he would blow the whistle and even let me have a go at it. I was cursing because my camera was out of batteries. Whose gonna believe that I got to ride in the unit of a Jordanian train? No one.
After a day-and-a-half of Jordanian hospitality with a couple of good friends of mine, I boarded an Airbus and twelve little hours later I was back in God’s country.
I could write about the Evangelical Christian (or Fundies, as we would call Christian fundamentalists growing up) tour group that made up 80 percent of the flight from Amman, and all of their inane nattering, but I’d rather let them speak in their own words:
(all overheard on the flight)
‘Where’s Jesse Helms when ya need him?’ (reaction to some foreign policy story in the International Herald Tribune)
‘Oh, we didn’t go inside any Mosques [in Jordan] – after all, we already got ourselves an Islamic Community Center in our town’
‘Oh, I don’t know. It was all pre-paid. Ya know, I like to get as much pre-paid stuff as I possibly can.’ (In answer to a question about costs in Jordan)
And on and on and on
J. Rizla in Amman contributed to this report