Near misses in the Near East

BECHARRE, Lebanon – Hurtling down the highway at 140 kilometers an hour, Khaled the friendly taxi driver had an idea. We’d been drinking countless cups of black coffee and choking down innumerable cigarettes: it was time to switch to beer.
Khaled didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Arabic. But after a can of syrupy Turkish beer (9% abv) the language barrier wilted.

We were onto world politics and he was telling me what he thought about Osama bin Laden.

Earlier at the bus station, is cohorts were jokingly pointing to him and calling him “Bush.” As he was a bit portly I said he more resembled Cheney. A bearded guy showed up and was introduced as bin Laden.

This is Syria – where discussing and joking about politics is very light-hearted; provided it doesn’t touch on domestic affairs.

‘Cause they’re listening, you know.

But back to Khaled whose tongue by now had been thoroughly loosened by liquor.

“Bin Laden is no Muslim,” he said in Arabic. “Anyone who kills Jewish children is not a Muslim.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve checked in so perhaps I should explain how I came to having a conversation about Islamic ethics with a taxi driver who was drinking beer through a straw.

It was the Fourth of July when I crossed from Georgia into Turkey. It was bereft of traffic and I lodged in a tiny town in the Caucasian foothills. From there my itinerary took me through the heart of what is Turkish Kurdistan. The police presence is unbelievable given the simmering shooting war between the military and Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).

I was couchsurfing (read: sponging off strangers from the internet) which afforded me diverse points-of-view. In one city, I lodged with a helicopter pilot who described coming under small arms fire or seeing rockets streaking past in his Black Hawk chopper.

In another town, I was sipping tea with the elderly father of my Kurdish host who made a pistol with his fingers every time a chopper flew overhead.

I practiced the art of listening and kept my trap shut.

Turkey was – and probably still is – fantastic. I felt for the ordinary Kurds living in the extreme southeast as it is in effect a military occupation. During one bus trip our vehicle was stopped, documents checked, luggage lightly examined, every 10 kilometers.

I listened to these people, young and old, clucking their tongues at the young conscripts from cities like Ankara, Istanbul, Mersin who cross-examined their reason for traveling from one town to the other.

They weren’t winning hearts and minds.

Pining for the Islamic Republic of Iran, I hitched to the Persian border. I had a half-baked idea to try and interview some Iranians about the street battles we’d all been hearing about. It was a Sunday and the only people about were Turkish truck drivers queuing and drinking tea and local Kurds crossing over.

I got a sunburn and free tea for my trouble, but it was worth it just to gaze up at the mural of the Supreme Leader Ayotallah Khomenei who beamed down benevolently. (I just hope the Islamic Revolutionary Guards are reading this and my obsequiousness will grease the wheels for a visa).

But I digress.

After managing to suppress the urge to visit Iraqi Kurdistan, my appetite for the Arab world was whetted by towns like Mardin with a healthy Arab-speaking population.

Soon I found myself sitting in a Syrian border guard’s air conditioned office watching him type entries from a ledger into an old PC. My crossing in 2005 had been a breeze which must’ve been a fluke as every other
American I’ve spoken to has since reported waiting hours.

This time I would be no exception.

Officially you’re supposed to pay $131USD in Washington D.C. for a Syrian visa. Officially.

Unofficially, Americans are more than welcome in Syria. In fact, U.S. passport holders pay one of the lowest fees – just $16USD. The only catch is our visit has to be approved in Damascus so waiting time is contingent on the length of the ministry’s lunch break.

In the end, I waited five hours. At first I was fired up with righteous indignation. But then I thought about how much Syrians have to go through to enter the U.S. and I decided to chill out and quit feeling sorry for myself.

After having my temperature taken by a doctor, presumably to see if I had the dreaded pig fever, I was cleared to enter. Darkness had fallen and the buses had stopped running. I angrily – and a tad rashly – brushed off a taxi driver’s offer to take me to the first town for $5 then $4USD.

As I trudged through the blackness in the Mesopotamian desert I realized that I had been perhaps a bit hasty. The lights of the next town were not as close as they first appeared.

Walking past a small house, there was a group of young men sitting around, shooting the breeze the way that Arabs seem to have mastered. They offered me to come over for a drink. I noticed there were no drinks but there was a motorcycle.

I asked a few questions and learned I’d  have six kilometers to drag my sorry ass.

The motorcycle was suggested. I offered $4USD. My rucksack and 200 lbs. of girth were strapped to the back of the aging 125cc moto and were off, hurtling through the darkness.

Despite voiding every insurance policy I’d have in the past, present or future, I arrived in one piece and was able to get a minibust to the ancient city of Aleppo.

It was good to be back. Not much had changed. President Bashar’s face still beams down from billboards, signposts, stickers and just about every imaginable surface reminding his countrymen what a strong leader they have. Some of the older buildings still have his father, Hejez Assad leering down and other places show them both, side-by-side, which intimates that if you cross the son, the father will rise from the grave and beat you down. No kidding.

I did touristy stuff. Castles, souqs, a bit of bargain shopping and a lot of eating. But the main attraction, I think, is still the people. Syrians are insanely friendly and hospitable. They are also very eager and curious to meet people from the United States.

It was edifying that the old “It’s an American! Feed him!” attitude hasn’t changed.

After scuttling the idea of taking a ferry to North Cyprus – it’s too expensive – I found myself at the bus station waiting for more passengers to fill up a shared taxi to Tripoli, a port city in northern Lebanon.

None were forthcoming and when Khaled – our aforementioned protagonist – offered a bargain, basement rate, I agreed and we were off.

I was glad of the beer as the border guards on both sides thoroughly fleeced me in “fees.” So much so that I fear I won’t be able to afford to leave Lebanon, enter Syria, exit Syria and enter Turkey again.

After crossing into Lebanon, I decided it was my round as Khaled had bought the last beers. I gave him 2,000 Syrian Pounds in crumpled notes and he stopped the car and darted across four lanes of traffic – twice – to return with more extra-strength lager.

Sipping my “Bear Beer” (8% abv)  through a straw, I knew I’d made the right choice.

More about Becharre and its Maronite environs when I’ve reconnoitered the place properly.

Jaco out

2 responses to “Near misses in the Near East”

  1. Fantastic, Jacob. Sure their coffee is strong in Turkey, but you haven’t lived until you drink lots of raki on the trains, playing backgammon into the wee hours of the morning, at which time one will blow chunks into their lovely latrines or walk up and down the aisle of the dining car with a dervish bell.

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