I recently returned from a trip to Syria.
Given the tense political situation in the country in spring 2011 and the accompanying negative publicity, it was decidedly not the best time to visit Syria. Many of you will remember the hesitation I went through before the trip. The choice was not easy, but I eventually gave Syria the benefit of the doubt, said my prayers and boarded a Damascus-bound flight.
READ MORE: SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO (TO SYRIA)
And here I am 10 days later – back in London, not remotely hurt and full of impressions to last a lifetime. Many thanks to those who followed my online updates. Something this trip made me realise was just how many people cared about a crazy traveller called Anna. I never had doubts my long-term friends would keep in touch; more surprising was that also some contacts I had long considered forgotten suddenly re-appeared in my life, sending encouragement and reconnecting after years of absence.
Long story short, I couldn’t have imagined that my well-being would be of importance to such a wide circle of people. Thank you all very much; I appreciate unreservedly that you care.
Syria in spring 2011: Not as bad as on TV (yet)
Public concern surrounding my trip clashed dramatically with my everyday routine on the road. I did not run into a single conflict during my 10 days in Syria. The government’s security forces may have looked intimidating in the news; personally, however, I did not hear one gunshot in the areas that I visited. I certainly saw plenty of guns carried around, but those were not put to use once in front of my eyes.
Neither did I manage to witness a single protest. Albeit disappointed that dramatic photographs were not lining up dutifully at my doorstep, I admit that travelling to troubled areas on purpose would have been stupid at best – if at all possible.
I felt that being a foreigner in Syria was more of an advantage than otherwise. The turmoil was, emphatically, a domestic issue which the Syrian government was not keen to take outside its borders, preventing foreign journalists from entering the country and international news agencies from reporting on local events on-site. It was understood though that, if one outsider was hurt, the issue would escalate to the international scene, making foreign involvement almost inevitable. For this reason – and thanks to the genuine hospitality of Syrian people – tourists in Syria were treated reasonably well and could generally move around unrestricted. As long as they were not undercover journalists, of course.
While foreigners in Syria were not being targeted by protesters or government forces, increased security meant certain inconvenience to travellers. Multiple passport checks accompanied my every journey within Syria, including a daunting requirement to register with police at every terminal of entry, be it a train station or a mini bus stand. Carrying a document of identification was already a legal obligation in Syria, and the instances of being asked for such became more frequent the longer I stayed.
Busra to Damascus: “What do you mean the road is closed?”
As of late May 2011, the anti-government movement in Syria were localised to certain parts of the country. Having broken out in the southern town of Dara’a two months before, the protests had gradually spread to the central city of Homs, several non-central neighbourhoods of Damascus, coastal towns of Latakia, Banyas and Tartus, as well as the Kurdish regions bordering Turkey in the northeast. The government forces fought back hard, on many occasions opening live fire on the protesters and killing around 900 people between March and May 2011.
While cancelling my long-awaited trip was not on the table (I can be remarkably stubborn at times), I tailored the route carefully to avoid trouble. The closest I got to the epicentre of the uprising, Dara’a, was 40 km away, in Busra – a town famous for its Roman amphitheatre and a popular day trip from Damascus. The only indication of reduced government sympathies in Busra was the near absence of President Assad’s images, making a stark contrast with the capital where such images were on public display on every surface imaginable. Indeed, the only image of any member of the Assad family I came across in Busra had already been vandalised during earlier protests.
The Assad trio at the back of a vehicle. Bassel Assad (left) was killed in a car crash in 1994 and Hafez Assad (middle) died in 2000, but both continue to appear on billboards in Syria
Busra’s rebellious stance towards the regime became more obvious on my way back to Damascus. A few minutes into the journey, our bus was refused entry onto the motorway connecting Dara’a with the capital. It turned out that the authorities had shut the road to prevent the disloyally minded locals from marching on to Damascus.
Facing an unenviable prospect of sitting out the stirrup in a small Syrian town until an undefined date, I made an escape via Suweida together with two French tourists. About 70 km from Damascus, we were stopped by rather explicitly armed security forces for the first passport check of the several that were to follow. Our driver had his Busra-issued documents scrutinised and was sent back: no locals of the areas adjacent to Dara’a were allowed to Damascus, even as drivers for foreign visitors.
We had lost our transfer, but the soldiers were courteous enough to help us with a lift. One of them promptly hailed a passing car, patted the slightly shocked driver on the shoulder and ordered him to take the “guests” back to Damascus.
Which the driver did. Needless to say without even mentioning compensation.
The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus is one of the oldest in the world and, according to a legend, contains the head of John the Baptist
A “pressing need to stay”?
Following the post I wrote just before travelling to Syria, most of you – my parents in particular – were suggesting that I cancel the trip. When I eventually did go to Syria, many people continued persuading me not to linger there and to make a dash for Lebanon instead. This war of opinions intensified the more graphic the news reports on Syria became. I was rather torn apart between those diametrically opposite choices; undecided, I listened carefully.
In my heart though, I was not ready to leave Syria yet. After having spoken with many locals and reviewed the news many times, I did not believe that the situation in Syria risked changing overnight. Moreover, I had still not seen a sight of danger. I decided to stay – until further notice and subject to making several revisions to my itinerary.
My next stop after Damascus was Aleppo, Syria’s largest city 400 km north of the capital. Halfway between the two, I received some breaking news from the UK that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office had freshly revised its travel advice for Syria. Britons were now being advised against travelling to the whole of the country rather than only a handful of areas where the violence was particularly acute. International airlines were still operating scheduled flights from Syria, and the UK government’s advice to its citizens was to leave unless they had a “pressing need to stay”.
The bus journey from Damascus to Aleppo was relatively uneventful. I deemed it best not to linger on the Homs-Hama motorway though, and skipped Crac de Chevalliers – a medieval castle in the vicinity of Homs and one of Syria’s most famous landmarks. With great sadness, I also diverted my steps away from the coastal city of Latakia; while the 4-hour train journey from Aleppo had been recommended as exceptionally scenic, I could not risk running into a full-scale demonstration at the other end.
Aleppo to Palmyra: Searching for the optimal route
After two days in Aleppo – where I hardly saw any other tourists the entire time – and a detour to Deir Samaan historic site, I still had not encountered any protests. According to my schedule, I was due to transfer to Palmyra, my next stop.
Normally I would travel to Homs, from where mini buses were departing frequently to Palmyra. As said before, however, the motorway leading south was not entirely trouble-free. Segments of the Damascus-Aleppo road were periodically held closed in a way similar to my earlier Busra experience. Moreover, a bus operated by one of Syria’s biggest companies, Kadmous, had recently been stopped by a group of protesters who stormed inside, ripped out the President’s image in the rear pane and stamped on it in rage. Albeit unhurt, the passengers (one of whom I met randomly in Aleppo and heard this story from) were absolutely terrified.
Even an alternative road would mean problems: the coastal route to Lebanon went through Latakia, Banyas and Tartous, all involved in anti-government uprisings. Syrians near the border were beginning to cross into Lebanon, causing congestion at border control. The route to the “safe haven” was itself not exactly safe.
Re-routing via Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor
So where could I go? Western news on Syria I was regularly following overnight (the adrenaline in my blood was exceeding all levels of normality, making sleep impossible) looked rather intimidating, even if they clashed with my calm everyday reality. Hearing my mother’s trembling voice over Skype, I decided to tread carefully. My third best way back to Damascus (and consequently on to Beirut) was long but safe: first east towards the Iraqi border and then west across the desert via Palmyra.
The town of Deir ez-Zor in Eastern Syria is unlikely to make the itinerary of a rushed explorer. What made it most fascinating though was the river: nothing less than the mighty Euphrates making its way towards the Persian Gulf. Seeing one of the world’s most important rivers – as well as Lake Assad en-route Deir ez-Zor – surely made up for a forced detour into a stretching desert. This is exactly what I did, briefly stopping in Raqqa – an unimportant desert settlement at the time that would shoot straight to the world headlines just years later.
If Aleppo and Damascus featured occasional tourists, in Deir ez-Zor I was decidedly a sole foreigner around. This explains the ceaseless attention – and certain distrust – I received there. Very few public places had wireless internet access; when I tried using one of the painfully slow computers at a central internet café, I had every page of my passport scanned beforehand. Needless to say that I refrained from posting any opinions on Syrian politics that night.
Built in 1927 during the French mandate of Syria, the bridge was destroyed in the Syrian Civil War in 2013 (exactly two years after my trip)
Free speech in Syria
Speaking openly deserves a special mention here. In a country where social networking sites like Facebook had only been allowed since February 2011, the society was not exactly used to expressing controversial opinions. Locals told me they were careful about what personal information they were putting online. Some sources report an estimated eight thousand people to have been detained since the Syrian protests began in March 2011. My acquaintances in Damascus confirmed that arrests were indeed common: at least 10 of their close friends had been taken under custody recently for expressing dissent with the regime online. Another person I met had his email account blocked for “receiving too many messages from abroad”. He was using his brother’s email instead.
Freedom of speech was certainly not taken for granted in Syria. Locals I spoke to during my journey were cautious not to be overheard when discussing domestic politics (itself a rare occasion). One Aleppan – a teacher of English and therefore highly useful to non-Arabic speakers like me – insisted on us changing location every 10 minutes not to attract attention. I understood that the government’s secret police in civilian clothing numbered in the thousands and were present everywhere – ready to act should someone attempt spreading rebellious messages, speaking against the government or rising up openly in opposition.
Public talk aside, one resident of Damascus told me that the state-owned post company regularly went through the parcels he received from abroad. He had been detained several times and questioned about the origin of his mail.
However, not everyone I met expressed dissatisfaction with the current regime. I met surprisingly many people who seemed – or acted – happy with the way things were going. I found that women generally appreciated the apparent safety they associated with the widespread presence of the security forces. Syrians working in tourism condemned the protesters for “making noise” in the middle of a peak tourist season. Christians felt certain protection under Assad’s rule. Furthermore, some Syrian Kurds I happened to meet were inclined to support the President thanks to his earlier promises that the Kurds’ once ceased Syrian citizenship be restored.
Despite his portrayal in some Western media as a ruthless adversary to any expression of public dissent, President Assad seemed to be perceived as a reform-friendly figure by at least some Syrians I crossed paths with. Many agreed that his actions were largely dictated by immediate family members occupying some of Syria’s key positions of power. Not even the West can conclude with certainty whether Assad is more of a puppet or really holding the reins of authority. One diplomat once described Syria as a “dictatorship without a dictator”; he might have had a point there.
Back to Damascus
Going back to my journey, I felt somewhat lonely at Dura Europos, a fortress in the middle of the desert 50 km from the Iraqi border. My only company – the guards nearby – poured me some tea and said tourist groups had all but evaporated in the past few weeks.
Home to the oldest synagogue and one of the oldest house churches in the world, the Dura Europos historic site later suffered from significant looting in the Syrian Civil War
My final stop was Palmyra, Syria’s number one tourist destination. An otherwise unassuming town, Palmyra is famous for its impressive Roman ruins. It usually gets very busy in the peak tourist season. This time, however, the town was quiet, with barely a few tourists around. There were actually more locals around the ruins than foreigners; a few souvenir sellers and camel owners were ceaselessly chasing every visitor.
While I did not mind some peace, the atmosphere seemed somewhat sad. The locals sounded disappointed with the protesters’ actions causing a sharp decline in tourist numbers and therefore affecting their businesses. Ibrahim, an owner of a popular restaurant, keenly showed me a photo of President Assad visiting Palmyra with the Spanish royal family years ago. The current regime certainly had few opponents in a place like Palmyra.
Even then, I was somewhat scared when local vendors suddenly started shutting down their stores one evening, all drawing towards a central café. I didn’t need to worry, however. What looked like a budding revolution quickly turned into preparations for the viewing of a football match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Syria may not be that strong in football on the global scale but remains endlessly loyal to its most popular sport.
Camel lies still in front of Palmyra’s timeless ruins (Arch of Triumph on the left, also later destroyed in the Syrian Civil War)
Come Thursday, after being stopped by the police to have the photos in my camera checked (I kept quiet about backing up my memory cards daily to avoid trouble), I embarked on the final leg of my journey – to Beirut. Fridays in Syria had become firmly associated with increased protest activity and the resulting crackdowns by the government. All this meant that I was not the only foreigner swapping Syria for Lebanon that Thursday. The diplomatic lane at the Lebanese border certainly looked very full.
So long, Syria
After a 2-km stretch of road lined with President Bashar’s images, I finally entered Lebanon. I had imagined this moment many times already: how I would hand my passport to the immigration officer, get it swiftly stamped, cast one last look across the border and sigh with relief as the bus would take me further and further into safety.
But was Syria really that dangerous? Even though I never felt threatened, my friends’ growing concerns about the Syrian situation took their toll on me. Many of you called me fearless to travel to Syria during the difficult times. I hope I will not disappoint anyone by saying that I, too, was often terrified by the everyday uncertainty on a supposedly relaxing, adventurous holiday. Even if my fear had been caused by foreign news reports rather than an actual sight of imminent danger.
Our bus was already approaching Beirut but the long-awaited relief did not come. I suddenly felt sad to have left behind Syria – as well as all the wonderfully welcoming people I met there.
I remembered Toufik and Mohammad who wholeheartedly invited me to share a modest meal in their family home in Aleppo after barely a few minutes of acquaintance. Ibrahim in Palmyra bought me a bus ticket after I ran out of cash. Philip at Souq Al-Hamidiya in Damascus unearthed an ancient map of Syria to give me some travel advice. Hisham in Aleppo bought me ice-cream and begged to send him some aloe skin crème from London. Lima, a mother of a cute little girl called Sham, kept me great company on the bus from Damascus to Hama. Hassan, an engineer from Deir ez-Zor, showed me around town and impressed me with his fluent Serbo-Croatian (he had studied in the former Yugoslavia and was married to a Croatian woman). Marouf, a taxi driver in Damascus, taught me some Kurdish words and spontaneously drove me up Mount Qasiyun “from the heart” to enjoy a sweeping view of the city. Zacharia, a minibus owner from Raqqa, introduced me to his entire family and then entertained me with some authentic Arabic front-wheel dancing as we drove from Aleppo to Lake Assad and on to Raqqa.
I met some fantastic people during my trip to Syria. And the image I will have of Syria will not be one of a place torn apart by protests and violence. It will be of a country warmly welcoming visitors regardless of its internal problems. And I hope to be back one day – back to what might already be a different country by that time.
I will be back. Inshallah.