Nusaybin Hudut Kapisi, the fresh Turkish exit stamp in my passport read. Straight ahead was El Qamishliye, Syria, a remote, sleepy frontier town near the desolate point where Turkey, Syria and Iraq meet. It was 1984 and I was not feeling confident. What was Syria going to be like? I couldn’t find a single guidebook to the country in any New York bookstore; I had to settle instead for a few sheets of skimpy information provided by the Syrian U.N. consulate – and in all my travels, until three days before, I’d met only two people who had been there. In Kahta, Turkey, I’d run into an odd, crew-cut Irishman who had just completed a year of voluntary service in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. He had come up through Syria, and while his trip had gone smoothly, he told me that the Syrian people consider themselves at war with America. This concerned me, but turning back now was out of the question; I’d come too far and waited too long for this moment. How would the border officials react to an American entering their country, and especially in these parts, I wondered. Well, the Syrian embassy in Washington (which no longer exists) had issued me a visa without any fuss, but a visa means nothing if you show up in the wrong place at the wrong time. That much I knew from experience.
Fingers crossed, apprehensive, knowing three words of Arabic (tea, hello, and thank you) I walked into never-never land, towards three uniformed men sitting under the shade of a tree sipping tea – Syrians! I handed my passport to the one on the right. He examined it for a few seconds, then looked at me and said with a little surprise, “American!”
“American, yes,” I replied, smiling. He made a face as if he was thinking, “Well, what do you know,” and directed me to a small building nearby. I went inside and up to the counter, behind which a young official was tending to some paperwork. He took my passport and flipped through the pages. Then he looked up.
“Yes.” He examined the visa carefully, then walked into another room, where I heard him discussing the situation with some other men. In a few minutes he emerged and handed me my passport, freshly stamped, and an entry card to fill out. I was in! From there, it was just a matter of red-tape border formalities: a mandatory exchange of $100 into Syrian pounds, a visit to the inquisitorial log book man, who took down all the information I had already written on the card, and a cursory bag inspection, which ended with the question, “Do you have gun?”
“No, of course I don’t have a gun!”
This man spoke decent English. He was friendly and curious about my itinerary in Syria, which was wide open. I told him I wanted to spend the night in Deir-ez-Zor, and continue on to Aleppo the following day. There were a few empty taxis sitting nearby, their drivers off drinking tea and chatting with the officials. I asked him if he would be so kind as to write a message in Arabic that I could hand to one of the drivers, indicating that I wished to go to the station in town where I could find a bus to Deir-ez-Zor. He offered to accompany me instead so we piled into a taxi, a ’56 Pontiac, and drove into downtown El Qamishliye. As we raced through the streets, I instinctively knew there’d be nothing to worry about traveling around Syria. A great adventure was just getting started.
El Qamishliye was different from the Turkish border towns; it seemed more squalid, congested and animated. I was excited to be in a new country after five weeks in Turkey, and one that promised to have few travelers. There was no mistaking that it was indeed a different country: Arabic script everywhere, Arab dress, and – old American cars! The number of American automobiles of fifties’ and early sixties’ vintage astounded me. I always got a kick out of seeing them.
We reached the bus station, a dingy and chaotic affair compared to the efficient Turkish system. It would be hours before the next scheduled bus left for Deir-ez-Zor, but a jitney was set to depart for El Haseke, a town halfway to my destination, as soon as enough people filled it. This didn’t take long, and soon we were zooming through the northeastern Syrian desert on a narrow tarmac road. My friend from the border post had told the driver I was American, so I was given the best seat up front and offered cigarettes, grapes and nuts the entire way. Sitting in front gave me a good view of the small, nameless, sunbaked villages we passed through, and the women in dazzling dress walking along the road. That grating Arab music blaring from the tape deck was hard to take, but it added character to our dilapidated little bus with the imitation marble paneling, the carpeted dashboard decked with plastic flowers, and the windshield frame plastered with small stickers of veiled women, sayings from the Koran (I presume), and family photographs. Glancing at our mad-dog driver, his kafiyeh flying in the wind, I was thrilled to be here.
In El Haseke I had to wait some time for another bus to fill. Groups of tough-looking women dressed in vivid colors, strings of coins and pendants dangling across their foreheads, sat on the ground, minding their sacks and goats and crying babies. I wanted to reach for my camera, but knew I’d be asking for trouble in these parts if I started taking pictures of women. Instead I wandered over to the food stalls for a sandwich, watching in disgust as the vendor crumbled a couple of hard-boiled eggs onto a blotter of bread with his dirty fingers. I was too hungry to turn it down.
Why go to Deir-ez-Zor, you may be wondering. Because the name tantalized me. The city is a major crossroads; you can continue driving southwest to the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, and eventually to Damascus; you can go west to Aleppo, which was my plan; and the road to the east follows the course of the Euphrates River for eighty miles before reaching the border of Iraq, a country almost impossible to visit as an independent traveler, even back then. The Irishman had told me he met a German traveler who had gone to Abu Kemal, near the Iraqi frontier, and said this man told him he was threatened with death if seen in town the next day – such was the suspicion the Syrians had of a foreigner in the proximity of their hated enemy, Iraq. The boy from Belfast also told me I’d see dozens of Russian advisers and plainclothes Arabs toting Kalashnikovs on the streets of Damascus. Well, every Syrian I spoke to expressed solidarity with their Arab cousins in Iraq, and told me that the government’s support of Iran in the war raging then between Iran and Iraq was due to a personal feud between Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein that the people couldn’t have cared less about. As for Damascus, I wasn’t to see a single man who looked Russian – although there were Russian advisers in the capital – and the two Arabs I saw with rifles were wearing military uniforms. The more time I spent in Syria, the more I became convinced that this Irish refugee worker had serious psychological issues, and had been trying to scare me for his own amusement.
Deir-ez-Zor! You’ll never read about this city in any tourist brochure, but for me, places like this are the most fulfilling of travel experiences. I arrived at the bus station at 5:30 and went inside to ask about a ticket to Aleppo the next day. It was surreal inside: a cavernous, largely empty building supported by huge pillars covered with posters of Assad; stenciled Arabic on the walls; the fragrance of spices mingling with the stink of neglected toilets. As expected, there was a communication problem at the ticket window, but I pulled through with the help of my English-Arabic dictionary. I think the message was that I could come down at eight the next morning to buy a ticket. Well, I’d worry about it then. I took a cab into town, and by golly, we drove right over the Euphrates River, that magical stream where civilization began, or so I’d been taught in fourth grade. There was a graceful suspension bridge crossing it upstream, but naturally my camera was buried somewhere. I did manage to buy a nice postcard of the scene later in Damascus.
“Fondok,” I told the driver, my newest Arabic word – hotel. I was looking up the word for cheap, but before I could find it he stopped in front of a building which could have been the town’s only hotel with a star. I went inside and as soon as I started speaking English the miserable creature at the reception desk made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with me. So I left and quickly decided to grab the first fondok that would accept a foreigner, whether it had three stars or three beds.
After ten minutes of tramping around and attracting curious stares – who comes here wearing a backpack? – someone pointed me to the Hotel Al-Arabi, a second-story establishment on a dusty side street where donkey carts creaked and men smoked hookah pipes and played backgammon. A kind old man who spoke a little English ran the place; he was taken aback when I handed him my U.S. passport, but warmed up and we passed a pleasant evening later chatting over mint tea. I spent the remaining daylight wandering the wonderfully weird streets of this undiscovered outpost. You couldn’t ask for more photogenic scenes, but I decided to leave my camera behind and enjoy my stroll, rather than fret over taking the perfect photo and possibly causing problems.
Intriguing as Deir-ez-Zor was, I was itching to move on. There was a little travel agency beneath the Al-Arabi where I managed to buy a ticket for the 6:15 express bus to Aleppo. This time I went on the government-run Karnak line, whose coaches are the equivalent of our Greyhounds. Besides the usual amenities, an attendant periodically came down the aisle with a water jug and a tray of hard candies (never got that on a Greyhound!), but it’s a more impersonal journey than riding aboard one of the circus wagons. That didn’t matter because I was very sleepy, not having been in the habit of rising at 5:00, and I missed the Assad dam that I wanted to see in Raqqa. I did see large splashes of green in the desert – crops of some kind – which owed their existence to elaborate irrigation systems. The Arabs are very good at making the desert bloom.
In Aleppo I took the advice of a cabbie and got a room at the Venicia Hotel, near the landmark Bab el-Faraj clocktower. The hotel printed a cute little brochure which contained an inadequately detailed map of the city, and some disconnected blurbs in shaky English: “Private suits of one bed-room guest-room and a bath room is equiped with a telephone.” I took one and headed for the covered souk, which was supposed to be one of the best in the Middle East. I had my mind set on an engraved copper tray or a dagger, but discovered that in a country where tourists are extremely rare you’re not likely to find any exotic souvenirs, at least not in a place where local people do their everyday shopping. I did pick up a nice dagger later in Damascus.
Soon I was hopelessly lost in a maze of dark alleys. I was trying to decide whether a cut of brocaded tablecloth linen would make a suitable gift, when I heard a voice ask, “Excuse me, are you Italian?” I turned around and faced a neatly dressed Arab man in his twenties.
“Well, yes, I’m Italian by descent but I’m American. Why do you ask?”
“Oh. I saw you are holding something that says Venicia, so I thought you are from Italy.”
“Oh, this. No, it’s just a little map from the Venicia Hotel where I’m staying.”
“I see. Yes, I know the Venicia. It’s a nice hotel.” I figured he had to be a tout or a con artist, but I was grateful to meet someone who spoke English so well. “Do you mind if I talk to you?” he said. He seemed sincere, but I’d been fooled by this type before.
“Alright, why don’t you help me find my way out of here, and we’ll go to a cafe.”
Sami turned out to be a sincere fellow indeed, and a vein of information about Syria. He had just returned from a year of medical study in Connecticut, where he had lived with an American family, and was serving his mandatory two-year stint in the Syrian army. We sat at a cafe across from the ancient Arab Citadel, Aleppo’s most famous landmark, drinking tea and chatting for hours about many topics. Much of our conversation was in hushed tones, for as Sami informed me, there were quite a few plainclothes secret police lurking, and talking against the government could get you into big trouble. In fact, what he was confiding in me he wouldn’t dare discuss with anyone except his family and closest friends. He told me that Assad was a bloody tyrant and had little support among the people. (Upon Assad’s death in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad became president, and is apparently much more popular.) I asked Sami if what I had read about Hama was really true, that Assad’s men had massacred 10,000 of the Islamic Brotherhood.
“Of course it’s true. It was more than that. But this is what I’m saying. The government will crush anyone who tries to change things.” It seemed that Sami was critical of his leaders and his country only because he could make a comparison to America, where dissent was tolerated (much more in 1984 than now), and which he had seen for himself while in Connecticut. To live in a world of uncertainty seemed to me the birthright of all Arabs in the Mideast, but I couldn’t say this. Some of his sentiments I would hear over and over in Syria and even in Jordan. One that surprised me was the widespread contempt for Saudi Arabians: the poor ones because of their backwardness, the rich ones because of the way they flaunt their money and create the stereotype of the wealthy oil sheik, a stereotype that upsets ordinary Arabs. Another was the positive feeling towards America, which was more pronounced in Sami, having lived in the States for a year. Most Arabs realize that Americans are basically nice people, that they’ve merely been duped about events in the Mideast by the Jewish-controlled media and the Jewish lobby (they love that word “lobby”). “We are at war with Israel,” Sami reminded me more than once, but neither he nor any other Syrian I spoke to seemed to be motivated by virulent hatred; rather they expressed concern over Israel’s territorial designs, and a seething resentment of the way the Palestinians have been brutalized for so long.
A tour bus pulled up near the entrance to the Citadel, and well-dressed men and women began filing out. “Iranians,” Sami said. “You’ll see many of them in Damascus. Nobody in Syria likes them. This is what I mean. Assad hates Hussein so therefore he tells us we must support Iran in the war. But this is not how we feel. We like the people of Iraq because they are Arabs like us. Nobody likes Iran, but they won’t tell you that.” Another bus pulled up and let off a group of neatly dressed schoolchildren. Some of them got out of line and started scampering around. Their teachers ran over to break up the horseplay and scold them; it reminded me so much of the field trips I took as a child.
It was great talking to Sami and watching the world go by on the streets of Aleppo. Sometimes you’d see a silky-haired, fashionably dressed young lady in high heels walk briskly past a waddling old woman draped under black sheets. Syria was like that – a pleasant mix of ancient and modern.
“What about the Russians?” I asked. “What do the Syrian people think about them?”
“Nothing. We don’t like them, we don’t hate them. But we must buy weapons from them so that Israel does not become stronger than us.”
Sami had some afternoon business to take care of, but offered to stop by that night with some friends. “Sure,” I said. “Why don’t we make it 7:30?” When he left, I crossed the street and climbed to the top of the Citadel for a view of both the old and new sections of Aleppo. I paid a visit to the fine archaeology and folk-art museum, mailed a few postcards (with stamps commemorating the Olympic games in Los Angeles), and to my surprise, stumbled upon a newsstand selling the International Herald Tribune, along with Time and Newsweek. And whose face was on the cover of Time? None other than Geraldine Ferraro’s, the first female candidate for vice president in American history. I’d never heard of her. The article was typical fluff.
Right on time Sami showed up with his friends Yussuf and Hosam, both well-mannered and educated young men who like Sami, spoke fluent English. Yussuf was a practicing doctor, who had graduated from medical school in Detroit. I almost found this hard to believe – not one but two Syrians who had studied in America. I’d never met a Syrian in my life before, anywhere. We sat at a large, crowded outdoor cafe, and we could’ve been in any European city – young people drinking beer, sipping espresso, or digging into an ice cream, waiters rushing about, the air noisy with conversation. I ordered a tall, label-less bottle of Syrian beer, which was quite good. We had a pleasant chat which continued as we walked around town. I couldn’t get over how modern and Western-oriented everything seemed, though many streets were ripped up for plumbing repairs, and it was treacherous walking in places. We passed a music shop stocked with the latest Japanese stereo equipment. There was a large display of cassettes in the window; most were Arab, but there were several of Western rock groups. I wanted to buy a few cassettes, more for the Arabic script written all over them than for auditory pleasure,
“Do you like Arab music?” Yussuf asked me.
“Not really. Well, sometimes I can like it, when I get in a certain mood.” After listening to several tapes, I bought a recording of the 1972 Baalbeck (Lebanon) Festival, and another with a picture of a lovely Arab woman with flowers in her hair. I would’ve bought one of the cacophonous music I’d heard on the bus from El Qamishliye, but I had no idea what to ask for.
“I think you must like American country music,” Sami said to me as we left the store.
“Yes, I like it. Some of it, anyway.”
“So do I,” he said, rattling off a list of his favorite artists. “The family I stayed with, they took me sometimes to the concerts in New York. Very good. I don’t know why so many people in America laugh when I tell them I like this music. It is very rich.” His use of the word “rich” intrigued me. Is it that one must grow up in a volatile land to understand the folk expression of a people? How many Americans, even among country music fans, would know what Sami meant by that word?
“Look, Jewish people. I know some of them.” Sami nodded toward a group fooling around in front of a green 1957 Chevrolet. Only when I looked at them closely did they look like Jews, and even then I wasn’t sure. Sami had told me earlier that there was a small Jewish community in Aleppo. When I asked him why they didn’t pack up and leave for Israel, he explained that they had no wish to become second class citizens, though relations between them and their Islamic countrymen were sometimes tense. I did a double take when we passed a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor. Well, I don’t recall that I saw the name Baskin-Robbins, but with all those pink and brown circles and large variety of unusual flavors, there was no mistaking where the idea had come from. Every time we turned a corner after that, I was prepared to see the Golden Arches, but happily Ronald McDonald was unknown in Syria.
We parted at the clocktower. It had been a most satisfying day. Sami and I agreed to meet the following evening for tea on the terrace of the Baron Hotel, which he told me quartered the French administrators in the old days when Syria was a French mandate. It certainly had that nostalgic colonial look. There were several U.N. soldiers drinking beer on the terrace, most of them Austrians. What I learned that night, among other things, was that the difference between an Alawite and a Sunni Muslim boils down to the authenticity of a certain obscure prophet. As often as I tried, I couldn’t get to the root of all the feuding sects which bedevil the Arab world. Sami himself was at a loss to explain them.
“Why don’t you stay here?” he asked me. “This is a very famous hotel.”
“It must be very expensive.”
“No, it’s not so expensive. Why don’t you go inside and ask?” This I did, and couldn’t believe it when the receptionist told me there was a room on the third floor without private bath for only ten bucks, with the stipulation that “you must pay in green dollars.” Not bad for a fondok whose guestbook includes names like Lawrence of Arabia, Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, Kemal Ataturk, Lady Mountbatten, Agatha Christie, Gene Tunney, Cardinal Spellman and Yuri Gargarin. I made a reservation and moved in the next day. I spent several hours of my last day in Aleppo on the terrace, filling in the gaps of my deprived childhood. It was the first time I ever read Alice in Wonderland.
* * *
My destination was Hama. I wanted to see the famous water wheels, and visit a city where some horrible things had recently happened. The literature I’d obtained at the Syrian Consulate stated that the wheels were two thousand years old; Sami told me it was more like two hundred. They were in plain sight from the bus station, where I arrived in mid-afternoon, but my first task was to find a room. “Fondok?” I asked a passerby. He grabbed my arm and gestured straight ahead, then turned his hand to the left. I took that to mean go this way one more block, then turn left. At the second cross street I looked to the left and sure enough, there were two hotels, the Cairo and the Riyadh. They looked the same. It was an old habit of mine to pass up the first hotel and check out the second, but I said to myself, “Let’s be different this time and try the Cairo.” I walked up two flights of stairs. The man behind the desk spoke no English, but gestured for me to wait while he made a phone call. He spoke at length in Arabic, then handed me the receiver. The voice at the other end said he was the man’s brother-in-law, and that there were no singles left, only one large room with six beds. He added that only one other person, an Englishman, was staying in the room. This sounded interesting. I told him I’d stay one night. He said he’d be in later to work the night shift, and was looking forward to meeting me.
I went to a restaurant where whole chickens revolved on spits in the front window. I ordered half a chicken served on a bed of rice and a plate of pickled vegetables. After finishing my meal, I wandered over to the water wheels. They looked ancient, though it was hard to believe that Saint Paul had seen them on the road to Damascus. They filled the air with a dreamy, creaking sound, which complemented the pleasant surroundings. There was a large park through which the Orontes River ran; boys jumped off the bank and cavorted in the shallow water. There were families picnicking in the grass, black-shrouded old women walking hand-in-hand with their grandchildren, young daddies carrying their little kids on their shoulders, vendors selling nuts and grilled corn on the cob. I bought a bag of pistachios and sat on the low stone wall by the groaning wheels, watching it all. It was a scene that Ronald Reagan and his lunatic Christian Zionist supporters would never want to see, because it would undermine their image of Syria as a land of terrorists. But I knew there was a dark side to this pleasant scene that my own eyes weren’t seeing: a river of blood had run through this city recently. I wanted to learn more about the massacre of the Islamic Brotherhood.
I went back to my room after dark. The Englishman was there, along with two Arabs who had just checked in. He was actually an English boy, a spaced-out college kid who quickly got on my nerves with the way he spoke: every word sounded like he was struggling to stay awake. He tried to make small talk with me, asking who I supported for president in the upcoming election. Reagan was the lesser of two evils, I told him. He was shocked. “I liked Hart,” he said. As much as he put me off, I was intrigued by the fact that he was traveling alone around Syria. He was the only other solo traveler I’d come across.
Daoud was the man I had spoken to on the phone. He invited me and the English boy into the office for a chat and brought out three cans of Heineken. He had a two-year-old daughter whose photo he proudly lifted from his desk, and said his wife was expecting another child. He was a goodhearted man, a decent family and community man. “So what do you think of the women in our country?” he asked me. I didn’t know how to respond. I said that some were pretty, some weren’t, and some I couldn’t even see because their faces were covered. He laughed. “You know, the Saudis come here for holiday, and they think because they bring all their money, they can buy every beautiful woman they see. The Arab men, they are very bad in this way.”
“Before I am married, I have taken a trip to Egypt and I stay in a luxury hotel in Cairo. The women who work in the hotel, they want you to give them money for sex because they are so poor. One night I am in my room and the woman knocks on the door. I open the door and she says, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ (He spoke the woman’s part very sensually.) I said, ‘Yes, maybe you can bring me a bottle of beer.’ She comes back with the beer and she says, ‘Is there anything else I can get you?’ I said, ‘Yes, I would like some nuts to eat.’ So she returns to my room with a dish of nuts, and then she says, ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like something else?’ (We were both laughing at this point.) And I said, ‘Yes, I need a pack of cigarettes.’ But then she puts her arms around me and says, ‘Don’t you really want me?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t want you because I don’t love you.'”
We were discussing religion and politics in Syria when I broached the subject of the Islamic Brotherhood. “Oh, it was a terrible time,” Daoud said. He walked to the door and ran his fingers over the jamb. “Look, here are the bullet holes when the soldiers came in like crazy men and started shooting everywhere.”
“When did this happen?” Stephen said, coming to life. He paled when I said two years ago.
“You didn’t know about it?”
“No. My God.”
Daoud was reluctant to discuss it in detail, so I didn’t press it, curious as I was. He changed the subject and asked us if we would like to spend the next day with him; he would show us all around Hama, and later in the afternoon we could return to his house where he gave English lessons to the neighborhood children in his free time. We could make sure he was teaching them correctly, he said. In the evening, we could stay at his home instead of the hotel. It sounded like a wonderful opportunity, and Stephen quickly accepted the invitation. This made me hesitant. Being around this sap all day would ruin the experience. I thought about it for a while, and decided to leave town the next morning. It was the one decision of the entire trip that I regretted.
There were no buses, not even the circus wagons that made the short run from Hama up through the Ansariye Mountains and down to Latakia, a resort town on the Mediterranean coast. You can only get there in bits and pieces by irregular transport. Consequently, I found myself in a Buick Roadmaster station wagon with eight other passengers and two sheep heading towards Masyaf, a fairly large mountain town. The driver wanted to put the sheep on the overhead luggage rack and tie them down, but their owner, a tall man in flowing robes, wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, he opened the tailgate and stuffed the discouraged animals behind the rear seat. They stank.
We passed a remarkable castle on the climb to Masyaf, which was a colorful, authentically Arab town at a pleasant altitude. The narrow alleys teemed with life, and I wondered where to go next as I watched the man unload his sheep. I walked up to people and asked about Baniyas, a coastal town west of Masyaf. They tried to help me but gestured with conflicting directions, none speaking English. My problem was solved by the appearance of a Datsun pick-up truck inching its way through the crowd with horn blaring. A tout stood on the open tailgate yelling, “Baniyas! Baniyas! Baniyas!” I swung my pack on and climbed aboard, taking a seat on one of the benches. The truck was covered overhead, so I only got to see the cool green countryside sloping to the sea as it receded out the back. Baniyas appealed to me for some reason, and for a few minutes I considered going there. But I had this image of Latakia, which was on the way to Baniyas, that I couldn’t shake: a cool dip in the Mediterranean, a nice room in a charming, seaside hotel, a Chardonnay at a boardwalk restaurant to wash down a grilled fish dinner. There were two passengers in the Datsun who were also going to Latakia. The evil-looking one spoke a little English, the other none at all, but both of them took an interest in me and were very friendly. On the bus ride, the English speaker opened a newspaper and tried to translate for me. “Here it say forty million people in America is” – he searched for the right word – “not rich.”
“Poor, you mean.”
“Oh, come on. Do you believe that?” He smiled and shrugged as if to say, “Why shouldn’t I?”
He turned the page. There was a photograph of Reagan a few inches away from one of Meir Kahane, the Brooklyn-born Israeli politician and crazed Arab-hating fanatic. Now that was going a bit too far. “And what does that say?” I asked, pointing to the Arabic script between the photos.
“That say Kahane criminal, Reagan criminal too. Palestine, Vietnam, Nicaragua, all American criminal.” He smiled in smug self-assurance. I let it go without commenting. “Staying at my house?” he asked me for the second time as we reached the outskirts of Latakia. I had already said no, after he said he wasn’t married. I didn’t think he was queer, I just didn’t want to be around him day and night. Besides, I really wanted to stay by the water, and he lived in the middle of town. We made vague plans to meet later by a grocery store near his home, but I’m sure he sensed that I had no intention of keeping them. I simply didn’t like the man.
Latakia let me down even before we reached the bus station. I had no idea it would be such a large, modern city. Nor did I have any information about hotels. Nor a map. Nor could I find a taxi driver who spoke English. One passenger seemed concerned about my plight and motioned for me to get in the back of a taxi with his son. Nobody spoke any English. We tried hard to communicate but it was hopeless. They were dropped off at their house, and then I was alone with the driver, a man who lacked patience. The only message I managed to get across was that I wanted to go to a hotel, but I had no names. He brought me to the Meridien, Syria’s version of the Hilton. “No, not here!” I said. I don’t know who was angrier. He zoomed through side streets and I had no idea where he was going, nor how much this was going to cost. I didn’t even know if he was driving towards or away from the beach. I went through the motions of a man swimming. He braked hard, cursed, and made a sharp right, tires squealing. One block further there was a building with a large sign that miraculously read TOURIST INFORMATION. “Hold it! Stop! Stop!” Fearing that he might charge me sixty dollars for the ride, I flipped open my dictionary to try to decipher the Arabic numerals showing on the meter. He growled and threw out ten fingers twice, and then five. Was that all? Twenty-five pounds? Three and a half bucks for all that?
A dumpy man with bad teeth sat alone in the tourist office. “Speak Ingleezi?” I asked him. He pointed his chin at me and smacked his tongue: no. “Francezi?”
“Arabie, Arabie.” Just Arabie, eh? Great! Then what the heck are you doing in a tourist office? He tried to be helpful, and I tried to remain civil, but Latakia was hopeless. The fish dinner, the gentle sea breeze, the flapping tablecloth was waiting for me somewhere else: this city had all the charm of Queens. I decided to take a bus all the way to Baniyas.
There seemed to be only hotel in Baniyas, the Hotel Baniyas. Please, oh God, please have a room, I prayed. They did. I showered, took a nap, woke up, read for an hour and went to the market to buy a melon for tomorrow’s breakfast. Seeing me return with one, the manager brought a knife and tray to my room to cut and put the peels on. The Mideast has to be the finest fruit-growing region in the world. I ate fresh fruit most days for breakfast and never felt finer. The melons in Syria were awesome.
English is by no means spoken widely in Syria, but seems to have replaced French as the second language. Of those who did speak English, many were fluent – Ahmad, the manager of the Baniyas, for example. He was concerned that I not miss the important historical sites of Syria, such as Marqab Castle. This was a Crusader castle just a few miles inland from Baniyas that I knew nothing about. He rang up two cousins to serve as guides; unfortunately, their English was not as good as Ahmad’s. We drove south of town then turned east and began climbing, five of us holding onto the roller bar of a small, beat-up truck that made regular runs between the villages. Then we walked uphill for nearly an hour until we reached the castle, lying in ruins at the top. There was a splendid view of the Mediterranean here, but the castle itself was a huge disappointment. In all fairness, after five weeks in Turkey, an archaeological paradise, the Pyramids would’ve made me yawn. We walked around piles of rocks, poking into dungeons and passageways; I asked questions, pretending to be interested. I finally suggested we start back, and we all agreed that was a good idea. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at Ahmad’s house. He was home with his wife and infant son, on a long lunch break. He made Turkish coffee for me (which the Arabs flavor with a piquant herb called cardamom) and had his cousins pull a few pears off the tree in his yard. I told him I wanted to return to the hotel before noon, check-out time. He asked he to come back to his house and I said I would. On the way back from the hotel I passed the small bus station, and when I learned that a bus was leaving for Tartus shortly, I decided to leave town. I felt like a rat for not keeping my word, especially after Ahmad had been so kind to me, but I was afraid he was going to pressure me into staying overnight at his house, and I had no desire to spend another night in Baniyas.
The coast road to Tartus was boring. Tartus must have been even duller because I don’t remember a thing about it, except that I hopped on another bus to Homs, a city halfway between Aleppo and Damascus. The highway between Tartus and Hom skirts the northern Lebanese border; I expected to see lots of military activity and checkpoints but there was nothing of the kind. It was hard to believe that heavy fighting was taking place then in Tripoli, thirty miles away.
The Krak de Chevalier, Syria’s most impressive Crusader castle, lies just a few miles north of this stretch. I wanted to see it, but was fast asleep as we drove past the turn-off. I didn’t care. What was I supposed to do anyway, walk there? We pulled into the busy station in Homs around four, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. According to my literature, Homs was a city of “great historical interest,” but I saw nothing but modern buildings, had no map, and no idea where the tourist office was, or even if there was one. It struck me as absurd to be traveling like this; the prospect of seeing new places was becoming a headache.
I bought a falafel sandwich stuffed with tomatoes and pickles from a pushcart vendor and sat down to eat. How many times had I been before, watching life swirl past me in a strange land, feeling so lonely and yet profoundly glad to be where I was? I watched the touts on the platform, barking their destinations at the people rushing by, trying to fill their buses. I still couldn’t figure out what to do. The most attractive option was simply to find a hotel and crash, and worry about everything else the next morning. Damascus was a possibility – I could get there before dark – but my triumphant entry into this, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, would be the highlight of my trip to Syria, and I wanted to arrive there refreshed, in a better frame of mind. Then there were the ruins at Palmyra, the ancient Roman desert city, to the east. I’d seen a lifetime of ruins in Turkey, and was thinking about giving Palmyra a miss, even though it was the best Syria had to offer – kind of like visiting Pisa, and skipping the Leaning Tower, just to say you did it. I was too tired to trudge around looking for a hotel. I decided to postpone this dreaded chore and instead hopped on a bus to Palmyra. It took an hour to fill and the crying babies, bickering women and people bugging me about my seat number pushed me to the brink. Two men got on and started loading meal sacks in the aisle by the rear steps (they were too heavy to lift up to the roof); this provoked more arguing, and lots of high-stepping, but the sacks stayed. Finally we were off into the desert on a paved, bumpy road, the last rays of sunlight making the landscape incandescent. There were camels standing motionless not far from the road; they were the first I had seen in Syria. Exhausted as I was, I began to enjoy the ride; the babies were quiet, the afternoon heat was abating, and we were on a remote, lonely highway leading to a remote, lonely city.
From the outside I had my doubts about the New Tourist Hotel, situated directly across the street from the friendly neighborhood mosque, but there seemed to be no alternative. Once on the inside, I knew I had come to the right place; the manager was friendly, the locals were lounging on sofas in the foyer watching television, and the corridor was decorated with peasant dresses, swords, glass cases holding ancient coins and jewelry, and other Syrian folk art items. My room was cramped, the bathroom smelly, and despite the name, the hotel was neither new nor were their other tourists, but it was my kind of place. The manager asked me to come back for tea after I had settled in, but I begged off and collapsed into a deep slumber. I was awaken by a sound that nearly sent me through the roof. I writhed in bed, groping for the source of the blast, before I realized the loudspeaker of the minaret was aimed directly at my open window. Now I’ve always maintained that you’ve only half-lived your life if you’ve never heard the eerie wail of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer in some Islamic backwater. But at four in the morning?
Feeling refreshed and vigorous, I left the hotel to explore the ruins at the edge of town, which had looked most impressive the previous night silhouetted against the fading sky. The unusual feature of the Palmyra ruins is the main highway that neatly bisects them, so that you can take them in at sixty miles per hour if you’re in a hurry. (There’s an idea that would appeal to many American “Holy Land” tour companies, were it not for the fact that none of them would dream of going to Syria.) Just before the ruins was the Queen Zenobia Hotel, which I had missed from the bus. It was a beautiful, grand old hotel, the kind of place I don’t mind splurging on, but I didn’t regret winding up at the New Tourist. I went inside and ordered the set breakfast: soft-boiled egg, olives, goat cheese, rolls and coffee. There was a noisy French group enjoying their petit dejeuner as well. Camped on the hotel grounds was a British group of five, on an eccentric, three-week tour of Syria, Jordan and Iraq. I knew about this tour, which was run by an obscure English outfit; I’d read their brochure and considered taking it, but felt it was too rushed. Besides, the red tape involved in obtaining a visa for Iraq, which meant sending telexes to Baghdad and which for me, as a U.S. citizen, would’ve entailed getting a second passport, was overwhelming, and even then the group could be refused entry into the country without explanation. But they were confident about entering Iraq the next day, and all seemed to be having a good time.
“Would you like a guide to explain the history of the temple to you?” a local asked me as I stood at the entrance to the Temple of Bal. His English was excellent, his fee was reasonable, and he seemed like a decent chap, so I said alright. “And what is your nationality?”
“Oh, American. Welcome! There are not many Americans who come here.” We walked along. “So! Where have you traveled in Syria?” I told him about Deir-ez-Zor, Aleppo, Hama and Baniyas. “Very good! And how are you enjoying our country?”
“I’m having a very nice time. You know, I was scared about coming here at first, because in America we are always hearing how dangerous it is, and all the problems with – “
“Oh, this is nothing but all the propaganda in your newspapers and television,” he scowled. “Tell me, you have been to all these places. Do you think it is dangerous here?”
“No, I – “
“Well, when you go home I hope you are going to tell everyone the truth about what you have seen here, and how the Arab people have treated you.”
“Yes I will.”
“And now you know that when you read in the newspapers about the Arab people killing everyone, it is nothing but Zionist propaganda.”
“Well, sometimes I read different newspapers that most people in America don’t know about, and they say the Arabs are good people.”
“Oh, I see,” he grinned. “Special sources?”
“Yeah,” I laughed, “you could say that.”
He gave me a lively tour of the beautifully preserved temple, of which I retain nothing, except for a detailed astrological carving which he claimed was an invention of the ancient Arabs. Upon seeing four or five people from the French group pacing around at the entrance, he rushed through the last sites, and cranking my hand, wished me luck on the rest of my travels.
Early that evening I was reading in bed when there was a knock on my door. It was Saad, the manager’s nephew, whom I had met earlier in the day along with his brother Salem and their friend Mohammed. I liked Saad; he was a good kid. “Meestar, drinking tea?” Saad was only in the fifth grade, but was already studying English at school. I told him I’d be out in ten minutes.
The whole gang was there in robes and kafiyehs, crowded around the television set. Salem poured me a glass of tea flavored with a mint sprig. Word had spread about the American guest; I walked around shaking hands and saying “Salaam.” then took a seat between Saad and Salem. “Look Meestar, Los Angelees.” Here I was in a small hotel in a desert town in the middle of a country recently pushed to the brink of war by America, watching the gymnastics events of the 1984 summer Olympics with the friendliest bunch of guys you’d ever want to meet. Everyone was glued to the set – ooohs and aaahs punctuated every performance – and I was marveling at the sharpness of the picture, when suddenly the screen went fuzzy. Amid the groans and grumbles I got up and walked over to the box, which had a reception dish sitting on it – an aluminum lid rigged to a coat hanger – and lifted it off the set and aimed it towards the west. “Come in, Los Angelees,” I chanted, mixing in some high-pitched blips, “Come in, Los Angelees.” I had the boys in stitches, but unfortunately this didn’t restore the picture. (I might mention here that mindless TV shows are by no means confined to America; they’re an addiction throughout the world. Even in Syria one can watch soap operas, sitcoms and stupid commercials, not to mention “Dallas.”)
Now we had to find something else to do. Salem raced home to get his stamp album, which he was eager to show me. I went to my room and returned with my Arabic-English dictionary; this would be an opportunity to learn a bit more of that impossible language, while I could help the boys out with their English. We took turns. They laughed every time I came across a word which had a glottal stop between syllables; I just couldn’t say it right. I decided that Arabic was so difficult it wasn’t worth the effort to build a vocabulary. By comparison, Turkish was a breeze. I still retain about twenty Turkish words, but only four or five of Arabic.
Salem appeared breathlessly at the top of the stairs with his album, and we sat down to look through it. Nearly all the stamps were from Arab countries, some of them very colorful. The Libyan ones were especially sharp. We went through them individually, and when we were finished, he pulled out an Egyptian and Kuwaiti stamp and gave them to me as a gift. He asked me to mail him some American stamps when I returned home. I promised that I would, and I have.
Some time later the picture returned to the tube, but the Olympics were over. The nightly news program from Damascus was on. Assad was shown conferring with another Arab leader, as he was almost every time I watched Syrian television. There were boring clips of dams, construction, irrigation projects, that sort of thing. Meir Kahane, whose election to the Knesset was very big news in the Arab world, was shown spewing his venom in Israel. (The Arabs pronounce it with a long, vicious A – IsRAAAyil – as if it were a curse.) Saad turned to me and said, “Meestar, IsRAAAyil not good.” I told him to quit calling me Meestar and call me John. FInally, there were some shots of Reagan and Mondale campaigning, and I thanked Allah I was as far away from the nauseating spectacle of American electioneering as I could be. But I’ve always been amazed at the obsession with life in America which exists everywhere on the planet. Over a month earlier, I was watching a TV news program at a beer garden in Konya, Turkey (home of Mevlana, the 13th-century mystic who founded the order of the Whirling Dervishes) when a tremendous fireworks display appeared on the tube, followed by the Beach Boys playing to a huge crowd. I got to celebrate the Fourth of July after all!
Earlier I had taken a walk to the Karnak bus station to buy a ticket to Damascus. The clerk said he couldn’t sell me a ticket for a departure the next day; just show up at 8:15 and there’d be no problem, I could buy a ticket from the driver, he said. I opened the place at 8AM, ate a hard-boiled egg, and awaited the express on its way from Deir-ez-Zor. It pulled in at 8:30, and, and as the bleary-eyed passengers stepped off for a bite to eat, I asked the driver to put my pack in the baggage compartment. “I am sorry, bus is fill,” he said. So I walked back into town, sweating and cursing, but determined not to let this ruin the big day. I’d seen a place on the main street where the circus wagons seemed to arrive and depart occasionally. I went there and found that one would be leaving for Esh Sham (the Arab name for Damascus) around 11:30. I pulled up a chair sitting in front of a building and opened Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. A uniformed man came out of the building and looked at me quizically. He spoke a little English. I told him I was an American tourist waiting for the bus to Damascus. He went back in and came out with a glass of what looked liked boiled hay with a brass straw stuck in it, and offered it to me, saying it was from Argentina. I sucked up the liquid, unable to decide whether it tasted good or bad (I’ve since learned that it was yerba mate, an herbal tea made from a plant that grows only in South America), and thanked him. He went back inside and I resumed reading.
“Esh Sham! Esh Sham! Esh Sham!” the driver’s helper yelled from the open door. But everyone already knew where the bus was going. Luggage, sacks and boxes were handed up to the man on the roof who expertly tied them down. People started packing in, and in no time we were off to Esh Sham, commonly known as the Pearl of the Middle East, according to the Syrian tourist literature. I found myself in front again, on an uncomfortable makeshift seat that had no backrest, but with a friendly crowd. Nobody knew that I was American, only that I spoke a different language, and the seeds, nuts and cigarettes never stopped coming. (I smoked back then, and had my own cigarettes, but I liked giving them the opportunity to extend hospitality.) The countryside was not inspiring. There was nothing to see but the endless beige of the desert, and the occasional village cooking in the sun. The brilliant dress of the women in these villages – the iridescent blues, yellows and crimsons, and the golden glint of their facial jewelry – was a welcome splash of color, contrasting sharply with the dreary landscape.
About halfway to the capital was the first military checkpoint I encountered in Syria. An ugly man in dungarees and dirty shirt stood by his shack, holding his bandaged gun in one hand and waving us off the road with the other. There was a quick check of the driver’s I.D. and vehicle papers and we were back on the road. Further on was a junction where a few passengers requested to get off. As we slowed down, we passed a battered sign, in Arabic and English, indicating the direction to Damascus and Baghdad – a great photograph, I thought. I reacted instantly, grabbing my camera and telling the driver, “One second!” as the disembarking passengers were handed their luggage. I dashed fifty yards back to the sign, took the photo, sprinted back to the bus and fell under a heavy glare from nearly everyone on the bus. Why on earth would you want to take a picture of a road sign, their eyes seemed to be asking. When we were rolling again, a man sitting near me asked, “What your country?” I said America. “America,” he repeated in a low voice, and clammed up. So did everyone else. Suddenly I was a non-person. The snacks and tobacco supply were cut off. We rode on in dead silence. I felt miserable. What was the problem?
The probable answer came in ten minutes. The driver’s helper went around collecting identity cards, which he put in a plastic bag. I gave him my passport. Evidently there was a major military checkpoint ahead. A foreigner, an American, taking photographs near a military zone? I couldn’t blame all those folks for suddenly turning so suspicious.
There was a military zone ahead alright. We came to a large asphalt lot where three other buses were parked. Everyone had to get off the bus, and the I.D. cards were brought into a large building. Soldiers were making spot checks on the bags from the other vehicles. Nearby was the incongruous sight of an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the bed of a late-model Chevrolet pick-up truck. I tried to make small talk with some of my fellow passengers while we were waiting, but they wanted nothing to do with me. We were kept here for nearly an hour, then allowed to leave. There were no searches, no questions, no difficulties. We swung back on the road to Damascus. Soon we were into a large display of heavy weaponry on both sides of the road, barrels pointed skyward at every angle. No doubt these guns were here to protect the capital from an Israeli air strike.
We couldn’t be far from Damascus now. Damascus! What a regal name for a great world city. It rang with historical drama, conjuring visions of Alexander the Great, St. Paul, and Tamerlane arriving at the majestic gates. But for most ill-informed Americans, their minds poisoned by the media, Damascus is that infernal breeding ground which spawns every kind of Arab terrorist dedicated to destroying the holy state of Israel. Less noteworthy is the fact that people have been living in Damascus forever. To me, its reputation as the capital of a country renowned for its militant, implacable anti-Zionism made the magical name even more special. I imagined Alexander approaching the walls of the city on horseback in 333 B.C., and wondered if my entry would be equally triumphant. But as the city came into sight, I felt more like Joe Sixpack arriving at his factory job in Jersey City on a crowded commuter bus. Garbage-strewn streets, sloppy construction sites, traffic jams, honking horns – this was the Pearl of the Middle East?
Damascus was a pretty good place, actually. But it wasn’t the magnificent sister city of Jerusalem that I imagined it to be. The crumbling, neglected remnants of the wall surrounding the old city cannot compare to that of Jerusalem (which was rebuilt in 1537 A.D.), nor can the diminutive gates. Aside from the enormous Ommuyad Mosque, where St. John the Baptist is said to be buried, there is no outstanding historical monument. The streets and alleys display nothing predating the Middle Ages, and there’s no visible connection to the ancient past whatsoever. But I did stumble on a small area where traditional craftsmen were hard at work, and managed to pick up my dagger and a copper tray.
It’s a great city for walking: flat, manageable, well laid-out. The modern part of town is as nice as any I’ve seen in the Middle East. The streets are safe to walk at any hour, although African students were not an uncommon sight. Fifths of Johnny Walker Red and cartons of Marlboro were sold openly on the black market. Foreign newspapers and magazines covered the newsstands. You could buy a poster of Rocky or Michael Jackson as easily as a slice of baklava, but if you wanted to hang Marx or Lenin on your wall you’d have better luck shopping in London or New York. The obviously Western orientation of the populace, in contrast to the government’s lukewarm ties to communist countries and the Third World, was what made Syria such an enigma.
* * *
Shem was a frail, unattractive man who worked in the quiet government tourist office on Port Said Boulevard. I asked him if Zebdani, a resort town in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains – just a few miles from the Lebanese border – was worth a visit. He said it definitely was, but that nearby Bloudan was even better, and offered to accompany me there when he got off work at two o’clock. He didn’t look like much fun, but he was a solution to the possible language problem of getting there and back so I said okay. We drove for several miles on the road connecting Damascus and Beirut, but saw no soldiers or weapons of any kind. Bloudan was frequented by what you could call the jet-set stratum of Syrian society. There were Saudis there as well, many driving around in Cadillacs. Their cars were identifiable by the license plates, Shem explained, which bore only Arabic letters and numerals. There were several expensive restaurants and boutiques, and one luxury hotel. We ate lunch and Shem waited for me to pick up the tab. I couldn’t believe it. In Turkey, where I was forcibly prevented from paying my own way for many light meals and glasses of tea, a man trying to pull a trick like that on a foreign guest would be run out of town. I paid for my meal and walked away, leaving him to reach for his wallet.
Shem was a miserable little man with a wormy envy of anyone who was better-looking and richer than him, which amounted to everybody. I wondered how I was going to endure his company until 9PM, when the only public bus to Damascus departed, but we found ways to kill time. There was an amusement park with lots of rides, video games and coin-operated macho machines that measured how hard you could sock a punching bag or kick a soccer ball. We walked around, had a few beers, and went several rounds on a foosball game and then on the bumper cars. He simply stood there and expected me to pay for everything, and most times I did, because everything was cheap and I wanted to avoid an unpleasant situation. Later, he argued with a shopkeeper who brought him the local brand of cola instead of Coca-Cola. Even his diatribe against the Zionists, which normally I was receptive to, irritated me: “Who asked them to come here? I hate all of them. Everyone hates them.”
I stayed in Damascus five days, which was two more than it deserved, but I knew I’d probably never return and I wanted to soak up as many impressions as I could. My best memories are the sidewalk juice stands where you could buy a glass of any combination of local fruits blended to order, as well as fantastic banana milk shakes. But I also remember Damascus as the city where typically Arab hassles kept mounting to the point where I wanted out. I think of the clerk at the post office who couldn’t be bothered showing me stamps I wanted for my collection, even though nobody was in line behind me; the moronic, constant horn honking; the petty cheating in the markets and pastry shops; the man at the bus station who wouldn’t sell me a ticket to Amman, Jordan because I didn’t have my passport with me. I remember too the rotten bastards who ran the Rami Hotel – plastered with posters of Ayatollah Khomeini and his son to make the Iranian guests feel at home – and raised the price the night before I checked out. (There were college students from Tunisia and Libya staying here as well, who were very friendly to me, and they couldn’t stand the management either.) Then there was the mutilated ten-pound note. This was given to me as change in a restaurant, and nobody would accept it afterwards. Every time I tried to pay for a snack or a glass of juice, it was pushed back at me. It may seem silly to get so riled up over a lousy note worth a dollar and a half, but as the saying goes, it was the principle. Finally I went to a bank to get it replaced, cursing the whole way, only to find the doors had been locked five minutes earlier.
* * *
If not for a border, the bus ride from Damascus to Amman would take no more than four hours. Unfortunately, there is a border, and this makes it an all-day affair. The Syrians detain you for three hours, the Jordanians for two. There’s no reason for this. Syria and Jordan are not the closest of neighbors, but they’re Arab pals nonetheless, so why the delay? The indifference or malevolence of Arab bureaucrats, like bureaucrats everywhere, seems to be the answer.
Incredibly, there was an American sitting right in front of me on the bus, an older man wearing a hearing aid and baseball cap. I heard him talking to the Arab man sitting next to him. When we arrived at the border and disembarked, I introduced myself as a fellow American. He was very eager to talk, saying he’d just been up for a short visit to Damascus; he’d been living and working in Amman for a year, supervising the construction of a hospital, and said he liked Jordan and its people very much. Of the hundreds of Westerners I’ve met in my travels, he was one of the very few who had some unkind things to say about Zionism. That was good; we had something in common.
Passport control on the Syrian side was absolute chaos. There were more than a hundred people in that office clamoring to get their passports back, passing them to the front, pushing, shoving their way to the counter, behind which stood nine or ten uncaring public servants. I was worried that my passport would be lost or stolen in that mob, but Walter and I had to get them up front somehow. To our amazement, they were stamped and returned to us in a matter of minutes, leaving that crowd howling with indignation. We walked out and went to a small restaurant nearby. From the looks of that office, we knew it would be hours before we crossed into Jordan.
The Lebanese man who had been sitting next to Walter on the bus came in and joined us. Apparently they had been discussing the Palestinian problem because they launched right into the subject. This man, a Christian (he was wearing a crucifix), was actually defending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. I couldn’t believe my ears, not only because of what I was hearing, but because I was hearing it out loud on Syrian soil! (I was very careful while in Syria not to mention that I had been to Israel four years earlier, and planned to visit it again. Such information could get you deported immediately. When people asked about my travel plans, I told them I had an air ticket from Amman to Athens.) When Walter tried to make a point, and poor old fellow, he got excited at times and trembled slightly, the Lebanese man (who had become a Jordanian citizen) just sat there smiling. I felt sorry for Walter because he was no match for the man’s wit, and didn’t seem to realize he was being gently mocked. No matter what Walter said, the man would take the opposite position. He claimed that everyday life on the Israeli-occupied West Bank was less of a headache than elsewhere in the Arab world.
“Give me an example,” I said.
“You go to change money in a bank in Damascus or Amman. They tell you to sit down and wait. Then there are ten people who have to sign things, pass papers around, this and that, and sometimes you wait for twenty or thirty minutes. If you’re in a hurry, they tell you too bad, sit down and wait. In Jerusalem you go to a bank and one person does the job by himself in a minute, and hands you the money. Just look what it’s like here. They treat the people like animals. If you yell at them, they make you wait another hour. If you ask them nicely to stamp your passport, they smile and say, ‘What’s the hurry?'” Although he was exaggerating, there was some truth about the nuisance of dealing with bank officials, though that was ridiculously petty compared to the issue of Israeli terror. I started wondering about this man. Who was he? How could he know about places like Damascus and Amman and Jerusalem? Could he possibly be an Israeli agent? No, that was stretching things, and in any event it would be impossible to meet a freely talking Israeli spy in Syria – or would it? All I knew was, I didn’t like this man and I wanted nothing to do with him on the ride to Amman. But his attitude troubled me. I knew there were bitter religious divisions in Lebanon, and that Christian Phalangists had massacred Palestinian Muslims in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, two years earlier, under Israeli military supervision.
And here was an Arab who had lived in the thick of things – not some American Jew who couldn’t see reality past his own nose – sticking up for the Israelis. I would meet a few more Lebanese like him a month later in Cyprus. They reminded me that it’s tempting to oversimplify the facts on the ground in the Middle East, that in spite of the Israeli government’s unbroken record of terrorism, the situation there is complex and it’s not always a clear-cut issue of the good guys against the bad guys.
* * *
Before leaving home, I’d led myself to believe that Jordan – stable, prosperous, “moderate” Jordan – would be a safe haven after the big Syrian question mark. After all, King Hussein was a nice man, as a former British colony English was widely spoken, and there was even a Fodor guidebook available for the independent traveler. Here I could leave thoughts of danger behind and relax for the rest of my trip. I was wrong. This is a country I would never visit again, period. To get ahead of myself, I like to tell people that Jordan is the worst country I’ve ever been to, though nothing terrible happened and maybe that’s not fair. It was just really bad chemistry. I have no regrets about going there – how could I? – but having planned to stay there two weeks, I stayed only eight days.
The border crossing deceived me – easier and more orderly than on the Syrian side, though still inexcusably long. We passed through Jerash, a city of Roman ruins, festooned with banners advertising an upcoming festival. An hour later we were in Amman. Walter’s car was parked near the bus station and he offered to drive me to an area where there were some inexpensive hotels. I checked into the Sunrise Hotel for one night, a sterile establishment in a business zone that looked like a shopping mall. The rate stunned me; it was double that of the Rami in Damascus.
Amman struck me as an Arab Houston, even though I’ve never been to Houston: modern, sprawling, energetic, lacking character. It’s one of the hilliest capitals in the world, and unless you’re an exercise freak, a taxi is the only practical way of getting around. I spent the entire morning on odds and ends – picking up mail from home, changing money, locating the tourist office, and applying for a permit to visit the West Bank. The permit application was quite a game. It takes three days to process (I planned to return to Amman to pick it up) and allows up to three weeks of travel on the West Bank – you never mention the word “Israel” – after which you’re allowed back into Jordan as long as your passport doesn’t have an Israeli stamp. Once you’re on the West Bank, you’re really in Israel, at least according to the Israelis, and you can go anywhere you want. The Jordanians realize that most foreign travelers have no intention of returning to Jordan once they’ve crossed over, and thus they’re unfriendly to applicants. (The desk-jockey who handed me the application wouldn’t lend me his pen.)
I finished my chores and happily left Amman around noon. But I became unhappy when my sherut (shared taxi) failed to exit for Madaba. Now we were headed for Kerak, 75 miles south of Amman, and I wanted to go there via the Kings Highway, the old, slower, more scenic route. One of the other passengers told me we would be passing through Madaba, but he was wrong. We continued to speed along on the Desert Highway which was newer, faster – and as drab as the Amman skyline. A man invited me to stay at his house in Kerak (mentioned twice in the Old Testament as Kir Hare-Seth), but after seeing the shambles of a castle perched high above rows of gray, dismal streets I decided to keep moving. There was no public transport out of Kerak in the afternoon, and hardly any traffic on the Kings Highway, so the only alternative seemed to backtrack to the Desert Highway and continue south. I got a lift with three men on their way to Amman. The passenger in the front seat offered me a large bottle of Henninger’s (a strange name for an Arab beer, I thought), prying the cap off with his teeth. It was good stuff. I guzzled it and he handed me another. When I stepped out in Qatrana I was in a good mood for hitchhiking. I had no idea where I’d end up.
A dignified old Mercedes-Benz pulled over. Behind the wheel sat a mellow older man in traditional Arab dress. There was a passenger in the back seat. I sat in the front, appreciating the roominess. The driver smiled whenever he spoke to me. Sometimes he sang with all his heart to a tune on the radio. It was the kind of lift I enjoyed, especially with a couple of Henningers in me.
The passenger handed the driver some change and got out at a small village near Ma’an. Ma’an, a city of 40,000, wasn’t listed in my guidebook. The driver pulled into a filling station on the edge of town and told me this was the end of the line. “Am I supposed to pay you?” I said.
“Four JD,” he said after thinking it over. (JD was slang for Jordanian Dinar; one dinar was worth $1.80.) Being somewhat naive, I expected him to say, “You are a guest in my country, you don’t have to pay,” especially because he seemed like a kind man. Worse, four JD was exorbitant for the distance traveled.
“Two JD,” I said.
He smiled. “Okay, two JD.”
It was getting dark, and I was in that fidgety mood that descends on me when I’m in a place I have no wish to be, but not sure where to go. I unfolded my map to take another look at my route. No place to go but Aqaba, the southernmost point in Jordan, on the Red Sea, which looked to be two hours at most. I waved down the first sherut. The driver was a maniac. There was one brief stop at a produce stall, where he and some passengers bought cucumbers and melons. The man sitting next to me offered me a cucumber. I was still gnawing on it when we pulled into the taxi station in Aqaba around 10PM. I asked the driver where I could find a cheap hotel. He took me aside and quietly offered to take me to a hotel he said cost five dinars – quietly because it was illegal for a sherut to operate as a regular taxi within the city limits.
“You are sure this hotel is only five JD?” I said.
“Oh yes. Even cheaper rooms they have.” I didn’t trust this guy, and then we rode only a hundred yards before reaching the Palm Beach Hotel. I was furious.
“You charge me one JD to take me here?” I said, as he took my pack out of the trunk. “I can walk here in a minute. Why didn’t you tell me it was so close?” He looked at the ground. “Alright, I pay you because I said I would. But I should go to the police. You are not a good man.”
“Goodbye,” he said, still looking away.
I went to the reception desk and the clerk told me the cheapest room was twelve dinars. Now smoke was billowing out my ears. He saw this and quickly offered to put me up in a tent for only three dinars. It was already pitched and furnished with mattress, pillow, soap and towel, he told me. It sounded like a good deal and it was. After settling in, I returned to the office and sat on the couch, chatting with the clerk in front of the television set. He was a friendly young Lebanese man who had recently fled from Beirut to escape the horrors of war; his quiet demeanor attested to the things he had seen. We were watching, of all things, the TV show “Bloopers,” hosted by Ed McMahon and Don RIckles, with Arabic subtitles. It seemed odd for this man to be laughing along with a Jewish comedian who often sprinkled his act with pro-Israel propaganda. Later I sat on the beach and drank a few outrageously expensive beers served by an indifferent waiter. What an absurd day it had been and what an absurd place to end up! Aqaba is a major port and there were several huge ships sitting in the harbor waiting to unload. The lights of Eilat, on the southern tip of Israel, glimmered in the warm, black air, just a few miles across the Gulf of Aqaba. The Israelis call it the Gulf of Eilat.
I went to bed around midnight. From the outside the tent looked like the perfect place to spend a few days figuring out why I was here. The inside was a different story. Between the heat and the whining mosquitoes, which had me wondering about malaria, I spent a miserable, sleepless night. After an early morning dip – the sun was already oppressive at 7:30 – I showered, had a breakfast of scrambled eggs and ful (fava beans), and walked along the beach to the less expensive but equally pleasant Aqaba Hotel, where I checked into an air-conditioned room.
“You will not believe Wadi Rum,” read the heading on one of the tourist brochures I had picked up in Amman. A glossy photograph showed some Arabs riding their camels across a sand dune into the horizon, flanked by purple mountains. I can be a sucker for this stuff. Wadi Rum, where Lawrence of Arabia hid out from the Turks, seemed like an easy day trip from Aqaba, but there were no organized tours to the site: one could only hire a taxi. Even this proved difficult. One of the hotel staff, a smooth young man named Fayez, overheard me asking about it and told me there were two Italian ladies, hotel guests, who had also inquired about Wadi Rum. He offered to take the three of us there after he finished work for 25 JD ($45), “only to pay for the petrol.”
I tracked down Celeste and Donatella in the afternoon. Both were petite, attractive schoolteachers from Bologna. I suggested we split the cost three ways but they claimed 8 JD apiece was way too much for them, they would pay only six between them. Are you kidding me? I returned to Fayez and he reluctantly agreed to 18 JD. “Believe me, petrol is very expensive and I am not making any money,” he said. “I only want you to have good time in my country, not to make money on you and your friends.” Sure.
Celeste and Donatella were still hesitant. How cheap can you get? Finally I offered to pay ten if they paid four each, and we settled on that. Actually, I would’ve paid the whole cost and gone alone: I really wanted to see Wadi Rum.
We drove for an hour before reaching the crenellated fort of the Wadi Rum Desert Patrol, where we had to register. I was impressed by the uniforms of the Desert Police, who sat atop caparisoned camels, long khaki kilts, red bandoliers studded with gleaming bullets, and huge boomerang-shaped daggers tucked in at the waist. They didn’t explain why anyone had to be armed so heavily in this huge sandbox where only a few Bedouin tribes lived.
Problems arose, naturally. After leaving the hotel, Fayez had told us that his friend would drive us in a Land Rover to the scenic area, a few miles from the fort, for one dinar apiece. That was a new twist, but not only was his “friend” absent, there was only a ramshackle pick-up truck at the fort whose driver firmly refused to take us out for less than ten dinars. While Fayez negotiated in vain, young boys badgered us to hire their camels at 4 JD each for the trip. It was all so typically Arab: the lies, the deceptions, the mounting costs. Meanwhile, daylight was fading, and with it the opportunity to photograph spectacular Wadi Rum. And the bitchy attitude of the Italian ladies didn’t help. Where did they think they were, Switzerland?
“I am sorry, this is my mistake,” Fayez gravely informed us. “I will pay 5 JD because I have told you the wrong price. But you must pay the rest. I do not pay any more.” I didn’t think this was a ploy; I believed that Fayez honestly hadn’t foreseen this problem and was genuinely upset, and at this point, the whole thing probably wasn’t even worth it to him. Nevertheless, Celeste and Donatella began squawking, Why do people take vacations if they’re such tightwads, and why can’t they just roll with it? I try to save money all the time too when traveling, without going to extremes. I said that I’d pay an extra three dinars, which meant that they’d have to pay one more each, though I didn’t say this. Finally we were off. There were narrow metal benches on either side of the truck; Fayez and I sat on the driver’s side, the ladies huddled opposite us. The track was corrugated and brutal, but the driver, a swarthy, unkempt man, barreled right along. After a mile I felt as though I’d been in a paint shaker and I stood up, using my legs as shock absorbers.
“Why you say Land Rove?” Celeste complained. “Dissa no Land Rove.” Oh will you shut up and start enjoying this, I thought. Fayez didn’t hold back.
“Please! Now you are making me angry! Do not say any more words!” His outburst startled the women and we bounced along in glum silence.
So we got to see Wadi Rum. What was there not to believe? Seeing it was anticlimactic but my obsession was satisfied and I’ll say it was worth the trip. Fayez showed us the well in a narrow gorge where, he said, Lawrence drank while eluding the Turks, but the ladies weren’t interested and wandered about on their own. Fayez said, “Perhaps we should leave them here tonight.” On the way back we stopped at a Bedouin encampment and were offered bread and tea. We had a lot of fun with the children, who laughed and giggled over our strange language and mannerisms, but I was put out when they asked for money as we got up to leave, especially since Bedouins are noted for their regal hospitality. I suppose they were tourist Bedouins.
It was totally dark when we returned to the fort, and I regretted the lost opportunity to take photographs. But one of the magnificently dressed elites of the Desert Patrol approached me to have his picture taken, so I had him stand under one of the light bulbs suspended from a tree and took a flash. All the fellows of the Desert Patrol were kind and friendly and asked us to sit with them and drink coffee, which they brewed over an open flame. It was a rewarding end to a long and difficult day, and we were all friends again.
There were long truck convoys crawling along on the drive back to Aqaba; their headlights blinded us and it was dangerous negotiating some of those rocky curves. Fayez explained that they were transporting war supplies and foodstuffs to Iraq. With all the fighting in the Persian Gulf, the materiel had to be shipped through the Red Sea to Aqaba, then loaded onto trucks for the long desert journey to Baghdad. It was intriguing to be watching the activities of war a thousand miles from where the bombs were falling. We drove along and Fayez spoke of the things that were a part of his life – of Israeli aggression and atrocities, of the suicidal tendencies of Arab drivers, of the pain of being separated from his family who lived in a town called Irbid, near the Syrian border. I couldn’t help but like him, even though he had deceived us in small ways. We had to stop at an army checkpoint once, and he instructed us to say, if asked, that we were friends of his and hadn’t paid him. But the soldier spoke only a few words, Fayez replied, and he waved us through,
As a finale to our probably illegal tour, Fayez said he’d take us right to the border of Saudi Arabia, a country where tourism simply did not exist and holy cities were closed to non-Muslims. It was only a fifteen-minute drive south of Aqaba. We were stopped at another military checkpoint, but this time only to be shown an ID card lost by a Greek seaman, and asked if we knew of his whereabouts. Fayez drove onto the beach, and we all sat by the warm, clear waters of the gulf, talking. Then, with a sinister, suggestive smile he said, “Maybe we can go for a walk?” I think he said this only to scare the ladies, as revenge for making things difficult for him at Wadi Rum. If so, he was successful. “Maybe we go back now,” Celeste offered anxiously. Perhaps they thought we two had conspired about this moment, but Fayez only wanted to tell us about coral reefs and poisonous fish.
Celeste, Donatella and I ended the evening with dinner on the sidewalk at the Ali Baba Restaurant. I had broiled fish, soup, and two side dishes. They were astounded at how much I could eat; they only had a bowl of soup each. They had a much larger appetite for travel stories, and I regaled them with tales of the Congo until closing time. I offered to pay for their soup, but they wouldn’t let me, probably figuring that if I did my next offer would be a detour to my hotel room. We walked back to the Hotel Aqaba at midnight, shook hands warmly, exchanged best wishes in our travels, and said goodnight.
* * *
The ancient city of Petra is Jordan’s crowning glory. In the fourth century B.C. an obscure tribe, the Nabataeans, and after them the Romans, carved temples, palaces and tombs from the indigenous pink sandstone; the city was unknown to the West until the Swiss explorer, Jacob Burckhardt penetrated its veil of secrecy in 1812. I had purposely saved the best for last, but getting there was yet another hassle. The desk man at the Aqaba Hotel told me to go to the taxi station; to get there I hailed one of those suspicious Mercedes-Benz taxis that didn’t have meters, and I could have written the script before I opened the door.
“How much to go to the taxi station?”
“No, two JD.”
“Alright, two JD, 500 fils.”
“Two JD. Yes or no?”
The driver smiled and sighed. “Alright, get in.”
At the station I was told that no sheruts went to Petra, only a “special bus.” This showed up empty a half-hour later and brought me directly to the Holiday Inn, which was next door to the Aqaba Hotel! There was a group of affluent Germans – businessmen and their families – making a day trip to Petra, and there was an English guy too. A man who worked at the Holiday Inn said to me, “You must give the driver eight JD.”
“Oh, come on,” I said. “That’s what it costs to go all the way to Amman.”
He spoke to the driver in Arabic, then turned to me. “Alright, five JD. This is the lowest price he takes. Is that alright?”
“No, it’s not alright, but I guess I have no choice, right?” Bastards. I was getting so tired of these Arab games.
The English guy told me he was on an organized tour. The rest of his group had a free day in Aqaba, but he had enjoyed Petra so much that he wanted to spend another day there. His tour had already visited Jerusalem.
“Did you enjoy it there?” I asked him.
“It was wonderful. I could’ve stayed there for a month.”
“I was there four years ago and I felt the same way. In fact, I’m going back there next week. Did you take the Allenby Bridge across?”
“Yes, we did.”
“Was it pretty easy? Any problems?”
“The Israelis were terrible. You would’ve thought I was carrying a bomb, the way they searched my bags. And we were leaving the country! I don’t get it. They even made me point my camera at the ceiling and shoot some film, like it might have been a hand grenade. It turned me against them a hundred percent. When I get back to London I’m going to write a letter of protest to their embassy, telling them what goes on there.”
We arrived in Petra and I went to eat lunch in the dining room of the Petra Guest House, where I booked a room for two nights. There was a group of forty American tourists waiting in line to be served; they were from the Carolinas, probably on a Christian Zionist “Holy Land” tour, and had just arrived from Amman. I got on the end of the line, behind a woman whose name tag read Marjorie Carter. A Jordanian man rushed over and said, “You are not with this group!” I acknowledged that I wasn’t, and would pay for the meal. It was obviously prepared with American tastes in mind, and hard to resist: fried chicken, potato salad, tossed greens and lemonade.
“So what have you visited on your tour?” I asked Marjorie.
“Oh, let’s see. We flew to Egypt first and saw the Pyramids and then we went to Jerusalem for two days. I think we stay here in Jordan for two days, then we fly to Rome and after that we visit Venus.”
“Venice,” Pat Thomas corrected her.
“That’s an awful lot to see in two weeks. Do you feel like you’re rushing things a bit?”
“Oh, well, Ed over there, he’s our guide and he’s been running this tour for twelve years. He knows all the right places to go.”
The right places to go! Well, I suppose it’s better to be a package tourist than to never leave home. After lunch, they drew numbers to see what horses they would ride through the Siq Gorge, a narrow trail that runs for a mile through towering, massive red rock until it abruptly ends, facing the beautifully preserved treasury building, Petra’s crown jewel. I preferred to walk, but an Arab boy riding a white horse came up alongside me. “Come, I take you to the treasury,” he said.
“No thanks, I want to walk.”
“You must be crazy. What is your country?”
“The American people I like, but you I do not like.”
“Why don’t you like me, just because I don’t want to ride on your horse?”
“No, because there is something wrong in your head.”
“Okay, fine. Now leave me alone.”
I walked among the American tourist cavalry as they milled around on their horses before heading out. “Gee, this one’s got a mind of his own. How’s yours, Lily?” I started walking and was wondering if tourists from other countries say the same kind of inane things, when I heard “Hey!” and a white horse galloped past me. The Arab boy smiled back and waved: he had a customer in the saddle.
Near the end of the hike, part of the treasury’s facade appears through the jagged rock, and then, in a moment of pure magic, you are facing the entire structure. A woman said, “I wanna go inside that thang.” But there’s more to Petra, and after the American group left – their bus went back to Amman, after a brief outdoor lecture – I had the place to myself. I was looking at the tombs when a boy approached me and said, “You want to visit museum?” He brought me to a cave with a light bulb hanging overhead. It was the first museum I ever visited where the curator, the boy’s father, tried to sell me the exhibits. None of them were noteworthy except for an old Roman coin showing a man and a woman copulating, but I didn’t buy it. Nor did I want to spend the night in this dark, tiny “hotel,” the boy’s next offer, even after his father produced a scrapbook of letters from travelers raving about the experience of sleeping there. So many pests! Now he was pestering me about a dagger that faintly interested me. What he didn’t know, of course, was that I’d already bought one in Syria, and one was enough. I might’ve bought this one for a gift, but I really didn’t care, so I could have some fun with him. He quoted me in dollars, starting at sixty.
“Fifteen,” I said. He acted like I was out of my mind. He came down in increments, fifty-five, then fifty, and on and on. I never budged from fifteen. Then he offered his absolute lowest price: thirty. This way of life was starting to wear me down: I walked out the door. When I was almost out of earshot, I heard, “OKAY, FIFTEEN! COME BACK!” I muttered two famous words and kept walking.
There weren’t nearly enough visitors to justify the number of merchants lining the trail selling postcards, trinkets and soft drinks. Beyond the obelisk tomb it was deserted and I walked another mile to the monastery, where I climbed out onto the urn, a hundred feet above the ground, stepping as close to the edge as I dared. Across from here was another small “museum,” which I entered. Nobody was around. It was filled with pottery, daggers and swords. I could’ve walked out of there a one-man army. Two boys, perched like snipers high on a rock, must’ve been watching me closely. I didn’t know they were there until I started walking back and heard, “What have you taken from my shop?” I looked up, shading my eyes, and yelled that I hadn’t taken anything. He yelled back that I was going the wrong way, and pointed to another trail that was right below them. I believed him because I’ve always been directionally challenged and easily get lost without a map. Then spit fell on the ground, just missing me. “Hey!” I yelled. “Don’t you do that again!” I was worried that he was deliberately trying to get me lost, but his directions proved correct.
I left Petra early Friday morning, hoping to hitchhike to Amman on the Kings Highway. I got a lift from a caretaker to Wadi Musa, the town nearest Petra on the main road. From there it was a series of short rides in private cars where I was usually overcharged, then in Shaubak a free ride in the back of a dump truck, cement dust swirling in my hair and eyes. A beverage truck with other riders, including two Filipinos who worked at the cement factory, brought me to Tefilah where I ate lunch and watched men in their robes and kafiyehs leaving services at a mosque, the quintessential Arab scene. I didn’t like being stared at toting my pack so I walked a mile north of this small town and stuck my thumb out. There was hardly any traffic, Friday being the day of rest in the Islamic countries, but I didn’t mind.
I gave up for a while and laid down in the grass by the side of the road. It was warm and very windy, which was turning my face and arms red. It didn’t matter if I got a ride because I could easily walk back to Tefilah, spend the night there and get a sherut to Amman the next day. It was one of those rare moments of personal peace to cherish, a mood I have experienced only on the road, where freedom, solitude and the joy of discovery converge in perfect harmony. A shepherd led his flock across a field on the other side of the road, their tinkling bells sounding lovely as they contended with the rushing wind. I gazed at that man and his goats; it was a scene that hadn’t changed in a thousand years. But this tranquility was deceiving; just twenty miles away lay the violently seized territory of an invading tribe which had brought so much misery to this part of the world, and may yet plunge it into an apocalyptic bloodbath. But for the time being, it was so peaceful where I lay, and the bells so sweet to listen to, I seriously thought about spending the night in that spot.
An hour later I got the itch to move on and landed a short ride in the back of a small cargo truck with three tethered goats for company before getting a long, free ride all the way to Amman in a Land Rover with four geologists who worked for the government. That was a lucky one! I checked into my old standby, the Sunrise, and went to the market. By now I believed that every Arab would try to cheat me, so when a fruit peddler demanded one dinar for three pears that he had put in a plastic bag I handed them back. He grabbed the bag angrily and slapped me in the chest. “Hey, what’s wrong with you!” I said. He cursed at me and flung his arm again, but this time he missed. Later, I asked the friendly receptionist at the hotel if that was a fair price, and he said it was about right. So I was wrong; I wasn’t being cheated. But all I did was hand him back his silly pears. Was that any reason for him to act like that? Not that he struck me hard, but that was the only time in all my travels that anyone ever hit me in anger.
My brief visit to Jordan was salvaged by the annual Jerash Festival, which had replaced the famous Baalbeck Festival in Lebanon three years earlier when war and chaos engulfed that tragic land. There were arts and crafts, good food, reveling crowds, visiting dignitaries, television cameras and many performances in the open-air Roman amphitheatre.
Everyone’s favorite seemed to be the Iraqi Folk Troupe; the women, in dazzling folk dress, put on a provocative dance, gyrating their hips while pretending to plant seeds. It was supposed to be a ritual heralding the arrival of spring, but it had another meaning for the large audience, nearly all men, who howled and whistled their approval. I got the impression that Jordan and Iraq were very close, even though, since the 1967 war Jordan has lain low militarily and maintained a separate fragile peace with Israel. The dapper Royal Jordanian Army band was on hand, as was a group of young Palestinian boys who performed some inspiring folk dances. America had sent a jazz group from Chicago, and a classical ensemble called Young Strings in Action. It was a pleasure listening to them and imagining how thrilled they were to be playing in an Arab country. Surely they would grow up immune to the media brainrot that paints most Arabs as primitive haters of America. I ran into Walter, who was with a beautiful young blonde woman I guessed to be his daughter, but he introduced her as his wife; he hadn’t done bad for himself, the old boy. He was disappointed to hear that my experiences in Jordan had been less than inspiring at times, but I reassured him that the festival was all I could ask for on my last full day in the country.
* * *
The Jordanians call it the King Hussein Bridge, the Israelis the Allenby Bridge. At the bus station in Amman they compromise, and if you want to visit what the Jordanians and the rest of the world call the West Bank, but the Israelis refer to as Judea and Samaria, you go to the counter marked simply “Bridge.” The mini-bus leaves the station at six in the morning and darts around the city, picking up a few tourists at the big hotels. We drove past what I was told were refugee camps, but a quick glance could not distinguish them from ordinary villages. There was a brief stop at a building where our passports were collected and the usual details written down. Then we left and in a few minutes, without warning, rumbled over the wooden slats of a tiny bridge that didn’t deserve a name, much less the name of a general or a king. Could that creek below us have possibly been the Jordan River? I couldn’t believe we had just crossed the border, even after we pulled up to a low, square building where the driver shut off the engine and we waited in silence. Then a lanky, red-haired soldier with Hebrew lettering stitched above his right breast pocket got on the bus and said, “Good morning, welcome to Israel. May I see your passports.”
I’d been to Israel four years earlier, having flown into Tel Aviv from Athens. Not then, and not on this trip, did I have the kind of bad experience upon entering or leaving the country that the English fellow I met in Aqaba had told me about. Not that any official was really friendly. I looked forward to visiting the old city of Jerusalem again, an enthralling place that throbs with History. After breathing it in again for a few days, I went to the Hertz office in the modern part of town and rented a car for a week. I drove up and down the country and picked up several armed and uniformed Israeli soldiers who were hitchhiking. I chatted with most of them, an enlightening experience that I relate in “The Jewish Factor” chapter of my book. I also drove around the West Bank, under occupation since 1967, spending a night in Nablus, and another in a small town called Sa’ir, near Hebron, the West Bank’s largest city. In Nablus I stayed in a ramshackle hotel with an open air lobby facing the street, where I was sitting with a bunch of Arabs absentmindedly watching television, when an Israeli jeep pulled up. They must’ve noticed the different colored license plates on my car. Two soldiers came barging in but before they could say anything the Arabs pointed at me telling them I was American and it was my car. “You are American?” one of them asked me. “Yes.” “Tourist?” “Yes.” He hesitated, then said, “Have a good trip,” and they both left.
I forgot how we met but somewhere I became acquainted with a young Arab man named Mohammed Jaradat and his cousin. Both spoke good English. I gave them a ride somewhere, and he invited me to stay at his house in Sa’ir where he lived with his parents and younger brother. I accepted the invitation, but first he had some errands to run and some friends to drop in on. One of them ran a souvenir shop in Hebron, which unlike Jerusalem, 25 miles away, saw very few tourists. I saw something in his shop that I really liked – a round throw, about three feet across, with lovely folk embroidery. There were no two ways about it: I wanted this. I asked him if it was hand-woven and he assured me that it was. So he started at $70 and I came back with half that. The haggling and bluffing went on until we agreed on the final price: $45. Seems I hadn’t learned my lesson in Petra. I was happy with myself for driving a hard bargain, and he was even happier. He slapped me on the back, shook my hand, and bought me a Coke, even though I don’t drink the stuff. Later that day we stopped at a simple restaurant which Mohammed liked, and had falafel sandwiches. It was only about ten bucks for the three of us, but I picked up the bill because Mohammed and his cousin didn’t offer to pay anything. This man was starting to get on my nerves. On the way to his house we visited three friends of his who ran a hole in the wall auto repair shop. They were curious about me but spoke no English so Mohammed interpreted. They seemed like nice guys. I had my picture taken with them.
We got to Sa’ir before dark, and I met Mohammed’s parents, brother and uncle. The house was modest but cozy and welcoming. His parents were very nice to me, but didn’t speak a word of English. Mrs. Jaradat was wearing a pretty dress embroidered with Palestinian folk design. I hadn’t bought anything, but I felt obliged to give her something so I offered the talcum powder I had in my pack, a rather dumb gift. She smiled and thanked me in Arabic, “Shokran.” Mohammed’s uncle was a cultured man who spoke excellent English, and we had a good talk about politics and the grim realities of living under military occupation. He told me soldiers could come storming into the house any time and arrest everyone for no reason. I told him I was much more aware of the situation than most Americans, and was learning even more now. “And what will you do when you return home?” he cynically added. “You will do nothing.”
Early in the morning I stepped outside, just to greet the new day. An Israeli armored vehicle, which appeared to be on routine patrol, came trundling down the narrow lane. A soldier leered at me but the vehicle kept going. Later, I walked through a market in Hebron, where I remember seeing the neck and head of a camel dangling from a hook, and also an Arab shopkeeper watching in sullen silence as two young Jews, probably from New York or Miami Beach, dressed in gym shorts and yarmulkes, and strapped with Uzis, wandered around. I thought of the constant tension these people live with, when they’re not unjustly arrested and thrown into prison, not to mention when their houses are bulldozed or their crops torn out. Ten years later, on February 25, 1994, the day of Purim that year, a Jewish doctor and settler from Brooklyn, Baruch Goldstein, walked into a mosque in Hebron and shot dead 29 Arabs, wounding 125, before he was grabbed by survivors and beaten to death.
Mohammed managed to squeeze a few more favors out of me the next day. His “hospitality,” though not that of his kind parents, came with a price tag. I was fed up with being his personal chauffeur, and at the first opportunity to get rid of him and his cousin while concealing my true feelings, I got rid of them. His last words, spoken to me with an insincere handshake, were “Remember us, Johnny.” Twenty-nine years later, in 2013, while reading about the facts on the ground in the Mideast on an alternative news website, since they’re censored by the Jewish media, I learned that a Rafat Jaradat from Sa’ir, age 30, was found dead in an Israeli prison. It makes you stop and reflect.
To give you the whole picture, I’m sure that not all and perhaps not even most Israeli soldiers who are assigned to the occupied territories are cold-blooded murderers, though some certainly are. Probably most of them don’t even want to be there, and would avoid military service if they could. I once read the account of a Palestinian prisoner in a detention camp who witnessed a violent argument between a soldier who enjoyed torturing Arabs for sport and another who was outraged by his behavior. During the most recent aerial massacre of Palestinians in Gaza, some Israeli pilots refused to take part, calling their then prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a terrorist, which he is, of course. But personally, I see no hope of Jewish nature changing so that anything like peace will come to the Middle East.
After dropping the rental car off I strolled around Jerusalem. In a souvenir store display, I saw the same coverlet I had bought in Hebron for $45 – I mean the same exact thing – selling for $12. No wonder that bastard was so thrilled with that sale! This also meant that these items were not woven by hand, but mass produced. But it was still very attractive to my eye, so I bought another one to give to my dear Aunt Rose, who was always fascinated with my travels and loved to hear my stories. That Christmas Eve, as was the tradition, our families got together for a large gathering and I brought the throw to give my aunt. I regaled everyone at the dinner table with the Tale of the Two Throws, which ended with laughter all around when I told my aunt, “I’m giving you the $45 one.”
Before preparing to leave the country, I took one last walk through Jerusalem’s old city, which is surrounded by a wall of two and half miles going back to biblical times, but rebuilt over the centuries after earthquakes and wars, the last construction being completed in the sixteenth century, so it still looks quite ancient. Jerusalem will always be a unique and magical place in my mind. How much has happened there in the last 2500 years! Walking past the many Arab shops and stalls, catering mostly to tourists, I saw some nice waist-length winter jackets of thick wool – quality stuff. As I said, I’m happy to pay someone a fair price, but this haggling business with Arabs, always playing head games, gets to me. But here you are, you have no choice, unless you don’t mind getting fleeced. So he starts with $70, I come back with $20, figuring I’ll pay $35 tops, having no idea what his cost was, and here we go. After the usual back and forth he makes it clear that $50 is his final price, end of discussion. I insist on $40, a little more than my original ceiling. “You want it for free?” he says sarcastically. I suspect that it’s the usual psyche job I’m accustomed to by now, but I’m not sure. “Forty,” I say, standing firm. No dice. I walk away, thinking he’ll call me back like the dagger guy at Petra. He doesn’t. I keep walking and nothing happens. I walk until I’m almost out of sight, and now I know, or I think I know, that $50 is a fair price, that he’s not going to laugh behind my back when I’m gone. I go back, pay him $50, and take the jacket. Him, no smile, no thank you. I’ve had that jacket for 37 years now. It still looks sharp, but I only wear it when it’s very cold out and I dress up. It still fits perfectly, and man is it warm. It was worth every penny.
I took a bus to Haifa, Israel’s main port city, where I bought a ticket for an overnight passenger ferry on the Poseidon Lines to Limassol, Cyprus. The ferry stopped running in 2001. Cyprus is a large island in the Mediterranean which is Turkish in the north and Greek in the south. A longstanding territorial dispute erupted into war in 1974 The Greeks and Turks still have no love for each other, but the island has been peaceful since the late seventies. Adding to the drama, however, is that many Lebanese, fleeing the Christian-Muslim conflict and the periodic Israeli aerial slaughters of civilians in Beirut and other cities, have settled in Cyprus. Lebanese, probably more than from any other Arab country, have emigrated around the world and established successful businesses.
In those days I never stayed in a hotel above the one-star level, but despite trudging through the streets of Limassol I came across nothing that looked cheap. I gave up and decided to check out a hotel that probably rated two stars, nothing fancy. There were some newspapers and magazines scattered around the lobby that were printed in Arabic, so obviously Arabs ran the place. The receptionist told me it was $40 a night, which was way over my budget. I asked him if he knew of anything cheaper, and he told me that there was no such thing as a cheap hotel in Limassol. Reluctantly, I gave him $40, he gave me a key, I washed up and left my pack in the room, grabbed a free map and some tourist literature from the rack, and hit the streets. Before long, I saw two modest hotels on a quiet side street. I walked into one and inquired about the price for one night. It was $14. I told them I’d be back. This time I was furious. Still stinging from that $45 I’d paid for that couch cover, I marched up to the desk and told the receptionist that I was fed up with constantly being lied to by “you people,” told him I was leaving, and demanded my money back. I hadn’t used anything in my room except for a towel. He stood there stone-faced for a few seconds, then without saying a word he opened the cash register and refunded my payment.
* * *
Chronologically, Egypt was the last Arab country I visited, in 1990, not counting the peculiar United Arab Emirates in 2016. Morocco, which I’ve written about elsewhere, because it deserves its own chapter, was the second to last. I’ll tell you about Egypt here, which I visited four years after Morocco. I had expected hassles galore in Egypt, especially after the Moroccan experience, and also since it sees so many tourists, or used to anyway. It was always my observation in Europe that the more tourists there are, in Paris or Florence for example, the more they’re sized up as cash cows and the less they’re liked. But Egypt wasn’t like that at all, not even teeming, chaotic Cairo, the Arab world’s biggest city, and before Covid, swollen with foreign visitors since it’s so close to the Pyramids. Yes, there was some haggling over stupid things, even bottled water, but I didn’t have a single unpleasant confrontation in the country.
I did the usual sightseeing thing in Egypt, north to south. The one main road hugs the Nile River, which flows deep into Africa. From Cairo I took an overnight bus to Luxor, a distance of 400 miles. It was one of those mid-size buses with about 25 seats. I was asleep in my seat around 2 AM when I was wrenched awake and heard screeching: the bus was swerving out of control. Has this ever happened to you? It happened to me once before on I-90 in South Dakota, when a man who had picked me up hitchhiking fell asleep at the wheel around dawn after driving through the night. What goes through your mind, compressed in three or four seconds, is, this vehicle might overturn and I might be seriously injured or killed. There’s nothing you can do but ride it out. Well, the bus did not flip over. The driver regained control and we were rolling again. I suppose a stray camel might have wandered onto the road, but more likely he fell asleep.
Taking a cruise down the Nile is the thing to do in Egypt, and I wanted to do it. I’d looked into trips by felucca, a small wooden sailboat that accommodates seven or eight, steered by a local who also cooks meals on board, but I had a hankering for a little more comfort for a change. There were about fifteen cruise boats of different sizes and classes tied up at the dock in Luxor, and I approached one, smaller than the rest, where I saw crew activity. It was one of those “boutique” type vessels, not my style, but hey, just this once? The captain was accessible. They were leaving that afternoon, sailing all the way to the famous huge rock-cut temples in Abu Simbel, just north of the Sudan border, four days and three nights, pretty much the standard cruise. I asked him if there were any empty cabins and he said yes. I offered him $150; I was prepared to pay twice that much. I was amazed when he immediately agreed. It was cash in his pocket that his company would never know about, and that’s a lot of money in Egypt. The cost included all meals served buffet style on board. This was an absolute steal – a joke, really. I say steal, but nothing was stolen. The company lost nothing, I won, the captain won, and the guide would get one more tip. It was win-win-win.
This was a swanky Abercrombie & Kent tour, the only time in my life I’ve ever traveled in pure luxury. Two separate groups, about thirty people altogether, had booked it. One was a bunch of queers from New York; they didn’t flaunt it, but anyone could tell. The others were Australians, who seemed to lead affluent and sheltered lives, but they were okay to hang out with for a few days. Rafiq, the guide, was a soft-spoken family man who seemed very uncomfortable around the boys, keeping his distance from them the whole time, as did the Australians. We stopped several times to visit this and that ancient temple. Each time we stopped, vendors descended on us, aggressively hawking souvenirs, which happens everywhere in poor countries. Just people struggling to make ends meet, but the boys weren’t used to it and didn’t like it. “I hate when they do that,” one of them squealed.
I must say, I really enjoyed this cruise. I saw several feluccas each day, and was glad I wasn’t on one. We had a much better view of village life on the river bank from high up than you could possibly have at water level. I had my own room and bath. A canopy shaded us from the hot September sun and the air conditioning blasted out onto the open deck. The food was excellent. There was an open bar. What a deal.
Since the road ends at Aswan, about the halfway point of the cruise, I flew from Abu Simbel back to Cairo, and two days later flew out of the country. I liked Egypt, and had a much easier time there than in Morocco which, nevertheless, is more fascinating. But if you had limited opportunities in your lifetime to travel, and could only visit one or the other, which would I recommend? Hmm. Apples and oranges, I suppose.