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Monday, December 6, 2010

Weekend In Syria

First I should say that making this weekend happen proved difficult. The Ministry ("of Magic," as Nicole and I call it) had my passport for several weeks as they processed my residency permit, basically a visa but valid for a longer duration. During those weeks, leaving Lebanon was not an option. Also during those weeks, the expiration dates of our Syrian visas were approaching and we wanted to visit the country a second time after our October adventure in Damascus, the awesome and ancient Syrian capital. Happily, the Ministry finished its spells on my passport last week.

The arrival of "low season" also made the trip difficult. Fewer make the trip during the Winter, but I found a rather low-budget operation whose name shall remain nameless but who offered extremely cheap prices. Cardboard covered the floors of the office, everyone there smoked, a lot, and its proprietor definitely put the "it's rude not to accept a beverage when one is offered" custom to the test. As I sat at his desk, he went to a closet-like kitchenette, emptied somebody else's coffee into the sink, examined the bottom for several moments, and filled a tiny cup with turkish coffee whose color made black licorice look pastel in comparison. As I sipped, he made arrangements for us to visit the northern part of Syria, the mountainous area between Lebanon and Turkey. By the way, germphobes, I did not get sick from that delicious coffee, which was strong enough to kill most anything that remained in the cup anyway.

We met up with our "pullman" at 5:30 on Saturday morning and learned the guide, Fetten, did not speak English, contrtary to what Mr. Turkish Coffee had told me. However, due to her brothers having married women from Spain, Fetten spoke Spanish. How's this for globalization...two Americans in Syria, conversing in Spanish with a Lebanese woman? Nicole and I were the only non-Arabs on the trip, not surprising given that few westerners and even fewer Americans visit Syria. The crowd on the pullman was young and super friendly, and by "friendly," I mean, ready to party. Though still dark outside, they cranked up the Arab pop music, sang along, and danced much of the time as we drove north along the coast. Normally a little Arab music goes a long way, especially at high volumes, but when people are dancing in the aisles of a bus, it's hard not to enjoy yourself.

Only a few people on board spoke any English, but Nissrine, a young Jordanian woman studying in Lebanon, took us under her wing. Nissrine has to be one of the kindest people we have met in the Middle East. You know how books about the Middle East describe strangers who will invite you to their homes and take hospitality to what seems to outsiders like an extreme? They are describing Nissrine.

We stopped in Tripoli for breakfast. I swear, it's not just Nicole and I! Everyone here loves bakeries and it appears that Saida and Tripoli are the consensus capitals of tasty sweet things. I enjoyed a little halawat el-jibn (dough made from cheese that you soak to remove all the salt, mix with semolina, and then roll out, lastly topping it with cream and rose water) and then it was back on the pullman. We got to the border minutes later. As the guide, Fetten took the passports of all the Lebanese into the customs station, but Nicole and I (American), Nissrine (Jordanian), and another woman on the pullman (Syrian) had to go in to get exit and entry cards and our passports stamped. A sign inside said, "The bribe takes you to prison" in English and various other languages too. First, you take your papers into the exit station, then you drive a hundred yards or so, over the border, and go into an entry station, and then a customs agent comes onto the bus and double-checks everything. Painless, if a little bit nervewracking.

Coastal Syria is beautiful country in which to take a drive. As you make your way north, the Sea is on your left and the mountains on your right, much like Lebanon, though greener. We saw lots of cattle, even on the beach. As we started to head up the mountains, we passed loads of citrus trees, and not much else. Nissrine, who like us lives in noisy Beirut, talked about how quiet the area was (music on the bus notwithstanding). We got to our destination, Mashta Al Helou, a little village that serves as a resort during the Summer, got checked in, and took a catnap with the windows open and the smell of the mountains filling the room. Rested, Nicole and I spent most of the afternoon walking in the village. A few years ago, the community had an arts fair and the sculptors who competed donated their sculptures to the village. So in addition to the little homes, the cafes, the hardware stores and markets, romanesque statues fill the village. And the sidewalks have the Mamluk influenced white and black check pattern. We found a place to buy two shish tawook sandwiches and pomegranate sodas.

That night, the hotel had a big party. I'm not exactly clear on whether all the people there were actually staying at the hotel, or if many of them were just people in the village there for a little music on a Saturday night, or what. I suspect the latter, because the place was pretty dead until about 9:00 or so, and then it was like being at a wedding. Long tables, DJ spinning tunes, and a massive amount of food. I've never seen so much nargileh in my life. More than anywhere on Warren Avenue in Dearborn. More than along the corniche in Beirut. Young guys ("charcoal boys" I call them) literally paraded out of the kitchen with little buckets full of charcoal and walked around putting fresh briquettes on people's hubbly bubbly pipes. Wearing baggy Syrian pants, cummerbunds, and wool vests, they did tricks with their charcoal buckets too, spinning them around like batons. Strange. After what seemed like dozens of mezze, they brought out mixed grills, with kabob and tawook, later, tiny cups of coffee and corn starch custard. A young woman sang songs to which the whole place knew all the words. Fetten wouldn't hear of letting Nicole and I get away with not dancing, which I think the Syrians and Lebanese people thought was pretty funny.

The next morning we went to Homs, the third largest city in Syria. I had my heart set on visiting the Syrian Orthodox Church with one of the odder church names you'll hear, Our Lady of the Girdle. The place was truly interesting. The church was built in the 1800s on the site of a centuries-old Christian church and during construction builders found a swatch of material inside of a chalice which in turn was inside of a stone box in a catacomb. The Patriarch declared the swatch of material to be from the girdle worn by the Virgin Mary before she ascended to heaven. So the church retains the swatch inside a monstrance. I had never been to a Syrian Orthodox Church at all, so this was a treat. Thanks to Nissrine, we found bargains in the souks in Homs as well. Speaking English, of course, is a good way to get inflated prices, but we had the hook-up thanks to our new pal, who negotiated on our behalf. The souks there are much cleaner than those of Tripoli and the goods are much cheaper than those of Damascus (though, again, that probably has something to do with the presence of Nissrine this time around). We spent much of the day walking, and walking, and walking in the souks, listening to the vendors yelling their prices and watching the action. Great city and if our visas didn't expire, I'm sure we'd return.

That night, we did not encounter long lines at the border so I figured things would go smoothly. Wrong. The four non-Lebanese people on the bus went inside the exit station for the normal ritual and for some reason, Fetten was getting the run-around from the agents. Frustrated, she sent Nicole and I to the tax booth in the next building to pay our exit tax (Americans must pay to leave Syria--I'm pretty sure we're the only nationality on which such a tax is levied) while she dealt with the Lebanese passports. Now normally Fetten would have gone to the booth on our behalf; indeed, Nissrine thought she should have, but we didn't mind. The exit station did NOT have the "The Bribe takes you to prison" sign posted, though, and, wouldn't you know it, our agent charged us an extra one-hundred Syrian Pounds (only two bucks, but still...not nice at all).

Then, back on the bus, thinking we were finished, the agent came on board to check everybody's passports and it turns out that all of the Lebanese passports had been stamped "4 December" instead of "5 December." Nicole, Nissrine, the Syrian woman, and I were all good to go, but everybody else had a passport bearing the incorrect stamp. Normally, such a snafu would be a minor thing, right? Well, on the border of Lebanon and Syria, apparently nothing is a minor thing. It's a tense place. So Fetten had to start over on their behalf and try to sort things out. All the Arabs on the bus seemed to understand that this would take a while because they got out of the bus, right there at customs, and fired up a little butane tank on the ground so that they could make coffee. Not sure I ever dreamed I'd find myself at the Syrian border after dark, huddled around a little gas tank on the ground, making coffee with a busload of Lebanese people. I don't know what went on inside the exit station, but after a while, Fetten returned, we packed up the coffee supplies, and headed over the border.

Don't know if we'll ever make it back to Syria. Our visas expire and Americans can only obtain visas to Syria (our federal government is not a big fan, no matter how beautiful their mosques and churches are and how cool their souks are) while on American soil. Even then, it's a bit of a hassle. So I'm happy we were able to take two excursions there. Special thanks to our friend Ahmad. We probably wouldn't have gotten visas without him.

I'll upload the pictures tomorrow.

UPDATE: pictures here


  1. Thanks for the full account on this adventure. Wow! The pictures fill out the story. Congrats on making it back into Syria for another visit. Keep the updates coming! I'm really enjoying them.

  2. wonderful post! I lived in Syria for about seven months on my Fulbright -- I just got back last summer. I learned the hard way that you should never turn down a cup of coffee (or anything, for that matter). I'm glad I came across your post and photos from Syria. I had planned to visit Mashta al Helou, but things got a bit hectic towards the end. It's sad to think the situation there is completely different right now. Hopefully things will get better soon. Did you visit Aleppo at all? That is where I did my research. The food there is incredibly delicious; Aleppo is famous for its cuisine.