Essay and photos by Moritz Piehler
The idea to travel to Syria in the spring of 2011 occurred to me and my roommate randomly. A friend had told us about the beautiful landscapes and captivating historical sites of this ancient country, and after checking out the political situation (iron clasp of an all but totalitarian regime, long stability due to up to 10 secret service agencies) we decided the Arab spring would not soon arrive in the land of Bashar Assad.
Damascus in all its glory was a fantastic place to visit, with teahouses and mosques and hammams fulfilling all the oriental clichés at their best. After learning to avoid any political talk with our hosts or pointing at the many posters of the president, we began to feel quite comfortable. We spent a couple of nights in an interfaith monastery on the old silk strait and visited Maloula, the last place where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is spoken. We were invited to smoke shisha in hidden tearooms and visited the eery ghost cities in the green and red mountains. The country was living up to its promise.
We went to two soccer games in Syria, including one in Aleppo which led to our first impressive encounter with one of the secret services. The game itself was somewhat entertaining, including a minutes-long break caused by the refusal of the ref to keep the game going while his mom, sister and wife were (or so we understood) thoroughly insulted from the stands. The game didn’t pose much of a threat until we left the stadium and I took one last snapshot, unwisely using my flash. This set off a 20-minute stand-off with a dozen young secret service aids who would separate the four of us.
Their commander was like someone out of a Westerner’s cliché book: tall, dark, mustache, dark sunglasses, leather jacket. He took me aside, since I had taken the pictures, and questioned me at length in Arabic before believing that my knowledge of the language was indeed very limited. He then collected my passport and disappeared into the night with it, calling someone on the phone. For all I know, he could have been talking to his wife about what to have for dinner, but for me they were some very tense minutes.
Relieved after being let go, we headed back to Hotel Baron, which is a little bit of an oriental legend. Aleppo used to be the final destination of the Orient Express, so this now rundown palace was home to the inventors and boosters of what we now perceive as the Orient. Agatha Christie spent many a night here; Lawrence of Arabia as well. The walls are lined with old travel posters, and the whole place breathes an aura of passed glory. We mainly found it the only place outside of Russian “dance clubs” to sip a gin and tonic. So we used the colonial atmosphere to cool down a bit, wondering if we had been a bit too careless in out travels so far.
Deir al-Zor is the closest major town to the Iraqi border, so naturally the atmosphere is a bit tense. Beautifully set on the banks of the legendary Euphrates, it is mainly visited by local farmers for the market and the occasional Syrian tourist. (The only other foreigner travelers we saw were an Asian couple who might have had a serious typo in their guidebook). After being questioned yet again by a gang of youngsters with visible guns in their belts, we met a rather friendly older guy who sat down at our table in a falafel place. He introduced himself as Saladin, and I remember making a joke about the similarity to the famous sultan of the same name (You might remember him from “Seven Kingdoms”). It was a fitting moniker, as our next days would prove.
Not only did “Sala” lead us through the quarter as if it was his own, he invited us to every shop, let us have free samples, and was greeted on the streets with a mixture of respect and distance, which probably was closer to fear. He invited us to his house for tea, but upon seeing that no lights were on in a window upstairs, apologised and said it appeared that his family was already asleep. Instead he led us to another one of his — or really anyone’s — apartments, excused himself and left the premises, locking us into the apartment for a good half hour. He seemed upbeat when he returned, pointing out the secret policemen to us on our way back to the hotel.
The next day, we had agreed to attend another football game with Sala, by this point thinking we might be safer with than without him. We weren’t charged for the cab ride, an absolute first and a definite sign of his importance. Then led us up onto the VIP stands, were we sat between politicians, policeman and high-ranking officers. Also nearby were a couple of mean-looking guys who definitely understood our German. Keep in mind, I was not there as a journalist, nor did I intend to let them find out my profession anytime soon. We split ways with Saladin and were quite glad to return to the hotel, which was covered in symbols of the National Socialist Party, quite interestingly mixing a Soviet red star and a swastika.
It was upon the return to the hotel that we heard the news of the first protesters being killed in the southern part of Syria. After two kids were detained for tagging a wall, demonstrations had gotten out of hand and the regime came down hard. It was what would be the beginning of more than two years of civil war which so far has cost over 100,000 Syrians their lives and displaced roughly two million people.
Leaving Deir al-Zor after a final scare at the obligatory police checkpoint in a dingy room behind the bus station, we drove through the Syrian desert, arriving in the seemingly calm touristy town of Palmyra, where we watched the sun come up over the oasis surrounded by ancient ruins in a chilly morning wind. At the same time, our German travel companion was being very specifically questioned about us upon his return to Aleppo, followed to his hotel, stripped of his passport by secret service, and only allowed to leave town upon promising to leave for Turkey immediately. It made us question a lot of the interactions we had before, the many people who addressed us on the street, often with similar requests about our background and our professions, which we had attributed to their limited English. It made us wonder about just how closely the Syrian regime knew where we were and what we did at any given time. Mainly, it gave us a tiny glimpse of what it must mean to live in a police state, and what it must mean to lose trust in those surrounding you and to become suspicious about everyone you meet. As a German, for the first time I got a tiny hint of what life in the DDR maybe felt like. Always, of course, with our unfair safety net of being able to hop on a plane and leave at any time. There is a saying in Syria that if three persons stand together, one of them surely is an agent. I believe that this is true.
When we finally left Syria by taxi heading for Lebanon, we passed seven bikers in the steep hills around Damascus. We made fun of them a bit for riding their bikes in this sparse country, but as we arrived at our host’s place in Beirut, he greeted us with relief: “I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “I thought you were among the seven European bikers who were kidnapped near the border this morning.“
After we had returned home safely, we received a message from a teenage girl we had met in Latakia on the coast who had been touchingly naive in her assessment of the situation in her country. She begged us to confirm that we weren’t spies, as she had obviously been interrogated. A bit helpless, we answered back: “Spies? Us? What a silly idea…“