Thursday, October 28, 2010

Damascus, Syria- - Dating, Israel, and the Mukhabrat under a Dictator

Damascus, Syria
Upon waking, I discovered that Annie had already gone her merry way, and not wishing to interfere with any day’s plans that my gracious hosts might have, I thought I would take off myself, but as I was walking out the door, I was called back to partake in a breakfast consisting of hummus and pita-bread.
Tim, and his roommate Adrian, both having been in Damascus for about a year studying Arabic, I began inquiring as to the ins and outs of the country.

A family of five children is considered small in Syria, with most parents having seven or eight.
The most important thing in any young Syrian’s life is to land themselves a good spouse. Neither Adrian or Tim has, or is likely to have, a Syrian girlfriend, nor would any male foreigner ever be likely to successfully court a Syrian girl because the mere rumor of her impropriety would greatly affect her chances of landing the best mate.
A young Syrian girl would never even bring a boy over to her house or apartment who is merely a friend, because of the potential damage to both her own, and her family’s reputation, such an action might cause.
The same does not hold true for Syrian men, as I met several who had Western girlfriends.
minaret of Syria's most famous Mosque
When I spoke of my planned trip and mentioned that I was planning to also visit Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel— they let out a collective gasp.
“What?” I asked, slightly startled.
“Never say that word.”
Immediately they made the zip-it sign, sliding their index finger horizontally across their closed lips. “You can call it a code name, we call it Disneyland. You never mention that word here unless you have something negative to say about it.” … A word with one approved context. For the duration of my Syrian adventure, I employed the term ‘Disneyland.’

Another thing you absolutely DO NOT do is to criticize the government. In fact, Tim told me that he once tried to pay Bashir Assad (Syria’s current dictator who inherited rule when his father died) a sort of compliment, stating, “Assad has done a decent job opening the country up.” The group he was conversing with suddenly became very uncomfortable, as the statement implied that Assad’s father had not done an exemplary job keeping the country open.
Why would such a seemingly innocuous statement make other Syrians uncomfortable? One word, the Mukhabarat- the Syrian secret police. In an effort to stay in power, (and avoid decapitation) most dictatorial regimes have massive spy networks, and Syrian sets the modern day bar. Its citizens have no idea who might be keeping tabs on them, so the topic of government is strictly off-limits, especially since, if they bring you in for questioning, it isn’t usually pleasant.
Here is a joke the Syrians have about the Mukhabarat that goes something like this:
“One day, the three greatest intelligence services in the world got together to see who was the best of the best. They released three foxes into the wilderness, and whoever was first to catch one, would earn the trophy.
So the Americans using their spy satellites and infrared technology catch their fox in twenty minutes.
The Russians, using a network of informants they set-up through the forest, catch their fox shortly after.
Both intelligence services, proud of their times, are waiting in the middle of the forest exchanging pleasantries. An hour passes, and they finally ask, “Where the hell are the Syrians?” So they go searching, and a few minutes later find a rabbit, tied to a tree, and the Mukhabarat are whipping it, yelling, “Admit you’re a fox! Admit you’re a fox!”

Tim and Adrian say hi to the folks back home. See, I don't make everything up! :)

Downtown Damascus on an unusually clear day
Thanking my hosts for their hospitality, I gathered my luggage and began my walk down the steep hill. I happened upon a cabbie washing his car, a doting father taking pleasure in sprinkling his young daughter with cool water on this hot day. A smile on my face, I asked him if I could get a ride to Egypt Air where I was told I would find a tour guide, and a cheap hotel nearby.
Finding nothing but travel agents, I went outside, and ran into three Belgian guys, Kristof, Simon, and Deiter who were on an adventure of their own. They too were looking for a hotel, and I asked if they mind me tagging along.
Eventually we came upon a hostel which had beds on the roof for $4 a night. Though certainly not as comfortable as the hotel I had booked, it was way cheaper, plus these guys seemed super cool. With the ability to cancel my $75 a night reservation, I decided to opt for the hostel. Fantastic decision. In the past, frankly, I was making too much money to try something like this, but recently, my income has dried up faster than a Middle Eastern riverbed.
The truth is, staying in hostels is really the way to go if you are willing to put up with the lack of comfort, as you are going to meet like-minded adventurers traveling for the experience, not just to see the immediate attractions/lay on the beach as most tourists do.
I have to give these guys props. You think I travel a lot; they purchased a car, and are driving from Belgium, through the Europe, through the Middle East, then to Egypt, and will complete their seven month journey at Cape Horn in South Africa, having driven a treacherous journey through all of Eastern Africa, including areas where, for safety reasons, if someone stands in front of your car trying to get you to stop, you blare your horn and if he doesn’t move you run him over. (otherwise your car will be jacked, and you likely will meet Reaper, Grim)
The Damascus crew: from left to right-- Rich, Dieter, Kristof, Lars, Annie, and Simon
Sitting in the hostel chatting with them, who do you think walks in? Lo and behold, Smokestack Annie. It turns out that most foreigners frequent this area of Damascus, so running into her again wasn’t totally random. Introducing Annie to my new friends, and adding a fellow American, a twenty-three year old from Portland named Lars to our group, we set out to explore the Old City of Damascus …


  1. Nice, it's "02Alan93" from YouTube. I hope that you like Syria. I've heard of the "mukhabarat" too, but they haven't affected my trips to Damascus.

    Why are you in Syria. Like a tourist? Studying the arabic language? I'm curious. :)

    Like I've already said, I'm born in Sweden - so I can speak both swedish, english and arabic fluently. I'm not sure, but I might spend my summer in Syria next year. I really hope so.



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