16 hours in Syria

"Goodbye my lover, goodbye my friend,
You have been the one, you have been the one for me..."

The music stops suddenly as the bus office manager presses a button on his phone: "What was that? The last phrase?"

I look at him: "I think it's 'you have been the one for me'."

"Ah yes! That makes sense." He smiles and jots down something in his notebook. We are sitting in his tiny office, inside the intercity bus station on the outskirts of Aleppo. I am waiting for the bus to Jordan, and to escape the cold the manager has invited me into his office for a cup of tea as I wait. 

The manager is a tall, well-built, balding man, with a large fur coat and bushy eyebrows. He's an English teacher by day and looks after the bus office at night. It is 2 hours before the bus is due to depart, so we drink tea to keep out the biting cold and chat and try to decipher James Blunt's lyrics.


10 hours earlier I had crossed the border into Syria from Turkey, at the Reyhanli crossing. Once across the modern Turkish post and through the fence the road winds into a narrow defile among the brown hills. Now and then a watchtower would appear, gazing at us from above, as we pass pieces of barbed wire curled up on the side of the road like hedgehogs.

After about 5km we reached the Syrian post, consisting of a long building with a door at either end and inside a number of windows in a line: the immigration officer, the bureau de change, the customs officer, etc. I don't have a visa, as I had heard that there would be better luck trying for a visa-on-arrival rather than prearranging at a Syrian embassy somewhere.

I am ushered into the office of the immigration officer. A portrait of President Assad hangs over his desk as he regards me with his chin: "Why do you want to enter Syria?" I try to look humble and honest: "I'm a tourist. I would like to transit to Jordan." He picks up a tattered folio and starts flicking pages until he gets to one which has a list of countries and prices. "Australia," he mutters, then looks up: "I'll give you 3 days. Pay $100AUD at the counter." He snaps shut the book and I head over to the payment window.


It was the 10th month of the Syrian uprising, and activity was still isolated to certain areas of Hama, Homs, and Deraa. It hadn't yet escalated to current levels, although at that time there wasn't much news coming out of Syria, and I imagined passing through the country via countless roadblocks and checkpoints. Most of the fellow passengers from Turkey, after immigration procedures, walked off into desert, while the few remaining climbed into a minivan which proceeded on to Aleppo.

The air was clear and fresh as we sped past village after village. We didn't pass a single checkpoint or roadblock, and reached Aleppo without stop. The city itself was bustling, and I left my bag in the office of the local bus station and strolled towards the old town, sprawled beneath the citadel. Hawkers lined their wares on the pavement, cheap Chinese goods, biscuits and lighters. I bought a lighter off a chap just inside the old wall. Another sold me a cup of hot custard sprinkled with cinnamon, scraped from the bottom of a shiny pot. A kid about 12 years old boils a pot of corn cobs and shouts his vendor's cry.

Passing through the massive gate into the old town I enter the covered souks. First are the butchers, then grains and dried foodstuffs, then miniatures, metalwork, fabrics, perfumes. Narrow alleys shoot off to the side, flanked by shops, with wares spilling out into the steady stream of customers, like tumbled rocks in a flowing gorge. After some time I reach the end of the covered souks through to the other side, emerging into the sunlight with the massive citadel before me.


The citadel was built in the 10th century on top of ruins as old as the 9th century BC. You enter from the south-western side into a stone guardhouse, now the ticket booth. A stone ramp bridges the deep moat, and a massive Syrian flag in the shape of Syria covers the lower wall to the left. The main entrance to the citadel is a maze. Dead ends, 90 degree turns, ramps, all watched over by loopholes from above. Aleppo citadel was considered in olden times to be one of the toughest in the middle east to crack.

After leaving the maze of the entrance way and passing through the portal into the sunlight, the ruins of the citadel stretch out and up. The mosque, the ramparts, the cistern, the museum and cafe, everything in an area the size of two football pitches. Groups of youths and students wander about or sit on the grass near the ramparts. One group calls out to me as I stroll past: "Hello! Where are you from?" I sit with them, a group of dance and theatre students from the University. They ask me a lot of questions, joke around. One of them performs a dance routine. My photo is taken with them, all smiles. Suddenly one of the students pierces me with his brown eyes and says: "Our government is good, we are strong. We love our country." We hadn't talked about anything remotely connected to politics so I just nodded.

Continuing my walk I was stopped every so often by people, mainly youths about college age, who wanted to take a photograph of me together with them. This happened almost every 10 minutes, and by the time I left the citadel I counted roughly 15 photos with various groups. Students, couples, an old gentleman. Before entering Syria I thought I would be counting the number of times I would be stopped by policemen or soldiers, but instead I had to count the number of times I was photographed by friendly Syrians!

(Days later, in Cairo, an Australian consular officer told me that when she had visited Syria years before, the same thing had happened. She was photographed with many friendly Syrians who approached her off the street. "But," she said, "some of them are 'intelligence', and your photo is now on their files.")


It is evening and I had been wandering through the streets of Aleppo for a few hours, drinking some carrot juice off a street vendor, eating a sandwich at a roadside restaurant, browsing antiques, shopping for Aleppo soap. Aleppo is famous for its hard soap, made from olive oil and laurel. The first recorded mention of soap is from Babylon and the Levant, where Aleppo is a major city. Aleppo itself is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with evidence of activity since the 5th millenium BC, so it is very probable that Aleppo soap has been produced here and in the same manner for thousands of years.

I enter a shop stacked full with bricks of soap. The shopkeeper comes over and introduces me to the various grades. "This is okay soap, this is good soap, this is better!" He takes out a wire and slices a bar open. "Smell that, smell it! This is good stuff." I purchase a bar and he seems happy. "Nowadays no business," he says, "All the tourists are gone. There used to be many Japanese! Many many Japanese. But now it is quiet." As if on queue he falls into a quiet. But suddenly he raises his head and looks at me straight through: "Maybe one day we will have democracy, and everything will be better."

I walk out into the streets once more. People are leaving work, picking up a few groceries on their way home. There are no signs of any conflict. No sign of policemen or soldiers, no barricades, no burned out cars or protesters or angry graffiti or lingering tear gas. T. told me a few things about Syria a few weeks before, having worked there many years ago. Most of the anti-government protesting goes through Lebanon. Information is smuggled across from Syria, organised and disseminated from Beirut. She tells me of a Syrian friend who was a protester and was caught by intelligence and interrogated.

One of the things they did was hand him blank pages of paper and a pen at the beginning of the day and order him to write down every detail of his life that he could remember since birth. These pages were taken away at the end of the day and studied, and the next day he was handed new blank pages and ordered to do the same thing, write down every detail of his life that he could remember since birth. This was repeated for two weeks.


I left Aleppo that same night, by coach to Jordan, stopping on the way at Hama, Homs, and Damascus. These were all trouble spots in the uprising, but the manager assured me that the coach would only stop at the coach station in each town, far from the center of the action. The bus was late and we stood shivering uncontrollably in the desert cold, which cut through us like a scythe. Finally the coach arrived and we bundled in and found our luxuriously large leather seats.

The coach had a TV, and as the driver pulled away from the station he put on an action movie, which as far as I could work out was an Israeli-Palestinian action counterpart to Rambo. It basically consisted of people trying their best to kill each other, with machine guns, rifles, grenades, pistols, knives, etc. There were interrogation scenes, scenes of firefights in the streets, and of course buses being ambushed and blown up. It was still freezing as there was no heating on the coach, and we were well on our way towards Hama, the city which the elder Assad had shelled in the 1980s, killing around 10,000 people, and which was now itching for vengeance.


"It may be over but it won't stop there,
I am here for you if you'd only care."

Silence again as the bald-headed manager presses his phone. "'If you'd only care'," I say. "Ah ha!" says he, and scribbles away. Meanwhile I stare out the office into the waiting hall, where there is not a single person waiting. I realise this fact only after a dose of staring, and once realise I ask the manager: "Why aren't there any passengers here?"

He looks up from his scribbling with arched eyebrows: "Because today is Thursday. Tomorrow is Friday, the holy day, when people pray, and after prayer they go to demonstrate. Lots of trouble tomorrow. So today, the people stay home, to avoid the fighting. Now, it's 'You touched my heart you touched my . . . ?' "

[A nice introduction to Syria is Chapter 59 of T.E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom". Almost 100 years old but still relevant in parts.]

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