MY FIRST HOUR IN SYRIA
(Feb 18, 2017) I’m at the Syrian border to begin my latest visit, waiting for my driver to hammer out a problem with my passport. It’s gonna take a few hours, so the group I’m with have gone on ahead. Again, I’m at the mercy of people who don’t know me or my language.
This is a post I wrote from a trip I took into Syria almost two years ago now. I have to count out loud (and on fingers) to recall the number of visits to Middle East countries I’ve made since then, but this one sticks with me, especially today.
In May (2015), I had the opportunity to spend five days in Syria—my second time. It was a really good trip: Tough, Wonderful and Emotional all globbed together.
BUT, my first hour in the country was spent at the mercy of the Syrian Army.
Let me share with you how that went.
The plan was that I would take a cab from Beirut to the Syrian border (about 3 hours), go through the border crossing by foot, and then my Syrian friend, Georges, would be waiting for me on the Syrian side.
So, my cabbie drops me off on the Lebanon side of the border crossing, which is basically a 100-yard gauntlet of:
-Lebanese Army soldiers with machine guns
-the passport-processing station for Lebanon
-another soldier with a machine gun
-Syrian Army soldiers with machine guns
-banners emblazoned with President Assad’s face
-the passport-processing station for Syria
-billboards of President Assad (smiling this time)
-more soldiers with machine guns
-a couple jeeps (with mounted machine guns)
-more Assad banners (this time in camouflage and sunglasses),
-a brick archway housing the final checkpoint
-the main gate opening into Syria
(guarded by about five Syrian soldiers with machine guns)
I straighten my clergy collar (Pastors are given special respect here, so the collar helps at the border) as I prepare for the Gauntlet; it takes about a half hour to get through—paperwork, a mild interrogation about my travel plans and passport-stamping on the Lebanon side, followed by paperwork, a mild interrogation about my travel plans and passport-stamping on the Syria side.
I’m now at the final checkpoint. It feels like I’m in an old war movie where they’re exchanging prisoners. I walk under the shadowy brick archway (adorned with the largest Assad banners yet) to the final check station. An armed soldier searches me, then goes through my luggage. He stamps my passport then points me toward the final gate into Syria, fifty yards ahead, past the archway and along a narrow stretch of road.
I drag my suitcase across fifty yards of broken pavement, past a dinosaur of a tank, to the gate. Before the gate, separating the two lanes of road, is a concrete island with a guard shack where three middle-aged Syrian officers are sitting on plastic chairs around a low table, drinking tea. Two younger soldiers are on either side of the road, holding their automatic rifles at waist level, watching me lug my suitcase toward the island.
One of the officers stands and motions for my passport. He begins rifling through the pages, then stops. He looks me up and down, narrows his eyes, then asks, “Ameriki?”
I nod, “Ay.”
The officer looks down and slowly shakes his head,
“Tsk, tsk, tsk. Ohhhhbama.”
I understand what the officer is saying.
Right now, many if not most Syrians will confess their belief that the country of Syria is ruined. Four years ago, despite being under a dictatorship, Syria was a really good place to live for most people, Muslims and Christians. The economy was improving, healthcare and university education were free, and even though there was not political freedom, there was social, economic and religious freedom. All of that is gone now and may not return for generations, if ever.
A second thing that many Syrians will confess is their belief that the spread of I.S.I.S. into their country and the subsequent destruction is due to unwarranted/unwanted American interference for American interests.
(You are welcome to disagree with them—I am simply communicating the perspective of the Syrians I have spoken to)
So here I am, an American standing before a Syrian officer who probably believes my country is responsible for the destruction of his country.
What will he do?
He stamped my passport, looked me in the eyes, and said “Welcome to Syria.”
“Shukran” (Thank you) I said.
One of the young soldiers raises the gate for me to pass through. I pull my suitcase to the side of the road and begin looking for Georges. I quickly see that the two or three cars parked by the road are all Georges-less. At that moment my cell rings.
It is Georges exclaiming “I am at the border—where are you?”
At that point, I have two options: check my dictionary for the Arabic word for “screwed,” or go back to the officers for help.
I chose the latter, and we quickly figured out that the cabbie had taken me to the wrong border crossing. The correct crossing, and my friend Georges, were an hour away.
I thank the officers again, drag my suitcase back to the side of the road, and prepare to spend my first hour in Syria alone as Georges races to pick me up.
Not too many minutes pass before one of the officers calls out to me. It’s the one who stamped my passport.
“Badak Chai?” (Would you like tea?).
I nod and walk over to the table where they are pouring hot water into clear glasses of loose tea leaves. Another officer stands to offer me his chair. The third officer realizes they have run out of tea and quickly offers me some of his sunflower seeds.
The soldiers don’t speak any English, but my Arabic is coming along well FOR..PEOPLE..WHO..ARE ..PATIENT.. ENOUGH.. TO..SPEAK..SLOWLY, which these guys are. We pass around sunflower seeds as we talk about our families and where we’re from.
I have a sudden idea and run back to the side of the road where my suitcase is. I pull out a box that was supposed to be a gift for George’s wife: gourmet stuffed dates from my trip to Iraq.
As we dig into the dates, I see the expressions on their faces, and I’m glad for my choice. I brought the good stuff.
So me and these officers from the Syrian Army are sitting around chewing seeds, drinking tea and eating dates. One of them calls for the two younger soldiers who have been patrolling each side of the road with their rifles. They make introductions and I offer them dates.
Eventually, I bring up the first officer’s earlier mentioning of Obama. All three officers nod gravely. I summon up my best Arabic to share the feelings that have been brewing in me all year:
-How much I am growing to love Syria
-How sad and sorry I am for the devastation in their country
There are no tears from the officers, but I can see they’re close. One of them puts his hand to his heart. I continue to share:
-How much I love my own country, America, and the people, who are very good
…But how I am struggling
-How I am concerned about decisions we have made
-How I do not agree with some of the things that our government and President have done in regards to Syria.
All three officers begin to talk at once, fast and loud. I was struggling to understand each word they said—but there was initial SURPRISE; then RELIEF
…then PAIN, SORROW, FRUSTRATION, ANGER.
One of the soldiers listening in shouts out “Obama’s a DONKEY!!”
(In Syria, calling somebody a Donkey is REALLY bad, trust me)
Everyone laughs…then relaxes, and continues to talk.
At some point we reach the limit of my Arabic. Things become a bit more quiet. More cars pass through the border and the soldiers resume their patrol. Someone offers me a cigarette. I opt instead for my pipe, which is an instant curiosity for one of the men who has never seen one.
I fire up my pipe as the patrolling and passport-stamping and tea-sipping continues. I’m appreciating the quiet (and break from non-stop Arabic). Sitting together is a big part of life here, and I’m aware of how much I am enjoying just sitting and being with these guys. I’m happy; and sad; I know I will never be able to read the news of a fallen Syrian soldier without picturing one of these guys, and wondering…
One of the officers suddenly pops out of the Guard Shack; he’s smiling, holding up a tea bag, so now they can serve me properly.
I’m handed a steaming glass of tea at the same moment that Georges’ car pulls to the gate with a quick honk.
“I see that you have been properly beaten and interrogated by our infamous Syrian Army,” Georges quips before even coming to a full stop. The officers rush to greet him (respect for pastors) and I rush to drain my tea glass without serious burns (respect for hosts).
Before I can enter the car, each officer and soldier makes it a point to say their Goodbyes: short bows of the head, hands to the heart, three kisses on the cheek and a blessing for Peace:
Time to continue the journey. We drive away from border gate, deeper into Syria, and Georges wants to talk. But I’m struggling to be chatty with my host. I don’t want to let go of—forget—this past hour.
It was just an hour with these men, but it stays with me.
Just as it did two years ago, my problem at the Syrian border eventually gets solved, and my driver and I pass through the gate and more checkpoints than I remember from the last time. Each time, the soldier takes a long look at my American passport and, each time, looks me in the eyes and says “Welcome.”