Friday, November 20, 1998

Arriving in Syria (1998)

Aleppo Citadel

Our trip to the Turkish border town of Antakya had been a long one. We had driven some 1500km crisscrossing the bottom of Turkey a number of times in the previous couple of days, not sure whether or not we should travel down through the Mid East, changing our minds on a number of occasions. The alternative was the less confronting option back from Turkey across the south of Europe through Greece, Italy, France and Spain. Our indecision was based on the fact that Saddam Hussein had again kicked out the UN weapons inspectors and Bill Clinton had responded by sending hundreds of planes and men to the Persian Gulf to blow the shit out of Iraq once more. Meanwhile the Israeli government had issued all of its citizens with gas masks in readiness for chemical attack. And there was nowhere that I could find in the Lonely Planet guide book indicating that being doused in anthrax was one of the recommended holiday activities. Eventually after days of posturing, the risk of war seemed to have abated and in any case, the Syrians wouldn't be directly involved even though Iraq was their next door neighbour. So with that, we decided we would indeed venture down into the exotic and historic world trouble spot known as the Middle East.

The Turkey-Syrian border near Antakya is marked by a high fence full of razor wire, with the two sides of the fence providing quite contrasting views. The Turkish side is dotted every 250m or so with a guard tower, complete with an alert machine gun toting soldier. On the Syrian side there is just a vast expanse of desert as far as the eye can see. There is only ever one direction of human traffic coming unofficially through or over the fence it seems and being as though some of that traffic over the years has constituted the PKK Kurdish terrorist (freedom fighter?) group, who have routinely targeted and killed Turks, the Turkish vigilance is no surprise. Once we arrived at the border crossing, passing from Turkey into Syria was no problem at all. Their scrutiny I suspect was reserved much more for people arriving than departing. Entering Syria also proved to be quite easy, thanks largely to the English speaking local who descended upon us very affably and helpfully the second we got to passport control. Without him it would have been quite an ordeal, as not too many of the numerous officials we had to deal with spoke much English. He acted as an interpreter and told us step by step the procedures required. 
We'd been quite nervous about being interrogated by burley uniformed ogres shining lights in our faces, prodding us with hot pokers and demanding to know if our itinerary included occupied Palestine i.e. the unrecognised state of Israel. In fact the man who asked us this question was charming and friendly with an air of "well I know you're likely to go there but I have to ask you anyway and you have to respond in the negative". We responded “no”, that we didn’t intend on going to Israel as required. He did push us a little with a friendly “you mean to tell me that you’ve come all this way and you’re not going to visit the holy land?”, but was satisfied with my answer that we needed to come back home through Syria and knew we weren’t allowed back in, if we did visit Israel. Our visas stamped, a cursory search of the car made by customs, a tip for our interpreter friend and we were now in Syria.

The little van, which was our home for around six months.
Back on our way we could see there was a bit of a deterioration in road markings, even from the low Turkish standards. The signs were all in Arabic and had pictures of President Assad all over them, covering up the essential directional arrows when they were needed most. We had a map of Aleppo, but unable to decipher the Arabic street signs, it didn't provide any help at all. What's more, once again it was night. A new country, a new language, no idea where we were going or where we were going to stay. There was no camping ground as far as we knew. We parked our van in the airport carpark, thinking that may be a good spot to fix ourselves some dinner and bed down for the night. However, we quickly became the focus of attention of about a dozen young boys who were kicking a soccer ball around in the area. They were pressing their little faces up against the glass of the windows and singing cheeky songs at us. I went outside and made friends with them, of sorts, as there was no real commonality in verbal communication. I took their photo which they loved and they all introduced themselves to me. I suspect that they may have been giving me advice like "you’re real poo brain" in Arabic, but it was all good natured enough. Still, there was no way they were going away, and when they started crawling over the van like ants around a sticky bun, and with Tori becoming agitated after a long day, it was time to move on. We bid them ma'a as-salaama (goodbye) and made a hasty departure with their jeers still ringing in our ears. Cheeky little bastards! 
Aleppo kids
We pulled up on a quiet street in a semi-industrial suburb on the outskirts of Aleppo and decided that we would camp the night there. We would deal with the city tomorrow in the light of day. So that's where we are now. In Syria. On the edge of Aleppo with a whole new world to explore tomorrow. Not many people speak English around here so I think we'll have to learn a few Arabic phrases pretty quickly. "Piss off you little bastards" could be a good one to start with.

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