by Ken Krayeske
Right across the street from my hotel in Damascus, these guys whipped up great single serving pizzas from a brick oven for about fifty cents apiece. Photo by Ken Krayeske.
Our plane landed in Damascus and taxied around the tarmac for 20 minutes. The ants in my pants were already wild because the flight left an hour after its scheduled 11:35 p.m. departure.
At 2 a.m., not even 20 minutes waiting in a passport control line could kill the thrill of entering one-third of the Axis of Evil. Would people really want to kill me, or would they welcome me like the guidebooks said?
When the soldier waved and grunted for me to step past the red line, I hoped for the best. He read my journalist's visa, typed my passport info into an IBM, and started quizzing me in Arabic.
I couldn't answer, and he shouted something that materialized a German tourist named Daniel. The officer wanted a copy of the magazine I worked for. My heart skipped a beat when I couldn't locate my copy of the Progressive, which gave me the assignment to come to Syria, which I packed especially for this occasion.
So I handed him a Harper's. The fat, hairy-chested man in the tan uniform thumbed through the magazine like he read English, then returned it to me. He asked Daniel what I was writing and where I was going.
Daniel, 5'8'', sandy brown hair, wire rimmed glasses, dressed in black like a good European, explained that I planned to write a nice piece about how good Syria was. Thanks, Daniel.
With a thud, the soldier stamped my passport, and I was officially welcomed into a state that supports Hezbollah, is hostile with Israel and opposed the Iraq war. For those reasons and more, George W. Bush and his neo-conservative Cabinet want Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad deposed.
If the hard liners ever get their wish, the democratic revolution will have a lot of work to do in tearing down the hundreds of pictures of Assad and his father, Hafez Al-Assad, the Alawite strongman who ruled Syria for 30 years, until his death at age 69 in 2000.
Portraits of the father and son greeted me when I first stepped into the airport, in stickers on taxicabs, and on billboards coming into the city, mingled with ads for sodas, cell phones, hotels and trade schools.
The friendly taxi driver, driving in the middle of the road in the pitch-black desert night, tried to teach me some Arabic, which I promptly forgot. At 3 a.m., downtown Damascus was deserted, except for a few men jamming some Arabic pop music from their car stereos. I felt safe.
I was so tired I accidentally left my passport with the hotel manager. It gave me a scare when I woke to the morning prayer call at 7 a.m. and started my day. After retrieving my identity documents and scarfing down a hardboiled egg, a roll and a cup of tea, I took off for the American embassy.
Damascus doesn't open for business until 10 a.m., so my meander to the Embassy took me on streets and sidewalks lightly sprinkled with people. At first, I didn't don my sunglasses, because I feared sticking out. I bought pants, shoes and a shirt in Turkey so I might blend in.
It seemed to work, because when I walked into a mosque and worshippers signaled me to talk to the Imam. I said I was just visiting, and an angry man asked why I was in the mosque if I wasn't Islamic. I scurried away, hoping I didn't start a jihad.
I wanted to register as a citizen abroad at the U.S. Embassy, after my two kilometer walk, I was thirsty, looking for some hospitality. I found American soil on Syria's small embassy row. The Dutch and Turkish embassies lay just south of America, and the Italian embassy is just north. I didn't find home, though.
Old Glory flies high above the heavily secured compound, which stretches a residential block. At least 12 foot high concrete walls support 10 feet of wrought iron fence, which is topped by tall, dense coils of barbed razor wire. Waist high steel pillars line the sidewalk, armed guards stand every 30 feet, and cameras hang off the walls.
One might get the impression the U.S. is worried someone in Syria doesn't like it there. Walking into the embassy, I was subjected to the standard airport rigamarole, and when I reached the two-inch thick bullet proof glass to register with my country, I was told to do it online.
Oh well. Walking home, I bought a SIM card for my cell phone, and observed as the city slowly woke up, and more people mingled on the street. The Lonely Planet map of Syria is okay, but I wanted more, so I stopped into a bookstore.
Dar Dimashq sold me an English map, and during the transaction, I spotted a hardcover Arabic translation of Bill Clinton's autobiography, My Life. Using my handy Arabic dictionary, I tried to ask the salesman if it sold well. Yes, he said.
Was it more popular than the paperback with Hitler on the cover? After a few minutes of struggling to ask and answer that doozy, he disappeared. While I waited, I noticed a paperback on the shelf featuring George Bush in a cowboy hat on the cover.
When the salesman returned with a neighboring merchant who spoke English, I asked about the Bush book. It was called The Biggest Lies of George Bush The Lies He Told Us About Iraq.
Sales of that expose and a new one about Saddam Hussein's secret life were blooming now, the seller said. These books had eclipsed last year's hot tome, Shame of America From Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib.
The cover of that paperback featured a mosaic of torture and gore photos, like U.S. Army Pvt. Lyndy Englund and her dog leash, pyramids of Iraqi men, and orange hooded enemy combatants. Yikes. This explains the Embassy's heavy fortifications.
I felt tears welling, ashamed for my country's bad behavior, so I apologized to the several men who had gathered to watch the interview. The translator thanked me, and told me he and his peers didn't hold me or other Americans responsible.
He said that they understood that we are merely people, and we don't play the games of kings and wars. We know, he said, that you don't want war or this to happen any more than we do.
Before I left America, I both knew and hoped that this response would greet me, and I felt relief that I encountered such hospitality and understanding on my first morning.
My afternoon was just as eventful, but more on that later...