by Ken Krayeske
I felt great leaving the Ministry of Information, having completed my goal of collecting all my reporting. I couldn't communicate my joy to the cabbie, and he must've thought I was a nut. But I gave him a big tip.
Liz and I proceeded to wander the Old City, but she wasn't feeling well. Maybe it was the strains of Funky Town wafting out of the hairdresser's stall near the Ummayad mosque. Or maybe it was the Iraqis from Fallujah that she met.
She was standing in front of the mosque, while I climbed into a second floor shop to photograph the vista, and was approached by three women in hajibs. They said hello, took photos of her, and asked her where she was from. She said America, and they made their fingers into guns and shot her.
"Boom. America killed our families in Fallujah," they told her. That shook Liz to her bones. People here are friendly, but boy, they don't like the invasion America started.
So we went back to our hotel, determined to try again the next day.
Our three-hour walking tour through the Old City of Damascus brought us to the Christian quarter. There, we bumped into a church where Pope John Paul II visited in March 2001, and then we found where St. Paul escaped the walled city.
In the New Testament, the story goes that Saint Paul had to be lowered out of a window in a basket by Apostles of Christ to flee from Jews who hunted him. It's funny, because Basel, my English translator in the Ministry of Info, described a book that claims that St. Paul was actually a Jewish agent.
Conspiracy theories abound. The Pope visited St. Paul's shrine and orphanage, and we did too. A popular theory here proposes that the Jews assassinated President Kennedy. Book sellers who line the sidewalks seem to have more books about Kennedy than any other American president, indeed any other foreign leader - Stalin, Mandela and Gandhi included.
When talking with Syrians, they say Lincoln, Kennedy and Jefferson are their three favorite American presidents. And they say we need one of those now. With BBC news and Al Jazeera reporting regularly on the tragedy of Katrina in New Orleans, the emperor Bush indeed wears no clothes.
As journalist Robert Fisk has noted, Lebanon and Turkey actually have streets named after Kennedy. Any chance any middle Eastern country will name a boulevard after Bush? At least that's what he promised us would happen in Baghdad.
To reach Beirut, we were told to go to Baramke Haraje and rent a collective taxi to get us across the borders. For about $20 US, you could rent a driver to cross the border, and it was quicker through customs than being on a bus. So, we packed up our belongings, and headed from the hotel for a taxi to the station.
I thought the taxi would drop us in front of the Baramke Haraje. Instead, he dropped us across the street, in front of a Lebanese man who said "Beirut" and a half dozen little kids who tried to unload our luggage from the cab and carry it across the street for us. It was only the second or third instance of aggressive tourist scam scum we encountered in Syria.
One kid grabbed my luggage and put it on a cart while I was dealing with my camera bag, and after wrestling my bag away from him, we crossed the four lane road without incident.
Liz followed the "Bierut" man into Baramke Haraje - a three-acre parking parking lot/bus station that is organized chaos. We passed a police checkpoint, and proceeded to his car. I thought he said "$16 per person," but I knew that the first price is always different than the final price, and some haggling is involved.
We loaded our luggage into his blue Chevrolet Caprice, and he asked for our passports. We handed them to him. She stayed with the luggage, and I followed Mazen and our identity documents into the station.
Dozens of men and soldiers peopled the station: some lounging, drinking tea, others praying on rugs facing east, others waiting in line. In the first line, Mazen talked to a man behind a window.
After a few moments, Mazen turned around and found a fat man on the crowded sidewalk. That man wrote a few Arabic characters on his right palm with a Bic pen.
Then Mazen returned to the first man at the window and showed him his palm. Window guy directed us to a different person, who took our passports, wrote our information in a book, and gave Mazen a carbon copy.
Mazen proceeded to a different office, popped his head in, exchanged some cash, and strutted back to the car. We all jumped in. At the police checkpoint leaving the parking lot, Mazen gave the carbon copies to the cop at the gate, and slipped him a 25 pound coin.
Once on the road, I asked him if the mark on his right hand was "Baksheesh." Yes, he said. It cost him 250 Syrian pounds, or about $5 US to bribe us through the elaborate police state system so that we might depart quickly.
I marveled at the municipal corruption in action. Liz said it didn't matter as long as we benefited from it, and I can‚t help but agree.
I hadn't realized how much I disliked that police system, and how uneasy it all made me feel, until we left Syria and passed through the Lebanese border. I made Mazen detour through Zahle on our way to Beirut so that I might make a pilgrimage to Ralph Nader's ancestral homeland and send him and his sister a postcard from there.
See, this whole trip began in a cramped office in Washington D.C. last fall. Answering the phones for the campaign, I spoke to a Marine who had just returned from Iraq. He was in a special task force with Navy Seals, and he described how his unit was "snooping and pooping" on the Syrian border.
He wouldn't give his name, but he explained that his unit crossed the border regularly. He spoke of firefights on the border in the Al-Anbar region, and it reminded me of Vietnam, of John Kerry's Swift Boats and Operation Phoenix, of U.S. bombing raids in Laos and Cambodia.
I bought an Iraqi map and posted it on my office wall, and with precious spare minutes, I scoured news reports for military exchanges with Syria. I couldn't find any. After the Nader campaign‚s demise, I moved to Florida for a few months, fell in love, moved back to Connecticut.
While teaching summer camp in July, I dreamt about Antioch. It's in Turkey, and I decided that I would use my frequent flier ticket to explore my dream. Looking at a map, Syria seemed right next door. Indeed, Syrian maps claim Antioch is still part of Syria, and not Turkey.
I dove into research, but came up with little. Sy Hersh told me of the one story he had written about Task Force 20, a U.S. joint services task force that pursued what it thought was Uday or Qusai Hussein dozens of kilometers into Syria, blew it up. It turned out to be a gasoline smuggling convoy.
Hersh also pointed me to UPI's Richard Sale, who wrote about Abu Kamal. In the hundreds of stories about the border Sale and others had written about Al Qaim in Iraq and Abu Kamal in Syria, most quoted U.S. sources, saying that Syria needed to tighten it up. Some documented the problems with truckers carrying cargo into Iraq. Only a handful talked with actual Syrians. I saw a story.
And the rest, they say, is history. Sitting in our hotel room in Beirut, across from the American University of Beirut (which was funded partly by the Saudi BinLadin Group), looking at the Mediterranean, I couldn't be happier I took the risks I did to get this story.
Here in Beirut, pictures of Rafiq Hariri are as plentiful as those of Bashar in Syria. Our cabbie Mazen, while terribly lost in Beirut, drove us by the mangled rebar remains from Hariri's assassination.
More soldiers in Beirut stand on street corners with automatic rifles than in Damascus, yet I don't feel as threatened here. Perhaps it's the Dunkin Donuts and McDonald's next to our hotel with delivery service. Or that posters here advertise the Beirut Indymedia Center's fundraising concert with American folksinger David Rovics. Or maybe it is just being by the sea.
I don't know. Perhaps I'll have a better insight when I cross back into Syria on Saturday. Liz and I will be heading by land back to Istanbul - Lattakia, Aleppo, Antioch, Nevsehir, Ankara then Istanbul, and we fly out from Turkey to Paris to New York to Florida on Sept. 28, then I'll be back in CT on Oct. 4.
See you then. Because I'm on vacation as of now. I might send one or two more dispatches as the mood hits me, but right now, I'm worded out. Word up.