June of 2011 found my partner and me, two itinerant writers in our mid-twenties, plunging into the harsh waters of Syria’s hellish reality. We went straight into that conflicted, shaky area of the world where our worried families begged us not to go: a portion of soil in which, according to CNN, nothing less than the Apocalypse was about to break loose. It was the prelude to the country’s uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, the ophthalmologist who succeeded his father who had been Syria’s ruler for almost 30 years. The spotlight was originally meant for Bassel al-Assad, Bashar’s brother politician who died in a car accident in 1994. His death left Bashar, just out of Medical school, with no other option than to take his place and it turned out he did pretty well at tyrannizing the country for more than 15 years. In 2011 the Syrian people rebelled through demonstrations against the dictatorship, the heavy unemployment situation, the rapidly increasing corruption, and inequality of rights, all of which ended up in the civil war that is still happening as I write these lines.
We talked it through about a million times as we approached closer and closer to the Middle East. We wanted to see it all with our own eyes but we weren’t really sure of what we might encounter there. We were in Moscow at that time and couldn’t delay the planning of the rest of our trip any longer. In the meantime, the Western media was doing a great job at planting fear into our minds. We decided that we would visit Aleppo and Damascus crossing down to Syria from the Turkish-Kurdish border. We also wanted to see Hama and Homs; however, we soon dropped the idea. We knew we had to ignore the tragedies predicted by the mass media, especially as we have never been blind to the fascination it has for demonizing the Middle East and every event happening there. We took a deep breath in the knowledge of what was to come: we were going to do this.
Our last day in Turkey started in Şanliurfa, a tiny, pretty old town with thousands of years of history very close to Gaziantep.It was part of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia before becoming a Roman province, although it had been inhabited long before that. We took a bus to the main otogar of Şanliurfa and from there a dolmuş took us to Akçacale, the last Turkish city before the frontier with Syria. On our way south we saw the mythical Euphrates river and passed by lots of small, dusty, colorful noisy villages. After a couple of hours we were there: at the other side of the border we could see Tel Abyad, Syria. At Akçacale we made our way down from the dolmuş, the rickety mini-vans that work as the main means of transportation around small cities of inner Turkey, and we headed for the border control. The Turkish officer greeted us merrily and was visibly thrilled to see Argentinian passports for what, we think, might have surely been the first time in his life. Of course we didn’t have precise answers for all the questions he asked about Messi and Maradona, but we tried our best as he stamped our departure from the country. Exiting Turkey was a piece of cake, but entering Syria would prove to be not as simple.
We got closer to the Syrian border control and were immediately stopped by two officers who came out of a small booth in a corner. By the look of this border post we were not expecting anyone to speak English, but they did. One of them pointed to our backpacks and instructed us to open them over a table used for baggage inspection. A huge picture of Bashar al-Assad hanged from the ceiling and in that moment I realised it was too late to decide I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of crossing into Syria anymore. But there was nothing I could do about it; I was already there.
They started looking into our backpacks while they asked a few questions about the reasons for our trip, and we could tell they were looking for some sort of electronic device. Of course they quickly found our laptop. They made us start it up and proceeded to clumsily open random files and programmes obviously lacking any deep understanding of how this machine worked. They took their time on our photos of Paris and Venice, probably more out of curiosity than security. They said we couldn’t enter Syria with the laptop and that they were genuinely sorry, but they just couldn’t: what if we were undercover journalists? What if we were there to stir the social unrest even further, showing people seductive pictures of our joyful life in the West? What if we brought words of freedom to spread around? We didn’t lose our temper, and kindly explained that we would wait all day if necessary for a suitable solution to the situation; we were not going back to Turkey and had all afternoon ahead to talk the problem through. What were we to do if by the evening we had not had a positive answer? This was a scenario we didn’t want to think too much about. We went on to make small talk with the officers, who now looked concerned about us and determined to help (after all, world-famous Muslim hospitality ran through their veins too), especially after Messi and Maradona were named, they love South American football leagues in the Middle East. We also learned that Syrians like to drink yerba mate tea, the national drink of countries such as Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. We were surprised to see them drinking it at the border, and they were even more surprised when we explained to them the correct way to prepare it (they appeared to be drinking a mess of over-heated water and yerba clumsily poured on some small vodka-like glasses, a method mysterious to anyone raised on the traditional culture of mate).
After long hours of officers and unknown authorities coming back and forth from an office upstairs and occasionally looking at us with worried faces, we were told that everything was alright and that we could cross the border with our laptop, but not before we received a big stamp in our passports that clarified the situation in Arabic just in case we were checked by the police during our stay in Damascus. We passed the border control and along the desert-like road, the small town of Tel Abyad looked almost post-nuclear. A ragged, dirty Syrian flag fluttered on the top of an unfinished building. At the faint sound of the adhan call to prayer being sung from a distant minaret, some men here and there placed their mats on the floor to pray towards Mecca while they waited for the bus to the capital. The crying voice of the imam pierced through the dead quiet air of this dusty, deserted town that seemed to never have been inhabited. A shabby minivan bound for another small city between Tel Abyad and Aleppo stopped at the improvised bus terminal to pick a few passengers up and we got on along with some Bedouins and women with their children. We had thought that the trip to Aleppo would be short and straightforward, but we soon learned that once you get to Syria, the best thing you can do is forget about your plans and just go with the flow.
To be continued….