Tag: Syria

An Evanescent Charm: Syria Before the Civil War

By Florcita Swartzman

And just like that, without fully knowing what we were doing or what would happen next, we were in Syria. It felt so alien and at the same time so safe, although we knew the mass media would not agree. The border control officers bid us a warm goodbye and were sure to recommend to us a famous ice cream shop in Damascus. “Don’t leave without trying pistacchio with nuts,” called the officer who had searched our bags, as we headed toward the bus stop. There we would take yet another ramshackle minivan to a town called Ayn al-Arab (Kobanî), on our way to Aleppo, and then we would travel by train to Damascus.

 

Ayn al-Arab was a typical Syrian countryside city. Everything was a bit run-down, a bit too noisy, and a bit too much the color of sand. Everyone looked at us with astonishment, surely because they had never seen a Western tourist wander through their dusty streets. For the first time, we saw women in niqabs; they looked like black ghosts, with almost every inch of their skin covered. The veils left uncovered only a tiny window that revealed their brown, almond-shaped eyes. Even in the scorching heat, the women wore matching black gloves and shoes. Often they carried babies in their arms, or guided two or three children through the town.

 

After a short wait at the bus terminal, we hopped on a van to Aleppo and left Ayn al-Arab. The driver greeted us repeatedly, “Welcome, my friends, welcome!”  Next to us, dark-eyed children stared at us endlessly. The ride through the ill-maintained Syrian roads was bumpy and seemed to take forever, thanks to the driver, who constantly found friends along the way. He couldn’t help but stop and chat with them, each time announcing an unneeded 5-minute break to the passengers.

 

This is how, so soon after our arrival, we learned our first lessons in Syrian culture. First, nothing here ever goes according to plan. Second, simple things take twice as much time as they would in any other part of the world. And third, Syrian timing is not your timing.

 

Aleppo was dazzling. We arrived after dark, and still had to take a taxi to the center of the city. The taxi left us right under the Bab al-Faraj, a tall Ottoman-style clock tower that used to be one of the symbols of the city. Now, in 2017, nothing that had surrounded it at the time of our visit remains standing. Even the tower itself has been damaged during the recent bombings, but in 2011 it was a majestic sight, overseeing the crazy Aleppine traffic and the somewhat out-of-place palm trees on each corner. The cobblestones of the old town’s streets each told a different story; the souqs, or marketplaces, smelled strongly of spices and of times long past, when it seemed that the Ottoman empire could rule the entire world.

 

In the souqs, customers and salesmen greeted each other with “as salaam alaikum” -peace be upon you-, to which the response was “alaikum as salaam“. The small shops sold everything from tea, coffee, spices, and traditional handmade olive-oil soaps to carpets with impossibly intricate designs and embroidered silk scarves. Sometimes children would mind the shops while their parents were away for the afternoon; that’s how safe Aleppo was a few years ago.

 

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Except for some people advising us to avoid Hama and Homs but never saying why, we never had reason to feel in danger. We certainly never got the feeling that we were in a country in which one of the worst civil wars of our time would soon break out. Random people in the street often invited us into their houses and treated us to cups of hot tea, just because we were the only tourists around and they were curious about us. It didn’t matter that they didn’t speak any English, nor we any Arabic. Smiles, hand gestures and body language were the only tools needed to communicate.

 

At the train stations, employees behind ticket counters lazily served customers while they ate dried apricots and drank a form of mate (not mate by South American standards; but mate to them nonetheless). Muffled Arab pop music blared in the background. Kids ran through the ancient streets in their favorite soccer jerseys, bearing the names of players that had no business in this Middle Eastern open-air museum: Neymar, Shevchenko, Messi, Ronaldinho, Özil, Suárez. However, it was clear that the Syrians needed to watch their actions and words. There was always a portrait of Bashar al-Assad on display somewhere, whether at home or in the shops, and few people dared voice their true thoughts about the government. In the main square of Aleppo, a statue of Hafez al-Assad stood solemnly against a background of Syrian flags fluttering in the wind: a true exhibition of demagoguery and despotism.

 

We arrived in Damascus on a warm morning and booked a hotel that we stumbled upon in the old city center. After billing us for four nights, the owner invited us to join him and his family for breakfast. He spoke little English, and his family only knew Arabic. We sat on the carpet next to his three kids, while his wife brought plate after plate of traditional Syrian specialties: a mezze (multi-course meal) of shawarma meat, hummus, lakhma bread, halloumi cheese, and fatthoush salad, along with many dishes unknown to us. The breakfast was truly delicious, and was one more proof of how warm Syrian hearts are. However, putting an end to it was not an easy task: Middle Easterners take their hospitality seriously, so we had to truly insist that we were full and couldn’t eat another bite. The truth is, by then we only wanted to rest after a sleepless night on the train from Aleppo.

 

The dimly-lit Old Town of Damascus was still waiting for us in the evening, so we went out for dinner and a walk. We saw wealthy families eating in expensive restaurants, shopkeepers closing their businesses for the day, old men playing backgammon over a cup of tea in crammed bars and male friends strolling around, holding hands as is the custom in the Middle East. Further from the busy restaurant scene, almost no sound could be heard in the deserted old town. It felt empty now, even gloomy. Our only company in these dark alleys was the scent of apple tobacco coming from the hookahs in the lively bars we’d just left behind.

 

Eventually, we found our way back to the cheerful Damascene night. We had a fresh carrot juice at a café, and discovered the last story-teller of the Middle East theatrically reciting a tale in Arabic. The old man wore a hat like a Moroccan fez, and held a stick in one hand. The other held the book he was reading from. We fell under the spell of his story without even noticing, and without understanding a word he was saying: his hoarse voice thundered on and on in the big room where everyone listened in silence. We had sat enthralled for about half an hour when, abruptly, the loud chatter resumed and merry-makers went back to their Backgammon games. The old story-teller had gone silent and had come down from his throne in the center of the room. The tale he was telling had ended. Syria, however, is a tale never meant to end.

For more content from Florcita check out her portfolio for The Coolidge Review and follow her blog!

De Turquía a Siria: derribando fronteras y prejuicios

Por Florcita Swartzman

Junio del 2011 nos encontró a mí y a mi pareja, dos escritores itinerantes en nuestros veintitantos, sumergiéndonos en las duras aguas de la realidad siria: el diablo reencarnado bajo la forma de un territorio mal delimitado, esa zona conflictiva y turbulenta a donde nuestras familias nos rogaron no ir; una porción de suelo donde, según la CNN, no menos que el apocalipsis se estaba por desatar. Eran los comienzos del levantamiento popular en contra de la dictadura de Bashar al-Assad, el oftalmólogo que sucedió a su padre que estuvo en el poder durante 30 años. El más alto puesto originalmente estaba destinado a Bassel al-Assad, el hermano de Bashar muerto en un accidente automovilístico en 1994. Su muerte dejó a Bashar, recién salido de la universidad de medicina, sin más opción que la de hacerse cargo del poder. Y lo hizo bien, tiranizando al país durante más de 15 años. En el 2011 el pueblo sirio se rebeló contra la dictadura, la fuerte situación de desempleo y las crecientes corrupción e inequidad de derechos, todo lo cual fue a desembocar en la guerra civil que continúa hasta el momento en que escribo estas líneas.

Lo hablamos cerca de un millón de veces a medida que nos acercábamos a Medio Oriente: queríamos verlo todo con nuestros propios ojos, pero no estábamos realmente seguros de lo que nos encontraríamos ahí. En ese momento estábamos en Moscú y no podíamos seguir retrasando el planeamiento del resto de nuestro viaje por más tiempo. Mientras tanto, los medios de comunicación occidentales estaban haciendo un buen trabajo en comenzar a implantar el miedo en nuestras mentes. Decidimos que queríamos visitar Aleppo y Damasco, cruzando hacia Siria desde la frontera turca-kurda. También queríamos visitar Hama y Homs, pero pronto abandonamos la idea. Sabíamos que teníamos que ignorar las tragedias pronosticadas por los medios masivos, especialmente porque nunca estuvimos ciegos ante la fascinación que tienen por demonizar al Medio Oriente y todo lo que allí sucede. Tomamos aire y supimos que iba a pasar: lo íbamos a hacer.

Nuestro último día en Turquía comenzó en Şanliurfa, una pequeña ciudad muy antigua con miles de años de historia -fue parte del viejo imperio de Macedonia antes de convertirse en una provincia romana, y ya estaba habitada desde hacía muchísimos años antes- muy cerca de Gaziantep. Tomamos un bus a la otogar principal de Şanliurfa y desde ahí un dolmuş nos llevó a Akçacale, la última ciudad turca antes de la frontera con Siria. Camino al sur vimos el mítico río Éufrates y dejamos atrás muchos pueblitos pequeños, polvosos y coloridos. Luego de algunas horas finalmente llegamos: del otro lado de la frontera estaba Tel Abyad, Siria. En Akçacale nos bajamos del dolmuş, (unas mini-vans que son el medio de transporte más común entre ciudades y pueblos del interior de Turquía) y fuimos hacia el control fronterizo. El oficial turco nos saludó amablemente y se veía emocionado de ver pasaportes argentinos por lo que creemos que seguramente fue la primera vez en su vida. Claro que no teníamos respuestas precisas a todas sus preguntas sobre Maradona y Messi, pero hicimos lo que pudimos mientras nos sellaba los pasaportes con la partida del país. Salir de Turquía fue pan comido, pero entrar a Siria no sería tan sencillo.

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Nos acercamos al control fronterizo sirio e inmediatamente fuimos frenados por dos oficiales que salían de una cabinita en una esquina. Por el aspecto de este puesto de frontera no esperábamos que nadie hablase inglés, pero nos equivocamos. Uno de ellos señaló nuestras mochilas y nos indicó que las abriéramos arriba de una mesa usada para inspección de equipaje. Un cuadro enorme de Bashar al-Assad colgaba del techo y en ese momento me di cuenta de que era demasiado tarde para decidir que ya no tenía ganas de cruzar a Siria. Pero no había nada más que hacer: ya estábamos ahí.

Empezaron a revisar nuestras mochilas mientras nos hacían algunas preguntas acerca de las razones de nuestro viaje, y nos dimos cuenta de que estaban buscando algún tipo de dispositivo electrónico. Como era obvio, con poco esfuerzo encontraron nuestra laptop. Nos hicieron encenderla y empezaron a abrir documentos y programas al azar, como no entendiendo bien el funcionamiento de la máquina. Se tomaron su tiempo con nuestras fotos de Venecia y París, seguro más por curiosidad que por chequeo de seguridad. Nos dijeron que no podíamos entrar a Siria con ella. Lo sentían genuinamente, pero no podíamos pasar con la laptop. ¿Qué pasaba si éramos periodistas encubiertos? ¿Qué tal si estábamos ahí para agitar los ánimos de la gente todavía más, mostrándoles seductoras fotos de nuestra jovial vida en Occidente? ¿Y qué si traíamos palabras de libertad para desparramar por el país? No perdimos la compostura, y les explicamos amablemente que íbamos a esperar el tiempo que fuese necesario hasta que la situación se resolviera; volver a Turquía no era una opción y teníamos todo el día por delante para esperar resultados positivos. Qué hubiese pasado si llegaba la noche y todavía no teníamos una respuesta favorable era un esenario en el que no queríamos pensar demasiado. Continuamos hablando en términos amistosos con los oficiales, que ahora se veían preocupados y deseosos de ayudar (después de todo, la hospitalidad musulmana también corría por sus venas), especialmente luego de que los nombres de Messi y Maradona salieran a relucir. En Medio Oriente aman las ligas de fútbol sudamericanas. También nos enteramos de que a los sirios les gusta tomar mate, la bebida nacional de países como Argentina, Uruguay y Chile. Nos sorprendimos de verlos tomándolo en la frontera, y ellos se sorprendieron aún más cuando les explicamos la forma correcta de prepararlo (lo que estaban tomando parecía una mezcla de agua sobrecalentada con yerba torpemente volcada en unos vasitos de vidrio completamente misteriosos para cualquier persona criada en la cultura del mate).

Luego de largas horas de oficiales y autoridades desconocidas yendo y vieniendo a una oficinita en el piso superior entre ocasionales miradas de preocupación dirigidas a nosotros, nos hicieron saber que estaba todo bien y que podíamos cruzar la frontera con nuestra laptop, no sin antes estamparnos un gran sello en los pasaportes aclarando toda la situación en árabe, en caso de que la policía nos revisara durante nuestra estadía. Pasamos el control de frontera y a la vera de la ruta desértica Tel Abyad se sentía casi posnuclear. Una bandera siria raída y polvorienta flameaba en lo alto de un edificio sin terminar. Al canto débil del adhan sonando desde un minarete distante, algunos hombres por acá y allá acomodaron sus alfombritas en el suelo para rezar en dirección a la Meca mientras esperaban el bus hacia la capital. La voz quejumbrosa del imam perforaba el aire mudo de aquella ciudad desierta que parecía jamás haber estado habitada. Una destartalada mini-van con destino a una pequeña ciudad entre Tel Abyad y Aleppo se paró en la improvisada terminal de buses a levantar a algunos pasajeros, y nosotros nos subimos entre beduinos y algunas mujeres con sus hijos. Habíamos creído que el viaje a Aleppo sería corto y directo, pero pronto entendimos que una vez que estás en Siria, lo mejor que puedes hacer es olvidarte de tus planes e ir con la corriente.

Continuará…

Para más información sobre las experiencias de Flor visita su blog, o clickea acá para leer el resto de sus artículos en The Coolidge Review.

From Turkey to Syria: A Border Crossing From Perception to Reality

By Florcita Swartzman

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.

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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….

For more content from Florcita check out her portfolio for The Coolidge Review and follow her blog!