Cry, the Pariah Country (Part I)

5 11 2011

Ankara, Turkey: 3 March 1997

Of the few cities I have visited so far, Ankara is one I am definitely leaving out of the the family slide night. The overnight bus from Istanbul hadn’t helped, & when we got to the bus station, there were surprisingly few hotel touts. A woman approached us. ‘Where are you from?’ Australia. ‘Sprechen Sie deutsch?’ I remembered the many Turks who lived in Germany & scratched for an answer. ‘Nicht deutsch. Nicht Austrian … AUSTRALIAN.’ ‘Hotel?’ she asked. Anything, anything to dump the 20 kilo backpack, so I gave in to my Year 8 German. ‘Ja.’ ‘Kommen Sie.’

We followed her outside to the local bus queues. ‘Kommen Sie.’ ‘Ja, OK’. Onto the bus, into the unknown. The woman turns to me, again in German, pointing out the sights. ‘Bahnhof. Bahnhof, ja?’ ‘Ja.’ Feigning spitting on the floor, she said, ‘Juden.’ I’m exasperated & tired & now I have to deal with anti-semitism? Simon, helpful as ever, says nothing. It’s up to me & my crappy, tired, exasperated self. ‘Nicht Austrian. AUSTRALIAN.’ The entire bus is staring at us. I search for some more German. ‘Ein hotel?’ Her face relaxes. ‘Ja, ja, hotel. Here.’

The building looks like an office block. The lobby of the hotel is full of staring, chain smoking businessman. We check in, grab the keys and I sit in the hotel room & cry & wonder whether my grand plan – to go overland from Istanbul through Syria & Jordan to Egypt – was a mistake. When I floated the idea, back in Cardiff in January, Simon was intrigued. ‘Why not? How many people can say they’ve been to Syria?’ As we unpacked stock at work – a Welsh music & video chainstore – the friends we’d made were more dubious. ‘SYRIA! It’s full of terrorists!’; ‘Syria? Aren’t you scared of being blown up?’; ‘Syria – why would you want to go there?’

I gave them the same answer: ‘I’m going because it’s there.’

Ankara, Turkey: 4 March 1997

Woke up, checked out in front of the smoking businessmen. Had they moved, or drunk coffee & raki all night? In the taxi on the way to the Syrian Embassy, I looked around for something that might redeem Ankara. The embassies, located on a hill, offered a view of a city obscured by a filthy haze of wood burners and brown coal. We joined the queue to get our visas. The embassy opens, we leave our passports and are told to come back at 2pm to collect them. Nobody seems in a hurry to go back into downtown Ankara for a few hours. Mixed bunch. Another Australian couple. A few Canadians. Always Canadians, with their maple leaf patches sewn onto their packs. The man next to me is wearing a kheffiyah, but the face is not quite Arab; Crutches, a right leg amputated below the knee. A smile. ‘I am from Afghanistan,’ he said. ‘I speak English not well.’ ‘Very well,’ I smiled. ‘My leg. My leg.’ His fingers spread like a magician’s above the phantom shadow his leg should cast. ‘My leg … war.’ War against the Soviet Union? He looked too young to have fought the Russians. ‘Syria? You … you go to Syria?’ ‘Yes. Sunni. Pashtun.’ Is it the same as Pathan? ‘Now,  Hama. Afghanistan … never. No Afghanistan again. Taliban.’ I had never heard the word. Is it his his village?

Border control, Cilvegözü, Turkey: 5 March 1997

As soon as we had collected our passports, Simon & Len & Anne – the Australian couple we met at the embassy, headed for the bus station & hightailed it south, to Antakya. Turkey has an amazing network of modern coaches, traversing the huge country. They also save on paying for a night’s accommodation. We arrived at Antakya … the ancient Antioch just another bus stop now, somewhere to eat dusty bus stop kebabs for breakfast, change millions of lira back to a fistful of USD & Syrian pounds. We decide to push on and cross the border into Syria at Cilvegözü. Len, tall, with sandy blonde hair & a beard, dressed like a Pakistani and carried a huge rolled up carpet. He & Anne had travelled from India, Pakistan, into Iran and then through eastern Turkey to get to Syria. To new backpackers, they were godlike. We were all buggered & took taxis to the border checkpoint, Len & the carpet in one; Anne, Simon & me in another. The guard, mustachioed, bored, saw Len’s carpet & said he had to pay a ‘carpet tax’ before he would stamp our passports. Len saw bullshit & showed the guard the pattern. ‘This – this is not Turkish,’ he said. The guard snorted, smiled – sprung. Len, you legend! I would have just paid the magic ‘carpet tax’. The guard laughed at us & we laughed as well. ‘Suriye?’, he shrugged. I hadn’t even thought about how we were getting to Syria. Len pointed to the road. ‘Walk,’ Len said to the guard; sounding like a command from an officer in the backpackers corps. Walking from Turkey to Syria. This ought to be good.

No man’s land: 5 March 1997

The silence, after all of the travelling, the noise, the anticipation of the last few days, was weird, but comforting. It helped me get into a zone. I didn’t know how long we would be walking for. I think we all thought there would be a border guard just around the corner from Cilvegözü … but there wasn’t, so we walked, joking about snipers wondering what the fuck they were seeing from their position in the hills. After a good while of nothing but a road & silent hills, we stopped talking about snipers. I was more than a little worried that we had done a very stupid thing. ‘We’re on a road to nowhere …’; I wanted to start humming Talking Heads but I was scared of Len, walking ahead, carrying the huge carpet. Then, a building. A building and some cars. Hopefully with Syrian number plates.

Syrian border post: 5 March 1997

The young border guards smiled warmly, but spoke no English. The boss comes in, & he’s much more stern. Flipping through our passports, the word hangs in the air: ‘Israel?’ ‘La!‘ we reply as one. A little too heavy with the, ‘no way, why would we go there!’ response? He looks up, stamps the passports & we’re in. We’re in Syria. Still no idea where we are or where we’re going. The young border guards walked out of the office, & beckoned us from the entrance. They pointed to a ute. I wanted to film this scene and play it to the world, to everyone who had said the country was full of terrorists. We had just walked into their country, & border guards were offering us a lift. We sat in the back of the ute & smile at how the day is shaping up. We came into a town, & the border guards took us to a bus stop. They wouldn’t accept any money for petrol; just a smile & a wave goodbye. A bus arrives. ‘Hama?’ Len asks. ‘La. Halab.‘ Aleppo. Len & Anne are on a tight schedule. They have to be in Cairo in two weeks & don’t want to stay in Aleppo. I’m disappointed; it’s the second largest city in Syria, & Simon & I weren’t under any obligation to be anywhere, anytime. That said, I’m in awe of what they’ve done, where they’ve been, & want to hear more. While it’s not on the way to Hama, we’ll definitely be able to get there from Aleppo, so we board the bus. The driver waves away our money. The carpet has its own seat.

Aleppo: 5 March 1997

Everyone off the bus. Aleppo. We find something to eat that isn’t a Turkish kebab. Syrian kebab. A few young men have latched on to us, eager to speak to us in English as we bumble our way through the crowds, all the time following the rolled-up carpet that means Len is ahead. We are going to Hama. We can’t stay in Halab, sorry. They peel off, disinterested, and we find our way to the Hama bus stand. This time we pay our fares. It’s a long trip to Hama, & the scenery isn’t particularly inspiring. We arrive on dusk. Hotel-finding time. We’re walking around fairly aimlessly, but still on a high about how everything had worked out. An old man approaches us. ‘Salaam alaykum,’ I’m so proud of my five Arabic phrases, I have to try it on – why should Len have all the fun? The old man greets us, formally, then switches to French. Of course. Syria was a French protectorate. I’m the only one in the group with a basic grasp of French. This is so cool! ‘Nous sommes Australien. Ou est un hotel, s’il vous plait?’ The old man’s smiles, warm & broadly, as if his four grandchildren have come to visit, ! ‘Ah, Australie, Australie! Bienvenue a la Syrie, Australiens. Australie … la guerre … tres bonne, libre de la Syrie.’ OK, now I’m struggling. Australia fought a war to free Syria? Think, think, think … bien sur! – he’s talking about World War II & a Syria ruled by Vichy France. ‘Australiens … allez, s’il vous plait’. He walks off in an old man way, that slow assuredness, waving for us to follow. How much better could this day get? ‘Un hotel? Pas de probleme.’ This day is so good & we haven’t seen anything yet; not the Roman waterwheels, a souk … we haven’t had a single Kodak moment, but this is exactly what I want; just to be somewhere, walking around, communicating, barely, giddily, in three languages & smiles. Our Hama grandfather takes us around a corner, to a pale green-washed concrete building. ‘L’hotel.’ The hotel owner & our Hama grandfather talk & then take us upstairs to a four-bed room. It’s basic, spotless & has a private bathroom. I’m surprised. I was expecting to have to put on my ‘wedding’ ring again, a gold claddagh that I bought in Ireland; but there’s no suggestion that the four of us should sleep separately. We agree a price, & the old man smiles and waves as he leaves. ‘Bonne journee, Australiens, wa’ alaykum salaam.’

We wash, change & leave the hotel to find something to eat that is not a kebab. Sitting outside a restaurant, we gorge on the best chicken in the world, spit roast before us and discuss making Homs our next base. Back at the hotel, we find a pack of dates in our room. A sweet present, better than a chocolate on the pillow of a five-star hotel. We wash some underwear in the sink, put up the backpackers’ pegless clotheslines and lie on our beds, eating dates and listening, exhausted but enthralled, as Anne & Len speak glowingly of Iran.