Sunday, February 17, 2008

Taking a Chance at the Syrian Border

What a day! So, I start early. Not as early as I planned, as I have decided it would be best to go to the Syrian Embassy in Amman before trying for the border or taking the bus, which leaves at 7am from the Jett International Office, wherever that is! So I head out before 7am to find a cab. At the bottom of the street, one is passing, and eventually I communicate Syrian Embassy to him – he gets “Damascus Embassy”, and takes me there in the rain. On the way we pass a Starbucks drive-through, whatever next?! At the embassy, it’s all quiet apart from a single armed guard, who I chat to. He’s Jordanian Army and has been doing this for four years. He thinks the embassy will open at 8am, so I hang around for the hour, enjoying somewhat limited conversation with him and staring out over the endless layers of creamy blocks as they are lit up and obscured by the sun and rain respectively. It’s quite pretty actually. Amman apparently used to span seven hills (like Rome) but has now sprawled across 19.

At 8am, an official goes in and tells us it won’t be open till 9am. I can’t take another hour without my exposed toes reaching frostbite, so I say I’ll head off for coffee –ah yes, says the guard, Starbucks. It’s about a ten minute walk, and boy am I happy to walk through those clean glassy doors into warmth and familiar comfort. Same colour sofas, same pricey coffee, I am at home! After a cappuccino and some over-priced internet access (all paid for with credit card of course), I walk back in the rain to the embassy, which is already busy, about ten past nine. No queue for the visa counter though, so I walk up, full-power charm smile on, and ask whether I can apply for a tourist visa. I’m told point blank “NO”! It is apparently policy that they cannot issue visas for people from countries which have Syrian diplomatic relations, of which of course the UK is one. It would, according to the woman, be illegal. Never mind the reports of people on the web and in LP who have received visas. They are strict – it’s not possible. However, says the woman, as my passport is in order and I don’t have any stamps for the “Occupied Territories” aka Israel, then I “probably” will be able to get a stamp at the border. Why can’t I apply for one here then? No. Not possible.

So, border. I take a cab to the Shared Taxi place, where one can take a taxi to Damascus. It’s almost the same price as the bus, they run all day, and you have a driver who walks you through the whole process, which proves invaluable. So it’s 10JD to Damascus (the other two get charged 12.5JD). The car is a nice Mercedes.

I pay with a mix of JD and US$ as I’m almost out, and I need to keep 5JD for the land departure tax for Jordan. My co-passengers are two other Brits who we pick up at their hotel, Palace (!), the one I was looking for yesterday. Our driver’s name is Raid, but he doesn’t speak English. He seem to be positive about us getting visas though, otherwise these taxis will refuse to carry you.

Driving the hour or so to the border, we pass under terrible weather, which in fact continues all the way. At the border, first w clear Jordanian emigration, which is just a formality of course. The chap stamping me out seems intent on making sure no other country uses the page Jordan have used in my passport, as he stamps all over the place to fill it – the same stamp in several places, allegedly because the first stamp was illegible. Why does it matter, I’m leaving?!

Next up, the Syrian Border. I’m feeling a little apprehensive, but the worst case really is that they refuse entry and I have to go back to Jordan. Well, the worst case is that they arrest me and imprison me in a secret gaol with no access to legal representation, but let’s take the first one as the most likely. Inside the building, we are sent over to the queue for diplomats, which is doubling up as the foreigner queue today. The other two, Rob and his mother Annette go first, playing on Annette having a visa already as their trump card. No sooner have they handed over their documents than he beckons me forwards too, wanting to deal with us all at the same time.

No smiles here. To me he asks me if I have a visa (having thumbed through my passport – he knows that I don’t have one). No I don’t. Why don’t I have visa, he barks? Because you wouldn’t issue me with one at your embassy because of your ridiculous and ill-thought-out policy, you blundering idiots, I of course don’t reply. Then he asks me why do I want to go to Syria? As a tourist, to spend money in your damn country. We’re all told to sit down at the side. This could take a while.

Whilst we wait, we study the large price board over the windows. It doesn’t make sense, or rather contradicts their policy – there are prices for many countries, including all countries they wouldn’t issue to normally, like UK, France etc. There are huge differences between countries too – some are inexplicably free, like North Korea – that really is an Axis of Evil – North Korea and Syria making deals! Others are hugely expensive - 250US$ for DR Congo! I’m called back (alone) for more questions - what is my job, who do I work for? He clearly isn’t applying much thought though, or he might ask why I’ve been travelling for at least 6 months (according to my current passport) if I have a job. I’m told to sit down again.

After some time more, Rob and I are called over. We’re told we need to pay 52US$ (the British visa rate), and sent off to pay the money. This is progress! The taxi guy takes us round to another building where there is a bank which changes the 52 into Syrian pounds, which we then take to another building, a tiny crowded office where we exchange the money for small postage stamps. We’re told we have to hand over a dollar “baksheesh”. You can see what a nightmare this would be if you were on the bus trying to work it out yourself – one of the main advantages of Service Taxis is not just that they’re fast, it’s that the taxi driver, impatient to get on, holds your hand through the whole process, and even moaned at our official, asking him to hurry up, something we sure as hell would not have attempted!!

So the guy then takes our stamps and sticks them into our passport, overlapping each other, then stamps and scribbles on top. We’re in. Before handing over the passport, he explains in no uncertain terms that next time they will not issue a visa to me at the border. I don’t know whether they’re sophisticated enough to enforce this, but I’m not prepared to take the risk. Syria, sort out this process if you want more tourists to come to your country! Plus, was it really necessary for the guy to be quite so gruff and unfriendly?

Welcome to Syria!

Anyway, we’re done! Hello Syria, an official “rogue state” as defined by George Bush, and, I believe, my second Axis of Evil country to visit after Burma! Back in the car, we clear one more checkpoint, then we head in the pouring rain on to Damascus. The road to Damascus! These days Saul would probably be turned away at the border by some pompous official, and go off to become a Buddhist instead.

Immediately one notices that it seems greener on this side of the border – they’re both receiving lots of rain but I suppose the earth is more fertile on this side. The driver tries to drop us at an out-of-town taxi office, presumably with his mates, but we refuse, and insist he takes us closer. He still won’t go all the way though, saying that he’s not allowed and the Syrian police will make trouble for him as soon as they see the Jordanian plates. So we end up paying 150 SP for a yellow local taxi to our choice of hotel, Al Famia, just round the corner from the Hejaz Station.

Hejaz Station

We have to get him to stop at an ATM along the way, and he doesn’t know where the hotel is, so we end up directing him using our LP map. The one-way streets don’t help, and we end up getting a fair tour of central Damascus!

The ATM spat out 1,000 notes, which the taxi driver couldn’t change, so Rob ended up asking the hotel for change, then in the fuss of sorting out rooms, forgot about the poor driver who was waiting outside for us! Still, it was a good price for him – LP (2006) says rides in the centre shouldn’t cost more than 25SP. The rooms, in this mid-range hotel, are nice but the price is 35US$ for double and 30$ for single, not much of a concession for me. Still, I’ll only be staying a night or two, so I take it. It’s all very clean, proper hot water from the showers and big fluffy luxurious towels!

We head out as a group to a place on the corner for food, it’s a fast food place with a few tables.

I have a chicken schwarma, which is good, and a small plate of chips. I use the bank, and take the 1,000s into the branch to change into something more useful. Interestingly, the girl even has to ask customers for change to give me small notes – are they that difficult to come by?! In general, I like the vibe here much more than Amman. People are more friendly, girls are dressed in normal clothes, not so many wearing headgear. Syria has a population of 20 million, 5 million of whom live in Damascus (Ash-sham as the locals call it), but it doesn’t feel big though, with a small (if congested) centre, and not far from here, the Old City, the focus of interest for tourists.

The “river”

It is supposed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world - close to the Ghouta Oasis and on the Silk Road, the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Mongols, Turks and French have all stamped their mark on the city in one way or another.

UN “Empire” is starting its conquest modestly for once

It is said that when the Prophet Mohammed looked down from the mountainside on to Damascus, he refused to visit the city because he only wanted to enter paradise once, and that was when he died. As LP point out, that was before the city was blessed with Bakdash ice-cream! In the afternoon, I trawl the bookshops looking for LP Middle East, which I’ve decided would be really handy, for here and Turkey (and oh if I’d just had it in Amman..!). People are all helpful but as the say in Avicenne, which has last weekend’s Sunday Times for 4 UKP, there are no copies of this book in the whole country – only the Syria and Lebanon book, which (a) is old – 2004, and (b) would only be useful for the next couple of days.

The key differentiator between Damascus and Amman is that here there is a walk-able centre. I hate cities where you can’t walk places, and Amman is one. Plus the girls are prettier here! I don’t know where they get those undeniably attractive Jordanian women from that compete in Miss World – maybe they import them from here. It’s still not Ethiopia, but I’m definitely happier here! It feels, and this is just first impressions, that they’re just less fundamentalist, more genuine here. In Jordan most of the men are wearing robes and the towel-head gear, here most people wear jeans and a jacket. It’s freezing cold, and with the “soviet-style” architecture that graces much of the city outside of the old town, plus the *freeeeezing* temperatures, I feel like we’re in Eastern Europe. This could be a suburb of Prague or Budapest. There are snow-capped hills in the distance.

Uncle Bashar is Watching You

Everywhere there are images of President Bashar with his somewhat scraggly moustache, staring meaningfully with a backdrop of Syrian colours. He took over from his father in 2001 (?), and has generally been making positive steps, but they’ve had trouble in Lebanon, and ended up withdrawing their army - relations are not good there, plus of course there are suggestions about fuelling the problems in Iraq (89% of Syrians are Muslim, mostly Sunni like Iran – hence the close ties between these two countries, most of the rest are Christian), plus of course there’s the usual sillyness with Israel. Syria also supports Hezbollah, and in fact only yesterday one of the most senior Hezbollah chaps, accused of masterminding all sorts of atrocities and being an inspiration to Bin Laden, was killed in a car-bomb in the suburbs *here in Damascus**!! Today also Bush announced tightening of sanctions against Syria. All good fun in the Middle East.

Why are we not staying in the Four Seasons

Amazingly I find free internet broadcasting out from the Cham Hotel – reasonable signal in the other cafes in the area, and great in their in-house “French Brasserie” style cafĂ©. In the evening, Rob and I head out for a quick beer at a pub I’d passed under the Cham, which turned out to be decked out for Valentine’s Day and empty. We sat at the bar and had a Tuborg each for 3 UKP a pop. The draft beer was off, they’d hung a large fluffy heart round the taps. We picked up a shwarma takeaway on way back, and stopped off at a bottle shop, for a few cans of beer at 50p per can. More reasonable.

Random comment – they’ve just shown the music video “I want more Part 2” by Faithless – which clearly uses lots of stock footage of the Mass Games in North Korea. Fascinating! I must go to see this event one day!

Human Rights in Syria
The Baathist government here bans all opposition, but prides itself on maintaining stability – the car bomb was an unusual event. There are Palestinian flags everywhere, presumably as a gesture of support, and if there’s any evidence that you’ve been to Israel, you will be denied entry to Syria. They block plenty of websites, including Blogger and Facebook. So, what does Human Rights Watch have to say about Syria?

Syria’s poor human rights situation deteriorated further in 2007, as the government imposed harsh sentences on a number of political and human rights activists. Emergency rule, imposed in 1963, remains in effect. President Bashar al-Assad was endorsed for a second term in May 2007 with 97 percent of the vote and parliamentary elections held in April 2007 delivered no reforms.

The Supreme State Security Court, an exceptional court with almost no procedural guarantees, sentenced over 100 people, mostly Islamists, to long prison terms. Syrian Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic minority, continue to protest their treatment as second-class citizens. Iraqi refugees arrived in Syria at the rate of about 2,000 per day until October 2007, when Syria introduced strict entry and visa controls directed at stopping the refugee flow.

Basically if you live here, you don’t want to get involved in Human Rights or be a Kurd. As with most Sunni Muslim countries, women are fairly well treated if not equal, but shockingly, the penal code does allow a judge to suspend punishment for a rapist if he chooses to marry his victim, and provides leniency for “honour” crimes, which there is evidence is used.

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