Journal - Napló

Syria and back/ beyond. Part 1

Posted on November 19, 2009 at 8:50 PM


On the road again! It had been too long since we'd had ourselves a trip beyond Beirut. For

Peter it was the start of another leg, a long one. For me it would only be a round trip to

Syria and back. But the feeling of hitting the road was there in me too. We had decided to

hitch over the mountains to Baalbak and go south and then east from there, instead of taking

the highway via Beirut. The mountains we would have to cross peaked at 2800m.a.s.l. and it

was getting cold and dark even before we had made it to a thousand. We had started way too late and were worried that we might be in for a cold night.

We weren't. We got picked up by a truck driver who after taking us all the way across the

mountains invited us to stay over at his place for the night. Seeing that it was dark, wet

and cold outside it was really no question whether we would accept his generous offer. We

arrived at his home and were greeted by a large family. Most of the people there belonged to

the extended family and were about to leave, but six people remained. It was his wife, two

grown daughters, two young kids and a grandson. Entering the hallway we noticed a familiar

face hanging on the wall. Hassan Nasrallah the leader of Hezbollah was on the wall in every

room of the house.


We were invited into the kitchen where the oven was making it nice and cozy. We talked as

much as we could with the words we shared about this and that. After a while one of the

daughters gets out a picture of Nasrallah and asks if we know who it is. We nodded and said

that we know he is the leader of Hezbollah. She put it away and turned back to us. She

looked at us with an immense amount of pride in her eyes and said: I am Hezbollah!


After dinner we played Ludo without dice. They used some shells and had a system for

deciding what the number was depending on which ones turned which side up. There were many exceptions to the system so it took a long time before we could decipher it, but in the

process we had a great time playing Ludo at a quarter of the pace of our opponents.


After saying goodbye to the Hezbollah family we had an easy hitch to the border. Walking out

of Lebanon we saw this sign telling us that we should keep the gardens clean, I couldn't

stop laughing.

It took us only fifteen minutes to get into Syria. That it took us just as long to check out of Lebanon made us praise ourselves lucky that we had taken care of our papers before we went to the border. Waiting for our first ride from the border we saw another picture we thought was funny.

We had an easy hitch to Damascus, stepped out of the car, looked up and ruled out the option of sleeping outdoors that night. Precipitation was as they say, to be expected.

We had arranged to stay with a couchsurfer just outside Damascus, but he was still in Jordan and wouldn't be around for another thirty six hours. We decided to go for a hotel. It was the

first night in a hotel on the trip. The narrow streets in the charming old town of Damascus

should be enough to excite any newcomer to the city, but the rain was keeping a tight lid on

the mood in combination with a certain something else. The knowledge that the goodbye was

drawing ever closer was one that we were both carrying in silence. It didn’t feel good.


We spent the night at the hotel and the next day we had base camp at a wi-fi place. We had

some trouble finding the designated gas station at Baghdad Street where we were supposed to meet up with Alaa, our host, but in the end we managed. He had some problems with his car, so we were going to take servis. Servis, for those that wondered, are ordinary cars or

minibuses that more often than not, drive only if they are completely packed. If we could

all carpool like they do in Damascus, there would be one seventh the amount of cars on the

road. We loaded our backpacks into the servis and started climbing in. Once there, we were

called back out. As it turned out, we needed some sort of permission for going in the bus.

Law abiding as Peter is, he took our passports and got the papers while I sat watching the

bags, half laughing, half shaking my head in disbelief. Once the servis was fully loaded,

everyone in the car had to register themselves on a form. I asked why, but nobody seemed to

know. It didn't seem like they thought it was strange either. I found that disturbing.


Forty kilometers later we arrived in Qutaife. We walked to Alaa's house and he introduced us

to his wife and kid. It was a lovely family. She had prepared food for us all and so it

didn't take long until we were all gathered cross legged or otherwise around the "table"

cloth on the floor.


We stayed with Alaa three nights. Day one we spent back in Damascus. Alaa's "Sham" was back from the mechanic, so we could drive into town with style. Sham is basically a Peugeot, but everything around the engine and other "difficult to make parts" is of Iranian design.

According to Alaa, the "original" Iranian version of the Syrian Sham came into being as a

result of an Iranian 300% import tax on European cars. I liked the car very much. It was

fitted as most other cars here with the required minimum two pack's of tissues on the

dashboard. It did however lack a different mark that many Syrian cars carry, namely the

sticker of Assad's profile in the middle of the windshield under the rear view mirror. As I

have been told, he doesn't really have much popular support, but the secret police is so

strong there that nobody even seems to consider the possibility of a Syria without that

family on top. It is in fact Assad's Syria. So although the sticker isn't always put there

on account of conviction, it is rather for the sake of convenience. There's nothing like a

picture of the boss on the windshield to help speed up official matters.


We spent the day walking around. I had managed to loose my phone somewhere the day before,so item one on the agenda was finding an internet café to call my parents on Skype to make sure they had got my messages and blocked my phone. We spent some time in the university district and found some guys to hang out with. They asked me if people smoke marijuana in Norway. I told them people smoke marijuana everywhere. They could testify to that.


Later that day we had dinner at Alaa's mother's place. After we finished eating, Alaa told

us that he had been at Assad's palace that day, fixing his autocue. His brother too, as it

turned out, was not a stranger to seeing Assad in person. He was serving his time in the

army as a teacher. Five generals at a time, he would teach elementary AutoCAD. His general

would have a presentation for Assad every month and this guy would be clicking through the

power point. Days and days after he told me about the generals I kept picturing his class,

wishing I could be there to see him teaching old generals AutoCAD. As he was telling me,

often he would have to teach them how to use the mouse first.


The next day Alaa suggested we go check out Maaloula. It is one of the only two towns in the

world where they still speak Aramaic. The language Jesus spoke. The legend of the town is

that Takla, St. Takla now, was fleeing from Roman soldiers. To help her escape from them,

God split a mountain in half, let her escape and then let water run through the valley to

block the soldiers in their pursuit. The houses are built far up into the sides of the

hills. They are old, the streets between them are narrow and winding, the view is amazing

almost regardless of where you are and I had huge blisters. In short, I was kind of in a bad

mood. It's a shame what one discomfort can do to steal attention from something amazing.


We had a funny encounter with an old guy chopping wood. We were walking under him sort of

speak, he was on the hill above us which turned into a cliff ending up where we were

standing, while walking I saw him and waved. He looked very happy for the gesture and waved

back with a really rather childish way of waving his hand. Peter thought it a Kodak moment,

got out his camera and took a picture. When the old guy saw this he became frantic. He

started shouting and picked up a log which he threatened to throw at Peter. We walked on

some meters and as we are walking out of sight of each other I waved again so as to say

goodbye and sorry that we took a picture. Once again he waved back his silly wave and smiled

from ear to ear. I guess he liked me better.


We hitch hiked back to Qutaife without any problems. The last stretch into town we rode

three up on a little 125cc motorcycle. The guy had been hunting and had his rifle in pieces

in the one saddlebag, the game in the other and us on the back. After a nap in the park and

some limping around town with my blistered foot, we went to Alaa's mothers place for a

serious treat – kibbeh. It is meat and onions and nuts plus some more packed into some kind

dough. It takes forever to make so the mother had asked a friend to come help her make it. I

can honestly say that kibbeh is one of my favorites now.

Sitting around after dinner talking, Alaa told me about his work and his travels in it. He is working for a company that sells complete solutions for the broadcasting industry. Once he was telling me, he was going to London together with some colleagues and he had spent 16 hours at Heathrow to pass through security. Not surprisingly, all of his colleagues from the Middle East had also been "randomly" picked for thorough searches. Mohammed Muhammad didn’t get in.

Categories: English, Syria, by Kenneth

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