I walked across the stretch of land that divided Turkey and Syria — a line drawn after World War 1 and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This artificially constructed border, determined by the war’s winners, turned the people living in the town of Nusaybin into Turks, and their neighbours living in the near identical town of Qamishle into Syrians.
The year was 2007 and the country was gearing up for the inevitable re-election of Bashar Al-Assad — president for the past seven years.
The border was chaotic, with cars struggling to pass the crowds of people on foot, pushing wheelbarrows or carrying loads on their shoulders or heads. As I waited an eternity to get my stamps, I was ushered into an office and given a seat. The customs officer gave me tea while he reclined at his desk and chatted to me. He was clearly in no hurry to get things done.
When he finally got around to looking at my passport, he directed me to another building for the police to approve the visa I had already received in the embassy in Istanbul. The policeman behind the counter glared first at my passport and then at me. He stood up from his seat slowly, reaching for the pistol in the holster on his belt.
He pulled the gun out with both hands and pointed it at my head.
I was shaking on the other side of the desk, suddenly remembering that I’d just entered the Middle East and the dozens of warnings the Turks had given me: “Why are you going to Syria?”
He spoke slowly, still scowling. “Welcome. To. Syria,” he said slowly, and his face cracked into a smile. At once he started cackling uproariously and his two colleagues behind the desk joined him, exploding with chortles of laughter.
I sighed with relief as he stamped my passport and sent me on my way, still chuckling behind me.
It was funny because Syria was, in fact, one of the safest countries for women to travel, a haven of peace in the Middle East.
At my very first pre-election rally for Bashar al-Assad, a crowd chanted in unison:
You bring us peace
You bring us love
From our heart
From our blood
From our souls
We say, ‘One leader. BASHAR!’
You and us and Allah together!
A tourist beside me groaned, “This reminds me of a Communist parade.” Thomas was from East Germany and could still remember pro-Soviet propaganda. He remembered marching and wearing a uniform and carrying banners and chanting slogans of national pride.
There was a rumour that Bashar himself would make an appearance at this rally, held in a tent in the central plaza of Aleppo, filled with boys in traditional dress, waving flags and banners and all bearing the same image of a benevolent Bashar. It was the policemen who promised to deliver Bashar as we spent the afternoon sipping tea with them — but he never turned up.
The police also explained to us how Bashar had inherited the presidency from his father Hafez al Assad after twenty-five years of rule. Hafez was most remembered for his ruthless crushing of an uprising in the 1980s. But in seven years of Bashar’s presidency, there hadn’t been a single uprising.
Bashar once had an older brother named Basil who was being groomed to take over the presidency from al-Assad Senior, while Bashar was away in London studying orthodontics. But Basil had a thing for fast cars and died in a head-on collision with a tree whilst speeding, instantly earning the dubious title of Glorious Martyr.
Bashar, the would-be orthodontist, was recalled from London and trained up to be future president. When Hafez died in 2000, the constitution was changed literally overnight to lower the minimum age for a presidential candidate to thirty-four. It was very handy that this just so happened to be Bashar’s exact age at the time.
There was only one candidate in that election of course, and in the coming elections — the first in seven years — there was still only one candidate. The ballot paper read:
Do you elect Bashar al-Assad as your President?
On top of the paper, you wrote all your personal details including your name, address, and phone number, so they knew exactly where to find you if you voted no. I was told that doctors waited on standby in the polling booths for the die-hard Bashar fans who wanted to cut their thumbs and vote for this single candidate with their own blood.
For such a small country, Syria had many diverse groups: Kurds, Christian Orthodox, and Sunni, Ismaili, Alawite, Shiite and Druze Muslims, and Bedouin Arabs.
When I look back at the notes I wrote during my time in Syria, they were full of comments like Bashar seems popular, he is young and liberal, he has created a united and strong Syrian identity. Yes, I really wrote that because all I knew was what I saw, and all I saw was Bashar’s face.
On all sides, towering billboards screamed I BELIEVE IN SYRIA and SYRIA BELIEVES IN YOU. Bashar stared down from millions of posters across the city. His image appeared, ten storeys high, on the sides of buildings, flapping in the breeze, alongside other posters proclaiming the people’s love: WE ARE WITH YOU! In fact, if you looked just in front of you in any given sport without turning your head, you would probably see about a hundred Bashars.
It didn’t stop at Bashar either. You had your Hafizes and your Basils too — sometimes you got the three together like a holy Trinity: Hafez the Father, Bashar the Son, Basil the Holy Spirit.
Buying dried fruit in a local store, I was surprised that the young man serving me spoke not only in perfect English but with a Canadian accent. He was born and raised in Canada, but his father was Syrian and he’d moved to Aleppo to take over the family shop.
“There’s a reason why you never hear anyone say a bad word against Bashar and it’s not love, it’s fear,” he explained. “The secret police are everywhere and if they take you, you rot in a Syrian jail in the desert for the rest of your goddam life. Obviously, if you have something to say, you keep it to yourself.”
I told him about all the Syrians I had met who said simply, “We don’t like to discuss politics” in response to my questions and went back to dancing.
The Syrian-Canadian said, “Of course they dance on the streets for the elections, of course they sing! They’re so desperate and their lives are miserable, they are just look for a reason to dance. They would dance for anything at all! Look at this country! Do you have any idea how hard these people work? The boys in this shop work twelve hours every day, harder than Canadians, but there’s no money. Why is it so poor? This country has resources, it has oil, but the government takes everything, and the people have nothing.”
And I felt I should apologise for dancing, but I kept on doing it anyway.
In Damascus, Bashar celebrations had reached fever pitch and dancing broke out spontaneously in the streets beside polling booths. Tents were set up across the city, in parks and courtyards, and inside, hundreds of people came together each night to hold hands and dance in a circle, wave banners, drink tea, and generally celebrate the gloriousness of Bashar Al-Assad. Live music played, a man sang, and every song praised Bashar to the literal high heavens.
Truckloads of young men hooned around the city, hanging onto the back with one hand and waving the Syrian flag in the other. Best of Bashar Volume 1 (presumably) blared from the ancient speakers as the truck pulled up outside the tents and the men poured in and amongst the dancing people with cheers and hoots.
I was at a music tent with Jeremy, an American, and we were chock-full of Syrian beer. We had just come from the Christian quarter, which was the area to look for a half-decent bar. We were drinking and playing backgammon and having the sort of conversation you heard a lot among groups of foreigners in the Middle East. We asked each other whether democracy was necessarily superior to dictatorship in all regions of the world when you compared the bloody past of war-torn Lebanon with the apparent stability of Bashar’s Syria.
History would prove how little we knew about anything. We were tourists, who felt a million miles from political tension because it didn’t affect us, telling ourselves that Bashar had to rule with an iron fist to stop all the different groups from killing each other. They told us they loved Bashar and we didn’t understand that they had no choice. Meanwhile, we were just having a good time.
So we filled ourselves with beer and entered one of the larger tents. Inside, a circle of men in Syrian costume, silk pantaloons and vests, were moving in a circle and at the centre, a girl danced alone, jumping into the air. She was dressed in a blue pantaloon suit and was waving a handkerchief round and around with one hand raised over her head. The men dropped to their knees around her and shimmied with their shoulders, bending their bodies backwards to the floor. Everybody got up to dance and they dragged Jeremy and me up with them, taking our hands and pulling us into the circle, showing us which way to step and when to kick our feet forwards.
But when we rushed back the next night, the same men were dancing but they were no longer in Syrian garb — instead it was Dolce and Gabbana t-shirts tucked into belted jeans, wax poured over their combed hair. Something else had changed. The mood was hostile. They didn’t want us to dance with them that night. They let go of our hands and linked together against us, pushing us right out of the circle. We were outsiders again.
We went back sadly to the hostel, waking up the receptionist who worked all day and night and slept on a mat on the floor beside the door so he could unlock the door and let in guests coming home late.
It was in this hostel that I met a Slovakian, and that’s a rare treat for a start. But this particular Slovakian was an even stranger bird: he was wearing sandals and tight green shorts that stretched down to his knees and were pulled high up his chest by a pair of suspenders. His shirt was bright yellow, and his hair was cut in a page-boy bob. His front teeth protruded, and his mouth hung open in a look of perpetual surprise. This was not a costume, as was my initial thought — this was the way he dressed.
Night after night he went busking in the old town of Damascus, inside the medieval walls encircling a maze of cobbled alleys and narrow houses, running through the souks where the sunlight streamed in through slits in the latch roof, all the way down to the great Ummayad mosque. The Slovakian found a spot under an archway outside a cafe where the storyteller was entertaining the people sitting at the tables with their coffees and shisha pipes. He attached a string of bells to his right ankle and, taking out his flute, he started playing an Irish jig. He tapped his right foot all the while to make the bells ring.
People paused, amazed. They’d never seen anything like it. Some took out their mobile phones to record him and it made him stop.
“No pictures! No video!” he said earnestly. “You need copyright.”
I danced a jig and passed his hat around. Coins clattered into it. The Syrians were concerned: they couldn’t understand why we Westerners had come to beg on the streets of Damascus. We must have been truly desperate.
“What’s the matter?” they asked. “Don’t you have money to go back to your countries? Do you have money to pay for a hotel? Have you eaten?”
Then, the offers started pouring in. “You know, my family lives a little far from here but if you need somewhere to stay –”
But I found somewhere to stay — escaping the city heat and dust and Bashar madness for the tranquillity of a Jesuit monastery high in the hills outside of Damascus. It was inside an old Byzantine building that the founding father restored to house his order. He was Italian but had arrived in Syria twenty-odd years ago in search of a link between Christianity and Islam.
The small church was covered from floor to ceiling in peeling painted Medieval frescoes, lit by candles. Mass was held sitting on the floor in cushions in the semi-darkness. It was a Catholic service, but as the priest held up the chalice with the Blood of Jesus, the monks bowed and touched their heads to the floor in the manner of Muslim prayer.
I was staying in a cave-like room furnished with a mattress, tucked up a winding staircase above the church, in exchange for assistance with preparing meals and washing up with the monks. That was how I came to be sitting at the low table on the terrace looking out over the unblemished countryside, peeling potatoes for lunch with a bunch of Syrian monks. A long staircase with hundreds of steps led the way from the foot of the hills up to the monastery.
“You take drugs?” one of the monks asked me suddenly. He was chubby and unshaven, and his expansive stomach wobbled up and down when he laughed, which was often. He was laughing now and so was the other monk, slightly older and equally unshaven.
“What?” I said, thinking I must have misheard him.
“Drugs!” the other monk said and made a sniffing action, placing a finger on the side of his nose. “Me, I like to sniff drugs!” he declared, sniffing away as if to prove it.
“We sniff lots of drugs!” the first one agreed.
“And women!” the second one said. “We like women!”
The first monk slapped the second across the arm. “Bad monk! Bad monk!” he scolded and turned to me, “He like the women too much!”
“Um, isn’t that against the rules?” I asked.
The second monk smiled. “Not yet! I’m still training, I am a novice. I still can have women!”
And they both laughed and laughed as the potatoes sat patiently, waiting to be peeled.
Bashar won the vote by 97.9 percent. Four years into his next term, civil war broke out. I found out later that the Italian priest disappeared in the early stages of the war. To this day, he hasn’t been found.