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Taken for spy in Assad’s Syria


To Damascus, Syria. March 2010

‘What is this? Why you come without visa, huh? Go over there and pay. Then you come back to me, OK? Yala, yala!’ Welcome to Syria, the hard way. After a hot, cramped bus ride from Beirut, Lebanon, I had arrived unprepared, unaware and totally uncertain as to what would happen here at this dusty roadside border. In fact, I should have acquired the visa in the UK, but circumstances at the time rendered that impossible. So I chanced it, and after stuffing some backsheesh in my passport, I was soon on the tree-lined road to Damascus.

Damascus welcome signThe explosive spark which triggered a wave of revolutionary protests that swept through the Arab world from 2010 onwards was just months away from igniting. Tunisia would fall first, followed quickly by Egypt, Libya and then Yemen. The ‘Spring’ reached Syria by early 2011 and for the next two years a complicated and protracted civil war raged; without doubt the bloodiest of all the Arab uprisings. And with so many of Syria’s friends and foes willing to get their hands dirty, it became here that the geo-political remapping of the Middle East would take centre stage. Of course nobody here could have foreseen what would come next. I might have been driving along the fabled road to Damascus (ironically and idiom for sudden change), but I was almost certainly one of the last travellers to do so before the war.

The next day, a woman’s cough woke me from a light sleep in a dorm room at Mr Al Rabie’s Guesthouse in the old town of arguably the world’s oldest city, Damascus. Survived by generation after generation, this truly ancient city has been around for more than 4000 years – even my hostel and the pretty glass-roofed courtyard it was built around were over 600 years old. An equally ancient looking man, perhaps as old as the building, sits in the courtyard glued to a shisha, smoking his aromatic breakfast whilst intermittently babbling nonsensical remarks in Arabic, at times shouting crazily into the air like some village-drunkard. The scent of his shisha smoke wafting up towards my courtyard-facing balcony was the spur that got me up, showered and ready to explore.

Downtown Damascus, Syrian street-sceneSeveral hours of aimless wandering along cobbled alleyways snaked me past enticing bakeries, ubiquitous rug shops and pimped-up sweet shops with their brightly coloured candy-pyramids. I stopped for a coke in a deserted, sleepy little restaurant perched on a hill overlooking the souk. Inside, the black and white marble floor juxtaposed with the colourful, church-like stained-glass windows and rustic lamp shades ringed with sparkling orange and purple beads. The owner, a happy old man with a well-kept designer white beard, sprung into life, promptly fetching my coke, a straw and a napkin. As I sat and drank, he retreated back to his shisha, all the while keeping a watchful eye over me, perhaps in the off chance that I might order some food – then the whole kitchen might come alive too!

Whilst enjoying the view from this hilltop vantage, I had an idea. It dawned on me to find a tall building (no easy task in Damascus) and take some kind of sweeping panoramic photo of the entire city’s dusty, crumbling architecture. That was the plan anyway.

I first reckoned the building to be an apartment or office block, but in the foyer whilst waiting 10 minutes for a lift that never came, I began to notice some army personnel mixed in with the civilians. Anyway, I walked up some stairs, found a great view and snapped away. Job done, I had descended only one floor before literally bumping into a grossly overweight sergeant with chubby fingers and a cigarette stained mustache who spoke aggressively in Arabic. He clutched my arm tightly and led me into a corner office where I was sat down and motioned to stay. ‘I just want to go down’, I remember mumbling futilely in front of the sergeant and three cadet-like soldiers. It soon became clear nobody spoke any English, so I was transferred to another room and a more senior officer, who it transpired, also understood little English.

Downtown Damascus, Syrian street-scene

The view from the top of Defense Ministry

As the passport and camera were being liberated from my pockets, it dawned on me that I was almost certainly not in an apartment block as I so carelessly assumed back in the foyer! Oh how I wished I was back there now. I had, quite incredibly, strayed past security, through the lobby and up the stairs of the Syrian Defense Ministry: the equivalent of strolling through the glass doors of London’s MI6, wearing flip flops, shorts and t-shirt, toting a camera around your neck.

Coffee and cigarettes were offered while privately I wondered how this might turn out. Two junior soldiers (who could apparently understand some English) were ushered in. I explained what I was doing – they translated to the officer and then were ushered out just as quickly. By now there were two officers fumbling over how to deal with me, the second of which was more friendly, smiled occasionally, even reminded me of the Arabic word for ‘yes’ – naam. Phone calls were made. I was moved to yet another room. By now I was somewhere around the 10th floor with military personnel buzzing around everywhere, but I saw few guns. It was civilized, no threats, no panic. Another hour passed before I was moved back to the previous high-ceilinged room which, ironically, had even better views of Damascus than I previously photographed (although that was the least of my concerns now).

Finally I was sat perpendicular to the desk of a plain-clothed, chain smoking interrogator who never introduced himself although, to my great relief, spoke fluent Queen’s English. He began, ‘Mr Andrew, what do you do?’

‘I’m a teacher in Bangkok, Thailand’

‘Where do you stay here in Damascus?’

‘Mr Al Rabie’s Guesthouse’, my answer was met with a raised eyebrow and dismissive tone. He wasn’t buying any of this.

‘Why are you here in Syria? Work?’

‘No, I’m a tourist’

Then, quickly he pounced, ‘But it is not school holiday season now! If you are a teacher how can you have time off to travel like this?’ Wow, I thought – this guy was on the ball. Sure enough, the Easter holidays were just a few weeks away, that is, for those countries who celebrated it.

‘As I explained earlier, sir, I am a teacher in Thailand, not the UK. And right now it is a holiday in Thailand.’

He bought it. But not before painstakingly examining every single photo on my digital camera, one by one on his aging monitor. Fortunately for me, there was recent photographic evidence of me teaching students already on the memory card (a good tip for any would-be spies masquerading as tourists, your cover-story will be more plausible with the right back-up photos).

Then suddenly his stiflingly serious mood, and that of everybody else in the room, lifted. He even smiled at some of my photos from earlier in the day, including those taken from above his very office. I began to sense that I would be a free man again soon. I even thought about asking them to be in a group photo. A kind of weird souvenir from this most bizarre encounter, but then I suspected it might arouse more suspicion. That idea was quickly dropped. Then came the apologies. His, not mine.

‘You have exposed a serious weakness in security at the lobby. This will be addressed immediately.’ I assumed that was code for, lobby security personnel have been taken round the back and shot.

Now gripping my hand with both of his and shaking firmly he continued, ‘I must thank you for letting us know this problem and to make sure it does not happen again. And please accept my heartfelt apologies for causing you this trouble. And I sincerely hope you will enjoy the rest of your time in our country.’

Passport and camera returned intact and edging towards my military escort, who were waiting in the wings to take me downstairs, one final parting comment:

‘Please’, he gushed, ‘Welcome to Syria’.

Down the stairs we went, past the lobby and through the doors, this time with a high-profile set of armed guards on either door. I said a rather nonchalant cheerio and just like that, I was back out on the same sunny street I was walking along five hours earlier as if nothing had ever happened. The whole affair seemed like a surreal comedy and I its hapless victim.

Safe with an airport beer

Spooked by my brief detention by the friendly Syrians, I made my way back to Mr Al Rabie’s, convinced I was being followed. I took a shower, washed off all the sweat and laid low for a few hours planning my getaway. Within another 12 hours I was at Damascus International Airport sinking overpriced European beer in the departure lounge. Next stop, Cairo.

With the Arab Spring entering its third year for Syria, the situation remains bleak. The Assad government’s days are numbered. The country is fractured. War crimes have been committed. Killings and revenge killings seem likely in the future. Meanwhile the usual foreign players are scrambling to inject their own influence in the newly shaping Syria and the region as a whole.

But what of the crazy old man at Mr Al Rabie’s? And the guesthouse itself? Obviously its stream of backpackers died when the revolution began, but hopefully this little hostelling legend will live on in the new Syria. And what of my gracious interrogator and his officers? I often wonder how they fared in the coming war. I’m sure they, more than the others I met in Damascus became very busy with the revolution. How involved they became, I’ll never know.

As the curtain came down on my trip, nobody could have known the impending doom looming over Syria as I drank those airport beers. Looking back, I like to think what I witnessed was a snapshot of the old Syria in those unsuspecting moments before the storm. Tree branches on the Damascan boulevards seesawed in the wind. Everything was fine, everyone I met seemed at peace. The next few years will be tumultuous, as with any revolution, but with a bit of luck, future travellers will return and enjoy this most welcoming and ancient of cities – just so long as they avoid the urge to take photographs from any tall buildings.

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