I wanted to experience Turkey — the land of whirling dervishes, red fezzes and hot baths. A Muslim state, but with a secular government. An Asian country, but with a hint of Europe. Potential tourism board slogan? Turkey: Exotic, but not scary.
But Syria? My arm was twisted. Traveling alone can be fun, but 17 days of solitude is just too much. I needed a partner for my Anatolian trip. My first search for fellow travelers netted no one. Costs and prior commitments nixed the idea for most.
So, I turned to my friend from college and intrepid traveler, Miguel, who moved to Australia after graduation, returned to the States briefly, and eventually landed in Malaysia. Miguel was up for the trip —sort of. He had recently visited Turkey, he said, and was not ready for a redux. But, if I wanted to venture farther south and meet him in Damascus, we had a deal.
After a pleasant week in Turkey, I boarded an international bus for the Syrian city of Aleppo. Getting out of Turkey proved no problem. It was only upon entering the Syrian crossing station that I had my first inkling of the ordeal that lay ahead.
The station had three lines: one for “Syrians,” one for “Other Arabs” and a third for “Foreigners.” I was not crazy about the delineations, but I was at least confident that I knew where I belonged.
And I was wrong. Just as I settled into the third line, the bus driver grabbed my arm and directed me through a doorway and down a hall. It was, as I was hustled off to the clandestine “fourth” line, that I started to feel uneasy. It was the line before the line, reserved for Americans.
We arrived at a small room with a large desk. Seated at the desk was a Syrian soldier dressed in an all-brown uniform and a red beret. Just inside the door were two chairs backed against a wall. I slunk into one of them. The soldier looked up, and with an index finger silently directed me around the desk where I saw a single bed, with no sheets and a seedy mattress. I sat there wondering why I couldn’t use the chair.
My imagination became very active, very quickly: I envisioned myself handcuffed to the small steel-framed headboard and footboard while guards practiced interrogation techniques borrowed from “24.”
I waited on the bed. The soldier ignored me, concentrating instead on his pita and hummus. His nonchalance was unsettling. He ate the entire pita before looking at me again. I did not enjoy knowing that I was less important to him than lunch.
Eventually, he was joined by a fellow soldier, and together they commenced questioning me in fractured English.
“Why are you here?” The original soldier opened an oversize ledger book and held a pen, poised for an answer.
“Pleasure,” I said, hoping my interest in their country would break the ice. It only seemed to make them more suspicious.
They wanted to know where I worked.
As a federal employee — one who theoretically takes orders from President George W. Bush — I did not like where this was headed. I said I was a lawyer, and hoped my answer was close enough.
They were most interested in where I was staying. Making advance reservations in Syria seemed impractical enough that I had not even tried, so I could not answer the question. This was extremely troubling to the soldiers. One of them left to consult another official. They both came back and all three resumed the questioning.
And as quickly as I was pulled from the line, it was mercifully over, an abrupt end to the 30-minute interrogation.
They sent me back to the lobby, where I could enter the country. There, a Syrian man who saw my Western T-shirt approached me and struck up a conversation about his time in the States. It was a good omen. From there on out, the Syrians I met were singularly friendly.
I met some great people in Syria. But sitting on that bed, surrounded by three large soldiers posing questions I could barely understand, in a country on the State Department’s Travel Warning list, is an experience I wish to never repeat.