Saturday, 29 October 2011

A trip to Syria

When you live in Antakya you are not far from Syria. And you feel it. Often you see Syrian cars in the streets. You meet Syrians in Harbiye (Daphne) and in the market area of Uzun Çarşı in downtown Antakya. Furthermore, people in Antakya are very interested in the recent developments in Syria. This especially applies to the religious community of the Nusayri Alawites.
The Nusayris have a lot of sympathy for their co-religionists on the other side of the frontier. In Syria the Nusayris are a minority, but they are the ones who are in power. I have been told that the family of the president originally came from Samandağ close to Antakya. Whether it is true or not, I do not know. People say a lot of things around here. I was also told that when Syrians who had fled to Turkey because of unrest at home were asked what they needed, the men wanted condoms and the women make-up. It does not sound credible, but it illustrates the local attitude towards the new-comers.
As things worked out we had to go to Syria for a week. Naturally we wondered what situations we would run into once on the other side of the border. Should we believe what we saw on the al-Jazeerah television programmes, all Syria was in a mess. On the other hand, taxis and busses regularly went from Antakya to Damascus and back again without any problems. Still, on the highway we should have to pass Homs and Hama, and this is where - according to the press - the problems are concentrated. Consequently we decided to take a taxi to Aleppo ($ 43) and from there take an airplane to Damascus. However, the taxi driver told us that some foreigners had been denied entry into Syria, so if that should happen to us we would have to pay the return fare as well. We agreed.
On the way to the frontier we passed a tent camp for Syrian refugees. According to some, the number of refugees is dwindling but there still seem to be some left. We asked the taxi driver whether we could expect any problems on the way. He told us that the fact that he was taking us to Aleppo proved that things were calm. Otherwise he would not have gone.
At the border crossing we were treated well. We got our visa and entry stamp without any discussion at all. At custom we had to wait for a while as the custom officials had a meeting.
From the frontier to Aleppo the journey was uneventful. At one of the checkpoints a young soldier got confused when he saw out passports, but otherwise nothing happened.
Aleppo was as usual. The only difference was that we saw no foreigners during our stay. Two shop owners in the bazaar independently told us that they had had no foreign customers for seven weeks. One should have expected the shop owners to be more aggressive in their quest for customers, but not so. We could walk all the way from the one end of the bazaar at Bab Antakiye to the other end at the Citadel without anybody but a handful addressing us.
At the exit from the bazar, however, we were met by a completely new spectacle: A Syrian flag had been wrapped around the Citadel.

The Citadel
The absence of foreign tourist was also felt by restaurant owners. The restaurant Sisi House in the quarter of Jdaida was closed due to renovation, but its cafe on the pavement in front was open.

The view from the cafe of Sisi House
Later we found several of the waiters from Sisi House in the restaurant of Cantara.


This, and more nationalistic songs on the radio, was the only difference notice compared to earlier visits.
A couple of days later there was a huge demonstration in favour of the government on a square close to our hotel. According to the local press more than one million attended. Loud music started early in the morning and continued until the talks began. The streets around our hotel were closed to traffic and filled with people with flags, banners and pictures of the president.

Part of the demonstration
According to what we were told, people in Aleppo do not join in the rebellion against the government. A man (whom I have good reason to believe to be neutral) told us that one day he witnessed some anti-government demonstrators starting to cry out slogans in the street. Immediately local shop owners came rushing out of their shops and beat them up.
This would explain a photo shown by the foreign press where a boy in one of the cities of unrest carries a poster with the text: ﺣﻠﺐ ﻭﻳﻨﻚ  [waynak Halab: Aleppo, where are you?].
We chose to continue to Damascus by plane as we were told that traffic at times was stopped on the highway close to the cities of Homs and Hama. It seems though, that waiting on the highway is the only problem. The Turkish bus company HAS Turizm has busses between Antakya and Damascus every day and they report of no unpleasant experiences.
Damascus looked as always. The only difference was that no foreign tourists were to be seen. The covered part of the Street called the Straight (Madhat Basha Street) looked as before as the shops are catering for local customers. However, as soon as you leave the covered area and continue towards Bab Sharqi you notice that many of the shops that sell various articles to tourists are closed. The bar After Seven is still open and well visited, but the clientele mostly consists of local Damascenes.
The Christian area at Bab Touma looked as it always does: people were coming and going, eating and drinking and the Bab Touma Street was filled with cars and its pavement with people.
We had our evening meal at the restaurant called Hâretnâ. It was filled although people were not yet having their supper. They were mostly busy smoking their water pipe.

The next day we had a discussion with two men from Damascus. They seemed to be annoyed because of foreign meddling in Syrian affairs. Especially the initiative of the Arabic League was criticised. They found it odd that undemocratic countries as Saudi Arabia should come up with suggestions and advice.
One of the two is a businessman and he grumbled about the difficulties had in transferring money to and from other countries. We ourselves felt the problem as our visa cards cannot be used in Syria for the time being. If you have to go to Syria, you have to carry a lot of money in your pocket. Fortunately crime is less common in Syria than in the West.
One evening we met some people who were acquainted with the situation. We were told that violations of human rights do happen, but also that some of the demonstrators are armed and that "bad boys" from Iraq have oozed into the country.
Back in Aleppo we were told that a "tourist" had been killed in Damascus. After some questioning, though, we found out that it was not a "tourist" but a "terrorist."
But what about the shooting at civilians and the violation of human rights?
While in Syria, we did not visit the cities where the media has reported confrontation between protesters and the security forces. Consequently we have nothing to say about who is shooting at whom. The only thing we can say with any certainty is that we did not see anything of that sort in Aleppo and Damascus. People looked calm and relaxed.
As to the violations of human rights: This phenomenon is common in all the Middle East, also in so-called democratic countries and in some of the countries the West likes to rub shoulders with.
This is not meant as an excuse for perpetrators; but one cannot help wondering at the lack of consistency in western criticism.