Sunday, June 19, 2005


Passing By Syria -- Report April/May 2005

This is Part II of Wafaa' Al-Natheema's report following her trip to IRAQ passing by Syria in April/May 2005.

Part I, "IRAQ's Diaries - May 2005" can be accessed at


Passing By Syria - Report Part II
By Wafaa' Al-Natheema

I should probably thank George Bush for making me choose Syria (instead of Jordan) to pass through to Iraq. Even Syrians may feel "thankful" for Bush's threats to attack Syria, now they have more sympathizers. These threats made people, like me, want to go to Syria even though they didn't need to! Those who dislike Syria, for whatever reason, have also become sympathizers as a result.

It was indeed entertaining to learn that al-Zarqawi was believed to be in Syria two weeks ago! Thanks again to the Bush administration for the FREE entertainment. This so-called leader of al-Qaida moves like a thunder around so many countries; a mercury-like, impossible to catch even by the CIA and Mossad!! From the train explosion of Spain to Berg’s beheading in Iraq , al-Zarqawi seems to appear in so many different places at the same time! It is interesting how easily and quickly the USA administration find whom to blame whenever a terrorist attack takes place in the world, not just in IRAQ. After a thorough Internet search, I found Al-Jazeera TV website to be the only media outlet to report that Al-Zarqawi had denied meeting terrorists in Syria. By quoting him saying reasonable words ("denying the meeting in Syria") showing his "good intentions" and appearing as if he is challenging the lies of the USA, Al-Jazeera is providing a proof that al-Zarqawi indeed exists and credible. Al-Jazeera report has quoted al-Zarqawi from a website, which can be unreliable. Anybody can start a website and make claims! In my opinion, the reputable Al-Jazeera has done more damage covering this story of the bogus Al-Zarqawi than the American media.

It has been twenty-six years since I have seen Syria. I visited Damascus, for the second time, in October 1978. This was during a month-long negotiation about unity between Syria and Iraq, which made both nations happy and anxious. Thousands of Iraqis and Syrians visited each other's countries during that month. Of course no unity was achieved. What for? This will lessen the number of Arab countries in the United Nations, and along with it our votes and so-called power!

Although I had a wonderful time visiting Damascus twice as a teenager (in 1975 as well), knowing I had traveled extensively in the USA, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Syria was not on my list of countries to see. But the continued American threats to attack Syria made it tempting for me to visit, explore the changes and even video tape parts of Damascus and Aleppo just in case the Americans plan to destroy it the way they did to IRAQ.

My London-Aleppo flight was via Syrian Airlines. I arrived in Damascus airport on April 26 to make a plane connection to Aleppo. Damascus airport was fine. The process of plane transfer and dealing with airport employees was smooth. But flying from Damascus to Aleppo was another story! As soon as I entered the small plane, I knew I would get sick. It was packed with people, not one chair empty, and was poorly circulated. I craved for nothing, but Oxygen.

At Aleppo airport, the process of stamping passports, getting my luggage, changing currency, securing a taxi and later finding a hotel, was smooth and took about two hours. Upon settling in my hotel, I felt a light flue. I have become an expert in predicting when I would get sick. Normally I defeat the flue virus before it causes its symptoms or within 48 hours from having the flue symptoms (without conventional medicine). However, the fact that I was traveling and very tired made me defeat it in five days.

Aleppo was an interesting city, rich with folklore and history. I didn't see much of it except its center and historic castle. I took video footage everywhere I went. Walking in the streets and checking the city's stores and products were educational and fun. I was eager to buy cotton-made clothes from Syria, so I shopped for few gifts. Both Syria and Egypt have the best-quality-cotton clothes in the entire Middle East and North Africa. However, I bought Syrian cotton products at a cheaper price in IRAQ. I also found comfortable and beautiful Syrian-made shoes in Aleppo.

At the hotel in the evening of April 26, I watched a very interesting interview with singer/composer Ahmed Qaboor on the Lebanese Al-Mustaqbal (Future) TV Satellite. Zahi Wahbi interviewed Qaboor on “Khalleek Bilbait” program. Seeing this greatly talented singer, composer and lyric writer on TV in the convenience of a hotel room on my tiring arrival day from London was a treat. Other artists appeared to make statements about Qaboor such as the Iraqi maqam singer, Sahar Taha, who lives in Lebanon. Qaboor, the greatly talented Lebanese Moslem artist, is typically unknown in the west (and other parts of the world). Reasons for this fact have been addressed in a report entitled, “Lebanese Moslem Artists”.

I was also anxious to see Mosul, north of Iraq. So I decided to visit both cities not only because I have never been to Aleppo and Mosul before, but also because historically they have been twin cities sharing similar culture and kinship. Added to that was the fact that the highway between Aleppo and Mosul was the safest among all others connecting to IRAQ. So it was like reviving three birds with one breath.

In general, Mosul has wider streets and is more organized than Aleppo. Driving in Mosul and following traffic protocols were better than in Baghdad and Aleppo despite the war. Due to a new regulation not allowing women alone in hotels, I was unable to stay in Mosul. Like Aleppo, Mosul is rich with mosques and churches. Both cities are generally more conservative socially than the capital cities (Baghdad and Damascus).

I left Aleppo for Iraq at 2 AM on April 29. Passing by the Iraqi and Syrian borders was fine. I was in disbelief. After one hour of driving away from the borders, I felt a great relief knowing I was in Iraq. This realization, along with my being very tired, put me in deep sleep. I didn't wake up until the driver stopped at a rest area.

On the way out of Iraq, passing by the Syrian borders was very agonizing. Due to an explosion at the Rabi'a town on the Iraqi-Syrian borders (between Mosul and Aleppo) on May 16, the borders were closed. So I had to change routes. I then left through Al-Waleed borders toward Damascus. On this route, one of the security men at the borders was very unfriendly. Despite that the driver tipped all the employees we passed by, as it is an expected gesture to make the process smoother, one of them was obnoxiously mean. I was carrying few Iraqi music CDs (originals not copies) and so he behaved as if he spotted a conspiracy. "These CDs are illegal and should be confiscated by the authorities," he said. Of course he had no answer for the question, why? He took them inside the office and return back with another guy to make a team effort. I suggested that he listens to them knowing (and luckily) I have a CD player. The other guy spent five (seemed very long) minutes listening to them. "Is this a dancing music?" he asked showing interest in what he was listening to. With this silly question, feeling utter waste of my time, and simultaneously noticing the mean guy inspecting my baggage (on the other side of the car) too thoroughly, I released my Iraqi temper. It was thirty very frustrating minutes, but finally I was able to leave with my CDs and messed up luggage. Of course the thirty minutes were spent only with this mean guy alone, additional time was spent on other borders procedures!

The Syrian borders have a bad reputation with regard to thieves and smugglers of art pieces, ancient ruins and other valuable goods from IRAQ because tipping the Syrian employees at the borders works wonders! Of course the Syrians are not the only ones who take tips (as I like to call it) from travelers, but Iraqis and Jordanians as well.

My feelings while in Damascus after 26 years were strange. All my wonderful teenage memories in Syria didn't make me feel nostalgic. I was exhausted. When one's home is burning, nothing else matters! Besides, several annoying episodes with taxi drivers negatively affected my mood. It was disappointing to witness the level of materialism and trickery in the behavior of many of them.

My stay in Damascus was shorter than in Aleppo. I was in a hotel near Asham Palace and the Meridien Hotels. The latter was built in 1976, only two years before I visited Syria the second time. Interestingly enough, it kept its elegance. But Asham Palace Hotel was more glamorous. It was a pleasure to sit in its extravagant lobby and have tea, read a book and listen to live music, which unfortunately was not Arabic, but classical western music. As if tourists visit Damascus to listen to western music! I craved to hear improvisation on the Oud or Qanoon as I was in this gorgeous Arabic-Syrian designed hotel. This would have elegantly matched the Arabian coffee smell, Arabic-designed furniture with the central fountain and the entire atmosphere of the hotel. Western culture has become a clitche; like a ghost, it is everywhere.

It is indeed disappointing to learn that Syria is hosting westerners, mainly Americans, to learn Arabic in Damascus. One concludes from the Christian Science Monitor article that those who are learning Arabic are doing so for the wrong reasons, mainly espionage and business! Only after the September 11 events, that the Americans began to learn Arabic and read the Qur'an, what a coincidence! In light of the American threats and animosity toward the Arab and Islamic worlds, including Syria and its neighbor Iraq, Syria cannot afford and should not be lenient at the present time. Every measure to protect itself and its Arab and Moslem neighbors must be taken, enough naiveté and so-called tolerance!

On Friday, May 20th, the night before my departure from Damascus and as I was about to sleep, I had to jump up due to an excessive noise! When I looked through the hotel window, I saw musical performance in the street with male dancers carrying swords. It was a folkloric wedding ceremony to welcome the bride and the groom into the hotel. I was able to video tape the bride and the groom, their decorated car and the musicians' performance. This wedding scene and my visits to the unique Asham Palace Hotel were the most memorable during my very short stay in Damascus.

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