Back to Arabia

It’s the Arab world again; I’m almost there but not quite, I’ve booked a dangerously cheap ticket on an unknown airline, Syrian Arab Airways… I love an adventure and a bargain so what the heck.

I call to pay for the ticket but they don’t accept credit cards ‘cash only’ comes the reply and I fly tomorrow. They will accept a bank-transfer but require the paying-in slip faxed as proof of payment, but I don’t have a fax, I ask if I can scan and email them the paying-in slip but they say they can’t receive emails. I begin to wonder if they have any computers.

This is a slow step back to the Arab world. Fortunately my bank is very understanding, not only did they include my request for a veggie meal but they also faxed the paying-in slip for me. Finally, my ticket is secured, but what about my flight?

Bizarrely… the airline that could not receive any emails – email me my ‘e-ticket’.

The recorded announcement on Syrian Arab Airways says that all flights (just 2 a week) leave from Terminal 2 at Heathrow but, when I arrive I discover that they actually leave from Terminal 4. “That is an old message” I am told by a member of staff.

At check-in I watch a fat Syrian man who is 8 kilos over on his luggage; the airline is trying to make him pay. He is dancing around stroking the face of the manager, he kisses his hand and head, strokes his face and manages to have his fine reduced by 5 kilos. My observations are preparing me for my step-back into Arabia.

At check-in I am told there is no veggie meal, “It takes 4 days to order”. Before booking I’d checked twice to make sure that they served vegetarian food and had a complimentary bar with booze, this was confirmed twice, now I face a flight without any food. Well at least I can have a drink I think to myself… so I go and get a sandwich to take on board.

As I enter the aircraft I ask again, just in case, about the veggie meals, “No worries sir, we have plenty” – I am both confused and delighted by the reply. I make myself comfortable in my broken seat with no front table and a broken foot rest. The plane has a musty old smell to it, with décor to suit. No bright Virgin colours here, or the tight restrictive leather seats, these ones are twice as big and twice as dirty and feel real and comfy.

My veggie meal arrives – it is great. An Asian curry of lentils and salad. Then shock, horror, no booze on the drinks trolley. I ask the Arabic air-hostess for “wine with the meal?” She looks to her boss on the other end of the trolley, he says “Sorry no wine”, but his answer didn’t feel absolute; it was as though he couldn’t quite be bothered…

Then I notice a couple of men chatting whilst another member of crew brings them what looks to me like whisky on the rocks. I stop the man, “Can I get a whisky?” “Sure sir”. A whisky on the rocks arrives covered in a paper towel. Later I make my way into Business class, an area just as tatty as economy class apart from the dirty curtains that divide us. “Is there any wine?” I ask? “Wine… I will need to ask…” the hostess says I need to ask at the back, I tell her the man has already refused me, she takes the phone and makes what looks like a concerted effort to fix this problem and I go back to my seat. A few moments pass and the trolley arrives full of cheap nasty fake soft drinks, I feel a hand coming over my shoulder with a bottle of wine wrapped in paper towel from the man who’d refused me originally. “Would you like ice with it sir?” “Why not” I reply.

This is the Arab world, a place that seems full of rules, but in reality everything is negotiable, you have to navigate your way through it whilst never accepting anything at face value. You will always get to where you’re going but not always in the way you intended. If you are prepared for this then you are ready to hit the Arab world.

The landing of this shabby plane was one of the smoothest I’ve ever experienced. On-time we all disembark leaving London and the ‘free west’ behind us and walking excitedly into Syria, a closed dictatorship and part of George W Bush’s infamous Axis of Evil. My cab takes me to Straight Street, the Christian quarter of old Damascus, where I meet Karen an American woman living and working here and whom I will be staying with. She is with hundreds of others who are all outside and who are all drinking openly in the park, beer, wine, Arak, you name it… Music thumps out from a nearby disco. “Welcome back to Syria” Karen says, offering me a choice of beers from her carry-out bag.