Returning from a short break in the UK to Syria and I find that the ‘word of mouth’ rumours that visas are to be issued at the airport are true.
A special trip to a small back-room and I am questioned as to why I am visiting. “Tourism” I say. Just like I said a couple of weeks earlier. “Address in Damascus?” asks the stern, serious looking man wearing a smart uniform perched on his chair under a picture of his president, “The 4 Seasons Hotel” – my standard answer, how anyone could afford 12 nights there is beyond me but it always works and I am safely though.
The airport is bustling at midnight just like the packed flight was. It is summertime and Syrians from all over the world are heading home. On the plane I got talking to a second-hard car dealer living in Chicago, he comes back to see his parents for 2 months every summer, they tried living in the states with him but only lasted a month, “They hated it” he tells me.
But he loves it, I ask him about the prickly relations between Syria and America, he doesn’t answer, I tell him that with the election of Obama I was full of hope for the Middle East and how dismayed I was that he has continued the economic sanctions against Syria started by G.W Bush. “I don’t talk politics” he tells me. I wonder if he genuinely doesn’t speak politics or if he is just remembering that he is on his way back to Syria where such talk isn’t accepted by authorities.
Actually it is… As long as it is directed against the West you are free to speak anything – just make sure you don’t criticize the Syrian government. The man suddenly perks up deciding to engage in conversation. “I love Obama” he says. Well there you go I think, at least he’s returning like a good American. Maybe there is little difference between East and West after all. This man, like all Americans, is free to speak but doesn’t care to as do most Syrian I meet.
I turn my attention to group of religious men dressed in great colourful clothes with bright hats. I am told that they are part of an ‘exchange’ with Britain where radical extremist Imams are taken to Syria to be trained to follow a more moderate path. Ironic that the extremists are sent from Britain to this ‘axis of evil’ country to be shown the right path.
Outside the airport I am greeted by Lukman. He’s been waiting 1 and a half hours for me and looks tired. We force our way past the taxis which monopolize the airport (a company apparently run by the presidents brother), and who have fixed the fare into town at a steep 1500 Syrian pounds (£22), I push my suitcase 100 metres down the road to a petrol station where we can get a cab for 300 Syrian pounds (£5). but, as we make our way we are stopped by a guard with a gun who won’t let us pass. A 20 minute discussion takes place, we offer a bribe and miss one, two, three, cabs before the man with the gun finally relents. A 50 Syrian pound bribe sees us safely on our way, we hail a taxi and from the back seat I see the shimmering eastern lights of dusty old Damascus beckoning me once more.