by Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore
Welcome to the Middle East ; Airport Tales ; Introduction to Syria ; Where is Syria and where is it ? ; Who are the Syrians ? 

Welcome to the Middle East

Oblivious of the long queue forming in front of him, the immigration officer is taking his own time in flipping through the pages of my passport. No doubt, the immigration officer is diligently performing his duties in weeding out unwelcomed and dangerous guests to the Syrian Arab Republic, in particular, those who had been to states deemed hostile to the cause of reviving the Great Arab Renaissance as propagated by the greatest leader this land has ever known, His Excellency President Hafiz al-Assad of the Syrian Arab Republic - or at least thatís what the official media proclaims. Egypt, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, France, UK, Malaysia, etc - but there was no sign of visa or border stamps of the State of Israel, or occupied Palestine, as the land is known to the Syrians. Of course, I had made a second passport for the purpose of this trip, got an Israeli visa on it, and had wrapped and hidden it in my luggage. Thank god he had not searched my luggage, though those of the many Russian shoppers in the queue were opened, perhaps in an effort to tax these cross-national hawkers. Any amount of foreign dollars is welcomed, for the Syrian state is facing high inflation, and needs dollars to support the precarious Syrian Pound, whose official exchange rate is US$1 = L.S. 42, but is available in the black market for US$1 = L.S. 50.

Airport Tales

"no baas, no Damashq, no baas today to Damashq, take taxi"

Getting out of the small airport, we were suddenly confronted with the reality of the Arab summer - the glaring sunlight and the humid 35íC heat. For a few moments, my eyes could hardly open, and the dryness of the air was quite unbearable for my skin, pampered by years of wet tropical climate. Before we knew, we were soon surrounded by a few men, trying to get us to take their taxi to Damascus city central. Twenty Dollars, they said, would bring us to town. No way, as we were supposed to be on a budget tour, at least before we reached Egypt. We asked for the airport bus, which was supposed to be running everyday, according to the Lonely Planet. No bus, the taxi-driver in blue shirt replied. The blue one continued to urged us to take his cab. Then we saw a bus parked at a corner of the mini square in front of the airport terminal building. We ignored the blue chap and walked to the bus, with the blue chap following us behind. We went up and asked the driver whether this was the bus to Damascus. He nodded his head. But then the blue chap interrupted suddenly and spoke loudly to the driver in Arabic, which I couldnít understand a word. And then the driver said : "no baas, no Damashq, no baas today to Damashq, take taxi." Oh boy, we knew what happened, but there was little we could do, as the driver now refused to bring us to Damascus. The blue one seemed jubilant, as it now appeared that these silly foreigners were about to capitulate. Jet-lagged and perspiring uncontrollably from the unbearable Middle Eastern sun, I was about to give in. But Cousin Casey, with her typical stubbornness and wisdom, refused to budge. At this moment, a bearded burly man appeared and spoke to us in reasonably good English : "Whatís the problem ! Can I help you ?"

Mohammed is an Algerian businessmen on business in Damascus and he had also flown in on the same flight from Abu Dhabi. He spoke to the driver and the blue bum, and then told us to get up the bus for it does go to Damascus. We did and the blue bum walked away, disappointed that his catch for the day was gone. After the last few passengers boarded the bus, the engine was started and off we went to Damascus. Mohammed turned around from his seat, and said : "This must be your first visit to the Middle East. Welcome to the Middle East ! Welcome to Syria !"

Next : Introduction to Syria


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