Detail of a propaganda poster, Damascus / Chris A. Smith

Sightseeing in a Police State 

A Syrian travelogue

Slowly, we wound our way up the mountain. Dusk was falling, and the road was slick. Sometimes we passed a military truck, or a taxi on its way back from Lebanon, one of those old American muscle cars that smuggled TVs and stereos from Beirut.

We stopped at a pullout near the top and Khaled cut the engine. Silence.

Below us, the lights of Damascus were coming on, an earthbound constellation winking in the twilight. High-rises hugged the narrow Barada River as it sliced through the city, past needle-towered mosques and government monoliths. Neighborhoods of honeycombed apartment blocks fanned out across the plains.

Khaled let out a long breath. “It’s beautiful, don’t you think?”

I agreed. I wondered if all police states were so quiet.

***

I traveled to Syria in 1997, before the Arab Spring and the civil war, before the massacres and the refugee camps and the chemical weapons. It was a family trip. We had just spent a week in Egypt, cruising the Nile and gawking at the pyramids, stalked by guys selling papyrus and camel rides. Now we were in Syria, an add-on destination chosen almost at random from the travel company’s catalog. After a few days here, I’d continue on by myself with a backpack.

At the time, Syria was terra incognita to most Americans. I knew the bare geopolitical facts: Cold War bogeyman, foe of Washington and Tel Aviv, ally of Iran and Hezbollah, but that’s about it. A few years later, I’d return to the region as a journalist, working in Egypt and then in Palestine, covering the second Intifada. In 1997, though, I was twenty-two and, in my own half-formed way, curious about the world. I chose Syria because it sounded cool and vaguely dangerous. Above all, I wanted an answer to one ethically queasy question: What did sightseeing in a dictatorship feel like?

***

Behind the immigration booth hung a large portrait of Syrian leader Hafez Al-Assad, a military officer who seized power in a 1970 coup and held it until his death in 2000. (He handed the reins to his son Bashar, who is fighting to retain power now.) It was the first of many portraits I’d see of the elder Assad. In this version, Assad appeared in three-quarter profile, framed by a blue sky. He was all forehead, with a flinty half-smile. A proud father, he watched over the immigration hall.

We met our guide, Khaled, on the other side. (This isn’t his real name. I’ve changed it because I don’t know which side he’s taken in the conflict.) A middle-aged Damascene, he had a mustache like Assad’s and the slightly frazzled air of an overworked teacher. He bundled us into a small Japanese car and we sped into the city.

Organized tours can be isolating, and our interactions with locals in the days to come would be frustratingly superficial. By necessity, Khaled was our connection to the country. He had much to say about Syria, of its grain harvests and its oil production and its village whose denizens spoke a dialect of Aramaic dating to the time of Christ. He had almost nothing to say about his government.

The lobby of the hotel, meanwhile, was dotted with dour men who appeared to do nothing but watch our comings and goings. They occupied many of the lobby’s jewel-box chairs, smoking cigarettes and scowling over their tinted glasses. I can’t say with certainty that they were secret police, but they were straight out of central casting.

At check-in, I locked eyes with one of the women behind the counter. She had deep-green eyes and curly black hair, shoulder-length and streaked with red. She appraised me with what I took to be interest. I looked away first.

Once in my room, I plunked my backpack down on the bed. I turned on the TV. CNN International was reporting that a rebel army was marching on the capital of Zaire; within a month, the rebels would overthrow the country’s longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. The phone rang before I finished unpacking.

“Do you like me?” a small female voice asked.

“Uh…pardon me?”

“You want me to visit?”

Was it the woman from the counter? My pulse quickened as I imagined spending the night with her—a thought both exciting and, because I was shy, more than a little terrifying. Then it occurred to me that every foreign male probably got a call like this. I politely declined.

***

The next day we toured Damascus. We visited the covered souk, a tunnel-like bazaar of stalls selling textiles and inlaid boxes for tourists, and the Omayyad mosque, an eighth-century marvel of stately colonnades and white stone, the fourth holiest site in Islam. In the mosque’s courtyard, kids chased each other and families ate lunch, sprawled on the sun-warmed stone.

The three of us sat and talked. Khaled told me he was a reader, mostly fiction, and that he loved guiding because it allowed him to meet people from all over the world. I was thinking of becoming a travel guide myself, and I quizzed him on the business. We imagined forging a partnership in which I drummed up interest back home in the Middle East—particularly in Syria, which attracted few American tourists.

We wandered the tree-filled park outside the Army Museum. A propaganda exhibit detailed Syria’s “victory”—it was more like a draw—over Israel in the October 1973 war. We admired a Soviet-made MIG fighter plane, painted in camouflage and mounted on stone blocks like a piece of civic art. Today, the regime uses newer versions of those planes to bomb rebel-held cities. I asked Khaled why Syria was so antagonistic toward the United States.

He sighed. His reply seemed carefully worded. “People in the West sometimes have the wrong perception of Syria.”

***

The next day we drove east into the desert, to the oasis town of Palmyra.

Palmyra was once a stopover for every Silk Road caravan. The conquerors came and went: Romans, Omayyads, Mamluks, Ottomans. They all left their marks in the city’s bone-white stone.

That afternoon, I set off to explore. The heat was enveloping, and there was almost no one else out. The main road ran like a spine through the dead city, funneling me toward the Temple of Baal. Rows of classical columns, some intact, some sawed-off, rose over my shoulders. On a shaded rock near the temple, a Syrian family had set up a stove and was boiling tea. You wouldn’t be able to do such a thing at, say, the Parthenon, but here there were no guards to stop them. I tried out my guidebook Arabic. They reciprocated in shaky English. Overhead, a fighter jet—all sleek, lethal lines—sliced over the mountains, flying high and fast.

As evening came on, I sat on the hotel terrace watching the ruins turn a vivid gold. All was still. Occasionally a donkey broke the silence, its bray starting low and building to a hee-hawing crescendo. The sound echoed off the rock.

I went back to my room to lie down before dinner. A sallow man in a windbreaker sat in an overstuffed chair in the lobby—the same guy, I realized, who had been there a few hours earlier. His ashtray was full of stubbed-out cigarettes. He glanced at me then returned to his newspaper.

***

On the last day we drove north to Hama, a provincial city on the Orontes River. Hama is known for its wooden water wheels—massive Lincoln Log-like contraptions that have been in use for thousands of years. On the way, we passed billboards bearing the now-familiar images of Assad, always in a suit, always with that steely smile.

It was lunchtime, and Khaled suggested a restaurant on the water. We sat in the sun, eating lamb kebabs and drinking Cokes. Behind us, the water wheels clacked away.

Hama had long been the hub of Sunni fundamentalist resistance to the rule of the Assads, who belong to a minority Shiite sect. (The current civil war is increasingly being fought along similarly sectarian lines, just on a far larger scale.) In 1981, a dirty war broke out between the regime and the Islamists. Assad loyalists were murdered in their homes, and the bodies of Islamists began turning up on the roadsides.

By early 1982 Hama was in open revolt, and Assad cracked down. For a month, tanks shelled the old city and soldiers went house-to-house, killing men, women, and children. Some 20,000 died in the massacre.

Khaled didn’t mention the rebellion or the massacre. After his polite rebuffs of the past few days, we had settled into a tacit arrangement: We’d talk about travel and books, but only glancingly about politics.

I didn’t ask about Hama. Instead, that evening over dinner, I asked a broader question: What did people really think of Assad?

He looked straight at me. “Syria,” he said, “is safe and secure.”

I knew not to press him. We went back to planning our travel-guiding partnership.

***

On the final morning, I said goodbye to Khaled and boarded a bus for Amman, Jordan.

The outskirts of Damascus floated past the window. Gradually, dun-colored apartment blocks and mosques gave way to scrub and rock. A few hours later I walked across the border.

The uniformed man at the desk was sipping tea and poring over an English grammar, illustrated with line drawings of people walking dogs and shaking hands. He enlisted my help with his pronunciation.

“Lo-kay-ton.”

“Lo-kay-shun.

He smiled.

“Pol-ee-tee-kan.”

“Pol-i-ti-shen.

Warming to the game, he offered up a tricky couplet:

“’Tourist’ is different than ‘Terrorist,’ yes?”

“Yes. Very different.”

“If terrorist, we arrest you,” he said, a mischievous smile spreading across his face. “If tourist”—he paused for effect—“‘Welcome!’”

He laughed loudly and stamped my passport.

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