They Told Me Not to Go to: Syria

by John McFadzean

One of the first Westerners to visit Syria after its civil war finds beauty amidst the destruction.

“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to Syria. British nationals in Syria should leave by any practical means. Consular support is not available from the British government from within Syria, as all services of the British Embassy in Damascus are suspended and all diplomatic and consular staff have been withdrawn.”

I am on a lifetime quest to stand-up paddleboard in every country in the world; Syria is one of those countries. I decided to go anyway.

Sitting on the comfortable rear seat of a modern, air-conditioned saloon car, my tour guide Radwan in the front passenger seat, I watched impatiently as the vehicles on the road ahead inched forward. I could have been in any mid-range car in any traffic jam in any city anywhere in the world.

Then, Radwan turned to face me. “I need your passport, Mr John. There’s an army checkpoint ahead.”

Still new to the country, the frequent checkpoints confused me. Some were serious — heavily armed soldiers and police carefully checking ID documents and searching cars. Others simply required a “tip” to secure passage. We gradually moved on as soldiers in camouflage checked the cars in front. Then, it was our turn. After examining my passport, one young soldier took a cursory look through the passenger window and waved us on. I felt safe knowing we were in an army-controlled area and relieved to negotiate the first checkpoint of our journey.

After a morning spent exploring Damascus, inhaling the sweet scent of exotic spices amidst the bustle of the Al-Hamidiyah Souq, tasting creamy ice cream rolled in pistachio, and visiting the seventh-century Umayyad Mosque, it was time to hit the road — the road from Damascus to the coastal city of Tartus. My intention was to stand-up paddle in the waters around the tiny island of Arwad, which lies a few kilometers offshore from Tartus.

We passed bombed-out building after bombed-out building on the outskirts of the Syrian capital. Government troops on the hill opposite had shelled civilian homes here. What had once been residential apartments were now broken gray carcasses with gaping black holes. The lower floors sagged from the weight of the rubble above. Everything was gray.

travel through Syria, rubble

Two men were sitting on the ground in front of one building. I was embarrassed to take a few surreptitious photographs but also strangely compelled. What had once been people’s homes were now fodder for my photo album. 

After the Damascene suburbs, we followed the M5 motorway toward Homs. A barren brown landscape sped by on either side, sporadically dotted with small green bushes. As a sophisticated and experienced traveler, I wanted to play it cool. Still, I couldn’t suppress a slight tremor of excitement as we passed road signs displaying names familiar to anyone who had followed the news headlines in recent years:

Homs

Aleppo

Bagdad

“Do you want to go to Iraq?” Radwan teased. “It’s just over there. ISIS is at the border.”

The hillside village of Maaloula flashed by on the left, one of only a handful of places on the planet where they still speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.

More monotonous desert passed on both sides until we eventually reached a fertile oasis — otherwise known as a motorway service area. It was like no other service station I’d ever seen, with an outdoor restaurant, an outdoor swimming pool, and even bumper cars. 

My driver, Radwan, and I, three travelers on the road from Damascus, sat at a table beneath a canvas shade, close to the deep blue pool, as a gentle breeze provided some relief from the dry October heat. The sun was dropping in the late afternoon sky, but it was still hot. There were no other customers.

As I stirred sugar into a glass mug of strong black tea, I couldn’t help but notice the waitress was staring intently at me. Radwan had told me that I was one of the first western travelers to visit Syria since the crisis began in 2011. Perhaps she had never seen a man with such a pale Scottish complexion. As we left, the waitress and my driver stood together, chatting in Arabic and looking at me.

“She says she likes you,” he said.

I took a closer look.

My admirer was dressed in a fitted white blouse and dark trousers. Her shoulder-length, jet-black hair framed a light-brown, perfectly-shaped face. Her beautiful brown eyes sparkled as she smiled directly at me.

I was powerless to prevent a massive smile from spreading across my pale face. I briefly flirted with the possibility of remaining in Syria, marrying my exotic, Middle-Eastern princess, and living happily ever after. Then, I remembered that I wasn’t a character in a love story. I had a life back home.

“I like you, too.”

We reached Tartus on the Mediterranean coast an hour later and met another security checkpoint. Security here was tight, as some of President Assad’s family lived locally. A long machine gun, its barrel supported on a tripod, protruded over a pile of sandbags. Only the very top of the soldier’s helmet was visible. Other armed guards approached the car, and our driver stepped out. This wasn’t a moment for a tip; it was a time for patience, obedience, and no sudden movements. I had been secretly excited at the previous checkpoints. This time, my heart missed a beat from anxiety.

A peaceful day on the Syrian coast

Once again, I handed over my passport, and Radwan produced reams of paperwork from the Ministry of Tourism. Was our paperwork in order? Would they allow us to pass? Would we be shot? Panicky thoughts tumbled through my mind. A minute passed and then another.

After a lengthy delay, we were waved on.

Despite the UK Foreign Office warning, I was always safe during my few days in Syria. I remained within government-controlled parts of the country at all times, and I witnessed just one act of aggression during my entire visit, in an entirely unexpected place.

After dinner in Tartus, Radwan took me to a place he described as a public room, a place for men to socialize. It looked like a rather basically furnished bar, though being in a predominantly Muslim country, the venue sold no alcohol. Circular wooden tables covered in worn blue cloth sat on a tiled floor with solid wooden chairs. A jumble of disused furniture was piled in one corner. The walls were primarily wooden lattice, and the ceiling was painted white. A bulky, old-fashioned television set hung on one wall; a portrait-style photograph of the President gazed down benevolently from another. A few other men sat around, two, three, or four to a table, chatting quietly in Arabic and drinking water or tea.

Radwan sat to my left. Between us was a shisha pipe. It was an odd wooden and brass contraption. I grabbed the yellow and black striped tube nervously and lifted the straw to my mouth. As an ex-smoker, I had some concerns about trying nicotine again after a ten-year absence — but hey, when in Syria… 

Three small blocks of charcoal sat atop a sheet of perforated foil. Each time I inhaled, the dusty gray coal glowed orange as pleasant, fruit-flavored smoke entered my lungs, and the nicotine caused my heart to pound against my chest. I felt slightly queasy and light-headed as a long-forgotten high rushed through my body.

The waiter brought us a jug of tea. We drank from glass mugs, smoked, and talked about our countries. We spoke of our lives, our jobs, family homes, sons and daughters and grandchildren. Radwan was an educated man in his 50s with short gray hair and a neat mustache who spoke perfect English. Syrians are rightly renowned for their hospitality, and my guide was an excellent host.

Most people in Syria had two jobs, if not three, to make ends meet. Eight years of trouble and Western-imposed sanctions had taken their toll. But Radwan was shocked when I told him the cost of renting a small apartment in my hometown in the north-west of England.

As we spoke, two middle-aged men were playing chess at a table in the corner. One of them was enormous; the other was bigger still. Suddenly, the room echoed with the harsh sound of furniture scraping the floor. Voices were raised, and a fist slammed down on a table. Both men were standing now, shouting and pushing, face to face; the chess board was upturned, pieces skidding to the floor. The room fell silent. Radwan and I looked away, careful not to make eye contact. Eventually, a bystander persuaded one man to step outside and cool down.

After a time the chess game resumed, and the tension in the room began to fade. I was keen to have an early night in preparation for my stand-up paddleboarding adventure at Arwad the following day, so we finished our drinks and slowly wandered back to the Shahin Tower Hotel.

Stepping into the lobby, I could have been in any four-star hotel anywhere in the world.

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