Destination: Damascus

Monday, June 20, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

First views of Damascus's new city.
On Friday, I left America behind via a one-way ticket to Damascus, Syria. For the next year, I'll be living, traveling, and studying Arabic in the Middle East.

When my flight arrived in Damascus Saturday afternoon, the first thing I noticed was the heat. With almost no humidity, the dusty air parched my nostrils and mouth before I had even left the airport. The Syrian customs officials stared blankly at my passport for long intervals, and performed several half-assed searches of my bags before releasing me to the cacophony of the airport's public hall. Outside, the dust hung like fine powder, tinting the arid landscape like an omnipresent golden filter.

I clambered into an ancient Mercedes taxi, and sped off toward the city center. The driver was eager to make conversation over the clamoring Arabic pop music. Within minutes of my arrival in
the country, he successfully wheedled me into admitting, my voice trembling a bit, "نعم أنا أمريكي." That's right, I'm American. The US invasion of Iraq (Syria's next-door neighbor) began a mere two years ago, and isn't creating much goodwill in the Arab world. So back home, I had prepared myself to adopt the "I'm Canadian" sidestep, but the driver's frankness caught me off my guard.

To my surprise, he grinned broadly, and quickly set about assessing my Arabic skills, which proved far less extensive than both he and I had hoped. The conversation was overwhelmingly one-sided as a result, but I was simply happy not to have been dumped on the side of the road (or worse) because of my nationality. Perhaps this driver simply found it endearing to hear me admit it with such sheepish hesitation.

The warm, dusty wind buffeted me through the open windows as the taxi rumbled along the rough highway, lined with palm trees, toward the city's southern suburbs. In a harrowing reenactment of Hollywood car chase madness, the driver wound his Mercedes into Damascus proper. White-knuckled, I clung to my seat, not yet realizing that such is the norm on the streets of Damascus—every car searches for an opening to make a high-speed pass, careens wildly through traffic circles, and sends pedestrians leaping for the sidewalk. Traffic police in stiff tan suits whistle and flail furiously, but impose little order on the chaotic swirl.

The architecture of downtown Damascus is striking. Hulking concrete edifices—somber remnants of a Cold War era Soviet influence—line the streets, their facades adorned with the Syrian eagle. As in the US, advertising is everywhere, but here I recognize little and can decipher even less, given my limited Arabic skills.

I snapped a single picture (above) from my hotel room window the first afternoon before I collapsed on my bed for a nap, feeling numb and slightly overwhelmed.

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