Crossing Over: adventures at the Syrian border

November 9, 2006

Abu Hamad looked glum. Turning around, he shrugged. “You wait maybe one, two, three, four, five, six hours.” Though our driver, a native Arabic speaker, had failed, I tried stepping up to the border control officer myself. “It’s very important,” I began, before the large, mustachioed officer cut me off: “It’s very important that you wait.” Abu Hamad wished us luck and left. We were stuck at the Syrian border.

Earlier that day two friends and I jumped in Abu Hamad’s rickety minibus for the four-hour drive from Beirut to Damascus. Rolling through Beirut’s suburbs, over the hills and across the Bekka valley—home of Hezbollah—we planned our border crossing.

We didn’t have visas from our country of origin as Syria demands. In Cairo, where we live, it’s possible to talk the Syrians into giving you a visa, but it often takes a month to do so. We hadn’t planned that far ahead when we decided to visit the Levant over the Eid al-Fitr fall holiday.

Instead, we decided to exploit a loophole in Syria’s hegemony in Lebanon. According to friends who live in Beirut, if you came over land from Lebanon with a Lebanese visa, you could supposedly obtain a Syrian visa at the border. Abu Hamad thought it would be possible, but warned us we might have to wait a little. Shortly before the border, we stopped to exchange Lebanese currency for Syrian tender under the watchful eyes of an ever-present portrait of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Later, in Damascus, the souvenir of choice would be a triptych of Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Leaving Lebanon was a breeze; Abu Hamad pulled us to the front of the “Diplomats” line and our passports were stamped. But a few minutes later, pulling into the Syrian border station, we realized the magnitude of our problem. As Abu Hamad sped towards Damascus with a few men he picked up on the border, we sat down on a wooden park bench placed incongruously in the center of the tiled immigration center. Opposite us, a long line of windows—marked, “Foreigners, Diplomats, Lebanese, Arabs, Syrians.” Behind us was a small banking kiosk. One wall was half-built and left open to the rocky bluffs surrounding the border. It was four in the afternoon.

So we sat on our bench and read. And when we finished our books, we talked. And when we ran out of things to say, we went crazy in our own ways. Joe obsessively memorized vocabulary flash cards. Mike made it his mission to kill every fly in the border office. I paced incessantly, checking in with the border control officers every half hour—“Any news? Did Damascus call yet?” “Not yet.” “Do you know when? Will it be soon?” “Insha’allah.” Always, it was “if God wills it,” accompanied by a finger pointing skyward. So we sat. I tried chatting with the bank clerk to kill time, but decided it might be better to leave him alone when I noticed the loaded pistol sitting on top of his safe.

Our boredom was interrupted when buses and cars pulled up to the border, filled with people in search of proper border stamps—Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Druze, Iraqis, Turks, even a few westerners. Everyone wanted to talk to the three ajanbi—foreigners—camped out in the office. Where are you from? Why are you here? What are you waiting for? Kids wanted to play with us. We received the occasional glare, but most were friendly, even Iraqis, who winced every time they discovered where we were from and exclaimed, “Oh, that’s funny, I’m from Iraq!”

It was the same throughout the Middle East. People would come up to us, introduce themselves, interrogate us about our plans and our families, then offer up a comment along the lines of, “You know, Bush, America, Israel”—putting their two index fingers side-by-side—“well, bad,”—spit on the ground—“but, anyways, can I be of service? Do you know where you should go?” Two gentlemen even invited us to a wedding after their brief political message. And during our purgatory in the border station, one of the officers would bring us a bottle of water after he went out on a break.

Eventually, around ten at night, after I loaned Joe my sweater and zipped up my jacket against the cold, the call came. We hardly noticed, at first, except that a bystander alerted us. We ran to the counter. Damascus had determined we were not a threat. Our passports were stamped. High-fives were exchanged. And we ran outside, into the night, to flag down a passing taxi. Room for three more?

Jamming seven people into a cab, we sped east, on the road again at last. But before we went a hundred meters, we pulled a screeching U-turn and stopped outside a building. Why were we stopping? Helweeat! Sweets! The driver wanted to hit the duty-free shop before pressing on. Munching baklava, we descended into Damascus, away from the border stop at the end of the world and towards civilization.

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