Monday, March 3, 2008
Guns and tea in the Axis of Evil
Syria welcomed us with moustachioed bureaucracy and heart-warming hospitality. In Palmyra, we had somehow managed to acquire a pair of creaking Chinese motorbikes from a man who owned a grocery store and headed out into the sand. Nothing lay between us and the Iraqi border except a hundred miles of empty dunes and a few scattered Bedouin encampments. Naturally high on our customary sense of self-congratulation, we sped off down a single strip of tarmac that led into a completely empty expanse of yellow wilderness. As we’d already established, the Syrians are a friendly lot, and so we weren’t surprised when a distant figure on the horizon waved over to us and we quickly turned towards him, looking forward to the delicious spread of mezze and hot drinks this rustic sheep-farmer would no doubt lay on for us.
The fact that he was carrying an AK47 did not immediately trouble our elated minds – after all, the desert is no doubt a dangerous place at night with wild dogs and man-eating geckos and god knows what else. It did seem slightly strange, however, that he was clad in military fatigues. “Army surplus”, Josh whispered to me reassuringly as we drew near. “It’s all they can afford.” As we came to a stop our affable companion unceremoniously pointed his gun at us and, in an unexpected move, demanded our passports. This, we reluctantly accepted, was not the standard behaviour of lone sheep-herders. Only when a further soldier came over and ordered us off the bikes with a moody scowl, gesturing with his weapon that we should stand back whilst he removed the keys, did the situation stop being pleasantly amusing, and instead took on a rather alarming tone. Without a word of explanation the first soldier drove off with one of the bikes, leaving the other to guard us under the baking heat of the mid-day sun.
Miles from any other human habitation, it appeared that we had unwittingly stumbled across a Syrian army base. Although I have long expressed a strong wish to experience all facets of Middle Eastern society first-hand, I had to grudgingly acknowledge that this was not an ideal introduction to the military forces of one of the world’s supposedly most dangerous states. Matters took a turn for the worse when we attempted to utilise our pidgin Arabic and engage our captor in conversation. Clearly well-trained in resisting subtle psychological subversions by foreign spies like us, he refused to answer any questions. Nor would he have one of our cigarettes, which he looked down on with a mixture of suspicion and contempt before lighting one of his own. The weather was scorching. Our phones didn’t work. Our passports and means of transport had gone. A man with a gun was holding it angrily towards us. All in all, our circumstances left a lot to be desired.
After a good hour, the first soldier returned with a higher ranking officer. Delighted that we would have a chance to explain our case to someone senior and offer our apologies to the Syrian armed forces for trespassing on their secret nuclear facility/desert gulag, we surged towards him. However, he too was not in the mood for polite discussion, and promptly confiscated our phones and camera before disappearing again. I tentatively suggested to Josh that we make a break for it and flee towards the Iraqi border in the hope we would be picked up by some kindly American marines. Josh didn’t dignify that with an answer and we relapsed into apprehensive silence. I decided that if I was going to be summarily executed in the middle of the desert, I would do so with the national anthem on my lips, as a last defiant act of patriotism. Then I remembered that I was unaware of the words of the national anthem, and depression engulfed me again. I turned to Josh for some consolation but the poor chap was lying on the floor playing with some dung beetles, and had obviously given up all hope.
Finally, the ‘general’ returned again, this time with a veritable platoon of footsoldiers. Rather improbably, he was carrying a kettle. By gum, we thought, is this how they kill prisoners in these godforsaken wastelands? He then produced some cups, and swiftly poured us several cups of tea. We sipped them hesitantly, but they did not appear to be laced. A few moments later, our passports and electronic equipment (with photos wiped) was handed back, along with the keys to the bikes, and all the soldiers gathered around us jovially, wishing us well. We will never know which impenetrable layer of army bureaucracy had deemed us, with good reason, to be idiotic tourists and not a major threat to national security, but wherever he is we thank him from the bottom of our hearts. With cheerful waves the whole gang bade us farewell; we drove sharpish back to Palmyra and pondered a valuable lesson. It seems that even when pointing guns at you, these lovely people can’t help but offer you some tea.
P.S. Apologies for the lack of updates recently – the Syrian government periodically blocks access to a load of websites they deem dangerous, and our blog, apparently, is one of them. Hence we have to do a lot of funky technical wizardry to get on to it…
P.P.S. Shout out to Nabeel.