Tales of Travel
By Gary Greenberg
Ibrahim and the
have ever hated all nations,
professions and communities,
and all my love is towards
Basket’s brilliant idea to go to Syria.
in November of 1982, nearly two decades ago. Much has
I can still see
my English pal gazing at our map in the flickering candlelight of a
drafty Cappadocian cave, where
we sat trying to figure out the best way to get to Israel.
“What say we
go overland through Syria and Jordan?” Norris mused.
“I hear that the Allenby Bridge is
My eyes followed
his index finger as it drifted from our current stone-age accommodations
in Central Turkey
to the seaport of Mercin, from Mercin to the Turkish
side of Cyprus, from Cyprus
to Syria, from Syria to Jordan and over the Allenby
Bridge into the heart of
The trip looked
like a snap on the map, but what trip doesn’t? On a map, you can
cover hundreds of miles with
an infinitesimal shift of the eyeball, the seas are as
calm as Buddhist monks, all the
roads are clearly marked and there are no morons with
guns guarding the borders.
In other words,
maps are much different than reality. The truth was that Israel’s
ongoing war in Lebanon
had increased tensions in this part of the world, throwing
the inherently mercurial
Mediterranean ferry schedules into total disarray. So
getting to the Promised Land
on a low budget was no simple task. Yet I was young and
still invincibly foolish. And
Norris, who had a healthy measure of that indomitable
fortitude, was no better. So we bused to Mercin
on Turkey’s southern coast
and ferried to Cyprus. At that point we discovered that we needed visas
to go to Syria.
We tried to procure
them and were told we'd have to go to Istanbul to get them.
was simply too far out of our way, so we boarded the ship to
On the road - 1982
After a half-year
on the road, I’d developed a lot of faith in whatever god protects
boneheaded travelers. But
this time – as an American Jew landing visaless in a
hostile, totalitarian Arab state
– I was kind of pushing it.
When we docked
in Latakia, the customs officials couldn’t seem to digest the fact
that we didn’t have visas.
They called over other men in uniforms who called over
others until we had a crowd
of swarthy, mustachioed faces all around us, jabbering
away in a mixture of Arabic
and English. One senior-looking official said that
we were going to jail unless
we could produce visas. But an even higher official finally
settled the matter by pulling
us aside and explaining that we could purchase special
“port” visas – good until
the next ferry left – for $50 cash apiece.
Since we only
had about $100 between us and still needed to buy ferry tickets, the special visa rate
discounted accordingly. Once cleared to proceed, Norris
and I wandered into town
to secure sea passage to anywhere.
Latakia was a
less than memorable city. I do recall a lot of four- and five-story gray
stone buildings lining broad
dirty boulevards. Drivers were crazy and car horns incessant.
Minarets popped up here,
there and everywhere, and a tea shop graced every
corner, most filled with men
smoking and slapping around gaming tiles. Like other
Muslim countries, there weren’t
many women out and about. The men were mostly
dark, thin and wore mustaches
like their leader-for-life, Hafez Assad. He was
still very much alive back then,
wielding enough influence to have his likeness hanging
in every shop window and
from every lamp post.
As obvious strangers
in town, Norris and I attracted a lot of interest. I was surprised
to find that many of the
Syrians spoke English. One was even wearing a “Who
shot J.R.?” t-shirt. I was
less surprised to discover that they unilaterally hated
Americans. I was routinely
frowned at and chided until I wised up, changed my accent
and claimed to be British,
which seemed to work for Norris.
My friend and
I soon discovered that we couldn’t get tickets on the next
of Latakia because it was a
Greek ship and we had Turkish stamps in our passports
(don’t ask). A more hospitable
Russian ferry was leaving for Alexandria in two
days, so we bought tickets and
walked back to the port praying that the customs officials
would let us hang around
till then. They weren’t pleased, but extended our special
port visas at no extra charge.
We were confined
to the main hall of the customs building, a glass and steel structure
that resembled an airline
terminal. It was brightly lit with marble floors, black
vinyl lounges, sand-filled
cylindrical ashtrays and banners of President Assad hanging
from every rafter. The building
closed at dusk, so we were left alone to eat oranges
(our only food), play cards
and idly chat about girls, travel and all kinds of food
Long past dark,
I heard the squeaking sound of sneakered feet on marble coming
from an unlit corridor. A
figure emerged. It was the graveyard shift security guard
making his rounds. Unlike
graveyard shift security guards in America, this one wore
combat fatigues and had a machine
gun slung over his shoulder. On his head, and
wrapped around his face, was
a black and white kaffiyeh like the kind Yasser Arafat
hid all of the guard’s features except his eyes, which seemed
us the way a snake might
appraise two mice. He and his reptilian eyes circled
us slowly, his sneakers
no longer squeaking. As he drifted behind us, he slipped
the machine gun from his
shoulder and slammed a cartridge of ammo into the breach.
Uh-oh, I thought,
suddenly wishing I’d listened to my parents and continued my
fledgling sports writing career
instead of taking a couple of years off to travel.
The guard completed
his circle and stood before us, his weapon leveled. His creepy
eyes examined Norris and
me, back and forth, forth and back, until they finally
settled on me. He took two
steps forward, poked me in the gut with the gun nd
I dug it out
of my pocket, handed it over and instantly saw a measure of hate swirl
in his eyes. “You American?”
I nodded and
tried to swallow. My adam’s apple felt as big as a cantaloupe.
soldier shoot me here with American gun,” he said, patting his side.
“It is last he do. I...” He
motioned how he blew the guy away, trilling machine gun
effects with his tongue. “Maybe
I shoot you. Or maybe I...” he ran his index finger
across his throat. “...cut
you when you sleep.”
I was speechless.
But Norris wasn’t.
“Now look here,” he objected boldly. “He
didn’t shoot...” My
pal’s boldness evaporated as
soon as he felt the machine gun muzzle pressed under
The guard brought
his unoccupied index finger – the one not poised on the trigger
- to where his lips lurked
beneath the kaffiyeh, and hissed at Norris to be quiet.
Then he took
a couple of paces back and leveled the gun like he meant business. I really thought that
this might be curtains for us. Curiously, my fear seemed
to vanish. There was nowhere
to run, nowhere to hide, nothing to do but accept
The guard gave
a war whoop and jerked the gun to his shoulder. Then he spun it
around in his hands like a propeller,
flipped it under his arm, across his back, around
his waist and snapped it
adroitly into firing position at his hip. He paused momentarily,
then launched into
another set of parade maneuvers, which he finished with
a muted click of his sneakered
Norris gave him
a sarcastic two or three clap ovation. Not knowing quite what to
do, I picked up three oranges
and put on a show of my own. I started juggling, doing
tricks. I threw one under
my leg, another behind my back...
The guard was
watching me, his gun now slung loosely over his shoulder. I tossed
an orange to him. He caught
it. I motioned for him to throw it back. He did, and
I started juggling again off
his throw. He swept the kaffiyeh from his face. I was
surprised to see he was just
a kid, 16, maybe 17 years old.
“You teach me,”
he said, pantomiming the juggling motion.
I shook my head.
“You teach me,”
I shook my head
“Why you no teach
me?” he asked, somewhere between angry and hurt.
I ran my index
finger across my throat. “Why should I if you’re
going to cut my throat later?”
“No, no,” he
replied, dismissing the threat with a wave. “I make
joke.” He cracked a culture-bridging
“You teach me now?”
So I spent my
first night in Syria teaching young Ibrahim the basics of juggling. Then I taught him
card tricks. Meanwhile, our artist in residence (Norris)
sketched a nice, complimentary
portrait of his face, darkening his adolescent
peach fuzz into a beard
stubble any Muslim warrior would be proud to call his
Ibrahim was delighted
as he finally left us to finish his rounds, he promised not to cut our throats
unless it was absolutely necessary.
The next day,
Ibrahim returned while off-duty to bring us all kinds of food, including
more oranges, pita bread,
hummus and tasty fried balls we would later discover
to be called falafels.
He spent the night “guarding” us instead of making
practicing juggling and
card tricks, and asking countless questions about America.
Actually, he asked countless
questions about the girls in America. The rest he
wasn’t much interested in.
Finally the morning
of our departure broke and the customs chief ordered Ibrahim
to escort us to the Russian
ferry. With the kaffiyeh wrapped around his face,
Ibrahim once again looked
like a hardened warrior. But when we arrived at the gangway,
he hugged both of us, his
machine gun muzzle poking me in the ear. And those
cold, cruel, anti-American
eyes of his turned soft when he wished us farewell.
“Ma’a el salama,”
he said. “Go in peace, friends.”
since then. Even more
has remained the same. A vast majority of people in the
world still want to live
in peace, but we’re all susceptible to the will of warmongers
who use prejudice
and ignorance to fan the fires of hate. Although we are
sometimes forced to defend
ourselves with force, we must always remember – as I
learned during my brief stay
in Syria – that there’s a thin line between
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