The sleeper train from Damascus to Aleppo left at around midnight. We watched the World Cup on a grainy TV outside the station and I talked football with the guy next to me. The game finished just as the train was scheduled to leave (coincidence?) and he stood up. ‘Time to go,’ he said. ‘I am the driver.’
The sleeper train fulfilled all my penchants for compartments and things that fold away, fit together, fasten. I hadn’t slept properly in a week so fell straight asleep…and woke up at about 6am in Aleppo. There were Turkish flags everywhere…although Erdogan’s shine has tarnished slightly these days…
We ate fuul for breakfast, seated next to a Syrian policeman whose radio kept crackling throughout the meal. I held my camera under the table and took a discreet picture, for the incongruity more than anything else. Heading to the citadel, it was blisteringly hot and the 6am start meant we all fell asleep in the mosque. Sean and Rob practised a little light yoga next to the mihrab, which may or may not have been offensive.
The citadel was more impressive from the outside, which I didn’t get a picture of – it’s on the top of a kind of motte and bailey structure which rises like a mountain, surprisingly and magnificently, out of the city. But it’s got a sweet ampitheatre.
We rented a car in Aleppo and the road trip began. Two out of our four could drive, and one of those was collectively deemed ‘too happy’ to take the wheel, so it fell to Rob to plunge headlong into (insert Middle Eastern driving/taxi driver cliché here). Whatever he plunged into, he did pretty well despite having to endure extensive passenger/back seat driving. I hadn’t realised quite how omnipresent the Assad clan are here. The billboards every five minutes or so seem to me like overkill, particularly the one of Bashir in sunglasses which let us say are not his shape. Soon we were out of Aleppo and heading down to the Dead Cities. These proved rather hard to find. Would you say this was a pile of stones or the Marie Celeste-like remnants of an ancient settlement?
But then we hit the real deal at AlBarra. Abandoned arches, vine groves, huge castles, enigmatic pyramid tombs – all overgrown and very, very quiet. Certain among us were reading The Day of the Triffids and found a disturbing synchronicity. No-one knows why the inhabitants of the Dead Cities left. One of those things which seems cataclysmic but was probably just a slow, sad drift.
Back in the car, we made it to Hama after some navigational tussles and set about finding somewhere to watch the World Cup (a recurring motif in this story). Hama is famous for its water wheels – we watched as daring young shabaab grabbed on to them, let themselves be carried upwards, then threw themselves off into the water just as they were about to be crushed by machinery. The noise from them echoed around the narrow streets of the old city, a kind of mournful groaning. Despite one of our party being convinced there was an extensive Chinese community in Hama and thus a good Chinese restaurant, we could find no evidence of this.
The next day we headed to Homs, where one of the first things I saw was this. I tried to find out from the shopkeeper what gender he was going for, but sadly my Arabic wasn’t up to it.
Another instance of genderbending in Homs – I was mistaken for a boy in a cafe and we were directed into the shabaab section, where the mistake was realised to much effusive apology. Just to take things further we decided to go to the ultra-traditional male cafe round the corner where the surly manager shot me evil looks and refused to give us his backgammon set. A nice young man working there later handed one over, saying ‘Don’t worry about him, he’s Egyptian.’ Burn. Syria seems more conservative in some ways – the harassment is nothing on Egypt, virtually non-existent, but there seem to be more exclusively male enclaves. Women in Damascus dress a lot more liberally though – big Christian population.
Then onwards to Krak des Chevaliers, probably the best castle in the world. All other castles better just stop frontin’.
Next stop on the Grand Tour of Old Shit was Palmyra, where we stayed in one of those ‘genuine’ Bedouin camps. We scowled our way through the traditional performance and went to bed early. The only genuine part of the experience was the bed, which felt like a genuine camel’s back. I couldn’t sleep and went on a night time walk around the ruins – lots of them were open and they were all lit up spectacularly. I lay on broken columns and watched shooting stars flash overhead in total silence. Until, that is, I heard the howling and realised I was surrounded by wild dogs. Careful manoeuvring and a judicious use of stones meant that alHamdulilaah I was not mauled to death in a Roman archaeological site.
Ed and I conquered the Temple of Bel then went to watch the World Cup in downtown Palmyra. As we were leaving, a sandstorm was blowing up in the desert. We hitched a lift, slightly drunk, on the back of someone’s motorbike through the storm. That night we hit Palmyra again for dinner. I saw a guy across the street who looked pure Cambridge – I had to do a double take, so floppy was his hair and crisp his striped shirt. We went over to talk and found out he was a classics graduate from Oxford who was on a ruins tour of the Middle East. His name was David and he always carried with him a copy of Horace’s Odes, ‘for comfort’, he said. He had it out during dinner and would occasionally flip through the pages with his spare hand.
We returned the car to Damascus and I sat and talked to the girl in the shop for an hour while the others got cash. Karen was 20 and Christian; she spent a lot of the conversation moaning about mahjoobias (hijab-wearers) and their disapproving looks, saying she wanted to move to Spain or Brazil. I told her I was going to Iran and she was horrified. ‘What are you going to do there?’ she said. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, truthfully. She shrugged, then added, ‘But you know, they are a friend to our country. Syria needs someone strong to look after it, and Iran protects us. But I would never, ever go there.’