Syria, at last

17 August - I slept at the church last night. I leave at 9 and call on Ayten, but find everybody sleeping. The grandfather opens the door. The gorgeous 96-year-old man, who feels all the burden of his age, is really adorable with his Turkish style trousers and a sort of beret on his head. I tell him to say goodbye to everyone.

I am confident the passport has arrived, but should it not be so, I will accept whatever comes. Actually they tell me at the agency that the passport is there. I get it back with the help of the taxi drivers as it had been sent to their name. I then wait for the Yayladagi dolmus like two days ago. The bar owner sees me again and asks for explanations: "Why did you leave and come back?"


The car leaves after nearly an hour. I walk from Yayladagi to the frontier, hoping for a lift like last time, but I'm not as lucky. I had a strenuous hour's walk on the sunny road, between pine woods in the cicadas' buzz. Before entering the frontier a driver stops and says he's going to Lattakia. I understand he wants my presence on board for some odd reason, but I'm interested in the lift, so accept. The police, though, don't like the deal and they stop him for some irregularity in the documents. I get away from him and cross the two frontiers on foot.

In Syria they tell me I should wait for the microbus to Lattakia at the street corner. A youth selling fruit at a stall invites me to sit in the shade on his sofa and offers me an apple and I notice his joking and ironic nature while talking to him. After well half an hour the bus comes. On board a man shows me some conjurer's tricks with a coin and playing cards. Then he gives me his email address, without domain, but complete with password, to stay in touch.

In Lattakia I take a bus to Haffe to see the stunning Saladin's fortress plunged in an unexpected landscape of thick woods. I take a hotel in central Lattakia. The receptionist entertains me on politics, speaking in English due to the sensitive subject, and showing Sunni victimism and a very sectarian outlook on life.

I have an excellent falafel sandwich, a shawarma and a fruit shake. I'm in a different world from yesterday. I feel a bit annoyed by so many veiled women, by the hotel guy's outburst, by confusion and untidiness, imprecision of everything. I stay on a bar terrace until late.

18 August - I buy fatayer for breakfast with a glass of tea. The city is quiet, few shops are open today, Friday. I have a complicated schedule before me, because I'd like to visit Aphamea, but transports could be tricky because of the holiday. I take a bus to Musiaf via Banyas along a road crossing the coastal mountains. A passenger next to me point out Wadi al-Jahannam, Hell's Valley, a singular deep ravine between the hills. In Musiaf I can see the Assassins' fortress from a distance, but Iimmediately take a bus to Hama. From there I leave immediately to Suqeilibiyya, then a further short trip takes me to Qalaa Mudiq, around which lies the archaeological site. I visit the museum in a vast caravanserai, then walk up the hill.

At the ticket booth the caretaker offers me a glass of cold water, which I badly needed. After an interesting visit to the long colonnaded street I sit with him and two other men to have a rest, drinking some tea and another glass of water. One of them, probably a tourist guide or a driver, is keen on telling lewd jokes. On the way down I stop by the ancient fortress, now inhabited: it's a fascinating mix between mediaeval architecture and modern elements with farming purpose. The panorama on the al-Ghab plain, bordered by the mountains I crossed this morning, is superb.

I hitch-hike back to Suqailibiyya, then take a microbus to Hama. I take a bed in a shared room at the clean, tidy and pretty Riyad Hotel,.

At dusk I take a few shots of the imposing nooriahs in the park, the city's symbol, creaking in their continuous slow churning and dripping with water. Two boys approach me to talk, they offer me a drink, then we walk to the church they are keen to show me. They buy me a ration of beans. I assume from not-too cryptic hints that there is more than friendship between the two; it appears that juvenile homosexuality is a rather widespread phenomenon in the Arab culture.

Back to the hotel I sit in the common room to read, but won't concentrate. There are a New Zealander lady and an American girl too. Towards midnight a Kuwaiti comes and insists on me having a piece of the pizza he has ordered. His family is in Kuwait, but he's spending his holiday in Syria by himself. We get into talk until past one and tells me among other things of Iraq's tragic invasion of his country in the second Gulf war.

19 August - I have breakfast with the delicious halawat al-jebn and tea, then wake Abdel Aziz who wants to take me to the market. At the reception I find a girl of delicate beauty, fair hair and eyes, charming voice. Ah, Syria…

I need to change 50 euros, but on Saturday banks are closed, so a clerk confirms, leaning out of a window protected by a grid. He asks me what I need and I answer I'd like to change some money. Then he asks me what currency I have and what amount, then checks the current rate on a sheet. I understand it's as if I were at the teller and in fact I'm making the transaction. I hand him the banknote, he works out the equivalent, and gives me Syrian pounds. It's exhilarating, I cannot believe it!

I buy herbs for infusions, coffee, zaatar, putting off further purchases to Damascus. I go to the "bulman" station, phone Ahmad who is unofortunately in Derezzor for work. We won't be able to meet, but gives me Husseyn's phone number for me arrange a date with him. I call him at once and says he will be at his lawyer's office until 10 pm, but we can meet later. I suggest calling him again from Damascus.

I take a bus to the capital and get there at 5. I reach Suq Saruja by a service bus and take a bed in a dorm at Saada, then go on errands in different parts of the city. I take a bus to Bab Tuma. I feel fairly confident of my orientation, in spite of some hesitation due to a long absence. In Bab Tuma I observe in admiration, as if for the first time, the wonderful old houses of the neighbourhood, their first floor overhanging on the narrow lanes. Some streets have been paved with porfidy since last time and look very nice. I notice some new shop here and there.

I ring Amal's door bell. In surprise, she lets me into her little yard and offers me coffee. I chat pleasantly with her next to the fountain, then we are joined by her parents. I have noticed how strong is the Syrian people's support to Hezbollah in this moment of crisis: every wall is plastered with banners, posters, flags and stickers with the Party's yellow flag; but I'm surprised to find this position very clearly stated even by this Christian family.

I call on Um Bassam and meet Johnny on the way who recognises me and calls out to me. At Um Bassam's there are two women teanants that I do not trust. One is Iraqi, the other from Lattakia. Maybe dancers? I give my news, then towards 10 I leave.

I walk on the Straight Street until I find a phone box to call Husseyn and I make a date at Ruknaddine in front of Ibn Nafis Hospital at 10.30. From there, he takes me to his house making his way through a maze of lanes between orderless buildings. I see his brother Bashar the dentist and a very pretty girlfriend of theirs,. We stay up talking until 3.30 then go to bed. I'm already thinking of the long list of things I have to do tomorrow before leaving.