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Three Mid East Tales by Tom Harriman


Landing in any country with an alphabet you don’t know immediately reduces you to an illiterate and suggests that you may have bitten off more than you can chew. When the people around you are all wearing headdresses and look like Yasir Arafat and the women might be veiled, tented, or at least wearing the hijab head scarf, you are further reminded that you might not be in Kansas any more. But the Amman airport was flawless, moving at modern speed, changing money, photographing you and issuing visas with computer scans, and spitting you out at a sign in English saying “Airport Express bus.”  No other Westerners were on the bus, but nobody bothers you, and off you go through the desert. The rains have just finished, so some greenery is popping up to feed the goats. Bedouin tents are pitched willy-nilly in unoccupied ground, with their herds of goats roaming, led by small boys throwing rocks to direct the flow. Monstrous gated houses, surrounded by silvery green olive groves line the airport highway, providing hideaways for any one needing rapid access to a major international airport.

Amman sprawls over many hills, in a clear spring light, with little trash and organized traffic. Government offices sprout up, with the Human Rights Office near the Jordan Nuclear Regulatory Department, both surprising. The only visible police were radar-sighting traffic, and no soldiers were to be seen.

Mesjids and minarets dominated every neighborhood. Imagine a life where a call to prayers went out five times a day in song. Perhaps there are neighborhoods with competing Sunni, Ismaili, Shiite, and Wahabite imams publicly competing, which would be like having to listen to Mike Huckabee,  Pat Robertson, the Reverend Ike, and Billy Graham at the same time live on loud speakers, rather than co-existing on separate TV channels. We pulled into a calm bus station and relaxed cab drivers picked up the passengers. My driver, Yousef, spoke good English, and drove me for fifteen minutes for three dollars to the Hotel Farah, tucked up a staircase behind a cinema in downtown Amman.

I wandered out to a main street, dominated by sweets restaurants, with variations on honey, dough, pistachios, and cream puffs. I ate at the Jerusalem restaurant, sans menu in English, but the maitre d’ walked me through to the obvious choice- shish kebab? Salad? But what I was missing was a frosty cold one, the amber fluid, some suds. No sign advertised a bar or beer. I walked by a beer cooler outside a shop, but it was vandalized, with Arabic graffiti, perhaps saying “No drunken infidels allowed!” I asked my hotel front desk where one might sink a brew, and the answer was clear- the only choice, the only bar around, the Jordan Bar. Now, one might be suspicious to be directed to the American bar in America, the New York bar in New York, as why would a bar have a name that was only the name of an entire kingdom? Does it suggest that there might not BE many bars? I followed the little map the desk clerk drew and found a suspicious alley, one I might not have chosen, and then had to go down an even more inauspicious cul de sac alley, but there it was, the “Jordan Bar- Established 1942” in English. It was a pleasant hole in the wall bar, a few locals drinking arak, anisette, with flashing Christmas lights behind the back bar and male singers crooning about their “habibis,” or loved ones, in Arabic. I ordered a beer made in Jordan- out came a frosty half liter of locally brewed Amstel, the real deal, 5% alcohol by volume. Suddenly I felt normal, having a beer, with a label partly in English, looking up at a rack of Stolichnaya and J&B Scotch. As I walked back to the hotel in the vacant Friday Sabbath streets, a lyrical voice blasted above me from a minaret, calling the faithful to prayers, and possibly adding a reminder, “And don’t be going drinking at the Jordan Bar!”


Syria rocks your world. Damascus is the Big Date, the Big Apple, cars and motorcycles buzzing, people crossing unmarked multi-lane highways by slowly walking forward as the cars use them for slalom poles, never striking any one. From a strategy I learned in Saigon, just get downstream from a grandmother, and step forward in a leap of faith when she does, and ease across the stream of insane traffic.

The city looks as if all new construction was halted by decree in 1958, building maintenance was made a capital crime, and the new national goal was to impress tourists that this is, in fact, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, a title disputed by Baghdad, among others. Superimposed on the decaying Stalinist concrete buildings, as a sort of sprinkled accent, are the giant, old-fashioned six foot satellite TV dishes, all aimed north, rather than, say, toward Mecca. Almost all signs are in Arabic, although street signs, where they still exist, give the Latin alphabet names, Al-Nasser Street, but the names change often and most streets have the helpful blank rectangular dent in the stucco where the sign used to be. And in the Old City, forget it, you are in Biblical time, where you navigate the souks by seeing it is the lane of the shoe repairmen, the bazaar of the toys, the alley of the hanging goat carcasses.  If one spoke Arabic, the directions would be, “Go past the butchers, turn right at the potato sellers, pass the mobile phone shops, turn left at the hammam, the bathhouse, and then you will see the Christian area.” I traversed the old city seeking the Christian neighborhood, where, I was assured, that there were many restaurants, all serving beer. First of all, sit-down restaurants are scarce, maybe all the men go home to be fed by their wives? Beer is as about available as a go-go bar, and asking for it from a Moslem feels like being a dope addict- “You know where I can score a few brewskis?” I kept going down cul de sacs, as every path in the souks is narrow, the sky invisible, and no clear path appeared. In one area, I was so frustrated and lost that when I saw a woman having trouble pushing her baby stroller through dirt where pipes had been dug up, I lifted up the front end, and carried it through to stones, so that then I could throw myself on the mercy of idlers, asking where is the Bab Touma, the gate of the Christians? But I was in a neighborhood of Shi’ites, with posters of the President happily embracing the head of Hezbollah, a youngish bearded Iman, with green crossed AK-47s in the background. I can only imagine what the happy slogan beneath the photo said, “Death to the Infidel, especially that dumb lost fat old American with the week old beard!” At least I learned to ask only for the Christian gate, without adding, hey, know the best bar there? Finally, after seeing a church and a convent, I had reached the Promised Land, except it looked like every other Damascus souk. A young salesman said, there, there, pointing to a crumbling block with souvenir shops and two restaurants, and, wait, two tiny hole in the wall alcohol stores! There were four or five kinds of beer, some wine, much arak, and expensive bottles of Stoly and other foreign spirits.

I snapped up four cans of Syrian beer, Barada, which helpfully said in big letters, “Serve Cool!” and bragged “considered as one of the world’s great beers,” news to me. No alcohol percentage was listed, but the shop owner assured me it really was beer. Anyway, he said lots of stuff in Arabic, maybe he said that. I also bought a bottle of Syrian red wine, which had been grown in the mountains near Lebanon, using any old red grape they could find, and then aged in a camel’s stomach. It was in Arabic, who knows what it said?

The tipsters had lied to me, no restaurant served alcohol, but I found an outdoor café which promised Pizza Italiana, and the baker said, sure, drink on the street while you eat your pizza. At first I thought maybe he was setting me up to be gunned down by the Shias for his amusement, but, no, it was really true, I popped the tab on my Barada tall boy and dug into a tasty, thin-crusted pizza Four Stages, nicely prepared. But the Barada beer may have used camel intestines as part of the brewing cycle, as it tasted like bad hard cider- cold, though! I discovered that no one drank that swill, they preferred the Lebanese import, Almaza Pilsener Beer, brewed since 1933 by the Brasserie Almaza. “A remarkably refreshing brew that is delectable, bright & cheerful. A truly Lebanese beer that genuinely reflects how we are. CHEERS!”  At 4.1.% alcohol, it was lightweight compared to Petra beer in Jordan, 8%, but I think that was directed at a different demographic, those seeking oblivion, rather than “delectable, bright & cheerful.” Refreshed by the good pizza and the pestilential Barada, I now pulled out my hole card, my hotel card, complete with Arabic map, clearly showing that it was to be found by a small police station far away. I flagged a cab but he looked at the map as if it were a New York subway chart. “You know, Hotel Al Mahata, Sheikh Ibn al Waleed street, near the Kanawat Police Station.” Yeah, right, buddy. Every taxi ride in Damascus was an exploration, cruising traffic circles, asking ignorant pedestrians directions, who would point in two directions. I had fucking walked to where I was, surely we couldn’t be that far away, but, no, we drove and drove. No one was using meters, so maybe they really couldn’t find the hotel, or they liked my company, but eventually I would realize we were on my block, and we were home. Paying was always a big negotiation, but I think the worst I got nailed was four bucks. But on my way by taxi to the bus station to the desert, I saw how close my hotel was to the Old City, and I figured I had been given the rube’s tour of Damascus to justify a two dollar bump in the charge. It was all tourism, what the hell, and any one willing to drive a taxi in the madcap Damascene traffic deserved whatever he could shake out of me.


Planning a trip to a country slightly off the beaten tourist track, such as Syria, ends up creating surprising and serendipitous happy accidents. Palmyra, a must see Roman ruins in the desert, is also a cozy little travelers’ hangout, with laid back restaurants, free internet while you have a beer, and friendly Bedouin hipsters looking to score with the tourists. At first glance, it is a giant plain of Roman columns, temples, and tombs by a desert oasis, but the tourist area near the ruins is a perfect small town, where you soon meet all the players, and every traveler you saw in Damascus, Petra, or Amman. Immediately, you are on a first name basis with your hotel and restaurant people, camel jockeys, wandering kaffiyeh sellers, and whoever greets you. But most people, misguided by their Lonely Planet books, rush in and rush out, because the books might say, “Only worth a day.” The acres and acres of columns and ruins provide different views if you head out early in the morning before the group buses arrive, or if you linger in the afternoon, waiting for the sunset. What’s the hurry, take a big bottle of water, a book, and stroll though centuries of history, propping yourself up in the shade, on a rock worn into the perfect Bauhaus chair shape over the ages. Shoot the breeze with the camel touts, ask after the camels, watch the camels take sand baths, chew their cud, spit at you, and perform their cantilevered sitting down routine. You will meet the world in the ruins, all of Europe, expats from Dubai, backpackers from everywhere, housewives from Roma, veiled Saudi women, every one but Israelis. Head back to the tourist town in the evening for camel meat, mensaf, the Bedouin feast of rice and lamb with pistachios, shish kebaps, or a date syrup pancake. What’s the rush to leave such a magical place?

But when you have had your fill of the desert, you can head to another “a short day visit is enough” destination, the Krak de Chevaliers, the Crusader archetypical castle guarding the road from the Mediterranean Sea to the interior. The guidebooks tell you to spend the night in the industrial swamp of Homs, most famous for its oil refinery, the third largest city in Syria, but ignore them and head to the castle ready to spend a few days. Don’t listen to me, believe the thousands of overseas Syrians and rich Gulf Arabs, who have built palatial houses all over the green, cool hills, covered in apple trees, olive groves, pomegranates, and fig trees. The vistas are verdant miles of hills, the snow-capped Lebanon mountains, dammed lakes, land east to the fertile Syrian plain. Now the summer houses are shuttered in the spring, the major tourist season, and you have the pleasure of staying in the Hotel Beibers, with full views of the castle so brilliant that Richard the Lion Hearted brought home the memory of it to guide his castle building in England. Sheep scamper through the olive groves, guided by timeless shepherds, donkeys graze and bray, clouds drift from the sea passing by to the desert, and the green hills roll on and on. Sure, you could be in a tourist trap somewhere else, being hassled in Damascus or buying souvenir crap in Aleppo, but why not rest in countryside so fine that oil billionaires build their getaways next to you? Most of the surrounding villages are Roman Catholic, but there are still the calls from minarets at the five prayer times, including the 4:30 a.m. wake up call that assures you still have hours more to sleep. Tour the castle at your leisure, avoiding the crowded times with the cacophony of dueling Italian and French tour guides, imagining that you have ridden from Europe for months to save the Holy Land from the Moslems, and maybe make a few gold denarii along the way.

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