The International Writers Magazine: In Lebanon Guy Burton in
the Middle East
and the Babylonian
"For want of a better word, we are calling the latest crop
of buses luxury. These new companies arrived on the
scene in the early 90s, and in general fares are at least
50% higher than with Karnak [the state-run company]..."
Lonely Planet, 1997
Travelling by bus
in Syria is an experience. I wanted to take a train, but I was never
successful. On the one occasion I arrived at the train station bright
and early in the morning, I was told there would not be one until late
afternoon and that was the only one for the day. So bus it would
Syrian buses have supposedly improved since the 1980s, when the state
provided the vehicles. Since the early 1990s bus travel has been deregulated
and more private companies are taking up the slack. As a result, several
companies may now compete with the state on the same line. If you are
lucky you will snag one of the newer luxury buses with all the mod cons;
if fate is against you, you may well end up with a vintage state-sponsored
orange and grey special, the fabled Karnak of the Syrian road.
I travelled from Damascus to Palmyra, in the middle of the Syrian Desert
and midway between the capital and the Euphrates River. The bus itself
was pristine, gleaming and polished. It would not have looked out of
place on an American highway and would have drawn admiring comments
from Greyhound enthusiasts.
And yet I should have been more suspicious. Although Palmyra is only
four hours from Damascus, four hours can seem like eternity when it
is accompanied by non-stop Egyptian films on the closed circuit TV and
video player available on this particular lines buses. Egypt is
the Hollywood of the Middle East; its actors and actresses are usually
more well-known than those of neighbouring countries. But dominance
does not necessarily mean quality. On this particular occasion, Egypts
version of Laurel and Hardy were keen to impress their viewers in all
manner of guises, from musical numbers to cross-dressing. Keen on slapstick,
the subtleties if there were any were drowned out by the
noise of the soundtrack.
On other occasions, when regional film was not the order of the day,
we could expect the acting talents of those genteel sophisticates, Arnold
Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude van Damme. Gore and violence, accompanied
with plenty of noise, was a guaranteed way of achieving complete peace
over your captive audience: one man even managed to sleep contentedly
through the whole of Red Heat, while Arnie obliterated the whole of
Assuming no films, what else could the intrepid Syrian bus traveller
expect? If, like me, you brought along a walkman, one needed to be mindful
of a few house rules. It was essential to invite not just your immediate
neighbour, but also those sitting across the aisle, in front and behind,
to share the melodious tunes within. Invariably this means your walkman
disappears on a circuit of the bus, before returning with the battery
power low. You immediate neighbour, if he is so inclined, would expect
to share the headphones with you for a section of the journey, but only
if the music involves much of the vocal wailing, hand-clapping and synthesised
twirling which passes for Arab pop music.
As a foreign visitor, you will be an object of curiosity to all and
sundry. Conversations will be initiated, only to be wound down when
it becomes apparent your Arabic stretches no further than asking for
a hotel room or a lamb kebab. Nevertheless, there will always be one
passenger who does not believe you fail to grasp his language and will
resolve the problem by speaking at you slowly and louder. Others, if
they speak English will fail to understand you and even land themselves
in trouble. On one bus I fell into conversation with a small man with
leather skin. He had the largest eyebrows ever seen this side of the
"When I got on the bus, I thought you must be Syrian. You look
like an Arab."
"Oh, thank you very much. Where do you come from?"
It turned out he was a lawyer from a town beyond Deir ez-Zur, near the
"I am a Babylonian," he said, with pride.
I wasnt sure whether he was the last remaining one.
"My brother studied medicine in Moscow. I studied in Beirut."
I mentioned I had been in Lebanon recently, visiting friends.
"Are you a Christian?"
"Yes, but not a good one. I was baptised as a Catholic."
He smiled at me. "I am a Catholic too."
This was news to me. I assumed most Christians in Syria were Orthodox.
"Do you follow the teachings of John Paul?" I asked. He frowned,
not following what I had asked. He had difficulty with the term pope.
Behind him was an older man, who had been listening into our conversation,
although he could not have understood what we were saying. Upon learning
what we were discussing he launched into a tirade against all false
religions, the truth of Islam and the importance of following Allah
and the teachings of Mohammed. Another travellers ears were pricked;
he also had something to say about the nature of religion. Mr Eyebrows
was soon engulfed in a theological debate which made what you see at
Speakers Corner in Hyde Park on a Sunday look like a teddy bears
Bus drivers are a breed apart. Some of them seem destined for greater
things. One day I got on the bus to find Roger Moore at the wheel. With
the top button of his shirt open, his finely combed hair, waxed moustache
and sunglasses, our driver exuded star power. He waited for everyone
to settle down in the bus before he strode on, flashed a cursory glance
in our direction and deposited himself behind the wheel. Smoothing down
his moustache, he adjusted his shades, patted down a loose strand of
hair and revved the engine. We were off!
Five hundred metres and two minutes down the road he pulled in. He switched
off the engine and suavely stepped off, leaving behind some broken female
hearts and quizzical stares from the rest of us. We had made the first
refreshment stop of the day.
Away from drivers and fellow passengers, there is the scenery to enjoy;
at least for the first ten minutes. Travelling in the Syrian Desert
may fill one with wonder the first time round, but afterwards it becomes
exceedingly monotonous. The landscape outside the towns is flat and
arid. What vegetation exists is clustered and infrequent. The hills
may rise and fall, but there are no mountains to admire, few rivers
to observe and even less traffic to crash.
But adventure there definitely is. An hour outside of Aleppo I was roused
from the window view by a sudden, but very, loud explosion. Dust from
under the seats directly over the rear wheels suddenly filled the interior.
Those sitting jumped up, blinking wildly around them, as if they had
been stung and trying to see where it had come from. We pulled into
a small, non-descript village. We had blown a puncture in the rear wheel
and the tyre was in shreds. The driver and the mechanics in a nearby
garage came out, jacked up the bus, pulled the wheel off and had it
back on again in almost no time at all 25 minutes to be exact.
I turned to an English speaker sitting near me: "That was quick."
"Yes," he said. "But they get a lot of practice."
© Guy Burton November 7th 2004
Guy Burton in the city ruins
Guy Burton goes backpacking
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