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The International Writers Magazine
: In Lebanon Guy Burton in the Middle East

Arnie and the Babylonian
Guy Burton
"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 invariably be.

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 line’s 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, Egypt’s 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 downtown Chicago.

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 Euphrates.
"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 Turkish border.
"I am a Babylonian," he said, with pride.
I wasn’t 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 traveller’s 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’ picnic.

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

Ancient Tyre
Guy Burton in the city ruins

In Lebanon
Guy Burton goes backpacking

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