Eye Spy in Damascus

Finding more time on my hands than one would realistically hope for I delved into the dusty recesses of long forgotten cardboard boxes and started re-reading books that have languished for the last seventeen years; they were all kept for a reason, quarantined due to pandemic not being one of them. They were books that severed a purpose, which educated, inspired and in some way shape shifted the trajectory of my life.

The Graham Greene’s though were really just for amusement, escapism, beautifully written and laced with humour and pathos, they were never read to inspire, at no point did I put one down and think I really must dash off to the Colonies, my actual and his literary paths were never meant to cross, with the possible exception of an Oxford pub to two.

And yet, there was a moment while living in Damascus I felt I had become a character in one of his novels, one of those eccentric expats embroiled in matters politically obscure or of the heart.

That moment came while taking my usual walk into the Old city from my apartment in the suburbs, a walk I made almost every day, except that the previous evening I had been made aware I was being investigated by the intelligence services, the not very secret police.

I closed the door of my apartment building and stood for a second on the step, the street was noisy as usual, mini buses parked three deep on the corner and the din of car horns, I looked left and right without moving from the door, the delivery guy from Pizza Panda said good morning as he passed by, over the street the woman from the Post Office was waving at me, I gave a half hearted wave back, nothing seemed out of the ordinary and yet my mind was full of suspicion, I set off and passed the two fruit and vegetable stalls, I said hello to the guy that always says hello to me and I  ignored the guy who ignores me. Who were the good guys I started to wonder, the ones that said hello with a cheery smile or the ones that didn’t.

And so it began, the years of paranoia, of looking over my shoulder, thinking twice before answering a simple question, seeing two possible faces to every person I met.

My apartment block sat in the middle of a busy middle class neighbourhood, below were the gated villas of the well-to-do and the president’s office and where suited security lined the streets. Above were the ad-hoc half built houses clinging to the side of the mountain like Angora goats.

I scanned the faces of everyone in the street as I set off, if anyone was following me I was sure to know, as usual I walk quite quickly but as passed the French mandate era buildings of Afif I slowed to a dawdle and look in shop windows, casually I looked back along the street, had I not seen the guy in the blue t-shirt a few minutes earlier near my house? He crossed the street and disappeared and I continued on my way. Trying not to keep looking over my shoulder I crossed the intersection of Jisr al Abayad, the White Bridge, there was no bridge and nothing was white, concrete concealed the river, was anything ever clear in this city? The streets would have two names, the official name and the one everybody knew it as, and even houses would have more than one number, the real version and the official version.

The information I had received the previous day was that shortly after I had left an internet cafe in the Old City, two plain clothed security guys had entered and shown the friend of a friend running the place a book of mug shots, they asked which computer I had been using, connected their own laptop to the system and copied whatever information they found. Not long after that I discovered my bank account and pay pal accounts had been accessed although nothing touched. Internet access was still in its early days, at home my connection was still dial-up and the few cafes had better connections and often VPNs to access the many blocked sites. I now also now knew that a file was open on me and contained all my emails translated into Arabic. No doubt a very tedious job for a recent English graduate, translation app’s still a thing of the future, the very near future.

The street now was busy with woman shopping, predominantly for modest fashion, white hijab and black cloaked formidable Syrian Mothers moving from shop window to shop window in small groups, gossiping and giggling like schoolgirls, retail experts who drive a hard bargain and fear into the hearts of the trembling over polite sales assistants.

I chanced another glance over my shoulder and tried to pick out faces, a glance so swift and casual all I could make out was a blur of pedestrians. French architecture had given way to Soviet, built for purpose and function and mostly failing in both. The shops I was passing were less busy here at this hour, tacky teenage fashion, glittery Ts and Topshop fakery; I weaved in and out of the sequinned mannequins stationed on the pavement.

I stopped to browse at a rack of bootleg dvds, Arabic action and adventure, slap stick and Mr bean, the scruffy electrical souk stacked high, my eyes wandered to an Italian coffee grinder sitting on top of a Chinese juicer in the window beside me, as I moved closer for a better look I noticed a reflection in the glass; the guy in the blue t-shirt was there again, or was it? I turned around and looked him straight in the face, the t-shirt was green not blue and this guy was wearing glasses, was the previous guy wearing glasses I now started to wonder, come to think of it, was his t-shirt blue or green, with doubt and increasing paranoia I slipped along the arcade hardly giving the coffee grinder a second thought.

I joined the crowds heading towards the Old City and Souk al Hamidiyah, I dodged and weaved my way through, I knew the alley-ways well, no doubt the shiny white beacon that is my bald head would be easy to spot but it was still too soon for me to consider wigs and disguises.

And then I had that moment. I emerged from the darkness of a vaulted side street into harsh sunlight and suddenly swamped by a pod of diminutive Iranian pilgrims, moving as though on wheels, covered from head to toe in shades of black and blue, the colour of my ribs as they dug their bony elbows into me as they forged forward, deviating only to look at the black and blue cloth being sold by shouting street vendors, the tiny street chaotic and crowded, I stopped, I stood still while people bumped into me and the crowd streamed past as they entered the shrine of Sayyidah Ruqayya, kissing the door frame as they slipped off their shoes.

Like some weird out of body experience I was looking down and seeing myself, as in a dream or the pages of Graham Greene, the scene was absurd and unreal, for those brief seconds my nervousness gave way and I laughed out loud. I thought of poor old Wormold and his snap action coupling vacuum cleaner in Havana. Reality and parody, art and life fused in a moment.

I had been under no illusion regarding the behaviour of the state security, my Syrian friends had been subjected to far more than I ever was, I had moved to Syria knowing full well it was a police state, totalitarian in its fullest form.

This was very much just the beginning and I would spend the rest of the coming years looking over my shoulder and suspicious of everyone I met until eventually, in 2013, I would find myself in the notorious Branch 235 of the Syrian intelligence under the command of a Brigadier General now wanted for war crimes.

And I went back and bought the Italian coffee grinder.

Our Man in Havana is as relevant today as when it was written, funny and true: Click the image to check it out.

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55 thoughts on “Eye Spy in Damascus

  1. What a great story. I’ve never read Graham Greene. I can relate to carting books around though. I can not imagine dealing face to face with being investigated by people. With the work I have done in the past and now, daily, for over five years, working to shut down the dark in power and bring forth a new timeline, I have withstood almost daily energetic attacks. They are extremely painful and sometimes almost deadly and they come out of no where and my work partner and I get them cleared through assistance by light beings who help. Sometimes it takes a week or two for my musculature to heal from them. But at least I don’t have to see the people who are after me and attempting to stop my work.

    Hope you are safe now!

    1. This was so very enjoyable to read! The button is awesome. The more buttons that get clicked on my site, the more buttons I will click on others, right?! : ) We all know how it works around here – until then.
      Also, Mr. Bean is hilarious. I’m glad that humor is well known.

  2. Thank you, I very much enjoyed reading this. If you’re interested an award winning Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas published a novel titled Damascus last year. I consider it one of my favourites of 2019. Cheers to you.

  3. Hi John. Thanks for the well-written story. I thought of heading to Syria for a trip in 2011 just after the troubles started, but decided against it in the end. Was living in UAE at that time. A few short years later I found myself in northern Lebanon, and thought of driving over the border just to set foot on Syrian soil. But only for one mad moment, as things were out of hand by then. I have worked with many Syrians during my sojourn in the Gulf, and have many friendships. Decent people all. Would love to visit Damascus, and hope to do so in the next year or two, as I believe it’s relatively safe to do so, for an Irishman. Guess you won’t be joining me for a coffee! Keep well. Maa salama. MB

  4. Fabulously descriptive of the scene and expressive of your own voice. I could imagine myself on the narrow and overcrowded streets of Damascus. Granted, my own musings of mind are likely very different from what you have seen or intended to convey, but the sign of great writing is in inspiring a kind of imagination foreplay by the reader. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

      1. I shall check out your blog from time to time. It is professionally and creatively composed. The prose brings the reader into the scene, and the wandering pilgrim part of my soul enjoys these opportunities at vicarious travel.

  5. Loved it, well and truly. Some great descriptions, such as “waving at the guys who waved at me, and ignoring those who ignored me”, or the “pod of Iranian pilgrims”.


  6. I love your photos and your story. In some parts of the world, even knowing you’ve done nothing worthy of disturbing security is not enough to keep you feeling safe when under surveillance. I’ve even experienced this in the heart of Sydney; I had to acknowledge, and trust, that my clean conscience would soon lead to boredom in the watchers.

  7. an interesting story, I can appreciate people getting paranoid about being followed. It happened to me in the UK, I was asked to justify my street photography to plain-clothed person. I was so taken aback that I forgot to look at the ID he flashed at me, it played on my mind for weeks.
    Good photos.

  8. This was a great read; such intensity of emotion and description. A novel in the making? Love Graham Greene. I would have replied sooner, but have been busy readying a novel for publication.

  9. Indeed, a great story. I can relate to your experiences because I covered the Nicaraguan revolution and the distress in Central America (1974/1980).
    I enjoyed reading you and I’ll come back for more!
    Your photos as well are excellent! Thank you!
    Keep up the great work!

  10. You reeled me in with a great yarn there! It’s bad enough when a police car happens to get behind you and you think “what have I done wrong”? Well told justifiable paranoia.

  11. Hey, I’m a small blogger and I recently posted my first 5 entries mainly surrounding the theme: mental health and creativity 🙂 If you’re interested in what I’m writing you should definitely take a look!(Also it would make me happy to reach and inspire more people)

  12. Noor

    I never understood the reason behind naming it “Jisr Al Abyad” either, hope the Italian coffee grinder was worth it tho.

  13. Enjoyed the article, nicely written. I love Damascus, didn’t get there often enough. Jabal Qasyoon and the Maqam of Grandshaykh AbdAllah Daghestani …, the maqam of Ibn `Arabi ….Sayyida Ruqayyh mashaaAllah

  14. Why play the guessing game? Why not just go to the head quarters or local station, tell them that you are an open book and invite them to ask, look into anything they want at any time?
    Just wondering. Love your posts.

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  18. Great, engaging story! Thanks for sharing! You are a good narrator, too. I noticed that you are a specialized in images of the Balkans, among other parts of the world. I was born in Romania which is situated in that particular region in Europe. Nowadays it is part of the UE, thank God! I’ve lived for 35 years in the United States and am intrigued by what’s happening here now! Stay safe out there!

    1. Thank you.
      The Balkans are still quite new to me, I will be exploring and sharing more stories soon and very much hope to visit Romania in the near future, any tips or suggestions would be greatfully received.
      Take care

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