My Short Lived Career Smuggling Art

I’d been avoiding Ahmed all week; he needed to speak to me. I didn’t need to speak to him. If the shop was busy and he had customers I would be able to slip past without him seeing me, I hurried my pace; I risked a glance into the shop and couldn’t see him, then just as I thought I had got away he was standing directly in front of me. Ya John, my brother he chirped and leant in to kiss my cheeks, Ahmed I was just looking for you I said.

It was the summer of 2003 and I had just rented a dilapidated house in the heart of Damascus. Ahmed was Egyptian and we had bonded over stories of Cairo, since our first meeting he called me his brother. He had to leave Cairo because of a dispute with some of his colleagues in the drug supply trade, he had been shot and happily showed me the scar on his stomach. Needless to say I was quite impressed. It was his morning off work and I agreed to have a glass of tea with him so we walked past the two best cafes in Damascus to a dismal alley and his one roomed apartment.

The room was mostly brown, sparse and very neat, the single bed made and coat of dust on every surface. I picked a small framed photograph, Ahmed wearing a long trench coat posing in the snow in front of the statue of Salah al-Din al-Ayubbi, the Kurdish hero whose mortal remains are entombed in a shrine a few hundred meters from where we were sitting. The day I arrived in Damascus he said referring to the picture and handing me the glass of undrinkable tea.

He started to ramble on about art and me being an artist I would understand; I had no idea what he was talking about. His English would drift between eloquent and unintelligible. It’s our big chance he said. I picked up a small hunting knife and removed the blade from its sheath, wow, is this yours? I asked wondering what other weapons he may have. It’s yours he said, no, I can’t, please you are my brother you must have it. I said of course I can’t accept it. I said I really must be getting along; I downed the tea and left with a mouthful of tea leaves and the hunting knife protruding from my pocket.

Over the next couple of weeks I would bump into Ahmed and he would always mention the art thing and ask when I would be free, anytime I would say and still have no clue what he was talking about. Eventually after he had assured me it would only take fifteen minutes of my time I gave in and agreed to meet him the next morning, just fifteen minutes he said time and time again.

As I strolled down the slope of Talet al Adi Ahmed was waiting on the corner, he was wearing a blue business suit and looking at his watch as though I was late, he was in an unusually serious mood. Nobody does drug deals at nine in the morning I reassured myself, it will only take fifteen minutes he had said.

We didn’t seem to have time for the customary greetings; Ahmed nodded to two other guys waiting on the other corner; they were stocky and short and had Turkic features, they could have been twins. One was speaking on a mobile phone, rare and expensive in Syria in 2003, when he stopped speaking Ahmed asked for the phone, he looked at it and then slipped it into his jacket pocket; I should keep this he said to the twin, the twin just shrugged and we all set of.

The Old City was just waking up, the shops in the Souk were only just beginning to open, the incessant dust was being brushed from carpets and doorsteps, tea was being boiled and bread being bought. The morning dappled sunlight was falling between the vines. None of which we noticed as we strode along the narrow street.

We emerged from the shaded Souk into the glare of Bab Touma; car horns and chaos. Waiting beyond the arched Roman gate was a small white van, the Driver slouching on the bonnet smoking. Ahmed glanced over his shoulder at me and nodded, I nodded back. I don’t recall any greetings; Ahmed removed his jacket, folded it carefully and asked me to hold it as I took the front passenger seat and the others crawled into the back, I have the phone said Ahmed. It wasn’t his or mine so why this mattered I have no idea, but then I had no idea why I was even sitting in the van. Fifteen minutes had now elapsed.

The Driver, keen to show his automotive skills weaved through the busy traffic of the eastern suburbs and onto the Homs highway, a road I had travelled many times, a road I thought I would probably die on, an Indy 500 of lawless commuters, the Driver shifted down and we sped forward.

An hour had passed and finally we turned off the highway, we wound our way into Yabrud, a town sitting in the lap of the Anti-Lebanon, the sight of the mountains lifted my spirits, perhaps this would turn out to be pleasant day-trip, a picnic perhaps. We made our way through the town, past elegant houses with bougainvillea or something pink and flowery flowing over the high walls, the car slowed and we pulled up beside villa, understated and with the shutters down, a group of men wearing leather jackets and ominous slacks were standing at the entrance, a couple more were on the other side of the street leaning against a parked car. Fucking hell I thought, it is a drug deal and I’m the bag-man.

I handed Ahmed his jacket and we followed one of the heavies into the house, our paunchy host greeted us in a crowded dining room, the table filled the room and art filled the walls, we squeezed past the furniture into a living room of sorts, our host gestured for us to sit and sent for tea, I manoeuvred myself into the corner, Ahmed on a chaise lounge, our knees pressed against coffee tables, every inch of wall space was covered with artwork, my eyes flicked from image to image without registering details, the frames were often mismatched and crooked.

Ahmed had introduced me as an art expert from London, infinity preferable to drug mule, especially with my constitution. As tea was consumed and coffee summoned conversation had taken a somewhat surreal turn. I was back in school, I hadn’t been paying attention to class and now I was being asked a question. All eyes were now on me; Ahmed was asking me what I thought, I nodded in faked agreement, he stared at me and tipped his head towards the art, go on he said, do your stuff. Oh right, yeah, my stuff, I stood up for a closer inspection of the art, my hands clasped behind my back, I leaned in and went from picture to picture, very impressive I said stepping back and trying to avoid knocking over the cluttered coffee tables, I was thinking of mentioning brush strokes or use of tone and colour when my attention suddenly focused on a signature that read Picasso, I sat back down, I looked up at the meter wide or so painting hanging above Ahmed and said; Picasso; our host nodded in approval, clearly I knew my stuff, I reached for my coffee and noticed a Goya wedged into the corner, the room was floor to ceiling Old Masters and I would be using my extensive foreign connections to find buyers for them, my esteemed Egyptian colleague would handle the smuggling, how could this possibly go wrong.

Probably fakes I thought to myself as we all shook hands; we were all looking forward to doing business together. Ahmed straightened his jacket, checked the phone, slapped me on the back and we sped back to Damascus, I spent most of the journey wondering who I know that would buy a stolen Picasso.

No sooner home I got straight to work; I typed ‘stolen Picasso’ into the search engine, the first hits were for the FBI and Interpol, I searched their data bases but didn’t recognize any of the missing art, another result was a news article about the capture of smuggler just over the border in Turkey. Was the art genuine of fake I kept wondering, where had it all come from? Smuggling has always been big business near the Syrian borders and Yabrud was very close to the Lebanese border, war has a habit of fuelling these trades and Lebanon had suffered its fair share. The notoriously porous border with Iraq was a long drive through the desert, these days mostly busy with Jihadists.

I tried to explain to Ahmed the seriousness of what he was contemplating, in return he kept reminding me, his brother, that this was our big chance; should I think of someone with a spare the odd several million dollars I would mention it I assured him. 

Time passed and Ahmed gave up on me and he eventually disappeared from the Old City, there were various rumours as to what had happened to him, some involved the secret police. I have no idea what happened to the villa in Yabrud that seemed to house more fine art than the National Museum. I often saw the Turkic Twins around the Old City, they avoided eye contact.


 Several Years later: A coffee shop conversation with a Syrian friend who knew the story-

Syrian Friend; did you hear Monzer has been arrested?

Me; who is Monzer?

Syrian Friend; Monzer al Kassar

Me; go on?

Syrian Friend; you went to his house that time in Yabrud.

Monzer al Kassar International arms dealer;

Aka the Prince of Marbella

Aka the Peacock

‘Just remember, when you look into his eyes,’ said one former western official, who does not want his name used, ‘you’ll be looking into pure evil.’

Monzer al Kassar was captured in a DEA sting operation in Spain and is now serving a life sentence in United States Penitentiary, Marion Illinois.


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80 thoughts on “My Short Lived Career Smuggling Art

  1. Pingback: Reblogging : My Short Lived Career Smuggling Art – Sasha M Hitchner Stories and Lessons

  2. Interesting story. I had a very similar experience in October of 2002 in Damascus, with a man known as Ahmed al-Masri who was around 38-40 years old. We were driven to a house where I was shown artefacts ‘stolen from museums in Iraq’. I was asked to help link the men up with dealers in such artworks. A few years later Ahmed contacted me after he had arrived in the UK with the help of people smugglers and a French friend, but then he seemed to disappear. I wonder if it was the same man?

    1. Hi Sandy
      I did hear of several similar stories and think there was some sort of scam going on with willing tourists. My adventure was in 2003 so I guess it could have been the same chap, I remember him being younger but could easily be mistaken. Would love to catch up with him if he ever does contact you again.
      How long were you in Damascus for?

      1. Hi John
        Many thanks for your reply. I was in Syria for four months, and for my last two months Ahmed and I lived together in a rented house in Damascus. Ahmed had many friends who were trying to reach Europe with the help of people smugglers, and a mujahideen visited our house once and had a very long meeting with him. I was fairly oblivious of anything too nefarious at that time, though there were many signs.
        Ahmed was deported to Italy from the UK because he had been fingerprinted there (Dublin Agreement). He became quite radical and angry after this, and over the next couple of years told me he was involved in protests for Palestine, was imprisoned for a while, and got very badly beaten up. The last email I received was in April 2010, and he has not posted on his Facebook page since May 2011. If he does resurface and get in touch with me, I’ll give him your details.

  3. Pingback: My Short Lived Career Smuggling Art – Rush Naf

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  5. Spooky story – you’re lucky.

    Decades ago I was riding with a guy who I thought was a friend. We pulled into an apartment parking lot, he said he needed to pick up something, asked me to go with him.

    We stepped in. Glaring armed badasses lined the walls and no one was sitting except for a guy at the kitchen table. On the table was a razor blade, a scale, a pile of baggies, a semiautomatic hand gun, and the biggest brick of cocaine I’d ever seen. I froze. I wasn’t worried about the badasses or if the police might show up. I was worried that any minute a rival drug gang might bust in and off all of us.

    I don’t remember if any of them were wearing ominous slacks.

  6. To click trough your blod was really amazing. 🙂 I am a student from Austria and the task to create my own blog with wordpress was given to me. To get a good mark at university it’s neccesary to have a lot of visits and follower. I need klicks every day until 25th of January. My blog is about my wonderful homeland Carinthia. In fact it’s really hard to get visits, likes and follower. It would be a pleasure, if you would follow me:

    Thanks 🙂

  7. I only get sporadic wifi signal here, so I download articles to read upstairs or I would mould into the downstairs hammock and never be able to get out again.
    The download had not recorded your photographs, just the words. And you know what? You paint a marvellous picture with just words. I almost forgot to even follow up the photographs later.
    “Ominous slacks”?! Awesome! 🙂

  8. The nearest I got to consorting with a criminal in Egypt was the German pork butcher. He had mixed pork with beef to make a tastier sausage and went to the expat’s jail. We used to enjoy drinks with him at the bar. Yours was a much more fascinating tale!

      1. The bar has long since closed but it was in Maadi Gedida. The customers were very interesting. The Saudi Princess who looked like a Goth. The scary Military Attache from some country in deepest Africa.
        All is well here, just waiting and waiting for vaccines.

  9. my favorite lines –

    perhaps this would turn out to be pleasant day-trip, a picnic perhaps

    leather jackets and ominous slacks

    Ahmed had introduced me as an art expert from London, infinity preferable to drug mule, especially with my constitution.

    The morning dappled sunlight was falling between the vines. None of which we noticed as we strode along the narrow street.

    Syrian Friend; you went to his house that time in Yabrud.

    Monzer al Kassar International arms dealer;

    Aka the Prince of Marbella

    Aka the Peacock

    Whew! Phew! So glad you lived to tell the story!

    So much fun to read your work – and see your photos. Thank you!

  10. Oh I love your writing style! Enjoyed the vividness of descriptions and humour so much that I read this out loud to my husband. I don’t know the Middle East but you bring it, and some of the locals, alive to me. If I had coffee with you in real time, I’m sure I’d choke on it as you regale your tales!!

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