Do You Have Any Weapons Asked the Syrian Officer?

wreford-6The ancient walls of my Damascene house are a foot deep and yet the noise from outside penetrate as though its wafer thin, fortunately for the most part it’s a quiet neighborhood, just the kids terrorizing the feral cats or playing football are a nuisance but I can hardly grudge them that.
Lost deep in muddled dreams I woke suddenly to the sound of boots thundering along the alley outside, my heart rate and mind racing I lay wide eyed and stared up at the beams of the ceiling, a split second and the butt of a gun was being hammered against a neighbors door and a yell of “jeish” followed by the unmistakable metallic click clack of a Kalashnikov being cocked, I stumbled out of bed and comically tried to pull on my clothes, I grabbed my papers and flung a coat over my camera sitting idle as usual on my desk.
Then the inevitable crash on my door; “jeish” the young conscript barked at me, yes the army I can see that I thought but what the fuck do you want, I offered my papers instead of my thoughts and welcomed in several recruits and an officer, while the officer looked through my passport and questioned me his subordinates rooted through my house.
Did I have any weapons? Well, now there’s a funny story I thought. The truthful answer was yes I did, I had a hunting knife given to me by Ahmed the Egyptian, a failed drug dealer who was trying to move into the stolen art market, the knife was an incentive for my art world connections, probably I should relate that story at a later date, do remind me. I also had a .22 Air-rifle, a pretty harmless weapon unless you are a sparrow or a rat; in fact it was a rat that induced me to buy it, I liked the sparrows and had three regularly flitting about my courtyard, the rat though was not welcome.
Abu Eid the carpenter who worked on my house was also a gun dealer-well collector is probably a more accurate description-maybe, in his workshop he presented various options including an French army pistol and a pump action shot gun, I felt a bit of a wimp going for the .22 but I paid him a 1000 Syrian Lira and hid it inside a rucksack to take home.
Needless to say my reply to the Syrian officer sucking the atmosphere out of my courtyard was a definitive no, of course I didn’t, over his shoulder I watched one of the conscripts poking around near the sofa where I had concealed the rifle, they searched the house as they had been searching all the houses in the Old City, the officer handed back my papers and they all left leaving a stale smell of sweat and tobacco lingering in the night air.
I didn’t really think the silly gun would be a problem but had decided to hide it inside the sofa just to keep it out of sight; nosey neighbors able to peek down into the courtyard could easily mistake it for something more sinister.
This was the first house search, there followed several more, each time a similar routine, on one occasion one of the soldier checking my terrace yelled down excitedly I had a chair up there, the implication being I may be a sniper, I explained its where I drink my coffee in the mornings, you can ask the snipers on the other roof I was tempted to say who some time earlier had waved me from my morning ritual. On another occasion I stupidly decided to sort out all my camera equipment, my desk was strewn with everything I had, old, redundant and broken as well as current, I knew before going to bed I should hide it all away again but couldn’t be bothered, what were the chances of another midnight visit?
They bashed on the door early next morning, I wearily welcomed the troops in, the cannon fodder fanned out and poked around my laundry while for some inexplicable reason I ushered the officer into my office, you are an artist he asked-referring to my answer earlier about my occupation, yes a painter I emphasized with a squiggle movement of my hand and an imaginary brush, a routine I had practiced often, once while crossing the border at Qamishly the border guard suggested we go to his office where I could paint his portrait! There were precious few signs of any painting around my office only something akin to the annual stock-take at Dixons, yep an artist I repeated, I can’t say he looked convinced but he didn’t pursue it, weapons is what he was after and once again they failed to look in the sofa, which I should mention is a style common in Syria with a storage cupboard under the cushions.

As I continued to think about my inevitable departure from Syria I packed boxes and re-arranged the house, I wouldn’t be able to take very much with me so it was just a case of preparing the house for someone else to live in, I decided perhaps the sofa was not such a cool hiding place despite getting away with it three times, I found a narrow gap beneath the closet and slipped it under.
Getting a good night’s sleep was becoming an increasing problem, the noise of the gunfights or the sudden silence, either way it was hard to switch off, sleep was always interrupted, always.
I leapt startled from my bed again, I slept dressed these days, the hammering at my door worse than the shelling, I swore I would replace the metal door with a wooden one after this mess is over, which according to one very well informed friend would be a couple of months, I let the soldiers in and went through the charade again, this visit it slowly dawned on me was slightly different, only my house was being searched this time and not the neighborhood, the raid was being conducted by a Moukabarat officer not military, I recognized him although I couldn’t remember from where, they choose the night because you are half asleep and can’t think straight, I remained polite and answered the usual questions, they searched the house undoing the boxes of books I had packed up, this time they did look inside the sofa but by now it was empty, they bid me goodnight and departed.
I allowed myself a momentary smile of self-satisfaction even though I was under investigation and one way or another would end up either kicked out of the country or well, dead probably.

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Damascus the Beginning of the End (pt2)

I tried to put life in Syria behind me as I journeyed through Jordan; it had been a while since I had last been outside the country and it felt good not to be looking over my shoulder all the time, I did feel a sense of relief after checking into a cheap downtown Amman hotel, I have no great affection for Amman although filling up on Fuul and Falafel at Hashems is always a pleasure but putting Syria behind me was not quite as easy as I would have hoped.
My first reminder came during the night, I woke suddenly in panic only to find it was the noise from a nightclub in the next door building, my muddled mind was mixed up and for a minute I could not work out where I was, I am sure I heard gun shots, maybe I did, these kind dream induced mini panic attacks have been persisting until now, even here now in the cold light of day the sound of helicopters sends shivers down my spine.
I stayed a little too long in Amman busying myself with photography and meeting friends and was glad to be on the pre-dawn bus to Petra, now while I like to think my work shows a degree of emotion most close friends may argue that I am not prone to showing it, I am after all English so I guess I let the side down- the bus was dark and cold as I clutched a paper cup of stale Nescafe and cried to the sound of the only Lebanese women who embodies the essence of Syria; Fairuz.
From Petra to Aqaba in the hoof prints of Lawrence and that wonderful Arab revolt whose legacy is being fought over still. A boat across the Gulf of Aqaba to Sinai, through the mountains and over the Suez canal and onto to Cairo, along the Nile to the Nubian city of Aswan and back to Cairo and finally a flight to Beirut before the cab ride back to Damascus.
I met displaced Syrians at every turn, hands held out hopefully, clutching a Syrian passport as undisputed evidence of suffering, the cafes of Cairo, the Streets of Beirut and Amman most surprisingly of all on a small boat crossing the Nile to a dusty village not far from the border with Sudan, I had tried to put some distance between me and the sadness of Syria but seemingly that was not possible and now it’s time to head back.
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Aleppo, A Walk In The Park

Aleppo, A Walk In The Park

I have to confess Aleppo has never been my favorite city in Syria, I tried often to like it, after a decade of life in Damascus I guess I succumbed to the Shami perspective of preferring the capital, that said I did enjoy my frequent visits, the bus journey though was tedious, five hours of monochrome monotony apart from a brief glimpse of greenery while passing through the gardens of Hama, arriving in just the wrong mood for a city too busy to woo me the way Damascus would, I preferred the train, leaving on the midnight sleeper and arriving just after dawn, it was a longer journey but at least sleep was a possibility, arriving in any city by train is infinitely preferable, Aleppo station has seen a great deal of history pass along its platforms, the Berlin to Baghdad posters have given way to Bashar’s but the essence has been retained, well run and spotlessly clean with toilet facilities a joy to behold, not that you would, in 2003 the management even had the foresight to agree to hold the Syrian International Photography Gathering arranged by the eponymous Issa Touma, I remember old Bedouin farmers stepping off the train from the north east and pondering my images with genuine interest before heading off to do battle with the businessmen of the souk.
From the station into town is a casual stroll through a well-kept park that early in the morning is always busy with joggers and walkers, old and young, Christian and Muslim, male and female, Versace sweat pants and ipods, sitting on park bench sipping coffee it would seem to me it that it was almost compulsory that every facet of Syrian society was represented, the fountains and pools the manicured lawns, you could learn more about Syria sitting here drinking coffee than you ever would staring at Saladin’s stones, judging by the media representation of Syria recently I get the impression though that nobody ever did, so let’s stroll on to the souk, and yes it’s a labyrinth and an assault on the senses, lets gaze up at the medieval marvel that is the citadel and remark that it is, indeed imposing and then let’s turn our backs and walk away.

Syrians Heart and Soul Exile in Istanbul

Syrians Heart and Soul Exile in Istanbul

Sitting in an café in the Fatih district of Istanbul I file my pictures; a rare story this time of Syrians doing pretty well for themselves in exile, I enjoyed the same Syrian food I ate with my friends in Damascus, now all exiled themselves, Abo Nour was shoveling Ma’anish into the oven as fast as he could, from Shargour in the heart of the Damascus, a true Damascene anyone will tell you comes from the heart of Damascus and he was putting his heart and soul into baking the Ma’aish, the waiters were buzzing around bundling up the take away orders for the queue outside the shop, the café I am now sitting in is a reasonably upmarket patisserie and many of the customers are also Syrian, they made me smile while they stumbled with their Turkish, Syrians making an effort to look after themselves while their country is ripped apart and the world turns its back, while my pictures upload I read a new dispatch from Syria, a tale of gung ho and daring do, the world needs to learn what is happening to Syrians yet we read more and more drivel, I try to stifle my anger, two Syrian women are in fits of giggles as they order sweets from the counter beside me, mixing Arabic and Turkish to their, mine and the patient assistants amusement, I pay the bill and head out into the rain, despite the weather I decide to walk, as I pass a park I notice some huddled figures sheltering from the rain, I go closer and see several children huddled together and guess they are probably Syrian so I go over to them, an old guy stands up as I approach and eyes me with caution, I say hello and he welcomes me, his name is Hassan and he’s from Saida Zeynab in Damascus, his friend is from Aleppo, the kids look on curiously as we chat, he’s been sleeping rough on the streets of Istanbul for a couple of months but thank God everything is fine he tells me, he tells me of a problem he had in Damascus I and I tell him of a similar experience of mine and he shakes my hand furiously in acknowledgment of my understanding, I bid them all a good night and make my way home, the rain has eased and its not, thankfully, very cold, I think again of the article I read earlier and the injustice it does to Hassan and the forgotten people of Syria, I will go back and see him again tomorrow and maybe bring him some Ma’anish from Abu Nour, baked with the heart and soul of Damascus.