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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Down By The Creek

Down by The Creek.

I have just returned from ten days working in the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai. I have been a few times before to Dubai but only fleeting visits and always confirming my feeling that it’s a soulless monstrosity cluttering an otherwise pristine desert. This time because of the work I was doing I had more opportunity to engage with its population and this gave me pause for thought.

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I was born in London and was always proud of our multi-cultural diversity and have sadly watched at safe distance this heritage eroded and denigrated, myth and falsehoods perpetuated by fake news and fascist firebrands. I have lived as a migrant in the Middle East, a landscape torn apart by competing empires and paying the price to this day, my faith in humanity never wavers but is constantly tested, the era of Brexit and rise of the populist sodomizers intent on divide and rule and profit before morality the most depressing of tests.

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Could there be a more multi-cultural society than the UAE? Yes, the shiny mega-projects were built on exploitation amounting to modern day slavery and obscene discrimination but for all the failings the overriding asset the Emirates has to offer is its vast migrant resource. Over the course of my visit I probably met around half a dozen Emiratis and they were without exception, warm, friendly and very welcoming but everyone else was from everywhere else, I met Brits and Americans, Australians and Romanians, Pakistani, Indian and Kashmiri, Russian and Ukrainians, Syrians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Afghans, Zimbabweans, Thai, Filipino and Korean, many were the second generation of mixed expat marriages.

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Sure it was still only a short visit and its never enough to fully understand the complexities of any society but it did leave a lasting impression, not just the warmth and friendliness I was shown at every juncture but also the support and understanding shown to each other, the Russians working alongside Ukrainians, the Indians with the Pakistanis.

Without stoking the fires of fear, humanity is doing just fine.

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These random portraits were shot quickly between assignments in the busy Gold Souk and port alongside Dubai Creek.

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If you are interested to see what work I was doing in the Emirates you can check out my website: John Wreford Photographer

Istanbul based freelance travel, commercial and corporate photographer covering the Middle East and Balkans.

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