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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I’m not a violent man, but I punched him in the face.

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A Nice Quiet Corner of Damascus Old City

It was one of those biting cold Damascus winter mornings, it had been snowing and the streets were sluiced in slush, I had been living in Mohajarin on the slopes of Jebal Qasioun, I splashed in and out of the dirty puddles as I trudged down the towards the Citadel and the Old city, I think it’s fair to say Damascus doesn’t cope well with the winters, however short and neither do I.

I clambered and cursed my way over the flooded footbridge and elbowed my way through Souk al Haramia, slipping and sliding past the fish market into Malik Feisal street, I made this walk often enough and on a better day would enjoy the drama of a bustling downtown going about its myriad business, my camera bag was weighing on my shoulders by now and I was late for my assignment, was it a Monday morning-or at least it feels like one.

I made my way along Malik Feisal Street past the sorbia sellers and tin smiths, the street clogged with traffic and the pavement cluttered, a man came towards me, middle aged and wearing a heavy trench coat, the collar turned up as feeble protection against the cold, he asked me the time in Arabic and after a swift glance at my watch I replied also in Arabic, ah English he said, in English, my Arabic clearly not fooling anyone, this really wasn’t the moment to stand in the street and make new friends, I answered his questions as I continued to walk, without invitation or the slightest encouragement he changed his direction and walked along side me, he peppered me with the usual questions, my answers mono symbolic, I stepped up the pace a little and he shuffled after me, I lost track of his rambling but got the distinct impression he had some agenda, he kept mentioning a woman in his house, it all really made no sense and when I arrived at the turning into the Old City I stopped suddenly, shook his hand and bid him farewell.

He didn’t take the hint and continued to tug at my sleeve and patience, as we walked through the souk the streets became less crowded, he was mumbling now but there was a recurring mention of fruit and sexual metaphor, namely a banana, his English now also beginning to falter, he seemed slightly nervous, I tried once again to explain I really was busy and tried to left him standing outside a shop selling spanners, I turned the corner but he had dashed after me, the alley narrow and empty, he stepped in front of me, muttered again something about bananas and grabbed me between the legs, I punched him, a right hook to his cheek, he fell backwards and for a second or two sat on his arse holding his face, I moved towards him with half a mind to continue the pasting he clearly deserved, he stood up and started to cry, he began begging me and apologizing, stroking my chin as he did so, I didn’t hit him again.

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The Shuttered Shops of Damascus Souk

The perils of the solo female traveler in the Middle East are often reported, little is mentioned of the perils faced by the solo male traveler, as my previous post My Gay Adventures in the Middle East mentions, I have a volume of incidents, of course my ability to deal with the situation is somewhat different, no doubt harassers would think twice if they had been walloped, or would they?

Some months later, a clear spring morning I was outside the Damascus National Museum taking some photographs, crouching down and aiming my camera towards god knows what, somebody was trying to engage me in conversation from behind me, at first I ignored the words and just wanted to get my shot before attracting too much attention, Syria can be touchy about photographers sometimes, job done I stood up and turned around, a middle aged man was backing away from me nervously, I didn’t recognize him at first but when the toe-rag  turned tail and ran off down the street the penny dropped.

 

For those unfamiliar with Arabic and Damascus here is a glossary;

Jebal Qasioun is the mountain that sits proudly behind the Syrian capital.

Souk al Haramia is the Thieves Market, great place to pick up a cheap cell phone or as my friend Basal did, a Hassleblad.

Sorbia is a diesel powered stove used for heating and keeping the tea hot.

I think we all know what a toe-rag is.

For more of my Damascus Diaries including the events leading up to me being placed under investigation by the Syrian security services, buying a house from a murderer, A short stint as a fake art expert and a nasty incident involving the presidents wife please follow the blog by adding your email in the box on the right hand panel of this page.

John is currently in Istanbul and available for collaboration

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