On August 4th, 1995, I left Newark Airport for a new life in Syria with a brief layover in Amman, Jordan.
Before I left, I faxed my flight information to the Damascus Community School, so that an American embassy representative could meet me at the gate and escort me through customs, as suggested in their Welcoming Kit.
Also suggested in the Kit were a series of flights most teachers would arrive on. My flight from Jordan was not on that list.
I arrived at Damascus International Airport at 10:30 pm local time.
It was international in name only; as it had a very local feel. The interior was a cold, gray color – all of it. Walls, ceiling and floor all looked as if they’d been coated with coal; lighting came from flickering fluorescent bulbs. The terminal was vacant, except for the passengers who arrived with me.
So vacant, in fact, that there was no American embassy representative in the airport.
I didn’t want to go through customs without assistance, so I waited at the gate in case the person was late.
But after an hour or so I had to make a decision. Custodians had arrived, and were mopping up the area and turning out the lights.
I began to second-guess myself.
“Maybe they were waiting at customs” I thought, so I walked towards immigration. There, I filled out a small, yellow immigration form while other passengers submitted their paperwork to various Syrian army troops armed with heavy passport ink stamps.
I got to “address”, and froze. I had no idea where I was living, where I was staying, or what I should put down.
I left it blank, and walked towards the nearest Syrian guard.
He looked at me, looked at my passport and immigration card, and asked me in Arabic why I had left the address section blank…only I didn’t know what he was asking, because I didn’t speak Arabic.
Another WHOMP ! from the army teller behind me. I jumped.
I attempted to explain in English that I was meeting an American official, and thought they might be waiting for me past customs. He didn’t speak English, so he asked another question in Arabic. We went back and forth, not understanding one another, before finally he gave up…and stamped my passport.
I was free to enter the country.
I laugh now as I think about this transpiring in the States. “Oh, a blank section on your immigration card, and you don’t understand English? Sure, we’ll let you RIGHT into the United States! Welcome!”
Over time, I learned from other expatriates that it didn’t matter what was written on the immigration card, as long as it was filled out. These were privates in the Syrian army, and they did not want to get yelled at by a superior for not having all the paperwork completed.
Over time, other female teachers wrote down “exotic dancer” for occupation, “your mom’s house” for address, and other humorous answers, and all received the same response:
I walked over to baggage claim, grabbed my backpack and walked through Baggage Check with a lot less hassle, then stepped into the comparatively lively lobby of the Damascus International Airport.
It was after midnight. A few kiosks were still open, taxi drivers mingled with kiosk owners, while Syrian army troops milled around…but no American embassy representative.
I was on my own; in a foreign country, unable to speak the local language, with no idea on what to do next.
I sat down and actually laughed.
A taxi driver approached, and offered me a ride. “Taxi?” I said no, still holding out hope someone would arrive to sweep me off my feet. Soon, another approached. Then another. And another.
After about 30 minutes, I finally caved into the latest offer. “Adesh?” (how much?)
In halted English, he requested a thousand Syrian lira. I pulled out some American dollars and asked, “How much in American dollars?”
He waived his hand “no” and ran away.
I went up to another taxi driver, who ran away before I could even ask. Before, I’d been the most attractive girl at the dance, but now I was a leper.
Finally, a taxi driver grabbed the wrist without the money, and in halting English explained, “Illegal. Go to jail…”
There were no currency exchanges open in the airport at midnight…in fact, there weren’t any currency exchanges at all. I was essentially broke.
I sat down, opened that Welcome Package and found a map of Damascus. Could I walk to the city?
A man quietly approached, looked side to side for anyone paying close attention, then leaned in.
“I don’t know…I was supposed to meet someone from the American Embassy, but no one came…” I started rambling again, then tailed off.
“You need…place to stay?”
“Can you get Syrian lira tomorrow?”
“I take you…twenty dollars.” I agreed.
He wasn’t a taxi driver. I’m not even sure he had a drivers’ license, since the vehicle he owned was smaller than anything allowed on the road in the States. It was a “pickup truck” in name only: half as wide as a typical car, and a two-cycle engine commonly found in lawnmowers.
I put the luggage in the bed and hopped in, where he accepted payment.
Within five minutes we were on the highway to Damascus, engine screaming as we topped out around fifty miles an hour.
Where was he taking me?
…to be continued…
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