At 1AM on August 6th, 1995, I was in a lawnmower engine-powered mini pickup truck careening towards Damascus.
Driven by a man who I’d only met a few minutes earlier in the International Airport.
He spoke little English; but I spoke less Arabic, and we drove in silence towards the Syrian capital and a place for me to sleep.
The contact I was supposed to meet upon arrival was absent, and for an illegal exchange of twenty American dollars, I trusted a local to take me somewhere for the evening.
I knew next to nothing about the city I would call home for the next two years. I’d read about Damascus’ claim of being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, dating back almost 8,000 years, and I knew the city was mentioned in the Bible, but beyond that…nothing.
While my driver focused on the road, I took in what I could as we drove northwest towards the city.
The airport highway was a newly-paved four-lane highway, lined on the outer curb with garden stone I’d seen back home, the inner curb painted alternating red and white sections. There was little to see initially; the desert landscape was difficult to observe in the darkness, and the occasional lamppost at intersections did little to show off the culture of the country.
As we approached the city, however, Syria began to come to life.
More lamps, an occasional traffic light, and houses appeared. By the time we’d reached Damascus proper, it was obvious the city was massive… yet different than any city I’d seen.
The tallest building in Damascus was only five-stories tall, and I wouldn’t find that until later. Two million people were sprawled into short houses and buildings made entirely of stone and concrete, with an occasional wood-framed structure nearby. There are very few natural resources in Syria, so as a result steel was rarely used in construction, and the result was a city outline that hugged the ground, and spread to the horizon.
After about a half hour, we parked in front of a shady building that reminds me today of the “Art O’ The City Hotel” in the opening scene from The Matrix.
The driver motioned for me to stay in the car while he went inside, then returned and grabbed my backpack from the bed of the truck and escorted me inside, where I was handed off to the employee in the lobby. After a brief discussion between the two of them, I was asked again if I would have access to Syrian money the next morning.
I had no idea if I would. But I said I would.
With that, the man walked me up two flights of stairs, then down a hall to a door, and handed me a key.
It was an old hotel, with old rooms, and old hotel furniture inside. My room had two twin beds, stained from years of use.
There was a porcelain sink, colored with rust from the leaky faucet, which I turned on out of curiosity…and out came stained water. I quickly turned it off. There was no bathroom in the room; the toilet sat in a small water closet at the end of the hall. I locked my door and walked towards it, but about twenty feet away I noticed its odor.
It was a toilet, but one without water. The stains were not of rust.
I returned to my room, and the adrenaline I’d been running on since getting off the plane some three hours before began to dissipate. As I relaxed, I opened my sleeping bag, unrolled it onto the least stain-colored bed, then opened the “Welcome to Syria!” kit I’d been sent yet again.
As I sat there in solitude, I began to realize the hotel was alive with the sounds of moans and groans.
And the creaking of beds.
I was in a brothel. In the Middle East.
My preconceived notions about sex in the Middle East were blown away that night, one of many to be dispelled during my years there.
By 4:30 AM, my body recognized I’d been awake for over thirty-six hours, and I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Less than a minute later I leapt out of bed towards the window – there was a man yelling at the top of his voice from across the road.
Only it wasn’t a man – it was a mosque, and there was a speaker in its minaret, aimed directly at my window.
One of the Five Pillars of Faith is to pray five times a day, and the morning prayer (at sunrise) was beginning.
I packed my welcoming kit. I rolled up my sleeping bag inversely, keeping the part that had made contact with the bed on the inside. I put everything in my backpack and left my remaining bags in the room, and opened up the map of Damascus, located where my new school was located, and walked out the door.
Street signs were in English and Arabic, so after a few turns I was able to discern my location. I arrived a little past 7AM. There were two armed guards in green uniforms out front, a walled campus with a small metal door as an entrance.
“Medressie Amerikiyeh?” I asked.
I dropped my backpack, sat on the front steps, and fell soundly asleep.
I was awakened about an hour later by a woman shaking my shoulder. She spoke in English.
“Who are you, and what are you doing on our steps?”
“Is this the Damascus Community School? The American one?”
“Then I’m your new history teacher. Someone forgot to pick me up at the airport.”
And that was how I spent my first night in Syria.
…to be continued…
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