Saturday 25 February 2012

A diary of a journey to Syria and Beirut in April 2007


Friday, March 30, 2007

I am off to Istanbul this afternoon by night train en route to Damascus which according to the BBC is 'on the tourist map.' Damn. My life's mission is to separate myself from tourists and other normal people. 

The train left Bucharest's Gara de Nord at 12.30 in the afternoon, took over an hour to reach the Bulgarian border and more than two to cross it. The Turkish border involved waiting in several queues in the station at 2 am in the rain. A nice self-possessed girl going to Jerusalem overland and going up to Oxford to read Arabic. A literal and draining French-Canadian boy who kept asking for information of a lowering kind about the countries we were passing through. How despicable travellers are.

Saturday, March 31

Awoke to grey uneventful Turkish countryside. 16½ years after my last visit by train. The Golden Horn was hidden by a stationary train when we arrived at the station and it was gently drizzling.

Paulius’s flat with a splendid view but a cold grey day. A vulgar-looking 8-storey cruise ship in the centre of his view, The Free Carnival.

Walking. Market. Touristy hamam, its hot room not hot enough, too many people like a field hospital after a disastrous battle.

Dinner. Diet forgotten. A carouse

Tuesday 3 April


The cave where St. Peter preached as written in Acts. Pope Paul VI was there and I have a plenary indulgence for going there. Met Chuck and his girl, Americans living in Damascus, studying at the American University there which flourishes despite the State Departments long-standing advice to US citizens that Syria is dangerous. (It is not at all.)

A very hurried look at some marvellous mosaics in the town museum and then I missed my bus again.

I was put on a Damascus bus and after an hour standing in a queue on the Turkish frontier post and a melee on the Syrian side I was deposited at the side of the road. A few moments later some big dusky men in suits appeared from nowhere. ‘Damascus?’ I asked and they agreed this was the place. In a short while a dolmuş arrived and we all got in. I gave my 50 pound note = $1 and was given change. Such fun squeezed in.

Aleppo indescribable, ancient, down-at-heel, Ottoman, filled with women in veils and men wearing skirts and tea-towels on their heads, the real thing, the Orient at last. What I had hoped Turkey would be but what it is not. The life that was once in Greece and in Bucharest. Dusty, noisy, much traffic (old cheap cars). Asking the way to the Hotel Baron which I knew was full and finally I made it to the most charming old hotel and there I found a room from the manager (he had one of those beautiful fruity Syrian-British voices like Farouk’s). No $40 rooms left and he gave me the presidential suite for $70 where I later learnt President Assad snr had stayed in 1970. Laurence or even Agatha Christie would have impressed me more.

Heavenly dirty decrepit traffic-choked. The Ottoman Empire which at Safronbolu is a museum here exists as it really was. The life that once spread beyond Bucharest to the Carpathians and Belgrade. Here travel is an adventure. The old town genuine and not touristy where the town does its shopping sans supermarket. There are still wonderful adventures left.

Wonderful meal at wonderful restaurant. Arab ladies sitting next to me. I prevented myself disliking the lower-middle class English couple who then sat at the other table.

Wednesday 4 April

Mr Walid who has been leading tours for 40 years. The manager who is charming and warns me to knock him down by at least 30%.

The hotel is so shabby my suite rather wonderful but very down-at-heel and this is a renovated room.

Very basic breakfast in dingy room where I am very happy. So 1930s and colonial.

My guide M. takes me on a very interesting tour of caravanserais and mosques. He is an archaeologist and learned. Lunch in a good restaurant. An afternoon alone wandering.

M. who married at 18 and has 3 children brought his 44 year-old German girlfriend with him tonight and one year younger than me she looked like a grandmother which she is old enough to be.

Whirling dervishes in the evening. A guide book I borrowed said these performances were very rare but now they are very frequent and only for tourists. As well as the religious whirling we saw some other dances and I felt this had lost its innocence. An audience of Germans in their 50s watched, dressed as people in their 50s dress nowadays, i.e. like overgrown children.

Dinner. M. says the young Assad is much more liberal than his father and is respected although his appointment was not fair. ‘We are a republic not a monarchy.’ Other people in the party have their power-bases and ‘There is a red line he may not cross.’ M said ‘we killed’ his elder and nastier brother.

Thursday 5 April

Sick badly from eating that damnable raw lamb M. ordered. It tasted horrible too.

Recovered enough in the afternoon to walk slowly around the Christian quarter in the drizzling rain. The Syrian Orthodox church. The Armenians. The Marionites. Lots of boy scouts and girl guides and many people at Mass on Maundy Thursday afternoon. Christians after Mass seemed very European.

Beautiful veiled girls taking off their veils to look at clothes in a shop window. So feminine these Moslem girls and very pretty.

M’s woman is also sick. No dinner. I stumbled to a hamam in the medina.

A little mosque where a mother fully veiled bounced up and down in prayer and her son beside her. I wish England were as religious but I do not want this in England.

Friday 6 April 

Serjilla Crak le Chevalier. Palmyra.

Serjilla with M. , a ‘dead’ Byzantine city. Hama with its water-wheels which lift the water from one level to another and are very old. Artesian wells with donkeys which we learnt about in geography no longer exist anywhere in the world, M. told me but I later discovered that Syria still has them. He told me up to 60, 000 Muslim Brothers were killed there in 1982. I expect the real figure is much smaller and I am glad they were suppressed though not like that. The city was ruined by the fighting.

He sleeps with his clients but not with ‘dirty girls.’ But Russian dirty girls are available. What if his wife had a boyfriend?’ ‘She wouldn’t she comes from a conservative family.’ But men in those situations kill their wives and get off with 1 month. ‘Because the judge is a man and the police are men.’ Anyway it was different. If she found out she would cry for two weeks. He added ‘This isn’t from Muhammad.’

Crack de Chevalier is the most thrilling castle and vast. Perhaps the most romantic and exciting building I ever saw. Later I learnt Laurence paid over 40 visits. Our driver had been in Bucharest in the 80s and remembered the ‘madams’ with great fondness. He was very shocked as were all the Arabs I met that that I didn’t have one nor children. Luckily he couldn’t speak English.

The ruins. Wonderful. I managed one hour without thinking of myself as a test.

Some Irish boys of 40 who remembered how expensive long-haul travel was in 1989 and who stayed at the Sham Palace. Where do ‘ordinary people’ get so much money? I mourned the Ottoman Empire and national self-determination. ‘’That’s because you always had national self-determination.’ Indeed. A good point. Then we agreed that both countries were losing this in the face of immigration.

They said Petra in 2003 was without any tourists and were disappointed that they had returned.

My hotel was worth $4 not the €20 M had bargained for. My bed had fleas, a first for me, so I went elsewhere for a bed which I bargained down to $10 but was worth less. But clean. Felt proud of myself for making a scene.

Saturday 7 April Palmyra Damascus

I woke at 6 to see Palmyra but dawn had already come and it was raining so I returned to bed.

The French engineer who had brought his wife and children there from Beirut told me there was no hope in Beirut. 30 days of war with Israel destroyed hope more than 15 years of civil war.

I remember a postponed train, an Englishwoman woman waiting on the railway platform complaining about Cairo to Mum and Dad in 1972 and their horror at the discomforts she described and my wanting to go there. From here comes my dislike of Thatcherism. Now I am becoming right-wing but still dislike conventionality.

By 10 when I got there so had the coach parties. Always get a guide in future. My guide didn’t show me the underground tombs which I later was told were essential. Marvellous and beautiful and I tried to tell myself that other tourists didn’t matter. And they weren’t so very many really but it was Easter and Syria had a holiday for Easter. I am a lazy tourist perhaps because I am alone.

A bus to Damascus cost 120. Not bad. An Indian film in the coach then a British thriller with police with machine guns and black gangsters and shootouts in inner-city dereliction. No doubt somewhere behind it all and the four-letter words that I could just hear there was a Richard Hannay plot but this is London? And this is globalisation and will destroy traditional Muslim culture for which I am sorry. My sympathies go out to the fundamentalists.

Damascus, city of the world’s desire. No, that’s Constantinople. Dinner in the garden at the dingy Journalists’ Club where we could get a drink with Chuck and Kirsten and a leftish Yale graduate who told me global warning would lead to mosquitoes spreading disease around the world something of which I had heard nothing. He and I almost quarrelled about the British Empire. I said ‘we’ abolished suttee. ‘ “We”?’ he said with contempt. A dreary place but nice food and no tourists. They had to go off. I went to look for Mass in the Christian quarter and then back to bed in my horrible cold room.

Easter Sunday 8 April

Woke early and found a Catholic Mass and regretted the absence of Latin as I always do. Nineteenth-century church airy and white. Christian girls in tight trousers. But two or three in mantillas. Expensive-cheap look, lots of lipstick. Graham Greene.

Got better room with much haggling. Mediocre lunch in Christian quarter. The Old Town. S Ananaias’s house. Mutually schismatic churches.

Art deco grimy houses a bit like Bucharest. Far far fewer veils than in Aleppo.

The taxi-driver told me I was ‘gentil’ and meant it and I was flattered. I want to be liked.

Buffet alone and very good indeed in the Cham (pronounced sham) Palace although the Irish boys were not happy staying there. 'The Cham is a sham.'

Easter Monday, April 9 2007

i admire the Muslim world and am also appalled by it. The strange thing is that I find myself saddened that they are bound to lose their struggle against Paris Hilton consumerist inanity. But I don’t want this world of theirs transplanted into Yorkshire. But I am 50 years too late on that one. I was disappointed that the Christians here seem very Western and to have embraced modernity but am having dinner tonight with one and shall learn more. The girls beautiful but in Aleppo mostly veiled often fully.

Muslims are consumerist but they manage to do without our relentlessly triviality..

I could live happily in Syria had I not settled in Romania. Not much market for headhunters though.

Why do American voices in the internet cafe so grate?

Do they represent the modern world made banal flesh?

It is for Christians to confront modernity, not to succumb to it. Pop culture and MTV are threats to us as to Muslims. Is this true? Anyway, this is Senex talking.

Walid. I can now read character and liked him better than my other two guides. But we did Damascus very quickly between 11 and 3.30 including time in the museum. Usually his guides linger longer in the palace he shows them. He was shocked my man in Palmyra didn't shows me the underground tombs. He showed me a magnificent one in the museum. And a marvellous synagogue from the 2nd century with wonderful murals of Moses

The mosque. A religious edifice first for Baal. Like the one in Palmyra

The street called straight which I already knew.

I said some prayers to St. Paul.

A sudden realisation. Islamic militancy will not provoke a Christian backlash but strengthen secularism. Just as AIDS didn't create a backlash.

The shops in the souk. This town is very different from Aleppo and much more western. I read that since they were allowed to use the internet a few years ago after Assad snr died a new world opened for young people. But in Aleppo the internet runs very slowly in the very few internet cafes which are poorly patronised.

Monday night. Daoud in Elissar a charming man who turns out to be Nawaf’s brother-in-law. Agrees that Syrian Christians resemble Greeks. His best friend is a Muslim who doesn't drink. Syrian girls much better characters than Romanians who are false and materialistic. Syria is like Romania 10 years ago.

Tuesday Beirut

Woke at 7 and was tired all day. Decided to move hotels. Wanted a bed with springs and a bath with a plug.

A driver greeted me as I entered the station with 'Beirut?' and I was sitting in the front seat of a big taxi between the driver and a Lebanese Christian lady who'd been visiting her dead sister's children and was glad to be returning home. An imam in flowing robes his wife and children beside me.

The mountains. Mt. Lebanon. 2 and half hours for $5. The lady said it should have been $4.

The Beirut Central District, sealed off by soldiers, rebuilt, eerie, devoted to tourists but there were almost none. Sad.

A club sandwich en plein air. The orthodox cathedral and a mosque. All felt brand new although the marvellous iconostasis wasn't.

A non-place.

Soldiers bearing guns everywhere. And tent cities, I suppose with refugees from the south.

The National Museum is simply marvellous. Extraordinary roman funerary monuments. Mosaics.

The pigeon rocks. The Mediterranean. A man with blood streaming from his face standing on the edge talking to police. I wondered if it was blood or ink. It looked very bright. Of course it was blood. People stood around on the esplanade and one awful man was laughing, thinking that was the appropriate response.

A Starbucks overlooking the Med, an awful cup of ‘coffee of the week’ handed to me with several requests to enjoy it and the day

For some reason I was reminded of the dullness of an English seaside resort from my 70s childhood. But very much bigger and completely western. The girls pretty and very chic and North London. The whole place felt like North London by the sea. St John’s Wood perhaps, mixed with Bournemouth.

At last a lively street full of shops. A woman in a bookshop told me Beirutis were ‘fed up.’ She looked fed up. I tactlessly said the downtown seemed like a tomb. ‘Poor downtown.’

I felt at 6 a desire to be 'home' and found another shared taxi again without trouble in the sinister bus stn/taxi rank. A charming newly married girl in a veil with a sweet smile and a speech impediment.


The old town. Following 'Monuments of Syria’ by Ross Burns whose scholarly prose belied the fact that the author is an Australian although I tried to imagine the burr. A very good lunch at Elissar, a famous old restaurant in the Christian quarter. I put myself in mind of Jerome's father in A Shocking Accident though I wasn't wearing an unsuitable dark suit but my olive jacket with a crème handkerchief in the pocket

Dinner in the evening was in a back street near my hotel which I found was a little bit of old Damascus not demolished, $1 for something tasty and far too large made of chick peas and sauce. Trees, dusty little street.

Thursday April 12

This morning I felt a sudden whim to stay a bit longer though I had been regretting being here too long. Like a parent letting go of a child I told myself to follow my instinct and my instinct said stay another day or two and for a second time I changed my ticket for free.

Wandered. A Turkish bath. My 3rd and all very different. The 1st in Istanbul touristy hurried and not very hot. the one in Aleppo where the old man took 15 minutes to get the steam to come out of the pipe. This one excellent but the hot room was scalding hot and most of us couldn't bear to enter. A massage which I was glad was brief.

A wonderful khan nearby, black and white tiles.

Cow’s head with lemon between the teeth

Food handled with bare hands everywhere like in 50s England.

This is how the Balkans was.

Everyone is shocked here that I have no wife no girlfriend and no children. Ahead of me stretches my path to the grave alone I suppose.

I felt very foolish to live without a woman as I waited for Rami. He and his lovely girlfriend took me to the pub at the Sheraton which R perceives as an oasis of Westernness. I'd have preferred anywhere else but there we are. Mostly Arabs. The movers and shakers I suppose come here. Syria is infinitely more corrupt than Romania. Emails and letters get opened. They reckon Tunisia and Syria are the two important markets that Europe wants. I doubt this. Places of immense poverty in the old town. ‘You’d be surprised’ The girl was so charming and talkative and totally western it seemed. She comes from Aleppo where everyone knows everything about everyone but here in Damascus she is free.

Friday April 13

Hassan Tom's guide took me to a modern Orthodox monastery and to Maalula one of the 4 villages in the world where they speak sometimes Aramaic. I heard a sweet young Catholic girl called Mary (thus, NOT Miriam) recite the Pater Noster in Aramaic and felt very happy to be among my own people and my own sweet religion. I want to read Lane Fox. At last I find the Syrians, mentioned in the Pears Cyclopedia section on heresies. Nestorians, Jacobites etc

A book title I know well from my adolescence in second-hand bookshops nagged at me: A Journey to the Monasteries of the Levant. Wonderful, inviting title. (My anti-Catholic cousin Geraldine to whom I mentiojned this, to my astonishment, obviously thought the title repellent.)

Hussein makes a good case for the anti-Israeli a position. I suspect this is becoming the right-on cause like South Africa was in the 80s and once Tsarist Russia. Syrians respect suicide bombers. Assad snr was never as bad as Saddam. 'Please don’t misunderstand what I am going to say. Saddam was a very, very bad man. But, I don’t like to say this,the Iraqis need a leader like Saddam.' This could well be right to a degree. Alas. alas.

Hussein has children and quoted Mahomet: marriage is half of religion. ‘I agree with him on that’ I said and then wondered if this remark would offend him. Why don’t I believe in the Christian view of marriage, that marriage is about children and that a family should be perhaps as Joanna said ‘a church’?

There are 4 million Iraqi refugees here and many more come each day. Did he say 3,000 a day? Driving up prices which hits the poor who can't afford meat at the best of times

I think that the orthodox in not resisting dictators like Ceausescu have more in common with early Christians than the Catholic Church with its political pronouncements. I think that a religion that commands stoning is vile and the old idea of an eye for an eye. But why does the Old Testament do so if it is indeed inspired? And Our Lord said he came to fulfil the law. Can someone please explain?

I feel my limbs stiffen. Every Syrian assumes there is ‘a she’ in my life. Admittedly they just want to sell me jewellery but they have a point.

I saw something in one of the churches. Wish I could remember it. In English. Do not care for praise. Do not judge other people. 

Judging and stigmatising is sometimes necessary but it is exactly about substituting political ideas which are about violence for the power of love.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

In a bookshop in Istanbul airport I found two books for foreigners living in Turkey. The introduction to one said the writer had been one of few foreigners in 1998 when she came but after 2002 very large numbers came. Thus will it be in Romania. The world has changed forever.


  1. I wonder how the Baron is doing during the terrible fighting in Syria. This is a very good article about my favourite hotel in the world.

  2. I really enjoyed your diary, I spent a couple of weeks there in 07 my self.

  3. Thanks for interesting read, I was there in November of 07, just after the IDF air force did their thing in Lebanon.

  4. I really enjoyed your diary, I spent a couple of weeks there in 07 my self.

  5. David in Banja Luka16 February 2016 at 09:20


    Thanks for the above.

    Very interesting account of your visit and thoughts.

    In return, perhaps you will enjoy this:

    "And I have the sunset, and the Tuscan wine, and the white teeth of the women in Rome. I am a traveler in Romance." W. Somerset Maugham

    1. What a lovely quotation. For me Eastern Europe is fascinating because I grew up in the Cold War but Italy is even more so and I must see more of it before it becomes globalised. Spain and Portugal too, outside the tourist ruined coast.