Monday, August 14, 2006

Of Hard Times

This is an account of how I fled Lebanon during the first few days of the conflict. I was unable to travel from the airport in Beirut as all the runways were bombed by the IDF during the first few days of the conflict. So, I found an alternative route.

After organizing a place to stay in Damascus overnight, I departed from Beirut at 3 pm on the 17th of July towards the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli in order to arrange my journey to Damascus with a Syrian taxi driver. The price we agreed on was 300 U.S dollars, and to be paid in full once we arrive to the destination.

I had no problem on the Lebanese side of the border, but once I arrived to the Syrian immigration office to enter the Syrian territories, you can see how these officers were taking advantage of other people’s misery. The people there holding out their passports to the immigration officers just for the stamp were like an ant hill. The officers were refusing to stamp anything ...why? It is not because of the highly unorganized nature of the situation, but rather for something called IKRAMMIEH in Syrian. This word must be put in context first: literally it means the additional pay out of good will for a service performed. So, these officers wanted extra money for the stamp otherwise, you would be delayed indefinitely at the border. What amazed me is that it is not that people did not know that the officers wanted the bribe; rather it is the stubbornness of these people who did not want to bribe anyone for what is rightfully a service without any extra expense. So, you can image what I did. Although I would like to be stubborn about it and fight for my rights, I decided to bribe the son of a bitch. Within 10 seconds after that, I received my passport and entered the Syrian territories.

Within a kilometer of northern Syria, I saw people in the middle of the road in plain clothes, some with side arms, only barely visible to the my eyes. Apparently this was some checkpoint for the notorious Syrian undercover police also known as the MOKHABARRAT among the natives of the region. I did not know back then when they had stopped us that this was actually the undercover police, rather I thought that I was going to get kidnapped or something like that...I mean, the concept of a checkpoint is alien to these people for some reason. So, the cabby stops, and i am still holding out my passport, and the gunman approaches my window, and asks for my passport. The only thoughts in my head were, if he takes it, my ticket, or so my option to leave the region will be gone. So I refused to give him my passport and hid it...BIG MISTAKE :S. So, he said while raising his voice really loudly as if I had insulted his entire family or something like that, and this is the translation : "Do you want to die... give me your passport you son of a bitch." So, you can only imagine what is going through my mind at this point, and finally the cabby decided to interject and tell me that this 'man' is an undercover cop. Henceforth, the ‘undercover cop’ was flipping through my passport, and asked me about my destination. I did not want to give him the address of my host as it is none of his business, and told him that I was heading to the airport at Damascus in order to return to Canada. He took one look at me and said ‘Where do you think you are? …. Canada?” and then flicked my passport straight in to my face after which he signaled that we may continue the journey.

So, I am on my way to I believe that this is true till he misses the Damascus exit on the highway and continues to drive north. Well, the cabby drove me to his hometown of Homs where he had arranged with his son to drive me instead. Surprise surprise…. There, he requested to be paid in full, violating our agreement in Tripoli. Basically, he refused to offer the service any more unless he was paid with some IKRAMMIEH....gosh I hate that word!!!!! So of course, I coughed up the money and the 'bonus' and we were finally off to Damascus...yea right, upon reaching the outskirts, the cabby's son decided to no longer take me to my destination inside the city. He obviously wanted more money, but this time I had enough of this abuse/exploitation...shame on them. So, I found another cabby, and continued with him towards my destination. The dude did not want to switch on the taxi meter, all he mentioned was, "you pay me the value of what this trip is worth to you otherwise I will not take you" So, I obviously agreed as I had no other better option. Finally I arrived to my destination and my host welcomed me warmly.

The next day, at the Damascus international airport, many people who already had tickets for flights, were unable to fly out, as it was overly congested and the Syrian authorities wanted an ikrammieh to let the passengers check in. I was glad that I was connected to powerful people at the airport and helped me catch my flight on time. I mean, I saw two Cypriot ladies fist fighting at the check-in line, fighting to see who will fill the last empty seat on the Syrian airline bound for Larnaca airport in Cyprus. The airport was clearly not ready to accommodate the fleeing Lebanese and tourists. At the lounge, waiting for my flight, I came across some Europeans, who were broke after paying enormous fees for tickets to get home. They were waiting for their flight which was already delayed for 10 hours. Apparently, the air traffic controller was accepting bribes from the governments of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar, to fly their citizens out first. So, I invited them to a late lunch, and gave the some extra cash before I departed.

After Syria, the trip was less of a hassle, but the abuse of the tourists and the Lebanese people fleeing Lebanon by the Syrian authorities continues. The Syrian people are a warm and gentle people, but unfortunately, their authorities are not of the same caliber. So, I spent 9 hours in Cyprus and another 30 hours in Prague before arriving to my home away from home...Canada.

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