An Alien in Arab Lands

November 4, 2010

My heart was pounding as I stepped out of the punishing heat and walked into the Syrian border control office. Before this moment, I had never been nervous when crossing into a new country. But Syria was different. I knew practically nothing about this place. In fact, I could not recall ever meeting a Syrian in my entire life. From the media, I only knew that the words "Syria" and "rogue state" had been tossed around in the same sentence, and that the U.S. considered the Syrian government a supporter of terrorism. The positive assurances I had received from other travelers had done little to assuage my fears. As an American would I be viewed suspiciously? Would I be ushered into a windowless office and interrogated? Or would I simply be turned away and told to return to Turkey?

 I forced myself to calm down, took a deep breath, and approached the window. When it quickly became apparent that I spoke exactly zero Arabic (well, "Allah Akbar!" doesn't really count), a polite officer who spoke excellent English stepped forward. To my immense relief, I was treated respectfully, and after thoroughly checking my passport for the absence of evidence of a visit to Israel, I received an entrance stamp. "Welcome to Syria" the man said with a smile.

But I wasn't quite through yet. As I walked towards the exit of the border compound, a stern, mustached man dressed in an immaculate white Syrian special military uniform stopped me and asked for my passport. He verified my entrance stamp, and double checked that my passport contained no evidence of a visit to Israel. He motioned for me to sit and have a tea. I considered it unwise to refuse. Soon, a trio of burly soldiers wearing intimidating green combat get-ups walked up to shake hands with and observe the tall blond American who had bizarrely chosen to enter Syria by foot in the sweltering midday sun. I don't think they see many westerners at this border crossing, because I was plainly an object of curiosity. One of the soldiers was built like a boxer, and stared at me intensely with piercing blue eyes. If I've ever shaken hands with someone who has killed a man, I've no doubt that it was him. He inquired as to where I would travel after Syria, and slyly attempted to slip "Tel Aviv" into my list. "No, no, no" I assured him. While the soldiers were outwardly friendly, their animate hatred for Israel was barely concealed. After a few minutes they finally became bored with me (or convinced that I wasn't an Israeli agent) and I moved on into Syria.

Lovely outskirts of Raqaa, Syria
My destination was the ancient city of Aleppo, but in order to arrive there I first had to transit through a place which I would rather forget. You see, the city of Raqaa is without a doubt, the ugliest place that I have ever been to in my entire life. The ramshackle buildings were hideous. Litter was strewn everywhere. Malnourished goats openly feasted on overturned waste on the side of the road. Whatever glorious past that this place once possessed has vanished. Needless to say, I was eager to get on the next bus headed to Aleppo. But little did I know that I had another surprise in store.

When the bus on route to Aleppo arrived, a young man materialized and motioned for me to put my bag underneath the bus in the luggage storage. I complied. As I was turning around to enter the bus, the young man began to shout in Arabic, grabbed my guitar case, and yanked it off of my shoulder. To my disbelief, I was suddenly engaged in a tug-of-war over my guitar with a complete stranger! After a few seconds I became concerned that my instrument would be damaged, so I released it. He then thrust the guitar under the bus with all of the other large bags. "No, it's fragile!" I exclaimed and attempted to walk past him to the luggage compartment and reclaim my instrument. Incredibly, he shouted something back at me, put his hands on my chest, and started to forcefully shove me backwards! Incensed, I took out my Arabic phrasebook, found the translation for "to break", and yelled it repeatedly as I attempt to walk past him. "No, No!" he continued shouting and resumed pushing me backwards. Adrenaline rushing, I stepped directly in front of him and began screaming epithets into his face. I guess I got my point across, because finally he stepped out of my way. Heart racing, I lunged forward, picked up my guitar, stepped up onto the bus, safely secured my instrument in the overhead storage, and took a seat. "What the hell just happened?" I thought to myself, head spinning. Right then, an Arab wearing a long robe took the seat next to me, or better put, sat on me (the concept of personal space is slightly different here). He began to make a motion of slitting wrists. "What?!? Is my life now in danger?" I thought with utter exasperation. After a few minutes, we made out that by this gesture he actually meant that the young man outside the bus was just "playing." Well I'll be damned, talk about cultural differences. To shove a complete stranger over such a mundane thing is beyond my worldly comprehension. "Are all Syrians this confrontational?" I found myself wondering.

I have clearly entered a world that I don't understand.


To enter Syria from Turkey is to feel as if you are entering the "real" middle east. Whereas Turkey has one foot planted in Europe, Syria commands no such ambiguity. For the first few days after arriving in Aleppo, I could not shake the suspicion that I was on a movie set. The dusty streets, chaotic street life, and ubiquitous sand that covers every stationary object had me looking for a Hollywood production crew around every corner. In addition, the flat topography, building uniformity, and indecipherable Arabic signs ensured that I constantly felt lost and disoriented.

More than anywhere else I'd ever been, I sensed that Aleppo was an authentic place that had not been changed by tourism. Many people I passed on the street greeted me with a hearty "Hello!" Some literally stopped in their tracks, painted a baffled expression on their face, and took a few seconds to look at me from head to toe, as if I was an extraterrestrial sent from a distant world. But the curiosity was not one-sided. You see, people here look different. Being as I come from from the melting pot of Washington DC, I assumed that I'd already seen every type of body and face that exists on the planet. I was wrong. In Aleppo, there is an incredible diversity in appearance. Some people I crossed had Arab facial features, bright orange hair, and radiant green eyes. As others had done with me before in foreign lands, I had the rude urge to stop people and ask to take their picture. Hey honey, look at that one! Usually local residents turn the other way once they see a tourist with a camera. But in Aleppo, people actually approached me and asked to have their picture taken. If that's not evidence that a place hasn't yet been overrun by tourism, I don't know what is.

While the language, the city, and the people had all seemed incredibly exotic to me, one feature of Aleppo is even more unique. To enter the souks (bazaars) of the old city is to set foot in a different world. Every sense comes under assault. People brush shoulders to push past down narrow passages smelling of sweets and fragrant spices. Sellers loudly hawk their goods above the din of calculated haggling. And the eyes are overwhelmed by a tumult of vivid colors, dazzling merchandise, and intriguing people. But most of all, it feels as if you are sharing in a timeless experience that has remained much the same for hundreds of years.

Ramadan is the holy month in the Muslim calendar, where the devout refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset in a communal display of faith. I arrived in Aleppo with one week remaining in Ramadan, and being that Aleppo is a conservative city, the vast majority of people were fasting during the daylight hours. I originally had some misgivings about traveling in the Muslim world during Ramadan, as I feared that many services and restaurants would be closed. In Turkey this was hardly the case. While it turned out to be a minor inconvenience in Aleppo, I ended up being grateful that I choose to visit during Ramadan. Why? The city was relatively quiet during the day, but it came alive after dusk. Seemingly the whole city stayed out until the wee hours and a celebratory atmosphere pervaded the streets. The entire schedule of life was turned on its head. I awoke one Tuesday night at 4am, and could hear children gleefully playing outside, motorcycles revving their engines, and even construction projects taking place at that ungodly hour.

Midnight Shopping during Ramadan

To break the fast at dusk with others during Ramadan is an unforgettable experience. Another traveler, Richard, and I arrived at the Great Mosque of Aleppo about half an hour before the evening prayer call signifying the end of fasting for the day. Hundreds of people were already crowded around, awaiting handouts of free food and drink. When the handouts began, burqa-wearing woman rushed over to mob the one donating, resulting in some heated arguments and near-fights. And the exact second the prayer echoed from the minarets, everyone began feasting all at once. A communal wave of relief washed over the masses as hungry stomachs were finally appeased. A local man began speaking to Richard and I, and graciously offered us food and drink as well. Far from feeling like unwanted intruders, I felt as if we were instead welcomed to participate in the sacred ritual of breaking the fast. The friendliness and positive energy from that night went a long way towards overturning the initial negative impression I received after crossing into Syria. In fact, I was beginning to confirm the celebrated hospitality and kindness of the Syrian people. 

Breaking the fast at the Umayyad Mosque

I was nearly ready to move on from Aleppo, but I had one more place on my list to visit. The Citadel of Aleppo is an imposing monument. The architecture is quite stunning, but the real reason to visit was to take in the expansive views from the top. From up high, Aleppo appears as no place I have ever seen. Because the buildings are all a shade of muted brown (why bother painting when the desert will cover every wall within a week?), the city appears to organically rise out of the ground. And since the citadel is pretty much located in the exact center of the metropolis, you're afforded mesmerizing 360 degree views of what may very well be the oldest city in the world. 

Aleppo has been inhabited for over 4000 years

I hopped out of the taxi at the Syria-Lebanon border and paid the driver. The scene before me was chaotic. Cars were backed up as far as the eye could see, and all sorts of people were milling about and shouting. I found the Syrian departure station, walked in, and received my exit stamp. It had been little over a week since I entered Syria, and I was bracing myself for another draining border crossing experience. I trudged the half mile to the Lebanon entry point under a brutal sun. Once there, it took me several seconds to absorb what I was seeing. Hundreds of people were crowded outside a small building. Pushing my way through, I entered a large, dreary, and unventilated room. Within half a minute I was completely drenched in sweat. Dozens of smelly men shoved up against each other to speak with (more like yell at) immigration officials sitting behind a glass window. The testosterone was palpable. I steadied my nerves and joined the throng, immediately feeling elbows in my ribs and penetrating glares on my face. After several minutes I was in danger of reaching a breaking point, but mercifully an immigration officer spotted me above the fray and handed me the appropriate form. I found a place to sit in the back of the room and began filling out the paperwork. Hot, sweaty, my ears ringing from the constant shouting around me, and unwilling to breathe through my nose for fear of fainting, it's safe to say I was feeling more than a little uncomfortable. When I paused to wipe the sweat from my brow, I was taken aback by my immediate surroundings. A ring of people were standing all around me, observing me intently as if I was some kind of caged zoo animal. I laughed out loud at the absurdity of the situation. In a strange way, it felt as if I was in one of those nightmares where you show up to class wearing nothing but underwear. "Hmmm...." I wondered. "Perhaps I should stand up and do a little dance?" 

Finally, I received my entry stamp and quickly departed the office which for me had become the embodiment of hell on Earth. I realized that I was now crossing into a country from which it's quite possible that, at least in recent history, more people have desired to escape than to enter. The now familiar adrenaline rush of entering new lands coursed through my veins and propelled me forward. Here we go, I thought to myself. Welcome to Lebanon.


  1. Amazing post. I am a little curious as to if I was that blonde American you were talking about haha. I am a little bummed because I definitely was one of those who got turned away at the border. Check it out,, But reading your blog I definitely HAVE to go now!! Keep it up!

  2. Thanks for the comment Cassie! Yes I've heard that many Americans get turned away at the border if they hadn't received a visa from a Syrian Embassy in the US. Hope you can make it there one day, and keep enjoying your trip!

  3. Heavy stuff, man. Keep fightin' the good fight!

  4. Adam, great posts, looking forward to more. Be careful and stay safe.

    You are going to write a book aren't you? If you hadn't yet considered it, please do.


  5. amazing post! I've got a friend in Syria, but I've never actually visited there, as I always thought it to be a bit scary for a young woman to do alone. As I read your post I got that reassured, it would be really scary. But I bet the place was such an amazing experience in every way. And that view from above is breathtaking really, nothing like I've ever seen in my entire life!

    xxx Charlie

  6. Perhaps one day, Byron!

    And Charlie, there's no need to be scared to enter Syria. It takes some getting used to if you've never been to the Middle East, but it is extremely safe here, and the people are very friendly! If you want to come, just do it, you won't regret it!

  7. Do you have any plans to come to Israel? If you do, you might have a hard time at the border crossing. All those stamps from Arab countries will raise a few eyebrows.

  8. I lived in Beirut for a year and visited Damascus and Palmyra. I wonder just how different you would find Damascus.

    You might bear in mind that in the middle ages, European visitors from places like London and Paris were overwhelmed by the size and diversity of Islamic cities such as Aleppo and Damascus. Perhaps things have not changed much for the western visitor

  9. Jonah, yes, I hope to visit. I've heard they may give people with Syrian and Lebanese stamps a hard time at the border, but will almost always still allow them to enter.

    Scott, I've been in Damascus for over six weeks now and can attest that it is very different than Aleppo. I feel much more comfortable here, but that could be as much "getting used to" Syria as opposed to any differences between Aleppo and Damascus.

    Thanks for the comments!

  10. great pics, amazing places and really good chronicles. Have a nice trip in the Southeast of Asia.
    Un abrazo desde Buenos Aires.
    Juan Andrés

  11. Beautiful post, you brought me there. I know Syria might be a difficult country to travel, but I'm very curious and can't wait to go myself.