Saturday, March 05, 2011

Damascus or Bust--Bust

It looked to be a promising weekend: While Artist Son and Tayta joined the youth group for its annual retreat in the hills of Ajloun, Dear Husband and I planned to visit friends and colleagues in Damascus. Though the trip to Damascus, a fascinating ancient city with a famous souq through which runs Straight Street (Acts 9:11), is only a four hour trip from Amman, we have not visited there for many years as the Syrian government has made it difficult for American passport holders to do so; visas are expensive and the state of cold war that exists between Syria and Israel makes if difficult to visit Syria if one has first been to Israel or the Occupied Territories.

Last year, during a time when Syria began granting inexpensive visas to Americans at the border, Dear Husband attempted a trip to Damascus, only to learn upon arrival at the border that the law had been changed just the day before. So, while we were in the US we sent our passports to the Syrian Embassy and received Syrian visas--for the fee of $120 per visa. Full of anticipation, we packed our bags, and boarded a bus for Syria.

Unfortunately, we were not careful enough in our visa/passport preparation. Dear Husband had some months ago obtained a second "clean" passport for crossing borders of countries that are still at war with Israel. I didn't have a completely clean passport; when I visited Jerusalem last year I made a common request of the Israeli border officials: please stamp a piece of paper and not my passport. They obliged. But, the Jordanian border guards stamped my passport, so while I didn't have an Israeli stamp, one could deduce that I had entered Jordan from Israel. We naively thought that since the Syrian Embassy had granted me a visa (stamped in my passport) that I would be able to enter Syria. When we reached the border control station we found out that wasn't the case. Dear Husband would be allowed to enter but I would not. We had only seconds to decide what to do as the bus attendant was hurrying us on.

Dear Husband, I said, must continue on to Syria and I would return home. Our friends were expecting him and he had work to do. With in two minutes I repacked his duffle bag with the gifts I was carrying, Dear Husband handed me the house keys and a bit of cash and the bus attendant informed me that there was another bus at the border headed back to Amman. I could board that bus if I hurried. As we parted, I must have looked pretty forlorn because Dear Husband's last words to me were, "Don't cry." He knows I'm pretty wimpy when it comes to tears, though at that point the thought or emotion hadn't even crossed my mind. It would later.

The bus attendant kindly escorted me to the new bus and advised me that I could find a seat in the back. When I boarded, everyone was seated and every eye was on me, the only foreigner, besides two young French-speaking tourists, on the bus. I wondered by their sober stares if they had been told they were waiting for me and if they had been told that I had been refused entry at the Syrian border. As soon as I reached the top step of the bus the bus driver began driving, and not only driving, but turning, so that I feared I might topple over as I negotiated the aisle to the back of the bus.

The only seat I could see was in the very back between a young mother with her infant and her mother. They had used the extra seat for their things and they didn't look too happy about having to shift around so that I could sit between them. We momentarily disembarked to have passports stamped on the Jordanian side of the border and I had to be escorted to a office for a special signature since I was simply having my departure stamp canceled rather than receiving a new entry stamp. Humiliation was added to my feelings of disappointment and frustration.

When I re-boarded the bus, the mother directed me to another seat in front of them, advising me that it was vacant and would be more comfortable for me. On the seat were a number of bags of food so I confirmed that this was in fact a vacant seat. She assured me it was, so I moved the bags to the adjoining seat and sat down. When the owner of the bags, a women just a few years older than myself, returned, she was surprised to find me in the seat which she had been using to store her things. By now I was fighting back tears so I got out my book to read, realizing that this would make me look even more foreign and that I was, at least for a time, putting up a barrier between myself and my new seatmate. I felt I needed a few minutes to regain composure.

On the way to the border I had been reading truths about the sovereignty of God and while a border crossing refusal isn't the weightiest of issues, these truths were a comfort to me just then. As I inwardly fumed about all the injustice and bitterness in the Middle East I also realized how, as an American, I have a deeply ingrained sense of personal freedom and rights. How many millions of Middle Easterners had suffered much more severe injustices at the hands of their own rulers and governments? And, I also came to understand in a very small way, so small I almost feel that I shouldn't make the comparison, the feeling of colleagues who have been shut out of various countries they weren't just trying to visit, but where they had lived for years.

After I regained my composure I set aside my book and discovered that my seatmate was a lovely Iraqi women, a widow who had four children (two boys and two girls, like me!) scattered around various countries. Adding further perspective to my own very small trial, she told me that she was from Baghdad but had fled when their surroundings had become too dangerous. Her husband had been a dermatologist and she told me with pride of her brother who was a physicist who studied at Oxford and now worked in California. The kindness of her pleasant conversation was a balm to my stirred up sensibilities.

It's been a little strange to putter around an empty house for two days. Thus, the unprecedented two blog posts in a 24 hour period! I'm off to meet my kiddos at our International Church fellowship and Dear Husband will be home late tonight--much to look forward to!


Woman of the House said...

I probably would have reacted the same way. Sometimes it's the relatively minor things that affect us most. I hope you do get to Damascus someday soon. It would be so thrilling to walk down Straight Street!

Laura A said...

Thanks for sharing this story. I am beginning to understand lately the vulnerable feeling the comes from traveling in another country and coming across seemingly unjust, or at least arbitrary, roadblocks. (In your case, a pretty literal one.) Americans do, indeed, have amazing freedoms.

And I hope it goes better next time.

Anonymous said...

I am SO sorry. That would not be a small trial for me, for many reasons - and yet, you do bring it into proper perspective for me. I feel teary, indignant, and panicky reading it, but the episode has helped this reader, if it's any small consolation for your troubles.

~ Teri