Thursday, July 5, 2007

Running log of the wait to enter Syria... 17/06/07

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Running log of the wait to enter Syria...

So today I am going to Syria from Turkey. Insha'allah, as we say in this part of the world. So far God has blessed me with good Arabic and friendly (but not too friendly) Syrian men. I've been at the border a little over an hour now, and they're saying that I should plan on about a five-hour wait.

Why do we put up with this kind of thing, you may ask? Well, there a few ways of looking at it:

1. The amount of time I spent trying to get my paperwork done in order to apply for the visa through the UK consulate, the money for postage, the phone calls to the consulate (not only me but my parents have spent time on this since I left for Turkey, too!) - well, five hours is probably a lot less.

2. It would be a very stupid Syrian who tried to show up unannounced at a U.S. border and expected to be treated half as well as I have been. The guy wrote out a page-long explanation of who I was and why I wanted to enter Syria and for how long, including details of how I used to live in Syria and have friend there, etc. Then faxed it to Damascus while I sat in a plush comfy chair. Now I'm sitting in a restaurant across the way (admittedly a place shameful for a woman to be alone, but these are extenuating circumstances) waiting to be served chips/fries and a cold cola. If it were a Syrian woman crossing into the U.S. from Mexico without a visa, prison time is not an impossible scenario.

3. How long does it take for the Syrian government to decide to give me a visa?! Through the UK consulate they've been "considering" my request for two weeks and a half already. Through the border it's going to take five hours. What are they doing for those five hours?! I doubt they'll call every Syrian I've ever known (it hasn't happened yet), so seems much more likely that they're passing it around from official to official to get a signature. I wonder if the pres himself will need to sign it! OK, more likely, they're reading it to each other and laughing about how they are stressing the American girl out, isn't that fun...

4. I understand their complaints against my government and can understand that this is one of the small ways in which they can get back. But if only they knew how little my own government cares about my getting in to Syria! At that point they'd take me in a limousine to meet their pres just to make my pres mad!

Well, these are my thoughts for now. Still got a positive attitude and glad I know people are praying for me. Will check in later...

... It's now two and a half hours into my wait. And three hours since I arrived at the border. Haven't moved an inch but ate between one and two fried potatoes, between two and three tomatoes (yummy!), a small cucumber, and two small peppers (the first one was sweet so I took a huge bite out of the second one but it turned out to be hot). I have enjoyed my i-pod and caught up on my trip journal. The guys working here seem to think it's weird to have me here, but they didn't seem surprised at my arrival. They said, yeah, visas are a problem here in Syria (a surprisingly critical comment!). Then I told him my passport is American, and he said I'll be here till 10 or 11 easily. Yay.

He kept bringing me snacks from the customs officers dinner happening in the adjoining room. They had quite a nice spread, so he snuck me out two little cheese pastries and a yummy kibe (finger food made out of meat and bulgur wheat). Oh, he just came by to offer me a cigarette! How thoughtful (it is my second offer since I arrived at the border). Anyway, I wondered if I shouldn't go in there and somehow provacatively befriend a customs officer - would that have helped me get a visa? Actually, the process seems rather straightforward, if ridiculously slow. I just hope they don't forget about me...

... Almost four hours down! About half an hour ago I asked the friendly server here at the border restaurant (a young guy who seems fine running the place in rubber sandals and an undershirt) if I should go over to the offices to get news and he offered to call for me. No word yet, but they'll call over here as soon as they hear. He offered me a room to rest in if I need it, but hey, I am happily typing away and fortunately so far the time is passing quickly. I might go back to the office soon anyway, just to make sure they don't forget me.

It's actually a tad surreal. I'm writing about Syrian women, and right now describing a young Syrian woman making Arabic coffee and pouring it out for a guest, when he walks up and offers me some Arabic coffee which I try to refuse but that doesn't work. He's switched over to English with me for some reason, though he doesn't really know enough to formulate a sentence. So now I have a nice small ceramic cup of very bitter Arabic coffee, just like the girl I'm writing about!

As we approached the border, we passed 1-2 kilometres worth of trucks loaded with goods to take in between Turkey and Syria. I think most of the delay is on the Turkey side, as they're checking every truck carefully. Either way, I felt this immense privilege to be zipping along past all those trucks to the front of the queue! I just looked out the window and realised that there aren't as many trucks waiting to pass through. I don't know whether they cut it off at some point in the day (It's 7:00 p.m.) or not, but either way, I realise that my wait is now fully rivalling theirs!...

...Going on 4 1/2 hours and I had my first bit of movement. Some guy - NO IDEA who he is - just came in and tried to ask me in English if my visa had come through yet. I didn't understand his English so he switched to Arabic and said that this really was taking too long. So I just wrote my name down for him on a sheet of paper and he went to check. Wonder who he is and if he'll make any difference at all...

...Now I'm finishing the story on the next day. At about five hours I was tired of my restaurant perch and decided to go for a walk, stopping by to see if there was any news first. I got in there and waited for an hour while they called Damascus to see what was taking so long, at which point it became known that someone had let the ball slip and my request was just sitting on someone's desk (surprise!), so they'd get back to us in half an hour. So I knew then that I'd have an answer by 9:30, and sure enough by the time I'd made a few phone calls and used the facilities, I'd gotten my permission! It took another hour and a half to process my visa and for me to find a ride into Aleppo, but here I am happy at my friend's house.

A few closing thoughts:

1. As I was sitting during that last hour of waiting, I thought of refugee women. Who sit at borders sometimes for days and months, or even years on end, waiting for someone to help them, to let them in. These women are treated extremely poorly by the border officials, who really seem to think of them as a nuisance to get rid of or ignore. After all, they are poor and unimportant. I felt like I was in danger because I was alone (I've heard stories of terrible things happening to single refugee women), but at least I didn't have children under my care with me. There are women all around the world sitting, with no food, no shelter, and with children who are hungry and scared. Even as I considered my options for spending the night at the border or what awful things could happen to me, I felt immensely grateful that I am so privileged and that the border officials and restaurant employees were really looking out for me in a protective way.

2. They really did look out for me. They thought it was awful that I had to wait so long and this random guy took pity on me and had his son arrange a van to take me into Aleppo. This kind of hospitality you find in few other places. Yes, it comes at a cost of conservative communities and strict rules, but Syrians really are incredibly generous and kind and helpful. I felt shamed at my failings in that area.

Well, it's been fun sharing my adventures in a virtual way!

Then a comment from Tony:

Hope everything is going well with your research! I can't imagine waiting through customs that long. Guess I'm too used to Taiwan and US Customs that are relative short for US Citizens. I hope you're doing well. Also if you've got any insight on what's happening in Israel between Hamas and Fatah I would love your insight on it. Hope all is well. God be with you.

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