Syria has been a problem internationally for the past few years. Before the current rebellion, it was a frequently touristed country, a country from which forays could be made into a more problematic Lebanon. But going back even further, the relative status of the two countries was once more reversed. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lebanon was, in large part, a tourist's paradise. Syria, on the other hand, was a revolutionary, socialist state, and a thorn in the side of American diplomacy. As with Iran today, from 1967 to 1974, we had no diplomatic relations with Syria. Syrian visas had to be obtained through the Pakistan consulate.
While going through some old boxes, I've just discovered a yellowed copy of my hometown newspaper, The Daily News. The paper contains an article that I well remember scribbling out in long hand, while sweating in the sultry heat of the Beirut YMCA. I mailed the article back home to the Daily News, where someone forced himself to read my scribbles, and decided to print it.
Having nothing more interesting to write about today, I've decided to preserve the 44-year-old article in my blog. I'm typing it verbatim from the newspaper. I'm making no attempt to "improve" my then-journalistic writing style, or my use of language and punctuation.
The article was published on August 29, 1970.
BEIRUT -- Damascus isn't host to many American tourists this year.
At first sight this may seem strange. The road from Beirut to Damascus is good, the fare by shared taxi is only the equivalent of $1.65 and my visa was issued swiftly and with no difficulty.
But there are few takers.
This was emphasized to me by a friendly group of students, somewhere in the twisted labyrinth of streets that make up old Damascus. I had been wandering along rubbernecking, camera in hand. In my blue jeans and shaggy mane, I no doubt appeared as exotic to the natives as they to me.
Suddenly I found myself sitting on a chair in the little dirt street, surrounded by a throng of young people. One, who could speak English, handed me a bottle of orange pop and began asking questions.
"My friend, where are you from?"
"America! But there have been no Americans in Damascus for many, many years! Why have you come?
"Oh, curiosity, I guess. I wanted to see what your city is like," I said.
"Curiosity, yes." And then sadly. "There are few visitors here any more. But there are many visitors in Beirut, yes?"
"Yes, many," I said. "They may be afraid to come here. (They nod agreement.) But your government has been very kind to me."
After taking a group picture of them and promising to send them a copy (I still have my friend's address printed out in careful Arabic), they smilingly bid me farewell.
This condensed exchange is just one of many examples I experienced of the warmth and curiosity of the Syrians, especially the young, toward foreign visitors.
Unfortunately, just a few moments later I tasted official Syria in the form of a rather Kafka-esque experience. Fear of such incidents no doubt discourages many from visiting Syria.
I had been followed by three grubby, appealing urchins for several blocks. They begged to have their pictures taken. So, finally, while we grinned at each other, I posed them swiftly, clicked the shot, and started to move on.
Suddenly I was surrounded by a group of Syria's ubiquitous soldiers.
"My friend, you should not take pictures of these boys in the street," one said. "They are bad pictures."
I wasn't prepared to argue. I apologized profusely for whatever I had done. I vowed not to do it again.
But justice obviously demanded more than nice talk. One soldier took my camera in one hand, firmly held my hand in his other, and moved off to the police station with me.
The young desk officer examined both me and my passport with awe. This case was obviously too big for him to handle. He led me to his superior, a large, jovial mustached fellow with a disturbing resemblance to a World War II photo of Stalin.
"Stalin" obviously wanted to forget he had ever seen me, but by now he had a large crowd of underlings about him, awaiting his decision. I recalled that revolutionary countries occasionally resort to summary executions. But even revolutionary bureaucrats are adept at passing the buck.
Joking with our now considerable retinue, Stalin led us to his superior, an ascetic SS type who wearily glanced at me, my passport, the incriminating camera, and finally at the mob. My God, I thought. Pontius Pilate!
With an air of resignation, he picked up his vintage 1930 phone and put through a call to -- who knows? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs?
Through it all, I was given repeated assurances that they definitely wanted visitors to take lots of photos. But of their beautiful girls and handsome men, their fine buildings. Not pictures of street children, pictures which would bring shame on Syria among my American friends. This was told me in voices full of both fatherly warning and comradely friendship.
The call to the Ultimate Authority finally was returned. My camera was gravely handed me. The crowd was hushed.
"You will, please, open the camera."
"But that will ruin all my pictures!" I said.
I felt like Alice confronted by a courtroom full of playing cards. I should be able to blow them all away and wake up.
I opened the camera.
"Please give to me the film."
I watched helplessly as my pictures of mosques, narrow streets, fezes, veiled women, robed sheiks -- and my student friends -- were exposed to the light. I watched as some 20 frames of film were pulled from the cartridge and senselessly aborted. Incongruous with my emotions, they were all laughing happily at this triumph of socialist decency over decadent Western realism.
My camera and passport were politely returned. They were still chuckling together as I walked down the hall. The soldier who first "arrested" me came up. "My brother," he said, "do not hold this against me." He was just doing his job, he said. He sincerely hoped I would enjoy my stay in Damascus.
In that moment, hearing the combination of friendship and national pride in his voice, and recalling America's image in Syrian eyes, my film seemed rather unimportant. We smiled as we parted.
No, not many American will visit Damascus this year. And I can understand why. But it is too bad, for both our countries.