A pair of tired eyes peers over the photo page of my beetroot coloured passport. “Occupation?” he asks me. “Student” I reply.
Next to the custom official hangs a poster showing the Syrian dove caught in mid air, wings spread and proudly carrying an olive branch in its beak, all around it cannons are aiming. Each cannon is branded with one prominent news channel logo after the other, CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC. They are all there trying to shoot down the peace dove of the regime. Another glance through the passport then my details are thoroughly noted into the system. First in fluent Arabic, then in slow shaky capital letters, “TOURIST”, two quick stamps reiterate his verdict. “Welcome to Syria”, he hands back my documents and gestures me towards the door.
Syria is a country being swept by a storm that refuses to quieten down and Damascus is the eye of the hurricane. With all tourists long gone the streets are left unnaturally quiet. From walls and rooftops all over town president Bashar Al-Assad and his father Hafez, the leader of the 1970 coup are scouring the city looking on from posters and pedestals.
Here in a city besieged by secret police and undercover agents the people would never discuss politics openly, instead they refer to old president Hafez as “The Lion King”, this turns Bashar into Simba and the Jackals are the ones you always fear might be listening in.
Inside the national museum everything is quiet, I’m walking the long empty halls of history cast in clay, iron, silver and gold. A lone guard sits on his footstool surrounded by 10.000 years of history, here are lives lived and lost, battles fought and civilizations crumbled.
Outside in the overgrown garden the last of the evening light throws long shadows of the ancient stone statues of the ones that were, among them sits one that still is. We talk, he tells me of his life, a good life, well at least it used to be. Things have changed recently.
“It’s because of the weather”, he says, looking me into the eyes. “This damn weather”
I’m walking through the streets of the old city observing the hopelessness, feeling the tension thick in the air. People look at me like I look at them, here we are all strangers. The act of raising my camera feels like a threat
to shatter this carefully constructed glass citadel so I tend not to.
A street sweeper stops me, he demands to look through my pictures, there is nothing incriminating there so he nods and lets me go, I hurry down a side street aware of his eyes following me.
Looking back I notice another shadow on my heels, I take a right then a left but he’s still there, our eyes meet and he stops, turns around and gets his phone out, I disappear. My heart is pounding, who was he? I slowly realize that I have become a part of it, this theatre of war.
July 26, 2015