Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Syrian Border Police Are Douchebags, or How I Was Banned From Entering Syria

Gather around, and ye shall hear the tale of how hannah and Joe spent 13 hours on the road yesterday, in the process being refused entry to Syria twice, yelling at consular officials in the Syrian embassy in Amman, getting lost in the morasse of Jordanian bureaucracy, off-roading through the desert, and visiting an emergency room in Amman.

We left Amman at 7 AM to catch a servees, a sort of long-distance taxi, to Damascus. If there were no border, the two cities are only about two or three hours apart. Unfortunately, there's the border, which is staffed by "border police" who delight in screwing with Americans trying to enter Syria. We had acquired our visas in DC, because any Americans trying at the Jordanian border or at the embassy here are assumed to have been to Israel and thus are refused. We had been assured by the consul in DC that we would have no problems leaving Jordan using our diplomatic passports and entering Syria on our tourist passports. When we got to the border, they noticed that we didn't have an exit from Jordan in our tourist passports, and asked what was up. Out came the other passports, and the fun began. We argued with the officer and a few of his bosses for an hour, while others ostensibly made numerous calls to their bosses in Damascus, before we were finally refused by someone unnervingly called the "station chief." At least we got some coffee out of the head goomba there before we left, as well as some cheap Lebanese wine at the duty-free store in no man's land.

We had to explain the entire situation to the Jordanian officials at the other side, and while they're used to Americans getting turned around, they seemed a little more confused by diplomats with visas being refused. After some finagling, they canceled our exit from Jordan (conveniently not refunding the departure tax) and we headed on our way. We returned to the Syrian embassy in Amman to deal with a consular official there affectionately known as the Visa Nazi to all American expats in the city. She started yelling at us about having two passports each and causing her problems, then she gets on the phone and comes back a new person. Very sweetly, she tells us to go to an office on the other side of Amman to have the Jordanian government transfer our entry visa into Jordan into our tourist passports, at which point we would have no problems entering Syria, she guarantees us.

With that process done, it was then about 2 PM. We grabbed lunch and then headed back to the border again, this time via a different route, hoping that we would have luck going through another border crossing where they wouldn't remember us. Unfortunately, Joe got violently ill on the road. When we changed cars at the intermediary city, he was feeling a little better, so we pressed on, but his situation quickly got a lot worse on the second leg. He was too busy feeling horrible and I was too unfamiliar with the terrain to notice that we finally arrived at the exact same border crossing as we had in the morning, so this round of negotiations fell to me. Same officer, same smug chuckles, same refusal reason. A Lebanese family standing beside me suggested that I just bribe the officer, but I didn't really feel like explaining that I couldn't offer the bribe, as an American diplomat, and anyway that they probably wouldn't let us in anyway. Then the police wouldn't give us our passports back until we'd secured transportation back to Amman, because the driver for this leg had to press on to Damascus and couldn't take us back. By this time Joe really started feeling bad, and the word "hospital" was first mentioned. I found a driver to take us to Amman in his air-conditioned car (which helped allay the nausea), so we finally got our passports back after the Syrians finished their cigarette break, and we headed back to the Jordanian side. The driver bought a few cartons of cigarettes and told me to say that some were mine if I was asked, which was fine by me, because all I wanted was to get back to Amman. After the same exit cancellation process on the Jordanian side, we were off.

I wanted our driver to take us directly to the hospital Joe requested, but he said no, his route only took him to this particular circle in central Amman. I offered him five extra dinars (more than covering the 1 JD cab ride between his usual stop and the hospital), and he still tried to hold out for ten. After some cursing and appeals to any shred of humanity in him, he finally agreed to take us directly to the hospital. Evidently his definition of "directly" isn't the same as mine, because he stopped at his house in a city along the road back to Amman to drop off the cigarettes he'd bought. This includes the four cartons sitting by my feet, the four or five hidden in the bumpers of the car, the three or four cartons hidden in drawers under the seats of the car, and the several individual packs hidden in the console, glove box, and door pockets. I'm not making this up. After some pleading, he finally hurries back to the road, and we made it to Amman fairly quickly, given that the road was blocked at one point by a wrecked eighteen-wheeler, thus requiring us to drive through the sandy scrub beside the highway for about a half mile to avoid the wreck. We weren't at the hospital long, just to get some meds for Joe and some directions for care and treatment, and we finally arrived back at his apartment at 8.30 PM.

Day. From. Hell. I mean, the story's great. I wish I could have taken some photos of the Syrian border crossing and the immigration building, because it was plastered with photos of the current leader, Basher al-Assad, and slightly smaller ones of his father, Hafiz. I'd like to say that I've stepped foot in a country with an honest-to-god cult of personality, but it's not clear that I did. I mean, I never legally entered Syria, and while I may have been inside the country by about 50 feet, I also technically never left Jordan (since our departures were cancelled both times). Nonetheless, it was an expensive story. I don't want to think how much it actually cost to drive back and forth (and back and forth). While it's not certain that I've been banned from entering Syria in the future, I'd be surprised if they couldn't manage to send my name and passport numbers to all of the border crossings and airports in Syria - it's clear that someone in Damascus is convinced that Joe and I are spies. Even if I had new passport numbers, I'd imagine that I'm forever blacklisted as a diplomat, and so I probably can't enter even if I have a new passport and have left the Foreign Service. It's a real shame; I really did want to visit Damascus, probably more so than any other city in the Middle East.

Needless to say, today has been very low key, involving lots of sleep and not doing anything. I certainly got a full day of immersive experience yesterday, albeit not in ways that the Arabic department at FSI envisioned!


  1. Wow...this is much better than Area Studies, isn't it?

  2. Actually, I and my friend are planning on making our Area Studies presentation on this trip. It'll be a joint endeavor: one part Jordanian NGOs, one part why you should take an immersion trip.