Thursday, August 26, 2004

Damascus: Nice people at wrong place


Damascus brings contrasting images of “police state” to “oldest capital on earth”. so when I was approaching Damascus, I was curious to see how things turn out in my two days stay.

Ariel view of barren, dusty flat terrain made me wonder if Damascus would really be different than Cairo or Riyadh even though temperature is almost 10 degree lower in peak summer. Immigration check up made me sure that I am indeed in a police state. Average 3-4 police ensuring “no Israel stamp” on my passport and opening my medical samples just to make sure that I am no drug courier made me wonder about things in store for my next two days in Damascus.

Initial impression make Damascus look similar to smaller cities in India with hardly any high rise modern buildings. Most of apartments resemble nothing more than concrete blocks. Russian made taxis look similar to our Premier Padmini. Staying in Sheraton Damascus reminded me of Govt. run centaur hotels in India. Most of the fittings are old, local television brand with hardly any function keys on remote control. Reading a newspaper is drab and boring with most of articles devoted to either Israel bashing or pro-ruling policies. But one thing is refreshing and striking: That is people: They are gracious smiling people, handsome with fair skin to match Europeans and reddish tinge to blend with Asians. Perhaps European genes and abundant sun make them look fair but not bland.

As I move in streets, bazaars in daytime- scene is chaotic- with people, automobiles struggling to buy space. However closer observation makes you wonder whether you are really in arab domain. There is no sign of being in arab land except arabic language. All people wear trouser and shirts instead of Arab robe with many females at work place. Older generation of woman wear colorful scarves while younger ones with fashionable highlighted hair with jeans. FM playing rock music and alcohol being available in hotel that even has a disco. .

Damascus has two sprawling hills –overlooking the city. One is beyond the access to common public. This is the place of residence of ruler. All one can see is top of the hill covered by long trees with entrance blocked by security guards. The other hill is for all common people. The night view of Damascus from top is as refreshing as seeing San Francisco city from Hill. The only difference is absence of skyscrapers but green colored minarets of mosques make up the loss. It seems that every tourist descends on this hill at night time. Iraqi, Saudi number plates are abundant.

Despite all the criticism of no political freedom, Syria government has assiduously worked in socialist model. The government spends heavily on Education, Healthcare and Housing. Common man seems satisfied with fulfillment of his basic needs. One hardly sees any slum or beggars. Damascus has fine restaurants serving Lebanese and Arab food with teeming visitors from arab world. Beirut is hardly 3 hour drive from Damascus so traffic is heavy on this road. Be prepared to give some time for immigration. But leaving Damascus is so much relieving after an experience in arrival section at airport. As I enter Lebanon, I am greeted by flowing breeze though same mountainous terrain which I had left Syria. I wonder if it was reflection of my mindset which heaved a sigh of relief coming out of clutches of police state!!

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