A drawing by Syrian Cartoonist Ali Farzat: “Tourist Rental”
Summer is here finally, Camila and her husband John already made up their minds on where to go next. It was the new hot destination for journeys: Syria. All of their friends already went there and talked about all fun and sunny things they did. Everyone was talking how this place became civilized and progressed, all because of the works of this blue eyes president and his classy extravagant wife.
The moment their airplane landed in Damascus airport, the couple were surrounded with smiling faces and welcoming sentences uttered in a broken English accent. Their passports stamped fast and they peacefully walked to pick up their luggage, the baggage handler unloaded their luggage, they thanked him and gave him a tip. When they got out from the airport building they approached a kiosk to ask how they can reach old Damascus, from what their friends told them, they will find many intimate, authentic and cheap hotels. No need for reservations, just take a map and go to their desired place, this place is the next new adventurous tourist attraction. They decided to take one of the airport taxis, the employee in the kiosk told them that public transportation was banned from taking orders to the airport, instead, a private business is providing the trips for security reasons and to organize the movement. The private business company was owned by the president’s cousin.
Meanwhile, 50 year-old worn out Abu Ahmed was waiting under the scorching sun in his small town square in Damascus countryside. He is a construction worker, and there are hundreds like him across Syria – and increasing – sit everyday in known places waiting for the small Suzuki to come and pick some of them up to their next construction site. It has been a month since his last job, his age and skinny body rarely qualifies him to be picked up by workshops managers, but whatever he makes no matter how trivial can help in one of his days. Several Suzukis came and went, sunset approached and the men that were unlucky to be chosen today decided to go back home. Abu Ahmed took the main public transportation – a small white vans called micros- to his house made of mud and bricks about 15 minutes dusty walk from the last micro station. He used to own a small nice house in Kafr Souseh area, before it became desirable by real estate comapny and kicked many people, including him, out of their homes to improve the landscape of the city, they erected fancy buildings and houses in the place were his house was and sold them in prohibited high prices. The real estate company is owned by the president’s cousin.
When Camila and her husband John, arrived to old Damascus, they smelled Jasmine and wowed by the history crawling under and between the walls. Many people lived, died and passed through this place. The taxi driver dropped them before a hotel called The Arbor Yard. The moment they entered, smiles lightened up their way in, the lobby was a yard shadowed by vine leaves and centered by a small fountain surrounded by red and white roses. Arabesque furniture was everywhere, the place looked like Ali Baba’s castle. The hotel which is owned by the president’s cousin, had vacant rooms and the prices was unbelievably low compared to hotel prices of other third world countries they visited before. The room was exquisite, everything was designed like a typical damascene house, heavy bed made of shiny brass, a tiny balcony oversees the hotel’s lobby only two people can sit there in the morning sun for some healthy breakfast and a cup of Turkish coffee. What Camila loved the most were the electric oriental lamps on both sides of the bed, she decided to buy one for her house from the old Al-Hamidiyah Souq.
It was Wednesday, and Amina, the mother of five is ready to go to the Wednesday flee market in her slum area. All used and cheap things are sold for the low-income workers and the poor. After her first 4 children went to their local school, she took her youngest to shop from the flea market. When they passed one of wooden carts selling plastic toys, her child started nagging for one, she was persuaded by the nagging and her guilt to take one toy as the last toy they bought him was one year ago, and these Chinese toys are much cheaper than the local cheap ones. The owner of the Chinese plastic toys cart used to own a small workshop for making toys, he was put out of business since the president’s cousin started an import company and opened the entire small country for massive Chinese trade. Amina bought the cheapest toy in the pile to hush her child, she thought that it will be damaged after two weeks anyway so why does she want to spend money lavishly! As she was walking away from the cart, a hassle started, some sellers left their goods and started running, others carried whatever they can and fled with it. The police was here and their moody raid this time took over all toys in the place, it was the captain’s son birthday. One of the police cars hit Amina and her son, and drove away as if the mother and the child were just thin air.
Camila and her husband John, spent the night in a bar called Ornina, also owned by the president’s cousin. They did not expect that the country was open minded like that, people from different religions and backgrounds gathered for a dance and a drink. The place looked like a cave, a space carved inside stone. They listened to eastern music under the dim lights and heard giggles and laughs getting louder by the power of booze. They too laughed and danced, made a couple of new friendships who told them that they will take them to see an eternal view, and will drive them back to their hotel. The couple said they will go with them, so at 3am they left the bar and headed to Mount Qasioun. They reached an area where many cafeterias lined up and some cars with lovers inside them making out. The city of Damascus was laying before them like a seductive woman inviting them to explore her treasures. The city lights scattered to the horizon seemed like they were imitating the lights of heaven. They went inside one of the cafeterias and ordered chocolate fruit salad. Up there, time seemed static, till the sunrise owned time. Their new friends advised them to visit Palmyra ruins, they will enjoy a Safari trip there.
At that night, Nour was waiting for a costumer in one of the cheap notorious hotels in Marjeh Square, an ironic place that hold the reputation of martyrs square and a prostitution hub. She escaped her house after her father planned to kill after when he discovered that she is seeing someone. Like many, in the small town where Nour grew up, openness and development did not reach their community that is proud with its same old patriarchal authority, the authority the is ruling the entire place. She had no path to flee through but this, nothing to do but this. She was owned all of her life. She always thought of what will happen to her when she withers and she becomes a dispensable asset for her current owners. Death is always an option. At her final though she was ordered.
Camila and her husband John took the next Safari trip with a tourism company – also owned by the president’s cousin – to Palmyra. They stayed in a desert hotel not far from Palmyra’s notorious prison. The couple will spend two days in this place, the first day they went to see the ancient ruins of hundreds of years old city as the tourist guide told lovely stories about the history of this place, they took many pictures and rode camels. During the second day, they fooled around in a Bedouin tent, drawing henna on their arms, eating sensuous food, watching belly dancers, smoking sheesha and making more friends with other tourists. The sun and air were oozing freedom and delight. They promised that they will come back again.
Raji spent many years in Palmyra prison that he cannot remember how many. He rarely saw sunlight in the underground chambers of that dungeon, and hardly breathed air. He was tortured with a hot rod carving shapes on his arms, his skin was shook many times with thick stick hitting his belly and back, he was electrified and only ate rot food. They took pictures of him naked and vulnerable. Raji was accused of terrorism after he called for a democratic elections in his country and cursed the president. One of his friends filed a report about him, and since that time he was incarcerated for an aeon, no dawn to reclaim time.
Like all joyful hours, they pass quicker than a finger snap. Camila and her husband were in Damascus airport for their trip back home, they went through the Free Zone, also owned by the president’s cousin, to buy some sweets and gifts for friends and family. Smiling and loving, officers and employees were so nice. On the other part of the airport, Hummingbird was in line for her flight. Free Zone prices was above the reach of average Syrians. It was her turn for inspection, the officer treated her roughly, searched her stuff and emptied half of her bag, then told her to buzz off. Hummingbird never knew how this place is still standing still despite all its madness, and she vowed that she will never come back.
In December 2014, Camila was strolling her baby in her neighborhood garden in Dubai. She sees her neighbor Hummingbird coming her way. Usually they say hi to each other, but never exchanged a long conversation. Hummingbird said hi as usual, Camila started a sudden chit-chat: How are you today, you know I never asked you where you are from?
Camila: Oh really! Oh I am so sorry for what is happening there, things were so peaceful and nice. You know, I was with my husband few years ago before all this war, and we had a wonderful time. I miss that place. Oh I am really sorry. Those damn saboteurs ruined it for everyone.
Hummingbird did not know if her neighbor was sorry for her sorrow or for the lost of a great tourist attraction.