The 40-Year Plan:
'cause it ain't gonna happen overnight...
by Ken Krayeske
So I went to Syria and didn't get killed. But my story did.
The 3,500 words I submitted to the Progressive magazine about my trip to the Syrian-Iraqi border "lacked bang," according to Progressive editor Matthew Rothschild. Thus my reporting isn't in the December issue of the magazine.
He gave me a poor explanation of what "bang" was. I was pleased that I avoided bullets and bombs during my three weeks and the Middle East. I risked my neck; I thought I deserved a chance for rewrite. But I'll take the $500 kill fee and shop the story elsewhere.
Based on the response to my first round of dispatches, I had to write a follow-up. People told me that the stories sparked inter-office conversations and debates; some said it re-enforced their perception of the Middle East as a dangerous place (which wasn't my intention).
Others said that they worried about me - for which I am grateful. Yet I feel unworthy when I think of the 170,000 American families whose children take risks far greater serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others told me I left them hanging, that I didn't finish the story. When I last wrote of Syria, Liz and I were staying in Beirut, and exploring Roman ruins in Hezbollah territory, Baalbek.
Our land route back to Istanbul took us back through Syria. What? Return? Why not? We had dual-entry visas, and wanted to use both opportunities to enter the country. Plus, the people showed such hospitality and the hazards of eastern Syria seemed so remote that we thought nothing of it. And, it was cheap.
We headed for Aleppo (Haleb), in the peaceful northwest of Syria, maybe two hours from southernmost Turkey. Aleppo, one of the oldest cities on Earth, features an ancient marketplace. We left Beirut, jumping a $3 a morning bus to Trablous, or Tripoli, a grimy coastal city in northern Lebanon.
We arrived in Trablous about noon, and wandered, whittling time until the 5:30 bus departed for Aleppo, a six-hour ride. Yet at 5:30, we boarded, and slowly realized the bus goes only when full. We sat for 90 minutes, playing cards, and shooing away the bus driver's smiley boy, selling candy, nut cakes and gum.
Outside, a man stood, shouting non-stop like an auctioneer, "Haleb, Haleb, Haleb, Haleb, Haleb!" Syrians stuffed on the bus. The only foreigners were Liz, myself and a Russian man in an ugly black and white checkered silken polo shirt.
A few Syrian students on board spoke English. We talked European football and they agreed to help translate at the border. The bus meandered north while the sun set orange over the Med.
Maybe at 9 o'clock, we exited Lebanon. If you doubt the power of one word, put one like "journalist" in your passport and try to enter a police state for the second time in a week.
All the Syrian passengers cleared customs instantly, while Liz, me and the Russian waited. I knew the young guard behind the glass was just doing his job, asking me many times what magazine I worked for, who I was, where I was from, what my story was about, etc.
After the students left, a large Russian woman whose boobs hung out of her tank top translated. Within 15 minutes, the bus driver's boy was tugging on my arm, like, "Let's go!" I wasn't leaving without our passports, so I shrugged.
The guard stamped Liz and I in five minutes later. We boarded the bus and once we rolled through the vehicle inspection bay, a bunch of Syrian soldiers stopped the bus.
A fat sergeant boarded, walked up the aisle, and I thought, "He wants me." He disembarked, and another officer boarded and tapped my shoulder. I grabbed Liz and my passports. I was certain she wouldn't let the bus leave without her identity documents.
Despite my nervousness, I told her not to worry as four soldiers escorted me back to the custom's buildings. They put me in a tiny room, lit by fluorescents. A ledger sat on a desk, and next to that, an old man slouched in a worn yellow armchair. The soldiers bid me wait, and I paced in a tiny circle, feeling Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad staring down at me from a frame on the wall.
Seeing my angst, one of the soldiers kicked the old man out of the chair and made me sit down. After a few minutes, three crisply uniformed superior officers entered with the fat Russian lady in tow. They asked me the same questions: Who are you? Where are you from? What is your magazine? Where is it from? How many people read it? What city was your passport issued in? Why was it issued at the National Center?
I fired back that two days ago, an undersecretary in the Ministry of Information, whose business card I produced, told me I was welcome in Syria anytime. I didn't understand the hold-up, I said.
Yes, yes, the officers said, you are welcome, welcome, always welcome, but why isn't this magazine in New York City?
Because it's in Wisconsin, I said.
We danced with words and the vagaries of American media for 30 minutes. I gave them the Progressive's website, its street address and even Rothschild's name and email. I was exasperated when the bus driver poked his head into the room. He was 40ish, skinny with a big beard, and addressed the guards. I don't know what he said. Our passports sat on the desk, and next thing I know, the bus driver wrapped his clammy hand around my wrist and pulled me out of the room, without our passports.
An entourage of soldiers followed, and the young guard who I first met held our passports. He apologized in English. "Sorry, sorry," he said. "You are welcome in Syria. Always welcome."
We hustled outside, and I gulped the fresh air. The soldier thrust our passports in my hand. The bus driver ran to his coach, and I sprinted after him. Outside the bus, Lizzie was smoking cigarettes with some of the Syrian men. We boarded, and the bus moved out.
I was shaking, the pit in my stomach big enough for the bus. I wanted a drink. I wanted to hug my girlfriend. I wanted to be home. But I was in Syria, and could only sit on the bus I delayed for almost an hour.
Eyes glared at me. I thought apologizing for the delay might cut the tension. In my best Arabic, I said that I was an American journalist, I was sorry for the hold-up, and I only wanted peace.
I couldn't read the stone faces, but when the bus laughed, and I asked the student what was so funny, he said a man joked about his knife.
I counted our allies. The Russian guy would help us, the students might stick up for us. I thought the bus driver and smiley boy might have our backs, but one can't trust mob mentality. My nerves were frayed, I felt alone and vulnerable, despite my best friend sitting next to me. I tried to be a rock. But I leaned on Liz.
Yet I felt horrible for jeopardizing her like this. A mustached man two seats ahead kept looking at me. I wanted to be in our hotel in Haleb, which was still four hours away.
Then the bus stopped. The driver jumped out, opened a luggage section beneath us, and from our window perch, we saw him run cross a four lane highway with a 35- gallon blue tank.
Apparently, the bus was running out of gas. The driver returned swinging and empty can and we continued on. I heard American journalist in the murmur, and assumed they blamed me. My stomach fell farther into fear.
Rumbling down the highway, we passed lines of trucks and cars at service stations. It seemed bleak, and while Liz napped, I focused on the green neon lighting mosque minarets on the dark horizon.
The bus pulled onto the shoulder, and again, the driver pulled the can out and scurried across the highway. Everyone disembarked and a few Syrians bummed cigarettes off Liz.
"Petrol?" she asked.
"No petrol," they laughed.
And I couldn't take it. I was wrinkled inside, I wanted her to shut up. I walked away. I needed to be alone. I gathered myself, and studied the scene. Then I saw her laughing with the people. My worry slunk away.
The bus driver returned lugging a heavy can, smiling.
"Now the American journalist has something to write about," someone said.
At the next potty stop, the mustache man who kept looking at me, through our student translator, invited Liz and I to stay at his house. Through a shy, embarrassed smile, he apologized for the military, and wanted to fix our opinion of his country. I was honored.
I politely declined, saying that I told the military that I was staying at Funduq Dar Halabia in Aleppo, and I must be there if they came looking. I doubted they would, but I had no idea what his house looked like, and I didn't want to impose.
No, Liz and I wanted the comforts of a hotel - privacy, a shower, a breakfast on a terrace, and the perfunctory German tourist group babbling at 7 a.m. outside our window.
Yep, nothing like traveling.
The bus driver's candy salesboy peddles his candy nut cakes.
A bus heading out of Tripoli.
photos by Liz Harris