In November 2011 as part of the Petra Challenge I drove from Newcastle to Jordan, crossing from Turkey into Syria and staying in Aleppo. Later, continuing onwards via Beirut and Damascus to Amman.
Driving a British car across Syria’s land border is at the best of times potentially problematic. In the middle of a period of domestic unrest when foreigners are viewed with increased suspicion it’s a process many would consider foolhardy. However, despite this myself and co-driver Chris Tweddle, found our way through ebullient traffic to Syria’s most historic, if well-worn, hotel. Since then events have rather overtaken the humour of my recollection, but anyhow here’s what happened…
Jostling in an unruly queue, I wait. Laughing, untidily uniformed immigration officers contemptuously process passports, consult lists, and draw hard on their cigarettes. ‘What is your job?’, ‘What is the purpose of your visit?’ – I answer truthfully if not completely. Even so, the laughing stalls, replaced by uncomfortable stares. My heart shifts a gear. Bang. ‘Welcome to Syria.’ I’m in.
If only it was that simple. The bureaucratic paper chase of vehicle insurance, carnet, and painstaking columns in venerable double-width ledgers that close with a thump, never to see the light of day again, has only just begun. Two hours later we ease away from border control. Aleppo, Syria’s second city, lies 40km south through the darkness.
Foreigners generally conclude that Arab drivers have instinctive knowledge of horn etiquette and the subtle skills necessary to squeeze five cars into two lanes. Indeed, though Syrians are friendly and welcoming, once behind the wheel the genie is out of the bottle and their three wishes are that you hurry up, move over and get out of the way. Foreign plates and a steering wheel on the wrong side confer no special status.
I have a broad idea where to find Aleppo’s historic Baron’s Hotel. That said, upon the second circuit of a now-familiar traffic–choked square it’s time to seek assistance. Stepping into the night, I ask the way in basic Arabic. A wide-eyed, bearded youth engages with me. He rubs his finger and thumb together hopefully and I offer a two Euro coin, and then another… ‘I drive, you follow,’ he says. I jump back in the car and describe what’s afoot to my colleague, Chris. ‘See that poxy white van, the one that sounds like a chainsaw?’, he nods, ‘Well, don’t lose it.’
An adrenaline-fuelled, heart-stopping rollercoaster ride ensues, complete with honking horns, belching exhausts, near collisions and a catalogue of Highway Code contraventions. Then, the van pulls over. The driver jumps out, stretches out his arms and in a grand gesture and swings around towards Aleppo’s magnificent mediaeval citadel – precisely not where we want to be. A passer-by asks in English if he can help. He speaks quickly to the white van driver, there are nods of understanding, and we’re off again, helter-skelter through the seething maelstrom. I strain to recognise streets as we drive, but can’t pin anything down. ‘There it is,’ cries Chris in disbelief. Our dragoman stops, dismounts and beaming broadly kisses me on both cheeks – he’s delighted, as we are.
Inside, the Baron’s feels like a cantankerous elderly uncle’s townhouse. A décor of dignified decline is characterised by a yellowing BOAC route map on one wall, an original pastel-coloured Orient Express poster on another, along with a tattered map of ancient Syria. The hotel’s similarly authentic manager welcomes us in carefully enunciated unhurried English. ‘I’m the manager, Armen. We’re rather quiet at the moment so I’m able to offer you a very special rate on Lawrence of Arabia’s room.’ I recount having a beer in the hotel bar a couple of years ago. ‘Yes,’ he looks at me resignedly, ‘I think you would have found us a little busier then.’ I fill in the register and ask if the bar is still open. ‘Well,’ says Armen, obviously embarrassed, ‘As it’s been so quiet we have given the barman a holiday, but I’m sure we can find someone to serve you satisfactorily.’
Armen disappears into a back room. A lady in her 70s hands over a heavy key fob. She looks worried. ‘I’ve grown old with this hotel you know. Even during the war it wasn’t like this. This is a cold war. Some people they say by Christmas it will all be good. Alhamdulillah – By the grace of God’