Damascus International Airport, Syria.
Thursday afternoon, 4:12 pm . . .
When we made our final approach to Damascus International Airport, I was just overwhelmed by it all. Buildings as far as the eye can see. It’s like this oasis in the middle of the desert. It looks surreal when compared to the pictures we had printed off of the Internet. We’re about 20 miles east of the city.
The Old City, where we’re going, is a rough oblong shape spanning 1,640 yards long, and 1,100 yards wide. It is defined by its historic walls—the northeastern section of which the doorway is silently residing.
I wonder if the people who live there have any idea what is right under their noses.
The long axis of this Old City runs east and west. Ricky told me that the city was designed in the early Hellenistic times and that the Roman builders deserve most of the credit. All roads, as they say, lead to Rome.
Most of the city’s original streets are buried 15 feet below the present street level, due to the fact that Damascus was captured by Muslim armies and most of the original remains were obscured or destroyed.
In our bullet proof Land Rovers, driven by two Syrian military officers—mercenaries—we found ourselves cruising down wide boulevards where all sorts of new development seems to have taken place. In their broken English, our minders explain to us that the French came in during the 1960s and devised several plans to modernize the city. The houses are mostly concrete blocks of flats. But it’s much more modern that I had expected.
Most of the wealthy families moved to the area northwest of the Old City in the 1930′s. As the city grew, more and more of the gardens and farming areas were converted to residential living districts. This place was an oasis in early times.
In his thick accent, one of our minders—Nasser—explains, “The local government has tried to keep areas of green, and areas of factories, zoned. We try to, ah, preserve the old beauty, you know.”
Ms. Josephine, Ricky, and me, we aren’t saying much. Nasser and Hassim gave us press badges that have our names and the logo for CNN on them. If we get into any trouble, we are to lower our heads and say, “We are with the European Press corp. We want protection given by the Geneva Convention.”
But when they were telling us that, Ricky nudged me and said, “. . . that Geneva Convention shit’s going to get us shot.” Thing is though, we don’t really have any better excuse to be bumbling around their historical sites. So, CNN it is.
We head to the hotel, which is just on the western end of the Christian Quarter, near the Notre-Dame-De-France Hostel. We pulled around the back of the hotel, and several men met us, to get us inside and settled. I guess Ricky’s money does buy us a few luxuries more than your average tourist.
We took back stairways to our rooms, and were quickly ushered back out after leaving our bags. The book, of course, was still physically touching me. When I asked why we were leaving the hotel so quickly, they said that if we wanted to take our pictures of the Old City Wall- that now would be the best time of day.
“The sun,” Nasser said, “. . . it throws the gold of Allah across the wonder of man.” And if he hadn’t been packing a pistol big enough to bring down an airplane, I might have found his words rather enchanting.
So out we go, bumping around through the streets in our bulletproof trucks. Ricky, he’s all business now, making sure there is a full ‘jump bag’ with all of the necessary medical equipment. “We’re good, Jack,” he said, nodding to Ms. Josephine and I.
Nasser and Hassim, they know this city quite well because they pretty much go wherever they please and nobody stops them. Police and military vehicles just wave at them. Who knows, maybe Ricky’s paying them off, too?
As they drive they’re pointing things out to us, giving it a shot in English, and then reverting to Arabic to share their own conversation. They both have on dark, black-tinted glasses and khaki pants. Pistols, boots, vests. And teeth yellowed from years of tea and cigarettes. These guys will shoot you with no questions asked. That makes me feel safe, but not completely comfortable. Like having pet tigers.
We near a traffic jam and Nasser turns his head, “Have you heard of Saul of Tarsus?”
We all shrug like dumb Americans typically do. Not that we haven’t heard the story, but that it’s best to just sit back and listen to the locals.
He grinned, “You probably know of him by name, Apostle St. Paul. The Hanani Chapel,” he said pointing across the street, “is meant to commemorate the conversion, in Damascus, of Saul. New Testament of your Christian Bible speak very much of Paul. He was a bitter enemy of Christianity in first century. And a bad man, very bad. He hurt many people.”
“He was a Jew,” Hassim added, just to make sure we knew.
“Yes,” Nasser agreed. “Jew. But after the death of the prophet, Jesus, he become a missionary. His writings, they are earliest Christian writings. This is wonderful story, no?”
I found it hauntingly interesting. “Mr. Nasser,” I said carefully, “. . . what do you get from that story? I mean, what is the moral of the conversion from Saul, to Paul?” I had read a bit about this on the Internet, and I was curious what real Muslims thought of it.
“This moral,” Nasser said as we began to creep forward towards the traffic light, “it say that a man can be monster, and then change his way . . . if he truly have desire to be good.”
“He can change for bad, too,” Hassim interjected. “Is not only good conversion. But one can become evil, too.”
I sat back. The buildings and structures slowly floated by us, as if we weren’t moving and everything else in the world was. I noticed the tall, aged wall on our right.
“This is Old City Wall,” Nasser pointed as we sped through the light.
Ricky leans forward, “Gentlemen, can we find a place and park?” He glances at his watch, and then back at the sun on the horizon.
Then he looks at me with curious eyes. “You ready for this?”
“Now? As in, this second? Are we really doing this right now?” My heart is starting to race.
“Well, we’ll go and take a look—” Ricky started to say.
“No, no,” Hassim warned. “We stay in car for now. Once we find location you need, we will all go together and you take your pictures.
“My friend,” Ricky explained to them. “He is sick, sometimes. So if I see him in pain, I will give him special medical assistance.” Ricky was giving them some reason for me needing to get plugged into the IV and carp out for a couple of hours.
I’m not sure, but I think they all believe that I am the rich guy, here.
They spoke to each other in rapid-fire Arabic and then nodded. “Yes, this is good. Very safe.” Nasser then squinted toward the wall, “We will start at Damascus Gate and drive slowly. If you see spot, we will stop. But, you know, this is still city. Anything can happen.”
I hope this doesn’t all go tits-up. Ms. Josephine, she’s been quiet the entire time, just staring out the window, just like she had been on the plane. I think travel is very difficult for her.
Nasser slowed us down to about 25 miles-an-hour as we crept northeast. Ricky was looking through binoculars, and I was just scanning the wall for something that looked grand.
We traveled all the way past Herrod’s Gate, on to Jericho road, and then turned around. We did this little trip down Sultan Suleiman Road at least four times. But nothing looked right.
I told Ricky that I didn’t think we were going to find the door on this side, otherwise somebody would have made some mention of it in the last thousand years or so.
Ms. Josephine agreed, “Dis door is on da other side.” She looked at me, glancing back at the position of the sun. “You need to cross over, child. Soon. Da shadows, dey’s getting’ long and curious.”
Ricky nodded, “Time to act sick, Jack.”
“Oh, boy,” I said nervously. I’ve never crossed with strangers around. I feel a bit vulnerable. Like a stripper, kind of. But then, I’ve never been out of the country, or talked to the dead, or seen shadows chop people to bits, either. So, what the hell.
I started to breathe deeply and slowly, putting my hand on my head. “I’m not feeling so good.”
Nasser looked back, trying to figure out what was going on. “This is what you mean for sick?”
Ricky started pulling out the normal saline, “Oh, he’s just having a dizzy spell. He should be fine. Maybe he’s just a little dehydrated.”
In goes the pencil-sized needle in my left wrist. I feel my right forearm being massaged. Time to die. Ms. Josephine is whispering in my ear. I’m feeling drowsy. Everything is starting to get dark.