Behind ‘Enemy Lines’: the view from here.

Smiling Syrian hotel receptionist.

From Istanbul I flew to Gazi Antep, a town close to the Turkish-Syrian border, expecting to find buses to take me the 65 KM to Haleb (Aleppo) in Syria. I easily found a bus to a smaller town a bit closer to the border. Asking around at the bus station there landed me in an office that did not quite look like a bus company office. “Sit Down” said a man sitting behind an enormous wooded desk in good English while I put my pack down and an old man disappeared upstairs via a rusty spiral staircase in the corner. He returned a moment later balancing a tray with a glass of Turkish tea in one hand and braced himself with the other. “No bus to Aleppo” said the man behind the desk, “only taxi, 60 YTL” (30 Euros). I was not sure if this was an attempt to lure me away from a much cheaper bus or if I was really stuck with this expensive option.

Drinking tea bought me time to think. I decided to check out the bus offices. The man behind the desk allowed me to leave my pack in his office while I went for a walk around the station yard. Asking around did not give me a satisfactory alternative besides a 5-hour detour to the next border crossing where buses for Aleppo could be found. I went forwards and backwards between bus offices and the taxi office. As a result the price of the taxi ride dropped to 25 YTL. “20YTL” was my final offer. The man behind the desk replied with “O.K., sit down, have another tea, ten minutes will go”.

I was a bit puzzled why I had to wait another ten minutes, as there were plenty of drivers sitting around doing nothing with empty taxis outside. The old man disappeared upstairs again and fetched another glass of tea for me. One of the drivers gets into action. Another man opened a drawer in the wooden desk and pulled out a passport, Syrian pounds and many documents. He wanted my passport as well. When I finished my tea I was told to get into the battered yellow Mercedes. It started on a second attempt and off we went.

The driver did not speak English so I was allowed to enjoy the ride without the need to strike up a conversation. After 10 km we reached the border. I have been to quite a few impressive border crossings in my life but none were as dramatic and extensive as this one.

High fences enclosed a secure area of at least 1 km long, which was divided into smaller sections by various gates and checkpoints. A potholed road led to the first one on the Turkish side where our passports vehicle papers were checked. The officer processing me took a stamp in his hand, inked it up, raised his arm, and paused for a moment before it landed on my passport with a mighty bang as if he was trying to kill a fly.

More gates and a potholed road through no-mans land got us to the first Syrian checkpoint where our passports were checked for a first time. “Welcome to Syria” said a Syrian officer in English, “Will take a long time” he warned while pointing over his shoulder to the next checkpoint with my passport still in his hand. I was wondering if a lengthy wait was budgeted for in my taxi fare. We got back in the taxi and drove the short distance to the next checkpoint.

Syrian smiles.

Two buses filled with women in black and a few private cars were haphazardly parked made it difficult to figure out if there was any system one should comply with. My driver parked the taxi in the middle of the road, switched off the engine and grabbed all papers including my passport in a way that told me that we weren’t leaving in a hurry. Without a word he got out and headed for one of the offices. I did not like the idea of leaving my passport out of sight so I got out quickly followed the driver like a young puppy; exited, curious and blissfully ignorant of things to come. Squeaky aluminium doors led us into a poorly lit and dated marble hall. In front of a counter topped with a glass barrier men were trying to get the attention of custom officers on the other side by frantically sticking their hands through tiny window openings. None seemed very successful. The system seemed chaotic, but after a little while I began to discover the obstacle course passports had to follow. I was the only westerner being processed and my interesting exotic passport jumped the queue. “Where you stay in Syria?” asked an officer with an 80’s George Michael hairdo.

Syrian kids.
I needed to go back to my luggage and quickly find a hotel address in my guidebook and pretend I had a reservation in a tourist hotel. If not I would be charged for an expensive business visa. The trick worked like a successful throw of dice in a board game and my passport successfully moved along the obstacle course. A few minutes later another officer comes over to the window. “Where you from? What your job?” To keep things simple I tell the man I am a teacher. “What you teach?” “Art” I said.” In School?” I was not prepared for such detailed questions and made up my profile as fast as he was asking for more detailed questions. Another friendly “Welcome to Syria” concluded the questions, which pigeonholed me as an art teacher teaching painting in a school. “Sit down” he said kindly pointing at an empty seat nearby. “Here comes the waiting bit,” I thought. My driver had disappeared in the mean time, but the taxi and my luggage were still there so I relaxed as there was nothing else to do.

I was called back to the window a few more times for further questions such as why I had so many names (I have four christian names), which ones were my father’s names and why the other names were not my father’s names. I should have just said they all belonged to my father rather than trying to explain that two belong to my father, one to my godfather and one to an Italian movie star after. The officer pretended to understand and decided to go along with my explanation that it was all part of tradition but his frowned forehead exposed his confusion.

Syrian taxi driver.

He began typing all my names and details in a computer with one finger. I needed to do a few spellchecks for him. I pulled a silver-looking pen from New Zealand out of my pocket to correct some spelling mistakes. “Can I use pen?” he asked. Of course, but my only pen disappeared in his pocket instead of being returned to me. I am offered a large glass of tea and told to make myself comfortable and sit down again. I could not help notice that the officer who ‘borrowed’ my pen was wearing it proudly in his shirt pocket. I was not annoyed in anyway, but decided to tease him a bit and make sure that I would not be left without a pen at the next checkpoint. I took the courage to ask my pen back. He seemed very reluctant to give up his ‘gift’ from New Zealand. Little did he know it was a crappy pen from New Zealand that kept falling apart. I told him he could keep it if I would get I a Syrian pen in return. He took a pen from one of his colleagues and handed it to me victoriously. About one and a half hour later all processing was complete. I found my driver. After a few more checkpoints, all double-checking the same papers, we drove through the last gate and entered Syria.

It was only another 45 km to Aleppo. On the outskirts my taxi driver ordered a local taxi one to stop. I agreed to be transferred after I saw that my driver paid the Syrian one for the last few kilometers to the city centre. I was dropped off exactly where I needed to be. Little did I realise what a great value this 10 Euro ride would become. There were quite a few moments where I doubted if I had chosen the right option to enter Syria. None of those doubts remained by the time I settled into my hotel room and was ready to explore the ancient labyrinth of souks of Haleb. Within 30 minutes locals welcomed me, offered me tea, shared their water pipe and invited me to their house for dinner. My first day in Syria has been an unbelievable enjoyable heartwarming experience. To anyone in the West who fears or hates Muslims I would like to pose the question: Would do the same for an Arab or Muslim who walked passed your house of shop?
Ancient souk in Haleb, once part of the Silk Route.

Heading East

Gate to Topkapi Palace, Istnbul, Turkey.

Istanbul is a gate to the East and a gate to the West. I am in transit here for few days. It is interesting to linger on the edge for a moment and look back where I have just come from. I must admit that there is a sigh of relieve quietly escaping me as such a manicured and controlled society feels a bit claustrophobic to me.

Istanbul, Turkey.

I visited a nightclub where a DJ mixed a variety of traditional Balkan music. The crowd danced passionately, the only option as far as I am concerned when exposed to this type of music. Thank God there are places that resist Western styled cultural globalisation and can retain some of its unique character without remaining stuck in the past.

Interior detail Aya Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey.

Culture Shock

The Sturovo residence.

I woke up with my mind still floating in between the many intense dreams I had during the night. So much has happened in, what I thought to be, my last week in Sturovo; meeting Peter, job offers, new potentialities, never a dull moment in my life. Too many options, ideas, yet I desire emptiness, calm, just being. In between all of the chaos, turmoil of my mind and heart I did get a glimpses of timeless emptiness, of just being in the quiet presence Peter.

A Dutch residence

I have left that reality, got on a plane as planned and find myself in the apartment of my cousin Agnes in Amsterdam. The difference between my Zen-like residence in Slovakia and the utter clutter of a typical Dutch home could not be contrasting.

Queens birthday Amsterdam, Netherlands.
I watch Saturday morning TV as I am too tired to get going. I haven’t stared at a TV set for 6 months, interesting stuff really, about art, the Dutch queen who is an artist in her own right, an exhibition she curated, a Dutch man who build a life-size arc of Noah for real, and the story of Soviet solders who were killed in a Nazi prison camp in the town where I was born. I used to play in one of watchtowers of the camp remnants as a kid. I can’t believe how all these seemingly random TV programmes relate to what is current my life at the moment. They stimulate my senses trigger my creativity.

The Queen visiting Den Bosch, Netherlands. People have a need to see 'their' king or queen, the king or queen needs to be seen by 'his or her' people to make the relationship real.

I am in Amsterdam to film the abundant queens birthday celebrations. The weather is just fantastic. The people buzzing with spring energy, ready to party all weekend. At the surface life seems effortless, full of light, joy, riches and such a different reality from Slovakia. I lived longer in The Netherlands than anywhere else, yet I feel like a visitor to another planet, very familiar yet so strange and unfittingly foreign.

A royal wave by a different kind of queen, Amsterdam, Netherlands