Middle East | Syria | Deir ez Zur – Downhill in Deir

Middle East | Syria | Deir ez Zur – Downhill in Deir

When I’d first arrived at the hotel, I collapsed on the bed, and pulled off my boots. My feet were a revolting mess: bitten again and again, and the bites rubbed raw by a day’s walking around. A nap and a tepid, drizzly shower later, it was something of a trial to put socks and boots back on, on the tender flesh. But I couldn’t just sit there and stare at them. There were things to do, places to go. So I swore a great deal, and went out to explore.

I was surprised by Deir ez Zur. It was pretty enough—with bright flowered vines and creepers across painted walls, long streets with ornate iron gateways leading into shady courtyard gardens—and the suspension bridge across the Euphrates was a slender, elegant ribbon full of strolling families. But almost everyone stared at me, and stepped out my way like they might catch something nasty. It was the first, the only place in Syria, where I’d met with overt hostility.

Deir’s a fairly modern town—an outpost of the French Foreign Legion, and a crossroads on a couple of main roads, but it’s taken an economic downturn fairly recently. The oil companies have left, the airport’s been closed, and most of the businesses that depended on this foreign money have been badly hit. That may explain why I felt like I should have been carrying a bell, and calling out ‘unclean, unclean!’ as I walked around on my own, a shameless Western hussy, striding around the city and not spending my tourist dollars in an expensive hotel, like a respectable person would.

Crossing the river, marvelling at the colours below me, the little boys splashing around in the water, I was pursued by a couple of teenagers on bikes. They were acting like any bored kids in some 1970s Sunday afternoon concrete shopping centre—getting in the way, whistling, shouting, and generally showing off and bristling with vaguely comical attempts at intimidation. But, in a place as welcoming as Syria, this was a shock. They rode off, leaving me baffled, as two more boys fell into step.

“Hello, hello. Where are you from? What is your name?”
Exeunt, at high speed, cackling with laughter.

But I found my way to the café on the far side of the river, past the empty sports centre and the rusting, deserted play park, and sat by the river, watching the sun fall and the stars rise. On the bridge, kids clambered up and down the suspension cables, and paraded along railings. The bullfrogs hit their full-throated croaking to such an extent that one of the skinny white dogs in the reeds lay down, utterly miserable, with his paws over his ears. Cats pounced on crickets and lizards, and ambled around tables checking for scraps. I slapped at my much-nibbled skin, drank tea, picked at a too big plate of salad, read fairytales, and watched the descent through every blue into darkness.

I read, wrote, and stared at the reflections of the changing sky on the water. Waiters came and went, trying to persuade me to take a trip with their cousin, their brother, their very good friend and his 4WD to this place or that place. But I had plans, and I was getting tired of defending them against the quest for the dollar. I packed up my stuff, wrapped another bit of salad into some bread, and headed out along the dark paths. Where I came face to face with a very large, very white, very angry goose.

The goose bobbed his head up and down, wings up, and hissed madly at me. I stopped, and ummed and ahhed. The goose honked and growled, lunging towards me. I told the goose to piss off and leave me alone. The goose charged at me. I took three steps backwards, to avoid it, hit a raised stone, and fell on my arse into the middle of a flowerbed.

The goose looked triumphant, snaking his head around, and hissing a little more. I burst out laughing, sitting there in the crumpled flowers and shrubs, salad sandwich all over my lap. I couldn’t stop; I was howling with laughter. There didn’t seem to be any other option. A gaggle of waiters rushed over to the commotion, and went into flappy-panic mode: two trying to herd the goose away, and getting pecked for their troubles, two wringing their hands and apologising. Two more helped me up, baffled by my helpless giggling.

“Don’t cry, madam, don’t cry!”
“Very bad goose. Very rude goose. No good manners!”

All the way back to the hotel, every time I saw a hostile glower, or heard a whisper, I felt like I’d been dropped into an absurd fairytale, where all the townspeople had been turned into malevolent geese.

+ + + + +

Hours later, exhausted but wide-awake in a hot room, I was busy cursing everything about the town.

I’ve never been good at heat, but I assumed that the dryness of the desert would be easier than the humidity I’d grown to loath in Hong Kong. But all my previous hot country travelling had been in the winter. And this was an unusually warm late spring. Wrapped inside a sleeping sheet, under a stuttering fan, I couldn’t believe how hot I got. But any limb that was exposed to a breeze was studded with vicious red mosquito bites within minutes. I have a knack of attracting every mozzie within miles. I’ll get bitten by every single one of them, and everyone else will be wondering why I’m slapping at myself, swearing madly, and grumbling about bloodsucking little bastards, when they are serenely untouched.

Most of the bugs in Eastern Syria had helped themselves to a little of my blood. Mari was the worst. There were screens over the windows, so, I’d blithely swung the windows wide open, and not noticed the large tears in them until the morning. In Deir ez Zur, the bugs swarmed around the river. Yes, I got bitten more, but that was my own silly fault—I’d spent about four hours sitting at a cafe, in the evening, right by the water. That night, the glossy white room was stifling, and ever other guest was heavy-footed, loud of voice, and full of singing. I was hot, itchy, and tired, and this was starting to make me grouchy. More annoyingly, it was starting to overwhelm the extreme happiness I’d felt walking through Palmyra, Dura and Mari.

I’m a terrible hypocrite, when it comes to travelling. One part of me wants to buy a camel and cross the desert, just because there’s a desert to cross. The other part of me gets all whiny when my feet hurt, I’m too hot, the map’s making no sense, and, damn it, I’m tired now. Some days all I want to do is sit outside a café and watch other people getting on with their life, even if one of the most spectacular sights in the country is just a couple of miles away and I really should go and see it, as I’m here. Two minutes later, I’ll be muttering about idiot tourists who appear at a ruined city, take a photograph, and hop back into their icily air-conditioned 4WD. In theory, I’m happy to rough it. But after three nights of fractured sleep, sweating to death and eaten alive, I’m dreaming of baths and clean white sheets.

All the careful planning I did–all of the mapping out of routes and itineraries–came undone just three days after I left Palmyra. I’d intended to stop at Deir ez Zur for a night, after visiting Dura Europos, see Resafeh the next day, and then head up to Aleppo, sleeping in Raqqa if there wasn’t enough time to get so far. But I was in such a foul mood, tired out, over-heated, and with seventy bites on my feet and ankles, my skin was raw inside my boots, I was going to get the hell out at Deir ez Zur, straight on a bus to Aleppo, to give myself some time to sort myself out before doubling back.

Once I’d beaten myself up about being a wimp, I decided to save my travelling honour a little by visiting Deir’s museum before hopping on a bus back to civilisation. I asked the chap at the hotel to write down ‘museum’ in Arabic—al matHaf—so I could wave it at a taxi driver, and get to see the mythical wonders of Syria: a museum with usefully labelled exhibits. My Arabic is slightly below abysmally pathetic (it doesn’t help that a. I have a lisp, and b. I can’t roll the letter r), so the trick of getting things written down has paid off beautifully in the past.

So I paid my bill, shouldered my pack, and flagged down a cab. Not an easy task. The first three decided to play ‘aim for the tourist’ then drove away at high speed once they’d had the pleasure of seeing me leap backwards into vegetable market rubbish. The fourth studied the piece of paper with extreme care and took me straight to the bus station.

I took the first bus back to Aleppo.

Category : Middle East | Syria | Deir ez Zur , Uncategorized