Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Photos: 1.typic Peugeot 504 taxi (this one was happy to take me for free). 2 and 3: Tarabin.

To visit the ruined city of Petra, in Jordan, I had used my favorite tactic, partially genuine, that of disgusing myself of serious man with a project among hisn hands. Folder under the arm, the glasses that I seldom use and a vocabulary more complicated than necessary helped me to avoid the painful U$S30 ticket. From Petra southwards, the soles of my shoes headed to Cairo. Now, it was not gonna be so easy to dash straight forward through a desert which God used to test his own prophets with temptations and dilemas. In this way, with the sharp cold night enveloping the desert I had to choose wether to sleep inside a truck whose driver hd fallen in love with me or the star clad roof. None of the 7 species of poisonous snakes (not even God) called in for some chat a while and make uo for the length of the night. In any case, the tax was more reasonable than moses one: wandering 40 years in the same desert…

In the Jordanian port of Aqaba I boarded a Sinai boud ferry. Off to Egypt through the Red Sea. All very well known geographic accidents, though rarely we have the chance of linking them with anything else that long since forgoten religion classes. The ferry dropped me in Nuweiba, on of many beach resorts that dot the Sinai coast. I the 5 kms that I walked until finding a lesss touristy spot I could spot, beside camel-riding kids, the dramatic date of the rocky desert and the crystal clear waters of the Red Sea, with its palm tres pinned beach. I had never thought that camels and colour fish could share the same ecosytem.

The quiet beach resort was named Tarabin. The other only foreigners there were a Japanese that had been cycling his way from the land of the Borning Sun, an iraqi nationalized British on his way to spend New Year’s Eve in Baghdad, and one of those German or French families (never American) the do their best to reproduce in their holidays the atmosphere of a Robinsoe Crusoe’s Tale. When I approached to talk, they turned out to be from the Saxon community in Cisnadioara, and my mind blend time back to the sunny days I had spent strolling in the Breite with my Hans and other local friends. December 24 arrived, on of the weirdest 24’s in my life, I spent it around a fire prepeared with a chopped palm tree, talking with the Iraqi guy and a Sudanese, who turned up to sahre with us his melancholic dreams of, some day migrating to the U.S…

On the 25th itself, instead, I decided I deserved some socializing, so I headed for Dahab, popular spot among the hippies in the 60s and 70s, now has just become a trendy beach resort, partly due to the diving industry boom. The Just do it spirit replaced the Let it be. In general, the travellers I met there, mainly Australian and Canadians, didn’t seem to be moved to travel but nothing else but having the finnancial possibility of doing it. At 12 o clock, sorrounded by half Commonwealth, everybody was talking about their proffesional lifes. Eventualy, I was my turn: So what do you do? In these scenarios I feel insanely tempted to declare myself manager of the Umbrella Producing Society of Ulan Bator. While truth would be: freelance lazy, proffesional world wanderer with PhD in roadside walking, proud owner of a 1 Euro account statement… and so on. Beter to go on with the mask of the student until the first whilte hair flowers. And some stopped talking to me. Serious people are irritated when they realized that some people around are just keen on developing nothingness with the vehemence of a conspirator.

On the 26 I wsa back on the road to Cairo, arranging free rides with money asking drivers. It is illegal to hitch hike in Egypt and checkpoints dot all roads. It seems one is arriving to a battle field. In each checkpoint, I smily proclaim that I am walking around the world and hand them my passport. When they read Argentina, conversation turns to Maradona’s health. They tell me to be ware, that snakes and some lawless beduins inhabit the desert, and finaly, after relocating one of the soldiers (machine gun included) in the trunk of the pick up, they give me a short ride themseklves. Night surprises me in the city of Tur, with one of the archs of the tent broken, problem fixed thanks to the tools provided by the local barber’s shop.

The first truck I flagged down on the 27th was going to Suez in one piece. The Suez Channel is sorted by a tunnel. The light glowing in the other side comes from a different continent: Africa. My staying in the continent will be brief and limit itself to Egypt. I made it to Cairo at sunset. With 18 millon souls and its streets shared by happy horn drivers, donkeys and bazaar vendors alike, the city is the most chaotic place I have ever seen. Like a heart, though, it never stops, and even 3 AM is a sitable time to go for a stroll and start bargaining in the street stolls selling anything from trousers to featherful caged chiken. In the hostel were I crush I realize that all travelers have been in the city for several weeks. Some study percusion with local musicians, others Arabic. All excuses to justify the unspecific magnetism that the city provides. Sticking glue under the nomad’s shoes. All stuck like whale in the low tide, victims of a mysterious attachment. A good example is Denny, the Canadian. Running short of money he started to find a way of exporting egyptian watermelons to Canada. In an identic situation an Argentinean would only stretch to perform as Living Statue in the streets… In another aspect I feel a bit ashamed for my fellow travellers who, busy with the Pyramids, they don’t see the current pharaons. President Mubarak has sent to prison a political opponent some time ago, and some timid manifestations happen on the Talat Harb Square. The police, in a psycologic move to display the manifestators as dangerous, were sent to cordon them off as they walked, like a living hand in hand membrana of authoritarism. When the Islamic explorer Ibn Batuta visited the city he penned: “ Cairo, mother of the cities and site of Pharao the tyran”. Not much has change in a country that cannot find its Timisoara.


Photos: 1. Petra. 2. Ali and his father, two fighters. 3. My fisrt saudi driver.
Founded by somebody in some moment of the fifth millenium before Christ, Damascus is the world’s oldest continuosly inhabited city. While its origins get lost in myth, history holds certain that Damascus was the capital of the great Umayyad Caliphat, which comprehended the whole Islamic world between india and Spain, a unity never achieved before or since. From that golden age only architechtural treasures remain. In the Big Mosque, for example, the Mausoleums of both Saladin and John the Baptist find place. One, the biggest enemy of Christiandom, the other in charge of baptizing Christ itself…

To Damascus I arrived after a week of playing Tom and Jerry with the Syrian political police in the Kurdish area. Max, Matteo and Silvia, myItalian friends from Hasakeh, were also visiting the city, and with them I shared my fisrt three days, sneaking into their hotel at night, whose porter was the kind of people that finds a five legged cow perfectly normal. I didn’t count how many times we crossed the covered bazaar, which roof still bears the bullet holes of the French plane’s macine guns trying to sofoccate the 1925’s rebelion, eventualy getting lost in the laberynth of alleys, mosques and Chevrolet Impalas that forges the Old Town.

When the Italians headed back to Damascus I betrayed the hotel (A one leg cow world have certainly called the porter’s attention) and knocked Ezzat’s house door, local member of Hospitality Club. Ezzat is a convinced muslim, and as such he enjoys complicated filosophical arguments. At fisrt he aimed a conversion to Islam but, discovering my agnosticism he tried at least to make me a Christian. “If we can see the caml’s excrement that means that the camel is around” – is bedouin proverb, and Ezzat’s best teosophic card. Leaving religion aside I was fascinated by the way Ezzat’s familiy incarnated contemporary Syrian history. His 86 year old father participated, aged 6, in the 1925 Revolt, smuggling guns in his donkey. With such example it’s no wonder that Ali, Ezzat’s brother, was one of the hundreds of Syrians that rushed to Iraq to fight the American invasion, accomplishing his duty of carrying on the jihad or holy war. The CNN would call him a terrorist. I have him in front of me. He is a calm, educated person, father of three who ownes a metallurgic workshop. He ended up in Tikrit, regreting is militia never saw action: when on April 9th Baghdad surrendered the Iraqi regular troops that had trained them were running in underwear through the streets screaming; “The Americans are coming!”. So, oh surprise, the untrained voluntary militias were the ones no trying to convince the Iraqi army of fighting, gun on one hand, Qoran in the other. All in vain, nobody wil risk his life for U$S100 a month…

Before leaving Syria I stil had a mission, wehich I accomplished on Wednesday: being face to face with the fragnebt containing the oldest known alphabet, coined by the Kingdom of Ugarit, in Syria around 1400 BC. Impossible not to shed a tear, remembering the words of Mercedes Sosa: “Thanks to life, that has given me so much (…) and the alphabet, and with it the words, that I think and declare….” She should have said “thanks to Syria..!”

220 kms separate Damascus from Amman, the Jordanian capital. Of the drivers involved in the trip I should remember an Saudi Arabian in a 1980 Chevrolet Caprice who took me to the border and a Palestinian who in his Toyota pick up smuggled me into the capital and payed (I still didn’t have local currency) a taxi for me to Ala’a s house, local member of Hospitality Club. He introduces his country’ the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordania, apparently conceived in the back seat of a Rolls Royce by Winston Churchill, in an attemt (succesful) of creating a “cushion” state to soften regional tensions. (some say puppet state) It is a formidable contrast that, while the current fronteers have been disegned with a ruler and a pencil by UN cartographers, Jordania encompasses a plurality of Biblic sites. Jesus was baptized where the Jordan river meets the Dead Sea, where I was on Monday. A few kms from there is Mount Nebo, where Moses fisrt received SMS from God promising him the…well…the Promised Land, and sparking two millenia of conflicts. More recently, since the cration of the State of Israel, thousands of Palestinians have sought refuge in Jordan, which was the only country to aknowledg them full citizenship. They are now 70% of the total population of 4 millon. Half of this number dwells in the modern capital Amman, the other half is diseminated in the desert that covers 96% of the national territory. With such geographic parameters one understands that richness can only come from prizes (foreign investments) for the alignation with America. Lula’s proposal of cooperation between the Arab block and Latin America remained unattended, blocked more by the government than by the people.

On Tuesday I headed for petra, the rose red city carved in the mountains that was a secret held for 400 years by bedouins. One day of 1812 the revealed the existence of the secret to a Swiss explorer. I continue walking towards Cairo whre I hope to receive 2006…

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


While international community accuses Syrian Intelligence for the murder of Lebanese ex-prime minister Harari, my own encounters with that disintelligence make me think that it is more likely that Ghandi took Lady Di's life. Up to a moment it was a sum of interviews where I pretended to be an arqueology student and naive looking officers shared their argilleh (water pipe) with me. Even in Ein Diwar, on the Syrian-Iraqi-Turkish border itself, things go quite smoothly. When I am asked for my reasons for visiting the area, I declare my interest for all things old and say I hope to catch a glimpse of the ruined Roman bridge over the Tigris. And so the story satisfied the officers. I am allowed in, understanding Mr Bush's protests that Syrian border controls are not tight enough to fence off jihad fighters caravanning happily to and from Baghdad.

Inspite of this they make me victim of their overwhelming hospitality, which is in fact much more akin to surveillance: firstly, they confiscate temporarily my backpack, securing my return. Walking towards the border I soon find myself chatting with kurdish speaking shepherds, at shouting distance of Turkish watch towers. When I am back they insist in me sleeping on the police station (no thanks) and they give me a ride to Malakya, where I was coming from. This is nothing new for me, I already got used to the fact that everybody wants to know what I do and where I go. The greengrocers asks for my passport and people who would be happy to live in a glass house sneak inside my notebook while writing, extending to me the symbiotic social bonds among them.

It was curiously on my way back to Hasakeh, 150 kms inland from the red zone, where I had already sojourned, where things got worse. Apparently the officers of every town exchanged information on the phone about that week and everybody reported having interrogated the Argentinean arqueology student. While these phones rang I, totally unaware of my recent local fame, was drinking some beer with Silvia, Matteo and Marco, three Italian agronomists working on a cooperative farming project between Syria and Italy. The snack bar, called Venus, is one of the two places in town that sell alcohol, a product only consumed by a christian minority in the area. It is also the most appropriate place where to start a search.
Our conversation was interesting indeed. My friends are an opened book on the local matters. Silvia, who daily interviews dozens of farmers about domestic economy, tells us about the man who headed the enumeration of his property with 200 sheep and finished it with two wives. Then he looked Silvia straight in the eyes and told her: ¨And I am looking for a third one.¨On the contrary, Silvia’s interviews to women farmers ended up with the participation of police officers. How could someone speak with theo sheep without the presence of their husbands? - Police officers and husbands exclaimed. Maybe they had read Orwell and feared a revolution in the farm. While wives do their duties on the field, these husbands spend their time in an activity that Silvia calls Field Watching.

We finished our Jordanian lagers and stepped on the Italian mission's 4WD towards their office to continue drinking. My senses had forgotten such kind of Westner luxury. I refer to the chair and the toilet, and to the Bacardi, that mixed with local Master Cola is, not Cuba Libre, but Saudi Cuba... at most. It was eleven o’clock when the party was over and I was taken to the house of my local contact, in a nearby town. Next morning I would return to use internet.

I couldn’t. Silvia’s voice on the other side of the phone combined anxiety and indignation. It is 9 am and 4 agents of the Political police entered their office to interrogate Silvia, Matteo and Marco. Silvia has to go to the toilet in order to answer my phone call, and it is probable that the phone is pinched. Thanks God almost nobody in these areas understands the dialect of Dante. The agents asked about me, what was I doing last night in their lab and if I had slept there. From the questions it was clear that they had been following me the whole day except for the moment of their nap. At that moment (precisely where it was easier to find it) they lost their track of me. With a little more will they could have solved the mystery. They should have followed the van to my local contact’s house. What is the mistery? If Syrian intelligence wanted to catch me they would have already done so. What mostly irritates them is that I could attempt to start some bonds with Kurdish insurgence. After listening to their questions, I deduced that their fers were fuelled by my appearance in the triple frontier Turkish-Syian-Iraqui, plus the fact that they could not find me in any hotel. How can they pretend to control American spies when they can’t even follow a Latin-American backpacker? Good question!
The Italians and I arranged to meet in Damascus during the weekend and hanged the phone. Meanwhile I had to think of the way of sending last weeks' article and leave the city without revealing my Kurdish freind's identity. In the cyber, the man of the computer next to me watches my screen too much. Through the webcam I can see a brown Nissan Patrol parked outside. I click SEND, I put on my backpack and I go out. The man next to my computer leaves as well, naturally.

This man asks me about my destination and if he can help me. ¨To Deir ez Zor¨. The man doesn't believe that I am going on foot to Deir ez Zor, because it is 180 km away. He believes that I am going to somebody’s house. He offers to come with me to the exit of the city, that is 3 km away, he wants to see me leave with his own eyes, or (he hopes) take note of what door I knock. When we reach the roundabout the unfit plain cloth detective calls it a day, greets me and shifts heels back to town. The roundabout is decorated with a painting that shows the ex-president Hafez raising his hands to the sky while some farmers behind him work as hell. He is the first to do field watching. A few minutes later the man appears again, this time on a brown Nissan Patrol. He offers me a lift. No, thanks. When the Nissan's out of sight I walk far away from the road, spot broad shadowful olive tree and camp under it.


A shoe maker from the bazaar of Deir ez Zor struggles with the Hi-Tech that after 7 months of travelling and a whole previous year, were already asking for an SOS. Those boots were used to go to work while I was living in Belfast. On those cloudy days ( because of that bloody Irish rain) I had a bike without brakes (not to mention that the front wheel was not very straight, so that every little hill was a whole adventure) so I had to use my boots to stop the bike. They, they were used on Argentinian roads, having the most glorious moment when they arrived to Laguna Brava (4230 msnm) in La Rioja. When they arrived to the Sirian dessert the SOS could not be postponed…and for 20 cents of a dollar the man did a reasonable job.


Photos: The road to Hasakeh. Syrian road folklore: tea and Mercedes 1298. The bazaar at Qamishli.

The van from ¨Al Forat Petroleun Co.¨saw me, pressed the brakes, turned around and approached me on the wrong track: a clear example of how traffic in the Middle East works. Three Sirian oil ingeneers were driving the van and... surprise! a man from Colombia, whose sorrows turned up as he confused the next town Mayeedin for Medellin. When we were in town the usual happened: a local english speaking man offered to host me and called his brothers and uncles to stare at the foreigner, and asked him what he thought about Bush. When the foreigner explained his dislike for the latter, everybody raised their thumbs and cheered. In these lands Bush being evil seems to be a universal truth for townmen, donkeys and desert scorpions alike. Up to now, I thought that this could be called anti-imperialism. Soon, I was to figure out that this concept was too broad: as their hate focuses on North America and Israel, Syrians do not seem to worry about the abuses committed inside their own frontiers against other minorities. I am referring to the Kurds, those lazy Indoeuropean people that settled between the Eufrates and the Tigris, instead of walking towards the Mediterranean as their arian peers. Nowadays, there are 40 millons Kurds living in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Irak. They are the biggest stateless ethnic group on earth, not to talk about their basic rights. As I am travelling north from Deir ez Zor, the Syrian Political police seems to be increasing its worry about my presence. The traditional dislike for witnesses...

As these lands are so near Irak, no tourists get here. However, nothing can stop me from entering the area with my backback on my shoulder and a valid visa on my passport. Nevertheless, I am stopped and questioned approximately 3 times in each town. These encounters with Syrian cops can be short as pit-stop, ceremonious with eight officers staring at my passport as if it had fallen from the sky, and always funny: in Margadeh, the officers didn’t stop using their argilleh (water pipe) even when asking for my personal information, with the expected result of being entered on the books as Mr. Mar del Plata (that's my home town) from Villarino (you guessed, that's my name). Another officer, about to collapse for smoking, asked from a corner wich gate I had used to enter Siria. What do I answer to this one?

When I got to Hasakeh, 100 km. north from Deir ez Zor, I bought a limonade and allowed people to approach me. This time I recognized the features of these people: they were Kurds. One man assured that his nephew could speak english well, soon all his family was greeting me. Nazim, my new friend, is a professional history teacher…this would be his profession if he wasn’t one of the three hundred thousand Kurds that can’t work as professional for not having the right documents.

In an attempt to maintain low statistics in comparison to reality, the government do not recognize citizenship to 15% of Kurds. Having to sweat to the bones in his workshop while his title hangs on the wall is only one of the so many humilliations that Nizam has to suffer daily: law also states that he has to be ashamed of his language.

It is almost imposible to avoid the use of Kurd in the streets in areas where this group sometimes covers 90% of the population, but there is a prison sentence if Kurdish is used in official areas. Press, radio, and television in Kurdish are prohibited. The same with poetry and drama. Finally, and most worringly, teaching in this language is also banned. So, a Kurdish teacher has to talk to his 40 Kurdish students in Arabic. I found it terrifying that, beyond the objective damage to Kurds’ proud and hopes, this law banns a whole conception of the universe, that is, a language. ( Maaloula town, instead, is promoted as one of the last towns where Aramean is spoken, Christ’s language. But, of course, Arameans are just a handful and do not live next to oil resources).

While poeple in West Belfast can at least show their colorful Irish flag and call streets and shops using gaelic names, the Kurds from the north of Syria are a ghost nation that can only watch kurd programmes coming from Iraqi channels through satelite TV. In Irak, after the new federal Constitution, the Kurds have won the right to own their own autonomous region. It is not strange that the (low) voice in the streets argues that only an American intervention could change things. (I remind them that there are videos showing Saddam helicopters shooting Kurd soldiers while american F-16 flew over the scene with the order of ¨not to alter the regional balance of power). In Turkey Kurds situation might get better. Not as an example of humanity, but because Turkey, as a prostitute choosing his best costume, tries to like the European Community in order to become one of it’s members some day.

I got to the frontier with Turkey and Irak, where the Tigris runs pacific and out of this world., where the Syrian cops drink mate and watch a Chuck Norris movie. As a prolonged stay might be a problem for my Kurdish friend, he commends me to his relatives. I never stay under the same roof for more than two nights, so I visit the region from cousin to cousin. This is life in a land where globalization means that one person has the right to own a 7710 Nokia but not the right to speak his own language, and where a Yahoo account is more readily available than an ID. I was on the most remote corner of the Syrian Arab Republic, the way back was not going to be uneventful...