From Tripoli to Damascus

An American Israeli visits countries that don't welcome either passport.

Umayyad Mosque 88 248 (photo credit: Sarah Meltsner)
Umayyad Mosque 88 248
(photo credit: Sarah Meltsner)
I'd spent five days in Beirut partying too hard and sleeping on a friend's small couch. I needed a respite from the city lined with bullet-pocked buildings and booming nightclubs. I considered Tripoli, a coastal city that has been swept by waves of successive empires, including the Phoenicians, Persians and Romans. But Tripoli has been swept by waves of recent violence as well and I'd come at a bad time-just two weeks before, Tripoli had been rocked by a series of explosions. My host recommended a day trip to Byblos instead. I boarded the half-empty northbound bus in central Beirut armed with a book, a cup of coffee and a wristwatch. I usually don't wear a watch, but my host had insisted, "Byblos is hard to spot, so be prepared to get off the bus about 20 minutes out of the city. Keep an eye on the time, or you'll miss the stop." As the bus pushed its way north through gridlock, I glanced at my watch again and again. I couldn't remember exactly what time we'd left the station, wasn't sure how many minutes I should tack on to the trip to account for traffic. I felt my head drop forward, snap back up, that telltale sign that my body wanted to give in to fatigue. I looked out the window, sure I could stay vigilant. The landscape passed quickly as we broke free of the city. I watched for the word Byblos. It shouldn't be long now. I woke up to an army tank blocking half the road. A checkpoint. The bus was stopped, the door was open, the driver was shouting in Arabic to someone, presumably a soldier, I couldn't see. The door clapped closed, the bus picked up speed again. Words on a sign: Tripoli, 5 km. Clearly, I'd missed my stop. We slowed for another checkpoint and then eased into the city. There were tanks on street corners. Armed soldiers stood on the sidewalks, looking like statues among the pedestrians that buzzed past them. The bus inched through the city, passing gutted buildings that looked like they'd been hit by rockets. I'd entered a war zone. I was rattled and not just because of the condition I found Tripoli in. I thought of Lebanon's proximity to Israel. I felt like I was teetering on the edge of an eventual avalanche that was sure to engulf everything around it. If Lebanon crumbled, surely the ashes and stones would fall from the north. One by one the other passengers disembarked until I was alone on the bus. The driver stopped, opened the door, looked back at me expectantly. "Do you speak English?" I asked. He stared at me. "Are you going back to Beirut?" I said. Still nothing. "Can you tell me where the bus station is?" "No ingleezi," he said and he motioned for me to get off. So I did. I thought the best thing to do was to get oriented immediately, so I pulled out my Lonely Planet, walked to the corner and matched the street to the map. But what now? It was afternoon already. In the guidebook, the bus station looked far away and difficult to find. I didn't want to wander around and get lost, end up missing the last bus, and be stuck looking for a hotel at dusk or in the dark. I decided to find a hotel sooner rather than later. Eventually I found the nameless alley and then the small, easily missed entrance to the family-run pension I was looking for. I walked up the stairs and into the common room. Stone walls, reminiscent of Jerusalem, stretched to the high ceilings. Broad windows were capped with curved lines. A small doe-eyed boy sat in a chair watching a Disney show, dubbed into Arabic, blaring from the TV. A young woman with black hair and milky white skin, so pale it was luminescent, picked at a lunch of pita and cheese at the dining table. I stood for a moment, not sure if these people were part of the owners' family or if they were guests. "Are you looking for a room?" the woman asked me, her accent very American and a bit Southern. "Yes," I said. She looked toward an open doorway and shouted in Arabic. "Do you work here?" I asked. "No," she said. "But I do look like I could be the disgruntled daughter or something, huh?" She laughed. "Actually, I'm a journalist." She'd come to Tripoli in the wake of the explosions, but she hadn't come to Lebanon just to write. Though she was Christian and hailed from the US Bible Belt, she had faint roots in the area - her father, whom her mother had never married, was Lebanese and Muslim. Miriam was their love child from college days. Searching for something to anchor her to the father she'd never met, she drifted through the Middle East unmoored. Emboldened by Miriam's presence, I passed the rest of the day sightseeing with her. The tourist destinations were empty, and there was only a trickle of locals on the sidewalks. Taxi drivers leaned against their parked cars, waiting for the customers who weren't likely to arrive anytime soon. We wandered through the Old City's tangled slivers of alleys and streets. We walked through souk after souk, lit windows lined with sparkling jewelry, the heads of bodiless mannequins wrapped in bright hijabs, barrels of inky black olives, silver fish with glassy eyes on neat display. Above the storefronts, apartments' green shutters open and pinned to stone walls or clamped shut, serving as a tight guard against the afternoon sun. TRIPOLI IS famous for its soap and we made our way, stopping frequently to ask for directions, to the Khan as-Saboun (soap khan). We found an empty courtyard dotted with neat but dusty stacks of rose and sky blue. Eager salespeople offered remedies - for anxiety, a lagging love life, and other ills - in the form of colorful, fragrant blocks of soap. Miriam and I didn't linger long in any one place and eventually we passed into a residential area. The crescent moon and star was etched into the façade surrounding faded rust-toned shutters. An unsmiling young woman watched us from an open window, her head and neck swathed in white - her long face, almond-shaped eyes, full lips and sharp chin similar to my own. A pair of school-aged boys with black hair ran past us, toy guns in their hands. Laughing, one slammed another against a stone wall. He pushed his friend's shoulder hard with one hand, held the barrel of the pistol to his head with the other. A third boy joined them - the fake shotgun he carried as long as his small torso. In the morning, Miriam and I boarded a bus back to Beirut. As we rolled past the tanks and out into the country, the grim mood of Tripoli dissipated. We decided to celebrate leaving Tripoli with a girls' night on the town. We agreed I'd collect my things from my host's small couch in Beirut's Hamra neighborhood and we'd take a room at a hostel closer to Gemmayze, the district where Beiruitis go to party. My host's studio apartment was perched atop a tall apartment building on a quiet street that could be mistaken for a Tel Aviv side street - save for the occasional Hamas flag jutting over a doorway or hanging from a windowsill. Green with white letters, the Hamas flags stirred in the slight wind, rippling their greetings to Miriam and me as we passed. I pictured the Hizbullah takeover, as my host had described it. Masked gunmen lining the streets. The residents peering down from above, thin sheets of glass all that separated them from falling into the chaos below. When we arrived at my host's studio apartment, he gave Miriam a quick handshake and an equally brief hug to me. His breath was tinged with Limoncello, a lemon liqueur, and he raked his hands through his dark brown hair. "Listen," he said. "I've been getting some phone calls about you. From strangers. They're asking if I've got an Israeli journalist, a Zionist, sleeping here." "What did you tell them?" "I said that you're not a Zionist." "But I'm not really Israeli, either," I said. "You're a citizen. That's good enough for them." Who was them? My host didn't know, I didn't know and Miriam didn't know. Either way, the three of us agreed that maybe it was time for me to leave Beirut and Lebanon altogether. Miriam and I packed my mochilla and headed back to the bus station, this time in search of a gypsy cab that would take us to Damascus. Miriam's Lebanese visa was expired anyway, and she needed to exit and then reenter the country to obtain a new visa. Making a run for Syria seemed like the best thing to do, for both of us. After more than five hours of waiting for our visas on the no-man's-land of the Lebanese-Syrian border, we took another gypsy cab to the city locals call Ash-Sham. Miriam made conversation with the driver and his male companion and they broached a topic that is normally taboo in Syrian culture - politics. The words "Bush" and "Obama" popped out of what was, for me, an otherwise indecipherable discussion that filled the car as we journeyed out of the mountains and into Damascus. It was past midnight and the streets were empty and dark. The driver and his companion didn't know the hotel we were looking for and the street was unmarked on our map. Miriam told them it was close to the train station downtown, so they dropped us off there. We paid them and their rambling 1980s model car slid off into the night. We entered the hotel and faced a disinterested, mustached, heavyset clerk. He offered us the only remaining room and led us up the narrow stairwell. He opened the door, flipped on the light and we stepped into the small room. Miriam flicked two baby cockroaches off a bed. "How much?" I asked. "I'm not sleeping here," Miriam whispered to me as we followed the clerk back to the small lobby. "Look, it's almost 1 a.m. Maybe the bugs can get us a discount," I said. They didn't - the clerk quoted us a price double that listed in our guidebook and his disinterest morphed into surliness as we argued with him in English and Arabic. "Including breakfast?" I asked. "No." "A cup of tea?" "No." "Wait a second," Miriam said. We all paused. She pointed to a framed document behind the counter. "It says there that the price is..." "Get out! There's no room here for you!" the clerk shouted and pointed to the door. And so we walked toward the glowing sign down the street. The clerk there was thin, young, pleasant. His dark hair was slicked back. Miriam spoke to him in Arabic and then she turned to me. "He wants to know how many hours we need the room for," she said. I looked around. Couches lined the mirror-walled, marble-floored lobby. A handful of men sat, eyeing us up and down, up and down. It appeared, perhaps, that we were in a hotel of ill repute. "We need it for the whole night," I said and Miriam translated. He raised his eyebrows. "Look, we just need somewhere to sleep," I said. He flipped through his ledger and glanced at the clock on the wall. "There is a room that will be open at four," he said. Miriam and I took stock of the men and decided to move along to the next hotel. "It's high season right now," a female clerk with a long black ponytail and kohl-rimmed eyes told us. "We have many, many tourists here from Iran." She walked with us through the revolving doors and pointed down the street. "Try them," she said. "Good luck." We went to hotel after hotel only to find they were full. It was nearing 2 a.m. The streets were deserted. "OK. So we won't sleep," I said. "We'll just keep moving, until dawn. It's only a few hours away." But then what? WE WERE standing at Martyrs' Square, which we'd passed several times already. We were tired and disoriented. We couldn't remember exactly which direction the last clerk had sent us in. I saw a tiny green neon sign high up on a building. Hotel. We walked down the side street, stopped at the entrance below the sign. Nothing indicated that there was, indeed, a hotel there. The litter-strewn stairwell was decorated with graffiti and less ornate scribblings. Ahmed was here, a sign of life in what seemed like an abandoned building. Heavy with the weight of our mochillas, we climbed the stairs. First floor - nothing. Second floor - nothing. But we kept going. Strains of Arabic music floated down to us. We stopped on the next landing and looked up into the empty space at the center of the stairwell. A green light glowed above. Several more flights and we were at the simply named "Hotel." The walls were a crisp, sky blue. Three old men, all mustached, sat in the common area, smoking cigarettes and sipping tea. The TV was blaring classical Arabic music. "We. Need. A. Room," I said as I tried to catch my breath. They chuckled at me and gestured to the chairs. "No, no," I said and I mimed sleep. They conferred with each other, speaking rapidly in Arabic. I looked to Miriam. She shrugged. "They're talking too fast," she said. "And I'm not very familiar with the Syrian dialect." They turned to us. One spoke. "We have a room," he said, offering it to us for the Syrian equivalent of $10. We paid and received a gentle smile. No key. The door to our room, which was on the far side of the common area, didn't have a lock. At that point, we didn't care. After Tripoli, Beirut, hours in no man's land, a surly clerk and a brush with a whorehouse, we just wanted some sleep. Miriam picked one of the three beds and tucked herself under the thick brown blanket. She readjusted her pillow and gasped. "A knife," she said, raising a switchblade into the air. I looked around. The room was small. There was a shirt draped on the open door of the armoire. A half-used bar of soap, a razor and a cup lined the edge of the sink. A pair of men's slippers at the end of each of the three beds, a wristwatch on the nightstand. That's when I realized - there weren't any rooms left. The old men had given us the room they sleep in and they'd given it to us for a pittance. I realized then that all this time I'd been terrified of having to surrender myself to the mercy of the people around, but that every step of this journey had been a supreme act of faith, from the moment I stepped off the bus in Tripoli. I turned off the light and got into bed. I slept soundly that night, knowing that three old men were sitting guard on the other side of an unlocked door.