“Anaa yamluk rafiiq huna,” I said repeatedly. I hoped my mangled Arabic attempt at “I have friend here” would convince the plainclothes police officer at the bus station in Deir Ez-Zor – a city of about 100,000 six hours east of Damascus, deep in the heart of Syria’s eastern oil country – that I had reasons for being 120 kilometers from the Iraqi border other than those implied by the journalist visa in my passport.
The cop paid no attention, and logged my passport information into a ledger, asking me for my dad’s name – James as two syllables – my mom’s name, Betty Ann, my hotel, Ziad, and where I came from, Dimashq. Then he dialed the phone.I could understand him saying “sahiffay amariikiy,” American journalist. In a dictatorship like Syria, as friendly and safe as it is, those words ring alarms, and I feared after reaching the Euphrates, I would be sent back to the Mediterranean. He hung up and scowled.Eternity passed as I sat there, my heart beating fast, my stomach sinking deeper into my thighs watching the cop call and hang up several times. He grew frustrated, I fidgeted. He told me to sit.I tried to hide my nerves. The bare office walls provided no solace, nor did the faces of the three casually dressed Syrian men sitting in the office with us.One of them tripped over my bags trying to reach the outlet to charge his cell phone. It seemed like every time the officer picked up his land line, the other guy’s cell phone beeped. I held my laugh in.I occupied myself catching glimpses of the equestrian show on television. I thought of a relaxing afternoon my girlfriend and I had this summer exploring horse farms in northern Connecticut.The officer lowered the TV volume, changed the channel to Arabic news and returned to the phone. In the window over his shoulder, I saw boys playing soccer in a dirt lot, the sun setting over a cemetery behind them. In this golden light, I wanted to be out shooting photos in this dusty little city.It’s not like people didn’t warn me. Journalist Sy Hersh, who interviewed Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus, yelled at me when I told him I was coming to Syria on a tourist visa. Based on his curmudgeonly advice, I opted for the journalist visa.At the very least, I figured it wouldn’t get me deported, and at the worst, if I got offed, the world journalist organization that tracks the deadly statistics for journos could add me to the list, the one that shows how 2004 was the most fatal year for ink stained wretches in recent memory.The attachŽ on the bus ushered me directly to the officer before I could call Mr. Maher Futehya, my contact in Deir Ez-zur. I figured I would have a minute to relax after being force fed three hours of Syrian sketch comedy on DVD. But I had no chance to catch my bearings, to get Mr. Maher there before me. In the cop’s little office, I sweat and fidgeted. The officer told me to sit. Finally, I grabbed my cell phone and motioned to the officer that I wanted to use it. He nodded. I walked outside, called Mr. Maher, and explained the situation.In English better than my Arabic, he said he would arrive in 15 minutes. Back in the tiny office, I pulled out my pocket Arabic dictionary.“Rafiiq huna khamsata ‘ashar daqiiqa.” I said.“Friend here fifteen minute.“Finally, the frustrated cop grabbed the cell phone out of the wall and dialed a number off a piece of paper. He walked outside, paced around exactly like I did. I couldn’t hear him, but when he came back inside, he waved me through.“Taxi,” he said. “Hotel Ziad.“One of the guys in the office led me out, and another grabbed two of my bags and put them on a hand truck. A third younger man followed us up a short incline to the cab. I glanced at the setting sun, soaking in the view to assuage my nerves.We tossed my luggage into the trunk, next to a stuffed tiger.“Baksheesh,” my sherpa said. I threw him 50 pounds, or a dollar.We exchanged chukrans, “thank you,” and the cab took off, winding its way through the city’s streets. Brown concrete three story buildings packed the city streets. A few minarets and domes sprouted out of the alleys.Like everywhere else in Syria, most shops close on Friday, which is Sunday in the Arab world. Some food markets and stalls were open, children ran around on the streets, and dozens of soldiers hung around, but mostly, I stared out at steel garage doors. When we pulled into the Hotel Ziad, I knew why Lonely Planet described it as a God-send. A half dozen well-dressed Arabs sitting in the lobby watch me relish an English conversation with the concierge.The concierge explained that the hotel’s phone line was not working, and he apologized for the inconvenience. Apparently, the cop only wanted to confirm my reservations.While the concierge copied my passport, I grabbed a one-liter bottle of water, which he had to open for me because my hands were too shaky for the childproof cap. He handed me the key to room 102 and a remote control, promising to call me when my friend came.I unlocked the room to find three-star accommodations. I flipped on the television to find a satellite movie station running through the last minutes of Moulin Rouge in English. Waves of relief washed over me. I was never so glad to see Nicole Kidman die. The 15 minutes helped me relax before Mr. Maher arrived and we would discuss the trip to Abu Kamal.