I opted against going to the Ministry of Information on my first day in Damascus because I figured they would have given me a translator and a crew of military men to tail me.A photographer from Corbis who I spoke to before coming here told me his Syrian government translator lied to him and caused him to miss his assignment. I couldn’t risk that, so I skipped the Ministry, and would go for a quote after I completed my assignment.Government agents would interfere with the quality and originality of my interviews, and prevent free exchange of ideas, I thought. What na•ve thinking in a police state!
Mr. Maher, the guide who I hired through a Syrian journalist and paid for, met me at the hotel on Saturday morning at 9 a.m. to go to Abu Kamal. Inside our taxi sat my new best friend, my translator/interpreter Faissal, a linguistics expert from a local Syrian university.Faissal, a single, 26-year-old graduate student, wants to obtain a PhD in America. He idolizes Chomsky, and for much of the two-hour cab ride to Abu Kamal, we discussed the political realities young Arab and colored men like him face in America. I told him I was pretty sure the U.S. wasn’t giving out visas to Syrians.Syrian Route 5 from Deir Ez-Zor to Abu Kamal straddles the line between the desert and the Euphrates Valley. The passing landscape alternates between green farmlands of cotton and sunflower and brown desert.With Faissal there to translate, Mr. Maher quizzed me more intently about the Progressive – how could an American magazine only have 100,000 readers? How were its offices not in New York? His suspicions about my intent seemed to grow.I told Faissal to Google my name, and see that I was a journalist. Faissal, ever the linguist, loved the usage of Google as a verb.I turned my attention from the interrogation to the cows, sheep, huts and people on the roadside. I never looked back to notice that the Syrian secret police followed us from the second we left Deir. Faissal said he spotted the car right away, a silver Russian knock-off of a Saab sedan.Mr. Maher told me they were friends. He called them “Sifty.” Maybe it meant Safety, because no one else I talked to could translate that one.“I’m supposed to tell you that they are friends from Abu Kamal,” Faissal said, “But yes, since you asked, they are secret police.“Faissal laughed when I asked how they knew about me. I felt so na•ve again. The whole episode in the bus station should have clued me in.If not, then when we were waved through a military checkpoint without stopping 15 kilometers outside of Abu Kamal, I should have known – I was already checked. Even though I am trying to blend in, I stick out like a sore thumb.It felt great to pass under the sign that said Abu Kamal and Iraq, like I reached a goal, like I did what I set out to do, as I always do. Plus, I felt delight in doing this people say I can’t do.We drove straight through Abu Kamal, and went to the border, a village called Al Heire, and I’m still alive. I saw the edge of Iraq. I traveled thousands of kilometers by air and land, the last 600-plus through the Syrian desert, to reach the end of Syria.At the end of the road, 300 meters from where I stood, I saw Old Glory flapping in the breeze. I wanted to photograph my own flag, but the Syrian border guards prohibited me from doing so, because they feared we all would get shot at by American soldiers.For more about the border, you’ll have to wait for the story in the Progressive in December. To say the least, Syrians aren’t really fond of their new American neighbors, That was clear from the looks of murder farmers in the fields and men in the marketplace gave me when they learned I was “Ameriki.“As I interviewed peasant farmers, “Sifty” – my personal police escorts – listened in, defeating the purpose of skirting the Ministry of Information.Either people censor themselves, or they all really do have the same opinion – hatred – of American government policies. One of the farmers put in my hand a stray American bullet that killed a neighbor while the man was praying.All the interviews attracted attention beyond the police. At one point a dozen people watched. I am such an anomaly in the Syrian hinterlands that Faissal said I was like a movie star. No Americans come to this part of Syria. I thought of Sean Penn’s series on his visit to Iran in June, and wondered what type of obstacles he faced.My obstacle is my inability to speak Arabic. Faissal asked me if I was worried that his translations would be skewed.“After all,” he said, “I am Syrian.“If I went through the government, he said I could have recorded the interviews, and translated them later. That way, I wouldn’t have to worry about the sincerity of his interpretations. My calculus weighed that risk, and I dismissed it because of government interference.In the end, I have the material I have. I missed one photo I needed, and I didn’t put in the work I wanted to, but tomorrow Mr. Maher assured me we will visit Abu Kamal again.“No problem, Mr. Ken,” he said. “We go tomorrow.“I didn’t think he meant it. When the cab dropped me off at the hotel, he asked me if I was angry. I said no. How could I be? He took me to the border and I lived. The guy at the Internet cafŽ where I send these dispatches from looked incredulous when I told him what I did – “You went where?“Mr. Maher promised to pick me up for dinner at 6 p.m. He arrived at 6:30 p.m., and toured me around Deir’s empty market, complete with an arched, vaulted roof. I had been there in the morning when all the stores were open.“Bad news,” he said. “Look CNN, Al Jazeera, for three days Iraq and America commandoes in Al Qaim, Fallujah and Baquba blonde.“I thought he said blonde at first and that didn’t make sense. His gist, I felt, was that he was backing out of the trip for the next day. All the shops were closed except for the one selling garden tools. I eyed the hand-held scythe with sharp sickle blade, and thought of it slicing my throat. I had a bad feeling about our meeting.We jumped into a cab that brought us to a huge open-air restaurant on the Euphrates. About 100 empty tables sat on a large patio across the street from the river, which I am sure in a few hours would be packed. Christmas style lights decorated palm trees, the restaurant entranceway and kitchen patio.This was a few kilometers upstream, west of where we were last night. I chose a table with a perfect river view. I stared at the Euphrates on my left. I watched the same gaily-lit tour boat cruise up and down the river.To my right, a small water fountain bubbled and gurgled. The crescent moon played peek-a-boo with a palm tree between the fountain and me. The kitchen stretched behind that. In the vast space, I felt alone.Mr. Maher and I dealt with our language barrier again, and I stupidly left my pocket Arabic dictionary in the hotel. Not that it would’ve helped much, because I get the feeling Mr. Maher speaks good English when he needs to, then plays dumb as to the rest of the time, communicating only bits and pieces so as to leave me in the dark, and confuse or scare me.I ordered falafel, but this restaurant didn’t serve it. Last night, I told his translator that I only ate vegetables. He pulled a 50-pound ($1 US) note out of his pocket, gave it to a young boy and told him to fetch falafel. Mr. Maher wanted shwarma.We were served tea, and drank that in near silence. The waiters brought out some tissues and a bottle of water. We weren’t communicating well, and eventually the falafel came. He said I should pay him $100 a day. I said maybe yes, maybe no, I don’t know.Tomorrow, Abu Kamal, I said.Canal between Iraq and Syria, bad. No, can’t go back, he said.Al Heire, I said.No Al Heire.No border, I said.No canal.Abu Kamal tomorrow okay, but not the wall. 8 am at the hotel, then Abu Kamal, then we finish, he said.Yes, I need to go to Damascus and meet my wife (girlfriend isn’t an understandable term here, so I’ve had to refer to my girlfriend as my wife). I take bus tomorrow.Then the conversation confused itself in linguistic games.Abu Kamal, I don’t know, he said.“Look CNN, Al Jazeera, for three days Iraq and America commandoes in Al Qaim, Fallujah and Baquba bomb,” he repeated.“Dangerous, I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe Sifty shoot Mr. Ken, American journalist.” He made his forefinger and thumb into a gun and pointed it at me. “Sifty shoot.” And his thumb pulled tha
t imaginary trigger.I lost trust in him that instant. The minute my guide proposes that the cops may shoot me, I exit that relationship and flee the city.I got stomach sick. My life flashed before me – I started studying every car that drove by, thinking I was being set up. He could tell I was suddenly nervous, and perhaps that was the point.He phoned Nahed, the journalist from Damascus who set us up, and thrust the cellie at me. She wanted to know if there was trouble with the business. No trouble, he just never gave me a price up front. I want to know at the beginning.In the middle of my conversation with Nahed, Liz called, and God I wanted to talk to her, but I was in a bad way, and our connection cut anyway. I was thinking that she shouldn’t come tomorrow, if I am a marked man here in Syria.Or was he just playing me to make sure he got his money? Something just didn’t feel right tonight when we walked through the deserted old city and he talked about CNN and Al Qaim and look at the news at midnight.I always knew that death was a possibility, but that he pointed his fingers at me and said “Sifty shoot,” I thought to myself, boy, today was too easy for words, wasn’t it?I was all cocky like that. In the car on the way home, I thought, “I can’t wait to send Sy Hersh a postcard telling him how easy it was. I don’t know what he was warning me about.“Contemplating death at dinner, I watched bats flap under the street lights, with the Euphrates behind them, I always knew dying was a risk, so much that I wrote out a will. Yet when presented so immediately and in Mr. Maher’s choppy English: “Abu Kamal, Deir Ez-Zur, Mr. Ken be careful.“I’ve got what I’ve got, I thought, and I am heading to Abu Kamal again with him.He played my nerves, and I knew when we left Abu Kamal that there was no going back. This was a once in a lifetime thing. I got lucky, and I needn’t play games of unnecessary risk.My stomach churned. I had to go potty before I arrived at the restaurant, and once he mentioned my potential death, and I had to go worse.“Hamaam,” – bathroom – I said, and he pointed to my right.I headed there without ado. On my way, I passed peacocks and chickens in cages at the edge of the seating area, next to a kiddie playground. I knew the john would not be a western toilet, but a hole in the ground, and since I had no toilet paper, I wasn’t going.I urinated to catch my bearings. Back at the table, I forced down a few more falafel balls and demanded to go home.“Mr. Ken tired,” I said.The five minute cab ride to Hotel Ziad took years. I feared I was walking into a trap, like I would be assassinated, like god knows who would have to come to Deir and clean up my hotel room.“Maybe Sifty shoot Mr. Ken.“Pow! Danger exists, it is real. I gave him $200 for the ride, the guide and the translator. Once safely ensconced in the hotel, I determined not leave the room until daylight, and only to head straight to the bus station to Damascus, where I felt safe.