As the town receded into the distance, I thought: Well, at least if I’m being driven into the desert to be raped and killed, this was beautiful.
It’s lonely at the border of Syria and Iraq when you’re a 20-something English-speaking foreigner. Deir Ez-zor is about as far as you can get from anything in a country that’s not exactly overrun with tourists (especially now). I was attracted to the far-flung eastern desert town because of nearby Mesopotamian ruins and also because I wanted to flip the bird to Saddam’s forces at the barb-wired border — my way of finishing the job where Bush (the first) had f*cked up.
It was 1995, in remote Syria.
I was lonely because, after 5 weeks on a solo journey through the middle east in the pre-Internet era, the only connection I had to the world I’d left behind was a well-thumbed copy of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and a bright yellow Sony Walkman with one cassette tape: Phantom of the Opera (Canadian cast!).
I met Ahmed in the smoke tea shop in the centre square after fleeing the bedbugs and open sewer plumbing in the local “tourist hotel.” These tea shops are the local refuge — packed with men of all ages clad in head gear and flowing monochrome robes, often clutching prayer beads, gathered in clusters around tight round tables for tea and backgammon and to smoke water pipe (argileh). The rooms were simple, unadorned concrete cinder-block squares with harsh fluorescent lighting, ceiling fans set to “couldn’t care less” and small TVs mounted in the corners broadcasting local soaps or state-run news. Fragrant tea was dispensed from a hole in the wall in thimble-like cups with piles of sweaty sugar cubes and tongs. The youngest men made rounds of the room with hot fresh coals to keep the mounds of waterpipe tobacco lit.
This environment could be found in every town. I liked to prop myself in the middle east of this melee, back against a wall so I could observe. Then, acutely aware that I was often the only Western guy in the room, I’d crack open my feminist Can-lit and fire up a king-sized Marlboro. With flourish. This tactic never failed.
Within minutes, someone would be at my table, trying to make conversation. “You, American?”
“No, Sadirk (friend). Canadese. Canadian.” Then, a gang would gather. We’d play backgammon, communicate as best we could, and share the water pipe. Inevitably, someone would experience The Phantom and ear buds for the first time: “Masquerade! Painted faces on parade! Masquerade!” And every time, I was light-headed, free-feeling, and intensely aware of where I was not. In Ottawa.
Then I was on the back of Ahmed’s motorbike, peeling off on a dirt road into the inky night.. I just couldn’t face the hotel door with the broken lock or the feces-slippery “bathroom” floor. Ahmed had generously encouraged me to go home with him, to be “Good guest.” Before leaving, I’d sought validation (or warning) in the eyes of the other men, and saw no signs of alarm. So off we went.
But as the lights of town slipped away, I realized that I had no idea where we were going. Maybe I would never come back. Then I noticed the how brilliant the sky looked, with a ribbon of Milky Way from horizon to horizon. Instead of fighting or leaping, I held on tightly to Ahmed’s waist and decided to soak in the brilliance of the desert night. What was going to happen would happen.
A minute later, we crested a small hill and pulled up to a one storey stone house. A dog barked. A light flickered. We dismounted and he took my hand in his, pulling me toward the door. Then his wife came out, and they embraced. The night was the darkest I’d ever experienced. And this little house was suddenly a beacon of incandescent warmth. Let’s just say I felt relieved. Ahmed led me inside and proudly showed me his tidy home — four rooms, one with two little boys curled up in a tight ball on a mat on the floor in the corner.
“You. Teach. English. Yes?”
So this was it. I was worried about being robbed or beaten or otherwise taken advantage of, when all Ahmed wanted was someone to tell his kids about the outside world.
I spent the next two days with this family. We had no common language, but shared as best we could over generous meals and walks and friendly gestures. I made balloon animals until my cheeks ached. And for complex subjects we drew pictures on a stucco wall with rough clumps of clay. When “God” came up, the kids drew a picture of a smiling sun.
Then, late on my final night, Ahmed surprised me with a gift. He brought out a battery-operated shortwave radio and turned it on, craning his ear in as he adjusted the dial.
“You good. Canada, good.”
It was “The World At Six” on Radio Canada International — in the middle of the freakin’ desert in Syria. I was so desperate for news from home that I instantly burst into tears. And, suddenly, a powerful wave of pride for Canada’s subtle yet powerful international role washed over me. I was intensely happy, and grateful.
That was 1995.
Fast forward to tonight. Syria is in the grip of civil war. There was a massacre a couple of weeks ago in Deir Ez-Zor. Those little boys are now 22 and 24. I wonder where they are. And if Ahmed ever cared to tune in to find out what our country, a place he admired, is saying about this conflict — he’s out of luck. Canada’s voice is silent because the Harper Government needed RCI’s funding to buy fighter jets. Canada, no good.
I wish I knew what to make of all this. It just doesn’t feel right. I hate this government. And I want to be proud of Canada again.