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Day trip to Damascus was eventful 50 years ago

Anne Sherrill • Sep 20, 2013 at 9:02 AM

“There’s a cease fire in Damascus and the border’s open from eight to four tomorrow. Do you want to go?” It was Bob, our tour leader, calling my friend Barbara Woods and me to find out who among our group was a true adventurer. It was 1963 and Syria was in the midst of a civil war. After 10 minutes of discussion, maybe five, we called Bob and told him we were on board.We went in two cabs. In ours was Juanita, like us a 20-something traveler, and of course the cab driver. We piled into his 1940s vintage cab and were on our way. Juanita was in the front seat and noticed the driver’s overnight bag. “Oh, we’re just going for the day,” she explained quickly. The driver laughed. “That’s what you think. The last time I went to Damascus I spent three days and nights in a hotel. If fighting breaks out, that’s what happens.”It was already too late to think of turning back. We sped along the desolate sandy highway between Beirut and Damascus and tried to think about the famous sites we were about to enjoy, not the fact that we were totally unprepared to spend several nights in a Damascus hotel.Upon arrival, it was impossible to miss the guards with machine guns perched atop what looked like thick telephone poles. We caught up with Bob’s cab and his two passengers and let him take charge, trying not to look at those uniformed guards. We felt uncomfortable as Syrians gazed at us crazy tourists visiting a war zone. They had just emerged from their homes and were venturing out to makeshift markets to get some supplies. The last thing they wanted to see was Americans dressed in their wash-and-wear outfits and sun hats looking for the Street Called Straight. Nevertheless we carried on, getting a glimpse of the biblical street and visiting one of Islam’s most sacred mosques. We changed into special shoes and black robes provided to us. People were praying on rugs amidst beautiful mosaics. We felt once again out of place, like intruders in this holy place where people sought a respite from the turmoil outside.Finally we were ready to meet our taxis and begin the trip back to Beirut to meet the 4 p.m. deadline when the border would close. Bob had our passports for safe keeping. Our little motorcade of two taxis drove off in plenty of time to reach the border. Bob’s taxi went a bit faster but we saw no problem with that.Suddenly, about six soldiers appeared out of nowhere and ordered our taxi to stop. They circled our cab with guns pointed. A lively conversation ensued with the driver. He kept saying the same thing over and over and the soldiers kept yelling at him. Finally one of them translated the question to us. “Did she (Juanita) take a picture of the military?” “No,” each of us said firmly and a little nervously. The questioning went on for about three more rounds with our giving the same answer. We were telling the truth since we did not see Juanita take any pictures.Next came the request for passports. We had none. Bob had them and was now probably close to the border knowing nothing of the adventure unfolding behind him. At last we were allowed to pass. The soldiers took Juanita’s camera and we were on our way, speeding along to make the deadline. The taxi driver was determined not to spend another night in Damascus.Fifty years have passed. Once more there is civil war in Syria. One can’t help comparing the times then and now. In that hot summer of 1963, we were young adventurers exploring a world beyond our native Texas. Perhaps foolishly we thought nothing really bad could happen to Americans abroad. We even laughed as we retold the incident. How times have changed. Anne Sherrill of Johnson City is Professor Emerita of English at East Tennessee State University.

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