Monday, June 1, 2009


I did not set out from Deir Musa, the desert monastery where I lodged over the Shavout weekend, intending to get detained by Syrian security forces. But as that is what transpired on the night of Saturday May 30, that is the story I will share. I will limit myself to the brief disclaimer that the incompetence of the Syria's infamous mukhabarat [internal security] is at least as responsible as my own apparently inexhaustible supply of good fortune for ensuring that nothing too unfortunate occurred that may have prevented me from ever sharing the following tale.

Deir Musa is an hour away from the outskirts of Damascus. The closest town is Nebek, 18 km away, and the pit-stop for visitors coming to or from the capital. Save for the occasional monk that elects to hoof it over the mountains, everyone leaves the monastery by car from the foot of the cliff-face. Everyone, that is, except myself and another visitor, a charming German theater professional whose appearance does nothing to suggest she had ten plus years on me. Read into that what you will. And yes, her name was Christina. For as a friend once told me, when G-d tempts the Jewish male, subtlety is not necessarily employed. My German friend was kind enough to add my limited belongings (read: toothbrush, passport, spare cash and notebook) to her pack in return for my accompanying her on what we were told by an earnest novice monk would be a breezy three hour trek. And so we set-off.

If you have persevered through all five-hundred plus pages of the Chinese best-seller Wolf Totem, you would appreciate why my otherwise resolute hiking companion was terrified of the wild dogs that populate the Syrian wilderness. The monks had warned us of the danger of the predatory dogs that range over the mountainside. And so when my surgically enhanced eyes caught sight of two large males likely to intersect our path, Christina and I took the proscribed precautions. Holding tight to what would probably have been useless sharp-edged stones, we silently shifted our position westward until the four-legged fangers passed us by.

I'll leave the memoir to describe what transpired to leave Christina and I standing some four hours later before fifteen feet of barbed wire fence that stretched as far as the eye could see. As the sun had recently set, the eye in all fairness could not see much. When my quick exploration of the fence revealed that it continued up and over the nearby hills, Christina and I realized that the path we had been following by torchlight had come to a barbed end.

Perhaps because I had just left behind two days of preternatural calm at the monastery, I did not immediately insist to Christina that we get the heck away from what surely was a dangerous place to decamp for the night. Instead I followed Christina's lead and settled on the ground to rest a bit and consider our options. We quickly agreed to retrace our steps a hundred yards, grab some sleep and wake at first light to continue our hike to Nebek. But neither of us was ready to move just yet, as the brilliant star show above us was enough to keep us by the fence for another few minutes. Van Gogh would no doubt have sacrificed his remaining ear for the starry night above us. And Syrian military planners would probably have chosen such clear-skyed desolation as the perfect location for a secret air-force installation. Unfortunately for us, they had done so.

Two twenty-year old Syrians decked out in basic army fatigue approached. Before I had chance to rationally get rid of my prayerbook, I was up waving my flashlight, convinced that the best way to keep two trigger happy cadets calm was to not have have them stumble across us lodged right outside their base. I was right. If only by dumb luck than anything else. The two sentries began shouting like mad and, of far greater concern, they were cocking and thrusting their rifles at us amid their cries. This was a time, the 'lil voice told me, when playing the 'naive-student' card was not gonna cut it.

A couple more sentries arrived, we were ordered through the barbed wire, and after much more shouting in Arabic and broken English, our little troupe began marching over the field. It would be difficult to describe the flood of emotions I experienced as we marched if not for the fact that I had over an hour with those emotions, as our guards slowly marched us across the vast expanse of the base. My emotions really became my only companion over the final forty minutes of the trek, when Christian and I were blindfolded by our wary captors. More than anything, I was seized by a remarkable calm. When I contemplated the worst case scenario-- my bags searched, prayerbook found, followed by a host of unfriendly questions about what a J-toting American with a book published by and written in a neighboring country's script was doing by this base after dark--my mind responded by dwelling on physical sensations, taking the full measure of every passing wisp of wind and shred of stone. When my mind raced through every possible scenario and best response (like reading a Choose your Own Adventure novel in hyper-speed), my palms responded by squeezing Christina's hand and my tongue by bantering with the young guards about the past week's Barcelona v. Manchester game (great discussion to have with a blindfold and an assault rifle prodding your backside). But the walk, especially after we were blindfolded with our own t-shirts, was unnervingly calm. My thoughts turned back to my January visit to Ethiopia and the night when I had walked with pilgrims for forty minutes through a pitch-black subterranean passageway in the grotto churches of Lalibela. Christina later told me she was thinking how terrifying such a walk would be for people bearing real culpability. I was not as sangfroid, perhaps because the guards had remarked at the start of our march that we had no reason to be nervous "because you are not yehuds, we have no reason to harm you."

We finally arrived at a small room, Christina noting in grim humor that this must be when they get the video camera and dated newspaper. Instead our blindfolds were removed and we were sat before a TV screening the finale of the German soccer league (too bad for Bayern Munich). A modest and kosher friendly repast followed, though our passports and my camera and my friend's mobile were confiscated for dessert. The sentries had long since reclaimed their calm and were gracious and hospitable. Their commanding officers soon arrived but the graciousness remained. We waited for an hour and just as it seemed we may spend the night, the commanding officers bundled us into a military jeep and informed us we were off for Damascus.

Instead we turned off at a security office some thirty minutes later. No attempt had yet been made to search our bags and so my confidence sparked that the night was fast becoming material for a future blog post. And that is when things got really interesting. First we spent an interminable hour describing to two senior security officials how we had ended up by the barbed wire. Our reports were taken down, passport information recorded and our repeated queries about how we would be returning to the capital were turned aside. Once it became clear that we would be staying put for what remained of the night, Christina retired to a neighboring room to sleep. I was invited to face-off in a game of chess by one of the junior officers, who was the spitting image of Chris Farley if he had ever tried to look like the former Hafez el'Assad. Chess is far from my strong suit. But my would be opponent was such an endearing fellow. After he poked me with the black king and and implored me to lead President Obama's side to victory, I relented. Our game would last till four in the morning, at which point the war of attrition ended--Hama style--with his reborn queen providing the coup de grace to poor Obama. Farley el'Assad was gracious in victory, leveling with me that like most Syrians he is a big admirer of Obama, though he did wish the big speech planned for Cairo this week could have been relocated to Damascus. As he snapped my photo with his cellphone, I told him I looked forward to playing again when the tables were perhaps reversed. A 'lil sarcastic humor, I reasoned, is okay when the audience does not quite know English.

I retreated to the side room to find Christina wide awake. Neither of us were ready to breathe too deeply just yet. But I had a chance to let off some steam when Farley ambled in, announced we would be spending the night in his superior's office room, and then revealed a hidden bathroom behind the main desk. The bathroom came complete with a shower and towel. And so I washed off two days of monastery dust and one night of unexpected stress with a hot shower in the senior officer's private boudoir.

Two hours of sleep, repeated refusals at a chess rematch and before nine am we were on the road to Damascus. Rather than bid us goodbye, our guards turned us over to even more senior officials at the internal security HQ in the capital. And like everyone else I had encountered through this ordeal, the general in charge was incredibly cordial and hospitable. We were treated to breakfast, and then we chatted with the general about Syria's tourist attractions. He was especially keen that I visit his hometown of Hama. When I asked him how the parking lots were in the city that the former president Hafez al'Assad infamously destroyed when the Muslim Brotherhood revolted in 1982, the general did not appear to appreciate my sense of humor.

The general was more open minded when conversation turned to the previous evening, repeatedly asking if we had any comments on the experience. My innocent response was that perhaps a sign or two by the fence would ensure that no visitors make the mistake of trespassing near military property. The general sighed and said the problem is that the base is a secret and so they could hardly go ahead and put up a sign. Perhaps a sign could simply say "Do Not Enter." "Perhaps," the general agreed, "we will see what can be done." Our conversation continued for nearly two hours, as we waited in vain with the general for the Minister of Internal Security, whom we were told was to come and briefly speak with us. Ultimately he failed to appear to what apparently was one of the country's top security concerns over the last ten hours!

The fitting conclusion to the whole ordeal came near the end of our stay at the HQ. Having earlier informed the general that I was studying China, his assistant looked at me with sudden curiosity and in slow English inquired "What may happen to the world when all of China goes up and then down?" I started with an explanation about the millions of largely rural Chinese left behind by the country's rapid development when the general and his assistant's growing astonishment informed me I was losing them. But then their smiles and guffaws showed me the true answer, as between laughs my inquisitor explained that when all those Chinese go up and then down, the result would be a massive earthquake.

I left the HQ of Internal Security very bemused and sincerely grateful, clutching my belongings that throughout the entire ordeal had not once been rifled through. There are lessons to take-away from the experience. But I will leave them for you to share with me, as I still am having a hard time believing what transpired.



  1. That's an amazing story. Wow. I didn't know that kinda stuff actually happened to people.

  2. Hi
    I recently made aliyah I really want to go to Sheldag I was wondering if you could email me as I am lost in what where how and so any advice on any aspects would be greatly appreciated