‘Syrian Border: 35 km,’ shows the board next to the highway. A buzz of excitement goes through the bus. I’m in Beirut, for a two-day conference on the refugee crisis in Lebanon. This tiny country of 4 million people is hosting over 1.5 million refugees. Today the Lebanese organisation hosting the conference is taking us on a visit of the refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border.
We left Beirut this morning in two small buses, accompanied by one police car. Driving through the south of the city to get to the highway, I spot buildings with pockmarked walls from bullet marks. Some have big blacks gaps, as if a large animal passed by, taking greedy bites out of the stone. Only later I’m told this area of Beirut is Hezbollah territory.
I’m propped up on a fold-out seat in the aisle of the bus. On either side of me are two Syrians who have been living in Norway for over ten years. They both work in the medical field, one an oncologist, one a microbiologist. I work with refugees in the safety of Amsterdam. I have never been to a refugee camp in a humanitarian setting.
‘This is the road to Damascus.’ Nabil, on my right, says. He is the oncologist, with a teaching position at a Norwegian university. He checks the GPS on his mobile phone. I look over his shoulder and see our blue dot moving closer to the Syrian border.
‘We are about 60 km from Damascus now,’ he tells me. I calculate: just a forty-minute drive. I’ve never been this close to a conflict zone. ‘How does it feel, to be so close to home?’ I ask him. He pauses. ‘I can’t really describe it,’ he answers.
A hilly landscape rolls by, brown dust, rocks, some sparse trees. Down below we see shepherds and their sheep, some black, some white. The highway is lined with shops and billboards advertising wedding dresses, luxury cruises, even Dunkin’ Donuts.
It feels disconcertingly normal for a place so close to where all the global action is, where the world’s Bad Guys are doing their Bad Things, where it’s so complex. nobody can decide on who the Good Guys are, even less on which Good Things could end the violence.
We stop at a gas station for small cups of strong Lebanese coffee. Some of us buy snacks for the road, bags of nuts, crisps, and unfamiliar candy bars with Arabic letters on their bright wrappers. Some of my Muslim companions use the break to pray: the gas station has, next to the tiny shop, a prayer room. It looks like a converted garage, the floor covered with carpets.
Ordering my coffee inside the bar, I can see the adjoining room through the glass sliding door. A young woman sits on a pillow, her back against the glass wall. She has a baby on her lap, the child’s colourful outfit a shock of colour against her black abaya.
The cup in my hand, I leave the bar and walk to the edge of the gas station: there is balcony, looking out over the valley. It’s quiet, except for the cars driving by on the highway. The sky is grey, it looks like smoke, but Nabil had told me it’s just mist. People are taking pictures of the valley.
‘Over there is Syria.’
Syria. I’ve never been there, but I’ve read so many articles about it, I have seen so many pictures of the war there, always about the war. I’ve heard so many stories from Syrian refugees, people who used to live there, whose families are still there. It’s like a familiar story, I know the characters, the script, I’ve read analyses from different angles, but it always remained flat letters on a page, not quite real. This is different. It’s like I’ve been dropped between the covers of a book.
One of the Dutch people walks up to where I stand. He’s Syrian himself, but has been living in the Netherlands for over twenty years. I met him at the conference, two days ago. He wore an orange tie, the Dutch national colour, and I teased him about it.
‘We used to take this road all the time, driving from Damascus to Beirut.’ he tells me. ‘My mother still takes it. She takes the plane to Beirut and then gets a taxi to take her to Damascus.’ I’m baffled by how easy and casual it sounds. I thought you needed an armed guard, possibly a tank, and be checked at millions of checkpoints. We can’t see the border from here, but surely it must have a wall higher than the one Trump imagines for the American-Mexican border?
‘Why can’t you go?’ I ask him. He grimaces, his eyes fixed on the horizon. ‘I’m rather anti-Assad. It might not be safe for me to show up there.’ ‘He wanders off to take pictures of the valley. There is nothing to see, just dust, rocks, sparse trees. Some of the sand, the rocks, the trees are Syrian.
Another Dutch companion wanders towards me across the gas station, smoking a cigarette. Having spent an hour in Lebanese traffic and its continuous almost-collisions, one develops a rather laissez-faire-attitude towards danger. She is in her fifties, a fierce woman who gets things done. She has set up her own organisation in Amsterdam, helping refugee artists find their footing. The smoke from her ever-present cigarettes and her dark grey hair curling around her head, give the impression of small cloud of thunder following her around. As if her constant indignation at the state of the world has condensed around her.
‘I can’t believe Damascus is that close.’ she says. I nod. We look at the hills in the distance. ‘I swear, if I could, I would just take a cab and go.’ She shifts her weight. ‘You’d do that?’ I ask. ‘Sure. Wouldn’t you?’ I imagine a taxi with two white, scruffy women, one chain smoking, one coughing pointedly, arriving at the Syrian border.
I’d always get irritated when reading stories about backpackers travelling into dangerous regions, and then getting themselves kidnapped. Tourists, I’d fume, thinking they’re exceptions to the rules, thinking their holidays are above details such as violent conflicts.
But now I start to understand how it happens. The scenery here is so common, so every day, I can’t connect it with the stories I’ve read, which take place just a short drive from here. It doesn’t seem real. Surely, there can’t be a civil war around the corner? There can’t be chemical attacks? There can’t be half the global powers involved, with all their military accoutrements? Surely it would be louder? With an ominous glow in the distance? At least one apocalyptic horseman?
In stories the environment always obligingly rearranges itself according to the atmosphere: shadows hovering, clouds assembling, thunder clapping. Danger is announced in the scenery, there is ominous looming and creaking. But this is such a mundane place, with grocery shops, with billboards along the road, with mums holding babies on their laps, danger seems unfeasible. I could imagine people disregarding the stories, and doing an every day thing fitting this every day scene, and just hail a cab. Because you couldn’t possibly arrive by a cab in the Syria of the media. It would take a witch’s spell or a quantum leap.
Back in Amsterdam I bring it up to a Syrian friend, how normal it seemed, how I couldn’t connect it to the war. ‘It’s like that,’ he tells me. ‘Everything is normal, you go about your life, and suddenly,’ he snaps his fingers in front of my face, ‘a bomb drops, and whoosh, everything changes.’
So that is life in war time? You’re having breakfast –snap- you’re in Game of Thrones. You do your laundry – snap- you’re in War of Worlds. You don’t see it coming, you can’t do a thing, except wait and hope things snap back.