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here we

a night train to Budapest from

ings you in to the city center,

ng before you. The culture shock

ain stops frequently and with

e er nearer. Airports, as we all know, are postmodern enclaves of
the onedimensional man.... the same dutyfree shops, the same
computer screens, the same businessmen sipping beer in the
lounges. Stepping out from a foreign airport after a long journey
onto the soil of a new land is like the astronauts in Planet of the
Apes" landing home again. Its a jolt to the system.
So I decided to route my travels through the Balkans, from
Budapest south t'araj evo and on across the peninsula to
y car and bus through Syria to Lebanon.
rke h
ways thrived in my imagination. When I was
a h
r earch paper on the Ottoman Empire.
elve d
same ear Yu s avia, long the tug-ofwar ground between
the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, descended into civil war.
I remember clearly watching the news every night with my
parents, in rapt horror at what was unfolding in Bosnia: genocide,
cities being pounded to bits - and this all in late 2oth-century

Europe. I had been too young to recall much of the Lebanese Civil
War, although Beirut gave birth to something in my imagination
much different than those of my parents generation. Sarajevo and
Beirut had always been fantastical destinations to me then,

both great cities destroyed by conict but for a time so symbolic

of multicultural existence and cosmOpolitan possibility. And the
fragile coexistence which contributed to both cities glory days
also represented the long extinct but once quite potent unity
offered by the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires.
Maybe at an early age I found some sort of spiritual kinship
between the American South and the Balkans. A dark history of
civil war, racial persecution, and religious fundamentalism on one
hand, but also a tradition of unbridled hospitality, artery-clogging
food, and a serious dedication to drinking homemade spirits. That
said, I havent sensed that the Balkans share the Deep South 3 love
of college football. My rst real day of travels was spent traipsing
around Budapest. I have always tried to illustrate the difference
between Central and Eastern Europe as the limits of the Austrian/
Hapsburg cultural stamp. Where it touched a city, I would dene
as Central" Europe. Thus Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Ljubljana,
Bratislava, and Zagreb all share the ornate Austrian air for
neoclassical architecture, large outdoor plazas ringed with busy
cafes, and wide esplanades along green avenues. Budapest was the
cocapital of political as well as cultural inuence during the days
of the Hapsburg Empire; it has enough history and atmosphere to
soak in for weeks, but I only had a day.
There were plenty of Hapsburg-era ghosts still lingering around
the boulevards of Budapest, and I as I contemplated my journey
deeper into the reaches of the former empire, I recalled a scene
from Joseph Roths Radetzky March. Its the spring of 1914,
and in a forgotten outpost of the Empire, probably Silesia or the
Ukraine, a grand ball held by the local army ofcers and their
wives is interrupted with the news of the Archduke Ferdinands
assassination. Within minutes, the room is divided among ethnic

lines, the Hungarian ofcers beginning to discuss events amongst

themselves in their native tongue, likewise the Czech ofcers

and the German ofcers. The fragile and illusory unity that the
Hapsburgs had always given these men is evaporating, never to
return as the shadow of a great war hangs over them.
In Budapest and Vienna, the traveler is even now able to conjure
the dream of the Hapsburg past while enjoying the cafes and

markets, the melodies of Lizst and Strauss a perfect echo of a

fossil glory. Yet as one travels southward into the darker heart of
Central Europe, into the former Yugoslavia, the more troubled
history of this region and all its ethnic struggles reveals itself with
the telltale scars of more recent events.
It was early on a stiing Budapest morning and I was boarding
a worse for wear Bosnian train for a twelvehour ride south to
Sarajevo. For an observer of my age, Sarajevo was a metonym
for fratricidal destruction, the city turned in on itself as urban
battleeld. Yet for centuries this city had been a remarkable
example of cultural pluralism and coexistence, a place where
one was hard-pressed to discern where the Central European
or the Middle Eastern began or ended. During my rst morning
in Sarajevo, the dawn was punctuated by the nearby haunted
wails of the morning call to prayer. I was staying in the old
Turkish quarter of the city and my hotel was within earshot of
two mosques. Yet minutes later, the steady ring of church bells
came from just a bit further down the road, emanating from
an even older Serbian Orthodox cathedral. This sort of earshot
commingling has been remarkable to travelers for centuries, but

during the early nineties it would prove to be the thing that would
tear the city and the country apart.

To recap the whole history of the Yugoslav conict would tax

most readers patience, not to mention my amateur scholarship.
Sufce it to say there is a group of people living in the Balkans
who could be referred to as the South Slavs. In fact for a long

time they were referred to in just such a manner. These people

share the same language and culture, and to you or me would

never appear to be of different ethnic groups. Yet because of

religion they subdivided into different factions, and have in some
sense been ghting with each other for hundreds of years, when
not ghting the Turks, the Austrians, or the Germans.
To identify as a Croat is to be Catholic. To be a Serb is to
identify with being Eastern Orthodox and the use of the Cyrillic
alphabet, not to mention a strong allegiance to Russia, the
Serbs traditional benefactor. To identify as a Bosnian is to be
a member of the Muslim faith. For a long, long time, the main

ght was for national independence and liberty from the Turks.
This kept the factions more or less united against a common
enemy, but even then, the Hapsburgs and Ottomans were able
to skillfully exploit the factions in order to maintain power.

Being largely Catholic, the Croats often allied with the AustroHungarian sphere. Being Orthodox, the Serbs sided with Russia
and (sometimes) Bulgaria, and the Bosnians more or less had it

easier under the Turks, sharing Islam as a common faith.

World War One brought the end of the Ottoman era, and
a fragile coalition of the South Slavs, including the Slovenes,
emerged from the wreckage. This was a nascent form of

Yugoslavia, but the next World War shattered it, again along
religious lines. The Croats sided with the Nazis, and forced the
Bosnians into submission. The Serbs faced genocidal purges

from the Croats and fought a partisan war almost alone against
the Nazis, commanded by Joseph Tito. Tito was half Croat, half
Slovene, but he dreamed of a nonsectarian, unied socialist state
for all the South Slavs, and from 1945 until his death in the early
eighties, Yugoslavia largely held together solely because of the

force of his vision. To this day, you will not nd a person in the
former Yugoslavia, young or old, who has anything but praise for
Tito. He kept the factions at bay, he kept Stalinism out of the

country, and he maintained cordial if not warm relations with the

USA throughout the Cold War. You might recall when the 1984
winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo.
When Tito died there was an inevitable power vacuum into

which the Serbian-born Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic,

attempted to step. As different Yugoslav republics held referenda
and voted for independence, Milosevic began to speak of a
Greater Serbia encompassing large areas of Croatia and Bosnia.
The Serbs living in Bosnia voted for their own country, to be
aligned with Belgrade, and then began gathering arms for a war
against the Bosnian government. Something similar happened

in Croatia, and there you have it. Civil war, almost overnight,
engulfed the region.
Slovenia, with a very small population of Serbs, got off pretty

easy and avoided the war. So did Macedonia. Croatia and Bosnia
werent so lucky. The focal point for the war between the Serbs
and the Bosnians became the three-yearlong siege of the capital,

Sarajevo, played out on Western TV. During that time, the

Serbs red continuous artillery barrages into the city, cut off the
food supply, and took advantage of the mountains enveloping the

town as ideal sniper positions. The sniper re was sporadic but

perhaps more terrifying because of its unpredictability. Simply
going to the market might mean death by sniper or artillery re.
Electricity was largely cut, and peeple survived on what thin

trickle of humanitarian supplies managed to make it to the city.

The United Nations tr00ps could do little but look on and try to

steer as much of the food and medicine into the city as possible.
Quite a few people I met while in Sarajevo were able to escape the
city during the war, but those who stayed lived through something
most of us can only imagine. Fifteen years later, Sarajevo is trying
to reclaim its place as one of Europes great cities, and on the
surface, its there already. The cafes and museums are Open

again, the tourists are coming back, and the long boulevards are
no longer sniper alleys but long stretches of wellordered trafc.
But bullet holes still adorn most buildings, and the psychological
wounds are even deeper. Bosnia is a country whose GDP is almost
60 percent foreign aid, and as much as it wants to be a part of the
new Europe, its got years to go. Still, the spirit of the people and
of the city itself is undeniable and intoxicating.
After two days in Sarajevo I took another train south to Mostar,
an old river town that thrived during the Ottoman days and whose
cobblestone streets and hillside shops certainly recall a past of
opulence. But Mostar had it even harder than Sarajevo during the
war, with some eighty percent of the town destroyed by shell re.
It would be hard to know that now, what with so much foreign
restoration money having poured in, but the long conversation I
had with a local cab driver, Nermin, reinforced the grim historical

memory Bosnia has weighing down on its shoulders. I met

Nermin by chance, trying to nd a ride south from Mostar to
Kotor, a seaside town bordering Montenegro, but a six-hour bus
ride away, and I had missed the only bus that day. Nermin offered
to drive me there for a fee, and the whole ride down to Kotor was

a long, weaving conversation that mirrored the ever-curring twoway road down the coast (the highway along the Adriatic coast is
a bit like the scenic route on Highway 1 in California, but not as

Nermin was a native of Mostar, and he found himself at age

eighteen being handed a rie, straight out of high school, and

sent to the front line with his two older brothers. The siege of the
city lasted several years, and during that time Nermin lost both
of his brothers. He told me he thought he had killed Serbs but he
wasnt sure since they were far away. He told me about living for
two years without electricity. He told me how he and his would
mother would boil the grass from their front lawn and survive on

that for weeks at a time. He told me that the Serbs would taunt
the Bosnians with cries Turks! Turks! as if that was an insult, at

which Nermin, who to be sure bore a spate of bold red hair, would
stand up in the front lines and taunt back, Fuck you, Im Irish!
He had seen things I can only imagine but he had a heroic spirit,
as well as a wife and three daughters. And you got the feeling that
ever since the war ended, he was living like there might not be
another tomorrow. He was a strict Muslim and wouldnt drink,

but he had a fondness for disco, pizza, and American television,

and was an astute observer of world politics. He related to me
how the government of Saudi Arabia had spent a lot of money
in Bosnia, not just on restoration projects but also on Wahabbi
training schools. Nermin had a best friend who got deep into
Wahabbism, and it basically ended their friendship. As he said
to me: You buy the oil from the Saudis. They use the money for

preachers that talk about destroying you! Where is the sense in

that? I didnt have much of an answer for him.

If there were a parallel between the American South and the

Balkans, I would say that the Adriatic coast, spanning most of
Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania, is like the Florida panhandle.
Before the end of the Cold War this was the playground for
vacationers from across Eastern Europe, but now everyone else
wants a piece of the action, and the whole coastline is choked
with European partygoers, casinos, and stunning scenery. The

mountains ank the coast for 200 kilometers south, humbling

vistas staring down on the rather mundane detritus of seaside
resort culture. Kotor itself is a stunning medieval town, carved
out of the mountains and hemmed in by castle walls. It reminded
one of wandering through the alleys of Venice, with enough twists
and turns to keep the Minotaur happy. Still, it was little pricey for
my budget and after one night I decided to keep heading south, to
Albania and more unknown of the unknown.


Thessaloniki, Greece 6/21/10

A little over a week ago I was crossing the border into Albania
from Montenegro. I had taken a minibus from Kotor up on the
Adriatic coast of Montenegro, three hours south down stunning

but slightly terrifying coastal mountain roads to the very sleepy

border town of Ulcinj. Technically in Montenegro, but almost 90
percent ethnically Albanian, I had heard it was easy to hitch a ride
over the border from there.
Four years ago my friend and bandmate Jonathan Marx lent me
a book on Albania, The Accursed Mountains, and while it was

written in a typically overdramatic travelogue style, its portrait of

Albania, easily one of Europes most forgotten corners, had stirred

my imagination something erce. After all, it was only known to

most Americans (and my most Americans I mean the ones who
were even cognizant of its existence) as the homeland of John

Belushis family. It also had the long-standing distinction of being

Europes poorest country, although like Mississippi and Arkansas,
Albania and Moldova seem to be duking it out for this honor

lately. Regardless, I was determined to make my way there.

Now I was in a beat-up mid-eighties Lada with a professorial but

surly elderly man in the drivers seat, and a father and son day~
laborer duo in the back of the car, returning home from work in
Montenegro to Skhoder, the adjoining town on the Albanian side
of the border.
I was unceremoniously dumped in the main square of Skhoder,

the kind of southern Mediterranean town that drags the adjective

dusty out of the closet. I think there was even dust in the beer.

And I didnt know any Albanian. And I was three hours away from

the capital city, Tirana, where I had managed to nd a hotel room.

But no worries. The travel angels found me speeding along the

pockmarked highway towards Tirana in no time, on a crowded
If there is a Wild West in 213t-century Europe, surely it is
Tirana. Albania is, in terms of latitude and attitude, very close to
its neighbors Italy and Greece. But that is where the similarities
end. Tirana was a bewildering and very welcome shot of caffeine
to the senses. A urry of youths sipping coffee at shaded cafes
while packs of stray dogs darted in and out of the foot trafc;
elderly Roma women digging through trash bins; sleek SUVs
cruising down streets alongside Communist era jalopies; the bleak
concrete of Socialist housing blocks given strange new life by
being painted pastel colors (apparently the recent mayor of Tirana

was a home design major); the wail of the call to prayer from the
mosques clashing with cartoonish Balkan techno.
I had arrived in Tirana on the rst night of the World Cup,
and thus I was welcomed into the era of the vuvuzela, the new
sound of European cafe culture. That strange and very calmn

apiary-like drone emanating from every cafe and bar as I walked

the streets that night, car horns barely making themselves heard
over it. Albania is an 80 percent Islamic country, but the offshoot
brand practiced here, Baktashi, permits the consumption of
alcohol. And from what I could deduce, Albanias population, at
least those over forty, was taking that theological side note quite
generously. Breakfast here seems to consist of espresso and a
shot of the local brandy, raki.

Albania is a country that holds a rare attitude for our era.

They loved George W. Bush. They especially loved Clinton, who

persuaded NATO to intervene on the behalf of Kosovo. They even

named a main street in Tirana George W Bush Boulevardi in the

honor of Dubs. Its a bit ironic considering just how many folks

in the old Al Qaeda gang came to Kosovo to ght on behalf of their

L-Iuslim brethren, the Albanians, against the Christian Serbs. You

see, after Afghanistan went over to the Taliban the rst time, a lot
of the freedom ghters declared the next holy war to be here in

Yugoslavia, rst alongside the Bosnians, and then the Kosovars.

I guess that was back when we were still on the same team as

Besides the ghosts of recent wars, Albanias landscape is still

haunted by the memory of its brutal communist regime, headed

for decades by Enver Hoxha. Hoxha was somewhat of a neoStalinist When the Soviet Union distanced itself from Stalins
legacy, Hoxha broke off relations with them. When he thought
Mao was getting soft in the mid-seventies, he broke relations

with China. He was that hardcore. Under his watch you could be

sent to the salt mines for ten years for being caught listening to a
foreign radio broadcast. Perhaps the most eerie reminders of his
regime are the dome-shaped machine gun bunkers he ordered

built all around the countryside. They were built to withstand a

nuclear blast, and so they remain, bizarre black concrete bumps

visible on any drive through the countryside.

While much has changed in Tirana, pastel apartment blocks
and all, Albania is still years away from being a stop on the
Mediterranean beach bum crawl, so I felt like I had a unique

opportunity as a casual traveler. I was in fact, the only person

staying at my hotel, and for three days I didnt see a single other
tourist. Quite a head-trip for this Tennessee lad.

Next it was into the nowfamiliar antiquated minibus east, this

time to Macedonia. It had tested the limits of my negotiations and
understanding of Albanian nomenclature to deduce the path to
the Macedonian border. The minibus system in Albania requires
two traits most American travelers lack: patience and humility. I

waited in a town square near my hotel in 'Iirana until the minibus

was full with enough passengers, and then we took off for the
drive south. It was cramped but everyone was friendly, and since
one young man on board spoke English, a lot of questions from
my puzzled fellow travelers were directed to me about why exactly
I was traveling on my own in their country.
We drove through staggeringly gorgeous but terrifying scenery,
our highway strung through the mountain passes as casually as
wire. When I saw our driver drinking beer at a morning rest step,
I took it as a cue to join him. If I was going to die in a bus wreck in

Southern Albania, I was going to be lit like a Christmas tree.

A couple of hours later, we reached the Macedonian border
without incident. I walked through customs, got my passport
stamped, and found myself completely alone in what appeared to

be a Macedonian national park. I walked for about a mile down a

road until I met a group of Italian tourists on a picnic.
I asked them which way the town was, and continued walking in
the direction in which Id been motioned. Eventually a group of
vacationing Macedonian army youths pulled up alongside me and

offered me a ride. With fatigue beginning to erode my caution,

I got in the car with them. We were destined for the gorgeous
lakeside resort town of 0hrid.

Macedonia is one of those countries whose history gives brain

twists to even the fairly well-read Balkan buff. Because of its
inconvenient location in between Greece, Albania, and Bulgaria,
it has been in a historic tug-ofwar between those three peoples,

not to mention the Ottoman-era Turks. Even now the government

of Greece refuses to acknowledge the country as Macedonia

and requires it to be called the Former Yugoslav Republic of
Macedonia. This is because the region of northern Greece that
borders Macedonia is also known as... Macedonia, and the Greeks

are afraid the Macedonians are going to put a

claim on some of their soil. Meanwhile, the Bulgarians dont even

consider Macedonian a separate ethnic group, and to be fair,
the Macedonian language is mutually intelligible with Bulgarian.

All this dizzying inghting belies the fact that Macedonia itself
is a beautiful part of the Balkan underbelly, a series of vineyarddotted hills and trapped-in-time countryside.
Although I was only staying in Ohrid overnight, headed farther
north to the capital of Skopje, I was quickly enchanted with this
town I had never heard of. Tourism is the only reason people stop
here; its got the charm of a Mediterranean village, cobblestone
streets, ancient Orthodox monasteries, and outdoor cafes, but its

easier on the wallet than a similarly sized town in Italy or Greece.

I watched the United States lose to England in the World Cup
match while drinking beer and watching the sun set over the lake.
(A side note here....for the better part of a century, the bible of
travelogues to the Balkans has been Rebecca Wests Black Lamb
and Gray Falcon penned by the famed British lady of letters in
the interim between the World Wars, and documenting her and
her husbands journey through most of the regions that would

one day become Yugoslavia. I have attempted several times to

tackle this tome, without success. Much like a Tarkovsky lm or
an American breakfast buffet, its rich and easy to get lost in, but

hard to nish. I also recall it being heavily biased towards the

Serbs side of the story, but it was written seventy years ago, long
before a Milosevic would emerge.)

From Skopje, the Macedonian capital, I got a ride to the Greek

border and the city of Thessaloniki. I had read there was a night
train to Istanbul from Thessaloniki, and thought it would be a

good place to rest my heels for a day or so. As Greeces second

largest city, Thessaloniki had been a crossroads commerce town
for thousands of years, and is the largest Greek town on the
Balkan Peninsula proper. It was a week ago in fact that I walked

into the Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki and lost myself

for what seemed like the entirety of a day. I had awoken that
morning with maybe too little sleep and too much ouzo holding
the reins on my synapses, and I was craving a day of museum
I have always found welcome distraction and endless fascination
in my casual study of history, but I wont say I nd comfort.
Maybe its because the older I get the more I realize how cyclical
the nature of the human story is. I used to believe in a sort of
slightly unimpeded path of progress, from ancient times through
to modernity, with the odd war and period of collapse in between.
Now I feel that, without bringing pessimism into the equation
since I am basically an optimist, the story of civilization is much
more a story of ebb and ow, of self-correcting periods where
once-great civilizations nd themselves at best emasculated, and
at worst destroyed.
This stayed with me as I walked through the exhibits in
Thessaloniki, pondering the ghosts of Greek civilization, along
with a renewed feeling of awe for just how modern these
ancients were. Their grasp of math and science, their invention
of drama and comedy, the myriad archetypes whom their gods
and goddesses could still so aptly represent. Yet also the details;

the attention to craft and personality that they put into their stone
head carvings, which in their day and age were like portraits or
photos; the recipes for everyday dishes, the ornate decor in their
homes. As a youngster I paid a lot of attention to battles and

kings and great movements of armies. Now I nd wonder and

comfort in the representation of the everyday life of years long
gone. Maybe it gives me some assurance that people really havent

changed that much through the years. It also should serve as

some caution to these modern-day (mainly American of course)
political philosoPhers who opine about Western supremacy and

the end of history. History never ends, but empires do. The
Greeks have had to learn this the hard way, several times, yet like
the Chinese they are connected to their ancient past through a
common language, alphabet, and geographic placement.


Rome, Italy 7/2/10

The last time I was able to update my travels, I was to embark
on a train to Istanbul, gateway to wonderful lands unknown to
the wanderer since time immemorial. I had less than 24 hours

in the grand city before another epic train ride, this time south
through the Turkish heartland and to the border with Syria. Once
derided as the sick man of Europe during the waning days of
Ottoman supremacy, modern Turkey has forged a unique path,
and one that at the dawn of the 2ISt century promises not only

unprecedented economic growth but also potential political

dominance in the region. The timeless Istanbul of the grand
bazaar and the mosque spires, the ferries over the Bosporus and
the lines of shermen plying the waters of the Marmara,

the endless cobblestone allies with the echoes of the saz and
traditional song... that Istanbul will never fade. It cant, if only
because if it did the tourists would cease to visit. But the Turkey I
caught a glimpse of was a regional superpower awakening from a
century-long coma, ready to dominate the area again.
With an economic growth rate somewhere in the territory of
Chinas, that should tell you something. Yet its also the unique
geographic placement of Turkey, bordering not just Eastern
Europe and the Balkans, but also Iraq, Iran, Syria, and the
Caucuses. Its future role as mediator in the morass of conicts
and troubles that plagues this area could do a lot more to further

peace than the maneuverings of the USA and NATO (of which
Turkey is still a member). So it is the rareed position of the Turks
to be both that gurative and literal bridge between societies,
European and Middle Eastern, and for that reason I sincerely

hope Turkey gains membership into the EU. I am by no means a

fan of how the Turkish government has dealt with its minorities
over the years, or how maniacally the censorship laws in this

country obstruct real public dialogue. But in an era of increased

diplomatic pragmatism, you have to begin somewhere.
If nothing else, I was on a series of the cleanest, fastest, and

most prompt trains since Germany. It was honestly a fairly

welcome relief after two weeks of uncertain travel in rusty Balkan
train carriages and museum-pieceworthy minibuses. For my
train ride south to Adana, three hours from the border with Syria,

I was in an air-conditioned sleeper cabin all by my lonesome,

twenty hours speeding through the largely barren landscape of
Asia Minor.
I spent the last couple of hours of the epic ride to Adana in
the dining car, with waiters watching Ali G dubbed in Turkish
and trying to nd some reserves of energy. It made no sense to
proceed onward for the night so I found a hotel in Adana and
next day was hitching a ride south with a full minibus to Antakya
(originally Antioch), the TurkishSyrian border town.

Southern Turkey is denitely still a frontier, at least to an

American traveling alone with but an infantile passing knowledge
of the local tongue. So there I was, baking in the sun and diesel
fumes of the town square, shouldering about forty pounds of
luggage, lost in the cacophony of foreign speech and car horns,
and like some sort of lobotomized astronaut, I just started walking
further into the center of town. I asked someone about how to

hitch a ride across the border into Syria, and I kept being waved


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on until a tiny compact Honda with Arabic license tags pulled up

beside me. The driver, who couldnt have been older than twenty
years, jumped out and started helping me with my bags. I had
thrown caution aside and now was crammed in the back seat, four

Syrian dudes and me hightailing it to the border.

Since there is more work on the Turkish side of the border, quite

a few Syrians from neighboring Aleppo make the daily commute

to work in Antakya. And though these gentlemen were kind

enough to be letting me hitch a ride home with them, I also knew
that as the only member of the car with an American passport, I
would most likely obstruct an easy re-entry.
Which of course happened. Even though I had the necessary
Syrian tourist visa in my passport, the scene at the border

crossing was like something out of Bad Day at Black Rock. The
cracked and yellowing hospital-tiled rooms with giant portraits of
President Bashar Assad and his late father, Hafez were crowded

with throngs of travelers. Flies darting around a copying machine

that looked like it had last been used in the eighties, and a couple
of disinterested border guards smoking a narghile in a dark back
room rather than dealing with the long line of visa applicants.

Although I had the requisite Syrian tourist visa, I knew that it

wouldnt be so easy to breeze through the border proceedings.
One of the border guards kept shrugging at me and our driver
each time we approached the window. Pretty quickly I realized
we were going to have to bribe somebody. I had a roll of US dollar
bills and our driver friend passed a few to a boy that could have
been no older than nine. He walked back into the deserted room
that housed nothing more than a couple of portraits of the Assads
and the aforementioned ancient copy machine, made a copy of my
passport, which we then returned to the rst guard. He glanced
through it for the twelfth time, gave it a half-hearted stamg and
handed it back to our driver. I was in.

As we walked back to the car, I encountered my fellow travel

mates, all of whom looked understandably perturbed at having
to wait on this lonely American to get through. I started in with
vociferous apologies, and they all started chuckling. One of them,
an older gentleman who spoke some English, just laughed and
shrugged. Im really sorry to keep you guys waiting, I explained
out of breath.You are sorry! But we are Suri! The man replied
(Suri is Arabic for Syrian). The ve of us laughed and we got
back in the car. With the border crossing fading in our rear, the
car kicked up clouds of dust as we drove down a cracked highway
towards Aleppo. The road was dotted with little more than the
odd billboard, desert scrub foliage, and an occasional petrol
Syria is not exactly on the United States list of best friends, what

with a number of trade sanctions and bellicose talk over the years,
not to mention Syrias close alliance with Iran and Hezbollah.

But all of that is distant thunder to the tourist, because, politics

aside, the Syrians are some of the friendliest people I have ever
met in my travels. Throughout the week, I never encountered
an unkind word against the US. And whats more, the degree of
cultural and religious pluralism, especially coming from Turkey,

was astounding.
In Aleppo I was staying in the old Christian quarter, a
maze of cobblestone streets and shops, many of them owned
by Armenians. There were ancient churches sidebyside with
mosques; Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Muslims, and Arab

Christians all living and working, and seemingly getting along just
ne. Quite a bit of this is due to the fact that Syria is controlled by
a dictatorship. Hafez Assad was an early member of the Baathist
party; a socialist organization founded by an Arab Christian,

Michel Aaq. The original vision of the Baathists was of secular

Arab nationalism, with as strong an opposition to fundamentalist

Islam as European imperialism. Early on, there was a rift between

the more traditional Baathist regime in Syria of Assad and the

more militantly nationalist regime of Saddams in Iraq. 80 in a
sense, with Iraq destroyed and radical Islamism gaining ground
in most other corners, sleepy, secular Syria is a time capsule of
sorts. There are no radical Imams preaching from street corners,

but to be honest, if you are caught talking politics at all you are

likely to have to explain it to someone higher up. The heavy hand

of censorship keeps politics off the table, both in the press and on
the street. In fact, the only signs of Islamic fundamentalism

I encountered anywhere were the fairly commonplace pictures of

Hassan Nassrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. Since he was almost

always featured next to Bashar Assad, you would have thought

this guy was vice president.
I spent a lazy two days in Aleppo, trudging aimlessly through
the old town, buying olive oil soap in the market, marveling at
the disarray of modern and ancient architecture, and eating rich

and Spicy repasts alone in hidden cafes. Aleppo has always been
known as a culinary outpost, and the signature dish consisted of
meat cooked in a thick cherry sauce. I also made it a point to enjoy
a beer in the bar of the Baron Hotel, once the terminal resting

stop for travelers on the Orient Express. Agatha Christie had

started a novel there, and I can safely say that it is the only hotel
bar I have ever hung out in that had Lawrence of Arabias bar tab

enshrined behind plexiglas.

I was beginning to get soft in my new surroundings, but I

needed to move southward. The path from Aleppo to Damascus

led me through a landscape dotted with the ruins of Byzantine
monasteries, medieval castles, and roadside stands selling the

strongest coffee and the worst cigarettes I have ever consumed.

A driver I had met in Aleppo drove me as far as the city of
Homs, where I stayed for the night in a strangely empty hotel

for businessmen run by a friendly Armenian family. The next

morning I took a minibus into the capital.

Four days into my Syrian travels I had at last made it to the
cobblestoned narrow alleys of Damascus and its legendary old
city. The old curmudgeon Mark Twain remarked in his Middle
Eastern travels that No recorded event has occurred in the world
but Damascus was in existence to receive news of it. It would be
easy to get lost in such reveries when trying to take the measure of
a city so ancient and so still so vibrant. Once again, as in Aleppo, I

planned to make my headquarters in the Christian quarter of the

Old Town.
Now I know that in the Southern part of the United States we
equate Church-zoning laws with pretty strict regulations against
alcohol sales. But in Syria, if you want to get your tipple on, you
want a church to be close by. Thats because its only legal to sell
alcohol in predominantly Christian parts of town. And on my rst
night in Damascus I walked into a oneroom tavern, lit only by

candles but with pictures of Linda Ronstadt and Fleetwood Mac

hanging from the walls. It was owned by a twin set of Christian
brothers, and the bar had been in their family for 100 years. Since
I stuck out in an obvious manner, it wasnt long before a couple
of the regulars and I were in conversation. Ibrahim was in his
late twenties, from a Christian family, and worked as a graphic
designer in Damascus. His regular drinking buddy was a Turkish
chap named Cem who was doing work for the embassy. It only
took a round of beers for everyone to let their guards down and

start talking politics, that most forbidden of topics.

Ibrahim felt that without a dictatorship, the sort of pluralism
I had been marveling at in Syria wouldnt exist, and I have to
say history has proven him right. It was his contention that
democracy in the Middle East, Israel excepted, just didnt work,
and he was much more afraid of Islamic fundamentalists than he

was of the Syrian secret police. He regretted that his country was
so isolated from the West and he remarked over and over again at

how cynically the Arab governments use the threat of Israel as a

crutch to inhibit political reforms within their own countries. But
he also had some pretty harsh criticisms of Western foreign policy
in the area, none of which I disagreed with.
It wasnt just the contrasts of religions here; it was the truly
ancient coexisting with the modern. The windn Spice-lled
souks, the dark cups of thick coffee, the countryside dotted with
olive groves and thousandyear-old Christian monasteries, the
ruins of Crusader castles that had so marveled young Lawrence
of Arabia... it was this side of Syria that was so intoxicating and
still draws tourists (though not many American ones). The other
side, the North Koreanfunded war monuments, the ubiquitous

portraits of the Assad boys, the fear of getting caught saying the
wrong thing, was something I had to take in stride, with private
judgment but ambiguous unease.

Still, it was easy to forget these dizzying political and cultural

dichotomies when lazing at early evening in the small bar I
had soon made my new home away from home. Ibrahim had
persuaded me to spend another night in Damascus. I told him I
was planning on traveling further south to Beirut and he laughed.
Theres nothing in Beirut but techno music and machine guns.
All of the history is here in Syria! That was enough for me.
The night before in Damascus it had been the usual crowd at
the corner bar. Cem came in with Ibrahim, both seemingly drunk
already, and we proceeded into small talk. I was amazed at the
kind of boundaries a fraternal tipple can erase. This asshole
killed my family! Ibrahim laughed with his arm around Cem,

a reference to the Turks genocidal persecution of the AramaicSpeaking Arab Christians during the waning days of World

War One. I thought to myself that maybe the best thing for
ArmenianTurkish relations would be a supervised beer-drinking
Cem knew I was a musician and he demanded that I return
to my hotel, which was only around the corner, to retrieve my
guitar. It seemed really important to him that I play Stairway to
Heaven, even though I was traveling with a tiny practice guitar
which could not be heard above the din of the bar conversations.
When it was apparent that my rudimentary attempts at matching
the classic Zeppelin riffs wasnt going to appease Cem, he fetched
his cd player and plugged it into the bars speaker system. The
cracked and familiar melody of Stairway started creeping
through the room and a whole group of patrons started singing
along in broken English. For a moment, we were all united by our

knowledge of a song that until that moment, I honestly wished I

had never heard again. Sadly, the requests for Immigrant Song
did not follow.
On my last day in Damascus I was at a cafe watching the USA
play Algeria in the World Cup and struck up a conversation with
the rst American I had met in about two weeks. His name was
Matt and he was living in Damascus studying Arabic (as many
Western students do). He told me that the code word for Israel

around these parts is Dixie, at least among folks at the US

embassy... as in Im going on assignment down to Dixie. As we

were watching the match I asked him why he thought there were
so many Brazil fans in Syria. He told me that over here, people
root for the strongest team, the winner. Maybe its growing up in a

dictatorship, but the whole American sympathy for the underdog

does not exist here, at least in the sports world.

Early the next morning I was in a taxi headed across the border
with Lebanon, leaving the tranquil yet chaotic bizarre world of

Syria for democracy and instability. I had run into an English

couple sightseeing on my last day, and when I told them that I
was going to Lebanon, they told me, Oh yeah, youll feel at home.
Its like Europe, except with a lot of machine guns.
Knowing what I did about Lebanese history, I was hoping those
machine guns were in the hands of the regular army, and not
private militias. Lebanons history in the region, with a rash of
civil wars, foreign invasions, and general internal instability, has
made it one of the perennial underdogs of Middle Eastern politics,
yet the lavish consumerism and machismo you encounter in
everyday life there would never clue you in to it.
For centuries, Lebanon had had a Christian majority, though
after the Civil War in the 803 a good portion of the Christians

ed to America or Europe. That left things in a state of confusion

that still hasnt been resolved at all, though everyone here wants
peace although few can imagine anything but another war.

The tyranny of geography has not served the Lebanese well.

Positioned as they are between Israel and Syria, they have been

the battleground for a number of proxy wars, with the allegiance

of the average Lebanese largely corresponding to their religion.
During the Civil War, the Christians were alli with the Israelis,

with the common objective of expelling the Palestinians, most

of whom were refugees. Within the last ten years, the y in the

ointment has been Hezbollah, a Shiite militia group largely

funded by Iran but with a lot of grassroots support in Lebanon

due to the fact that the prOSperous Sunnis and Christians have
traditionally sidelined the Shiites in Lebanon.
There is an old Lebanese proverb : winter and summer cannot
live under the same roof, but warring factions have long been
the rule of Lebanese history. Its been four years since Hezbollah
and Israel had a war, though everyone I met seemed to think

there was another one around the corner. Hezbollah seems to

schedule wars with Israel the way the White Sox and the Cubs

schedule inter-league games, and the average Lebanese citizen

is pretty helpless to do much about it. Hezbollah is, regardless of
whether or not you think theyre a terrorist organization, certainly

better funded and armed than the actual government army, which
makes disarming them from within nigh impossible.
All of this history of bloodshed and tinderbox politics is easy

to forget as soon as you enter Beirut, though. I had read about

it in books, I had seen pictures, and I had even heard rsthand

stories, but all the superlatives rang true. Beirut is a singularly

fascinating, and in many places, beautiful city. Once it was called
the Paris of the Middle East, and there are still parts of it that
look like Paris after the end of the world. Whats so bizarre about

Beirut is the schizophrenia of the landscape. There will be a

gutted skyscraper, pockmarked with bullet holes from one war
or the other, and right next to it a sparkling new condominium
or luxury hotel. There are winding avenues of cafes, bars, and

restaurants all packed with locals, yet army checkpoints at

most major intersections. Maybe part of what makes this city

so exciting is the thought that at any moment, this veneer of
cosmopolitan indulgence and sophistication can be transformed

into urban warfare.

Or as the English friends I met in Damascus put it... Things
in Lebanon are completely safe, at least until they arent. And
then they really arent." Having said all that, I never felt unease
in three days there. Apart from getting dismayed upon hearing
recrackers my rst night there, the beauty of the scenery and the
hospitality of the people overwhelmed me. On my rst afternoon,
wandering around in the trendy East Beirut neighborhood of
Gemmazyhe (which during the Civil War was a stronghold for the
Christian militias), I met a juice bar owner named Tony.

bout Te

cases; he had \FlSllEd Memphis thirty years

He was Christian and made
W. ' '
as a
' '

at home e felt safe

: .

Ildeu . 11y


e last thr


im 1


Detr t. So

s and I told him, quite honestly,

ravel had reinforced my secularism
no patience for atheism. After almost

a month of tr yel, the only country where the religious groups

hadnt been at each others throats in the last thirty years seemed
to be Syria, where there wasn't even a pretense of democracy, and
I was pretty sure that wasnt a victory for human rights. He then
asked me if I had read Kahlil Gibran, and I told him I had.

Good. Then you understand Lebanon. If you have read Gibran,

thats all the religion you need.
The road home would take me from Beirut to Cyprus, then from
Rome back

States. In just several weeks the exotic and

'n e had become the familiar. The unfamiliar had
cted. I longed for the Southern accents and


unse of ome but I felt oddly at ease here on the far

6 of e wor .

William Tyler, Sari

Edited by Rosemary Sheridan

Design by Volker Zander

Mao Drawing by Daniel MiillerFriedriebsen
Photos by William Tyler
{e} the author

as sou, published by Apparent Extent




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