Is Syria in 2008 a police state? Hard for us to say, but on a daily basis it does not seem to me that people feel under the thumb of the authorities. When asked about domestic politics people seem to speak freely (and generally favorably), there aren’t too many routine police checks on the streets or highways and the police/military presence is not overbearing, considering that there is compulsory military service (and therefore a lot of soldiers). It certainly feels freer than some other places we’ve been to, and generally not oppressive.
That said, we had an interesting experience today, and thought I would share it. It doesn’t exactly argue for Syria being a police state, but it does show that, under some circumstances, the police are quite active in keeping track of people and places.
We had a choice of a few different routes for our trip from Aleppo to Palmyra. For a desert change of pace, I thought that we would head all the way out to Deir ez-Zur, located on the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border, where we would overnight and then visit the Seleucid/Roman ruins of Dura Europos the next morning. We took a four hour bus to Deir ez-Zur, arriving late at night (and wandering for the next hour looking for a hotel that wasn’t full).
The next morning, we headed to the microbus station, where our eager taxi driver helped us locate the right minibus (the one to the town of Abu Kamal, which is on the Syrian/Iraqi border). However, the minibus driver wouldn’t let us in right away, saying that we needed to check in with the police, which had a small office at the station. We found this pretty peculiar (we never had to do it before when getting on a minibus, although regular bus and train rides generally required a check of identification), but guessed that it was because of course this was a sensitive border area.
There were three men in the small police office, and all were exceedingly friendly when we entered. There were “ahlen wa-sahlens” (“welcome,” by the far the phrase you hear most often in Syria) all around, followed by a few short questions (where we were from, where we were headed, and so forth). We were taken a bit aback when they named, in a casual though almost boastful manner, as if proudly offering proof of one’s own intelligence, the hotel we were staying in (there are at least seven or eight in town). The police officer wrote our details into a big register (not dissimilar from the process of checking into a hotel in Syria) and then handed us back to the minibus driver. We got on.
We noticed before we left that the identification numbers of the other passengers were also recorded, similar to the process for a regular (big) bus. We were somewhat surprised though, when, after all the paperwork was complete and right before leaving the station, our minibus was held up for a couple of minutes for an extra passenger, a rather fit young man, dressed casually yet vaguely seeming official, who sat in a space that is not usually occupied by passengers (at least not at the start of a route). Intuitively he seemed like ununiformed police or military, though at the time it was not clear.
[photo actually taken near Palmyra]
Dura Europos lies about a kilometer off of the main road from Deir ez-Zur to Abu Kamal, about twenty kilometers before Abu Kamal and the Iraqi border. A bit over an hour from Deir ez-Zur, we were dropped off on the main road outside of the ruins. When we got off, the young man got off the minibus as well, and asked us a few questions in English that was surprisingly good. Even given the nature of the questions (where are you from, where are you going, and so forth), the delivery seemed too perfunctory and without any apparent personal curiosity for our responses. When the minibus drove off (with him back on), we began wondering whether he wasn’t put on the minibus at the last minute to keep track of us, to make sure that we got off at our stated destination (a Roman ruin) rather than somewhere else (sensitive border areas).
From the highway, facing Palmyra Gate
We shrugged it off and toured the site. Dura Europos was founded by the Seleucids, one of the heirs to Alexander the Great’s adventures in the Near East. The city was then occupied by Parthians and then Romans, before being destroyed by the Sassanid Persians in 256 AD. The great discoveries at Dura Europos included incredibly rich, well-preserved frescoes located inside a synagogue (now in Damascus), a church (now at Yale in New Haven) and a Roman pagan temple (scattered in various places). These temples were mere blocks apart in the city, the Jewish synagogue being located literally across a small street from a temple to Adonis. And we think that we’re multicultural and tolerant now!
Within the city walls
Euphrates River valley, seen from Dura Europos
Anyway, toward the end of our visit we noticed that a local man was also looking around the site. There were very few tourists at Dura Europos (while we were there, we saw only one other pair of tourists, and some archeologists working in the brutal midday sun), but it wasn’t too suprising to see someone, and we didn’t think anything of it. Eager to get out of the sun, back to town and out to Palmyra, we started walking the kilometer or so back toward the main road, to pick up a minibus or hitch a ride.
When we were almost at the main road, we noticed that a white car had pulled up behind us. It was being driven strangely slowly (I had seen it coming a few minutes before), but we asked if they were headed to Deir ez-Zur, to see if we could get a ride. The answer was no–they seemed to indicate that they were headed the other way–and so we continued walking. When we got to the main road, however, the car, which had two occupants, just sat there at the intersection.
We were pretty annoyed because, naturally, having a car next to us, even if not ours, was likely to make it much harder for us to pick up a ride. The white car stood still at the intersection, the occupants chatting away, while a few cars passed by (including one that almost stopped for us, but then inexplicably sped up and drove by). After about ten minutes, we walked forward about a hundred meters along the main road, to put some space between us and the white car. Eventually, a minibus came, and we got in.
As we were getting situated (putting Derek and his knees in a minibus takes a bit of time), the white car drove up to the minibus flashing its headlights. The driver of the white car asked the driver of the minibus to come out, and there was a brief conversation and a paperwork exchanged. The minibus driver then read out a telephone number that was written on the minibus to the man in the white car. When the minibus driver got back in, he asked us in English, “Problem with the police?”
That’s when it became clear–we were being tracked by a series of ununiformed police officers (or delegates) ever since we left the bus station: first the man who road out with us, and then another man who kept an eye out for us in the ruins to ensure we got back on a vehicle to town. When we returned to the bus station, we were again temporarily detained at the police office (while our route was confirmed?)–again, all in the most friendly manner.
We mentioned this to our hotel owner in Deir ez-Zur, and he indicated that this was pretty standard practice. Because the city is located so close to a sensitive border, the police, we were told, do a daily circuit of all of the hotels to check guest registers. And, when tourists venture out of town in the direction of the Iraqi border, they are kept track of. The hotel owner said that the main purpose is, and I believe that it is, to make sure that foreign visitors (I suppose especially Americans, given potential problems we may face) are safe and out of danger. But I suppose a secondary purpose is to make sure that we’re harmless tourists, not engaging in any sinister activities.
Does our experience mean Syria is a police state? No, but the experience was surprising, a tiny bit unsettling and a first for us.