“Is this your first visit?” asked the passport official.
“Welcome to Syria.”
Thus my uneventful arrival. I pass smoothly into a lobby whose decrepit, unadorned functionality recalls Newark airport in the seventies, rather than the security-apparatus-cum-upscale-shopping-mall to which I’ve grown accustomed. This is pleasing, but in a discomfortingly counterfactual way, because the Assads are not timid in matters of surveillance, control and force. I go outside to smoke a cigarette, while the conference administrator, a friend, waits inside to collect the two academics arriving from Beijing who will accompany us into the city. Differences of context and culture aside, people were doing what people do in such places: arriving and departing, waiting, searching, embracing, trailing after or rushing ahead. An employee sweeps up cigarette butts. On a large billboard facing the airport is a portrait of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, years dead then but still greeting all who enter Damascus with a deliberate and unfocused stare. There must be a technique to it, to getting just that look. Assad family portraits are abundant throughout the city, appearing on surfaces as small as refrigerator magnets and as large as the sides of buildings, but this is my first. I wonder what the daily life of the artist is like. Or maybe there is no artist, maybe it’s all done by committees and machines. I can’t read the Arabic text alongside, but the style resembles those messages posted frequently on Facebook these days among the politically frustrated – brief, alternately inspirational or polemical messages beside the head of some avowing personality.
I lean against an outer wall, watching people come and go and taking in the general rhythm of my surroundings, when my reverie is interrupted by a singular man exiting through the doors of the airport, the immaculate tailoring of his long, pale brown robe complemented by a perfectly draped keffiyeh. A large falcon, hunched and vigilant, perches on his extended right arm. An attendant following close behind pushes crates on wheels containing six or so other birds. A private car arrives and the group is gone. Yes, well, here I am then, elsewhere after all.
We gather up and drive into the city, a roughly half-hour journey. It’s late March, and the weather is pleasant and mild. As the car speeds by I see people enjoying the late afternoon before dinner, sitting outside in orchards or in areas that look less like parks than accidental bits of green in-between the buildings, sometimes alone but mostly together. Every now and then what looks like a picnic. As we get closer to the center of town, the buildings grow more concentrated, with satellite dishes speckling grey apartment blocks like muted sequins. Traffic intensifies as well, and the driver reassures us that though it’s rush-hour, we’ll soon reach the hotel. Since the congestion of the city slows us down and our Chinese companions are less than talkative, I continue staring out the window, see people carrying on conversations in neighboring cars and notice that some of the buildings appear mostly abandoned, with only a few tenants hanging on presumably because the poverty evident everywhere so far has hit them harder and left them with nowhere else to go.
We arrive at the hotel, show passports, receive friendly welcomes and keys at the desk, and go up to our rooms. Mine is spacious in ambition but tired in execution, its size only accentuating the attempt to just make-do. A pair of plastic sandals has been laid neatly outside the bathroom door. At breakfast one following morning, near the host’s station, I walk around a group of buckets for catching water dripping from the ceiling, and overhear someone say that the place hardly compares with the luxury of last year’s meeting in Thailand, and a wistful recollection of spas and massages begins over a simple breakfast of pita, yoghurt, eggs and fruit, served by a shy black man taking direction from another staff. Memories have to be made out of something. In my room that first evening, I open the curtains and look out across the main thoroughfare, Shukri al-Quatli Street, as the sun begins to set. Across the way next to an ancient mosque is the Four Seasons Damascus, monumental and illuminated, a giant tiered ziggurat of a building looming in contrast with everything around it, so much so that I can’t help thinking it will make a splendid ruin someday.
I need to exchange currency and head down to the lobby to meet my friend A., the administrator, with whom I will spend much of my free time. The concierge directs us across the street to the Four Seasons. We walk over, and as we get closer the scale shifts and soon we are outside what could be almost any luxury hotel in the world—smoothly paved cul-de-sac entry, atmospheric lighting, well-appointed lobby with furnishings aimed at evoking wealth, ease and empire. There are so many hotels of this type across the world that such details might hardly bear mentioning; in addition to their amenities, what they offer is a calculated and familiar idiom that functions as a kind of subliminal insurance of order and purpose within the world of the global traveler. But here, it feels different. We have to pass through guarded metal detectors to get inside and our bags are x-rayed. Some must get turned away; most of the city’s residents likely never even try to enter or could do so only as employees. But our occidental if disheveled appearance seems to give us an advantage with guards who give us friendly smiles throughout the procedure, and we pass easily inside. I’ve had more difficulty clearing security in Paris and Pittsburgh.
Traditional homes in old Damascus were built with high walls around a central courtyard, making interior life very private, invisible to those outside. The Finnish Institute I would see the next day is housed in such a place, beautifully restored, with fruit trees and fountains inside this hidden space, which is large enough for small concerts and parties. The Four Seasons trades on this sensibility too: once within, the city is left behind for a familiar world of international English, one of those oases of privilege and luxury with no set geographical boundaries but a nevertheless highly unified sensibility. Discretion is undoubtedly part of that sensibility, but I want to see the guest register, to know what other travelers stay there, what they do and think. I experience a kind of reverse culture shock, which is merely another way of putting the sense of splintered privilege I feel at re-entering a world in which I have never felt much at home, though hotel lobbies so pleased my grandmother that Chicago city walks could easily include a detour through the Drake. I go over to a glassed display case along a wall and gaze at jewelry, backgammon sets and exquisite inlaid boxes, the high-end handiwork of Damascus.
We accomplish what we came for and A. suggests staying for a drink to celebrate our arrival, since we are unlikely to find another bar that evening in the city. And yes, there’s a bar here, of course there is—dark, comfortable and wood-paneled, with fine prints of English horses and hunting scenes. Two armchairs and a table are free and we take a seat. Three people are discussing a business deal in French at a nearby table, and Sinatra sings from hidden speakers. I order a martini, straight up with olives, which seems inevitable and helps ease my acceptance of the uncanny. I enjoy it. Our order is accompanied by a variety of free snacks, including some superb pickled vegetables, and when I compliment these to our waiter, he brings more to the table as soon as we finish the first. Whether this is his hospitality or that of the establishment, the seamless generosity stirs in me something akin to shame. We are hungry and eat everything.