Amid several warnings from the manager at the hotel and other locals I decided to take my chances at the border, obtaining a visa on arrival for Syria. The official rule is that if you have an embassy in your home country then you must apply in advance for a visa and have one in hand before you attempt to cross. The unofficial rule is that sometimes they grow a heart and let travelers through at the border. The further difficulty is holding a U.S. passport and attempting a brisk walk through immigration as U.S.-Syrian relations are uneasy at best. The only way to find out if you can make it through is by trying. The good thing is that the road to the border from Beirut is only about an hour, so at worst I was going to lose half a day and a minimal amount of money.
Even a small chance at getting into Syria is worth it. It’s one of the few destinations where it
does’t matter who you talk to, people rave about it. Whether it is the people, the culture, the ruins or any other aspect of country, every traveler I met that was coming from Syria swears by it. Some have gone as far as to say that it is one of the most interesting and enriching countries they’ve ever visited. So, as you can see, I was determined to try.
Arranging the transportation
I headed down to the Charles Helou bus station a few blocks from my hotel. I hired a service taxi to take me to the border. He said that he would take $14 if I got turned around at the border and $20 if I made it all the way to Damascus. We headed off at around 1pm. We arrived at the border in an hour and a half. We would have made better time but the driver stopped several times to try to find other passengers. I was OK with this because the trip all the way to the border and on to Damascus uses up a lot of fuel and he does need to make money.
First Immigration Attempt
I arrived at the border at around 2:30pm. I stamped out of Lebanon and was told by the immigration official that I would not be permitted into Syria. I said that I was going to try anyway and he told me that he would see me back here shortly. I said, Inshallah, you will not. We drove for a few minutes on the road that leads to the Syrian immigration office. At this point I wanted to approach the counter by myself but my taxi driver was trying to be very helpful in getting me through. From the first window I was directed to two other windows before finally arriving at the foreign arrivals booth. I handed him my passport and the taxi driver said something to him in Arabic. The immigration agent immediately looked at me and said, “No!” My taxi driver said something else in Arabic, probably trying to plea with him and the answer continued to be, “No!” The driver looked at me and said, “No… finished.” I thanked him for his assistance and walked outside to the car to get my bags out.
Second Immigration Attempt
He offered to drive me back to the Lebanese border but I insisted that I try one more time without him. I went back inside and to another counter and I opened with, “Aselam aleykum, can I please have a visa? I am a student and a tourist and I would just like to see the country.” The reply instantaneously was, “No! You must have visa before.” I pleaded with him to at least consider it. Then he asked for my passport and began looking through it. Whether or not I was getting through the border my passport was going to be scrutinized. Syria, much like the rest of the Arab world will not allow travelers in the country who have ever been to Israel. And it isn’t just if you’ve been to Israel but if there is even evidence that you MAY have. This means, entry stamps to Egypt and Jordan and other surrounding countries could potentially tip the agent off that you were in Israel.
The immigration agent walked over to a phone at the next desk and picked it up. He said a few things in Arabic and motioned for me to come around to the other side. I followed him around to the very end of the row of booths and he came out to meet me. He asked me to follow him. He led me into the office of the head immigration officer. He was the boss and the man in uniform.
The Boss Level
My heart was pounding. I had been at least granted a conversation with the man in charge. I had gotten through two very firm no’s and had an opportunity to plead my case to the man who has the ability to stamp my passport and permit me into Syria. This was my chance. I had rehearsed in my head what I might say to an agent but I never really expected to be in this specific situation.
I stood in front of his large wooden desk. The room was big and there was a TV in the corner showing Lebanese news of the crisis in Egypt. The Syrian flag behind him was a daunting reminder of what was at stake. He was decorated with insignia so there was an air of importance to him. He sat in front of me, engaged me with his eyes and questioned:
Officer: “Hello, what brings you here?”
Me: “I’m a student and a tourist from the United States and I’d like to come into Syria and see your country.’
Officer: “Did you not speak with anyone before arriving at the border to learn that you needed a visa in advance?”
Me: “No, not exactly, I didn’t plan too far ahead and I was not sure when I would be arriving so I didn’t obtain the visa beforehand.”
Officer: “I see, well you understand now, the rule is that you must obtain a visa in advance. So I am afraid to tell you that I will not be able to grant you a visa today, you will have to go back to Lebanon.”
Me: “I understand, and thank you for considering it but is there anything else you might be able to do for me at all?”
At this point I’m not even considering offering a bribe. Bribes seem to work in underdeveloped countries with corrupt police force but Syria is a proud and modern state and this could only get me into trouble.
Officer: “I’m sorry, there is nothing.”
I once again I thanked him and just as I was about to pull my bags up he asked to see my passport. He started flipping through it and asked me about my travels. He was concerned that I had so many stamps on my passport and I said I was a student. He handed the passport to one of the agents who walked off. The officer told me to have a seat and that it would be a few minutes.
At this point, I’m thinking to myself that I got through and that my perseverance paid off. The officer further questioned me about money and how I was able to travel to all these places. I told him I have a passion for travel and that I did work for a long time to save up money to do these things. I told him I write as well. I didn’t want to get too into my writing because I didn’t want him to think I was a journalist. He was also concerned about my age and said I seemed too old to be a student. The other agent came back in with my passport and handed it to the man in charge. He looks through it again and asks me if I’ve ever been to other countries in Arabia. I told him, not aside from Lebanon. I had forgotten I just passed through Dubai on a layover so he pointed that out to me. I thought the next words out of his mouth were going to be what I’ve been waiting for. However, it was not.
He looked at me and said, “Joseph, when you are home again in the United States, please apply for a visa and come visit Syria, we would welcome you here, but unfortunately there is nothing I can do for you today.” I replied, “Thank you for your time and consideration and I appreciate it. I look forward to seeing Syria one day.”
He told me to go outside and head towards the duty free shop where I would find a shared taxi to take me back to the Lebanese border.
I tried. I was happy with my effort. I would have been disappointed to have left Lebanon without trying just because some people said it would not work. It hit me pretty hard as I walked out of Syrian immigration. I had been so close and was denied entry. It was like a kick to the stomach. I was about two hours outside of Damascus, one of the oldest and most interesting cities in world. I was so close to the land of Saladin and the Ayyubid Dynasty as well as the ancient cities of Palmyra and Allepo. Only to be turned around at the border. I enjoyed the attempt though and would have done it again. In the end, I think my story didn’t quite hold up. My age didn’t match up with my occupation. I should have been a little more honest and said I had recently left work to travel after having a job with a bank for ten years.
Back to Beirut
The trip back to Beirut was an adventure itself. The one piece of advice I would give to any other travelers attempting the crossing without a visa, is to do it earlier in the day. The sun was already setting as I left Lebanon and it was impossible to find a shared taxi back to Beirut. I ended up contracting a taxi on my own and the asking price was $50. I got him down to $30 after a long process of communicating in broken English and no Arabic. He was a young and energetic driver who lived in the countryside. He begged that I pay him more because the cost for fuel ate up most of the money that I was paying him and he was only left with $10.
About 15 minutes into the drive the roads became dark as the lights were all out. There was a thick fog and heavy rain the higher up we got in the mountain. Visibility was nonexistent. At one point the driver looked at me and said, “Can you see?” I said, “No, can you?” He said, “Allahu akbar!” We both had a laugh at the insanity of what we were doing. A light snow started falling once we reached the top of the mountain. He said in one hour the road will be closed. He said he will have to sleep in Beirut in his car. I told him if he gets me back to my hotel alive tonight, I will pay him $40 instead. He said, “Ok, let’s go!”
We meandered around corners, up and down hills with the rain still falling pretty hard. We came around one corner where we were met with brake lights and traffic stopped dead in its tracks. There was an ocean of water building up on the right side of the road. Some vans and cars had already been flooded out and were causing a massive jam. There was a small narrow strip in the far left lane that was shallow enough to pass so the driver waited for the best opportunity and passed. The water was so deep that even a bus had gotten stuck. We made it through and eventually we were well on our way back to Beirut. The drive was dangerous and the driver seemed stressed out about having to stay in Beirut. He jokingly said, “You go to Beirut, I want to go see my mama and papa, but I stay in Beirut in my car.” I decided that when we arrived in Beirut at my hotel, that I would give him the original $50. He was very thankful and brought me right to my front door step.
My Middle East adventure isn’t working out the way I expected. My plan was to overland through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and then finish out with Egypt. If Syria was not going to work, which I planned for, I figured I’d just end up in Cairo. With Cairo having problems, that is out of the question now. I don’t want to fly to Jordan just to fly back out. So, that leaves me wide open to figure out a new plan.
I currently have two destinations in the works. Both are countries that I have not previously talked about and both are on complete opposite ends of the travel spectrum. I’ll wait to spill the beans later but either one I choose should be interesting in their own way. I’m just working out the flight details now!