Dom Joly: Magnificent Syria deserves leaders to match

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The Independent Online

As Syria slowly falls apart on blurry mobile phone footage, it brings back so many memories of this wonderful country. Growing up in Lebanon, I travelled all over Syria, from the opulent souks of Damascus to clambering the walls of Krak des Chevaliers, the greatest Crusader castle in the Middle East.

Every Easter we would set off on an expedition from Beirut into the Syrian desert ending up at my favourite place in the world – Palmyra – an extraordinary, ancient caravan city littered with fabulous Roman ruins. We would always stay at a ramshackle hotel called The Zenobia. Any booking you made would have been lost, and rooms would always have to be renegotiated over cold glasses of wonderful Syrian beer. This was always part of the appeal.

Then it would be off across the desert to Aleppo, to the legendary Baron's Hotel where luminaries such as Lawrence of Arabia and Freya Stark had stayed. One man loomed above us on out travels: Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current leader, Bashar. His portrait was on every wall, every lamp post, an omnipresent figure staring down at us disapprovingly.

The Syrian people were always wonderfully hospitable, sometimes a little too much so. I remember being invited into a Bedouin encampment for refreshment. We declined politely, as it was getting dark and we needed to cross a large salt lake to get back to Palmyra. We drove off, only to be pursued by an irate Bedouin in a pick-up truck who screeched in front of us, hopped out brandishing a revolver, and forced us back for tea. We didn't argue.

We had a Range Rover, essential in the desert. Ours was white, and unfortunately this was also the vehicle of choice for the dreaded Mahabharat, Assad's feared secret police. We stuck Pink Panther stickers and Union Jacks all over ours, as locals had a habit of vanishing wherever we turned up.

When I returned to Syria in 2005, to make a TV documentary, I was classified as a journalist. As we arrived at the frontier between Lebanon and Syria, a man turned up and announced that he was our "guide" and that he was going to be travelling with us.

He was an odious little man, so similar to other secret policemen I've encountered in "dodgy" countries. He kept insisting that he was simply a tourist guide. But when asked to tell us about some of the sites that we were visiting, he was completely ignorant of them all. Anyone we tried to speak to would look at our "guide" nervously before mouthing some platitudes about Assad and then disappearing inside.

Every evening, at supper, he would attempt to get our photographs by pretending that it was for "memories". The moment he raised his camera we would all raise our glasses and obscure our faces. He got very irate. He got particularly upset when we tried to camp in the desert. He said that we couldn't as there were "secret military bases" around. I tried to explain to him the concept of satellite surveillance, and that the US had mapped every square inch of his country, but he looked bemused. We did camp out in the end. Our "guide" gave up and stayed overnight in a hotel in Palmyra after making us promise that we wouldn't move on anywhere without him. If it hadn't been so unpleasant, it would have been comical.

Sadly, we were constantly aware that the people of this beautiful country were constantly facing the attentions of goons like this one. We were fine; we could dip in and out of it. But these assholes ran the country with a vice-like grip. I so hope that very soon they will get a new beginning.