Dom Joly: Magnificent Syria deserves leaders to match

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to adapt and survive

Nigel Edwards
 

Letter from the Sub-Editor: Canada is seen as a peaceful nation, but violent crime isn’t as rare as you might think

Jeffrey Simpson
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?