The Syrian Desert – end of August 2004

Homs to Palmyra:
We traveled the 200 km. between Aleppo and Homs by bus because we were way behind schedule after 2 1/2 weeks in Aleppo with my neck injury. Ali and Abdul-Hamid accompanied us to the bus station, where once again the police gave them trouble, wanting to know why they were talking to tourists. We suspect, although he wouldn’t tell us, that Abdul bribed the bus driver to let us take the bikes on the bus, even though we had already paid for it.

About sundown, we passed a group of people who waved to us and called us over to talk. There were so many people that I thought it was an outdoor cafe. Turns out it was a house, with just one family! Only ten children still lived at home, but there were 20 children – from only one wife! The men here are very proud of the number of children they have, their weight, and sometimes their number of wives! One neighbor bragged about the fact that he weighed more than Stephane and also about the fact that he had two wives and many children. Talk about population explosion! Almost 50% of all people in Syria are under the age of 14.

We ate dinner on the patio, on mattresses lining the walls, from a silver platter on the ground. The father, a big jolly man with a black robe and white skullcap, prayed in the corner when it came time. Eight daughters sat around me, all colorfully dressed in long robes and scarves. Even the ten-year old had her head covered. The colorful robes were a wonderful change from the austere black of Aleppo. When the children approached the father, they kissed his hand. And when the men called, the women jumped.

We slept in a room lined with mattresses on each wall, cushions lying around in piles for the men to lean their elbows on as they lounged. We breakfasted the next morning on juicy melon with the flies.

This was only about 20 km. from Homs, and the roads and fields were depressingly littered with trash. Thankfully, as we distanced ourselves form the city, we distanced ourselves from the trash as well.

First, we passed gently sloping hills and field upon fields of almond and olive trees. Then the desert started and we passed a couple of nomadic Bedouins in long white robes and red-checkered scarves minding their sheep. One man stopped us to ask for water, and he tried on Stephane’s hat and sunglasses, happy as a child. Then we saw a man walking towards us across the desert sand, machine gun slung across his back. I took off.

We spent several days in the desert oasis of Palmyra, visiting the spectacular ruins of the ancient city, riding on camels, partying with the local Bedouins, and sipping on camel milk. Those experiences are described in the Journal section entitled “Desert Oasis, Camels, and Bedouin Parties.”

The desert from Palmyra north to Turkey:
We left Palmyra in the evening, at sundown, because at temperatures of 105-110 F, it was just too hot to move during the daytime. I wasn’t even scared about biking on this road at nighttime. Only five months old, it was in excellent condition, with a wide shoulder, little traffic, and a full moon to light our way (no need even for the headlamps!). We slept like babies in the cool night air of the desert underneath a blanket of stars.

We spent eleven days in the Syrian desert – four days in Palmyra and seven days biking. The average temperature was between 40-45 C (105-113 F); Palmyra is the hottest part of Syria. The remarkable thing about the desert is the temperature and the wind. The wind never dies, and it is ferocious in the morning until early afternoon and again at nighttime, as the earth either heats up or cools down. It was with us for the first two days, but regrettably against us for the last five. The wind blew dust and dirt all around us and stung the eyes.

Biking through the Desert:
The desert had very few people. The villages were small (although more people lived in the houses than you might imagine, considering that the average family has about 15 children). Many of the villages had not only houses, but also tents for the semi-nomadic Bedouins. The houses generally were made of mud and clay earth bricks, and roofs were flat (it doesn’t rain much here), and the windows tiny and square. The houses were surprisingly cool. You could pass a village that looked deserted, and find that it was quite full – everyone was hiding inside from the sun. The inside rooms were often laid out as they were in Turkey: mattresses and pillows lining the walls, which served as seats during the daytime and beds at night. Meals were served on a large platter directly on the floor, while the family gathered around the same bowl. Utensils rarely were served; meat, cheese, vegetables, and even yogurt were picked up by a piece of bread resembling pita. A lace curtain covered the shelves that held the dishes, presumably to protect against the dust of the desert, which the wind blew in.

A common sight of the desert was men dressed in long white robes and red checkered headscarves, driving their motorbikes, robe pulled up over their bare knees, or piled four or five – or a dozen! – at a time into a pick-up truck. The women wore long dresses or skirts and covered their hair in scarves, but their dresses were much more lively and colorful than the black of Aleppo, which made me very happy.

There was not much in the desert. Not many people, very little traffic, very little vegetation. Mostly there was just the hot sun (impossible to find shade), the strong wind, peace and calm, and at night, a million stars and the bright moon. Every once in a while, we passed some tents, camels, a couple of donkeys, and herds of sheep – often tended by children as young as six or seven years old.

In terms of the landscape, it could change quickly. The only constant was that we seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Just after Palmyra, it was very flat. Everything was the tan color of sand – the rocks, the tents, the buildings, the lizards, the spiders, the small birds which flitted, not flew, across the road. As we reached the town of As Sikhneh, where the road turns north, the sand became a pinkish-orangish-reddish color. Then we passed some rock formations reminiscent of Cappadocia. Whereas there had been small desert bushes, the landscape changed again and there were no more bushes, no more grass. Then, there were mountains. Afterwards, some tiny villages that were so small that there was no school, no tea salon, no market, no jobs – only a few donkeys and a few people hiding from the sun.

As we neared the Euphrates River, we stumbled unexpectedly across the ruins of Ar Rasafeh, an impressive site of hundreds of arched hallways and domes, and a newly excavated hall that most likely was a grand reception hall. The ruins were enormous and the most impressive thing was that every stone of every wall, every floor, every ceiling, was made out of white quartz. Because of the desert winds, the structure was covered in sand over time. Even now, if you wipe away the sand on the stones, you will find gleaming white quartz underneath.

As we neared Ar-Raqqa and the border, we passed some irrigated fields. The villages became more numerous. We crossed the Euphrates River in Ar-Raqqa the day before leaving Syria. We were tempted to join the boys and men in swimming, but only men swim in Syria. It was in the city, anyway, and it was here that the desert ended.

The People:
We were happy when people called us over to stop for tea or lunch, as it not only was a chance to rest and to talk to people, but was also a welcome break from the sun.

The first people we lunched with were Abdul, Ahmed, and Nour, workers at a petrol excavation plant near Palmyra. Each of the 400 workers worked a 10-day shift; they slept in small dorm rooms on-site while they worked. We were invited to have lunch with Ahmed and his roommate, and then to take a nap afterwards. The walls of his room were completely bare except for three photos of the president (the exact same photo) and two of the leader of Hezbollah. Ahmed talked about how great Hezbollah was. In addition, the inside door of his cabinet was plastered with magazine clip-outs of girls.

We passed the night in As Sikhneh, escorted there by a man who had asked us to dinner. When we arrived, I thought that we had arrived at a community center – there were dozens of women and children sitting on the floor in what was a large, partially closed-in courtyard. But it was the house of just one family! The grandparents had had twenty children (one wife only!) and three of their sons had brought wives home and had their children there. Rooms, such as the kitchen, the bedrooms, and the room to pray, lined the central court on two floors.

When children marry, the sons stay with the parents while the daughters leave to go live at their new husbands’ homes. The girls generally marry at a very young age – 15 or 16 – while the boys marry later. It must be difficult for young girls not only to leave their own home so young, but even more so to go to their husband’s home and integrate into a new family, where you’re expected to do the husband’s bidding, and the brothers’, uncles’, father’s, and mother’s. When someone speaks, the young wife jumps.

The young girls in this area of the world seem to like visitors. Always, the young daughters, even teenagers, hold my hand, sit on my lap, play with my hair, and gather all around….

Lunch the next day was with a man who studied in Moscow to be a dentist, but who works in tomato fields. There is a problem with the tomato crop this year – “because of water, George Bush, I don’t know…”

I spent time in the back room with the women and children while Stephane stayed in the front room with the men. As always, the conversation revolved around children. In other countries, the questions generally went in this order: “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” “What is your name?” Here, it changed to: “Where are you from?” Are you married?” Do you have children?” “Why not?” “Babies are good.”

Our last evening with the Arabs was spent with Ahmed and one of his two families (he had two wives, two families of ten children each, and two houses, one located behind the other on the same property). Everyone slept outside on the porch. We had breakfast at the other family’s house the next morning. It was kind of strange moving between the two families like that. Judging by the ages of the wives and children, Ahmed had most likely acquired a second wife after his first wife was no longer able to have children. He moved from one house to another, the second wife becoming more important, as it was she who was still able to bear children.

Our last day in the desert before the Turkish border, we went from Arab households to Kurdish ones. We watched Kurdish TV: music, news in English, Bush’s speech for the last night of the Republican convention in NYC. The Kurds were Bush fans, happy that there is a Kurdish Federation in Iraq since Saddam is gone. “The Arabs are terrorists, extremists, rebels,” they repeated. “Bush is good.”

It was our last day in Syria and we crossed the border the next day to spend one last week in Turkey before heading into Iran.