The Road to Damascus

Photograph by Linda JW / The road ahead – Tunisia

Some people meet God on their way to Damascus. I met Joud from Jobar, instead. He was the driver who transported me yesterday from Beirut to my home in Damascus. He charged me a reduced fee of €40 for the whole car.

“I wouldn’t make the same offer for everyone,” said Joud. “Those who have the means to pay, I charge them a lot, but I know what it means to be young and live abroad. People here think you’re sitting on a gold mine over there. They don’t know that you probably wash dishes to pay rent.”

He couldn’t be more accurate.

Joud had a friendly but cautious face. When he first looked at me, it felt as if he was scrutinizing me. It was going to be a long drive across the dark, foggy, and empty Lebanese mountains. Getting into a vehicle – a small and isolated space – at 2AM with a stranger involved the risk of awkwardness. It had been two years since my last visit to Syria. I didn’t know what to expect from him, or anyone at this point. Yet, the Jobar driver seemed to have figured me out right away. He appeared to be a people’s person, who had clearly moved and seen a lot around the world. It took him a couple of minutes to start a conversation that lasted almost the entire 2-hour commute to Damascus.

As it turned out, Joud was quite an interesting guy, too.

I didn’t ask about his age, but he appeared to be in his late thirties. He was a bit older than me, but we seemed to have a few things in common. Just like a normal free spirit, he hated school as a teen and loved computers. His first computer had a Windows95 system (mine was a Windows Me). When he got it, it kept him in his room for three days. He told me that he had no respect for businessmen obsessed with wealth. Yet, he made exceptions for the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and even Mark Zuckerberg. Joud argued that those men have made the world a better place. He didn’t seem to be a great fan of Facebook, though.

“Mark introduced it to link old friends and relatives together,” he said. “We turned it into a marketplace not knowing how to use it.”

He dropped out of school at an early age to work in trade. He still sought practical education, though. He attended classes and workshops at a private computer center in al-Bahsa. There he learned how to maintain and repair computers. When his trade struggled, he opened a computer store in Jobar and did well. He turned to new media to learn how to repair mobile phones after those flooded the market. He did well during the digital boom in Syria.

When the war forced Joud out of his town, he fled to Egypt for a few months. He didn’t like it there but didn’t bother to specify the reasons. He chose to return to Damascus despite the war. He has been on the road between Damascus and Beirut for the past seven years.

“During my teen years, I stole my old sister’s keys to drive her car,” said Joud. “I’ve had a few passions in my life and driving is one of them”

Joud seems to be both, doing well and not so well. On the one hand, he’s a skillful driver with exceptional social skills. This allows him to help people to commute out and into Syria. Many people want to get out of the country for all the obvious reasons. Many others, like me, have no choice but to keep coming back. There’s nothing that we want in this country, yet, we have deep roots here that we’re unable to let go of. This means that people who have similar skills to Joud’s can do well in a bad economy. On the other hand, although Joud is doing better than most Syrians, he isn’t doing as well as he did in Jobar before the war.

“I try not to tell the kids how good our lives used to be,” said the Jobar driver. “I don’t want them to feel that their time is any less.”

Yet, it is. Two years ago, the Dollar made 500 Syrian Liras. Only a week ago, the Dollar was valued at about 800. Today, upon my arrival, it hit the 1,000 mark. Fresh lamb, the most favored meat in the country, costs 12,000 per kilo now. My mother’s pension is 57,000. A diploma-holder’s salary barely crosses 100,000, which isn’t the worst income in the world. It’s the worst that it’s ever been here though.

As I write these numbers, I realize that I’m talking about those who are still relatively comfortable in Damascus. I haven’t had the chance to meet the city’s poor. I haven’t had the chance to meet the superrich and those who’ve benefited from the war, either.

When I first spoke to Joud on the phone, he asked me to buy him ML cigarettes from Lebanon’s duty-free market. As I gave him the goods, he explained that he was looking for cigarettes of decent quality that weren’t as expensive as Marlboro. He made that decision as he opened his last Marlboro pack. “Life was getting too costly,” he said. He needed to spend less on smoking if he were to continue paying for his kid’s private afterschool education.

Joud didn’t complain though and seemed to adapt to whatever life threw at him. To him, wealth is a matter of chance, and people have it as often as they lose it.

“Money doesn’t make people,” he said. “People make money, and when they don’t, it’s not the end of the world.”

Both Joud and I come from a country torn apart in a civil and proxy war. Neither of us knows towards which side the other leans, although we sure know each of us takes sides. Having a long conversation without drifting off to politics is one of the social skills that makes Joud the exceptional driver he is. But he sure is political, and so am I. You can’t be Syrian and not involve yourself in politics – not after all that politics has done to us.

It has been ten years of war, yet, nobody has won. We all seem to be stuck in the same space, together. We need to know how to choose our words carefully. One wrong question could lead to big consequences. We need not to disturb the peace at time of war. This isn’t good for business, as far as Joud is concerned.

People like Joud break the daily awkwardness of meeting strangers by talking so much, but not too much. He makes every client feel that he’s just Joud from Jobar, and not the enemy. He doesn’t want to rip anyone off in this rip-off region. He needs every client to call him again for future services. Joud is the first sight of Syria that one gets to see, and Syria is a scary country. He’s not only responsible for taking you home safely, but also for making a good first impression. He wants you to feel home in his car, otherwise you might not wish to visit Syria again. Joud is an intelligent businessman who understands that client loyalty is all that matters.

The Jobar driver has established a good relationship with the countless Syrian and Lebanese checkpoints, who now give him an easy pass. He is no god, though and eventually can’t control peoples’ behaviors at those checkpoints. As we passed through the last one, the soldiers there politely asked to give one of them a ride to the capital. That was a big ask at three in the morning at time of war.

Those were drafted soldiers who have been stuck in the army for many years. They’re really the biggest victims of this war. They’re the ones who suffer the most, die the most, and are blamed the most. When a few of them make mistakes, they’re all feared and suspected by society – and the world. No matter how many of them show kindness, it often goes unappreciated. I wonder how long it will take the world before it considers conscription as a crime against humanity; because it definitely is.

How could we morally justify forcing some people to fight and die for other people? We draft the poor because the rich are unwilling to fight for their entitlements.

I have heard countless stories about soldiers asking for rides only to kidnap the drivers. Joud didn’t want to turn down the drafted soldiers at the checkpoint. He must pass by them every day. He also didn’t seem to be fond of the idea of ending up with that soldier alone in his car either. Instead of taking him where he wanted, Joud offered the soldier a ride to the closest point possible to his destination. The solider seemed to be grateful for the offer.

Only Joud and I knew that we took a D-tour, driving further east into Damascus and skipping my neighborhood. That gave Joud an excuse to drop the soldier at one point and tell him that we must take a U-turn. We dropped him in the city within a 20-minute walk from his destination. The soldier was headed for the national bus station, from which he had to travel to al-Bukamal, near the Iraqi border.

Everyone won for the night.

When I woke up this morning, I realized that home no longer felt like home. I started questioning why I came. You must be insane on one level or another to travel to Syria. The war is over in Damascus, but the postwar is scarier. Its streets are packed with people, but they look like tortured souls. I don’t know how long it’s going to take for this city to recover from its misery and open its arms again. I suspect things must get a lot worse before they start to get better.

Perhaps one day Damascus will be like Sarajevo, scarred but warm. Maybe someday it will be possible for all of us to comfortably visit this old lady. Yet, if you’re impatient and wish to be here right now, you should not worry much about getting physically harmed. The violence has ended in and near Damascus. Your soul would suffer, though, especially if you knew how this city used to be ten years ago – or fifty years ago.

If you decide to visit Damascus and need a reliable driver, perhaps you should hire Joud. Let me know if you need his contact details.

Published by Rou Mani

Abdo Roumani holds a Licence of Letters in English literature from Damascus University.

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