On the Third Night - Syria, a Country Where You Didn't Talk Politics - Part III
Updated: Apr 25, 2021
Latakia: Sea, Sun, Sand and Soviet Freighters - Every Picture Tells a Story [Don't it?] 22
Photo: Alas, I can find no prints today from Latakia, so please be content with this image of a Damascus Dandy* posing by his classic automobile - I presume it is of French origin, so hopefully our loyal Gallic readers may be able to identify the model. (On second thoughts, maybe this is a Mercedes Benz or Daimler?)
*I should confess, I have no evidence of the man's personality in reality.
Update to caption - Hubert Warsmann writes to say: So your car is a Citroën Traction Avant, likely a modèle 11 normal, but one would need a better view to be sure of the exact model. It has been modified/embellished: the radiator grid is not original, neither is the radiator cap or the bumper. I can’t really place any of these. The radiator grid has a Mercedes feel but it is missing the horizontal slats and vertical separator. It could also be a Chenard et Walker (which used an eagle mascot too) but these usually had the brand on them. Many thanks, Hubert
Syria's Mediterranean Coast
(Continued from the post of April 13th)
I took a train from Aleppo to Latakia, Syria's main port, which is located almost in the top right hand corner of the Meditteranean (though the corner itself is Turkish territory, somewhat to Syria's chagrin). As I remember, from the train lumbering along, much of the terrain was quite mountainous. We had the mandatory ID check by an armed security squad at least once on the way.
It's interesting the effect that the sea has on a location and its people. Latakia definitely felt 'lighter' than inland Syria, with a touch of Greece about it, helped in part by a minority population of Orthodox Christians and their churches. Yet the sea alone brings about another dimension to life, something to do with fun, travel and adventure.
In Latakia, this feeling was palpable, despite the fact that the city was, and is, the home base of the ruling Assad family and his Alawite brethren of the breakaway Shiite Islamic faith. Portraits and posters of President Hafez al-Assad seemed to adorn every home and housing block here. Perhaps, for the minority Alawites, the professed love of the president-dictator was genuine, saving them from the fear, real or imagined, of persecution by the Sunni majority.
The most important photographic subject in the city was the port, just the kind of photo that would sell to the likes of the FT and Economist or, indeed, any serious publication on the Middle East. In theory, there appeared no barrier to taking such images; most of the tourist brochures, for example, had pictures of the port as if it were a normal, every day piece of infrastructure.
But this was Syria, and a quick recce of the harbour revealed that of the half dozen freighters tied up, all but one flew the hammer and sickle. Syria's principal supplier of weapons was the Soviet Union, and even if these boats were carrying non-lethal, commercial cargoes, turning up at the docks festooned with cameras and lenses felt like the fast track route to a quick meeting with the local Mukhābarāt commander - and one with no tea and biscuits.
So on the morning that I walked towards the docks in the hope of pictures, I had my photo gear carefully placed in my WW1 Red Cross haversack, which I wore back-to-front on my chest, an arrangement that allowed fairly quick access to the cameras – and gave some protection against thieves in crowds.
I soon found a rather dilapidated, seemingly deserted area, with what looked like a series of derelict railway arches between me and the port, while behind me was an equally derelict warehouse. The arches, I reasoned, were the perfect place to photograph the harbour, providing cover from any suspicious eyes that might appear.
Making a quick decision, I darted into one of the arches and got a camera out, snapping a wide-angle black and white shot of the harbour, then winding on, only to find the camera jammed - it was the end of the film. I changed to the colour slide camera and - it had to be my luck, because this rarely happened – found that too jammed at the end of the cassette.
Now changing films would take time, and I didn't feel good about doing that underneath the arch, even if I was largely hidden from any passing pedestrians. On impulse, I replaced the cameras in the haversack and began to move out. Except at that point a sixth sense told me to undo my trouser zip, and pull it up as I came out into the open, as if I'd been having a pee.
And as I emerged from the arch, dutifully zipping up, I noticed, in the derelict warehouse opposite, a man looking straight at me from a first-floor window.
Trying to appear both unsurprised and unflustered, I sauntered away to find a secure place to renew films.
Was I being watched? I didn't know, but it was very strange to see the fellow in the seemingly abandoned warehouse.
You might understand that after this incident, I gave up my original idea of returning to the railway arches for a repeat attempt at photography. It might have worked once, but feigning nature's needs there was unlikely to allay an observer's suspicions a second time.
I'm not sure when, perhaps even later that same day, a second strange, though seemingly entirely unrelated incident, occurred in Latakia.
But that story will have to wait until next week.
Photo: I thought this official grafitti, found in Homs, central Syria, might be swearing eternal allegiance to the Palestinian cause or some such. In fact, al-Hakan, our Aleppo-born reader, says: I can't tell for sure because part of the text is missing. It reads "...[pledge to] Hafez al-Assad to be... struggle. Baath's Youth, Assad's Youth". The logo is that of the one and only youth organization allowed to operate in schools & forced upon students, "R. Y. U": Revolution's Youth Union (the youth wing of the Baath Party).
Update: Hakam has already emailed me over the story above. He wrote:
Beautiful story with the port in Latakia! I remember when you told it to us in Budapest, before the pandemic. Yeah, that fear is familiar. It wasn't uncommon to be shooed away by an army conscript with a kalashnikov here or there, for walking too close to some military or "sensitive" area, or for simply attempting to walk past the home of some big official - military or civilian. There are signs in Syria and much of the militarized Arab world (I'm sure in other regions too), that read something to the meaning of: "Military area. Do not approach. Photography prohibited."
With the Syrian uprising, the famously witty people of the "local coordination committee" (LCC) of the town of Kafranbel made a caricature which is basically the map of Syria, written all over it: "Military area. Do not approach. Photography prohibited." (30 September 2011): https://www.facebook.com/995398063998580/photos/a.996414897230230/1265876803617370/?type=3&theater
(See update 2, following this.)
I think that captures how we felt growing up in Syria, even though military/mukhabarat checkpoints on main roads and connections within the country virtually disappeared in the 1990s and 2000s. Let's not get into militarization and checkpoint in Syria since 2011, because then we'd have to talk about the tens of thousands of people who have been forcibly disappeared at regime checkpoints. Some of them showed up in Aleppo's Queiq river in 2013, but the whereabouts of many remains unknown.
Looking forward to reading Latakia part II in the next update! Update 2
I had never heard of Kafranbel (hardly suprising, it's a small town south of Idlib, as far as I can make out) so I asked Hakam about it, and the area of NW Syria, under Idlib, if it was well known for it's wit, it seems.
Oh, forgot to answer your question about NW Syria and wit. I mean people in Idlib Province are known for being very practical. For instance, although they had their share of the regime's oppression in the 1980s, they continued to join the police and other state institutions. As for Kafranbel in specific, their fame came particularly with the revolution. Their weekly protest banners - sometimes in English - were something to look forward to. They had a dedicated Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/kafrnbl
Sadly, the regime took the town about a year ago and virtually all its remaining residents became displaced, primarily in other parts of Idlib.