Damascus and Beirut
01.01.1965 - 03.01.1965
Today we had another low point of the trip, brought on by the fact that it was raining heavily most of the day. We got a ride in a truck to the Deraa turnoff, miles from anywhere, but then stood in the pouring rain for two and a half hours, waiting for a lift that never came. Finally a taxi stopped, and we took it the fifty miles to the Jordanian/Syrian border post at some place or other - I couldn’t give a damn what the name of it was (Ramtha) - then I paid a dollar to get from there to Damascus via Deraa. In Damascus we looked up the Knowles (friends of the Doughtys), a New Zealand U.N. family, who were having a dinner party, so we ended up at the local Youth Hostel, which was comfortable, our first, and bloody well like a boarding school, with all its rules and regulations. The only compensation for the wet, lousy, stinking, miserable New Year's Day we had was the scenery from Deraa to Damascus. I saw some of the best landscapes I have ever seen in my life. Really strong and superb colours, dynamic cloud formations and sunset, hazy snow-capped mountains and undulating foothills with bare trees - really powerful scenery. Did not see any desert, though that is what I had expected. The change between Jordan and Syria is immediate and complete. None of the Holy Land look. I think it is due to all the buildings on the Syrian side being in black basalt, while those on the Jordanian side are in white limestone. Had an awful dinner, half of which I chucked away. It was a local bread and jam. Did not see much of Damascus today, but first impression was of a similarity to Bombay in the type of buildings. Cleaner of course.
Today, in contrast to yesterday, was a very good day. We took a taxi round to the Knowles and spent the whole day with Mrs. Knowles, her daughter and friends. This included a visit to the Souk, the bazaar, which was one of the best I have seen, though one of the more confusing and crowded as well, particularly in the Street Called Straight, the main section. We both bought silver puzzle rings. We also had a quick glance at a few mosques and visited St. Paul’s Window, in part of the old city wall, the traditional spot of Paul’s escape from the city by being lowered in a basket.
On the way back to their flat we saw a body in the street, apparently the victim of a car accident, though it was hard to tell. Mrs. Knowles generously gave us breakfast, lunch and dinner, assorted cups of coffee and tea, drink, chocolates and cigarettes (5 tins of B & H), but could not accommodate us unfortunately, so we remain in the Youth Hostel. Just before we left the Knowles’ home tonight, an American woman friend of theirs from the Deep South made some kind of slip which I picked up. Major Knowles had been diplomatically evasive all evening about Syrian politics, but from what I gather from the slip, there has been shooting in Damascus in recent days. We have certainly noticed the large number of military and police in the streets. Apparently it is some sort of mild uprising among a few groups over the nationalization of industry, which was announced as starting today. It is only a mild flare-up, but we understand that a big one can be expected any day now. Ramadan, the Moslem month of fasting begins tomorrow, so that probably won't help the situation.
With only three day transit visas for Syria, everything was a bit rushed. Had breakfast with the Williams, an Australian U.N. family, and on leaving they gave us a large bottle of whisky each and a bag of sandwiches for lunch. Then we set off for Beirut. Mrs. Knowles drove us to the border, through rocky country, and from there we obtained a lift into Beirut with an official from the Bulgarian Embassy in Damascus. He was a very friendly chap. The countryside in Lebanon changed immediately. We crossed over a high mountain range, which showed signs of progressive cultivation, passed through some very prosperous looking summer resort areas, and then laid eyes for the first time on the ‘Blue Mediterranean’. Thousands of feet below us, on an area of land jutting out from the coastal strip between the sea and the mountains, was a big modern city, Beirut. My first impression, as we descended towards it, was how fast and dangerous the traffic was, even worse than Tehran. It is not so big commercially, but there are no suburbs in the ordinary sense, and most of the population live in urban apartment buildings, many of which are quite modern, especially on the outer fringes of the city. The boulevard along the beachfront is lined with expensive hotels and restaurants, but the inner city is a letdown. The streets there are extremely narrow, and there seem to be no large public spaces. Everything seems crammed and oppressive. The traffic is shocking. The city is one in transition between old and new, but it is not an orderly passage, and seems messy. They have not tried to give new life to the old buildings, which could give the city so much character, which I think it lacks. It is as expensive as Tehran, and there are as many modern shops and offices, but I think Tehran has it all over Beirut, except that the latter has the sea. It is a pleasant enough city though.