‘You’re all fucking useless. You’re about as useful as marzipan dildoes’.
A backward, jalabiyya-filled city on the Iraqi border is probably one of the more appealing places to crack out some of the finest Malcolm Tucker quotes when talking to policemen.
So Roberto and I went to Deir az-Zur last week, taking the bus from Sham across the breadth of the country through the desert. Deir is a strange place. Considered foreigners in Syria but apparently not in Iraq, the inhabitants feel much more in common with Iraq than their current occupier. This is understandable, because after the end of the mandate system the governorate of Deir was unnaturally separated from what is now the rest of Iraq. Crazy, incomprehensible Iraqi dialect predominates everywhere – about the only word of which I understand is ‘zein’ (wahahaha…) – and the place seems generally very alien, even though I’ve become at least reasonably accustomed to the grit of west Syrian towns like an-Nibik or whatever. This is just another facet of how Syria – like many Arab nations – is such an artificial construct of very different cultures, races an lifestyles. Iraqis, eh?
Anyway. ‘Hasanan, so this is Deir az-Zur,’ I concluded as we cruised in through filthy streets past mountains of litter. Into the bus station and, as usual, off we go to have our passports not-so-thoroughly checked to make sure we’re not spies etc. Few minutes later and in comes the bus conductor with our bags. ‘Oh mahalan, I forgot my gilet on the luggage rack’. Back onto the bus and… pow. It’s gone.
Honestly, why me. First I’m mugged in Bab Tuma, then some desert sheeshleek sillyperson takes my bodywarmer with camera, hipflask, moisturiser (all the essentials). Back to the passport policeman for an insurance report (ahh, this is familiar…), he couldn’t help us much, even less than when I had my phone stolen in Damascus. ‘bluhbluhbluh, bluh bluh bluh, bluh bluh bluhBLUHHHH… blubluuuuubluh bluh. ::pause:: Mmm… zein haad?’ in thick Iraqi was about all he could muster.
Onwards and downwards to the main police station just down the road. In we went to a disgusting common area/office/barracks for rank and file policemen which was probably used as a torture chamber in Mufasa’s time, and about a dozen right Iraqis confronted us. If not for the same Syrian police uniform, you’d have thought they were Punjabis by their complexions, but soon you’d realise they were Iraqis – or, in this case, close but no RPG in hand – by the total gobbledegook they were chatting. One man with the thickest, bushiest, blackest mustache I have ever seen stood there gawping at probably the first set of blond hair and blue eyes he’d seen in the flesh, not thinking during the course of two hours’ ridiculous back and forth pointless talking to go to the toilet just round the corner and wash his hands which were completely covered in motor oil. Well mate, kamaa tureed.
The next day I went to Dura Europos, about 75km southeast toward al-Bukamal (see next entry, coming soon).
That evening Roberto and I went on a bit of a quest to find a restaurant that sold alcohol. We were close to giving up at one point (I switched to English in desperation, ‘this whole town’s fucking jaaf, mate!’), and in that same desperation went into the engineers’ club restaurant and asked in low voices if they knew anywhere we could have a wee tipple. Eventually we found a place and all was well.
What happened afterwards will be etched into my memory for a while. We went to find the only place openly functioning as a pub in the whole city, the one word of English outside reading ‘Welekomming!’ (it later emerged that Lonely Planet’s advice is ‘Solo women should avoid’. Cracking). In we went, and after exchanging numerous masaa al-khayrs managed to find a table in the back. We gazed around. Tastelessly decorated in peeling cyan paint all the way to the high ceiling with vaguely-matching plastic chairs and tables and filled with frightening-looking locals and a couple of (very) disillusioned Saudis, this was really not the same thing as your usual pint of Tartan Special in the Gartocher. One man sat in the corner in his checked jalabiyya, koofiyya and tacky bodywarmer drinking straight gin from the bottle. Apparently he’d been doing there all day. Good for him. Another man, a Saudi!, had the same idea, and had made on his table a pyramid of lager cans nearly half the height again.
Then there was the two of us. We started on the beer, passing up the local lager for some infinitely less bad Egyptian stuff. It rolled on. A nearby gentleman claimed to have fought in the first Gulf War on the side of the baddies. Good for him. It rolled on a bit more, and a middle-aged man whose face looked more like sixty-five came and sat down with us, smacking his hand down on the table and shouting rra’! in usual hefty Iraqi, by which he meant ”araQ. A bottle quickly arrived, and he poured a half glass, same again water, and chugged it. Then he did another one. And another. Good for him. He offered the same to Roberto, who picked it up gingerly, smelt it with a look of abject terror, and then took the teeniest tiniest sip. It was passed round to me, and I reckoned there were worse ways to go, so polished off the glass. Hefty. It took about five minutes before the walls started closing in on me, five more and I thought it would be a great idea to tell another patron in a loud voice that the Palestinians do have a voice, but they use it for terrorism. Fortunately for me the place erupted with laughter rather than gunfire, and it turned out that for these chaps the whole issue about Disneyland was more of a joke than a point of anger. Well. There you go.