Matthew McNaught | Syria Comment | June 2013 | 18 minutes (4,615 words)
Matthew McNaught taught English in Syria between 2007 and 2009. He now works in mental health and sometimes writes essays and stories. This piece first appeared in Syria Comment, and our thanks to McNaught for allowing us to republish it here.
Here is a Syrian microbus, more commonly known as the servees or micro.
As you can see, it doesn’t look anything special. A white box on four wheels, about ten seats, a sliding door on the side, a sign on the roof with the route written in large letters. But three years after leaving Damascus, the servees is often on my mind.
I went to Damascus at the start of 2007 with a plan to study Arabic for a year, The city won me over, and I decided to stay on. I worked there as an English teacher until the end of 2009.
Some days, I still have pangs of nostalgia for the servees. When I am waiting at the bus stop on a wet Southampton morning, for instance, watching the back of the bus I’ve just missed as it disappears around the corner. When I look at the timetable and see I have thirty minutes till the next one. This is the kind of time when I indulge myself: I imagine for a moment a battered white servees sailing down the street towards me. I see myself flagging it down, pulling open the clunking slide door with a mumbled salaamu ‘alaykum, and riding the micro again.
Riding the micro is one of the most efficient ways I have known of getting around a city. It came regularly, responding to demand at busy times but also running late into the night. You could flag one down wherever you were, and you could get off wherever you wanted. They drove fast, weaving through traffic at bum-clenching speed. They were also absurdly cheap. When I first arrived, you could ride the servees five times for the price of a falafel sandwich. Sometime in 2009, the fare doubled, but it remained so cheap that even regular rides failed to make the slightest dent on my wallet. But it was not just the practical advantages that made me love the servees. It had less tangible charms.
Riding the servees was not easy for beginners. You first had to be initiated into its mysterious ways. I met the first hurdle when I discovered, to my surprise, that there were no maps of the different routes. There were no timetables, no central ticket offices. There was nothing but the minibuses themselves, snaking and swerving through busy streets, each heading in a winding line towards the final destination painted on the sign on its roof. The routes seemed to have always been there, as if they had emerged organically, like sheep-tracks or the paths of migratory birds. It seemed that every Damascene carried a microbus map in their head, like the knowledge of a London cabbie. But as a foreigner, I had to construct my own map, one line at a time.
In the beginning, my mental map of Damascus was a stubby little thing. It was a Lonely Planet Damascus, a wandering line from the ancient souqs of Old Damascus to the hotels and banks of the modern city centre, punctuated by famous ice-cream parlours, cheap restaurants and historic bathhouses. It was enchanting, but I wanted to see more. When I figured out how to navigate the servees lines, the larger city began to open out in front of me.
My servees apprenticeship began outside Bab Sharqi, the eastern gate of the old city. The first servees I took was the Jobar-Mezze line, which took me through the heart of the modern city to my Arabic classes at Damascus University. I would stand at the edge of the pavement, beneath the ancient stone tower. Nancy Ajram, the botox-enhanced Lebanese pop star, towered over me on a giant billboard across the road, seductively enjoying an ice cold Coca-Cola. The main road roared with several lanes of traffic that skirted around the Old City walls. The bend in the road gave me about 5 seconds to identify the right servees after it came speeding around the corner.
This was, I discovered, an excellent exercise in speed reading. As a beginner, you don’t read Arabic, you decipher it, picking apart each word letter by letter, brain straining and lips moving. But when the word is hurtling towards you on four wheels, you do not have that luxury. You have to be primed, ready for its shape; the swooping arms of the waw, raa and zaa, the dotted cap of the taa marbuta. With time, the names of the various servees routes came to occupy a special place in my brain, their shapes burned into my memory as some of the first Arabic words that I read as a native speaker reads—Ghouta, Qaboun, Midan-Sheikh, Duma, Barzeh, Harasta, Yarmouk, Jobar-Mezze.
For its passengers, the servees was simply a convenient way of getting from A to B. But it was also, inadvertently at least, a kind of meeting place. A place where Syrians of all ages and backgrounds came together for a moment, in an awkward shuffle of elbows and knees, before heading off their separate ways.
For this reason, riding the servees was an education for a foreigner like me. It seemed like all Syria was there. There would be manual workers in dusty work clothes alongside civil servants with shirts and briefcases. Chattering college girls, some in grey overcoats and tight white hijabs, others in jeans with their hair down. Old men in thaubs counting on prayer chains, and large housewives in black abayas with hijabs pinned above the chin; teardrop frames for pale faces.
The seats of the servees would soon fill up, but it seemed that a sacred rule of servees drivers was that there was always room for one more. As passengers, it was up to us to find imaginative ways of tessellating. It was times like this that reminded me that the Turkish name for the servees was ‘dolmuş’, meaning ‘stuffed’. Squatting awkwardly on the slippery hump above the back wheel, tightly pressed between one man’s legs and another man’s bottom, it was hard to dispel the feeling that we were the meaty stuffing in a tightly-packed aubergine.
But on other days, I would be lucky enough to find my favourite spot- the window seat directly behind the driver. Here, I could lean my head sleepily against the window and stretch my legs (or at least, not have them jammed up against my chin). If I was lucky, I would get to listen to the driver telling some anecdote to the passenger in the front seat. I rarely understood much, but I enjoyed the familiar phrases that would pepper the stories: I swear to God. By the prophet. You’ve gotta be joking. I’m serious, man.
On an English bus, the passenger is a passive creature. The rules are simple: you pay your fare, you sit and you mind your own business. But riding the servees felt like joining a fleeting community.
Despite the chaos and the bustle, the servees was often a place of small kindnesses and civility. Men would give up their seats for women and the elderly. People would help the frailer passengers on and off. And there were rules pertaining to specific places in the servees. The person sitting nearest the door, for instance, would make sure that it was properly shut after every stop. And the one place I learned to avoid was the aisle seat behind the driver.
The first time I sat there, I was shocked to find myself bombarded with coins and notes from other passengers. I felt a rising panic as a woman pressed a 25 lira piece into my hand, saying ‘two fives’. A man then handed me a 50 lira note and a 5 lira piece, muttering ‘three fives and a five’. I realised that the passenger sitting there had the job of receiving fares from passengers, handing them over to the driver and making sure everyone got the right change passed back. I was up for language challenges, but a maths problem and a language problem wrapped up in one was more than my poor brain could take. A kind woman next to me noticed my bewilderment and sorted out the mess, and I made a mental note to never sit in that seat again.
Drivers were remarkably relaxed about when you paid the fare, as long as it reached them before you arrived at your destination. However, when I rode the service with Syrian friends, I soon learned that they would go to great lengths to stop me from paying my own fare. This appeared to be a common Syrian trait; I once saw two elderly ladies on a servees getting into a physical altercation over who paid. I let my friends win this battle a few times, but soon I learned to be as ruthless as them. I would prepare the change for both of us in the palm of my hand before the servees arrived, ready to make a lunge for the driver on the way to our seat.
Learning the language of the servees was also essential. As there were no fixed stops, you had to shout to the driver when you wanted to get off, something that initially made me very anxious. The first time I tried, I half-shouted to the driver from the back seat in a formal phrase straight from my Modern Standard Arabic textbook: ‘uriidu an anzil hunaa!‘ When he didn’t respond, I repeated myself, shouting louder each time until he eventually pulled over. For some reason, this display prompted many stifled giggles in my fellow passengers. I only realised the reason for this when a Syrian friend told me that it was roughly comparable to yelling ‘VERILY, I WISH TO ALIGHT!’ on an English bus. After this, I quickly learned how to do it like a Damascene, with the standard phrase: ‘al yamiin!’ meaning ‘on the right!’.
But one day as I was riding the servees, I heard a man say something slightly different to the normal phrase. He was a big man, thick-set and stubbled, and he crouched in the aisle. When we approached his stop, he shouted ‘nezzilni, bullah!‘. It meant, literally, ‘let me off, by God’. There was nothing particularly unusual about the words in themselves, but there was something about the phrase that pleased me in some indefinable way. It might have been his accent, the gruff bark and falling intonation of a Damascene working man. It might have been the assertiveness of it, or its casual grandeur, invoking the name of God in order to get off a minibus. But to me, it said: here’s a man who knows exactly where he’s going, and exactly where he’s getting off.
And so I adopted this phrase. The first few times, it came out in a timid adolescent croak, and attracted some odd looks. But with time and practice, I liked to think, it developed into something approximating that man’s gravel tones.
Once I had overcome these minor obstacles, I couldn’t help feeling a small buzz of mastery from riding the micro. I flagged them down with confidence and climbed on with a spring in my step. I would pity my ex-pat friends who relied on taxis. After a while, I even dared to take the accountant’s seat behind the driver. And when we approached my destination, I would bellow “let me off, by God!” and the driver would pull to the edge of the road without so much as a backwards glance.
I came to enjoy the variety between the micros. Some micros were tatty, all rusted metal and threadbare upholstery. A few were fitted out with plush interiors, multicoloured lights and thumping sound systems. Some had names written on the back window: princess, beautiful, light of my life. On some, we listened to the recitation of the Quran, the sonorous voice drenched in holy reverb. On others, it was rural debke music, with its abrasive pounding beats and the manic electric organ that sounded like an overdriven Casiotone with extra black keys.
With time, my microbus map grew to become a tangle of intersecting lines that joined up different parts of the city that I knew. The Mezze Autostrad line took me to my friend Jawad’s place, where we would sit on the balcony of his high rise flat, drinking tea and eating lentil and rice mujaddara discussing the confounding mysteries of Arabic grammar and the opposite sex. The Yarmouk line took me to the home of my Arabic teacher, Mazin, whose legendary parties would go on into the early hours. The Jeramana line took me to the hole-in-the-wall Iraqi bakery where I got my supplies of the pitta-like samoon and the crispy tanoori flat-bread, and I would ride the Midan line to some of the oldest and best restaurants in Damascus, famous for their grilled meats and fuul beans.
The Rukneddine line took me to one of my favourite places, where the houses climbed steeply up the rocky slopes of Mount Qassioun. I would ascend the steps past teetering buildings to the path that led to an ancient shrine that looked out over Damascus. Heading up in the early evening, I would watch the sun set as the call to prayer from a hundred mosques hung over the city like a fog.
The micro lines showed me a city of contrast; from wide tree-lined streets to densely built-up working class neighbourhoods. They showed me a city of diversity; from conservative Muslim areas to places rich in minorities; Druze, Ismaelis, Christians and Mandeans from Iraq.
I noticed that you could not get everywhere on the micro; there were blackspots. No servees went to the complex of expensive restaurants off the airport road or the swimming pools and leisure centres on the road to Beirut. They were places for people with cars. And it was unusual to see a servees in the high-class neighbourhoods of Maliki and Abu Roumaneh, with their jewellers, designer shops and luxury apartments with armed guards. Micros skirted around the edges and along the main thoroughfares, but rarely ventured inside.
When friends came to visit, I would insist on getting the servees rather than the taxi. ‘I’ll show them the real Damascus’, I would think to myself, and proudly take them to places outside of the usual tourist trail. It took me almost three years to feel like I really knew Damascus. But in the three years since I left, I have begun to realise how much was missing from my map.
The last servees that I saw was on the news. It was torn open like a tin can. There was a bomb near the President Bridge, one of the main microbus hubs in the centre of town. The servees had been gutted by flames and its seats were wrenched apart by the blast. There were shoes scattered on the concrete outside.
Early on in the uprising, news of every bombing, massacre and military assault left me with a lingering knot of dread and sadness. But there came a point where the images of destruction began to lose their power. They hit my visual cortex with a numb familiarity, just one more item on the news parade: here is shiny-faced Cameron and his hand gestures. Here is George Clooney on a red carpet. And from Syria: shrouded bodies, weeping mothers, and the ragged skylines of ruined streets. The images were horrific in a distant way, but somehow, the scale of destruction had become too great for me to process. It was as if a parallel Syria had emerged: Syria the news story, the conflict, the humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, the uneventful, everyday Damascus that I had loved remained intact in my memory, as if I could return to it at any moment.
The image of the servees cut through this. It captured the moment when a familiar and mundane world turned hellish. A normal day: a school run, a commute, an errand. Mumbled greetings. Three warm bodies squeezed into each row of seats. The faint smells of aftershave and sweat, washing powder and cigarette smoke. Coins passed from palm to palm across the rows to the driver. In Syria this normality had seemed as solid as the concrete beneath our feet. The photo showed how fragile it had become.
When the uprising first reached the capital in 2011, I noticed something odd as I followed the news. The first areas in Damascus that rose up against the regime sounded strangely familiar, although I had never visited them: Jobar, Douma, Barzeh, Ghouta, Qaboun, Harasta. It took a moment before it hit me. They were the names that I had seen every day on the roofs of passing microbuses. They were the destinations of the routes; places on the outer limits of the city’s sprawling suburbs. Some of them were lines that I had ridden regularly within the city. But I didn’t have any friends or students in these places. There were no famous restaurants or beauty spots there. I’d never had a reason to ride the servees to the end of the line.
When I had taken the coach to other cities in Syria, I had occasionally glimpsed some of these areas out of the window. It had surprised me how far the urban sprawl stretched, a sea of grey in all directions. Some areas, like Douma, were cities in themselves, with their own souqs and parks and upmarket neighbourhoods. But as a general rule, the further we got from the centre of Damascus, the more the buildings became shabby and densely built up; naked concrete and breezeblock, unfinished roofs bristling with metal rods. The municipal services didn’t appear to reach this far; some streets were unpaved and rubbish piled up on corners. Why did the uprising reach the city through these outer suburbs? It might be suggested that the Sunni Muslim areas were the ones that rose up first. There is no denying the ugly sectarianism that has risen to the surface in this conflict. But most neighbourhoods in Damascus are dominated by Sunni Muslims. There must have been more to it than that.
When I mentioned this to Rami, a Syrian-Palestinian friend who now lives in the UK, he said that this was no coincidence. ‘This is not a war of politics, or religion, or sectarianism,’ he said. ‘It’s a war of poverty.’
In the years I lived in Damascus, nothing much seemed to change. I had noticed the doubling of the servees fare along with an increase in the price of mazout heating oil. The price of bread also went up, and I was vaguely aware of a drought in the countryside from occasional news headlines. But none of this had impacted my Damascus. Looking back, the 5 lira increase in fare had reached me like a small tremor from a distant earthquake.
It wasn’t until I left Damascus that I realised the scale of the drought. Between 2007 and 2009, it had displaced 1.5 million people. Countless internal migrants had come to Damascus, and most lived in the outer suburbs of the city, where the housing was cheapest, and where they remained invisible to most people in the centre. These neighbourhoods were home to those who felt most keenly the grotesque imbalance of power and wealth in the country. They were the people who protested first, and who first faced the brutal reaction of the regime.
I was not blind to the poverty in Syria. I saw the contrast between rich and poor, but it was on the periphery of my vision. I didn’t see how far it stretched beyond the horizon. My Damascus felt normal but it was an anomaly. It was an island of relative plenty in a ocean of poverty.
The poor neighbourhoods were not the only places missing from my Damascus map. There were dark places in the city. Since speaking to Syrian friends now living in the safety of the UK, I have realised how their cities were haunted by places whose very names were a gut-punch of dread. Certain neighbourhoods such as Kafer Souseh, Adawi, Mezze and Barzeh were infamous for the security centres they housed; the prisons and interrogation rooms of the labyrinthine branches of the mukhabarat. These places meant torture, indefinite detention without trial, humiliation and helplessness. When I lived in Damascus, I passed heavily guarded military buildings most days. I may have looked at their armed guards and wondered vaguely for a moment about what was inside, but the wondering didn’t last long. These places didn’t occupy my city the way they did for Syrians.
The conflict in Syria cannot be oversimplified; it has become a sectarian civil war and an international proxy war as well as a local struggle against tyranny. But at its heart, it seems that the Syrian regime was a dictatorship that relied on old methods to deal with a new reality. Dictatorship depends on a precarious balancing act; finding the right combination of bread and terror to keep a people pacified. If the population are scared enough, a certain amount of hunger and hardship can be tolerated. But if the hunger becomes unbearable, then an escalation in terror is not enough to keep people silent. The balance is lost, and there is no turning back.
I never foresaw the intensity of the popular uprising in Syria, or the brutality of the government response. But the conflict could only be understood in light of those places that were absent from my map; those dark spots of brutality and the invisible band of poverty that encircled the city. With these blindspots, the unrest and violence seemed alien and surreal. Perhaps it is not surprising how many Damascenes swallow the regime propaganda that blames all unrest on foreign mercenaries and terrorists.
I went for a drink with Saeed, a musician friend from Damascus who now lives in the UK. I told him that I had been writing about the Damascus map I had drawn from my rides on the servees. We reminisced about the points where our maps converged. His fifth floor flat in Rukneddine where I had lived with him for a month. The bar in the Jewish quarter of the Old City where he played jazz piano every Tuesday, while I drank Lebanese beer and made a meal of the complimentary peanuts and carrot sticks.
Saeed told me that I was not the only one with a limited map. He had lived in Damascus his whole life, he said, but had grown up ignorant of much of the country outside his neighbourhood. It was only when the uprising started that he gave much thought to the people of Idlib, Der’aa or Deir Azzour. For all the destruction and death of the last few years, he said, peoples’ eyes have at least been opened to a wider reality, a Syria beyond their own.
It is not much of a silver lining. A move from the learned helplessness of a life under dictatorship to the anarchy and terror of civil war, with a brighter future still a long way off. Our conversation tapered off with a familiar refrain: Allah kareem, God is generous. It is an endlessly useful phrase in Syria, employed to resolve conversations about sad and terrible things on a note of hopefulness. But over the second pint of bitter in a sports bar in Reading, it rang somewhat hollow.
On the train home, I mulled over what Saeed had said. In a dictatorship, I thought, it takes a certain amount of guts, even recklessness, to be curious about the city beyond your own map. Selective vision can be a survival strategy. But I realized that, living in the UK, it takes a lot less than a police state to instill the same kind of incuriosity.
These days I watch Damascus through the news and the scrolling updates of Facebook friends. I watch as the BBC and CNN teach us its geography one massacre at a time; scattered flashpoints of destruction on an otherwise empty map. The slaughter in the suburbs has escalated from bullets to mortars to Mig strikes. Meanwhile, we learn the names of new neighbourhoods as the violence moves towards the centre: Kafer Souseh, Mazraa, Bab Touma, Saba’a Bahraat.
Residents of Damascus are learning to live with a map that is constantly shifting. My friend from Yarmouk tells me how, in the southern suburbs, the battle-lines creep backwards and forwards from day to day, from Tadamon to Hajr al Aswad to Yarmouk. A mental map is no longer enough; on Facebook, maps are circulated that help people navigate an increasingly dangerous city. In late 2012, a friend shared a map that showed sniper locations in Yarmouk; red spots with an arc indicating the sniper’s field of vision. There are maps that show the location of the hundreds of checkpoints in Damascus. Some maps mark areas controlled by the Free Army and the regime, while on other maps, it is the Syrian army and the terrorists. As the sectarian divide deepens, the safe places on people’s maps are increasingly determined by the name and birthplace on their ID cards. Whatever the future holds for Damascus, the city is dramatically and irreversibly changing.
Saeed’s family live in a middle-class neighbourhood close to the centre. For now, it is a relatively safe neighbourhood. He told me how children were being taken out of private schools on the outskirts of the city and put in the local government schools, to avoid travelling in areas vulnerable to kidnapping. Some of the same servees routes are running, but lines are interrupted by checkpoints, and are stopped for days at a time when military operations are launched against restive suburbs. Those who oppose the regime but happen to live in these regime-controlled areas live in a state of painful ambivalence. True, it is not as painful as being crushed by mortars and SCUD missiles, but it is painful enough. When you live in an embattled enclave of a power that you oppose, surrounded by destruction and anarchy, what is it that you hope and pray for?
I liked to ride the servees because it felt like a microcosm of life in Syria. It was a glimpse of a social fabric, held together with courtesies and customs and unspoken agreements. But seeing Syria unravel, I realize how much a calm surface can obscure.
Back in the UK, the stability we enjoy here feels more fragile. The UK is not Syria, but history gives us too many cautionary tales. Where there is growing inequality, where there is a rising tide of hunger and poverty, there is eventually a tipping point. Meanwhile, holes are cut in the social safety net with every new budget announcement. Waves of austerity measures concentrate power in fewer hands.
These days, I take the bus every morning. I hang on to the handrail with the other commuters and try to avoid eye contact. At some point in the journey, my gaze wanders over to the route map above the window. It occurs to me, at times, how small my city is. My Southampton map delineates my own little kingdom: where I shop, where I work, where I drink coffee, the houses of friends. If anything, here I am even more blind to the city beyond my own. I lack the foreigner’s curiosity that drove me to discover Damascus. Some mornings, for a moment, this bothers me. I have lived here for years, but I have never taken the bus to the end of the line.
Photos courtesy of Valerie Stocker and Mustafa Basree.