From Beirut to Damascus

As you may have heard, there’s trouble between Lebanon and Israel these days. Our life in Jordan remains surprisingly unchanged, except that every taxi driver has their radio tuned in to the latest news report and they all want to know why America is bombing Lebanon. Last time I checked, it was Israel, not America, doing the bombing, though I do understand the point they’re trying to make.

Hearing of bombs falling on the Beirut-Damascus highway and the border checkpoint brings back memories of the time I’ve spent on each (way too much of that time being spent standing in line in Syrian passport control). And so, without further political comment, I bring you pictures of a trip from Lattakia to Beirut to Damascus.

The northern border crossing between Syria and Lebanon is a fairly deserted outpost on a narrow road not always in good repair. This is where my brother Steven was issued his lucky Lebanese visa. Unlike the Damascus-Beirut highway, which winds through the Anti-Lebanon mountains, the northern road allows you to look at the beautiful mountain range from a distance.

Dusk is an atmospheric time to be in downtown Beirut as the streetlights come on. Cranes are visible in the distance, evidence of the city’s extensive reconstruction projects.

One building I don’t think they’ll ever get around to tearing down is the old Holiday Inn, used during the war as a sniper hangout. You can see the damage it incurred as a result. In the foreground is a gorgeously remodeled area of Downtown.

Buying a seat in a land yacht is the best way to get from Lebanon to Syria. You pay ten bucks for the journey; four or five if you go as far as Chtoura and then hitch a ride across the border. My family and I caught this taxi under the bridge at the Charles Helou transport hub. After making our deal, we got ready to get into the car and realized that there was a horrible, stale-urine stench emanating from near or inside the vehicle. Thankfully, as we sat down and the car pulled away, we realized that the stench – of urine, at least, though there was still a healthy level of diesel fumes circulating inside – was left behind at the nasty bus station.

The Beirut-Damascus road winds up and out of seaside Beirut and snakes along a switchbacky, two-lane, take-your-life-into-your-hands-when-you-pass mountain road. I think the taxi drivers get a kickback for anything their passengers buy at a certain shop just before the border crossing – in the four times I’ve been to Lebanon, no taxi driver has ever missed it. But I don’t mind, because it’s a good place to load up on western candy bars, cereal, and snacks before heading into Syria.

To cross the border, you must first officially leave Lebanon, which involves getting out of the taxi, walking into a building, and waiting in line for the passport officials to stamp your documents (never use a green pen while filling out the forms!). Then, you hop back in the taxi as it goes through a search process. Sometimes, they make you step out of the car, too (perhaps to check for cigarette cartons hidden on your person). Then comes a short drive through no-man’s-land and your last chance to eat at Dunkin’ Donuts before entering Syria. I think it must be the most remote, random location of that franchise anywhere in the world – on a forlorn, forgotten mountaintop between two Middle Eastern countries. All that’s left after that is to officially enter Syria (make sure your taxi doesn’t go in the line marked “Bublic Buses”), go through another vehicle search, and then you’re home free for the descent into Damascus.

Hearing of these places being bombed gives me an intense feeling of sadness. Never in my life has any place I’ve personally visited been bombed at a later time. And speaking of sadness, I should take this opportunity to note that we won’t be visiting Syria after all during our time in Amman. When I think of how close we are, and how much I wanted to see all of our friends and have them meet our Miriam Damascus, it just about breaks my heart.
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