You drive me crazy

A street scene in Aleppo, Syria

This may not seem to make a lot of sense, but it’s true: I am beginning to miss the drivers of Syria. In order to understand what I’m trying to say, you need to understand one very important distinction: there is a big difference between a “good” driver and a “skilled” driver. Not for one moment would I call the average Syrian driver “good,” in the sense that he follows rules and is courteous behind the wheel. But you have to admit that the average Syrian driver is actually quite skilled, in the sense that they can maneuver through traffic and drive, simultaneously, both offensively and defensively.

The average Syrian driver has an impeccable feel for the exact size of his automobile, and can scrape through amazingly small centuries-old alleyways while dodging horse-drawn carts and soccer-playing children with astounding precision. There are virtually no American-style parking lots in Damascus, which means that drivers have to get creative when the need to pull over arises. Granted, their “creativity” doesn’t often extend past using the sidewalk, but you’d be surprised at the nooks and crannies I’ve seen Syrian drivers squeeze into. I’ve even seen a car or two parked in the middle of a road, in a small area where the road widened to allow for an easier right turn.

Of course, part of this vehicular flexibility stems from the fact that Syrians, in general, drive small cars. You don’t see many trucks (besides Suzukis, and those don’t count), vans, or SUVs driving around the city, and when you do, they likely have a Saudi license plate.

But most impressive to me is the average Syrian driver’s skill. American drivers just don’t measure up. Sure, Syrian drivers may drift across several lanes on the highway without signaling, but at least you can be fairly sure that they did it knowingly. Or, if not, then you yourself, as a Syrian driver driving defensively, fully expected them to make such a move. In America, inattentive driving is terrifyingly common – a driver drifting across several lanes of the freeway is most likely chatting it up on a cell phone or distracted by the in-car DVD player.

Syrian drivers are also intelligently aggressive. They know when to take chances and when to yield to the other guy. In America, I constantly find myself behind some dude driving like an idiot, apparently unfamiliar with even the most basic rules of driving, or else I’m dodging overly aggressive drivers who are just plain unsafe. And this is in the American traffic system that admittedly has dumbed down most every aspect of driving. You can hardly turn left anymore without waiting an eternity for a precious green arrow, instead of being trusted to be able to handle a yield-to-oncoming-traffic green light.

And I never thought I’d say this, but I kind of miss the traffic circles, too. True, they were usually scenes of chaos and mayhem, but somehow, people get where they need to go without waiting for a traffic light to tell them when to stop and go. In America, we spend eternities at traffic lights whose wait times are way too generously padded to favor the red-light runners. Perhaps less people would run the red light if they knew that the intersecting direction got a green immediately…

Part of the problem with the overabundance of unskilled drivers in America is that we will give a license to almost anyone. If you’re 15 or 16, have 30 bucks, and can pass a vision test and a short driving test, the local DMV will hand over a license to drive. Then, you can buy a nice car for almost nothing down – and pay for it for years to come on an installment plan – and voila! You’re on the road, driving me crazy!

Making cookies in Damascus

A visit to Marqab Castle