Its 10:45 Friday morning. I am out in Damascus looking for trouble. I wander the streets from mosque to mosque hoping for any sign of tension. Its still too early for any real trouble to take place. This is my first of three so called ‘Protest Fridays’ during my stay in Syria. So far, the battle is between me and the intense heat. Its a battle I am losing. The temperature is climbing with gusto into the high 30s. There is already a slippery film of sweat evenly spread over my entire body. I replenish my pathetic 250cl water bottle at every opportunity. It is barely enough.
Within 60 minutes of walking, I am hopelessly lost, but I am not concerned. Taxis are cheap and frequent in Syria. Besides, you see more when you are lost. What I do see are lots of mosques, some are fine examples of architecture. I also see a significant amount of soldiers; all have impressive guns that, to my British sensibilities, I find unnerving. Yet they are far from threatening. The soldiers, some as young as early 20s, sit smoking and chatting in the shade. Those on their own, amuse themselves with games on their mobile phones – their guns close-by.
Two hours walking. The heat and I seem to have reached a working agreement. I come across a mosque that has attracted a greater amount of soldiers. My hopes rise higher than the temperature. I should make a note of where I am, just for the record, but it’s difficult. The mosque is at the end of a major road. It faces a roundabout that sits as a gathering point for other roads. It has a grass edge and unimpressive fountain. The names on my map differ to the English on the street plaques. I guess the street that I have just walked down is the same as ‘Berket Al Hattab’ Street written on my map. In which case the mosque is at Bab Mosalla Square.
I rest and drink the last of my sun-warmed water. I see men take off their shoes and go into the mosque. I position myself near a kebab takeaway and general shop. Both attract a near-constant stream of young people, not at all interested in praying. One lad is wearing a T-shirt that reads ‘What you think you see is what you see’. Its a design worn by many teenagers in Damascus, but I notice for the first time the deliberate spelling mistakes. A lesson for us all. I hang around trying to make sure I am not just seeing what I think I’m seeing. But I am not seeing anything at all. I hadn’t even noticed the governement building opposite the mosque explaining the higher number of soldiers. The soldiers and others pay me no heed. My presence is of no concern.
Bored after 20 minutes, I wander off and quickly get lost again. I stop at a water fountain. I ask two soldiers for directions. Suddenly, other gun-clad soldiers flock around me, offering help. Over my map they discuss in Arabic how to get to ‘Cham Palace‘ – the landmark closest to my hotel. Never before have I been surrounded by so many guns, but I do not feel threatened. I am even tempted to ask one soldier if I can handle his gun – maybe have my photo taken with it. He looks at me and smiles, as if reading my thoughts.
When consensus is finally reached by the soldiers, I am instructed to ‘Walk here, then…’ along with a gesture of pointing to a street and a slap on the soldier’s left arm with his right hand to indicate I should walk down the street then turn left – at some point. Its not the road I would have chosen from my map. I set off, instantly regretting not asking the soldier for the photo opportunity. It’s a long road with no obvious left turn. It’s at this point that I realise I have forgotten to refill my water bottle.
Three hours. I want to get back to the hotel more than anything. I have found water, but its not enough. My head is throbbing from the heat. I see men going in and out of mosques, and soldiers hanging around in case something happens. Its the same story mosque after mosque. I get the message: ‘Here is the news. There is no news’.
I stand in the gratifying shade of a bus shelter. A lad in his 20s passes me and I ask if he can show me where I am on the map and how to get to the centre. Thankfully, his English is near-perfect. “You’re in Kafr Sousah district. You turn right and keep walking.” I take his advice, but when he’s out of sight, I ask someone else. He tells me his name is Faisal and that he is a teacher, but sometimes ‘works for the government’. We walk together for about 15 minutes, discussing – amongst other political thing – William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, for whom he and very few others in Syria seem to have any time for. When I reach a familiar place, we part company; Faisal inviting me to enjoy the rest of my stay in Syria.
I sit for almost an hour in the park opposite the Four Seasons Hotel and drink generously at the water fountain that holds the coldest street water in Damascus, before returning to my hotel.
I had walked five hours through the streets and suburbs of Damascus – a city that had been described by a BBC reporter only a few weeks earlier as ‘a dangerous place’. I had gone looking for battles between protesters and soldiers, for gunfire and killings: for danger. There was nothing; even the sun hadn’t managed to finish me off.