In the Grip of War and Sanctions....
Damascus Street Notes
by FRANKLIN LAMB
The half hour drive from the Lebanese border at Maznaa to Damascus is always pleasant with the wide, well paved and maintained highway, cutting through rolling hills often with large herds of goats and sheep lazily watching the traffic below. As this observer watched some of the herds the other day when traveling to Damascus, I noticed that there appeared to be an unusually large number of shepherds above us tending their herds. On second look, the shepherds turned out to be soldiers peering down on the main highway from among and behind the vegetation nibbling animals.
The increased security in Damascus has brought hundreds of shabab (youths), shahiba ("ghosts" in Arabic, but in the vernacular, "thugs"), popular committees, neighborhoods watch types and one presumes various security agency personnel from their early 20's to middle age to control literally hundreds of checkpoints in central Damascus and the suburbs. Sometimes it appears that every fifty yards or so one encounters yet another checkpoint.
Damascus is currently calm with a few exceptions such as the Tadamon, Al-Qadam and Al-Asali neighborhoods where sporadic clashes are being discussed by friends the past two days. As with Libya last summer, many media reports are not at all accurate in depicting this city as on the edge and a panicked population. Last night this observer was up until almost 1 a.m. with friends in the old city at a restaurant and then driving around Damascus with still some cafes open, although according to local residents not as late as before the crisis began.
There are also plenty of security measures being strictly imposed around many governmental building including erected cement walls and the closure of nearby streets that cause traffic problems.
The Syrians are very serious about security. One government official told this observer, "Look, if someone is intending to become a suicide bomber, it is very difficult for us to stop them. But we are doing our best and we conduct many random vehicle searches." A checkpoint experience here is not like in Lebanon where typically an approaching driver will simply roll down his window with a quick salute and a grinned "kefack habibi?" ("How are you dear?") as the frequently sleepy soldier often just waves through the vehicle. In contrast, Syrian checkpoints employ hi-tech weapons and explosive detection devices and search most cars, from underneath-up. Near government buildings or certain streets where high ranking officials have homes or offices metal detectors are also used.
This observer had an experience with a metal detector yesterday and with half a dozen or so security guys. Passing thorough the airport style device, having emptied my pockets of any metal and my phone, the loud alarm still went off. I was asked to pass through a second time. I did with the same result. As three guys came close with new model hand held devices now being used, I also set off their alarms.
It finally dawned on me what the problem was.
I have recently had a state of the art pacemaker implanted a few inches above my left nipple. I suddenly remembered that my cardiologist in Beirut warned me against passing thru a metal detector or allowing a hand held scanning device to come within two feet of my pacemaker due to potential electronic problems.
Too late for that precaution, I opened my shirt and pointed to the four inch square lump in my chest and said "batterie." Not being understood, two of the guys cocked their Kalashnikovs and things got tense. Later I was informed that they were pretty sure I was another of the recent suicide bombers plaguing Damascus and the lump was a bomb and they were edgy.
The situation was diffused by a middle aged fellow who apparently was the squad's commander. When he approached me, by now I had my hands up, I said, "batterie, batterie, Dr!" He stared at my chest and replied, "Yalla, batterie, cardio, nam?" ("Ah, for your heart yes?") After a little more discussion and checking my passport and visa I was on my way. This morning the young lady at the guest relations desk in my hotel kindly wrote me a card in Arabic, for future use if necessary, that I had a pacemaker and would very likely set off metal detectors. So as long as no one tips off my dream doctor at Hezbollah's Cardiac Center in Beirut she won't shout at me during our next appointment.