Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered). This famous Latin phrase was uttered by the great Roman general Julius Caesar upon his arrival and military triumph in Turkey. I think these words express my feeling now after having traveled through Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s fiefdom. Everywhere I went, from Istanbul through Antalya to Antakya, I saw Ataturk’s expressionless image staring down at me, as if to say: “Welcome to Turkey, a modern, secular Islamic nation. Thanks to me.”
But nothing could prepare me for the cult of personality surrounding Syria’s own strongman, Bashar al-Assad (pictured left). I came and I saw Syria for a brief period of time, entering the country through southern Turkey. When I arrived at the border area, known as Hatay (formerly a part of the French protectorate of Syria, until it was given to Turkey) I quickly found out the border crossing into Aleppo-Halab was closed (as were most others) so I asked if there was any chance I could get into Lebanon (where I’m writing this post) and was told about a bus in a few hours, so I waited and felt a sense of confusion when I actually considered what I was about to do.
As my bus approached the Syrian border, panic and fear set in, like I’ve never felt before. The sign hanging above read: “Syrian Arab Republic” but I thought to myself it should read: “Assad’s Syria.” Once I entered into Syrian territory, the customs officer asked me the purpose of my visit to Syria and I wanted to respond, “well, I have a purpose to visit Aleppo and Damascus, but your regime fails to meet fundamental human rights and has killed peaceful protesters.” But, as you can imagine, I said nothing of the sort and told the man I will be going directly to Lebanon.
Above the desk, where I was told to wait while he stamped everyone else’s passports (Lebanese, Syrians and Iraqis) except my little Canadian blue booklet, a photograph of Assad stared down at me. As if to say, “why are you here, foreigner?” I knew I had to remain confident (besides Her Majesty the Queen has got my back, right?) and act like it was the most natural thing in the world for a Westerner to enter a “rogue state” (as determined by former U.S. President George W. Bush. Oh, how I hate to use “Bush-isms” but it’s the only way to express the sentiment felt by the international community toward Syria, as it should be).
Almost every nation in the world has now warned its citizens not to travel to Syria because the security situation is dire and months of pro-democracy demonstrations has lead to bloodshed, with over 5,000 Syrians losing their lives in the Arab Spring uprising sweeping through the Middle East. Syria is a nation on the brink, and that’s the reason I disregarded everyone’s advice, those who told me I was crazy to want to go into Syria (I received a visa from their embassy in Ottawa over a month ago).
I went. I saw. And all I can say is I will return in the future when the regime falls and one of the world’s oldest nations becomes free and democratic. Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam! (the people want to bring down the regime!) – Arab Spring protest chant.