All eyes on Deir Ez-Zour (دير الزور)
The night bus from Damascus drops you into the eastern desert town of Deir Ez-Zour at 5am. Two kilometres separates the bus station from the town centre, and despite the protests of the local taxi drivers to the contrary, we were happy to walk after having spendt the night in the bus.
Whenever we mentioned our intentions of going to Deir, people often replied with: “Why? There is nothing there!” After a hectic couple of days in Damascus, this was exactly what we needed.
The town has a very different atmosphere from the other places we had visited in Syria. It is still vibrant & bustling, but in a rather insular way. They don’t get many foreigners up here, apart from Iraqis passing through on their way to Damascus. Those that do come often get followed by the “secret police” (although we are assured that this is for our safety), and every time we took a bus, we had to register our details, even for the small service buses. This process of keeping tabs on our location was complicated by the fact that we were staying not in a hotel, but with a friend of Tony’s. Confused, questioning looks result when trying to explain this, “no hotel” being the only words understood.
David works up in Deir for a French NGO helping Syrian businesses develop, and lives with Mohammed, an adorable Syrian guy, in his arab-style house. Our first evening staying there, we had a rendezvous with Mohammed. Upon arriving, we soon found ourselves speeding through Deir’s streets in a blacked-out Mercedes, on our way to a restaurant overlooking the Eurphrates to watch the vehement Algeria-Egypt play-off.
Sat watching the match, Mohammed received a call from a policeman who subsequently came to the restaurant enquiring about our stay. He was apparently more concerned with our safety and whether we were happy here, but despite this I feared that we were causing Mohammed unnecessary complications. This would not be the last phone call he would receive.
These inquiries regarding our happiness were somewhat superfluous: we were sat heartily cheering for Algeria (although against a back-drop of Egyptian supporters) whilst sipping some delicious bollo (a drink made with mint, lemon & sugar) surrounded by a cloud of narghile smoke. The biggest danger we faced was the disappointment of the Egyptian supporters in the room, whose team was denied the chance to go to South Africa in 2010. (There is a lot of antagonism between Algeria & Egypt, as Egyptian television would later testify, and this match epitomised the tension.)
As we left, Mohammed waved off the bill. Syrian hospitality really is something else. Merci David, شكرن Mohammed.