The first in a doubtless intermittent series of posts about travelling.
Late afternoon, and the sunlight is drawing triangles of light and shade on the courtyard with such precision it would make a maths teacher proud. From the corner of my eye I can see thick, unruly green leaves and white curls of jasmine falling from the upper balcony. Through them, the light casts scruffy nets of shadow, scribbling lazily over the stone tiles. Beyond the courtyard, beyond the walls of this 18th century house – now a dollar-charging boutique hotel for Westerners – the streets have the same quiet, studious feel as the air. Today is Friday, holy day here in Aleppo in the north of Syria.
My mobile phone bleeps with a text message. The screen is a bright white; caustic, electronic and entirely different from the sunlight in the courtyard. Set into it are chunky black letters:
SHIT DUDE are you still out there or have they flown you out or what?
I read the message from Friend P. to my fiancee, who is reading on the bed beside me. She snaps the TV on. Every channel ripples with static.
The AV button, press the AV button. Have you texted him back? What’s he talking about?
I hammer the buttons and ping a message back. She and I stare at the TV screen, then the mobile screen. Five bars; the signal is strong. When there are revolutions, don’t the phones go down? Or maybe that was only in the old days. Cellular networks are light on infrastructure. Hip tech magazines roll out the story of African countries where mobiles outnumber landlines, because infrastructure is passée. Dealing with the real world, digging trenches for poles and wire – it’s all too much work. You need to cyber it up a notch. Especially when fashion-conscious westerners are throwing away so many good handsets. I once sat in a taxi back in London, driven by a cheerful, chatty Ghanian who told me he went back to Africa as ‘often as he liked’, because he could easily finance the plane ticket by buying cheap second hand phones here, and selling them back in Accra, because there, the UK’s second best was premium.
And so I sit, waiting for a text, with the television saying nothing, concentrating on its own thoughts. The city still sounds like it is doing the same as well. I am not good at staying calm. I am a natural worrier, prone to googling every slight ache and pain, easily convinced I have some exotic syndrome or ailment. The reaction of friend P. when I told him about my trip to Syria comes to mind:
Friend P: I’m just saying I wouldn’t go anywhere for my holidays that’s been the target of an airstrike by a US ally in the last year or so.
Of course, Syria has history with Israel (the Golan Heights and more), and it’s not really history because it’s far from over – just months before we met, the Israelis had bombed a site in the north of Syria, leading to speculation they had seen the Syrians building a nuclear reactor with help from that noted international japester, Kim Jong-Il.
I thought back to our morning in Aleppo: a trip to the citadel, 12th century stronghold agains the Crusaders. To the 7th century Umayyad mosque before that, and the guardian’s two young sons, smiling as they say next to me, shouting the names of their favourite Premiership footballers. The muezzin’s call had seemed sonorous and devout. Not angry. So what had changed? George W. Bush having one last squeeze of the trigger before the world could finally forget him? I remember reading an AP wire story in my RSS reader about a US warship chugging into position off the Syrian and Lebanese coast. And then there was that Israeli airstrike. And, and, and….
The phone beeps.
Friend P: No reason. Was plotting an OMG war wind-up but changed my mind halfway. Hope it is win out there.
It ended with a series of smiley faces and my fiancee muttered something about my stupid friends. We went back to our books and enjoying the warmth of afternoon, me feeling thoroughly foolish and guilty.
From this I learned… to be slightly less credulous, hopefully. And that the disruptive power of mobile phones is nothing compared to the embedded fears you carry in your head. As smart as you might feel back home reading up on the history and current events of the place you’re going to, there is much to be said for arriving in a new place without already knowing what you think. A couple of evenings on Wikipedia make an expert out of anyone, and a fool out of many, me included.