Smuggling Cartons of Cigarettes Into Syria

My plan was to enter Syria via a land crossing from Jordan by getting a visa-on-arrival at the border.

A pound of pistachios. Check. Two cokes. Check.  My fingers strolled through my worn Lonely Planet Middle East guide. I was in the midst of a multi-week trip covering a majority of the region. It was 2009, prior to the Arab Spring, when traveling in the area was simpler and much safer. My plans originally did not include a visit to Syria. Even at this time, Syria’s reputation was dissuading me from exploring the country. But the more I thumbed through the highlights of Syria, the more I realized I needed to include Syria as part of my Middle East itinerary. The history, the culture, the beauty served as a siren call.

I checked the Syrian Embassy in Washington DC, and their website specifically stated that all visas for US citizens needed to be acquired from the embassy prior to arrival. Based upon my schedule and already being in Jordan, this precluded me from following these regulations. I started to hit the travel chat rooms. There was a cottage industry of westerners sharing their experiences at the border. Half of the posts were optimistic, yet there was a definite risk of being turned away at the border. Upon arrival, you were required to fill out an application, which was allegedly faxed to some nameless, faceless bureaucrat in Damascus. I would have to wait for a response. No guarantee.

I left my hotel in Amman before 8 am and headed toward a known location to find a shared taxi to Damascus. After waiting for around 15 minutes, I slid into the front seat of a taxi, while three Arab women occupied the back seat. The taxi driver revved the engine and sped off to the Syrian border. An animated Arabic conversation swirled around me as I sat in silence. Two hours later we reached the border. My passport was perfunctorily stamped by the Jordanian official. The group entered no man’s land and we arrived at a complex of Syrian buildings.

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Shared taxis

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After ten minutes, the cab driver tapped me on the shoulder and waved goodbye. As locals, the others in the shared taxi quickly attained their official stamps. They would not be waiting for me. I filled out my application and handed the immigration official $20 (a considerable savings over the $100 required by the Syrian Embassy in Washington DC). The official then repeatedly stated soara. After sometime I realized he wanted a photocopy of my application. I was in directed in Arabic to leave the building to make a photocopy. Upon exiting the building, I grasped that I had a new challenge. The complex numbered nearly ten buildings, and I had no idea which one had the soara. I blindly meandered from building to building flapping my application in the air shouting soara. On my fourth building, I hit pay dirt.   A photocopy of my application was made. I triumphantly returned to the immigration official with my application in hand. My victory was quickly diminished, as the official now repeated tabib. My brow curled in frustration. After some pantomime I understood that tabib meant doctor. I returned to the maze and on the third building I found the doctor. For a $5 bribe, he checked my temperature and handed me a signed form. I had compiled all needed paperwork for a Syrian visa.

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The complex of Syrian immigration buildings prior to entering Syria

I was then directed to wait. And wait. And then wait some more. My application had been sent to Damascus. I needed to wait to see if my application would be approved or rejected. My supplies now came into play. I methodically made my way through the entire bag of pistachios, washing them down with warm cokes. After 4 hours, my name was announced. I held my breath as I approached the counter. The official smiled and slid me my passport. My passport was stamped with an entry visa. I was going to Syria.

syrian visa

My next challenge was getting to Damascus, the capital of Syria. My original taxi had deserted me hours ago. I waved at multiple taxis until one stopped and took pity on me. I joined three men. The thin man in the back seat managed to ask my country of residence in broken English. In an ambiguous situation like this I typically inform the questioner that I am from Canada. Usually a much less controversial response than the U.S. But in a moment, I would need to produce my passport to pass the final checkpoint. I shared with my neighbor that in fact I did hail from the United States. His eyes filled with daggers. “I hate America. Very bad.” He spat at me, and then turned away. This was going to be a very uncomfortable ride I thought as a grimace grew across my face.

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The final Syrian checkpoint

Shortly after, the car pulled over to the side of the road, and all three men had exited the car. After several minutes, I craned my head to find my companions. Situated near the taxi, I watched as my new friends kneeled on their prayer rugs. “Allahu Akbar”. They returned to the car. I greeted them with a welcoming grin, but was met with additional scowls. I drifted off as we continued our drive to Damascus.

I noticed we were once again pulled over to the side of the road. It was too soon to pray again. What were we doing? A dilapidated Mercedes pulled up behind our car. I held my breath. Was I about to be kidnapped and ransomed off? The taxi driver twisted his body and slid his hands beneath his seat. I scrunched my eyes, was he grabbing a gun? No, I was safe. The driver produced eight cartons of cigarettes which were burrowed under the two front seats. The man from the Mercedes walked over to our taxi and was handed the contraband. I had just successfully and unwittingly smuggled cigarettes into Syria.  I was none the wiser.  We pulled back onto the road and arrived in Damascus without further issues.

My trip to Syria was one of my highlights to the Middle East despite my rocky initiation to Syria. Incredibly hospitable people and delicious food. Well-preserved Roman ruins and beautiful mosques. Recent Syrian history is a tragedy to this magnificent country. I would love to return.

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The Grand Mosque of Damascus

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