Remembering Syria:

Taxi Trouble 

 

By Arsheen Devjee

 

Nahnu Tullaab, a’janib! Huwa yurid alfayn lira li ashara daqa’iq! Haraam! Istighlaal!”

 

“We are students, foreigners, and he wants 2000 lira for taking us for 10 minutes! This is wrong! This is exploitation!”

 

I was furious. My voice was strong and loud, and the mudir (person in charge) of the border station could see that I meant what I said. I was speaking in 7th century classical Arabic, and using big words like “exploitation”, not commonly used in today. I was the plaintiff and the defendant. Our taxi driver, was a large gruffy man with black and grey hair, slicked back above his head, wisps falling to the side of his stubbled face. It was late September, and we were heading back home to Damascus from a short weekend getaway to Lebanon. My husband and I had moved from Canada where we had lived our whole lives to Damascus, Syria six months prior. We were teaching English, learning Arabic and travelling. Our tourist visas required us to leave the country and thought it would be nice to check out Lebanon.

 

We were stuck at the Syrian border crossing. Our American friend and travel companion was refused a visa back into Syria, causing unforeseen delays to our journey. The taxi driver wanted out of the deal to take us back to Damascus. We were fine with canceling our deal, or modifying it, except he wanted full payment for the 120-minute trip, when he had only driven us ten minutes at best across the “no man’s land” between the Lebanese and Syrian borders. I took my complaint to the mudir of the Syrian border, and from then, an impromptu court case ensued. The “court case” was an out of body experience. It was as if all the Arabic I had learnt in six months was coming out of my subconscious, and instead of spilling out onto the floor in a grammatically jumbled mess, it was lining up in eloquent harmony.

 

“It is wrong for him to demand 2000 lira for driving us for ten minutes! It is not our fault that our friend is stuck at the border,” I repeated in Arabic to the mudir.

 

“Okay, so just let the taxi driver go. What’s the problem?” asked the mudir, questioning our very presence in his office.

 

“My bag is in his trunk, and he won’t let me have it until we pay him 2000 lira!”

 

Haraam! Tu’tiha shantaha, ma’alesh…” “That’s wrong of you, give her the bag, it’s okay, let it be.” the mudir said, looking at the taxi driver with a disappointed expression, as if he should know better. The driver took a step forward and bent down towards the mudir who was sitting at his desk. “Brother, I would if it was that simple. I paid 1000 lira to get them as customers. I cannot have a loss,” he retorted in defense.

 

It was a small office at the back of a long empty border station that was lined on one side with booths where customs officials would meet travelers, and on the other with spaces in front of each booth for a line to form. The set up was kind of ironic seeing as how lines in general never really did form in Syria. The mudir’s office was cloudy with lingering cigarette smoke trapped in the thick air. The mudir sat at the back of his office, behind a large dark brown desk, files piled high, pushed to the side and a lit cigarette balancing in the ashtray. When I walked in a ripple of cold fear ran through me. I quickly fought off the traumatic memory and got a hold of myself; this time it was different, I was in the right, and I knew how to say it.

 

“That is separate. It is not on them that you did that. I am sorry for the loss, but you should give her the bag and be gone.” The mudir was talking sense and the situation was swaying in my favor.

 

With that, the mudir bid us leave. He had no time for these small squabbles, it was not a “People’s Court” after all. I smiled, but not too much. I understood that he ruled in my favor, and I had won the case, but I still needed my bag. Why was I so foolish to put it into the trunk in the first place I don’t know. It was a borrowed bag from the French girl who lived a couple of buildings down the road from us. She was very clear that I must ensure I brought it back and in the same condition I had borrowed it. I found her request odd and should have read the omen more accurately and not surrendered it to the trunk of the taxi. Hindsight is always 20/20.

 

I filed out of the mudir’s office and in my mind, it was as if I had won the Stanley Cup. My sense of victory was overwhelming. But on the outside, I was trying to act like winning the case was no big deal. I looked right and left as we passed the few people in the border station, looking for someone to high five or a pat my back in congratulations. I saw Firdows, our travel companion from the corner of my eye. I turned towards her and gave her a wink, a cheeky smile and thumbs up. She smiled back, confused, but I passed by without saying anything further. I was on my victory strut, and I didn’t want to end it. Firdows didn’t know the extent of the drawn-out disagreement we were having with the taxi driver because of her visa delay. She had been sitting at the border office by herself, waiting to be called in, questioned further or perhaps even taken away to a holding cell.

 

We had agreed to let Firdows come back to Syria with us before we left for Lebanon from Damascus. It was a favor. Firdows and her husband, Umar, were expat friends from America, students of Abu Nur, the large Islamic madrasa our neighborhood, Rukn Ad-Din, was known for. Firdows and Umar, had been living in Damascus as students for years. Umar was from California and had roots in Pakistan; Firdows was a Muslim convert from Arizona. Firdows wore full, black, Saudi-style niqab. Her pale hands and skin around her bright blue eyes stood out from the otherwise austere attire. She presented the “stereotypical” Muslim housewife story to the border officials with the intention of avoiding hassles and suspicion of staying in Syria for years on a tourist visa. Firdows would tell the border official that her husband was studying in Damascus and that she was a housewife. She would claim ignorance to any further details, and her dress lent “stereotypical authenticity” to her answers. I was awestruck at how she was dealing with the situation, transforming from a quick, talkative American woman, full of expression to a timid, ignorant housewife - not that housewives are ignorant - but she was playing the part well. In hindsight, however, her strategy may have backfired as we were still waiting for her visa, now for more than 90 minutes and counting.

 

The driver followed me outside, the sunlight blinding us both as we stepped out into the open sky. I continued down the stairway to his car while the driver took an immediate right and lit a cigarette, joining another man who was also smoking beside the doors. When I noticed him talking by the doors of the building and not following me to his car, I turned around, and walked back to him. “The mudir said to give me the bag.” He lifted his chin in the air, his face puckered into a pout. Lifting one’s chin in the air with a pouting face is the universal Syrian sign for “NO”. It is a subtle raising of the chin, that I did not truly notice the first time I encountered it, but every time I did run into it, it was like running into a brick wall: “No I won’t” it signaled. No matter the context, every time I encountered ‘the raising of the chin’, it would sting like a slap, leaving me speechless. I always felt the gesture was laden with crass attitude and audacity. “The mudir said you should give me the bag,” I repeated, not knowing what else to say. The driver lifted his chin to the air again eloquently shutting me up. My mouth opened from shock. I felt as if I was falling. My face was getting hot. The mudir just told him to give me my stuff. How can he just ignore that! Thoughts were racing in my mind of the injustice of the situation, and how mean the driver was being, but my tongue was tied. I felt crushed, wincing at the insult. What recourse could I take? Going back to the mudir? Feeling like a small, powerless child in the face of a big school yard bully, I stepped around the taxi driver and went back to ‘tell the teacher’ the bully was not listening.

 

The mudir’s door was closed. I knocked and waited. No answer came. I tried turning the doorknob; it was locked. Now what? Was that it? I looked around for someone to help me. Men in uniform were moving about the building, but who do I talk to? Stranded and desperate for help, I went back to tell the taxi driver to open his trunk and give me my bag. The man he was talking to looked at me puzzled. I began to explain my case to him, but the taxi driver’s louder and more eloquent voice entered his ears before mine. The man nodded and looked at me. “I just want my bag back, then he can go.” To my surprise, the man turned to the driver and tried to convince him, “Just give her the bag.”

 

“I will have lost 1000 lira because of her. I am not going to give her the bag until she pays 2000 lira!” the driver responded, raising his voice a notch. This attracted another man to join the huddle and try his luck to convince the driver to give back the bag. Cigarettes were being lit one after another as the matter was discussed amongst the men.  The growing crowd of people weighing in on the issue was making the driver more anxious. He was defending his position to every new addition to the crowd. I saw Sajid and Irfaan from afar and waived at them to come. “Are you okay?” Sajid asked out of breath from running. I was so glad to see him. I felt so out of place arguing and was beyond relieved when both Sajid and Irfaan came to take over. “Yeah, I’m okay. But this stupid driver is not opening his trunk for us. We talked to the mudir inside. It was like a real court case. I said my complaint, he defended, and then the mudir told him to give me my stuff back. It was awesome, and it was all in Arabic!” My energy returned as I recounted the victorious court case to Sajid. “What’s happening with all these people?”

 

“The mudir told the driver to give us our stuff back but the driver doesn’t want to listen, so he won’t open the trunk. All these people are telling him to open his trunk too. I went back to the mudir’s office, but it was closed.”

 

My tongue was moving a mile a minute. So much had happened in the past thirty minutes, and there was so much to update Sajid about. After telling Sajid what was going on, I excused myself and went back into the border office to find Firdows. I was desperate to get out of the cloud of cigarette smoke and away from these men.

 

I sat with Firdows in the border office. We were sitting on the bottom section of the brown window frame turned into a baseboard. It was raised about ten inches from the ground, and made a good stool, our backs leaning against the windows. The sun was shining through, warming my back. The room was warm, and the sun rays revealed swirling dust circles in the air. My stomach growled. I laughed at the whole situation we were in. Resting my elbows on my folded knees, my head in my hands. I drifted to sleep.

 

I awoke a few hours later to Sajid sitting beside me. I was wet from having sweated and felt dehydrated. I groggily lifted my head from my knees to see Sajid holding my backpack. “You got the bag!” I said with a smile. Am I dreaming? “How did you get into the trunk? What happened?” I was confused, trying to fully wake up as I brushed the drool that had dripped down the side of my mouth. “What happened? How did you get the backpack?” I asked again as Sajid looked at me chuckling at my deliria. “Irfaan and I paid the man.”

 

“What! 2000 lira?”  I yelled out in panic. “I fought so hard so that we didn’t have to pay him. How are we going to get home now?”

 

Sajid handed me a warm banana and a water bottle from the backpack. We had packed a few snacks in my bag. I was very grateful for the burst of sugar and flavor form the warm banana that had baked in the trunk the whole afternoon. After the snack and drink, I was awake and ready to listen to what Sajid had to say:

 

“After you left that crowd of people telling the driver to give the bag back, he started getting really upset. He marched to his car and told everyone he was leaving. He got into his car and started it. Irfaan and I stood defiantly in front of the car so he wouldn’t be able to move.”

 

“Ha, you’d think so” Irfaan interjected, all of us listening intently.

 

“Yea, that’s what you’d think in Canada, but here, the driver didn’t care. He revved his engine and moved forward, forcing Irfaan to jump out of the way!”

 

“When that happened, I knew we would have to do something different. So, we told him we’d pay him 500 lira. He exploded at this, reminding us that he paid someone 1000 for our business, and would only accept 2000.” Irfaan continued. “Tell me you didn’t pay him the full 2000?” I cried out, crossing my fingers, hoping they hadn’t paid that much.

 

“No of course not, wait to hear what happened… He got back into the car and started moving towards Irfaan and me again! The crowd of men that were watching what was happening were telling us to let him go.”

 

“So then? I know you didn’t do that because you’re holding the bag. How did you get the bag then?”

 

“I offered him 1200 lira, he countered with 1500, and we settled. I took out the cash and he popped open his trunk. It was a straight exchange, and he sped off.”

 

“Good riddance!” I exclaimed. “1500 is a lot! How are we going to get home now?”

 

“Well, let’s hope Firdows gets her visa.” Sajid looked at his Nokia, “wow, 6pm! That means we’ve been here for 6 hours!”

 

The sun was starting to set. The border office was becoming dim as the light coming from the windows lessened. The adhan (call to prayer) faintly sounded in the distance and we prayed, one by one, in the corner of the large empty room. I sat there, on the thin prayer mat on the hard tile floor uncomfortably, feeling my ankles pressed down by my body weight. After finishing my prayer, I buried my head in my lap as I so often do in times of real distress and prayed.

 

I sat back down on the window baseboard, and as Sajid joined me, I whispered to him in earnest concern and worry, “How are we going to get home? We have about 700 lira left and there’s no such thing as debit or credit cards here if we need it. What will happen if Firdows doesn’t get a visa and how much longer are we going to sit here with her and wait?” Sajid let out a long sigh, resting his head on my shoulder. We sat in silence, feeling overwhelmed.

 

Firdows!” an officer called behind the desk at the far end of the room. Firdows got up and slowly walked up to meet him.

 

Back at the window ledge, we held our breath, watching in anticipation as the officer gave Firdows her passport back. “Did she get the visa?” I whispered to Sajid. “I don’t know,” he answered.

 

We watched Firdows with wide eyes, hanging off the edge of our already narrow seats, waiting for a sign, some sort of signal that revealed her fate, a smile, a sigh of relief. What seemed like ten minutes later, Firdows took her passport and turned her face so we could see her eyes. Making eye contact, she subtly motioned for us to come outside. Firdows then picked up her bags and headed out the door. All three of us jumped out of our seats, grabbed our bags, and hurried outside into the dark and empty parking lot. The visa officers had relented and issued a renewal on her tourist visa.

 

The visa office was closing, and it was dark and deserted outside. Sajid headed back into the border station to find out how we could get a taxi. Sajid received instructions to walk to a tiny security post where the ‘no-man’s land’ between the two borders ends and the official Syrian border is. The officer wished Sajid the customary prayer often said when someone is in a needy situation: “May Allah open up the doors for you,” and left.

 

The tiny security post was a good thirty minutes’ walk away.  With the sun gone, the weather had turned cold, and I could feel my fingers and toes go numb as we trudged ahead, luggage in tow. As always happens, right when I feel like I cannot carry my luggage any longer, our destination begins to take shape in the distance. Finally, we arrived, huffing and puffing. At the post, we were graciously let into the cramped space by two officers. They were sitting in the little hut watching a Bollywood film and drinking tea.

 

When we entered, the two officers looked at Sajid and Irfaan, and recognizing our South Asian heritage, immediately shouted out “Amitabh Bacchhaaan!” (the name of a famous Bollywood actor). They were very excited to be visited by real “Indians”.  It was hard to tell whose smiles were wider, ours or theirs; but our entrance and their welcome filled our tiring hearts with joy. The customary question period began: “Where are you from? What are you doing here? Why are you traveling at such a late time?” Seeing as how they were fans of Amitabh Bachaan, we naturally told them we were from India, even related to Mr. Bachaan. They readily found us seats in their cozy space, offered us tea, and helped us talk to passing cars to get us a ride home. After filling them in on our story at the border station, we watched the rest of the Indian film together, drinking tea, and warming our hands on their small sobya (gas heater). 

 

Sure enough, about thirty minutes later, the film ended, and a taxi came by. We asked the driver how much to Damascus and he said 300 lira. I was grateful.

 

The ride back was great. We talked about our triumphant border troubles and Firdows’ visa dilemma. We laughed and listened to some good music. What was supposed to be a 2000 lira trip home ended up costing us 1800 lira and a hell of a day between Lebanon and Syria.

 

Arsheen Devjee is a Canadian immigration specialist who loves to build community and relationships. She enjoys writing stories about real people in weird situations, especially when travelling or immigrating. She lives in Richmond Hill, Ontario, with her husband and two children.