Posted by Matthew Barber on Tuesday, June 17th, 2014
Stephen Boeshaar worked throughout the Arab World for many years and is fluent in Syrian Arabic. After serving with the Peace Corps in Morocco in the 1960s, he ran English language instruction programs in Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, and Syria, and worked with Fulbright in Egypt developing university curriculum. Later, Steve directed the American Language Center in Damascus for 20 years, until the Syrian uprising finally compelled him to leave with his family in 2012. He currently lives in Florida and is working on a collection of “Syrian Profiles,” stories of the many lives he encountered along his path. The following is an excerpt. Steve hopes to complete the book later this year. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bilal is now in his mid fifties and, like many aging men in Syria, his waistline has gradually expanded with maturity and prosperity. I had known him for more than 30 years and I watched this ballooning in his weight over time with some degree of alarm. He really needed to take better care of himself; that was my personal (and unspoken) opinion. On one of my visits to his home, he eagerly motioned me over as he lovingly unwrapped some old, wrinkled snapshots taken in his younger days, back in the 1970s. Most people in the West have no inkling how slavishly well-to-do classes of the third world have tended to adopt and mirror our own goofy fashions and fads. When we grew our hair long, hippie-style… well, so did the rest of the world. Thus, modern day Syria, for example, is currently awash in hip-hop music and tattoos.
Anyway, it was funny to see the brownish photos of Bilal sporting a Beatles-style mop top and dressed in garish disco attire; but what was the most striking was how amazingly fit and svelte he looked in those bell bottoms. He had been as skinny as a rail. He used to go to the gym too, and there were photos of him flexing like a young Schwarzenegger. What a contrast with his current well-fed portliness.
Bilal was the son of a prosperous shop owner and his family had always lived in a pretty nice fourth-floor apartment in an upscale neighborhood in central Damascus. However, it would be an error to imagine that he had had an easy life, by any means. Bilal spent two years in a technical institute after finishing high school but finding work in 1970s-era Damascus was a tall order. For one thing, the Syrian economy was overwhelmingly socialist in those times. Syria maintained its long love affair with the USSR during its Communist era and that special relationship has continued on to this day with contemporary Russia. In those quaint times of total central planning, Syria was probably the closest thing to a truly Communist system—outside of the Soviet bloc itself. Any Syrian who actually had a job worked for the state. For years, Bilal struggled to negotiate an opening into that vast, monolithic bureaucracy but it was no easy task. What you really needed was not education or job skills but “wasta,” which meant a connection to some big shot with influence who could find you a niche in the anthill.
For a long while, Bilal’s quest was futile. For a couple of years in the early 80s, he was reduced to driving a taxi in an effort to make some cash—certainly one of the most difficult and frustrating means of making a living imaginable. Most taxi drivers in Damascus do not own the cars they drive; instead, they must pay rent to the proprietor, buy gas and cover repairs on the vehicle. After shelling out for all the expenses, they struggle to eke out a meager living from whatever daily pittance they can grind out over a lengthy work day—10 to 12 hours or more. Foreigners in Damascus will find a cab ride to be one of the world’s best bargains. You can travel all the way across town for a couple of bucks. It is dirt cheap, even now in these days of high inflation. Great for the passenger but the flip side is, of course, how can any working stiff in Syria conceivably make a living from these fares, which are ferociously controlled at rock-bottom rates by the municipality? Bilal learned those lessons the hard way, back in the days when a taxi ride might cost you no more than 10 cents. The poor guy spent two hard years killing himself for peanuts.
Like most young Syrian men, Bilal had been drafted into the nation’s gargantuan military when he turned 18. It had been one of the largest armed forces in the Middle East for 40 years. Ironically, it hadn’t fought a real war since 1973, when it was severely beaten by the Israelis. Some claimed it was not a real army at all, but merely a device for maintaining the regime’s control over the country and for furthering its regional interests—as when it was used to occupy Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s. Syrian military service was brutal and demeaning. The army did not even provide food or clothing—which had to be paid for by the recruits’ families. Bilal’s father was relatively well off and was able to pay enough to ensure him an easy posting in Latakia, up on the Syrian coast.
It was a direct consequence of his army service that Bilal finally hit pay dirt in his quest to find a post within the mysteriously opaque civil service. During his stint in the north, he managed to develop a useful contact, an Alawite military officer who seemed to look upon him favorably. According to Bilal, he spent more than 10 years cultivating the favors of this powerful warlord, through a long and persistent campaign of services, gifts, cajolery and flattery. It was like raising an exotic plant, one that you had to fertilize and water with utmost care. In the end, the suck-up efforts paid off and Bilal was duly rewarded with a position in the Syrian Customs Authority. This appointment was a genuine stroke of fortune, even if a customs officer was only a poorly-paid cog in the machine in Damascus. Sooner or later, however, the employee might well be permitted the golden opportunity to work on one of the Syrian borders. A border posting was the Holy Grail in the customs universe. Bilal endured an achingly long penance at the desk job in the central office; he had no choice but to watch, uncomplaining, as less qualified but more favored men moved ahead of him. After two or three years of agonizing patience, Bilal was at long last granted a six-month stint on the Syrian-Lebanese border. His ship had come in.
Syria has busy borders with Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. Consider the fact that tens of thousands of vehicles pass through those border posts every day—including large numbers of trucks and commercial carriers—and each one of these is a potential gold mine. Many of the truckers are carrying illegal or quasi-legal goods, making them ideal targets for shakedowns. The fact is, legal or illegal, the merchants and drivers who pass through these check points are expected to pay a bribe to be allowed to proceed. These payoffs are by no means an anomaly in the trade system; they ARE the system. It is the everyday grease that allows commerce to function all over the Middle East (and most of the rest of the third world as well). The customs agents are the lucky stiffs in the middle who regulate this seamy traffic. Regular travelers, whether ordinary Syrians or foreign tourists, are unlikely to even notice anything afoot—unless they get caught actually attempting to conceal items such as major appliances or weapons, for example.
Taxi men and bus drivers typically engage in petty smuggling of items like cigarettes or booze. They may have to cough up a nominal sum (or a couple of packs of smokes) but it is the big trucks where the real money is to be made. According to Bilal, the art of the trade is to hit up the drivers for a reasonable amount, without getting greedy. Everyone knows the going rates, more or less, and a timely payment will guarantee a cursory inspection of your vehicle, followed by a friendly wave through. The startling truth is that the system ensures that hardly a single solitary shipment ever gets opened and inspected. You can run just about anything through those borders, up to and including WMDs, if you play your cards right.
Bilal had struck pay-dirt. His fortunes (and his income) soared dramatically in those heady days when he was out at one of the border posts. Periodically, he got assigned to the crossings with Iraq and Jordan. But, sadly, he pouted, never the Turkish border, which was reputed to be the busiest and most lucrative. After years of desperate penury, Bilal and his family were suddenly living high on the hog. Another man might have saved some of this largess for a rainy day, another might have invested; but Bilal would always spend it freely—mostly on the stuff of the good life. He and his wife promptly bought themselves an expensive apartment and a new car. Later on, he got additional cars and small apartments for his two grown sons. Suddenly nouveax-riche, Bilal’s family saturated the house with costly, overstuffed furnishings and took to wearing expensive designer clothes and jewelry.
When we would meet, they would eagerly show us their latest purchases, apprising us in great detail how much they had paid. On those occasions when we stopped by Bilal’s house or went out for a meal with his family, we were struck by the degree to which the conversations invariably focused on material goods. The talk was always about cars, the price of real estate and the latest acquisitions for the home. Despite this slavish devotion to consumerism and material things, we never really felt irritated or offended by the litany of fiscal details. We understood, finally, that he and his family were not simply boasting or being smug, these material things constituted their only true passion in life. Without the cars, the clothes and the jewelry, what on earth would they have had to talk about?
Bilal’s overweight and the general state of his health became more of an issue after he hit 50. Despite its financial rewards, the customs job was pure murder. He had to put in crazy shifts, with long travel times to distant border crossings; sometimes he would not sleep for 24 hours. He often worked long nights. The job at the borders was highly stressful; shaking people down was profitable—but it was hard work. Moreover, the periods spent on the borders were short and unpredictable, mainly because of the intense pressures from within the bureaucratic corps. After all, every single officer in the customs service was busy jockeying for one of those plum assignments. When he was forced to return to Damascus for desk duty, Bilal’s income would plummet to near zero and he would again have to plot and spend his time and treasure maneuvering and cajoling, kissing up to the powerful functionaries who controlled the assignment rosters. He could never relax—and it showed.
Bilal, that young man who had once been so fit and athletic, had taken to smoking heavily early on in his customs career. He never exercised or watched what he ate. Frankly, he did not look well and his face showed an unhealthy pallor. It was just the way he was: working like a dog, living for the moment, buying stuff he didn’t really need, spending what he made while he had it. I guess he never thought about the future much.
As the first signs of the coming unrest appeared in Syria in 2011, we received some awful news. Bilal was in the hospital. Apparently, he had suffered a stroke and he had severe bleeding in his cerebral cortex. When we went to see him, he was still in a coma and he looked absolutely terrible. I think everyone assumed it was the end game, but, unexpectedly, Bilal rallied to recover… to some extent. The problem was that he had clearly lost some essential brain functions. He was now no longer able to care for himself; his long-suffering wife, who had struggled so long to raise their two boys, now had a new child to attend to, one who would never grow up. Bilal had killed himself at that job. He had never failed to protect and support his family, but now, work was out of the question. No more distant borders for him—no more windfalls; he had reached the end of his long and exhausting road.
We still sometimes visit Bilal; he does not talk but he smiles and follows our conversations with alertness. He is only a shadow of himself now but at least he is much thinner and the long years of strain and pallor have been erased from his face. Syria may now be at war, but Bilal has found his peace.