March 10, 2009

Overland Visa on Arrival for Americans in Syria
Aleppo, Syria

I haven't felt butterflies in my stomach about entering a country for a long time. I wasn't exactly excited, nor was I nervous… maybe apprehensive is the right word choice. I was less concerned with the stigma of Syria, and more with the country's immigration policy for Americans.

Officially, as an American, admission into Syria without a pre-attained visa from the Syrian consulate in Washington D.C. is not given. A visa may not be obtained at any other Syrian embassy or consulate save the one in the U.S.

Should I have taken this route, the cost for application fees and mailing of my passport (which is never gonna happen anyway) would've been in excess of US$200.

But with an ear to the ground, word on the travel path was that most any nationality can get themselves a visa at the border, regardless the official stance of the government. All it might take was some time.

How much time? Well, it's different for everyone. Regarding Americans, and presuming the immigration staff is feeling up to it that day, I heard anywhere between two and twelve hours of waiting at the border in international limbo for the officers to send a fax request to the capital, letting the ambiguous wheels of bureaucracy run their course, and receiving a faxed reply.

But an even bigger concern was all that waiting without know exactly what their response would be. You just might end up on the border for eight hours only to get shut down and forced to return to Turkey.

İskenderun to Antalya

Today started very early. I really couldn't believe it, but (my host) Jamal actually insisted on escorting me as far as he could to ensure that my exit from Turkey went as smoothly (with language and logistics) as possible. What a guy.

From Turkey to Syria

We were up and out of the door by 6:20 in the twilight of the morning, and on a bus bound for Antakya by a quarter to seven.

Sometime after 8:00 we'd arrived in Antakya, but discovered that the bus terminal had been moved to a new facility on the outskirts of town (I believe I'd read about that somewhere prior). I briefly contemplated catching a ride with the minibus of folks heading to the border, but felt particularly uneasy about the driver—rejecting the transport on account of my gut and his questionable prices.

I took a moment to collect provisions for the expectedly long wait at the frontier, and followed Jamal as he took us on a brief scavenger hunt for transport leading to the new terminal.

We arrived at the posh new bus depot around 8:45, and subsequently found myself on a large, empty tour bus heading towards the border by 9:00. On board were less than a dozen people—mostly Turks and Arabs, but also a Russian couple and an Asian fellow.

We said out goodbyes as Jamal jumped off at a primary highway intersection to catch a ride back home, and the bus rolled on towards Syria. It would've certainly been a bit of a mess if he hadn't of come along.

Dealing with the Big Man

As we neared the border we encountered miles of semitrailer trucks waiting alongside the road leading to Syria, engines off, drivers out of their cabins. They were queuing to be processed. Lord only knows how long these guys wait.

Exit formalities for Turkey were standard—swipe of the passport, glace at the face, stamp in the book. It was 10:00 a.m. when I exited the country, 78 nights had passed and $450.92 had been spent since arriving from Bulgaria in late-December. That's about an average of $5.80/day for the country.

After the passengers were processed we proceeded down the isolated road, flanked by rocky, arid countryside, barbed wire and concrete watchtowers.

I'm not sure why I was expecting something less formal than the facility found at Syria's Bāb al Hawā' border crossing, but I was. I've seen my fare share of dusty shacks doubling as government offices as I have massive structures of cold stone and glassed windows, and this checkpoint was certainly not some backwater facility.

Inside the Syrian immigration hall

I was ultimately directed over to the office of the officer in charge, where I waited silently to speak with him amidst the cluster of dark-skinned drivers fighting for him to sign paperwork. Eventually the driver of our bus joined the group and was kind enough to get the ball rolling for me.

As instructed by the officer, the driver took me back out of the office and returned me to the grunts behind the glass partition. Arguing ensued. Apparently no one wanted to take my passport, and when it became clear that no one wanted to make a photocopy of the information page, I quickly told the driver that I'd already prepared one, and back to the office we went (where he disappeared shortly thereafter).

Eventually the ranking officer called me over to his desk. I was as humble, polite and pleasant as I could be with the man. I believe just about the only heavily accented English he spoke was the questions he asked me:

Father's name?
Mother's name?
Your Job?
Where are you going?
Name of hotel?
For how long in Syria?

Of course the number one rule here—other than not to say something stupid like "journalist" for your profession—is not to mention Israel… err, "Occupied Palestine" in these parts. Such a thing is the swiftest way to get yourself denied a visa (as any indication of prior travel to Israel or even intended travel to the country is enough to prohibit entry).

I didn't know how hard I'd have to convenience anyone at the border of my plans, so to be safe I made up a fake airline ticket flying from Jordan to India at the end of March.

As always, I'm a student. That's what they want to hear, and that's what I tell them.

But just to see if it could get me some traction I also said "father" to this part of the inquiry, holding up a photo of Aidric and me. He chuckled and gave me a big grin, which was about as much as I was hoping for.

The man in charge politely dismissed me after pointing to his watch and holding up two fingers. Two hours sounded like a promising prospect.

It was 10:30 a.m.

Waiting and Waiting and Waiting

I anxiously awaited my moment of judgment with the Syrian authorities. I didn't enjoy the prospect of backtracking all the way to İskenderun in failure. A large image of the president above the customs checkpoint down the road with him displaying an outstretched, open palm seemed less like a 'welcome' and more like a 'goodbye, you ain't gettin' in here!'

Somewhere in international limbo, looking towards Syria…

I killed time as best as I could, and checked back two hours later. The man walked me over to the second in charge, who looked at the fax machine—no dice. I got a big smile and a pat on the back from the ranking officer, and he held up another finger to come back in an hour.

Hour three came and went with no sign of improvement.

…Then hour four passed. By this time I'd memorized the number system 0-9 in Arabic so that I didn't get ripped off in markets.

…Then hour five came around. I was getting nervous and the sun was getting low on the horizon. If word came too late I might easily be stuck on the border without any onward transportation options.

It was just after 3:30 in the afternoon and I watched out of the corner of my eye as an officer was fidgeting with the fax machine. Maybe he was just sending something, or maybe… just maybe… there was a paper jam that had gone unnoticed.

Because a few minutes later, lo and behold, the fax was in. My authorization had been granted.

Just Let Me Leave Already

What followed was a blur of activity compressed into a 30-minute timespan.

The big man reviewed the document and tore off the corner from piece of paper, scribbling a "16" onto it.

I took his note to a cashier, who took my 16 U.S. dollars and gave me a receipt, which I then handed to the man sitting two feet next to him (without a partition).

Syrian receipt man then took my passport and hammered away at the cigarette ash-stained keyboard for a few moments.

I then had to take the printout from ash-stained keyboard guy to another window where I continued to fight for a space with the Arabs and Turks. Finally this soldier decided to take my passport and proceeded to ask me the exact same questions that the ranking officer had asked me at 10-something in the morning while he lazily typed into the keyboard.

Half a dozen stamps in my passport later, and I was free man…. 4:00 sharp—six hours after I'd been stamped out of Turkey.


The United States


March 27th, 2009

Great post. Something about this region of the world that makes it very interesting and mysterious.

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