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On A Bus To Baghdad

   

Back in Beirut it had seemed like a good idea: follow one of the old caravan routes from Damascus to Baghdad. Recapture the excitement of those ancient travelers who dared the long, dangerous journey between two of the known world's major capitals. See Baghdad as the minstrels and merchants once saw it, at dawn, with fresh sunlight shining on pink marble parapets and turquoise domes, on golden minarets and banners and on fountains splashing in green gardens...

That was back in Beirut. Here, at the edge of the Syrian Desert, it was quite different. It was dawn, yes, and Baghdad was just over the horizon. But I already knew that it was going to be disappointing. In the darkness of the preceding night, as we roared across the desert in a long steel bus, I had discovered that the world just isn't like that any more.

I had left Damascus with high hopes. The bus was suitably old and rugged. Albert the driver, a stout, red-faced veteran of 31 years of driving, seemed certain to be a source of fascinating stories. There was the intriguing fact that the Nairn Transport Company advertised itself as "The Overland Desert Mail Service," a phrase that fairly echoed with the sound of adventure.

The bus left precisely at 2 p.m. Albert, I learned later, made it a point to leave right on time and indeed had for 19 years, a habit his more typically Middle Eastern colleagues undoubtedly looked upon as an amusing aberration attributable to prolonged association with those odd New Zealanders who had founded and run the bus company many years ago.

At first there was little to see. Albert edged the long bus neatly into the flow of bicycles, motorcycles and taxis that dodged and darted along the Street of Seven pools and wove his way through the congestion, heading for the suburbs. From there we drove through the green plantations and groves of olive trees in the Ghuta Oasis, through the village of Harasta and through the town called Duma, a cluster of clay houses amid vast vineyards. Soon we were pushing east through the narrow belt of green fertility that reaches across an open plain in Syria for a hundred miles.

There is something about the forced intimacy of a bus that seems to produce an inordinate awkwardness among passengers. They sit in stiff, withdrawn silence as if resenting the need to sit so close to so many strangers. But on the bus to Baghdad such restraint passed quickly. At first the only movement came from Adham Elias, the steward, who was laving out lunches. But in less than an hour the passengers had begun to exchange tentative comments on the weather and the scenery and had begun to offer fragments of information concerning themselves. I, furtively, had slipped my notebook into my lap, thinking: "Now I will find the drama and color I came for; now, as the bus hurtles toward the desert, they will draw closer together and they will talk and in their conversations they will disclose the mysteries of fate that brought them together on this bus."

There were 15 passengers in all, seven Iraqis, two Syrians, two Lebanese, two Kuwaitis, one Iranian, and one Frenchman. I inspected them, discreetly, sure that in such a mixed group I would find any number of fascinating vignettes of motive and behavior. That little girl, for instance, six-year-old Nuha. She was undoubtedly a lonely, heartbroken orphan being shipped off to Baghdad to live with distant cousins, who not only wouldn't want her, but would beat her cruelly. And the man slouched in his seat across from her, the Frenchman, M. Fortier. His manner was definitely suspicious; he kept staring out the window. A spy, without a doubt. Next to him was the Iraqi with a suitcase he kept touching, anxiously, surreptitiously. Could he be anything but a smuggler?

The answer, unfortunately, was yes. He could have been—and was—a casual visitor who had bought some new clothes in Beirut and was worried about getting them through customs without paying high duties. Furthermore, M. Fortier turned out to be merely a tourist on his first trip to the Middle East and Nuha's only problems had do do with her doll's refusal to go to sleep. There were not, it seemed, any murderers, jewel thieves, heiresses or fugitives in the cast. There wasn't even a single secret agent.

It took some time to arrive at this unhappy conclusion, of course, and in the meantime the bus had reached the desert. The green fertility of orchard, grove and field had surrendered to a harsher terrain where gorse and bunch grass poked out of packed, colorless sand. That terrain had in turn given way to pebbled desert. The paved road petered out and Albert swung off the pavement and headed east on the 504-mile track to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a tail of beige dust boiling up behind.

In the bus the change of direction went largely unnoticed. By then most of the passengers were absorbed in their various conversations and, as the desert opened before us, the sound of Arabic in four distinctly regional accents rose above the growl of the motor. Mrs. Jamila I'lanna, an elderly but quite hearty and outgoing lady, was describing to Mansour as-Safi, an Iraqi lawyer, Lebanon's summer resorts, which she had just visited. She was comparing conditions today to what they were 15 years ago—better, she said—when she had first visited Lebanon. Mr. as-Safi was nodding agreeably, but insisting that the cost of living had risen too much. The man with the suitcase of clothes was absorbing with avid interest the advice of an older, and obviously well-traveled, passenger: "You want to get through customs without paying duty on those clothes? I tell you how. First you put on as many of them as you can wear. Then you crumple up the rest before you put them in the suitcase. Next you smear a little dust on them. Not enough to spoil the clothes; just enough to make them look old. Then ..."

It was an hour and a half after the bus left the highway that Albert braked for the first stop. We had arrived at a place called Khan esh-Shamat, the Shamat Resthome. It was a lonely place, with two structures of yellowed sandstone almost the exact color of desert sand. In one structure is a resthouse where passengers can buy coffee or tea; the other serves as a barracks for a detachment of the Hajjana, the camel cavalry, and as a passport inspection office. Khan esh-Shamat is a major outpost in the Syrian Desert and the soldiers, looking particularly fierce in their uniforms and headcloths, welcomed us with a curious mixture of gratitude, for breaking the solitude, and caution, because they alone were now responsible for the passengers. We got out at the resthouse, watched the assistant driver check the tires, brakes and engine and wandered around aimlessly for about 15 minutes while the passport officials cleared a busload of Syrian pilgrims en route to Mecca. Then the immigration officers called us in and began checking passports. Always the optimist, I permitted my flagging hopes to rise for a minute. Perhaps here the adventure would begin. Perhaps here on the lonely desert these fierce soldiers would discover that Madame Hanna had just made off with a week's proceeds from the Casino in Lebanon. Perhaps they would unmask M. Fortier as the man who seized Ben Barka. Perhaps ...

But no. They merely lined us up, looked at the passports and asked us the usual questions: "Where are you going?" "Why are you going there?" It was quite routine and soon, with second driver Mehyo al-Jassim taking over from Albert, the bus started off again.

The desert now was flatter than before. It was like clay covered with a layer of sand. Our next stop was Sab' Biyar, "the Seven Wells," 62 miles away, and as Khan esh-Shamat faded behind us Mehyo al-Jassim began to pick his way through dozens of seemingly identical tracks that crisscrossed the sand. For a man who was once a Bedouin, I suppose, it was easy. Almost as if he had a road map in front of him instead of featureless desert, he switched from one track to another, avoiding ruts and bumps, and never, apparently, in doubt about where he was going. But then, I remembered he had made this trip before—about 600 times according to him.

Up to that point I had paid much more attention to the passengers and drivers than to the bus itself. But it finally occurred to me that this vehicle, 64 feet long and 20 years old, was a rather remarkable job of automotive construction. Every week, when possible, it had made a rugged trip across the desert through summer dust and winter mud, yet the ride it offered was still amazingly comfortable and quiet. Lounging back in their foam rubber seats, sealed off from the dust and heat, cooled by air conditioning, the passengers—18 of them when the bus is full—could just barely hear the roar of the big diesel engine and despite the terrain were able to talk or read in comfort. Even Nuha, finally convinced that her doll was going to sleep soundly, had begun to relax and look around at all the grownups. It was rather like an airplane in flight, I decided, except that there were no seatbelts.

After the halt at the resthouse, silence had fallen again. But then Khalid al-Khazraji, an Iraqi schoolteacher, decided that it would be a shame to waste all this time and offered to give an English lesson. The bored passengers readily agreed and for the next two hours he and some others, rolling along at 40 miles an hour, reviewed the basics of English grammar and pronunciation.

In just over two hours we reached Sab' Biyar, a small outpost named after the seven wells dug there a very long time ago for the benefit of those crossing the desert by camel between the two great cities of Damascus and Baghdad. The wells, we discovered, were scattered around a rather wide area and seemed to be very deep—100 yards at least.

We only stayed 10 minutes at Sab' Biyar during which time the Hajjana, the desert soldiers, checked the bus and waved it on to at-Tinf as-Suri, our next stop. We reached this post, the last Syrian checkpoint on our journey, some two hours later. It was quite dark by then and we could see little of the small and isolated post except the faint light coming from the windows of the resthouse, and the old building's vague outlines. After a short stay we drove on again, crossing the Iraqi frontier shortly after. In less than an hour we stopped again, this time to be checked by the Iraqi Hajjana at a place called at-Tinf al-Iraqi.

The night was cool and dark when we headed for ar-Rutba, the main Iraqi customs and immigration junction where all traffic from Syria and Jordan meets. The trip was uneventful. Far away in front purred the big engine. Outside it was pitch dark. Because it was still too early to sleep, most of the passengers talked. An attractive, well-dressed 15-year-old girl from Kuwait, whose name was Balquis, told us that she and her father had been to Beirut to say goodby to her brother who was going to study in the United States. "We were all quite gay, but then the ship began to move and I could not hold my tears."

A lady from Syria, who was sitting next to Balquis, spoke for the first time. "Don't we all have our sorrows, my dear?" And she began to tell us why she was going to Baghdad. One of her daughters was a very beautiful girl and many men had asked permission to marry her. Finally a young man from Iraq who said he was a wealthy merchant and a member of a fine family, was accepted, and the marriage was performed and the girl went off to Baghdad, This man, the woman said, had promised to take his wife to her people in Damascus every month, but hadn't brought her even once; worse, the daughter had even stopped writing. So, she, the mother, terribly worried, had decided to go to Iraq and see for herself what was going on.

As she told her story, the bus fell silent. Jamila Hanna leaned forward to listen. So did Mansour as-Safi, the lawyer, and Khalid al-Khazraji and the two Lebanese and Murtada 'Abadi, a professor of chemistry at the University of Teheran. Even M. Fortier who couldn't understand a word sensed the sadness in the woman's voice.

When she had finished, everybody was full of sympathy and began to offer advice or tried to cheer her up. But of course they couldn't. Only arrival at Baghdad, still a night's drive away, could do that.

At midnight we arrived at ar-Rutba, an important center with a large government building and a new resthouse. There were numerous buses, trucks and cars parked here, most of them bearing Kuwaiti license plates. Again our passports were inspected and then we all went for refreshments to the resthouse, where at last I began to question Albert. He was wary at first but eventually told me something of his past as we sipped tea. He told me that he had driven his own truck across the Syrian desert for 12 years before starting to work for the Nairn Transport Company. That had been 19 years before and he had been on the Damascus-Baghdad route ever since, driving the same bus and making the trip at least once, sometimes twice per week.

"The trailer is my home, the desert my land and I know them both like I know myself," he said simply.

The company, Albert said, had been in business for 43 years and its safety record was perfect. Were things much different when he started working for them, 19 years ago? "The road is better here and there, so we can travel faster than we did in the old days. The section from here at ar-Rutba to Baghdad, for instance, is now paved. On the whole, the journey is also safer than it used to be since we're well protected by the governments concerned. As for our equipment, we have better engines now and their maintenance has been improved."

I waited for the stories to come—stories of bandits and breakdowns, of raids on small outposts, of, well, adventure. But—I wasn't really surprised anymore—there were none. It was just a job and Albert had done it well and that, as far as he was concerned, was all there was to say.

We stayed 2½ hours at ar-Rutba. Then Albert finally announced our departure. "We have a long ride ahead of us," he said. "I'm going to get a little sleep. I advise you to do the same."

Inside the trailer the steward distributed blankets and switched off the lights. It was cold but most of the passengers, weary from hours of driving, soon fell asleep. That was when I decided grumpily that romance had certainly gone out of the world. Here I had been traveling for half a day and part of a night through what used to be the most exciting and exotic country in the world and not a single incident had occurred to break the routine monotony of the trip. Tomorrow there would be Baghdad and I already knew from photographs that it was a far cry from the fairy tale splendors of the days when Haroun al-Rashid paved his roads with silver and tiled his walls with porcelain, when silks flowed in from China and pearls from the Arabian Gulf, when the great Haroun's palace pointed golden spires to the sky and Haroun himself walked the streets in disguise to find out what his subjects thought of him...

Not that I really expected it to be even remotely like that, but there ought to be something left of those days, some vague spirit of mystery, some whiff of ancient beauty, some trace of the vision that was once the glory of the Orient. And there wasn't at all. So, annoyed, frustrated, I fell asleep.

At dawn I awoke, still gloomy, to find the bus rolling swiftly through the Iraqi horn of the Fertile Crescent. We stopped once to change drivers, rode on and about 7 o'clock reached the agricultural town of ar-Ramadi, then crossed the Euphrates. Although it was early there were people on the road and in the villages. Some waved as we roared by. Beside me my companion, a photographer, had awakened too. But instead of moving he sat motionless looking around at our fellow passengers who were beginning to gather their belongings. Then he said:

"You know," he said, "I thought this trip was going to be very boring, but it has actually been, well, romantic."

I stared at him in disbelief. Had he lost his senses? Was he teasing me?

"I mean, look around," he said. "There's a little six-year-old girl who crooned to a doll in the middle of the desert so it would go to sleep. There's a teacher who thinks nothing of giving an English lesson at 40 miles an hour. There's a driver who used to be a Bedouin. One man is trying to get some valuable clothes through customs and a complete stranger is trying to show him how. And a Frenchman, off alone in Iraq without knowing a word of Arabic; an Iranian professor on his way back from Europe; a young girl mourning a brother who is somewhere at sea on the greatest adventure of his life; and a mother looking for a daughter who may be somewhere in Baghdad right now wondering if she'll ever see her again."

He shook his head. "So many interesting people on one small bus."

I thought for a moment and then nodded slowly in agreement. "Yes,... yes, they are, aren't they? Very interesting." And to myself, I added, "and I almost didn't notice."

I went back to looking out the window then, at the flashing panorama of farm villages and towns, of narrow canals, of small houses and occasional schools. We passed al-Falluja a famous agricultural center and at 9 o'clock, 19 hours after we left Damascus, saw, on the horizon, in a ragged blur, what was obviously a large city. The steward said, "Baghdad!" We crossed the great new bridge that spans the Tigris and leads into the city, and there it was, Baghdad, the glory of the Orient, just as I thought, there were no golden minarets or turquoise domes, no banners flying, no pink palaces with fountains splashing in green gardens. But I couldn't have cared less. I had too many interesting people to say goodbye to.

Written by Fuad Rayess. This article appeared on pages 2-8 of the September/October 1966 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.