Toss and catch game at the Syrian border

“Life in Tadmur is like walking in a minefield; death can come about at any moment either because of torture, jailers’ brutality, sickness, or execution.” [amnesty]

The first months in [Tadmur] prison they hoped for an eventual release. Then one day, the guards set up the nooses in Courtyard 6. The periodical hangings began, and their optimism slowly evaporated. Each prisoner going to be hanged would cry out his name, so the rest would know of his fate. Families were often not told the status of their sons, where they were, or if they were dead or alive. It was up to the remaining prisoners to keep a record of the dead. Once, in a Damascus detention center, Bara witnessed a man from Idleb enter their cell. He had been “under investigation” in Tadmor for four years. He was shocked to see his father, an elderly man in his eighties, detained as well. The father wept with joy and sorrow, repeating over and over, “I thought you were dead.” [source]

In police states treating people inhumanly is not exclusive to the citizens it even affects visitors. Traveling to Syria by car is one of the worst way to enter this country. Nevertheless, Most Jordanians travel to Syria by car. The distance from my hometown (Irbid, Jordan) to Damascus is only 100 KM (62 Mile) and the distance from Irbid to Amman’s airport is about 90 KM (55 Mile), add to that the expensive ticket prices. Therefore, it is much cheaper and less hassle, than buying air tickets, to travel by car to Damascus.

At Syria’s border with Jordan the border patrol agents have to be bribed to let you in the country. Of course, they treat Americans and Europeans different than Arabs so I am not sure about the protocol when it comes to them entering the country. Anyway, the Arab traveler MUST put some green bills inside the passport for him to receive back his passport in a reasonable time. I will explain shortly.

In the 80s, many Jordanians used to go to Syria by Taxi not by their own cars because it was known that some government officials may steal foreign cars if they were new German or American cars. No kidding! Importing goods from non-communist countries is not the norm in this country. And since the criminal in this case is a high rank officer the car will never be found. Some of you unfamiliar with the situation their may ask how people knew that cars used to be stolen by some government’s agent and not just by a normal criminal? Because a Syrian citizen will be questioned of how he managed to own a Mercedes or a Buick when the country does not import such models, he can’t get a license plate for his car but a corrupt government agent can.

So, let us see how a taxi with the driver and five passengers enter Syria:

  1. From Irbid to the Syrian border it is only 20 minutes drive.
  2. At Syria’s border travelers in the taxi hand their passports to the border patrol agent.
  3. The agent checks the passports page by page to see what countries these people visited. Countries like Israel and Iraq are questionable. The Syrian passport for example explicitly indicates that Syrians can’t visit Iraq. Although Iraq and Syria in the 70s and 80s had the same ruling Baath party, go figure.
  4. After the agent asks unnecessary questions he gives back the passports and let the car in.
  5. At the Syrian border, the driver parks his taxi in front of a very ugly building. All the passengers including the driver go inside the building to get their passports stamped for entry
  6. Inside the building, there are about five or six windows at the counter. One for Non-Arab travelers, another for Syrians and another for Arabs. The other two or three windows are to collect passports back.
  7. When entering the building Jordanians hand in their passports to the agent.
  8. The agent at the window collects about 50 or 100 passports and put them in a carton box then he leave with the box to another room inside and comes back with an empty box. Repeat.
  9. The officers or agents in that room do some thorough check up.
  10. Some travelers might be called inside for further investigation. That is asking many questions such as; Why you are coming to Syria? Where are you staying? Who are you meeting? How long you will stay, etc.
  11. While passports are being checked inside, travelers wait between 1 to 4 hours in the normal situation.
  12. Now for the fun part; the toss and catch game. Because Syrian government likes to make its border different than any other in the world border patrol agents pass back the passports like a happy American bride tosses her bouquet at the reception for all single women present to compete in catching it. After passports are checked and stamped, an agent from that room comes with a carton box and hand stacks of passports to the 4 or 5 agents at the window. Each agent calls a name. The traveler upon hearing his name shouts “I am here.” The agent then throws the passport above the glass window. The traveler then needs to jump and catch his passport.
  13. There are no queues and no first come first serve. The five travelers who share a taxi will never receive back their passports one after another. One may receive it back in an hour another maybe in two hours or may be more.
  14. So why this time difference between travelers in the same car? The first agent who collects the 100 or so passports throws them in a box then he turns the box over on the table inside that mysterious room. By now, the passports are of course not stacked rather scattered on the table. In that room, I guess there are 3 or 4 agents. Each agent will work on some passports. When they finish some of these passports they put them back in the box and send it to the agents at the counter to toss them back to the travelers.
  15. Inside that room bribe money is collected from passports. Passports without green bills may stay in the room for hours before they appear again at the counter.
  16. Next, the custom.

To be continued…

4 thoughts on “Toss and catch game at the Syrian border

  1. I often thought it would be a great idea to have a turnpike with no speed limit between Jordan and Lebanon through Syria where each car would pay a fee at the Syrian border and there would be no exits on this turnpike in Syria except at the other border thus eliminating the need for passport controls except for the two destinations. The fee collected would go to Syria while the other two countries would collect their normal entry and exit fees. Of course this would make it way too easy and comfortable for travelers and we know the Baath Party would never tolerate such a project even though one could still use the normal routes to enter or exit Syria.

    1. I am sure Jordanians would love this idea. I used to go to Syria every summer and always wanted to visit Lebanon but at that time Jordanians needed visa to enter Lebanon.
      Also, the Baath party used to be very influential on Lebanon, almost in control of the country.

    1. The other problem is that you would never expect how you would be welcomed there. The treatment goes from bad to worse depending on the political situation between Jordan and Syria.

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