Saturday, January 10, 2009

Flashback Friday: Visa #1559

Today's Flashback Friday story is a poetic tale of an oppressed people rising up to shake off the burden of occupation. It is also the story of men with guns telling jokes, and of us laughing at those jokes, nervously.

You may recall that in April 2005, relations between Syria and Lebanon were strained. Tensions were running high over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut in Feburary. Evidence was mounting that Syria was behind the attack, and UN Resolution 1559, which called for the withdrawal of occupying Syrian troops from Lebanon and which had been enacted months before the assassination, was gaining new prominence as many Lebanese people expressed strong anti-Syrian sentiment. Syria's days as an influential force in Lebanon were numbered, and Resolution 1559 meant that the Syrian army would pull out of Lebanon, probably very soon.

Beirut in the evening (this picture and the ones below taken by my parents).

What better time to visit Beirut? At least that seemed to be the thinking of my parents and brother and me as we were traveling on the northern Syrian coast. After a few days in Tartous and Lattakia, we headed down to Beirut through Tripoli for a short visit.

The well-used border crossing between the east/west Damascus to Beirut route was not necessarily a model of efficiency, but it got a lot more traffic than the northern border crossing did. I was a little nervous about trying the northern route since you just never knew if they'd let you through or not. It all seemed to depend far too much on the individual border official's mood.

My worries were not assuaged by the realization that this northern border consisted of a few concrete buildings in the middle of nowhere. The bustling relative order of the other international crossings I was familiar with was entirely absent. More than ever before, our ability to obtain a visa to leave one country and enter the other rested entirely on the whim of the immigration officials on both sides.

Remnants of the Lebanese civil war in Beirut.

We passed through the Syrian side with no problem. I took a small breath of relief and then geared up to take my family through the Lebanese side. The small building was empty of any other travelers besides my family and me, which meant we got all the attention of the border officials, almost all of whom were carrying guns.

We hit a small snag early on when I filled out my Lebanese immigration card using a green pen. The border official taking my paperwork frowned and directed me to use a tamer color such as blue or black. I complied, and realized just how lightly we would have to tread to get through successfully.

Suddenly, one of the border officials called out my brother's name and beckoned him over to his desk. I panicked. What could we have done wrong? Was something out of order on his passport? Were we going to have to turn around and go back into Syria? This was my family's only chance to visit Lebanon and I could already see the opportunity slipping away.

As soon as he had our attention, and the attention of all the other guards in the building, the official called out in a stern voice, "Your visa number is 1559." Then, his face broke into a wide grin. Same with all the other guards. Since they were all holding guns, and we weren't, we all started smiling, too.

Aaaaaah, sweet, sweet American food at the Subway in Beirut, like mannah from heaven for pregnant me.

Quickly, I realized what was going on: 1559, the UN Resolution that would kick Syria out of Lebanon at last. That's what the number meant to all those Lebanese guards. I explained it as well as I could to my family so we could all laugh along with them, because that's what they were doing. The previously stuffy, tense atmosphere of the remote border station had become absolutely jovial and hopeful. "This means good luck in Lebanon," the official said as he handed back my brother's passport. We were free to go, with all the smiles and best wishes from the Lebanese border guards.

We had a nice time in Lebanon and left the country late at night to go back to Syria, this time on the well-traveled east/west road. It was 10 or 11 in the evening and there wasn't much traffic driving along with us. Close to the border, however, we passed a long convoy of tanks, missiles on trailers, and trucks carrying hundreds of troops - all marked with the Syrian flag, or wearing Syrian uniforms. We passed that convoy and others several more times on the way back to Damascus as we each went through our separate border stops.

It was Resolution 1559 in action, happening right before our eyes: the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Damascus had caved at last.

I don't know that it was good luck, necessarily, as the border guard had told us, but 1559 turned out to be a fitting theme for that short trip to Lebanon.


Susanne said...

Neat story. I'm glad on the Syrian side that they did not think 1559 was a bad enough thing to keep you all from crossing the border.

Thanks for sharing.

Susanne said...

Oh nevermind. I think the 1559 visa was given by the Lebanese side so the Syrians didn't know., obviously, I've never traveled to speak of. I was thinking of a passport number, I guess...oops.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

I'll never forget the 1559 experience at the border crossing and it certainly gave the border guards a story to tell at home afterward. Bush had been strong-arming Assad to get his troops out of Lebanon and we were undoubtedly among a tiny group of Americans to be observers of Bush's success.

It was a rare experience, to actually witness history being made, late at night on the Beirut-Damascus road.

Nancy said...

Wow! That's so neat. :)

Britney said...

What a thrill that must've been- both dealing with the Lebanese guards and watching Syria's exodus.


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