Where to start with this Flashback Friday? Let's get three things out in the open:
1. Most of my pregnancy with Miriam was spent in Damascus, Syria.
2. We gave Miriam the middle name Damascus. Middle names are great like that - you can have it be something totally obscure, wacko, or awesome, and no one has to know about it unless you tell them.
3. Syria is a police state. It also has a secret police, the mukhabarat, who somehow maintain a simultaneously invisible yet ubiquitous presence throughout the country. Except I don't really get the "secret" part since they have an office in the Muhajireen neighborhood of Damascus, and everyone knows about it and where it is. In fact, there are occasions in one's life in Damascus when you have to go there to obtain permission from the secret police to do something, which brings us to our Flashback Friday story.
In the summer of 2007, we were living in Jordan. Late in the summer, my mom and brother came to visit, and we decided to take another trip up to Syria. Jeremy, Miriam, and I had already visited Syria a few months before, and it was great to see all our old favorite haunts, walk around in our old neighborhood, eat at all our favorite restaurants (The Barfait, below), etc.
It was especially fun for everyone to meet Miriam, and for her to visit her namesake.
Jeremy had too much to do in Amman, so the four of us - my mom, my brother Steven, Miriam, and I - set out for Damascus. One of the main things we wanted to do while we were there was visit the war-ruined town of Quneitra, in the Golan Heights. The actual ruined area is under the administration of the United Nations, and you're not allowed to visit it unless you get a permit from - you guessed it - the secret police, the mukhabarat.
Jeremy and I had visited Quneitra a few years before, and so I knew that getting the permit could be a time-consuming, annoying process. Worse, it wasn't even guaranteed. The secret police could deny us a permit for whatever reason they chose, or made up. Basically, we just had to go to their office, hand over our passports, and hope for the best. Jeremy and I had managed to do it once before; I only hoped I could do it again, this time with my mom and brother and Miriam along for the ride.
Early in the morning on the day of our intended visit, we made our way to the secret police office (that still sounds wrong to me somehow). There had just been an election (I am seriously not putting that word in quotes lest I anger someone, somewhere) and so there were posters like this hanging up all over town:
Actually, wait - no, this was just a poster hanging outside of a glass shop. The posters of re-elected President Bashar al-Assad looked more like this. And they were everywhere:
So we felt very much like Big Brother was watching us, even as we made our way to Big Brother's office to beg for a permit to Quneitra.
As usual, there was a gaggle of armed guards hanging out on the steps of the building. We handed over our passports and settled in for a wait of indeterminate length, trying to keep our distance from the men brandishing large firearms.
To our collective amazement, only 15 or 30 minutes had gone by before one of the secret police came out and told us that our paperwork had been processed and approved, and another worker would bring it out to us shortly. I couldn't believe it! It was definitely our lucky day.
When the worker came out with our passports and permits, it turned out to be no other than one of the senior secret police. I have no idea if he was the actual top guy, or just one of his higher-up minions, but he was dressed snazzier than all of the other workers and he certainly had an air of authority about him that was not derived from having a gun on his belt. I remember realizing at the time that he was head of something, but I couldn't say for sure that he was the #1.
He handed over our paperwork with supreme graciousness, and then turned to my 1.5-year-old daughter, Miriam Damascus.
"Miriam Damascus," he said. "What a beautiful name. Welcome to Syria, Miriam Damascus."
It was pretty much the most deference Miriam had ever been shown in her tiny life. This secret police top gun was just enchanted by the fact that Miriam's middle name was Damascus, and he had come all the way out of his office in great state just to tell us so. I'd never been happier about having given her that name.
With our paperwork complete, we were free to catch a minibus to Quneitra. It's just about the least happy tourist destination I've ever been to, but it still has a certain melancholy appeal:
We had a very good visit, and a very efficient one, thanks to Miriam and her middle name.