[Ashraf’s Tales of Arabia] Borders and Smugglers

Abu Hassan, the man of books, in the north Syrian city of is Al-Qusair, is fond of two things; cave and spring.

His most endearing document is Al-Qusair’s cave which survived damage or destruction by quarry dynamite, thanks to the efforts of his city people.

Abu Hassan sat on the cave’s threshold on a heap of ashes saying: “My house door lies under this ash! I wanted to preserve this cave after it was discovered, so I carried my house door to protect the entrance to the cave and make it its door, but explosions destroyed it. Thank God, that has stopped now.”

I moved to a project designed to preserve the cave and ensure safe exploration trips inside it. I carefully descended, with two children going down before us carrying small pebbles with Abu Hassan who knows the place very well as we learnt multiplication tables by heart before calculators were invented. The two hosting brothers encouraged me and sometimes carried my camera, with the poet Muhammad Walid Al-Masry, reminding his Egyptian roots, urging me saying:

“Don’t let them call us cowards! we are the grandsons of Ramses the second who was steadfast in Kadesh!”

I descended the huge, dry and wet rocks. I sometimes grabbed the air and the cold stalagmites formed over millions of years from drops of water. As we left the cave I looked at the mount I went out of as if I were born again… a mount separating the Syro-Lebanese border, with the Jeeta Cave on the other side. Is there a link between the two caves, I wonder… a question requiring more ages to answer!

Two groups of people sat at two tables in front of us in a restaurant, my companion pointed at them saying:

“These are smuggling stars, especially heavy oil smuggling.”

Like any border area, Al-Qusair witnesses a sharp difference in the price of subsidized and other non-subsidized goods, driving many young men and women to profit from border smuggling, most of the proceeds of which are wasted on mobile and international calls in search of love and gain from satellite channel quiz shows respectively.

Those not involved in smuggling risk stealing international lines. I read a report about the area and how its geographic position on the border helped form a community with distinguishing features different from other rural communities. The very possibility of fast gain in any agricultural area that suffered sharp shortages of water and falling agricultural returns last decade in spite of its special position on the banks of the Asi River near its source in Al-Harmel in Lebanon, motivates many inhabitants of these areas to engage in smuggling.

When you pass by petrol stations at 5 a.m. you see some young men queuing for heavy oil which they carry beyond the border to earn a few piasters more. All these young men are members of the communities who live in border zones along the Lebanese north-eastern border, in Al-Qusair (50,000 people) or its villages: Zita, Qarnia, Naim, Aqrabia, Argon, Al-Nazaria, Ribla, etc, whose population conbined is 150,000 people. The conditions of educated people and teachers are not better than studentsO; village teachers in the border strip carry imported items to their towns. The items are bought by their students at Lebanese villages.

Abject poverty and fear of hunger, coupled with widespread employment and overpopulation in recent decades, forced many miserable boys to give up school and dream of a very small capital, starting from smuggling 50 liters of heavy oil or a gas cylinder using a bicycle from Syria to Lebanon in return for bringing home appliances, glassware or consumables… attractive business when all doors are closed… an easy but dangerous continuing job that usually ends in jail and hence crime.

Boys and teenagers’ daily earnings from such smuggling do not exceed 300 Syrian pounds (US $ 6), going up little by little with age and experience. It is a tragedy threatening the border community including Al-Qusair…. a phenomenon needing a solution that saves the future and the poor and restores respect of learning and creative work. Developing the area as a tourist destination, by excavating the antiquities of Kadesh, preparing Al-Qusair Cave for visitors or providing the stone mills on the Asi with appropriate facilities, may have an economic and social impact preventing danger. Organizers of the Silk Route festivals may also add Al-Qusair to their map, as thousands of people look forward to the mantle of history and nature.

Love and Farewell

The road took us to a final turn where the artist Radwan Toama lives. He used to paint from his earliest youth and never left the brush despite long suffering from illness and disability. I looked at the many paintings hanging from the ceiling like color chandeliers and the paintings hung on walls like decorated lamps carrying messages of love of this city and customs as the artist preferred the diary of this city and landmarks with his brush: bridge, mills, harvest, lute player, birds, the Asi, dough and bread makers, “messaharati” (a job of the man who is calling people to get up and finish there meals in the holy month of Ramadan before the light of the dawn breaks), grain miller, milk churner. He didn’t even forget faces.

Our hosts Fadi and Faris laughed when Abu Hassan had a meaningful smile on his face as I asked him about a beautiful lady smiling in one of his paintings. He confessed:

“I was asked to make many reproductions of this painting in particular!”

Steps and poems

Poetry is as green as the open spaces; frivolous steps and childish mirth upon seeing the Asi to the right and to the left… take a little rest where the features of the city, the countryside and the desert mix like the waves of the Asi water… overlooking the edges of the Syrian desert filled with the scent of steppe herbs, such as wormwood, smell the fragrance of cardamom and bitter coffee, while the folk poet Qubais Al-Shadadi, our host, making coffee in his quest room read some of his quatrain poems, inspiring the poet Waleed Al-Masry to reply in his own poetry.

The smell of bread was not the only thing that mixed with breeze, but so did the fragrance of roses whose colors covered the palette of the past and present, watered by the Asi’s tears and blood which are drunk by looking between Kadesh and Al-Qusair. I leave the area going down a road lined by green walnut fields crossing the villages of Al-Deminah, Al-Hamra and Al-Dabaa which bade me farewell before reaching Shinshar at the south-east Damascus-Homs crossroads, the distance which was one the scene of war, and many a time the scene of love, but always, the peace or perhaps the Silk Road.

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