5/21/2010

Tel Abyad


I was lost in Raqqa's blazing streets by noon. A row of greasy sweet shops, a falafel stand and a few grimy storefronts dangling with freshly dead and dusty cows welcomed me just around the corner from the bus stop. It was cloudless, windy and blindingly bright. One of Syria's larger cities, downtown Raqqa still felt like the middle of the desert. I switched stations to catch my microbus north, which was when I met Weis Dada. 

He'd been turning his head awkwardly from the front passenger seat for a glimpse of my face or what I was reading. I didn't look up from the pages until he finally asked where I was heading. My eyes met his thick mustache and eyebrows as I told him: Şanlıurfa, just across the Turkish border. Why not stay in Tel Abyad with my family, he offered. "I'll show you my trees." 

I agreed. He looked a bit like Borat, but the resemblance ended there: he was smooth, genuine and intelligent. I hopped into his friend's taxi as soon as we landed at the Syrian border town. 

Weis delivered as an excellent host, although he had loads of help from his family. His mother amassed a giant home-cooked feast of chicken, rice and stuffed grape leaves. His much older brother lent me a white galabiya. He politely insisted I wear it in the house. I tried to remember the last time I'd done my laundry. 

Meanwhile, Weis himself gave me the city tour. It was a small concrete cluster spread out below an ancient-looking mound, scattered with old, decked-out motorbikes, colorful hajj murals and kids playing street soccer. At the edge of town was a small reservoir into which boys were launching themselves. Before we'd gone two minutes down the main drag's metal-shuttered stalls and workshops, Weis stopped and turned around: "that's Tel Abyad." Weis much preferred spending his spare time in Raqqa, the big dustbowl in which we'd met, assuring me that its seedy underground and wealth of ancient sites make it well worth another visit. On the way back, he nodded without enthusiasm at a mosque marking the spot Abraham settled on his journey south from Harran, almost apologetic over his town's lack of history. 

Weis also brought me to his promised trees. A few hilly acres of them, running south from the border road. As we walked through the orchards he talked a little about his business ventures in Turkey and a bit about my potential business ventures in Italy (finding him parts for the Syrian government), but mostly about his trees. Some were dead, others were dying, and he watered them all valiantly. 

As we strolled across the cracked mud floor a truck rolled up the dirt road and out came various members of Weis' family, including his father, a white bearded sheikh with the wise and gentle air of a biblical patriarch. The women milled about for a few minutes before a brother drove them away somewhere. The other men were left to sit quietly over the orchard with a pot of shay, chatting off and on about politics while staring down Kurdistan to the north. When the last brother returned with the truck, all the males of Weis' family (aside from those that had gone off to fight the Zionists) were present. It was a gathering that took place every other week among Weis' trees. We remained until sunset. Finally the old sheikh stirred and everyone cleared out into the back of the truck. 

The next morning Weis handed me a number for a certain Yusef, one of his contacts in Urfa, and dropped me off at the border post, trying to use his wusta to speed me through customs. Regardless, I waited an hour in the officers' smoky hall while they all watched a local "cultural program" consisting of young girls shaking their hips to a slow, dull Bedouin beat. They could barely pull their eyes away to give me the goodbye nod. 

I crossed the border on foot and within minutes was off to Urfa with a couple Kurds, speeding through the open plains of Harran. 

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