No query is more fatal to the traveler's peace of mind than "What on earth am I doing here?" The question results from a collision with reality, and implies the wish that one had stayed at home. It last sprang to my lips one summer evening at the border crossing between Urfa, in southeastern Turkey, and Aleppo, in Syria.
It was about 6 o'clock, and my bus journey toward Aleppo seemed to have run aground at this Syrian frontier post where I had been since noon. Shallow gray hills and a stony plain surrounded the collection of tin huts through which the road ran. Rubbish and refuse completed a scene of dereliction, which was made faintly uneasy by wrecked and overturned automobiles glinting or rusting among stagnant pools.
It had been a very hot day, one which had begun for me in Urfa before dawn. Now I was waiting to enter Syria, and on the road waited my bus, a couple of horse-drawn carts of vegetables and some Turkish trucks painted with scenes of lakes and mountains. All preferred the heat of the sun to any shade offered by those tin huts, or by the concrete blockhouse through whose open windows came the loud, excitable voices of Syrian guards.
It was a place utterly without attractions. A mile or so to the north lay Turkey, her frontier post a paradise compared to this. There, just a few hours before, wide old plane trees had shaded us in a dusty yard where water trickled from a fountain. And there, in his kiosk, the usual opportunist vendor offered sherbet and oranges behind a counter scented with two wonderful red roses stolen from a bed in front of the guardhouse. It was Turkey at her best, Turkey showing her nomad's talent for making the traveler's bivouac pleasant while he awaits events.
At the end of an hour or so, our passports stamped, we drove off in good humor. Two jolly young women, one dressed as a starlet of the 1950s, the other shrouded to the eyes in cloak and veil, had quickly caught the soldiers' fancy, accepting several roses each from that useful bed by the guardhouse, and their badinage as the bus rattled towards Syria brightened up the back seats no end. I shared my row with a pile of suitcases, half a vacuum cleaner, two bird cages and an Arab greengrocer with his sack. On one side of the road were rusty entanglements of Turkish wire; on the other, Syria's concrete defenses bared wolfish white teeth in the harsh light.
It had been midday when we had left Turkey, and it was now after 6. The jolly young women were long gone. Acting no doubt on the principle that men are the same everywhere, they had entered the guardhouse confidently and, later, had emerged smiling to be put into a car with their suitcases and driven away. The rest of us had become familiar with one another as the hours passed, the camaraderie of shipwreck ensuring that no one was left long to his reflections.
The bus held a fair sample of Levantine travelers. There was a Lebanese woman with her son who had escaped from Beirut to catch a boat from Istanbul to Marseille, only to discover on arrival that her French entry permit had expired. There was a stout Syrian woman gazing out of her shawl with gazelle eyes and imploring those who would listen to think no ill of her country. There were two Iranians in suits and tinted glasses, a pair of Zairians, numerous Turks and an Iraqi who had been studying architecture in Zagreb for seven years.
This Iraqi was on his way to Damascus in hopes of renewing his passport without the return to Baghdad that would have caused him to be conscripted in the war against Iran. He said he thought of setting up shop as an architect in London, whereupon another young man, a Moroccan of very independent character whose possessions fitted into a satchel, broke in with a tale of how he had been refused entry to England at Dover because he could not produce evidence of his enrollment at the political science college where he had hoped to study revolutionary methods. So we chatted and circulated, Africans squatting in the sun, Turks and Arabs cross-legged in the shade of bus or truck. I was the only European.
After three hours or so outside the passport hut, a fit of energy or exasperation had pierced through the armor of patience necessary to Europeans traveling in the East and had driven me inside in a fury to scatter the mob at the guichet and demand that the solitary official behind it should stamp my passport at once. He wearily snapped his fingers.
"Give me your money."
"At Syrian frontier you must change $200 or 100 sterling."
Here was a surprise that the Syrian consulate in London had not prepared me for. Traveler's checks were laughed at, as was Turkish money. Not to lose my place at the guichet (for the crowd, silenced at first, had now broken out in a babel of resenting tongues and was tweaking me from behind in tender spots) I ripped out my shirttail and took from the money belt next my skin my store of hard cash. The official was by no means bad-tempered, and even gave me back a 10-pound note, saying, "Baksheesh for you," and smiling.
Of course, nothing was changed by my fit of energy, except that I was less popular. The bus still sat in the sun, the Lebanese woman's son was still asking the Moroccan revolutionary if he owned a speedboat. I walked down the road to look for the hundredth time at the clump of wild hollyhocks, which -- pinioned upright like prisoners in a strip of bunting in the Syrian national colors -- were this place's only substitute for the flowers and shade and grace of the Turkish frontier post. The absence of entrepreneurs -- boys selling oranges, water-sellers, beggars -- made the place so unusual in the East as to be sinister.
A half-mile strip of road ran from the hollyhocks to the customs post, to which we would go next. Up and down this road furiously driven automobiles came and went like wasps from their nest. Crowded into them were those young men with three-day beards, khaki fatigues and automatic weapons dangling from loose-jointed hands, who are familiar from pictures of the Beirut war. These irregulars -- descendants of the hideous bashibozuks who terrorized the subjects of the Ottoman sultans -- have always come into their own wherever faction and disorder offer barbarism the chance of power. Their automobiles -- newish Mercedes, a BMW with Swiss plates -- were raced up to us, turned and driven off, with a bullying recklessness that made sure that everyone waiting to get into Syria had to jump for their lives at least once, rather as prisoners of the Romans were forced under the yoke.
Now, at 7 o'clock in the evening, we were waiting at the very mouth of the wasps' nest, the concrete guardhouse from which voices and harsh eastern music resounded. The Iraqi showed me his collection of spent bullet cases found among the refuse and wrecked autos. From the pools of water noxious insects staggered into the air on heavy wings. We waited.
Suddenly a quick high voice was shouting at us angrily. From the blockhouse issued a whip-thin captain of about 30 in khaki, his shoes high-heeled, a pistol in his waistband. Aides surrounded him with a hedge of automatic rifles. He was furious. He was so angry that I thought he was going to bite the Arab soldier who had been fraternizing with us -- pretending he was going to let us through unsearched so that the driver could get to his girlfriend's bed in Aleppo before the competition. The captain shrieked out that all our possessions, every sack and bale and bundle, were to be laid out on the road and opened.
Exposing their shabby belongings to contempt humbles people who had hoped to keep up a front. These were mostly peaceable citizens, not criminals. When each of us stood among our opened bags, our tormentor ordered the bus driven off a hundred yards to expose us more completely to his armed men. Smoking in rapid puffs, touching nothing except with the toe of his shoe, he stepped among us ordering ropes cut and sacks emptied onto the road. No one moved unless very cautiously, with his eyes on the guns.
No one spoke, either -- except the Lebanese woman's son, a teen-ager so inured to tension and hostility that I suppose he didn't notice it. He questioned me in ringing tones about my home in England. As I replied, rather reluctantly, I could not stop a picture building up in my mind of the quiet old house among its trees in Dorset, windows open to the south and the children's voices not far off . . .
It was then that I asked myself, "What on earth am I doing here, waiting by my opened bag on a strip of road between Urfa and Aleppo in the power of these volatile gunmen?" It should be an axiom of the family man on his travels never to place himself within the grasp of an unpredictable power. I rather wished I was at home.
I hoped I would be meek if the captain took it into his head to annoy me. I could see a nerve beating in his cheek as he approached. So close together were his eyes that they seemed to be furiously crossed. My passport was taken by a gunman and shown to him. He turned on his heel and walked off. The search was over.
Eagerly everyone closed up bags and hurried under heavy loads to the distant bus. "Come, they're letting us go, it's going to be all right, he's in a good mood, come quickly": I could not help thinking of Jews hurrying to the transport provided for them by the Gestapo, and of all the humble, duped people in the world at the mercy of bashibozuks. I was on the steps of the bus when shots rang out on the dusk road -- a single shot, then a burst from an automatic weapon. "What was that?" I asked the young Moroccan who was below me. "Feu de joie," he replied rather grimly, pushing me up the steps.
There were shots in Aleppo too that night, as well as the screaming tires of gunmen's motorcades through the streets. But by then I was safe inside the Edwardian fantasy of the Baron's Hotel, whose marble halls, though shabby, protect the customer pretty completely from reality.
From my antique bathroom the shots sounded distant, the motorcade's horns remote from my tremendous mahogany bed. Downstairs, in a vast shaky salon, after dining on roast beef and cabinet pudding, I had watched "The Life of Charles Dickens" on television, the sound well turned up. My collision with reality had receded, and I no longer wondered what on earth I was doing there.