THE SHORT BRIDGE

by Mike Azar

It had been ten years since my last visit to Homs, Syria, but it might as well have been my first given how much had changed since the war started six years earlier. Anxiety was a constant companion across the border. Few countries have quite the ubiquitous security apparatus, North Korea being another. You never become fully accustomed to the omnipresent portraits of President Bashar Assad and his father glaring at you from every corner, heavily armed security personnel looking for a reason to disappear you, and the fear that even your innermost thoughts might betray you to the intelligence services.

The anxiety was an order of magnitude greater this time around. There was, after all, a civil war raging. Despite being half Syrian myself-the other half being Lebanese, I am also an American citizen, and Westerners were targeted by pretty much every militia out there. Rumors had spread of ruthless border guards extorting and beating travelers, and of roving gangs of kidnappers scouring either side of the border in search of their next mark. Hostage-taking was big business and, in a country six years into a devastating civil war, everything was for sale. Nevertheless, it was a trip I was compelled to make. My great-uncle's family had survived the siege of Homs, during which time we heard little from them despite every effort we made. We learned from press reports that civilians caught behind the siege line had resorted to boiling and eating plants that grew by the side of the road. When the siege finally ended after three years, my great-uncle refused to discuss the experience and forbade his family from doing the same. What guilt I carried with me during those three long years.

I packed my small suitcase with the essentials and emptied my wallet of evidence of my American citizenship-credit cards, driver's license, gym membership. My wallet was bare but for my Lebanese ID card, which I needed to cross the border.

It should have been easy to find a taxi to the Abidiya border crossing, about an hour's drive north of Tripoli, Lebanon, where the Lebanese side of my family lives. Homs and Tripoli are inextricably linked through a shared history and deep family, religious, and commercial ties. Many of our neighbors were, like us, half Tripolitan and half Homsi. Tripolitans routinely traveled to Homs for traditional foods, while Homsis frequented Tripoli for Western goods not available to them in Syria. During trips to Syria growing up, we always brought with us a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, my great-uncle's favorite. I would bring him a bottle this time around. How could I not, knowing how many years he had suffered under the heel of deprivation? The war had ground traffic between the two cities to a halt, and the supply of luxury goods, like whiskey, was the first to dry up.

After a few attempts, I managed to convince a driver to take me to the border for an exorbitant rate. The ride was bumpy in that 40-year old hunk of junk, with no air-conditioning on a hot Summer day and seat belts too old to fasten. With each passing minute, the inevitability of the coming encounter settled more firmly in my gut. My nerves began to grind into my stomach and the dread bubbled up and boiled over in the way Turkish coffee does when left too long on the stove.

The drive north through the city slums of Akkar was uneventful but for my frequent need to use the restroom. I avoided anything more than superficial conversation with the driver, who showed a keen interest in who I was and the purpose of my travel. Finally, we pulled up to a Lebanese flag no less than 20 meters across fluttering in the wind on a massive flagpole. We had arrived at the border. Signs pointed the way over paved roads lined with olive trees. This is where I would get out to cross by foot as taxis can't enter without a special permit.

I stepped out of the car and walked up towards the first checkpoint, manned by the Lebanese Armed Forces. A tall, well-built, and freshly shaved soldier in prim grey fatigues inspected my ID. He politely waved me through. The next checkpoint was inside of a modular building resembling a shipping container raised above the ground by scaffolding. I walked into the air-conditioned office, a welcome respite from the burning Mediterranean sun outside. Lebanese border officials were standing behind tall desks ready to process papers. I was the only person in there so it was only my papers they would be processing.

They handed me a couple of forms to fill out. I reached for the Arabic language version. Arabic is, of course, my second language, and I write it with the graceful penmanship of a third grader, but I was keen to avoid revealing myself as a foreigner. I carefully filled them out, taking an outrageous amount of time to finish, and walked up to have them stamped. The process was simple. It took no longer than five minutes. I was now finished with the Lebanese side and made my way back outside to proceed with my journey. Syria was mere steps away.

After the final checkpoint in Lebanon is a short metal bridge that officially separates the two countries. As I stood there at the precipice, the bridge seemed to extend dizzyingly before my eyes. On the other side, I could make out a gargantuan and grotesque statue of Bashar Assad in his trademark aviator sunglasses, waving his hands, either to greet adoring fans or to order the executioner to plunge his blade, one could never tell for certain. I stood there, staring into nothing in particular. My breathing grew rapid and shallow. No matter how many times I'd been to Syria growing up, there was no way to prepare myself for the challenge I imagined before me. Would someone sell me out to kidnappers? Would the regime itself detain me as a bargaining chip? It didn't matter. I had too much dignity to turn back. I'm no coward. I inhaled and plunged forward with my roley suitcase dragging on the dirt path leading up to the bridge, come what may.

I approached the first checkpoint. A haggardly Syrian soldier sat in a wooden booth on a small stool, the kind found in elementary school classrooms. A spread of hummus, chopped tomatoes, olives, and stale pita bread rested on a round table in front of him. He gorged on his meal, oil and pita crumbs dripping onto his unbuttoned military top. I pulled out my ID and offered it up to the hungry soldier.

"Can't you see I'm eating?"

My mouth gaped as I stumbled and snapped my arm back to return my ID back to my pocket.

"Oh. Sorry." I managed to speak out with difficulty.

I stood under the hot Mediterranean sun waiting for the man to finish his meal and call me back in.

"Khalas, where are you? Come back in here. You're interrupting my lunch, but it's fine. I'll take care of you. Hurry up, so I can get back to my food."

He reached for my ID with his olive oily fingers.

"What is this? Am I supposed to accept this? You're ten-years-old in this photo. How am I supposed to know if this is you?" he shot back angrily.

"It's me. This is the only ID I have." I hadn't even considered that the photo was of a twelve-year-old me. You see, Lebanese IDs, for some reason, do not expire.

"What other identification do you have in your wallet? Let me see your driver's license."

"I don't have one," I said and waved my empty wallet in his face to prove it. It occurred to me at that moment how odd it must have looked to have a whole wallet containing nothing but a single card in it.

"You only carry one card in your wallet? Do you think I'm stupid?"

"I leave what I don't need at home so I don't lose it while I'm traveling." A quick-witted and perfectly reasonable response.

"Ridiculous. Go, get out of here, they will deal with you at the next checkpoint."

He waved me through to a building up a dirt road where the Syrian authorities would process my paperwork. I walked nervously up the path, kicking up a small cloud of dust with every step, hoping to stretch that moment out as long as I could. I avoided making eye contact with the few men who lingered about the road: snack sellers, drivers, hustlers, all spies in my mind. Syria's intelligence network is notorious. We were raised to fear Syrian spies hiding around every corner, from the street food vendor to the taxi driver. Most families knew someone who had either been disappeared or detained and tortured by the Syrian military during their occupation of Lebanon. As a child in Tripoli, I once stuck a piece of gum on a portrait of Hafez Assad, Bashar's father and then president. I couldn't sleep for a week afterwards. The Syrian military had long since withdrawn from Lebanon, but it implanted a visceral fear that still resided deep inside of my mind, even after so many years of living in the United States.

By the time I reached the building, my shoes were coated with dust and my shirt was drenched in sweat. The building itself was in dire need of repair. Several glass windows were held together with duct tape, the walls were cracked, and half of the exterior paint had flaked off. Nevertheless, I was glad for another break from the humid heat outside but, as I crossed the doorway, I met a blast of heat from the unairconditioned room. There was, it seemed, a bit of a greenhouse effect inside, which made it hotter in there than outside. The walls were a dark and hostile grey, more of a bomb shelter or a tomb than an office building. In front of me was a long empty space with a table at the far end. I made my way across the hall with the gait of a man condemned. Behind the table, a Syrian soldier stared into an ancient computer screen, one of those screens from early 1990s hacker movies: shaped like a box with green text and flashing symbols. The soldier smashed at the keyboard with his sausage fingers, his eyes transfixed on the screen. I stood there for a minute before attempting to interrupt the hypnotized man.

"Good afternoon, sir. God give you energy on this hot day. Is this where I have my papers processed?"

The man ignored me. My words bounced wildly off the walls around me. As each echo grew fainter and more distant, I felt myself growing smaller and smaller while the walls stretched out in all directions. I looked around at the long empty hallway I had just crossed, the door now seemingly an immeasurable distance away. I was alone and exposed.

Unable to bear the sound of my echoes any longer, I asked again: "Excuse me, sir. Do you need to see my ID?"

The man stopped typing. Slowly, he tilted his head and looked up at me through squinting eyes. It was as though he was surprised to see a human being standing before him.

"The line for Syrians is in the other building," the man said.

"I'm not Syrian."

"You're not Syrian? And you want to go into Syria?" he asked. I told him I was.

The man hesitated for a moment then laughed and shook his head.

He reached for my ID, flipping it to one side and the other and then back again. He glared at it, as though he had never before seen such a thing. What machinations were hatching in his mind, I could only imagine. His eyebrows furled, his eyes squinted in sockets that were charred black from years of chain-smoking. "What is this? Are you eight-years-old in this photo?"

"Well if you flip it around, it looks just like me," I said, chuckling.

The guard didn't find it funny.

"You see, because now I have no hair and a big beard, instead of big hair and no beard."

The guard still didn't find it funny.

"I'm sorry that's the only ID I have. It is me. You can ask me any question you'd like," I pleaded with him.

"Do you have any other identification with you?" he asked.

"I don't. This is all I brought."

"Are you lying to me? Do you have another citizenship? I see an airport sticker on your suitcase."

My arms went numb. United Airlines had found yet another way to screw me. How had I neglected to remove all the stickers from my suitcase?

"Yes," I said, my voice crackling. I had not considered what my response would be if I was asked the question directly. I was confident that he could not know what other citizenship I had but being caught in a lie to an immigration official carried great penalties. In the instant that I had to respond, I spoke truthfully.

"Have a seat, I need to call an officer in here to deal with you."

The man stepped out, leaving me alone with my fears, my fantasies, and Bashar's eerie gaze that bore down from several portraits that hung on the otherwise barren walls. I counted the seconds, which stretched out into a miserable eternity. I was completely helpless there. No laws could protect me from the whims of a disgruntled officer. How do sane human beings in that country live with a constant vulnerability resting like a dull blade across their necks? As the seconds ticked by, I grew more restless and desperate, praying that the worst I would face was being turned away and forced back across the short bridge to salvation on the other side. The white lights flickered as they would in an interrogation room, but a Syrian interrogation room is not a place you wanted to find yourself. My father had told me a story about my grandfather years earlier. When the Syrian Army entered Tripoli as part of the peacekeeping force to end the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s, my grandfather was arrested and taken in for questioning. A quiet and gentle man, a poet in his demeanor, I could hardly imagine a man less suited for an encounter with the back-end of a rifle. He was beaten mercilessly and electrocuted until his legs scarcely functioned. He was sent back home with multiple fractured bones and a psychological trauma from which he would never recover, until he died of alcohol poisoning a few years later. Images flashed in my mind of my great-uncle, emaciated and frenzied, picking weeds from underneath street signs. God, I hated these people, and I did not realize how much I hated them until that moment. Longer still I waited with these ghastly thoughts before finally the officer marched back in alone with a bleak look on his face.

"Well, I can make an exception, but why should I?" the man huffed. "It's a holiday tomorrow. What gift do you have for me?"

I was befuddled and strangely relieved. He did not ask me to identify my other citizenship. And what holiday was tomorrow? A Muslim holiday I didn't know about? I raked my brain. We stared at each other awkwardly for a few moments before I finally understood he wanted a bribe. Had he even spoken with a superior officer or did he just step outside for a smoke, leaving me to simmer in my anxiety? A professional at this game, no doubt.

"Yes, of course. God grant you victory and bring peace to Syria. I want to do my part to support the brave Syrian Arab Army," I said. These were incredibly difficult words for me to utter, but I understood that, while in Syria, I was under the complete mercy of the army and I had to talk the talk. I reached into my pocket and pulled out 500 Syrian Pounds, the equivalent of about one US dollar. I handed it over to him.

"That's all?" he responded. "You look like a khaweja, a businessman. I think you can give me a better gift."

I reached into my pocket again and pulled out another 500 Syrian Pounds. The man snatched it, crumpled it up into his breast pocket, and began stamping my papers. He handed them back to me with a grin on his face. The relief was instant and enormous. That was it. I was in.

Or so I thought. The soldier directed me to the next stage of the process: customs inspection, that notorious den of bribery and corruption. If the art of the shakedown was perfected anywhere, it was there. I had heard a rumor that people paid as much as $30,000 for a post with the customs authority and the opportunity to earn a colossal payoff in bribes.

I left the building and made my way to the customs inspection area. It was a concrete tunnel, no more than 30 meters in length, where cars were parked for inspection. I saw the guards tearing apart car trunks, pulling out the seats in search of illicit goods concealed underneath, and ransacking every suitcase.

My hand trembled over the case that concealed the bottle of Johnny Walker, the one item in my possession that I wished not to be parted from. It contained not merely a bottle whiskey, but the very keys to my redemption, a small token to show my great-uncle that he and his family had never left my thoughts, though I could never truly understand what they had endured. But such an item in my possession, if discovered, would be like raw meat to a pack of hyenas on the savanna. They would take me for every dollar I had, or worse. When I walked up to the customs agent, the man smiled and welcomed me warmly. I thought, perhaps, this wouldn't be so bad; perhaps he was one of the good ones. Then the man spoke some more, and I abandoned that notion.

"Is that a sticker on your suitcase? Is that from the airport? Well, well, where are you coming from? America? Germany? Let me see your bag. What are you smuggling in? Are you a khawaja-a big shot?"

My intent had been to slide across the border, a plain and forgettable traveler. I was now, instead, a khawaja, a rich foreigner, an international contraband smuggler, and a big shot bearing gifts for the swindlers manning this border crossing. I wasn't sure how much more I could endure. While I had been animated by fear at the start of the journey, that was giving way to anger over my helplessness and humiliation.

"It's my cousin's suitcase. He's the khawaja."

My words visibly upset him. The smile on his face disappeared and his mustache twitched. "Do you want an easy process or a hard process?" he asked sternly.

Unsure how to respond, I asked him to repeat himself.

"Listen. I can search your bags or you can give me a holiday gift, and I'll let you go. Easy way or hard way?"

My grip tightened around the whiskey bag. M

"I don't have anything with me. I want to do everything properly and legally. Please search as you will."

"Is that right? OK. Hurry up. Open the suitcase and stop wasting my time."

I placed the whiskey case behind me and hoisted the suitcase over the ledge between us. As I unzipped the suitcase and lifted the top, my watch fell out of a side pocket. The agent's eyes widened, and a giant smile beamed across his face.

"Well! What do we have here? What are you, a watch salesman? You're smuggling watches."

Feeling incredulous, I could not help but chuckle at the suggestion that my plain fifteen-year-old Casio marked me as watch smuggler or, at least, that this was the angle the agent decided take. "No, my friend. It's just one old watch."

That's when my other watch fell out from the same pocket behind the first. I pressed my lips together and cursed the day I decided to start accessorizing.

"You look like a watch salesman to me," the agent roared like a man discovering he picked the winning lottery numbers.

The audacity of the hustle-a watch salesman, of all things-awoke a kind of moral outrage in me. How badly I desired to shake him by his dirty lapels and confess that the $100 bottle of whiskey between my legs would make for a much more effective extortion hook. Perhaps my nerves were completely exhausted by that point, but the fear of consequences was no longer restraining, or, I should say, debilitating. "I'm not, but I'll tell you what. I will bring you a gift on my way back. I don't have anything with me now," I said dismissively.

The agent's voice diminished as fast as it had risen earlier. My defiance, though ill-advised in retrospect, dislodged the mask from his face to reveal a small and desperate man, almost pathetically so. "Sure you will. They all say that and never bring anything. What are we to eat? This crisis has robbed us of everything."

I reached for my suitcase to close it up. I did not have it in me at the time to feel sorry for him and was much too proud to forgive him for the terror he stoked in me.

He waved me away without a thorough search. My heart was pounding, not so much in the way fear stirs the heart, but in the way triumph does. I was finally in Syria.

My great-uncle greeted me under the shade of an olive tree on the other side. I had never been happier to see him. I found comfort in the sense of safety and familiarity he brought. We exchanged a tight embrace and kisses in the way Syrians do, one long kiss on the left cheek followed by several short kisses on the right. On the drive home, I glanced at him and a great sadness came over me. How he had aged since I last saw him. His thick brown mustache, the feature by which I always remembered him as a strong and fearless man, had grown frail and gray. There was a change in him that was hard to discern at the time. His voice was muffled, his eyes were heavy with grief, and his smile seemed forced for my sake. He was tired, and it showed despite how hard he tried to conceal it from me. His body and his demeanor bore the invisible scars of Homs' tragedy in a way that video footage and photos could never convey. While our two cities shared a common history, I began to think for the first time that perhaps their destinies would not be. I pulled out the whiskey bottle to show him what I had brought for him. He thanked me while a genuine happiness flashed across his face. I came to learn that he no longer drank because of his poor health, but I suppose he appreciated the gesture. Perhaps it reminded him of a different time, a lifetime ago, when I was just a boy and our family visited more often.