PERSPECTIVE: Landing in Syria's Trouble; the Middle East May Not Be Everyone's Number One Choice of Holiday Destination at the Moment but That Didn't Stop Post Columnist Chris Upton - Although the Local Police Nearly Did

Article excerpt

Byline: Chris Upton

The Socialist Republic of Syria is making its first tentative steps to attract tourists to the country. Given the richness of its archaeology - Crusader castles, early Christian churches, perfectly preserved Roman towns - and the beauty of its scenery - Mediterranean coastline, mountains and deserts - that is as it should be.

Last week we partook of Syria's boundless hospitality, vibrant and fragile culture and endless sun. The week could hardly have gone better. And then (on the Friday) I was arrested.

For the rest of the tour party at dinner in Damascus (now I think of it, meals should never be arranged for 13 persons), what appeared to happen was this. I got up at about 9.30am with my camera and went outside' half an hour or so later I was back, my sun-blushed features just a little paler.

You need to know that the city of Damascus is expanding fast, from a population of 300,000 in 1950 to more than 2.5 million today. That growth has sent the city up Mount Qassioun, which in the night becomes a spectacular hill of lights. Near the top a line of green and red neon marks where people go to dine out, smoke a hubbly-bubbly pipe and enjoy the view. A good subject for a photograph, I thought.

So out I went into the street to compose a night-time panorama. Barely had the camera sat upon my nose than three men rushed across from the hotel forecourt to stop me. The conversation took place in French, but the substance of it was this. "No pictures here - government buildings - walk 300 metres to the bottom of the road."

It became clear from that walk that Mezzieh Street consisted entirely of government compounds and one hotel. The former were identifiable either by the giant portrait of President Assad at the front or by armed guards. As a result the street is almost deserted at night, except for one English tourist (me) and various men, whose presence I now know not to be accidental.

So down to the bottom I went and there I was, leaning on a lamp-post at the corner of the street. The beautiful picture of Mount Qassioun was destined not to be taken. First a man in plain clothes came from nowhere and escorted me, politely but firmly, to the waiting soldiers.

The conversation of the next half hour was conducted almost entirely in Arabic (by them) or in French and English (by me). There was no meeting of minds.

How did my camera work ? Show me. How many pixels does it have ? A bizarre question, this, particularly as I did not have a clue as to the answer.

By this time the camera was no longer in my possession' it had, it seemed, become Syrian government property. The offending item was handed from one guard to another and so was I. At the fourth exchange I was being led across the compound and into a plain and concrete building. It was beginning to dawn on me, after the initial excitement, that I might be in serious trouble. In Syria's trouble, in fact.

As we went along the corridor and up the stairs I glanced into the rooms on the way, half imagining to see desolate-looking tourists and dissidents bound and gagged. Unromantically the rooms were almost all empty except for a phone and a bottle of water.

My companion knocked on a door at the end of the upper corridor and I was ushered into a room that had an altogether more lived-in look. A large oak desk, four leather-backed chairs, neatly arranged against the wall, a portrait of the president, a television set tuned to some Arabic channel. And behind the desk a tall man in a dark grey suit. He was working late.

There was also a bookshelf, but luckily all the books were also in Arabic. I did not care to see titles such as An Introduction to Torture, Thumbscrews for Beginners or My First Digital Camera.

The man at the desk was clearly the boss, but at what level of command I know not. He did not have a military uniform' he did not have medals. …