The following morning Omar offers to drive us out to see his parents farm. A green lush grassy paddock seemed unlikely. As we turned down a dirt track on the outskirts of Damascus, an orchard of fruit trees were revealed, the last leaves of autumn falling to the ground. Little geckos dart about amongst the dead leaves and a few brightly coloured butterflies add a splash of colour.
Omar unlocked a small concrete building, revealing inside the dusty concrete walls, and a lone single mattress sat on the ground. It looked like a prison cell from Baghdad’s infamous Abu Graib. Mark and I couldn’t believe our eyes. “This is where you bring your women?” Omar smiled and laughed, wheeling out his pride and joy - a Toyota motorbike. With a little encouragement, Omar coaxed the machine into life, noisily revving the engine.
“We cannot go on the road because I cannot pay the road tax - it’s too much money. But it is fun to ride around the farm!” Taxing the bike, Omar explained, would have cost twice as much as the bike itself - an extortionate amount of money. So what happens if we take it out on the road, I asked. “If the police see you, they will shoot you,” Omar explained, quite seriously. “Make sure you have your British passport ready to wave at them. Maybe they wont shoot at you!” After a little persuasion, I climb onto the back of the bike. Tickling the accelerator, we’re launched through the air. Hanging on for dear life, we bounce through pot-holes, skidding around narrow corners, kicking up a cloud of dead leaves in our wake. “YOU HAVING FUN?” Omar shouts above the noise as we briefly acclerate along the road. “INSHALLAH!” I shout, my eyes watering from the dusty road, willing God to get me off this bike in one piece. For a bizarre moment, it feels as if we’re in an Arabic version of Top Gun, as I hang onto Omar. Dressed in a black leather bomber jacket and sunglasses he looks like he is impersonating Tom Cruise, as we race past the minarets of the local mosque, broadcasting the latest installment of the Koran.
After a quick dinner of minced meatballs of lamb, seasoned with nuts and herbs in a white milky sauce, and a delicious dish involving chickpeas, we’re out the door again, continuing the grand tour of Mark’s extended family. Dropping us off at Heathrow, Mark’s older brother, Fadi, had offered me some advice. “Don’t let them occupy all your time visiting family. All the times I’ve been to Syria over the years, I’ve still never seen anything of the country, well, apart from the inside of peoples houses.” Dashing across town for half-an-hour, to spend five minutes with yet another auntie, I can appreciate what Fadi meant. “So much moving about,” Omar complained, “it’s like being on the run.” He was right. I just hoped we weren’t practicing fleeing Damascus for when the mukharabat (Syrian secret police) came knocking on the door, upset because we were planning on enticing one of their women away.
After all the dashing about I was happy to sit back and enjoy a few refreshing cups of hot sweet tea and a plate of sticky pastries and fresh dates, with Mark’s mother and auntie. Mark is off on another date, but in a new development he has taken a girl unchaperoned for a drink to the Sheraton hotel. The venue has been chosen to demonstrate he has money. As a friend of Omar explained to me, indicating his empty wallet, you just can’t get a girl in this country without cash. Surprisingly, no-one has mentioned that taking a girl to a hotel often involves more than a light aperitif! A few years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to take a girl out on a second date without a suitable chaperone. Times might be changing, but there are still lines that should not be crossed. Earlier, Omar had pointed out his old college. “A student,” he explained, “he screwed a girl beneath the stairs, but didn’t want to be engaged, so he vanished.” Omar added optimistically, “we hear that he got a flight and left Syria.” Perhaps, but it seemed just as likely that a disgruntled father buried him in the desert surrounding the Euphrates.
Channel hopping between Mexican soap operas dubbed into Arabic, re-runs of Seinfeld and readings of the Koran, a map of the United States appeared - courtesy of Al Jazeera News. The names of each state are labelled in Arabic. I wished George Bush could see this, because for one fanciful moment, it looks like an invasion - The Islamic Republic of the United States.
‘So, do you wan’t us to arrange a girl for you?” asks Mark’s mum, catching me off guard, offering a plate of sweet pastries. I have to confess, it is tempting. The women in Damascus are quite stunning, with light olive complexion and long black hair. I’m also curious to actually experience an arranged date. Thing is, I know that if I got engaged, once I’d returned to London, it would all just seem like a bit of holiday fun - and this is a serious business. After just a handful of dates, you might be expected to get engaged, even if it is just to stop the neighbours gossiping. I politely decline the offer. “Perhaps its best we concentrate on Mark,” agrees Mark’s mum. “When you come back to Syria for Mark’s wedding, then we find you a nice girl” she teased.
A young Lebanese singer is on the television, her features in soft focus. Text messages appear across the bottom of the screen: “Oussama loves Nisreen Teel. Mohammad loves Nadine.” The screen flicks into grainy black and white footage of the Egyptian singer, Umm Kolthum. “She is my favourite,” exclaims Clare, as she and her sister sing along with the diva, known as the ‘Nightingale of the East’. “She was very popular in my childhood. Very beautiful. You see the handkerchief in her hand, they say that she kept marijuana in it.” The colossal Umm Kolthum raises her hand to dab her nose and smiles - she certainly doesn’t sing like she has a cold.
The entertainments switch from singing to jokes. One of Mark’s cousins (there are so many, I am losing track of their names) has been texted a topical joke on his mobile. “A Syrian is in Baghdad but he wants to leave because it is dangerous. He asks an Iraqi if he can borrow US$25 for a bus ticket. ‘How do I know I’ll ever see you again and return my money?’ asks the Iraqi, refusing. The Syrian approaches an American soldier and again asks for US$25. As before, the American asks if he’ll ever see him again and return his money. “Because soon you’ll be coming for my country,” answers the Syrian.
Like the satellite television and internet connections, mobile phones were only recently legalised in Syria. Like everywhere else, there are billboards promoting the latest hardware. Unlike in the West, there is a suspicion that the only reason the government permitted mobile phones is to tap into peoples conversations. A small pile of mobile phones sit on the glass table amongst the dates and sticky pastries. Mark’s uncle carefully switches his off, explaining that even when they are not being used, the government can still listen through the receiver. It seems frankly ridiculous but then I haven’t been living in a society governed by secret police and informers my entire life. Elections, I learn, are held every few years. Typically, there is a turnout of 99.9% (well, no-one is perfect). What happens if you don’t vote, I ask. “Well, first the police come to your door and ask why you didn’t vote. If you have some excuse, they hand you a ballot to sign. If you refuse, they take you away.” Or as Omar put it, “they kick your ass!”
Mark returns from a date at the Sheraton Hotel, where he has spotted President Bashir, accompanied by two security agents, in black suits. “He is British, you know. Educated in England and has a British passport.” Relocating to another house, as before, the men and women separate to debate the latest developments. “You want your wife to be a virgin,” explains Ahmed, “not used goods.” Mark tries to explain that this isn’t how relationships work in Britain and that it isn’t an issue for him. Ahmed insists. “Mark, you do not want some prostitute! In the West, marriages they do not last, because people they are like consumers, always looking to upgrade to a newer model. This is very bad, you do not want to marry a woman like this.” Ahmed is a practicing doctor and explains that if she isn’t a virgin, this can always be fixed with a minor operation. Adding with a laugh and a wink. “It is always good to take her out for a test drive - before you are married!” We sit and drink tea, discussing women, politics and history. “Damascus is very old,” Ahmed explains. “Oldest city in Middle East. Here, we have the beginnings of civilisation.” He erupts into laughter, adding “but not anymore!”