Beyond the cotton fields and unruly goats Iran
Jeremy Atiyah takes a taxi along the river
in to the
Syria border Iraq
How do you find a cab driver willing to take you down the
26 March 2001
It worked for me, anyway. "I'm a taxi driver on my days off," was Abdu's gambit. "I've got an icebox in my car." He could recite the names of the sites along the river with such confidence that I accepted without hesitation his proposal to drive me to the Iraqi border for $200 (£140).
Setting off the next morning, Abdu was irrepressible. "Great to get out among the real Bedouin again," he kept exclaiming. "No tourists here!" In an hour we had exchanged the travel agents and lingerie shops of
But when we stopped, he soon began calling them cheats and con artists. "And you call these melons ripe!" he was huffing. I suggested that they had raised their prices for the benefit of the foreigner. "My friend," Abdu explained disdainfully, "I am the one they want to cheat. I come from the city, it is plain for all to see."
As the sun climbed we came to the chalky, turquoise waters of
There was to be a lot more of that. The next stop, rearing up in the middle of a bare desert, was Rasafah, the ruins of a summer palace once belonging to the Omayyad caliph Hisham. Abdu made a big issue of dropping me at one end of the site, declaring his intention to pick me up later at the other end. "How long do you want? Three hours? Four hours?"
After I had negotiated Abdu down to one hour, I watched him drive off with sudden enthusiasm to a remote tent in the desert, for what I later understood to be some rest and relaxation with the Bedouin girls: leaving me, a speck of living flesh, to survive the white-hot stones of Rasafah alone. When I emerged, frazzled, an hour later, I noticed a small white Peugeot rolling up. A tourist got out. "Hello, I'm Jeremy," I said dourly. An unsmiling man in dark glasses walked forward and shook my hand. "I'm French," he said, and walked off.
Abdu eventually reappeared, and on we drove: on past the irrigated cotton fields, the dead dogs, the unruly goats, the dust clouds, the men sitting in shadows, the brown children splashing in brown canals. And past all the Bedouin hitch-hikers.
The rules concerning hitch-hikers are as follows. If it's a man, accelerate past with annoyance. If a woman, screech to a halt and reverse at great speed to pick her up. "We're from the city," Abdu would boast into the rear-view mirror, gesturing between himself and the foreigner. And the women would laugh coyly as they rearranged their veils.
Later, at the site of the ancient fortress of Halabiyya, built by Queen Zenobia, who once ruled
Away from the family, Halabiyya was a sinister place. Boulders with long angular shadows leered down on the river front; two fortified walls climbed up in giant steps to a desolate citadel at the top of the hill. I was scrabbling my way up the rocky slope when what should I behold down below but a white Peugeot. I scrabbled faster. The shy Frenchman, having caught sight of our car, drove off at speed.
At dusk we finally arrived at Deir es Zur. Minuscule donkeys trotted past in fast motion, some disguised as huge panniers of mint on legs, others loaded with large ladies in purple cotton, riding side-saddle. When we arrived at the very dark little town centre, there seemed to be only one hotel and one restaurant, both of which the Frenchman had already bagged.
The next morning it was on to the Iraqi frontier. We forked away from the irrigated area, and found ourselves in a featureless desert. But there, on a cliff-top, overlooking the river, was the vast site of Doura Europus, now guarded by one gloomy Bedouin with a motor-scooter and a shotgun. As Abdu noted with piteous contempt, the ancient shotgun looked as though it had been discarded by Lawrence of Arabia.
Behind me was crumbling desert; before me, 90ft below, were blue sparkly waters, green islands, sand banks, wheeling birds and grasses rippling in the breeze. Only one noise could have distracted me from the beautiful