Road to Damascus is paved with good intentions

A journey from Lebanon to Syria tells a tale of two countries united in adversity

The road to Damascus is paved with good deeds.

Near the reception desk in our Beirut hotel rests a bulging bundle of linen and clothing left by a Syrian for my German colleague to deliver to his father, Abu Rashid in Damascus.

On the back seat of the car rests a sack with bottles of cooking oil bought here by our Syrian driver Moutaz for his wife back in their village north of Damascus.

Once our luggage is stored, we plunge into tight traffic undiminished by soaring petrol prices due to the collapse of Lebanon’s free-falling economy, prolonged political deadlock, and the descent of 80 per cent of Lebanese into poverty.


We pass weary shopkeepers lifting their shutters along the zigzag route to the broad Damascus highway.

We are nearing the end of the month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, breakfast at sundown and have an early meal before sunrise. Many shops open late and close late to accommodate Muslims after they break their evening fast.

Once we enter the foothill village of Khahaleh, Moutaz lifts his Lebanese mobile to ask where to stop to hand over a parcel from Damascus to a man who materialises from a row of parked cars.

Moutaz is cheerful. His son, daughter-in-law and infant granddaughter are visiting from Sweden where the couple are working as nurses who visit elderly and ailing folk in their homes.

We slalom around heavily laden lorries grinding slowly uphill and pass though the mountain towns of Aley, Bhamdoun and Sofar. Here tall apartment blocks wear hats of red-tile roofs, traditional in Lebanese villages.

Along the highway restaurants once popular with wealthy Emirati visitors remain closed by conflict, Covid, and crises.

At Chautura, near the Syrian border, Moutaz begins the hunt for other commissions at shops stocking auto parts. A friend needs a metal joint for his Honda. We pass garages for every make but Honda until, at last, he halts at an upmarket garage.

“In Beirut,” is the reply to his query. We stop at two pharmacies for eyedrops for our Damascene friend Joseph. We can collect them tomorrow. Moutaz has no fare booked for the next day but, perhaps, after the weekend holiday he can find both Honda parts and eye drops.

There are few customers for coffee and breakfast at Chataurama, the overstocked supermarket-cafe halt for cars carrying passengers going to and coming from Damascus.

Karin and I have coffee while Moutaz, who is fasting for Ramadan, chats with the owners. We stop for expensive petrol at a Lebanese pump.

Petrol in Syria is in even shorter supply than in Lebanon. Separated by France after the first World War, Lebanon and Syria are united in adversity.

At the nearly empty Lebanese immigration booth our passports are stamped with a resounding thump before we head to the other side where we sail through and enter Syria.

The roadside is populated with boys and youths selling plastic water bottles of yellow petrol and golden oil. We pass youths on motorbikes carrying battered cooking gas cylinders which Syrians can buy at subsidised prices every 90-100 days.

Small-time smugglers operate in broad daylight. Big-timers in the north employ lorries to ply regular routes. Lebanon’s high-priced goods fetch even higher prices in heavily sanctioned Syria.

Traffic is bumper-to-bumper in Damascus where older cars receive a ration of 20-25 litres of subsidised petrol every 10-18 days, depending on the flow of imports. Grey market petrol is three times more expensive.

Before the war, eastern Syrian oilfields produced enough petroleum products for the country and export. Today they are occupied by US-sponsored Kurdish militiamen who sell some to the government and smuggle the rest to Iraq and Turkey.