A trip to Damascus (or my life as a media whore)

Before I even begin, I want to make it utterly clear that I know how lucky I am, how unutterably lucky I am.

A few weeks ago, we were planning the content for the next issue of one of our magazines and my editor said we needed a travel story. Off the cuff I suggested Damascus, and he went for it. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Good idea. Organise it.’

So I found myself applying for visas, carefully wording my application so my visit didn’t look like a threat to the Syrian regime, contacting airlines and hotels, asking other writers for advice and emailing people to meet while I was there.

I got given:
Return flights for the price of the taxes and charge only
Use of the airline’s business lounge at Heathrow Terminal One – free drinks, hot and cold food, wifi, newspapers and comfortable seats to read them on
Four nights bed and breakfast accommodation in a small suite at the five-star Four Seasons Hotel in Damacus

All I had to buy was travel insurance and my visa.

I arrived in the very early hours of the morning at Damascus airport, and while I was queueing at the ‘foreign passport’ booth to get through immigration, a tall man called out for me, beckoned me over to the Syrian booth, got my passport stamped by an official who didn’t even look at it or ask me for my entry card, and then hurried me out of the airport to a large BMW 7 series that was waiting for me outside.

All of a sudden I felt a little shabby with my scratty middle-of-the-night travel hair and 40 litre blue Vango rucksack.

The chauffeur turned to offer me a hot towel and off we went. Ten minutes before we arrived at the hotel, he picked up his phone, said something that sounded like ‘We’re one kilometre away’ (but in Arabic so I’m completely guessing – he could have said ‘We have the British hostage in our custody’ for all I know) and hung straight up.

The car pulled up in front of the hotel, and there were four men waiting out front for me. My door was opened for me, before the car had come to a halt. I felt like Julia Roberts but without the pre-prepared composure. Or outfit. Or smile. It was 4.30am after all.

The front of house manager showed me up to my room suite. In the entranceway was a large bunch of white roses, then a small sitting room with a huge window looking out over the city where the sun was beginning to rise. More roses on the table, then sliding double doors leading into a king-sized bedroom with an ensuite bathroom – two sinks, a shower, bath, separate toilet and a single white rose in a vase next to each mirror.

O my life, it was ridiculously amazing.

Unfortunately, I have no photographs of this to share, because the whole point of the visit was not to lollop in indecent luxury, but to explore the city for journalistic purposes.

Every day I wandered down to breakfast in sandals, long skirt and t-shirt, to dine with suited businessmen, Saudis in full white robes and tea towels, and Americans working for oil companies in off-duty formal casualwear – lemon polo shirt, chinos, belt and boat shoes.

I kept random hours while I was staying, so I kept catching various members of the housekeeping staff unawares, as they straightened the bed covers, arranged all my cosmetics from where I’d left them scattered around the sink beautifully on a flannel, brought me sweet pastries, changed the fruit or the towels. I even walked in on a guy with a clipboard checking that the fresh flowers that had been put in my room were up to standard.

None of this got written about in my article, and this couldn’t have been further from the experience of the city as a whole. It was almost like a parallel universe of western air conditioned opulent incongruence, totally separate from the rest of my visit.

So I’ve separated it out. When I told my boss about it when I came back he said ‘Journalists are whores and that was great PR. You’ll never write a bad word about the Four Seasons now. But it’s brilliant, isn’t it?’ I don’t much like being called a whore, but he’s right. I’ve been bought with a price and, rare thing that it is, I have to agree: ‘Yes it is. Flipping brilliant.’

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One response to “A trip to Damascus (or my life as a media whore)

  1. Pingback: All change please, all change « Me and the Girl from Clapham·

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