Syria Series: Orient Express 1



In honor of the upcoming ten-year anniversary of our field study in Syria, Abu Halen and I have decided to write a series of Syria blog posts. Here’s the first installment.

Chillin' in Istanbul, not Constantinople
This story, like most stories of our life, began with a problem: Abu Halen's major required him to do a field study in an Arab-speaking country. But we didn’t have enough money to fly our little family from the U.S. to Damascus. We did, however, have enough to get from the U.S. to Istanbul. 

You might be surprised how little information the Internet offers on ways to get from Turkey to Syria. All I could find was a single website that mentioned that a train still ran the Orient Express route between Istanbul and Damascus once a week.

So we set off to Istanbul, hoping that the website was correct. We packed insect repellent too, because the CDC website said that malaria still appears in eastern Turkey. 

Holy cow, I can’t believe we just took off like that—and with our seven-month-old baby, no less! . . . Our parents couldn’t believe it either. We did what we could to comfort them, assuring them, “If we die, we die!” . . . I’m not sure how we thought that was going to comfort them.

In Istanbul we stayed in a little hostel run by a Turk named Bobby. Bobby loved babies. And he was the first of many Middle Easterners to scare the tar out of my child. He’d take her from my arms while we were eating so he could dance her around the room. He’d carry her outside to show her off to his friends hanging out on the stoop. He’d utter all sorts of unmasculine noises in an effort to make her smile. Savannah would scream, and I would assure Bobby that she was just tired. I think this was the beginning of Savannah’s antisocialism.

Bobby said we could check the train station to see if we could find anything that ran to Damascus. That was our project on day two in Istanbul. We took a ferry across the Bosphorus to reach the station. The guy sitting next to us smoked all the way across, kindly offering to let the baby play with his lighter. 

Having spent a cumulative three years in the Middle East, I now consider it little less than a miracle that the train station was open when we arrived and that Joey managed to secure tickets for the destination we wanted. The trip would take two days, and the train would even offer a food car!

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after we had boarded the train that we realized the food car was not in fact stocked with food. We had bought only a little bread for breakfast, and although the train stopped every few hours, it didn’t stop long. Joey wasn’t keen on risking going out to buy food and then being left behind. He tried asking the train conductor how to get food, but it turned out that Turkish was really hard to understand.

So the two of us fasted for the first day, and I crossed my fingers that my milk supply would last long enough to keep the baby happy until we could get food. Driven by hunger, Joey finally left the train at a village buried in the mountain greenery of eastern Turkey. Ages seemed to pass while I stared out the window, hoping he’d return before the train started again. I tried to think what would be worse—going without food or going without Joey. Then I realized that if he didn’t make it back in time, I’d be going without both. My head hurt, and I was starting to sweat. 

When Joey finally returned a few minutes later, he was sweating too. We tore into the cookies, goat cheese, and bread he had bought, as the train pulled away from the village.