My colleague was obsessed with trains, so I thought he dragged the Cairo press corps across the Syrian desert just to visit this train station.
During the 1990s, I had a lucrative working arrangement with a German news magazine as a photographer. And over the course of the decade, I traveled with the magazine’s correspondent throughout North Africa, the Middle East and occasionally locations beyond.
My colleague was obsessed with trains. No matter where we traveled, there was no getting away from the railroads. Sometimes I felt as though he chose his assignments according to what he could see railroad wise.
I can recall one particular anecdote shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We toured the Caucasus countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. As soon as we got to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on the first leg of our trip, he immediately dragged me to the central train station and commenced to point out things he wanted me to photograph. He was always threatening to write a story about the railroads, so I felt obliged to take the photographs he asked for, just in case.
On the surface, Baku appeared to be a city coming to terms with its newfound freedom, although in certain places, like the railway station, the old guard remained very much entrenched. Shortly after I pulled out my camera and began taking pictures, a half dozen police, wearing trench coats, pounced on me and escorted the two of us to their office inside the station.
Inside the station, a commotion ensued, and the police suddenly left us alone. My colleague took advantage of the opportunity, grabbed my arm and pulled me out the door, through the crowds, to the first available taxi we could find.
Later that night, we met up with a Dutch journalist who was based in Baku. As soon as he saw us, he said, “I got a call from police headquarters today asking if I knew two foreigners that fit your description.”
“How do you know they are looking for us,” I retorted
“By the way you are dressed,” he answered. “If you plan on staying in Baku, I suggest you change your clothes.”
Even though the Syrian authorities had a similar phobia toward the foreign press, the railroad was one of the few sites they encouraged foreigners to photograph. The central railroad station in Damascus was not only a train station, but also a museum, art gallery, bookstore, restaurant and sometimes exhibition hall used to exalt the achievements of the Assad regime. The Ministry of Tourism knew of the West’s obsession with T.E. Laurence and the Hejaz Railway, so instead making it off limits, they opened it up.
During the 1990s, the Cairo Foreign Press Association was quite active, particularly after my colleague became its chairman. On one occasion, we traveled to Syria as guests of the Syrian Ministry of Information. Normally, these trips were quite contrived with outings to places the ministry wanted us to see.
The first thing my colleague announced when we arrived in Damascus was that we were going to Qamishli, a 10-hour journey by bus to the very northeast of the country.
After his announcement, I pulled him aside and asked, “Why Qamishli — is this part of the official program, or is there something there you want to see?”
“It’s a surprise, but have your camera ready!” he replied.
I don’t remember much about the trip other than it was long and there was not much to see from the window other than lots of empty space.
It was quite late in the day when we got to Qamishli. The first place we headed to was the old Qamishli train station.
Nobody complained or questioned why we were there because everyone was happy to finally get off the bus and walk around. The first thing my colleague said to me was, “Take plenty of pictures, because I have an idea for a story.”
Knowing my colleague’s obsession with trains, my first thought was that he dragged the Cairo press corps across the Syrian desert just because he wanted to visit this particular train station.
Fortunately, my fears were eased when he announced that we had an appointment later that evening to visit an Assyrian church, followed by a meeting with members of the Jewish community at their synagogue.
Qamishli was founded in 1926 as a station on the Taurus railway. It was basically an extension of Nusaybin on the Turkish side of the border. If there were no international border the two cities would have been connected.
Qamishli had a diverse population that included Kurds, numerous Christians sects, Turkmen, Jews and Sunni Arabs. For the longest time, it was a model on how different ethnic and religious groups could live together in harmony.
In the 1920s, the first people to settle in Qamishli were Armenian and Assyrian Christian refugees fleeing persecution in Turkey. Later, a thriving Jewish community sprang up, which at its height in the 1930s, numbered in the thousands, making it the third most populous Jewish community in Syria, after Damascus and Aleppo. Today, indigenous Kurds make up the largest ethnic group in Qamishli.
After the railroad station, we walked through the streets observing the different communities interact. Signs were written in Kurdish, Armenian and Arabic, and all around we could hear a hodgepodge of different languages spoken. The atmosphere reminded me a little of Lebanon where people communicate in multiple tongues.
As promised, that evening we visited the Assyrian church and met with the priest and then continued on to the synagogue to meet with three members of one of the last remaining Jewish families in Qamishli. It was difficult to speak candidly with either the priest or the Jewish family because a government minder accompanied us. Regardless, it was still a unique experience to hear what they had to say, even if their answers were a bit contrived.
Prevented from having government jobs, which was the largest employer in Syria, the Jews had to make their way in the private sector. As a result, families like the one we spoke to became quite successful running privately owned businesses. And due to their success, many of the last remaining Jews were reluctant to leave for fear of having to start all over again.
The demise of the Jewish community happened simultaneously across the Middle East with the creation of Israel in 1948. Since then, their numbers have slowly dwindled, and today all that is left in Syria is a tiny elderly community numbering less than 100.
When Hafez al Assad’s son Bashar came to power in June 2000, the remaining Jews were promised greater freedoms, including the right to procure a passport, like every other citizen. Bashar also encouraged Jews living in the diaspora to return to Syria. Even though his efforts helped the few remaining Jews, his call to those living abroad fell on deaf ears.
Even though we were only in Qamishli for a very short time, I still harbor fond memories of that trip. Every time I hear the name Qamishli mentioned in the news, I think back to that day we spent exploring the train station, and I can’t help but wonder if that Jewish family we met has finally given up their fortune and left.
Qamishli has been largely left unscathed after nearly three years of civil war. Credit goes to Kurdish fighters who were able to secure the northeastern portion of the country. Today, Qamishli is the de facto Syrian Kurdish capital with its own administration and security force. Unlike other parts of the country that have been devastated by fighting, the schools and markets are open in Qamishli and the local council has been able to provide basic services.
But there is no news on when the trains will begin running again.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.