Another sunny day greeted us as we rolled down the hill and onto the road this morning. We’d expected more rain for this time of year (and we may well get it yet as we head further north) so the dry weather of the past few days has been a nice surprise. The only town between us and the city of Deir-ez-Zor – some 150km down the road – was As Sukhnah so we stopped to fill our water bottles and do some shopping. The usual crowd gathered but, unlike the madness we encountered leaving Palmyra, this time two men kindly took charge and kept the kids from playing too much with our bicycles. They also showed us where to get everything we needed and sent us off with a big wave and a smile. It was a good start to the day.
Unfortunately our journey didn’t continue so smoothly. Once again we had an encounter that left us a bit shaken and confused. Things started going wrong when we stopped near a herd of sheep because of a dog that was barking at us and heading our way. The two shepherds came over to investigate us and we exchanged the usual greetings and smiles, followed by questions in Arabic we couldn’t understand but have come to assume are “where are you from?” and “where are you going?”. We duly answered both, the men tried out our horns and bells and then we started to go. “Goodbye,” we said in Arabic and waved as we put our feet on the pedals. Trouble.
The younger of the two men gripped Andrew’s handlebar and wouldn’t let go. “No,” we said in Arabic. He held tight with one hand and started touching all our bags with the other hand, motioning as if he wanted us to open our bags. “No,” we said again and motioned for him to release the bike but still he held firm. Andrew tried to push ahead but was stopped by the man. Not only could we not move but we were in the middle of the road and felt it was dangerous. We got angry yelled at the man to let go (the other shepherd was just standing back, not helping or hurting the situation). Everytime we got a few inches ahead he got in our way again and, like the strange truck driver we met a few days earlier, he tried to grab Andrew’s goatee. The situation quickly escalated, getting more and more heated, and we just couldn’t understand what was going on. Through all of this, no aggression or words were directed towards Friedel. There was a brief respite as we started to flag down a passing car and this let us get away but now the man was running behind us and he got close enough to throw the large wooden stick he uses for herding sheep into our path. Thankfully we were able to swerve around it and the man couldn’t catch us himself. We were safely pedalling away.
The cloud from this event hung over us for the rest of the day. Did we do something to provoke it? Is there some cultural nuance we don’t understand? Is it just bad luck? We have covered over 19,000km on our bikes and hardly ever felt even slightly threatened or uncomfortable among other people but crossing this desert stretch from Damascus to the Euphrates river we’ve felt distinctly uneasy and even scared on three separate occasions. In fact, we tried to think of other similar instances in other countries and couldn’t come up with any. We’ve both become very wary now when someone stops in our path or waves from a nearby field. In our heads we just can’t square these recent events with the rest of our experience in Syria, which has been overwhelmingly wonderful and given us some of the greatest joys yet during our travels. We can’t make it fit with the Islamic culture either, which is known for its hospitality towards travellers, something we have been on the receiving end of over and over again. Getting to sleep in the tent now is hard. We feel like someone is “out to get us” and we’re on high alert for anything unusual sounds. But we also know that if we can’t get past this nervousness then we won’t get much further in our travels. We are crossing our fingers for a quiet week ahead, back to Aleppo, a city we really enjoyed. Something is needed to restore our confidence.