In 1996 I was posted to Damascus for a 3 month stint as Deputy Director of British Council in Syria.
When I woke I touched the side of my head gently. Dried blood. The pain was intense. Like a visit by the mother of all hangovers. But I’d only had 2 beers. A quiet night out with friends.
I sat on the edge of the bed for a few minutes to gather myself. Hobbling across the bedroom, I took a look in the mirror, squinting. Close to my left eye, on the temple, was an inch-long gash. Flowing from it, over my ear, a stripe of crusted blood. I must have been bleeding while I was lying down.
It was surreal. I remember being dropped off by my friends in their 4 wheel drive, walking along the path to the apartment building and unlocking the door. But my recollection ends there.
Syria was a dictatorship ruled ruthlessly by the current president’s father who, by the way, also bombed his own people, killing thousands. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’d heard stories about how the government used the secret police to spy on the population, including foreigners. A common scenario, I was told, was that the secret police would come into your home when you are out. Poking around, looking for evidence that you are who you say you are. Then leave. To intimidate you, remind you you’re being watched, they’d leave a ‘calling card’. Something harmless but unnerving. Like using the toilet but not flushing.
Could I have been assaulted in the night by President Hafez al-Assad’s henchmen?
I called my friends. ‘When you dropped me off last night in the car, I was OK wasn’t? I mean, I wasn’t injured or anything?’ They were worried. ‘What do you mean? Are you OK?!’‘Yes. Yes. I’m OK. It’s just, I woke up with a gash in the side of my head. There’s blood all over my pillow. And my head is killing me. I have no idea what happened’.
They offered to get a doctor to come over but I declined. ‘No I’m fine thanks. I’ll just take some Paracetamol and lie down for a while’. Once they knew the injury wasn’t serious they started laughing. ‘And you really don’t remember what happened?!’
The night before we’d been to the Australian Embassy bar. For those unfamiliar with expat life, the embassy of each country has its own bar, which is open only one night per week. They’re makeshift spaces that sell only one or two beers from that country. The Australian bar sold only cans of Fosters. The British bar, called The Pig and Whistle, sold only cans of Boddingtons Bitter. Acquired during weekly ‘booze runs’, driving over the border into Lebanon.
That evening I was to attend a welcome dinner for a group of UK archaeologists, hosted by the British Council Director Peter C. I thought I should call Peter to warn him I’d arrive at his house with an obvious injury.
‘Were you pissed?’ he asked jovially, once he knew I was OK. Almost willing me to say yes. ‘No. No. I wasn’t. I’d only had a few beers. I really don’t know how I did it’.
My bed looked like a regular double bed but was actually a big piece of chipboard with a flimsy sponge mattress on top. It was uncomfortable, sagging badly in the middle. The apartment belonged to a single woman in her 60s. To rent the apartment she moved into a shed-like building in the garden. I’d sit inside chatting with her. It was small but homely.
The apartment furnishings appeared to be untouched since the early 1970s. The chandelier in the living room was a standout feature. Made from blue and green blown glass, shaped into an oversized bunch of grapes. The dresser was impressive too. Gold-trimmed, dark wood with a smoked glass surface and huge scalloped mirror.
Paracetamol eased the pain a little. I slept until mid-afternoon when I became hungry. As I walked out of the bedroom I noticed a long crack in the smoked glass surface of the dresser. In fact, there were lots of cracks. All radiating out from a single point of impact. In that moment I had a flashback from the night before. I’d been getting undressed. My feet became tangled as I took off my jeans. I lost my balance and fell over. Head-butting the dresser. The pain was intense. I crawled over to the bed and fell asleep. Probably the worst thing to do. I’m sure I was concussed.
No one remarked on my injury at the welcome dinner. The following night I went to a reception at the British Ambassador’s residence. I’d learned early on that the expat community in a city like Damascus is small. Everyone knows everyone. Gossip is currency. Guests were greeted in the hall by the Ambassador, who’d been briefed on who’s-who-in-the-zoo. Next to him was Barbara, his PA. I’d warmed to Barbara instantly. She was posh but funny… and swore like a fishwife. She greeted me, leaning in to whisper in my ear. ‘We heard about your little accident’ she said, smirking.
The news spread in less than 24 hours. It wasn’t frowned upon. It was a badge of honour. Overnight I acquired a reputation as a party animal. Getting so drunk I injure myself. Not true but I was happy to play along. Infamy can be fun. I received invitations to ALL of the parties.