Cairo Bag elicits travel tips from Damascus (in Istanbul)

Little Bag Called Cairo gets delayed in Istanbul with some Syrians…

It was not the best of times.

Thunderstorms over Istanbul and raging winds diverted a budget flight from Europe, so it landed hours late at its final destination, following some in-flight lightening (which freaked out the Brazilian dance band en route to a festival), and a good long stretch parked on an Ankara runway.

Most passengers, who were simply connecting in Turkey for flights elsewhere, were told on arrival in the terminal that their flights had left without them. Don’t worry, the airline assured, you will be put up in a hotel for the night and shuttled back to the airport tomorrow for the same flight the next day. It was as easy as going to pay for your entry visa and checkin in with the airline hotel.

Visa? (well, fisa) I heard the woman behind me whisper to her husband.

Amid the obnoxious complainers and overly dramatic vacationers concerned about their scuba diving reservation in the Gulf, the husband walks up to the counter and quietly announces: We are Syrian nationals, we cannot obtain visas to enter Turkey. Ah, yes. The airline rep replies.

He and his wife are told to wait.

The little bag called Cairo–once holding cookies bought from the duty free as gifts for colleagues, the box now empty after languishing on a runway in Ankara for what felt like a year, and a bottle of bubbles for a friend’s birthday–caught the woman’s eye.

Ila wein? [to where?] I asked, after a few moments of clear curiosity as the woman tries to figure out who I am (what is this bag called Cairo doing here? I imagined her asking silently).

To the Gulf. Her husband comes back and joins in the conversation. He is clearly a seasoned traveller.

Wa inti, ila wein? Ila filistine.

Both smile. Maybe a little sadly. Makes me wonder about the world.

There we were in Istanbul, stuck, me with two passports to choose from both of which could get me into the country I happened to be stuck at, en route to another country (countries…) that I could also access (relatively) freely, that chances are they’d never been to. Back in the day Syrian support for Palestinians was almost (but not uncomplicatedly) unrivalled.

Between Cairo and Damascus the very idea of Arab unity was sustained. Now Cairo and Damascus meet via a canvas bag at an airport in Istanbul. Husband begins to explain how I go about demanding a refund for the cost of the flight. ‘Don’t let them tell you otherwise, the rules say the company must give you back the full price of the ticket’ — he cites codes, regulation numbers. He has clearly travelled a lot. Mid way through my promise that I will claim the price of the flight as soon as I land, the two are ushered off to speak to airport staff. There have been Syrian travellers on every single flight in and out of the Middle East that I’ve taken this year.

In Amman the Cairo bag was packed away, so I got to secretly overhear customs officials trying to decide to do with a dual-nationality Syrian family (“send them over to the mukhabarat” [intelligence]), en route to Lebanon the woman sat next to me was heading back to Damascus to find two of her sons she hadn’t heard from in long enough to be worried and decide to journey to Damascus. No Cairo bag present there either.

I swear that thing has magic. Indeed, it is thanks to the little bag called Cairo that I now know how/where to ask (no, demand! thanks mystery traveller) to be reimbursed for the cost of the Turkey visa, and the flight. Just a little travel advice from a pro out of Damascus, stranded in Istanbul, en route to the Gulf.

Thanks to the little Cairo bag for helping find the story. And if the flight cost is ever reimbursed, I know some pretty great organizations that work with other folks from Damascus who have been stranded in Turkey for a few years now… Read more… Read more…

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