On the trail of Hejaz Railway

June 21, 2020

Dr Ajaz Anwar remembers being told that he needed no visit visa because he was an “artiste”; boarding the train to Damascus, and the Arab hospitality

Dr Ajaz Anwar’s painting of the mausoleum of Salahuddin Ayyubi. — Image: Supplied

From Istanbul I set off on a journey with the Lawrence of Arabia in my fantasy. It was a mildly cold February of 1973. Casting a look on the hospital at Haydarpa a, built during the Crimean War, where the legendary Florence Nightingale had nursed the wounded soldiers, I boarded the train to Ankara.

I needed visit visas for a number of countries that were carved out of the former Ottoman Empire. At every embassy I was extended courtesy because of my green passport. A visa officer called me “Ali Bhutto,” I replied, “No. Ajaz Anwar.”

My profession of “artiste”, as entered in my passport, was respected. I was told I needed no visit visa. So, I did not deem it necessary to visit the Iraq Embassy. I was able to buy a ticket for what had been Hejaz Railway and could take me to Damascus and Basra after exchanging only $4 at a bank. It was valid for six months, so I could embark and disembark at various cities/stations in my itinerary.

I was travelling light. My water-colour paint box, a small board that fitted well into my small attaché case, and my folding stool and an easel aroused much curiosity.

Anadolu Express took me to Syria (Shaam, as it’s called). My Turkish was not very fluent at that time; also, I knew no Arabic except for some religious courtesies, yet I was able to make friends with fellow travellers. Among them was an old Turk whose grandparents had opted to stay back in Bulgaria. We did not have to disembark at the border. The officers boarded the train and stamped passports as “Entered”.

Arabs have a tradition for hospitality. Accordingly, they insisted on sharing their meals during the train journey. When I disembarked at Damascus, some fellow travellers offered me black coffee — or kahve, as they called it — and took me to a reasonably priced funduk (hotel). The Bulgarian also accompanied me.

Our first excursion was to the Umayyad Great Mosque. It is one of the oldest in the city, and is famous for its mosaics in Byzantine technique, depicting the gardens of heavens. The mosque was preceded by a huge market covered with steel sheets and girders like a railway platform. Both the market and the mosque had caught fire at the beginning of the 20th century. It may have been sabotage. From the courtyard of the restored mosque, under the shadow of Bait-ul-Maal, I painted the façade of its sanctuary. Many locals gathered around me. The anti-aircraft guns mounted on the minarets did not frighten me. In fact, the soldiers stared at me, wanting to understand what I was doing. One of them descended the winding stairs and uttered, “Akhi’ al Bakistan!” (a brother from Pakistan). He had seen the small green flag pinned on my collar.

Next, we visited the close-by mausoleum of Salahuddin Ayyubi which has a ribbed dome in typical Spanish style. I made an unfinished sketch of it. It was only later that I learnt that the grave was once crowned with a wreath in gilt bronze, presented by Kaiser Wilhelm during his visit in 1898. After the fall of Damascus in 1918, it was plucked and given to TE Lawrence.

As we went for lunch, being unfamiliar with the menu, we ordered Baklava, a Turkish sweet dish notoriously overloaded with sugar, and not at all a delight to eat. (Maybe they had no sugar cartels, and sugar could not be made out of dates.) As some fully armed soldiers entered the eatery, I offered them what we had been struggling to gulp. They downed it all with relish. In keeping with Arab hospitality, they ordered two dishes for us as well. One look at the contents of the dishes was enough to recall a horror movie — there sat the skinned head of a sheep, its teeth in smiling mode and eyes wide open. While we failed to munch it with the stew flowing down our elbows, they came to our rescue. Opening the tightly closed jaws with apparent expertise, they gouged out its tongue, and then the eyes, while we looked on with horror.

Damascus must have enjoyed considerable economic prosperity at one time, but now it had decaying old houses and mansions with wooden balconies, quite like those we have in Lahore. Maybe when the Hajj caravans started from this city and later when the Hejaz Railway had been inaugurated in 1908 and all pilgrims converged to this city, it had benefitted from the trade activity. During my visit, the old historic districts were being demolished ruthlessly by the dictatorial regime to straighten and widen the lanes, and there was no one to protest.

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I let my Bulgarian friend leave, because he was in search of his “aqrabaa” (relatives) lost when thousands had to disperse at the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. I took a bus to Halab (Aleppo). Its circular fort over a high plinth surrounded by a deep moat was accessed by a bridge. Its fortified gate made it look impregnable. It must have been from the Roman times, used by the Crusaders and refortified by Salahuddin Ayyubi when he captured it, as explained by the guide who knew French and some Turkish. I painted a side view of it, which is still with me.

There was quite a crowd around me while I sat on my folding stool. “Jasoos,” meaning “spy”, was one word that I could comprehend. I answered with a “La”, meaning “no”. Everyone had a hearty laugh. They should be wiser; what if a real spy came there, I thought to myself.

Aleppo had a covered market next to the fort. There was a functional tram from Ottoman times like the one in Damascus. I took a bus to Hama and then to Homs. The Syrian cities are picturesque, the climate is comparatively mild quite like Lahore’s. It never snows. People are beautiful and friendly. Their women dress modestly. I pray for these people now in the grip of various internal and external intrigues. The news of bombardments and massacres are disturbing. Older folks knew Turkish and told me how their elders had suffered during the breakup. Many of them still wore Turkish cap or Fez. They have kept alive some of the Ottoman cultural traditions.

Syria is not an oil producing country. Hence its people are economically hard pressed.

After hitch-hiking and travelling by various means of transport for many days, I took a shared taxi to Beirut, hoping to meet Nicholas who had been my classmate at the Fine Arts Department of the University of the Punjab, back in 1963. The journey by taxi turned out to be quite a sightseeing tour of the very picturesque mountains lined with cedar and pine forests with habitations in yellowish stones showing through.

At the border, again, I was asked as to what kind of artiste I was. As I opened my watercolour box and they stamped my passport, I said, “Merci!” In Lebanon, they speak French also.

The taxi driver dropped me off at a very good hotel with a ridiculously low price, the reason for which I learnt only later: it was located in a street specialising in funerary services for Christians. The probing smiles from the entrepreneurs really frightened me. I went on a walk through the city which seemed quite affluent. Nearly all taxis were Mercedes. Cheese sandwiches with yogurt appeared to be their standard menu at crowded eateries. Water was available for free; only you had to drink it with your mouth without licking the jug (which comes with practice).

I wanted to buy a camera and a tripod, but Beirut is not duty-free as rumoured. After much haggling, I managed to buy one at a good price. The man relieved me of all its packaging and the accompanying literature (maybe he wanted to use it for some refurbished machine).

The seaside of the city was very enticing. I pretended not to be a habitual bird watcher. The deep seaport had many Greek ships anchored around, and the sailors were enjoying a break. The sailor I encountered spoke some Urdu and was familiar with the Roma Palas of Istanbul. Roaming around, I discovered a highly secured Palestinian camp. An uneasy calm prevailed there. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Yasser Arafat had not made a mark till then. I sipped Turkish black coffee served in a samovar placed over embers, in the shadow of free-standing surviving Roman columns. Some Arabs in their traditional apparel looked at me out of curiosity because unlike other tourists in fading jeans, I was in a two-piece suit with a matching tie.

I needed to get some travellers’ cheques cashed. So I walked into the American Express bank. Its heavy glass door opened automatically, much to my surprise. A ‘beauty pageant contestant’ led me to an officer who took me to be someone seeking to open an off-shore account. So, he welcomed me with a smile.

When he learnt that I was there only to cash 20 dollars, his facial expressions changed.

The University of Beirut was heavily guarded and inaccessible to strangers, and I knew no one there except Nicholas, the likes of whom were aplenty. It was years later that I learnt that Khalid Khawaja was studying civil engineering at the time when I visited the place.

The few private art galleries I saw were akin to handicrafts shops. My mountaineering skills did not find the prospect of crisscrossing through the winding, steep lanes of the old quarters enticing. My interest in modern homo-sapiens in scant apparel hit a low ebb. I boarded a shared taxi which already had three occupants. Soon I was enjoying the fragrant breeze on my way back to Damascus, where remnants of Hejaz Railway were waiting to take me to Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra.

But as it turned out fate had other plans for me.

(This dispatch is dedicated to a fellow traveler, a Bulgarian Turk)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

On the trail of Hejaz Railway