The Officer

By John McFadzean

The room looked as if it could be a part of a movie set. But the dry mouth, the elevated heart rate, and the washing machine churning its way through my stomach told me that this situation was all too real.

I heard the heavy wooden door close behind me as I stepped tentatively into the middle of the room and took in my surroundings.

The worn wooden floor had seen better days. The paint on the walls had once been white, now chipped and yellow. On the wall to my right was an out-of-date map of the world, curling up at the corners and browned by time. Alongside the other wall were three wooden-framed chairs. And at the far end, almost as wide as the room itself, I saw a massive wooden desk. Dark mahogany in colour and heavily polished. The desk was bare save for a small pile of documents towards one side and old fashioned, black, rotary-dial telephone on the other.

Behind the desk sat a man of large build, jet black hair, and dark olive skin. He was wearing an army camouflage uniform with huge golden insignia on the epaulettes on each shoulder. I never found out the man’s name. In my presence, he was only referred to as:

‘The Officer.’

Hanging on the wall behind The Officer, and dominating the room, was a portrait-style photograph of the president of the country. 

It was October 2019. I was on the tiny island of Arwad, five kilometres off the coast of Syria. The Officer was an officer of the Syrian Army. The face gazing down on me from the portrait was the face of Bashir al-Assad, president of that country. 

The Officer gestured me to sit as he reached for the telephone. The next few minutes would be critical. 

‘What am I doing here?’ I thought to myself, ‘Being interviewed by an officer from the state security apparatus of the Syrian Arab Republic.’ 

But of course, I knew. 

I am on a lifetime quest to go stand up paddleboarding in every country in the world. And in October 2019 I was hoping to add Syria as country number 43. The Officer had it within his gift to make or break my dream. I’m sure my heart missed more than a beat, as I felt the blood drain from my body. I waited for his decision.

‘Yes.’ he told me through an interpreter. He would allow me to paddle on the eastern side of Arwad only. I must go no further. He gave me one hour and he insisted a civilian boat accompany me. I was a guest in his country therefore he wanted to ensure that I came to no harm. 

The water was flat and gentle. The powerful Mediterranean sun scorched my pale-white Scottish skin as I added Syria to my list. Later I looked for The Officer to thank him for his hospitality. I didn’t find him.

But that’s not why I’d love to go back to Syria.

After the nervous excitement of meeting The Officer, and the thrill of achieving my goal – country number 43 – the comedown caught me on the road back to Damascus. Passing through bombed-out villages that had once been picturesque and thriving holiday resorts. 

Almost every building was now a hollow, grey, concrete shell. Only a few villas had survived undamaged. In the ruins, I saw small children playing. Wearing the shirts of well-known European football teams, Barcelona and PSG, and kicking a battered ball through the rubble.

My heart sank. I wanted to take photographs. But I didn’t want to! It felt wrong somehow. Intrusive. I didn’t want to be a war tourist. But now, looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, I wish I had taken a few quick shots. I was privileged to be one of the first western tourists to visit Syria since the crisis ended. Perhaps I was also duty-bound to bring back a record of the dreadful destruction I had witnessed. 

But that’s not why I’d love to go back to Syria.

Every Syrian I met was warm and generous. A cup of tea here, a curious question there. A joint selfie in Al Manshya Park. A shared pomegranate. Even a chilli vodka shot in the Christian quarter! And they all had one message. A message they implored me to take back with me: 

‘Tell people Syria is not what they see on the news. We are a safe country. Tell people to visit.’

With my limited experience of a small corner of their proud country, I know they are right. A beautiful, fascinating place, its people rightly renowned for their Arab hospitality. 

That’s why I’d love to go back to Syria.