Deir ez Zour

Deir ez Zour is in the news again: gun fire, tanks, death. It is in the news for all the wrong reasons. But the Deir I know is different. It’s a lively, lovely  town on the banks of the Euphrates, the river, known in Syria, as the Furat. It lies across the Syrian desert, to the east, not all that far from the Iraqi border. Here’s what I have written about it, in my forthcoming book recounting my travels around Syria – My Home is Your Home.

Deir ez Zour, centre of Syria’s cotton industry

Deir  was once an important oasis town, its origins dating back to 2700 BCE. Later, it was taken over by Hammurabi, the great lawmaker. Zenobia, Queen of the Desert, incorporated Deir into her Palmyran empire but it finally succumbed to the murderous onslaught of the Mongol invasion following which it was allowed to sink back into the anonymity of the desert. Until, in 1985, oil was discovered close by. Now it has been resurrected and has a five star hotel, a full complement of SUVs and is surrounded by drilling projects whose oil flares light up the night sky. It is also the centre of the cotton industry and while cycling here, I pass lorries piled high with swaying sacks of cotton with, on top of these, the women cotton pickers ululate, shouting encouragement to me as they sweep past.

At the depot, there are women everywhere, on their way home after their day’s work in the fields. Truly, I have never seen so many women together in one place and, for the first time, I am seeing more women workers than men.

The hotel I look at has a room which fits my purse and immediately, I start to enjoy the life of the moneyed classes: a boy takes my bike away for me in the style of a car valet and so thrilled am I with this service that I don’t even ask where he’s taking it to. If it were to disappear, I’d have been at a total loss for it is my home, my caravan in which all my wordly goods are stored and carried.

The bike boy returns with two bottles of iced water. The label on one bottle reads: “Bouksin spring at 5000 feet. The best to prepare baby’s food and conserve his teeth healthy.” On the other is written: “The Drekish spring is well known more than any other spring of mineral water. Its water gushes out from Bazelt rocks and pours out pure, fresh and useful.” Either is good enough for me.

I lie on the bed – the linen is pale blue, well washed and possibly ironed though not greatly but who cares? My room is high-ceilinged and freshly painted in a cream gloss. The shuttered windows are open and through the billowing muslin curtains I can see a rose bush and beyond that one of the canals that run alongside the Furat. And all this for US$15, breakfast included.

I shower, gulp down a glass of iced water, order a pot of tea, watch a little TV (a quiz show with the male contestants in flares and nipped-in shirts), spend a couple of hours writing up my notes then lie on the bed thinking that, after the cycle ride of some 120 kms from al Raqqa, I am in heaven. In celebration of this happy state, I move into Arabic mode: “Deir”, I intone, “you are my light, the jewel in my crown, my precious stone”. Syria, I love you, I add – and then I fall asleep.

Those good days will return to Deir. This I know.

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