29.3.04

REASON 6,029 WHY TOPPLING SADDAM IS A GOOD THING.

A year ago, the Superintendent noted the Tauern-Orient Express, a train and bus service from Istanbul to Baghdad. Jack Fairweather takes a ride on its successor. Key excerots:
There are many things to complain about in Iraq, and by the time the Orient Express arrived at the Syrian border the Iraqi passengers on board had exhausted most of them.

"Bombings, kidnapping, robbery, unemployment," summarized one weary businessman. "Who'd want to stay here?"

But the mood changed abruptly when Syrian border guards began to evict from the train those unable to afford a bribe.

Iraq may be plagued with violence, but a taste of life in Syria --the last Baathist stronghold and a place with more than a whiff of the old Iraq -- convinces most Iraqis they are better off without the paranoia and corruption of a police state.
The symbolism at the border crossing (What is it about frontier crossings in the Orient that lays out the trains for so long anyway, I once spent a day going from Erlian in China to Dzamyn Ude in Mongolia, most of it with the carriages detached from the motive power and the air conditioning not functioning, with the traveler's complaint, but loved the experience anyway...) is telling.
"It's just like traveling back in time to the old Iraq," muttered another businessmen, Mohammed Ahmed, as the Syrians did their work.

The guards stood next to a huge poster of President Bashar Assad. On the Iraqi side of the border a similar picture of Saddam Hussein has been replaced by a political slogan.

"It makes me realize how far other countries have got to come," Ahmed said.
There's something about a train ... that's magic ...
Now, with Iraqis able to travel freely, they may well become the seeds of discontent. That at least is what the Americans are hoping: that their great project of democratizing the Middle East is slowly putting down roots.
And why does the Superintendent hail the toppling of Saddam?
The Baghdad-Aleppo link was first opened in 1940 after decades of colonial wrangling between France, England and Germany.

It connected with the Orient Express to link London and Baghdad in a seven-day journey that Agatha Christie, a regular commuter, used as the setting for her novel Murder on the Orient Express.

The train lost its name and antique rolling stock when the Baathists came to power but the nature of the journey remains the same.
To ensure a better service, kindly be advised that Dame Agatha's story takes place on the European leg of the Orient Express, I believe in the mountains of Yugoslavia. Passengers were ferried across the Bosporus, no Alexander Cassatt or North River Tunnels in Istanbul.

Syrian public servants are well-coached in the old Soviet mold, according to this story.
One guard, asked if he thought the tumultuous events across the border augured change in Syria, replied: "We have noticed no change across the border. Everything is exactly the same as it has always been."

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