Being an ugly American helps with Syrian Airlines

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

November 30, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

DAMASCUS — DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syria wants to open its economy to the hustle of commerce from the West. But businessmen who come here often retreat, shaking their heads at the stultifying bureaucracy.

In a place where no one dares to make a move without orders from above, even getting the simplest transaction done can be amazingly difficult.

Take buying an airline ticket.

The reservation was made, so I took a taxi to the downtown office of Syrian Airlines, the national carrier. Inside were 10 female ticket agents behind a long counter, chatting among themselves, and about a dozen customers sprawled on sofas.

I approached a woman knitting behind the counter. "Is this where I can buy a ticket?" I asked. She seemed surprised. There was a long pause.

"The computer is not working," she announced.

"How long will the computer be down?" I asked.

"I do not know."

"How long is it usually down?" I insisted.

She looked for help to her desk mate, uncomfortable that I had not willingly joined the ranks of the other listless customers on the couches.

Her companion shrugged. She tentatively reached to the keyboard. They looked at the screen.

"The computer is working," she said. I detected no joy in her voice.

"But," she added, more brightly, "you have to go to the bank next door."

"Why would I go to a bank to buy an airline ticket?"

"You have to pay in dollars," she replied. I assume this was a rule for foreigners, but she did not explain.

"In the first place, I have dollars," I said. "But I want to pay with a credit card."

A look of confusion crossed her face. "Just a minute," she said, and scurried off to consult with another idle woman.

"No, you can't," she said, returning. "Only with American Express."

"I have American Express."

Her look changed to one of desperation. She reluctantly drew out a blank ticket and a pen.

"I want the ticket for tomorrow. To Cyprus," I said.

She looked at the computer terminal in front of her, as though contemplating for the first time its function. She tapped a few keys.

"We have no flight to Cyprus tomorrow." She looked relieved.

"You have a flight tomorrow," I replied evenly. "It leaves at 3 p.m., and I have a reservation on it."

The commotion brought two more agents to her side. Together, the three of them squinted hard at the terminal, as though its internal light had dimmed to a feeble flicker.

"Yes," announced one of them finally, "here is your name."

The first agent set off on a search of desk drawers throughout the office for an imprint machine for my credit card. The other women moved reluctantly out of her way.

She found the machine, and held it up for me to see. "We have no forms," she said.

I shot her a cold stare. It propelled her into a back room and eventually she emerged with a stack of forms. Ten minutes later, the credit card form was signed, the ticket was laboriously filled out by hand.

The following day at the airport I found her triumph was false.

"You must see the station manager," said a man at the Syrian Airlines counter. "This ticket is no good."

"This ticket is no good," said the station manager, when I found him in a crowded back room. "It is not stamped. You had to have this stamped by a cashier."

There are times, I confess, when I uphold the image of the ugly American. This was one of them.

"It's not my problem," I screamed at the man. "If your airline can't sell a simple ticket properly, it's your problem."

The man was unmoved. The shouting brought other officials to the desk. Nine men crowded around, staring at my ticket. They shook their heads despairingly. At my increasing tantrum, two ancient telephones sprang into use, their cords crossed and tangled as officials swapped telephones trying to find someone willing to let me on the plane.

After 40 minutes, one official finally led me across the lobby. There, lo and behold, was a cashier. In 10 seconds he put the needed stamp on the ticket.

"Peace be with you," he offered graciously. That, and a valid ticket.

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