Thursday, June 14, 2007

Jesr ar-Rais: The Transportation Underbelly of Damascus

I have a love/hate relationship with Jesr ar-Rais (The President's Bridge). On the one hand, I've spent hours of my life in this place, waiting for, boarding, or exiting some form of public transportation. Jesr ar-Rais has always gotten me where I've needed to go. It's an "all roads lead here" kind of place - not too far from downtown, the Old City, Baramkeh, or the University of Damascus. Plus, it's conveniently located off of Autostrad. It is the very symbol of an efficient, thriving public transportation system.

On the other hand, Jesr ar-Rais is like a neverending shabaab convention. If you're going to survive a trip across it, whether over or under, you have to steel yourself against being eye candy for the masses. There are also sundry messes you have to pick your way through, and I don't mean just lane after lane of services and busses coming and going suddenly, spitting out exhaust as they do so. There are also vendors hawking their wares, and snack salesman camping out with huge vats of hot corn-on-the-cob.

There's the pile of trash that has inexplicably gathered at the bottom of the high-traffic staircase to the top.

But the scariest hazard of all is that red van that sometimes pulls up near the west end and somehow brings a cloud of bees with it. Yes, actual bees. I have never been able to figure out what this red van's purpose is - I always just make sure to stay as far away from it as possible.

To take a peek under Jesr ar-Rais is to catch a glimpse of the bustling industry of the people of Damascus. Everyone is coming or going, setting off for work or finally done with errands for the day. Services and busses line up in (mostly) orderly fashion before scattering around the city on their various routes.

It was an unfulfilled wish of ours to make a master map for the service routes. The key to the plan was to find out where services sleep at night, something we were never able to discover.

Services are a marvelous thing. They're not unique to Syria, but the service drivers of Damascus have the execution of their task down to an art. You can ride for as long (or as short) as you like for only 5 lira, and the driver even makes change without taking his eyes off the road, at least not for long. Services will pick you up and drop you off just about anywhere along their route. Sometimes, the driver or fellow passengers will even orchestrate a shuffle in seating so that women (especially veiled women, but not only veiled women) and men don't have to sit next to each other. If you have a small child with you, you can always count on help loading him/her in and out of the service.

Enhanced services feature a door that opens by a control from the driver, and sometimes creative lighting within the vehicle for interesting evening rides. There was one service in particular that ran the Vilaat Garbiye route - we called it "service of the night" because it featured a dark blue van color (instead of boring white), fluorescent lights inside, fancy headlights outside, several different deluxe horn sounds, and stickers and fringe all over. Whenever we were lucky enough to catch it, we rode with satisfaction as other service drivers hailed the driver of the "service of the night" and expressed their admiration.

From looking at the surface of the bridge, you wouldn't think so much is going on underneath.

But believe me: there is tons going on down there.


Liz Johnson said...

Ah, how I would love an efficient public transportation system. Having an efficient family friendly public transportation system is probably more than I could ever dream for.

sasa said...

What a brilliant post! Jisr Ar Rais, the real centre of Damascus. So much in the new city is left unwritten - it seems most foreigners only have eyes for the old city, which is such a shame.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

One day you, Carolyn, & I were riding a service down Sheikh Saad--you had to disembark but we were continuing on to a place I don't recall. As you left you instructed the service driver & riders as to where the other two of us were going, & would they please make sure we got off at the right place. Well, partway there Carolyn & I decided to get off sooner to look at something. The service was stopping there anyhow but no sooner did we stand up to get off than the entire group of passengers collectively & simultaneously reacted & exclaimed & gestured that this wasn't the right place. We assured them we knew that but it was ok, we needed to stop here after all. It was great to know that these strangers were looking out for us as charged! What a great city--Damascus is a city of wonderful people & an unrivaled overall transportation system, but the services are a culture of their own. Every city needs such a functional system. Suzanne

Anonymous said...

OK, I'll accept that the master map for the service routes is not feasible, but where are the photos of the Red van and its bees? where is the dark blue service of the night?

We all want to express our admiration.

Yalla .. next post!!


Anonymous said...


I am about to become a wife in Damascus! My husband and I are moving there in October so he can study Arabic. I was wondering if you could email me so that I can ask you some questions before we go. Will you still be there in October? My email address is

Thanks so much,

Bridget said...

Liz, just one of the many benefits of this part of the world :).

Sasa, I'm glad you liked it.

Mom, I totally remember that and I still laugh about it sometimes. Syrians are so darn helpful sometimes!

Alex, I honestly never got close enough to the red van to photograph it. The best I could do was watch in fear from way up on the bridge.

I don't think the 'service of the night' would have showed up on film. It's like a vampire in that respect.

jazzy13 said...

Hi Bridget,

I'm going to Damascus this September and would love to ask you some questions about finding a host family to live with, the quality of the Damascus University Arabic courses, and other general advise for hitting the ground running. Could we talk sometime? If so, I would profoundly appreciate it. My email address is:

Hope to hear from you!

Thanks a ton,

katty said...

I found a hose throw costa rica homes for sale and I can´t wait more time to go there. But I never went before. So is important to me to know about the transportation in the country which is vey beautiful. How ever, I heard the transportations is really good.

batoul said...

haha, i can't beleive how accuratley you described the underside of the bridge. the services are one of my favourite parts of Syria, especially the new line that goes up to the 9th level on Qasuine, where my grandparents house is. we stayed there for the summer, and it was such a thrill to learn the routes and how to get on and off. the first time me and my brother braved the services alone was a memory i'll always have, complete with andrenaline rush, and the awesomeness of having the driver and passengers make sure we got off at the right place.