Syria Was Tough Duty

The Harder the Work, the Higher the Pay

On the banks of the Euphrates River near the border with Iraq, there was ancient bedouin village in Syria named Deir ez-Zor. Royal Dutch Shell invested heavily in the development of nearby oilfields, not in the backward city. Historically, it served as a caravan stop on the famous Silk Road trade route. Expats called it ‘the Dez’. Living there was like stepping back 1000 years in time.

Tough Duty

Of all the overseas duty stations, Syria paid the highest coefficient; a multiple of base salary based on the location. Salary coefficients were part of the financial packages needed to entice engineers to take jobs overseas. Higher salaries, better bonuses, and tax breaks worked together to attract qualified candidates. To incent expatriates to work in Syria, the company offered 1.7 times base pay.

It was an estimate in dollars of how much more difficult it was to live and work there compared to every other place on the planet. At the time, it was the highest salary coefficient offered by our company for an overseas assignment. Only Lagos, Nigeria paid as much and foreigners were forced to live in a secured compound there.

I worked there in the ‘80s, before PCs and cell phones were commonplace. There was no such thing as the world wide web. The best communications technology available was the telex at the Dutch Shell field office which was like a typewriter plugged into a phone line. Two-way radios were restricted. There was a prehistoric telephone in the apartment but it could take hours to place a call to the States if the call went through at all.

Bigger Than Life

I was bigger than most of the bedu and literally stood out in the crowd. A tall fit American man with tattoos and an earring, long before those were common things to see. But I smiled a lot, spoke clumsy Arabic with the locals, and sat on my heels to drink tea when invited. I studied their language and respected their customs. Soon, I became somewhat accepted by the people I walked past every day.

The Armenians and Arabs in the sukh made me as comfortable and confident as a guest might be in their homes. Children who didn’t know me would stare at the novelty of a white man standing in the street and I’d let them talk among themselves awhile. I joined their conversation in Arabic and their surprise quickly turned to spirited joy. I was happy to accept the shopkeeper’s hospitality when I traveled through the sukh for myself or work. We greeted each other warmly and slurped shots of thick coffee or sweet tea. Other expats thought the Dez was tough duty… I had a good time in that place.

Deir Ez-zor Syria
..not the most comfortable camel in town.

It started a couple of months after I first set up the apartment in Deir ez-Zor. Halfway through a two-week hitch, I was brain grazing one evening in the sukh. Bored beyond description, I scanned the shelves on the off chance that I’d find something worth buying. I had been in Mahmoud’s grocery before and nothing ever changed.

Mystery Revealed

Truth is, most every Middle Eastern corner grocery looked exactly the same to me; the same general size and layout and all of the same products. Even the merchants looked the same. There was Colgate toothpaste and Pert shampoo and always KLIM. I saw KLIM cans occupying the exact same spot, head high on the same yellow shelves, in most every little grocery in the Middle East. A row of dull green #26 cans with the KLIM brand starched white on the label in big first-grade letters.


can of KLIM in Syria
Old KLIM can

Powdered milk in a can and – O My God! – an epiphany!

At that moment, in Mahmoud’s crap shack, I realized that KLIM was MILK spelled backwards. I absentmindedly stared at those cans since my first trip through a sukh and never understood why the word seemed familiar. Like Arabs wrote, from right to left. Letter for letter backwards. KLIM. Big cans of powdered milk…

I stood in the aisle and stared up at KLIM and suddenly busted out laughing, an unbridled knee-slapping Marine Corps howl.

“Sonofabitch! MILK!! KLIM is MILK spelled backwards!! HAHAHAHA!!!”

Scary American

I barked loud and without restraint, oblivious to onlookers, and my emotional release caught the locals off guard. They were physically startled like an electric shock, and exploded in every direction. Too busy eyeballing the tattooed loudspeaker to watch where they were going, they slammed hard into each other and the carefully stacked displays. Cans flew and boxes fell, and people tripped and ran like hell. It was a simple chain reaction run amok.

Poor Mahmoud was panicking. He flapped about his shop trying to catch the crashing canned goods. Women with cloth wrapped around their heads tried to navigate the chaos and dropped their shopping as they fled. There were a lot of freaked out people trying to get a grip on things right then and I was the only one laughing, so I snuck out the door and found my way home being sure to stay in the shadows.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying as I slipped past them outside the store. Hooded women gathered around the cop on the beat and clucked wildly all at once. They were animated and their reports to the police were quite emotional (Varoug recounted them to me later). It was a tough duty night for the cops.

on the Lebanese/Syrian border
Associates On the Border

Police Reports

“The big one was just staring up at the ceiling and, My God, it was strange and frightening. I remember that he stood silently for a long time. He was peculiar and I noticed that several others were watching as well and suddenly – as if God were punishing us for staring – the big one burst out laughing and swearing and talking to no one there. It was so LOUD! It scared us all and shocked us deeply, I swear by God! Cursing and wild-eyed, he frightened us and fearing the jinn were among us, we left in all haste. Thanks to God, we were saved. This mischief brought grief on the house of Mahmoud. God save and protect him from the jinn.”

By the time I came home from work the next evening, the police had narrowed the suspects down to me. They had learned from my neighbors that I was muhandis (an engineer), an expert at tough duty. The Ministry invited me to make oil. They came by to ask questions and I tried to answer in their language… and that made all the difference. They couldn’t understand my answers, of course, so they called it a misunderstanding and we became formally acquainted. I invited them in for coffee and, though they did not accept, the gesture was warmly accepted.

New Friends

In the days that followed, a man or child might approach me with a greeting. They were patient and friendly or maybe just curious, and we sat outside and tried to talk. The neighbors and merchants I met were happy to participate. Day by day, they helped me; not just to speak their language, but to communicate. They would instruct me in their customs and bring gifts of fruit and sweets. It was not long before I became well known in the Dez and I owed it all to KLIM.

tough duty in Deir Ez-zor, Syria
Tough duty… somewhere between Lebanon & Syria

(Excerpts from “When I Was Cool”)

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  1. It seems cultural differences almost got you into Tap Rolyat trouble. I think it’s a great guide for people traveling to other cultural and religious zones to avoid getting into trouble. Although traveling to Syria in the current situation is rather risky.Besides, now you know why people were paid so much more to work in this country.Different world.

  2. Loved the KLIM story when I read your book. Teaches one to open your eyes and laugh at the obvious.

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