Using Facebook, PayPal, eBay from an “Axis of Evil”

I know that there are a lot of people, uneducated and educated, who have a fear of the Middle East, especially of the Arab world. I guess if the only thing you ever hear about are suicide bombers on the news it could be understandable. But, I don’t think that’s only what people hear, just what they focus on. I think it would only take one visit to the Middle East to really change all of that, especially in Jordan. I mean, I feel far more safe in Amman than I do in New York City. Shopkeepers sometimes just cover up their fruit with a blanket and leave it overnight by the side of the road, and nothing happens. The other day when I was trying to get to Syria, I asked a taxi driver “Where can I get a servees (a shared car basically) that goes to Syria?” He took me to some random corner, dropped me off with some guys who barely had a shop front, who put me in a car with a random dude and three other customers and off we went to Syria. Maybe a less trusting… more careful… person would have been a bit freaked out (I read a blog post about some travelers who did the same but followed the driver’s course on their GPS the entire way up to make sure he wasn’t taken them somewhere to, I dunno, suicide bomb them maybe), but I am very trusting of people here and feel very secure.

And the same is true of Syria. Reputation-wise, Jordan gives off a fairly neutral impression, which is very accurate. Syria on the other hand seems to strike fear in the hearts of the democratic and patriotic, an axis of evil ready to pound you in the face with state sponsored terrorism, BAM. The US has a pretty awful relationship, partly because of a little stretch of land on the Mediterranean sea called I-s-r-a-e-l. If you have any hint of an Israeli stamp on your passport, including the sticky former outline of an Israeli sticker, you are denied entry. My visa to come here cost $131, only lasts 15 days, and was a complete pain to obtain.

But you would never know any of this from the situation on the ground. The city reminds me of Istanbul, or some other major city where old and new coexist harmoniously. Americans are like any other foreigners here – which seem to be mostly ignored by Syrians (this I like a lot). The people here are friendly and helpful, and have this way of talking that makes it sound like they’re singing (other Arabs always make fun of this). My students in Jordan who are from Syria are incredibly warm, and hardly representatives of an axis of evil. And Um Bassam rocks my face off. There is a huge gap between the political situation and actions of the Syrian government with the nature of the Syrian people, and this is the gap that I don’t think people see when they think about the Middle East.

But I keep getting reminded of the fact that I am in a country that only just recently lost it’s status on the travel warning list alongside Haiti, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Somalia (among others of course). Facebook is categorically blocked by the government here… or at least it supposedly is. At internet cafes, you just configure your browser an HTTP proxy so that it thinks it is somewhere else in the world. I didn’t know this, but saw a 10 year old girl playing “Fashion World” or something on Facebook so I asked her awkwardly how I could get on. She pulled up the advanced internet settings on my browser and typed a 11-digit number into a few fields by heart. I then went to Google, and it took me to Google: Sri Lanka instead. Her little brother was playing a game where you click on various buttons and it makes George Bush dance. He got bored of that and started to play “Twilight Makeover” instead – the next time I looked at his screen there was a large picture of Edward from Twilight with orange spiky hair.

Then, I tried to finalize some purchases I had made on eBay and pay for them with PayPal. I went to my PayPal and tried to complete a purchase, but got this message instead:

Error 3028. You have accessed your account from a sanctioned country. Per international sanctions regulations, you are not authorized to access the PayPal system. For more information about your PayPal account status, contact

Okay. Again, another strange discontinuity between how I feel living here and how American officials feel about me living here. I figured out how to pay with another internet paying method. But then after trying to log into eBay, I received this:

Hello bobodickie (,

Your eBay account appears to have been used without your permission.

We’ve already taken steps to secure your account. Your credit card information is stored on a secure server and can’t be seen by anyone. We’ve also reset your password and secret question.

So the only reason someone would access their account from Syria is if they were an evil internet auction pirate, attempting to illegally bid on retro t-shirts, Harry Potter books and DVDs of Mythbusters (for class!). Perhaps they do that with all unrecognized places from which you access your account, but I highly doubt that a French IP address, or a Canadian one would prompt the same response.

It’s hard for me to rationalize the existence of such wonderful people and such a richly historical, peaceful city in such a hated country, but I guess I’m glad to be having the problem of associating [state sponsored terrorism, breaches of individual freedom, an oppressive government with a bad reputation] WITH the people here rather than the problem of separating [these things] FROM my tutor, my host, my students, the culture, Arabs…

I”m certainly not looking over my shoulder for suicide bombers when I walk around the city.

Posted on August 14, 2010, in Living Abroad, Syria, Travelling. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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