In June of 1999, I was detained for a whole night at the Damascus International Airport. It was just about the worst night of my life, in appalling conditions, not sure how and when I would be released. Being anywhere that feels like prison, and in a third world country, can be awful. But it could all have been avoided had I paid attention to how God had spoken to me earlier in a dream.
I had arrived on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt, on business in the late afternoon. The trouble began when I gave my passport to the Syrian immigration officer. I was confident that everything was in order, having followed the advice of my travel agent. But the immigration officer asked for my visa, not finding one stamped in my passport. I explained that I did not need one, as advised by my travel agent. He disagreed, and next thing I knew another officer came and escorted me away to a guarded detention room. One quick look, and I knew that this was becoming a bad situation.
I had to surrender my passport to the officials guarding the detention area. There was no phone, no way to contact an embassy or consulate. They did not speak a word of English, only Arabic, so communication was basically futile. I had lived in Syria from 1984-86, and then in Morocco from 1986-1990. But the little Arabic that I had learned in those years wouldn’t help me very much in the current situation. The room itself had uncomfortable chairs, some even damaged. It looked like I might be spending the night there, but there was no place to sleep. The floor was not very clean – dead flies and the like on the dirty tiled floor gave me yet another bad feeling. The “bathroom” had a filthy Arab toilet – the typical hole in the floor with a place to squat. No toilet paper, no running water, and there was a smell. There was no water to drink, nothing at all. Fortunately, I had tucked away a half liter bottled water from my flight. That was the only way to keep hydrated for the moment.
I was not alone in this detention area. There were about five other people – two Sudanese, a Nigerian, a Ghanaian, and a Saudi man. One of the Sudanese men said he had been there over a week, the others said they were there for a few days, and the Saudi man was pushing two weeks. The Saudi man had already given a few hundred USD to be released from this place, but he was still there. So do you bribe your way out of here? Or will that make it all worse because you might be convicted of bribing a government official and face jail time? They said that some people earlier had been released, but others not even after giving money to the guards. It wasn’t clear to me how the “system works”. I don’t believe in bribes, and in any case, I didn’t have many USD on me since on this business trip there wouldn’t be any need.
It feels terrible to have your rights stripped away and to be totally vulnerable. We take much for granted in the West – and I was clearly in another world. I had no idea what lay ahead, and trying not to feel incredibly anxious. Thankfully, I had my New Testament with the Psalms pocket Bible in my jacket. I read through a number of passages, including some of the Psalms. I think I prayed more that night than I have any other night in my whole life. That was the source of my hope, still not really knowing what the next day would bring.
I might have slept an hour in total, propping myself up in my chair. It was a challenge to find any one position that would let me doze and yet not slide off the chair. Morning came, and nothing much changed. No breakfast, nothing happening for any of us. I wondered if any of the fellow “inmates” had ever bribed the guards for any food, or even just asked. I had drunk almost all the little water that I had by then, so not sure what to do later.
Around 10 am, suddenly, they called for me. I heard what sounded like “Mr Kennedy”, but it is the Arabic way of saying “Canadian”. They were asking for “Mr Canadian”, and it could only have been me in that room. I came forward, was given my passport, and escorted out to get my luggage and then met the driver from ICARDA (the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, in Aleppo, now bombed out by ISIS). He explained that after my arrival, he “happened” to look through a doorway to the immigration hall and noticed there seemed to be an issue with my arrival. When I did not come through, he alerted the director general of ICARDA who sent a telex to the Syrian government that morning, asking for a visa waiver since I was there on official business with ICARDA. This was my answer to prayer! I must confess, I rarely felt so relieved and thankful.
I was given a bus ticket to get to Aleppo via the Karnak bus. Many years earlier, I had almost been killed in a tragic bus accident from Aleppo to Damascus, with the same bus company, so I needed to learn to relax. It was about four hours, with a brief stop in Homs. Four hours of loud non-stop Arabic music didn’t make the trip go any faster.
When I arrived in Aleppo, I was taken to the Chahba Cham Palace Hotel, the only five-star hotel in Aleppo. I showered first – and it was incredibly refreshing. I had an amazing five course steak meal, with great Lebanese wine. My room had a king size bed, and bronze faucets in the bathroom if I remember correctly. Such an incredible contrast from the night before!
The next five days I gave a software training course to the scientists at ICARDA, and then returned home that next week. A month later, I was looking through my journal where I write down prayer requests and dreams when I remember them. I saw one entry, where I had a dream months before I even knew I was going to Syria on business. In the dream, I arrived at the Damascus airport, but as I approached the immigration officer I could not even find my passport and I also knew I had no visa. It was a terrible situation, and I woke up from that dream feeling quite anxious. But there was no plan to travel to Syria at that time, so I think I concluded the dream had no relevance. Well, it seems that God was warning me. Later, while booking the flights for the trip to Syria, I asked my travel agent twice if I needed a visa of any kind. She said conclusively that there was no need at all for a visa. But, there was a “still small voice” that suggested otherwise in addition to the dream. But I didn’t listen when God was warning me.
The whole awful experience in Damascus could have been avoided. God does at times speak through dreams – see the warning God gave to Joseph and others in a dream (Matthew 2:13; Matt. 27:19; Gen. 20:3; Gen. 31:24; Gen. 41:1-8; Joel 2:28-29;). Yes, there was no angel in my dream, although I spent an afternoon with an angel in Turkey years earlier.
I would encourage you to record your dreams, and reflect on them occasionally. Maybe it wasn’t an overly spicy meal the night before, but a warning. God has warned me since then of some business situations with “hidden problems”. I took heed and was glad that I did. I see this all as part of the larger discipline of listening to God, learning the different ways that he speaks to each of us. Some people have come to me for healing payer, and the key part of the ministry session was understanding the meaning of a recurring dream. Is it possible that God has spoken to you through a dream? Have you gone through a situation that could have been avoided by listening to God? Take a moment to reflect, you might be surprised.