Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Liza Baron on the street in Damascus

Liza has graciously allowed me to put this up here. It was originally written to a few friends. It is a valuable testimony to the goodwill still out there, despite the many blunders of our government. Thanks, Liza, for this. RLC

After clumsily ordering my first falafel sandwich in uncertain Syrian-colloquial Arabic a few weeks ago, I braced for the inevitable question from the curious vendor: Where are you from? Say Canada, say Canada, my reason, rationality, street smarts, and instinct told me. “America,” I heard myself saying. He smiled broadly. “Where in America?” Say Alaska, say Wyoming, say Nebrasca - “Washington, D.C.,” my voice informed him and a growing crowd of Damascenes waiting for sandwiches. Bracing myself for boos, hisses, and flying falafels, I winced as the TV above his head trumpeted news of President Bush’s exasperated remark to British Prime Minister Tony Blair that the conflict would end if the UN would only get “Syria to get Hizbollah to stop doing this shit.” The vendor winked and, grinning as he passed me my sandwich, said with gusto “Ahlan wa sahlan,” a phrase that conveys sincere welcome. It would be the most-repeated expression in the month and a half that I spent in Damascus, Syria, this summer.
Despite daily excoriations of Syria in the American media, I found Syria to be among the most hospitable countries I have ever visited. Exceptionally welcoming of foreigners, Syria has absorbed millions of neighboring refugees escaping violent conflicts. In addition to the constant flow of Palestinians (since 1948), and Iraqis (since 2003), hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have flooded Damascus in a matter of days. Hotel staffs are enduring round-the-clock shifts and filling rooms to the limit, Syrian students on summer vacation have returned to school to transform their classrooms into bedrooms for displaced families, and restaurants and street vendors spend the lull hours between meals producing food for the refugees. Ahlan wa sahlan. The official figure of distinct recognized religious sects within the country the size of North Dakota now numbers eighteen, and Syrians of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds live together without conflict in this stable, tolerant society. Since 2002, when President Bush added Syria to his roll call of rogue nations, a curious phenomenon has occurred in Syria: as its global image deteriorates, the quality of life has improved within the country. After the 2000 death of the iron-fisted Hafiz Al-Assad, his son, the current president Bashar Al-Assad, has opened the society, emphasizing tourism and connecting Syria with the modern world. High-speed internet is now available in cafes and homes with limited censorship, satellite television with channels from the Middle East and Europe is highly accessible, and recently a group of respected professors, journalists, and community leaders wrote an open letter to the President to ease his grip on the country. Jokes involving politics and the secret police, whose presence has eased slightly since Bashar assumed power, can be heard in cafes and in the streets.
Passing a sign commemorating the connection between the Al-Assad family and Syria, my Syrian companion shook his head disgustedly. “Damascus is the oldest city in the world,” he explained. “The Assad family came to power in 1970. There is more to Syria than that father and son.” A favorite joke asks who survives when a plane carrying the President, the Chief of Secret Police, and the Prime Minister crashes into the mountains. The punchline: the Syrian people, of course! Even so, Syrians I spoke to said that compared to other regimes in the Arab world, their government is the best of the worst. Without having much of a choice, Syrians plaster Al-Assad^Òs unsmiling picture on their cars, homes, and stores. In the past three weeks, another face appears next to the President’s, and another flag flies in tandem with the Syrian flag. Syrians have seized the passion of Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, their Che Guevara. Before July 12th, the Damascenes I spoke with despised Nasrallah. My good friend deplores his politics, his strategies, and his religious views. After the campaign in Lebanon stretched into its first week, she enlisted me in hanging a distastefully large Hizbollah flag that cast her room in a garish gold and green light. I sent her a quizzical look as we tacked up the last corner and she shrugged sadly. “He’s all we have,” she explained.
In a region where innovative thinkers, advocates of democracy, and anyone who represents a challenge to the status quo disappear in the thick of the night or meet unpleasant fates in car “accidents,” Nasrallah symbolizes a force of change and a stark contrast to the current Syrian leadership, paralyzed by global alienation led by the United States. Theoretically, radical Shi’a Hizbollah should never enjoy the support it has recently garnered in moderate, primarily Sunni Syria. For example, the general public barely tolerates the presence in Damascus of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, and he is categorized as a liability and threat to personal security instead of being extolled as a local hero championing the Muslim cause. Realistically, the effects of wars in three of its five neighboring countries have taken their toll and Syrians are ready for an end to the fighting and a return to normalcy. Millions of Palestinians, Iraqis, and Lebanese have passed through or settled in Syria, and both the conflicts and the huge numbers of refugees have far-reaching effects on Syrian society.
The power of the secret police, for example, had ebbed since the death of the previous president but is now returning with a vengeance because of the tense international climate. Real estate prices have skyrocketed, making it virtually impossible for families to afford their apartments. Prostitution, previously comparatively rare in Syria, has become a disturbing phenomenon as desperate Iraqi women arrive with no income and no hope. The trend disrupts the delicate social equilibrium between Syrian men and women, and the Syrian women with whom I spoke reported feeling more nervous walking alone in the streets at night (a luxury Syrians of all ages and both genders usually enjoy as a benefit of living in a society with an extraordinarily low crime rate). These inconveniences, imbalances, and irregularities are directly associated with conflicts that are American-perpetuated or supported. In a countrythat has traditionally shunned extremism in favor of moderation and tolerance, the embracing of Nasrallah is significant but not surprising.
These days in Damascus, sympathy for the slaughter of innocents- Lebanese, Palestinians, Iraqis, and Israelis alike- reigns. But under the sorrow and anger is a poignant emotion: confusion. How exactly does the current American government picture its ideal Middle East? Baghdad before the US invasion eerily resembled today’s Damascus, which is to say it was a successful, self-sufficient, highly educated, peaceful society with a sizable middle class and an oppressive leader. Lebanon, just recently rebuilt after 15 years of bloody civil war which finally ended in 1991, before two weeks ago eerily resembled Miami, which is to say it was the chic, cosmopolitan party capital of an open democratic society. The Arab cities and countries that once boasted successful societies have been abruptly reduced to rubble. “What is it that your government wants in the Middle East?” asked an Iraqi refugee. “What system will ever be good enough here to escape the bombs of the US and her allies?”
Days after Israel began striking Lebanese cities in response to Hizbollah^Òs murder of eight soldiers and kidnapping of two soldiers, I spoke with a young Lebanese man who described his perilous journey from south Beirut to Damascus. The agony of the tale was horrifying, but the man shrugged and said, “Well, you know, that’s how war is.” Of course, as a 20 year-old college student from suburban Washington, I have no idea how war is and I told him so. He was incredulous: “You’ve never seen war? The US sends troops to every corner of the world to wage war, and you have no idea what it’s like?”
As President Bush and Condoleezza Rice repeat, it is time for a new Middle East. The Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis and Palestinians whom I met agree: they are ready for a democracy to choose leaders who will not “disappear” them in the middle of the night and leaders who will stand up to the West to protect their national interests. Remember that the majority of these people consider images of young radicals burning our flag, perpetuating violent acts against innocent Israelis, and blowing themselves up as sickening and detrimental to their national security as we do to ours. Unlike most Americans, they do know how war is. And almost everyone is ready for it to be over.

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