So at the time of writing it’s been over two-and-a-half years since the Arab Spring – supposedly started via Facebook and supposedly ignited to change the region for the better – went viral and spread across North Africa and the Middle East like wildfire. A Tunisian man by the name of Mohamad Bouazizi set himself on fire out of frustration. Libyan colonel Muammar Gaddafi was killed (no loss there), and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was ousted. Oh, and Syria went to hell in a handbasket.
Ah, revolution in the Middle East. A real clusterfuck.
Flashback to 2007
I had the opportunity to visit Syria in 2007. That year was a good one for yours truly, Loyal Reader. I “celebrated” seven years as an Angeleno and seven years in my job as a media researcher. The job had begun to wear on me, but I was making a good wage and had somehow turned three weeks of paid vacation into double that. (It was the only benefit that was worth a toss, and it would be taken from me the following year.) Travel for the year had already taken me to Cancun; Barrow, Alaska (!); China, Norway, Iceland, and Seattle. Thanksgiving was coming up and I knew I had to outdo myself. A college friend and long-time travel buddy mentioned that he had a friend from Germany who had recently been posted to the German Embassy in Damascus of all places.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Nach Syrien, auf das Doppelte! (To Syria, on the double!) My friend didn’t know much about the place but I had long been curious about it, as the medieval center of Damascus – one of the oldest cities in the world – was said to be nearly unchanged for two millennia. Not to mention, western Syria was the location of Crac des Chevaliers, a hilltop castle dating back to the Crusades. How cool is that? I also recalled watching a PBS special about monasteries of the Old World (or something), and the narrator spoke of a remote, mountaintop desert monastery 85 miles from the nearest big Syrian city. Additional research revealed that somewhere between Damascus and this monastery (Deir Mar Musa) was a monastic town (Maaloula) that still spoke the ancient language of Jesus!
I don’t have many theological convictions but I do find the subject of religion to be quite interesting, especially as it pertains to history. Most wars, most country borders, most languages, exist because of religion. As you might guess, Syria was incredible in this regard. My expectations were continually being exceeded. Pictures with commentary in a subsequent post will hopefully convey the beauty, mystery, and wonder of this wondrous (and now hopelessly fucked) land. But for this post, I thought I’d share a few stories (in no particular order) about my time there, and then my reactions to the country’s current predicament.
– Our welcome was far from friendly. We spent a long time at passport control, where we were each interrogated about our jobs, our reasons for visiting, and whether or not we had visited “occupied Palestine” before. The guard – who spoke almost no English and didn’t understand my answers of “Marketing,” “Advertising,” or “Radio” to the jobs question (causing me to finally just say “Computers”) – perused our passports thoroughly, convinced we had Israel stamps in there somewhere. Our German friend Carina finally intervened. She flashed her diplomatic passport and we were on our way.
– We spent the entire next day in the Old City. Indeed, it was (travel cliché alert) as if we had stepped back in time. Cars were banned from most streets. The medieval lanes were covered from the elements above but open on the sides to capture that cooling Mediterranean breeze. Carina hired a private guide for the morning, and although that’s not normally my style, his observations were revealing. He showed us travelers’ caravanserais of the past. He led us down Straight Street, featured prominently in the Bible and still a dirt road at the time of our visit. He took us to the jaw-dropping Umayaad Mosque, where both men and women are allowed in the main prayer hall. We noticed people worshipping in peace – old men, young men, old women, young women, children. A special place.
One thing we didn’t notice, not just in the mosque but nowhere in Damascus for that matter, was other tourists. This was during a time of peace. A few days later we visited the ancient ruins of Palmyra, near the Iraq border, and had the entire place to ourselves. The town of Palmyra, built solely for tourism, was not doing so well. The main street (the only street, really) had several restaurant façades, but only one was actually open. Our waiter, who spoke excellent English, said that after 9/11 the tourists just…stopped coming. Sad. I wonder if he’s still living there. I wonder if he’s still alive.
– Damascus had no American restaurants or department stores, and neither did the rest of Syria. It had a U.S. Embassy – as usual the most fortified building for miles – but that was it. The expat neighborhood where Carina lived had a Mexican restaurant and a few other cafes that catered to the diplomat crowd, but that was it. Relations between the U.S. and Syria have never been particularly strong, but to echo the words of our Palmyran waiter, after George “Nuke-u-ler” Bush declared Syria part of the terrorist Axis of Evil (or something), things essentially cooled to nothing.
– Having visited Syria, I’m not surprised Bashar al-Assad has fought so fiercely to stay in power. He isn’t particularly bright, and is essentially a student of his father’s teachings. He is more than a little bit paranoid, and with friends in Russia and China, he governs like a petulant child – and with an iron fist. Almost every store, hotel, and restaurant featured posters of Assad, prominently displayed. A few brave shopkeepers volunteered that they weren’t fans of Assad or his regime, but that they displayed the posters anyway, simply to avoid harassment by the government. This reminded me of the Chairman Mao propaganda all over China. I get a strange kick out of this sort of retro propaganda, but it is ludicrous all the same.
– It was after dark by the time we arrived in Palmyra. Our original plan was to stay at a campground outside the city, but we couldn’t seem to find it. We had just resigned ourselves that we should get a hotel room in the town instead when, seconds later, lights flashed behind us. A government car was pulling us over! Two very serious, very determined-looking officers approached our car and tapped on the window. I suddenly had to pee rather urgently. “Passports,” one of the officers said, without any trace of a smile. What could we do but comply?
After perhaps five minutes, our passports were returned – with a smile this time – and we were on our way. It seems the officers noticed the “Diplomat” plates on Carina’s car and were merely curious what brought us to this part of the country after dark (it was only about seven pm). Scared shitless yet?
– Just one more flashback story for today’s blog, Loyal Reader. The mountaintop monastery of Deir Mar Musa was a curious place. As with Palmyra, we arrived after dark. What better time to climb hundreds of rock steps than in pitch black darkness?! There were several stone buildings here but only one was illuminated. This building – the main lodge as it turned out – was accessible by a strange, Hobbit-sized door that only went as high as my waist. We crawled inside and were welcomed to a warm meal, a cold bed, and good fellowship.
The dormitory consisted of wafer-thin mattresses on a wooden floor and moth-eaten wool blankets. You had better believe that they didn’t go to waste. It is cold in the high desert after dark! Toilets were outside, 50 yards away, and strictly of the squat variety. Showers facilities were a hose (cold water only!) and a bucket. The price was right, however. All that was asked of us was a small donation (and you can’t beat such a place for ambiance, even if it’s far from luxurious).
We were invited to Mass, conducted in Arabic! The worship room was adorned with Orthodox-style frescoes that reminded me of the cave paintings in Cappadocia, Turkey. The room doubled as a library, and it had some old editions of the Bible that are likely worth a small fortune. I hope they haven’t been pilfered in the Syrian civil war. Mass isn’t my thing – and Arabic-spoken Mass is even more obscure to me – but how can anyone, even an Atheist like myself, not be at least a little bit moved by a roomful of strangers worshiping by candlelight to the soothing sounds of Arabic whispers? He could have been reading Justin Bieber song lyrics for all I knew.
Dinner was lentil soup and pita bread – the best I’ve ever tasted. I didn’t sleep much that night – it was too cold to sleep – and my body woke me up early saying “Sunrise, Gringo. Hurry up!” It was damn cold out, but that sunrise was one of the very best of my life. Top five, I’d say.
A Bit of Politics
Libya, which the media seems to have forgotten about, still faces an uncertain future. Its neighbor, Egypt, is essentially off-limits for tourists until the country gets its electoral bearings. This may or may not happen anytime soon. Lebanon – a place that I actually contemplated visiting last summer – has recently seen violence spill over its eastern border. Even Turkey and Jordan – the “moderates” in the region – have dealt with border clashes. But Syria…Syria is in a category all by itself. And Damascus…Damascus is arguably the most dangerous city in the world. (The “most dangerous city” certainly isn’t Rio de Janeiro, or Nairobi, or Mexico City, or any of the other usual city names that get dropped; give me a fucking break.)
What has transpired in Syria since the uprisings began is an absolute travesty. Assad is a hopeless tyrant who deserves to answer for what he’s done, but the rebels fighting him will never be eligible for sainthood, either. According to one account, they controlled the aforementioned monastery town of Maaloula in 2012, looted its churches, and forbade the town’s Christian farmers from tending the farmers’ own crops. Some people believe it was the rebels who used chemical weapons, not Assad. Me, I don’t know what to believe.
Please don’t launch missiles at, nor go to war with, Syria, President Obama. You are better than that. That wonderful country is a lost cause for the foreseeable future, it is sad to say, but we have no business making it worse by getting involved. Because that’s what will happen. Because that’s what always happens. We didn’t win in Iraq. We didn’t win in Afghanistan. We made enemies all over the world; that’s not winning – not when we’re supposed to be the good guys. Those wars were not your fault, Mr. President, and I commend you for your efforts to bring them towards an eventual close. You did win a Nobel Peace Prize….
You can do the right thing here. I shall save the “Is it our responsibility to police the rest of the world?” discussion for another post. Although we’ve been assured that it will be just a small involvement, it doesn’t matter. We don’t have enough facts, resources, money, or patriotic willpower for another incursion, small or large.
I don’t know how to conclude this blog post. It gives me no pleasure to say that Syria should be left to its own devices; I certainly don’t want to see the Old Souq of Damascus in ruins, or Crac des Chevaliers gutted (it’s already sustained heavy damage), or the Last Judgment frescoes of Deir Mar Musa painted over in an act of intolerance. This thing in Syria will play itself out. Assad surely can’t last much longer. I can’t say that whoever succeeds him will be any better, although my heart and my brain both tell me “no.”
But one day, some years from now, wounds will heal, scars will fade, and memories will lapse. The Middle East has been in turmoil for centuries. It will survive this, and the Arab Spring will be but a footnote in history books. When that day comes, the Syria I visited – a land of mystery and enchantment, both scary and magical – will emerge from the ashes.