Sunday, March 20, 2011

Setting the scene

Syrians love to make jokes about other Syrians. In Damascus, the two regions of Syria that take the brunt of these jokes are the city of Homs in the north, and the flat, fertile, rural region of Horan in the south.

In the Bible, Horan is called “Bashan,” and features in several of the early battles for the Holy Land led by Moses and Joshua. Later, it was a major center of power for the Nabateans, or, as my Horani friend Wihbih calls them, “the old Arabs.” The artifacts of their civilization, and the later Roman and Muslim conquerors, can be found throughout Horan.

In modern times, Horan figures both as an agricultural region and as a staging ground for the Syrian military. Horan lies adjacent to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and is littered with Syrian military bases. From the roof of my friend Omar’s house, the mountains of the Heights dominate the view to the west, and a Syrian military base lies a stone’s throw away.

The residents of Horan themselves are known for, and mocked good-naturedly for, their accent, their appetite for chicken shwerma (an Arab fast food dish), and their generally rural ways.

“What’s the fastest thing in the universe?” goes one of Brother George’s jokes. “Not light – it’s a Horani who’s been invited to dinner.” Brother George himself is from Horan, and is endlessly ribbed for his shwerma habit. It’s a habit I’ve acquired from him since I moved here in September.

There are four boys from Horan in the seminary. Whenever one of them does something funny or clumsy, the other boys will laugh and shout “Horani, Horani!” When one of them gets into a fight, their antagonist will mutter angrily, “Shu Horani!” How Horan-like!

I have visited the Horan four times – once to see the ancient citadel/theater at Bosra with my father, and three times to visit the families of my friends there. On my second visit, I was attacked by mosquitoes while I slept, and woke with a face covered in about thirty bug bites. When I returned to the seminary, the priest and the boys shook their heads knowingly. “That’s what you get for going to Horan,” they told me.

Despite the disdain of the Damascenes, the Horan has a special place in my heart. The air is fresh, unlike polluted Damascus, and the flat landscape reminds me of my home state, Iowa. The residents spend their leisure time smoking shisha on each other’s porches, riding motorbikes through their villages, and picking olives in their family orchards. The ruins of Rome, the Byzantines and the early Muslims are so common that people use them for homes and stables, and walk and play on ancient Roman streets. At night the sky is lit up with stars, and I can fall asleep to the sound of the wind over the plains, not the traffic on the highway outside my window. And there’s no better place in Syria to eat shwerma.

I have never been to Deraa. It’s one of those cities that everyone talks about, but there’s never a reason to go to. It’s mentioned in the Bible under the name “Edrei,” the capital of Og, the king of Bashan, who Moses defeated and killed before his death on Mount Nebo (see Numbers 21:33). By all accounts, there’s little evidence of Deraa’s ancient heritage left today, and the town is simply a local big city, an exceptionally normal town, part of the atmosphere. Hearing that it’s been “sealed off” is bewildering. For you Iowans, imagine if Cedar Rapids was “sealed off.”

Now go read the BBC, and you'll know as much as I do. Please pray for Syria, and for the Horan.

Psalm 46

1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
5 God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
7 The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
8 Come and see what the LORD has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
11 The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Libya and Moral Equivalency

Last Friday’s issue of the International Herald Tribune carries this brief letter from a reader in England:

Has a tyrant shooting at his own people committed a greater crime than a democratically-elected government making war on a faraway people?
Ho HO! How ironic! How avant garde! And how utterly useless toward finding a solution to the emergency facing the Libyan people.

Since this Englishman is clearly referring to the war in Iraq, the answer to his rhetorical question must be an emphatic “yes.” One need not minimize the catastrophe and tragedy of the Iraq war to recognize this: at no point did the government of either the U.S. or Britain “make war on the Iraqi people” in the same way that Colonel Moammar Gaddafi is now ordering the murder of his own people for the sake of his own hold on power.

Anyone who follows international politics is familiar with this endless moral equivalency game. It is a symptom of the present era. In our time, the crackpots and mass murderers are not dominating the world from Rome, Berlin or Moscow; they are on the periphery of the world order, occupying pathetic little hills like Tripoli, Pyongyang and Khartoum. Real, world-changing, system-reinforcing power lies with the democratically-elected governments of the West. As a result, the earnest missteps and occasional crimes of the West are almost always more destructive than the lunacy- and greed-driven policies of the world’s rogue regimes.

And so, every time the conscience of the West is aroused enough to propose intervening on the behalf of some beleaguered people, whether the Darfurians, the Kosovars, the Iraqis or the Libyans, we must endure endless taunts of “Yeah, but you guys did…” and endless warnings of, “Don’t intervene, or (insert dictator’s name) will claim he’s resisting the imperialist West and solidify his popular support.” The sad thing is, those warnings are probably pretty accurate. I have not met any Syrians critical of the genocidal Sudanese central government, only Syrians critical of the U.S. for trying to take Sudan’s oil.

Nevertheless, there is an element of truth in our friend’s letter. The status of America’s government as “democratically-elected” gives cover to actions that we would find reprehensible on the part of, say, China or Iran.

Almost every Arab dictatorship, including the fallen regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Zine Ben Ali, is/was on the receiving end of American military aid. (I live in one of the few exceptions.) After thirty years of pariah status, Gaddafi himself wormed his way into the embrace of the West after the Iraq War, made a few key concessions, and joined the club. Gaddafi is using American military equipment to attack his own people. Twenty years ago, almost the same story played out in Latin America. The U.S. propped up murderous dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Brazil, and many, many more countries. Travel over to Asia, and we can add the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, South Vietnam, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to the list of U.S. clients. This is just off the top of my head.

Why is this? The answer, I am convinced, is not that the American government is run by evil men with curly mustaches cackling evilly behind giant computer screens as they crush the hope of freedom for peoples around the world. There is no grand conspiracy; only a self-perpetuating system. Every president inherits a global system that the United States sit atop, the world’s only superpower. No matter what his ideals or goals, every president’s first goal is to maintain the U.S.’s superpower status. That’s as natural an instinct as self-preservation. As a result, the components of that system – including alliances with dictators – are maintained and human rights go overlooked.

My dad told me last night that my views have changed a lot recently. This is true. It’s not that I’ve become convinced on anything new; it’s that I’ve become unconvinced of a lot of things I used to be convinced of. But here are two things I firmly believe: 1) Americans have GOT to keep a closer watch on their government’s foreign policy. 2) Gaddafi has got to go.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Some Friendly Advice

Back in the day, I was waiting to meet a friend in Jeremana, a suburb of Damascus home to many Christians, Druze and Iraqi refugees, and I got hungry, so I walked into a sandwich stall to buy some food.

By “back in the day,” I mean when Hosni Mubarak was still president of Egypt, and the League of Nations CSI crisis in Phoenicia was still big news. The League of Nations was close to announcing its indictments over the killing of Phoenicia’s former prime minister, and everyone knew God’s Party would be indicted. God’s Party had threatened to react violently if the Phoenician government cooperated with the tribunal. At the time, Aram and S. Arabia were trying to work together to defuse the tension, but their efforts ultimately failed. Eventually, God’s Party left Phoenicia’s unity government, forcing the prime minister to step down in favor of one more to their liking.

The shop I entered had several God’s Party posters displayed prominently on the wall, and the men behind the counter were talking angrily. The only words I caught were the Arabic words for “Aram” and “S. Arabia.” After a bit, they stopped arguing long enough to notice me. “Do you have shwerma?” I asked in Arabic. (“Shwerma” is an amazing way of preparing chicken that’s extremely popular here.)

“No by God!” the man replied in Arabic. “Ok, thank you,” I said, and started to leave.

“Where are you from?” the man asked in English.

“America,” I replied. I make a point of never lying about this.

“Don’t say you are from America,” he said. “Say you’re from Britain. It’s better.” He then launched into a rant in broken English about Bush and Iraq, and somehow ended up with how the Jewish lobby had threatened to kill Marlon Brando’s son unless he stopped telling the truth about them. As far as I could tell, he was completely serious.

When he stopped long enough to let me get a word in, I asked him in Arabic, “Is the British government better than the American government?”

He grinned and said, “Or you could say you’re from South Africa. That would be best.” He then gave me directions to the closest shwerma shop.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Prophet's Birthday

February fifteenth was the moulid an-nabi, or the birthday feast of the Prophet Mohammad. Everyone, even us Christians, had the day off from work and school. One of my favorite priests, who doesn’t speak very much English, but who is one of most cheerful Syrians I know (and is fluent in Italian), went around with a big smile, saying, “Happy Christmas Mohammad!” (In Arabic, “Christmas” is “Eid il-milad,” or literally, “Feast of the birth,” the same term used for “birthday.”) One of my Muslim Iraqi students brought a delicious dessert his mother had made for my class to share. I have no idea what was in it, but it tasted like gelatinous cake, and was decorated with a giant cinnamon crescent. Everyone in my class took a spoon and helped themselves to it.

There was a time in Arab history when good Muslims wouldn’t dream of celebrating the birthday of a mere mortal. These days, Christians and Muslims alike use the occasion as an excuse to skip work and have a good time, especially in secular countries like Egypt and Syria. The Muslim quarter of the Old City was draped in strings of colored lights and banners bearing Mohammad’s name. At the seminary, the priest briefly considered taking all of us out to the movies (a la “Jewish Movie Day” on Christmas in the States), before deciding instead to take us on a walking tour of the whole city.

That afternoon, while the boys were cleaning the seminary and taking a nap, I walked through the Old City, through the Thomas Gate (Bab Touma) to the Qasaa district and back. The sun was out, I wore no coat. It was glorious. Although this winter has been mild by Iowa standards, for some reason, very few buildings in Syria – including the one I live in – have anything like quality insulation. The cold seems inescapable sometimes, and I’ve taken to wearing a coat indoors, everywhere except to bed. This spring will be very welcome.

Qasaa, a shopping district that contains both high-end clothing stores and street side entrepreneurs, was packed with people enjoying the holiday, buying new clothes, drinking smoothies and munching on the spicy corn dish sold by Iraqi vendors along the roadside. I bought a fruit smoothie myself (they’re one of the best parts of life in Syria – seriously) and exchanged some money. In Arabic, the man at the exchange counter explained to me that it was the Prophet’s birthday, and gave me some candy in honor of the occasion.

The government recently completed a huge beautification project in Bab Touma Square, where I go almost every day to grab a bus to my various destinations, or just to grab a snack. The results aren’t that impressive. The Bab Touma gate (which sits alone in the middle of the square’s roundabout) is open now, which is kind of nifty, but for some reason, they saw fit to erect a giant pastel green clocktower on the main road nearby. It’s decorated with a bunch of weird symbols, has about twenty giant bells that don’t work hanging off its sides in no apparent order, and has a giant green laser that flashes across the sky at night. It doesn’t look Arab or Syrian. My guess is it looks like what Arabs think Westerners want to see. If there are any Syrian architects reading this, allow me to relieve you of this idea.

Across the street from this clocktower is a new park containing a shrine to a Muslim saint and a bunch of signs about Old City landmarks written in execrable English. The park is nice, but it feels artificial. The redundant scale model of the park that sits right next to the entrance doesn’t help.

I was wandering in this park when I got lured into one of the most intense, bewildering Arabic conversations I’ve ever had. A middle-aged man sitting on a bench motioned me over and asked me to take his picture with his cell phone camera. He asked me to sit with him, and I obliged. “Where are you from?” he asked. “America,” I replied. I rarely hide my nationality from anyone here. He, it turned out, was from Iraq. Meeting Iraqis used to be a big deal for me, but nowadays, it’s commonplace.

My normal recipe for conversing in Arabic is 30% words I actually know, 50% context, and 20% smile-and-nod. Of course, this doesn’t always work out so well, and one of the drawbacks is that while I’m smiling and nodding and waiting for my conversation partner to use words I recognize again, the subject of the conversation can change completely. We started off exchanging personal details, including the fact that we were both single. He asked me if I wanted to get married. I said yes. He asked me if I wanted to marry a boy or a girl. For a moment, I thought I was about to be propositioned. I wanted to marry a girl, I told him firmly. He started asking me about gay marriage in America. I told him that it was only legal in five states. He told me he had seen on television that it was common. I told him that it wasn’t.

Then we entered a smile-and-nod phase of the conversation, and by the time I understood what he was talking about again, he had become quite agitated, and was asking me what was wrong with Americans, why young people from America went to Iraq and killed kids and old people indiscriminately. Of course, the vast majority of American soldiers don’t do this, but I wouldn’t be comfortable defending America’s conduct of the war to an Iraqi I’d just met in English, let along Arabic, so I repeated a trope that most Syrians use when they’re trying to assure me that they don’t hold my nationality against me: “All over the world there are good people and bad people.”

“No!” he insisted. “Arabs and Muslims would never act the way Americans do!” He then launched into a soliloquy on economic injustice, talking about how Americans and Europeans had all the money, while Syrians and Iraqis couldn’t buy food or water or clothes.

At this point in the conversation, a street child approached us, selling packs of gum for five pounds (about a dime). He was dressed in dirty pajamas, his hair was unwashed and filthy, and his face bore the intangible weariness that seems to mark the faces of all the street beggars here. I think it’s the way their lower eyelids droop and their mouths hang open. He first tried to sell me the gum, but gave up after I said, “No thank you.” (I have been advised by the priests at my church never to give money to beggars, since churches and mosques are available to them, and most of them are either running cons or being exploited.) But my Iraqi acquaintance had to refuse and say “God bless you” ten times before he went on his way. As soon as he left, the Iraqi man looked angrily at me and gestured in the boy’s direction. “Five pounds!” he yelled. “Five pounds!” I don’t know if he was angry at me for not buying gum, or angry at the world for forcing the boy into that line of work.

Finally, I just said, “I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry. We made a big mistake. I hate war, and God willing, there will be peace someday.” That still didn’t calm him down. In the end, I stopped responding at all, and just let him rant until he was finished. Then he smiled again, reassured me that I was his friend, shook my hand, and asked me to meet him there again the next day. “God willing,” I said. Needless to say, I didn’t go the next day.

I rarely have to take flack for my nationality here. While Arabs love to discuss American politics, they’re so friendly and so keen on being good hosts that if they criticize my government, they always act as if they’re explaining it to me, not blaming it on me. I once got applauded when I told some men in Hama that I was American. This was only the fourth time in my life an Arab in the Middle East has even come close to blaming me for my government’s policies.

For one thing, I don’t know how to defend my country to Arabs. Without fail, we’ll be operating from completely different sets of facts. In their eyes, any media source, academic study or government report I might cite (not that I can cite these things on command to begin with) was probably crafted by the Jewish lobby, but they can’t understand why I don’t believe the fawning biography of Saddam Hussein they bought at the streetcorner stand, or the YouTube video about how the Freemasons orchestrated the American Revolution.

For another thing, I’ve lost my appetite for debate – somewhat, anyway. Yes, it’s absurd for my Iraqi friend to say that Arabs and Muslims don’t kill innocent people - he’s from Iraq, after all. But even if I could get him to admit that “you guys do it too,” what would that prove? How would that make anything better?

Yes, I am responsible. No, I don’t know what to do about it. Maybe that’s why I’m here.

Happy Christmas, Mohammad.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Glorious Tishreen

Pictures here.

A few weekends ago, my British comrade Peter and I decided to visit one of Syria’s newest military monuments, the October War Panorama.

The October War began on October 6, 1973, and involved Egypt, Syria, and Israel. Seven years earlier, in the Six-Day War, Israel had humiliated the Arab powers by defeating five Arab armies and conquering the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights in under a week. In 1973, Syria and Egypt, both under new presidents, decided to have another go. This time, the war lasted three weeks, caused sixteen thousand Arab and Israeli casualties, and actually saw the Arab armies gain some ground – the Egyptians managed to cross the Suez Canal into the Sinai Peninsula, and the Syrians temporarily reoccupied Mount Hermon (or Sheikh) in the Golan Heights – before Israel won again.

There seems to be little limit to the celebration of this “victory” in Egypt and Syria. In Egypt, I lived in an apartment above the October 6 Bridge. Syria has a Tishreen (“October”) newspaper, university, road, and main square. October 6 is a national holiday in both countries. And both Cairo and Damascus feature a giant castle-like Panorama Museum celebrating the war.

If you think they look similar, it’s because both were designed and built by the North Korean government, a wise investment of money that might otherwise have been wasting on feeding North Koreans. (This kind of thing seems to be a common feature of North Korean foreign policy):

When we first arrived at the museum, we paid for our tickets at the gate, and then started to walk across the expansive courtyard to the entrance of the museum. We were promptly accosted, taken to a coffee shop on the far left side of the courtyard, and instructed to wait there for an English-speaking guide. We decided we’d rather not (and that above all, we weren’t going to buy anything at that coffee shop), and as soon as our escorts disappeared, we went off to explore the courtyard. On the left side of the museum courtyard was an impressive collection of captured/destroyed Israeli military equipment, with not-so-impressive English labeling. We were able to gaze upon the ruins of a “Fantom” jet, and admire a captured “Sentorion” tank. One sign, not pointing to any tank or plane in particular, simply read, “The end of the aggressor.” But before we could take all of this in, our escorts reappeared and insisted that they really wanted us to wait for the guide. So, sulking just a little bit, we made our way back to the coffee shop and ate some mints from Peter’s bag to kill the time.

After about fifteen minutes of waiting, our guide, a polite, nicely-dressed Syrian woman, arrived and began taking us around the museum. We were the only two people in her tour group – indeed, in the whole museum – and she was definitely aware of that. While she was friendly and polite, she definitely wasn’t eager to belabor any particular point for us. At one point in the tour, we passed two huge paintings showing scenes from a massive battle at sea: battlecruisers exploding into flame, destroyers making daring attacks and retreats, planes soaring overhead. There certainly seemed to be a story worth telling there. “These paintings appreciate the contribution of the naval forces,” our guide said, and marched briskly forward.

In fact, that was the feel of the museum itself, not just our guide. If you relied only on a visit to the Panorama for information about the war, you would not know a) that Egypt was also involved in the fighting, b) how long the war lasted, c) how many people died, or d) that Israel won.

On either side of the main entrance were two huge stone relief carvings depicting triumphant scenes from Syrian history. The one on the right-hand side, our guide explained, depicted Yousef al-Azma’s suicidal revolt against the French occupation in 1919. The carving on the left-hand side showed the “CorreCtionist Movement,” when, as Our gUide exPlained, Hafiz al-Assad became president and “made all things new.” Our guide also took us to the right side of the museum courtyard to show us some Syrian (Russian-made) military equipment. Unlike the Israeli jet, which lay in pieces on the ground across the courtyard, the Syrian jet was mounted in the air, its nose pointed upward into the sky. The courtyard also featured a glass-encased space capsule that carried the first Syrian astronaut into space with the Russians in the 70s.

In the first chamber inside the museum, we were presented with five huge paintings depicting scenes from Syrian history. The first painting showed what looked like two cavemen wearing animal skins shaking hands. Our guide explained that one of the oldest peace treaties in the world had been discovered by archeologists in Syria, and the painting was an artist’s rendering of the treaty being signed. “This shows that the Arabs have always sought after peace,” she said. The fact that the Arabs didn’t live in Syria until 636 AD didn’t faze her.

Next was a painting of Queen Zenobia, the rebel queen who made the Syrian city of Palmyra independent of the Roman Empire, and proceeded to conquer a vast section of Syria, Palestine and Egypt. I thought her inclusion in a monument to the October War especially appropriate, since just as soon as the Romans could get their armies together, they sacked Palmyra and took Zenobia to Rome in chains. She’s something of a folk hero in Syria. Her face appears on the 500-pound bill here, and countless shops, products and companies bear her name.

The third painting showed Caliph Khaled ibn il-Walid, who conquered Syria for the Muslims in the 600s, in front of Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque, receiving envoys from some of his newly-conquered lands. The fourth showed Saladin, the Muslim hero who drove back the Crusaders, riding victoriously in front of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The fifth, of course, showed President Hafiz al-Assad planning strategy at the front lines of the October War.

Our guide next took us into a small movie theater to watch a movie about the Syrian assault on Mount Sheikh, the biggest mountain in the Golan Heights, and the site of a key Israeli outpost. Before the movie began, our guide requested that we remain standing for the Syrian national anthem. We obliged.

The movie (played on VHS) began with a brief recap of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the Syrian perspective. “The Palestinians were the first to suffer at the hands of the Zionists,” the English subtitles informed us, while the screen showed a terrifying, blank-white menace spreading across the map of the Middle East. Then, “with international help,” the Zionists proceed to a crushing victory against Egypt and Syria in the 1967 war. Then comes the bold, young new president, Hafiz al-Assad, who weighs his options carefully before making his courageous decision: “It is war.” (Direct quote.)

A lot of confusing footage follows of planes taking off, bombs falling, soldiers charging and tanks firing, until Syrian soldiers stand atop Mount Sheikh chanting, “Allah akbar! Allah akbar! Allah akbar!”

That’s pretty much where the movie ends, which is understandable, since after that happened, Israel retook Mount Sheikh, drove their forces to within 35 kilometers of Damascus, and bombed Damascus from the air for good measure. At that point in the story, everyone involved thought a ceasefire would be a good idea.

When the tape finished, the projector screen went blank, and a massive flurry of strobe lights illuminated a diorama/painting set up around the screen showing Syrian soldiers attacking the Israeli outpost on Mount Sheikh. One of the Israeli soldiers was depicted with big eyes and massive teeth, like some kind of primate or boogie monster.

It’s a little hard to describe just how magnificent the next part of the museum is, so bear with me. Our guide took us up a flight of stairs into the central cylinder of the museum, which, as it turned out, was a multistory 360-degree panorama painting of a battle scene from the Syrian city of Quneitrah in the Golan Heights. The city was a ruin of war: buildings riddled with holes from tank shells, a hospital, mosque and church on fire. In the middle of the city, the main Israeli force found itself trapped between two Syrian forces valiantly charging ahead, bearing the old starless Syrian flag. Above our heads, the Israeli and Syrian air forces clashed in a massive dogfight. Mount Sheikh and Mount Bental loomed large near Quneitrah, while the white buildings of Damascus lay far off in the distance.

In the middle of the giant cylinder, we sat on a stage that slowly rotated the full 360 degrees while martial music and a speech from Hafiz al-Assad played in the background. Encircling the stage and lying in between the stage and the panorama was a ten-foot wide 3-D diorama that melded seamlessly with the carnage in the painting. A real roll of barbed wire wound its way across the diorama into a painting of barbed wire on the panorama. A soldier in the panorama painting stood atop a real bunker in the diorama. It was difficult to tell where the painting stopped and the diorama began.

At the end of the war, Quneitrah was still in Israeli hands, but it was eventually returned to Syria (under UN supervision) in the ceasefire agreement that Henry Kissinger orchestrated between the two nations in 1974. The Israelis returned a war-torn shell of a city to the Syrians, and as our guide explained, Assad ordered that the city be preserved in its ruined state, so the world could see what the Zionists had done. Quneitrah is reportedly open to tourist visits (you have to get a permit from the government), and you can have lunch at a restaurant right next to the ruined hospital. It might be worth a visit someday.

The final stop on the tour was a huge room dedicated to Hafiz al-Assad, having very little to do with the Tishreen War. Paintings of Assad meeting with just about every foreign leader you can think of adorned the walls, while glass display cases held scores of biographies about the man. Above the door hung a huge painting of Hafiz holding hands with North Korea’s late leader, Kim Il Sung. On the left wall was a collection of Baath Party flags and slogans, and on the right, a huge painting of Hafiz’s family. The far wall was completely taken up by a painting of Hafiz marching along a street in Damascus, surrounded by throngs of adoring followers, complete with balloons, doves, and the October War Panorama in the background.

After the tour, while we were waiting for a microbus to take us back to central Damascus, Peter and I chatted in Arabic to a man who was also waiting for the bus. He found out all about our lives, and we found out all about his. When the bus finally came, he paid for our fare, and refused to let us pay him back. “Ahlan wa sahlan” he told us. “You are welcome in Syria.” It was a good reminder that, regardless of war, politics and perennially terrible English subtitling, the Syrians rock as a people.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


I heard this one from a dear friend’s brother when I was visiting his family for lunch recently.

Apparently, on “Arabs Got Talent,” the (yes, really) Arab version of America’s Got Talent, there’s a judge on the panel who congratulates contestants he likes in this hysterically Arab fashion: “You are a flower, you are a candle, you are shining – you’re in!”

The joke goes like this:

Hosni Mubarak sent a message to Colonel Moammar Qaddafi. He said, “You are a flower, you are a candle, you are shining – you’re in!”


This one is from a Syrian friend. An Iraqi friend later told me that there are numerous versions:

God grants the American president, the French president, and the Syrian president one question about the future. “When will America conquer the world?” the American president asks.

God types the question into his future-telling machine, and replies, “After 2000 years.”

The American president begins to weep. “Why are you weeping?” God asks. “Because I will not see it,” says the president.

The French president asks, “When will France conquer the world?” God types the question into his future-telling machine and replies, “After 4000 years.”

The French president also begins to weep. “Why are you weeping?” God asks. “Because I will not see it,” says the French president.

The Syrian president asks, “When will Syria win the World Cup?” God types the question into his future-telling machine, and begins to weep at the result. “Why are you weeping?” the Syrian president asks the Lord.

“Because,” God replies, “I will not see it.”