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.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I feel almost like I got to see it in person.

  2. I work for the zionist lobbyists, but most of them aren't very zionisty. Do you know which sect of judaism makes up the lobby? And, yes, people are so great. The ending to this story is great.