Monday, June 27, 2011

A Surprisingly Lucid Statement about Israel from Michelle Bachmann

When I first heard Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann's name during the rise of the Tea Party in 2009, it was only because she was being relentlessly mocked on cable news and the internet for the crazy things she said. (Example:
"I find it interesting that it was was back in the 1970's that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president Jimmy Carter.")

Michelle Bachmann is now running for president. And if you still know Michelle Bachmann as "that crazy lady from Minnesota," then you REALLY need to watch this video:

Reserve all your judgments on the content of her talk for the moment. Wasn't she really...eloquent? Poised? Warm? Logical? Sophisticated even? I even found myself nodding along when she talked about the dangers of Middle Eastern populism. Her defense of our mindless alliance with Israel was not completely mindless! I don't think I've heard anyone defend it better.

I dooubt she'll get the nomination, but I think she's in the race for the long haul. Time will tell.

Ok. Time to unleash our judgments.

For me, the key to this whole video is when she tells us about her summer volunteering in Israel in 1974. This was less than a year after the October 1973 war, the closest Israel ever came to losing a war to the Arabs. By all accounts, the Israeli public was deeply shaken by the war. In his amazing book The Accidental Empire, Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg writes, "By the war's end, 2,656 Israeli soldiers had fallen, equivalent to the United States losing 165,000 men in nineteen days. Israel was a country of bereaved parents, widows, orphans too young to remember fathers. ...The Israelis...suffered World war I-level losses..." (p. 258-259). No doubt the Israelis Bachmann encountered that summer when she was eighteen years old felt extremely vulnerable, and were extremely security-minded.

Perhaps this explains Bachmann's extremely dated attitude towards the Israel question, which she sums up for us at the end of her video:

"We must ensure that Israel is strong, and gets stronger, so that it remains capable of defending itself at all times and under all circumstances."

Strong and gets stronger? How could Israel possibly be stronger?

Israel is a country that bombs other countries at will. In 2007, when they discovered Syria was building a secret nuclear reactor, they flew planes all the way across Syria to bomb it. No one tried to stop them. It was not a unique occurence. Israel has bombed Syria with impunity several times in the last decade, for various reasons. During the 2006 Lebanon War, Israeli planes buzzed the Syrian president's house.

What would the United States do if someone bombed one of our nuclear reactors? If foreign planes flew low over the White House to scare President Obama out of his bed?

I'm not criticizing these actions by Israel - I'm just using them to illustrate the fact that, militarily speaking, Israel can do pretty much whatever it wants. It can do things no other Middle Eastern country even dreams of.

In short, we are WAY past the "drive the Jews into the sea" portion of our program. There is no military threat to the state of Israel today.

This misunderstanding of Israel's security situation also shows up in Bachmann's description of Obama's call for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian territories:

"But shockingly and frankly unforgivably, at this time of unprecendented flux and rising dangers, President Obama just told Israel that Israel has to give up its right to defensible borders in order to appease the Palestinians. That would be the same Palestinians who don't even recognize Israel's right to exist!"

That would also be the same Palestinians who have no independent state, no army, no navy, no air force, no currency of their own, no seat at the UN, no borders at all (much less "defensible" ones), no right to travel from one Palestinian town to another twenty kilometers away without waiting for hours or days at an Israeli military checkpoint. The same Palestinians who live as exiles by the millions in refugee camps throughout the region.

(By the way, in spite of all this, and contra Bachmann, the Palestinian leadership DOES recognize Israel's right to exist - and has for eighteen years.)

Appeasement is letting Hitler take over Czechoslovakia because he promises you he won't invade France if you let him have it. (Pinky swear!) Letting the Palestinians have their own country, the one they were promised sixty-three years ago when their homeland was torn in two to make way for the Jewish state, is not "appeasement." It's mere justice.

Which brings us to the real threat to Israel.

Israel is the Jewish state. The majority of the people living under Israel's rule are Palestinians. The Palestinian birthrate is double the Jewish birthrate. Within the next few decades, Israel will face a choice: 1) permanently disenfranchise the Palestinians and enshrine Jewish minority rule in law somehow (in South Africa they called this apartheid), 2) move all the Palestinians into Egypt and Jordan by force (in the Balkans they called this "ethnic cleansing"), 3) give the Palestinian majority equal rights, or...4) withdraw from the Palestinian territories so that an independent Palestinian country can come into existence.

Choice three would end the Jewish state forever. Choice two would kill the Jewish state's soul. Choice one would provoke a new Palestinian struggle for freedom which would one day, inevitably, succeed. (Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: "As soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.") Only choice four keeps the dream of a Jewish state alive. Nothing can protect Israel from this choice - not its nuclear arsenal, not its military aid from the U.S., not its omnipotent military, not the support of American evangelicals. The debate about "defensible borders" for Israel is hopelessly old-fashioned. The only way Israel can save itself from destruction is by giving up its defensible borders.

It's long past time for lovers of the Jewish state to wake up and smell the the hummus.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Got Your Proletariat RIGHT HERE

Deir az-Zour, Syria, yesterday.

183 days ago, a Tunisian man lit himself on fire to protest his degrading treatment at the hands of the Tunisian government.

94 days ago, I was riding in a car with a Christian friend, who told me that some troublemakers stirred up by President Assad's exiled uncle, Rifaat, had held a protest in Damascus' famous Hamidiyye market that day.

Since that unthinkable weekend, Syria has experienced thirteen straight weeks of protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. If figures from the UN are to be trusted, Bashar has killed 100 protestors every week of the uprising.

And still they come.

Yesterday, according to witnesses inside Syria, security forces fired on protestors in six different cities, killing around eighteen people. All eighteen of those people must have known the risk they were taking as they exited the mosque with their angry, shouting brethren. They went anyway.

One of the dead was reported to have been killed in a protest in Aleppo. If this is true, he would be the first protestor killed in Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city, which until now has been quiet as a peep. The uprising is not dying down. It's spreading.

When the Syrian military laid siege to the southern town of Deraa in April, a Syrian pro-regime friend of mine told me, "The army cannot fail. Because after he sends the army, what else can the president do?"

Indeed - what can he do? Kill a 1,000 people a week? 10,000? Start razing cities? What can he do that won't enrage the Syrian people even more? The man has no answer for these people who would rather die than let the truth about their country go unspoken. There were more protests in Deraa yesterday.

Is it too soon to hope that this might, indeed, be the end of the Assad regime?

In Eastern Europe in 1989, most of the uprisings against the communist regimes ended in negotiations between the regime and the opposition. The regimes resorted to these negotiations when they realized that it was the only way to break the stalemate, that they could no longer govern their countries without the opposition's compliance. The main exception was Romania. Romania's dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu, turned his tanks on the protestors. He and his wife were both shot after a one-hour trial on Christmas Day.

In a very real sense, both the president and the protestors are fighting for their lives on the streets of Syria. I'm afraid that after all the bloodshed in Syria, the chances of peaceful resolution have dropped to nil. If the protestors give up, the Syrian intelligence services will pick up every one of them. If they take power, Bashar will hang in Merjeh Square.

I'm just saying, Bashar. If you need a place to stay, give me a call.

I know it's really selfish of me, but I have three very dear friends in Syria who will be going to school in North America this fall. I just want them get out of that country and be here with me in the first world, at least for the time being. Please join me in praying for their safe arrival, and for the people of Syria.

Here's an excellent article about the residual support for Bashar among Damascus residents, especially Christians, written by an undercover BBC reporter in Damascus:

And here's a video of the mass pro-regime demonstration the government staged in Damascus on Wednesday. You can barely hear the chants over the sound of the military helicopters flying overhead. I saw the same helicopters during the pro-regime demonstrations I got caught in on March 29. Guess Bashar really trusts his "supporters"!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Wireless Telegraphy!

On June 10, I had the privilege of discussing the Arab Spring on my alma mater's radio station. Dordt's president has a weekly radio show about current events, and he invited me, my amazing professor from my Egypt semester, David Holt, and two of my good college friends, Adrian Hielema and Micah Schuurman, to discuss the recent uprisings in the Arab world. Micah lived in Egypt for a year and a half before the uprising, and Adrian smelt the tear gas in Tahrir Square. I really appreciated getting their takes, and you might too.

Here's the link if you want to take a listen:

I realize I'm probably really late to the party...

But this song, and this video, are incredible:

In my dreams, we're still screaming...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

More jokes from Syria

A man is walking through the desert, and gets attacked by a hyena. “God, save me!” he cries out. And God strikes the hyena dead with a lightning bolt.

The man continues on his way, but soon is attacked by a wolf. “God, save me!” he cries out once again. And God strikes the wolf dead with lightning.

The man continues on his way, and is attacked a third time, by a lion. “God, save me! Kill the lion!” the man cries out. And God replies, “I can’t.”


For reasons I don't understand, Homs is the most-mocked city in Syria. It's like West Virginia. When the Syrian uprising spread to Homs, my friends dug out all their old Homs jokes.


A man from Homs went to the doctor. The doctor told him, “For your health, you should walk five kilometers every day.” Ten days later, the doctor received a phone call from the same Homsian. “I’m in Aleppo. What do I do now?”

(I like this joke mostly because I know enough Arabic to tell it in Arabic.)


How many devils does it take to tempt a Homsian? Four – one to seduce him to an evil deed, and three to explain the evil deed to him.


A long, long time ago, the people of Homs were at war with a nearby city. Inexplicably, fire and heavy objects were falling on Homs from the sky. “How are they doing that?” the Homsians wondered. So they sent some spies to find out. In the enemy city, they saw a long, black cylinder that the enemies were loading up with gunpowder, explosives and heavy balls. “We gotta get one of those – only bigger!” they decided. So in the main square of Homs, they built a giant cylinder and filled it with as much gunpowder and heavy objects as they could find. All the people gathered to watch the attack and celebrate their victory. The match was lit, the cylinder exploded, and the entire town of Homs was laid waste.

The few surviving Homsians gazed open-mouthed upon the destruction. Finally, one of them turned to his friend and said, "Wow. Just imagine what it did to the other town!"


There was a big lottery in Homs last week, the biggest in Homs’ history. The winner received one Syrian pound a day for the next million years!


An American, A Frenchman, a Lebanese man and a Syrian are in a plane that’s damaged and losing altitude fast. The pilot yells, “Quick! Throw off anything you can bear to part with! We need to lose weight!”

The American throws a bag full of money out of the plane, saying, “I have plenty of money, I don’t need this.”

The Frenchman throws a box of cheese out of the plane. “I have plenty of cheese,” he says. “I don’t need this.”

The Lebanese man grabs the Syrian and throws him out of the plane. “We have plenty of Syrians,” he says. “I don’t need this.”


(This joke starting spreading after Mubarak was toppled in Egypt.)

"Did you hear? A bishop was thrown into prison yesterday."
"What? Why?"
"He was walking around throwing holy water on everything, shouting, 'Mubarak! Mubarak!'"

(Explanation: "Mubarak" is the Arabic word for "blessed." Syrian priests and bishops really do use it that way in their rites.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Michael Weiss update and the Christian condition in Syria

Regarding my earlier post, Mr. Weiss was gracious enough to write a detailed reply to my letter. Essentially, he believes that the current self-designated leadership of the Syrian opposition is liberal and non-sectarian (which I don't disagree with, but doesn't assure me that Syria's future will be liberal and non-sectarian), and that most of the Christian expressions of support for Assad are coerced to some degree. He passed along this video made by someone in the Syrian revolution, which shows Christians standing with Muslim protestors in a number of Syrian cities. (The Arabic text at the beginning says, "Christians and Muslims: One Hand."

This morning, the Catholic News Agency carries commments by a Christian bishop from Aleppo, Syria: Antoine Audo of the Chaldean Catholic Church.

The "fanatics" behind the Syrian uprising, he says, "speak about freedom and democracy for Syria but this is not their goal. They want to divide the Arab countries, control them, seize petrol and sell arms."

Pointing to neighboring Iraq, where half of the Christian population has been killed or driven away, he said, “We do not want to become like Iraq. We don’t want insecurity and Islamization and (to) have the threat of Islamists coming to power."

But what about the crimes of the Assad regime? Audo claims that there is a "war of information" being waged agaisnt Syria by "BBC and Al Jazeera, there is an orchestration to deform the face of Syria to say the government does not respect human rights and so on."

So...the government really does respect human rights? Audo: “Syria has a secular orientation. There is freedom. We have a lot of positive things in our country.”

What do the people think? "Syria must resist – will resist. 80 percent of the people are behind the government, as are all the Christians."

Audo sums up his feelings this way: “We want peace and security ... we do not want war and violence and we very much hope that in the next few weeks the situation will be better.”

In all of this, Audo is parroting the line of the Syrian government perfectly. There's the Arab nationalism, the wild accusations against BBC and al Jazeera, the call to "resist" the lone "fanatics" who have somehow brought one of the world's premier police states to the brink of collapse without any popular support. And since this is Syria, the question is, did he mean it? Or does he understand that his job, and perhaps his life, would be worthless if he said anything different?

My best guess is: both.

I heard the same lines from most of my Christian friends in Damascus, in private conversation. I know those conversations were not coerced. The Christian support for Assad is real, and their fear of the Islamists is real.

Consider Audo's line: “Syria has a secular orientation. There is freedom. We have a lot of positive things in our country.” This isn't just crazy talk. Before the uprising started, I had never felt safer anywhere than in Syria. Syria is a country where you can walk alone in a big city in the middle of the night, without fear. There is no terrorism, no war, no food insecurity. Combine all that with protection from religious persecution, which Assad provides better than any other Arab leader, and it's easy to see why Christian feel they have everything to lose in this revolution.

One of my Christian friends once asked me, "Which is more important - freedom or security?" It wasn't a rhetorical question. He wasn't some pretentious American 20-something who's never faced a day of insecurity in his life grandstanding against the Patriot Act - he was a Middle Easterner. His country borders Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, and he meant it. I tried to answer with something trite like, "You can't have one without the other," but he wasn't buying it, and neither did I. Another Syrian friend told me, after he had to change his Easter travel plans due to the violence, "I was never scared in my life until the uprising started." Would you trade the ability to go visit your parents in a neighboring town without your van being shot at by snipers for the right to vote? Neither would I.

This is the dynamic I see in Syria. It's extremely corrosive to the church's role as a prophetic voice (e.g., "Do not shed innocent blood in this place!" - Jeremiah 22:3), but it's reality. And after all, the American church doesn't have a lot of room to talk.

Is Audo's claim that 80 percent of the people stand with the government true? I have no idea, and neither does anybody else. I'm fairly certain he's right about the Christians supporting Assad. He could very well also be correct about the 80 percent. A police state is far more susceptible to dissent and discontent than a democracy; 20 percent of the population can wreak a lot of havoc. This is not to say, of course, that 80 percent of the people love Bashar and want him to rule for the next thirty years, only that 80 percent of the people prefer that outcome to violent revolution.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Down the Memory Hole

Sarah Palin has a new Facebook note (don’t judge me, alright?) entitled, “Obama’s Strange Strategy: Borrow Foreign Money to Give to Foreign Countries.”

Palin opens with this blast of plain-speakingness: “Should we be borrowing money from China to turn around and give it to the Muslim Brotherhood?” Oh snap! Oh no she didn’t! Oh yes she did.

“Given,” Sarah gives, “that we are running massive deficits and are drowning in more than $14 trillion in debt, and despite not knowing who will rule Egypt until its election this fall, this strange strategy may be the end result given President Obama’s announcement that he is committing $2 billion to Egypt’s ‘new government.’”

“Now,” she continues, “given that Egypt has a history of corruption when it comes to utilizing American aid, it is doubtful that the money will really help needy Egyptian people.”

Exactly – because nothing has changed in Egypt in the last six months, right? No massive, popular, nonviolent uprising against a dictator the U.S. paid off for three decades? Maybe it has something to do with that “new government” you so helpfully put in quotation marks in the last paragraph? Just checking.

“Couple that with the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is organized to have a real shot at taking control of Egypt’s government, and one has to ask why we would send money (that we don’t have) into unknown Egyptian hands?” Sarah asks.

Good point! I wonder what we can do to make sure the Brotherhood doesn’t take over. Show the Egyptian people that the U.S. stands with them in their revolution? That they don’t need to resort to Islamic extremism to be independent and secure? What’s a practical gesture we could make to help convince them? Let’s brainstorm that one.

Sarah’s post garnered 3,838 comments. I skimmed through fifty of them. None challenged Sarah on Egypt; two challenged the GOP’s tax policy.

One of these commenters wrote, ”Its [sic] amazing how this 'ignorant' woman can make a common sense statement that points out the stupidity of our leaders. Would like to see just what they teach in those IVY league schools to produce these elite pundits.”


MAYBE they teach that every year for the past thirty years the United States has both borrowed money from China and given $2 billion in aid to Egypt? That six presidents and sixteen congresses stood behind that policy without controversy? That the only thing that’s different this year is that there’s a chance our aid money will be spent to better the lives of the Egyptian people, rather than line the pockets and fund the security forces of a corrupt, murderous regime?

There’s a reason we spend so much money on education, Ivy League or otherwise, a reason we don’t simply watch CNN to inform ourselves, a reason we don’t just whip out our "common sense" and make spot decisions when it comes to issues like, I don’t know, the biggest political upheaval in the Arab world since 1918. Understanding the world requires context, history, and an ability to at least guess at how our actions look to people on the receiving end.

I’m not exactly sure why this sets me off so. Part of the reason might be that I stayed up late last night arguing on Facebook with an educated Muslim Egyptian man, who is convinced that the CIA is responsible for the violent clashes between Christians and Muslims in Egypt in the last few weeks.

God save us from our respective stupidities.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Open Letter to Michael Weiss of the Henry Jackson Society

Mr. Weiss,

I am writing to you about your recent piece in Slate, “Meet the Syrian Opposition.” I recently returned from nine months of living and teaching in Syria, and while I completely share your sympathy with Syria’s liberal opposition, I fear the picture you’ve received of Syria from its opposition leaders is dangerously inaccurate.

You make much of the oppositionists’ claim that there is no sectarian divide in the opposition to Assad. I can tell you for a fact that there is. I lived and worked among the Christian community in Damascus, and never once met a Christian who did not support Assad. The Patriarch of the Greek Catholic Church praised him in his Easter Day homily. The Greek Catholic Church also hung a massive banner bearing the president’s face above the street leading to their patriarchate. Syrian Christians, in my experience, are terrified at the prospect of majority rule in Syria, and I cannot blame them for their fear, especially considering the Christian experience in Muslim-ruled Arab states. You write that, “The oppositionist in Hama, Syria's fourth-largest city, assured us that Christians had joined in Friday prayers at the Great Mosque in that city.” To me, this is simply inconceivable, under any circumstances. I am 90% sure this is not true, and 100% sure that it does not reflect the attitude of most Syrian Christians.

In one paragraph of your article, you try to diminish the fear of an Islamist takeover of Syria by noting that the Muslim Brotherhood was “largely destroyed” in Hama in 1982, that it has been banned for decades, and that the opposition leaders disavow the Brotherhood. You finish with this sentence, “Notably, one slogan heard as early as the second week of protests was: ‘No to Iran, No to Hezbollah. We want Muslims that fear Allah.’” Why is this notable? Iran is a Shia-ruled state, and Hezbollah is a Shia Muslim organization. Syria is a majority Sunni country, and its Islamists are Sunni Islamists. This chant is exactly what we would expect to hear from Syrian Islamists: anti-Shia rhetoric. Despite the suppression of the Brotherhood, we must face up to the fact that for forty years, the mosque has been the only legal gathering place in Syria. We should not be surprised if the uprising has Islamist overtones.

Like you, I am aghast at the crimes of the Assad regime, I am terrified at what crimes it may yet commit in its craven fight for survival, and I am praying for its quick demise. But simplifying the story of the Syrian revolution to one of a righteous, united people struggling against the evil dictator is extremely harmful, especially when it comes to policy-making. The Syrian people are NOT united. Assad won’t allow them to be. He and his father have spent the last forty years asphyxiating any kind of social organization that didn’t depend on their favor for its survival, and when he goes, he will leave a gaping void. There is a very real risk of sectarian civil war in Syria. If we don’t face up to that, we only make that war more likely.

Thank you for working to bring these events into the public consciousness. May we celebrate the liberation of Syria soon.

Joel Veldkamp

PS: Did you choose the photo that ran with your piece in Slate? The protesters in the photo are clearly demonstrating in support of Assad. I thought it was a curious choice.

The Syrian Revolution: Media Siege

My photo album from the Syrian Revolution is here (don’t get too excited.)

When it comes to news, living in Syria is like living inside a black hole. You can see everything going on outside of Syria with perfect clarity. Inside Syria, you have no idea what's happening.

Before the revolution started, foreign journalists in Syria actively censored themselves to avoid being deported by the government. I once came across this line in a New York Times story about Syria: “The basic ‘red lines’ are well known: no criticism of the president and his family or the security services, no touching delicate issues like Syria’s Kurdish minority or the Alawites, a religious minority to which Mr. Assad belongs. Foreign journalists who violate these rules are regularly banned from the country (a fact that constrains coverage of Syria in this and other newspapers).”

When the revolution started, this effect was only intensified. We were never denied access to foreign media. All news websites (except for Israeli websites) were available on the internet, all the satellite news channels came through just fine, and I could openly buy Newsweek, TIME and the New York Times on the street. Foreign media, however, had no access to Syria. Nearly all foreign journalists were ejected from the country. They were forced, like me and every Syrian citizen, to get their information from their friends, from the state-controlled press, and from YouTube videos uploaded by the opposition.

A poster on Qamareyah St in the Old City, outlining the Conspiracy.

Very rapidly, the state press constructed an internally consistent, alternative narrative of the “events” in Syria. The country, it claimed, had been infiltrated by armed gangs who were taking advantage of peaceful protests and sowing violence, chaos and sectarianism. They had been armed and trained by Israel, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Saad Hariri’s Future Movement in Lebanon. They were murdering peaceful protesters and blaming it on the government, attacking government buildings, killing soldiers and police, attacking innocent travelers on the roads at night. Citizens of Deraa, Baniyas, Homs, Lattakia, etc. were begging – just begging – the army to come in and restore order. The government provided evidence for their narrative in the form of televised confessions from “arms smugglers” working for Saad Hariri and individuals who claimed to have been paid by Saudi Arabia to make fake videos of riots, and interviews with “eyewitnesses,” who spent most of their interview time chanting the president’s praises.

The most vigorous promotion of this narrative came from a “private” news channel called Ad-Dounia. Ad-Dounia would devote whole news programs to discrediting YouTube videos from the opposition. Of course, who is to stop government agents from uploading fake videos themselves for their clients in the press to systematically disprove? Kind of a 21st century straw-man argument. I am almost certain this was the case with one video I saw, where a flag-draped “protester” turns to the camera and says, “Ok, start filming” seconds before she is tackled by a supposed Syrian security agent. “Obviously, this was staged!” the news anchor informed us. Yes, obviously – why would these conspirators upload such a poorly-edited video onto YouTube? Hasn’t Saad Hariri ever heard of Windows Movie Maker?

My most fervently nationalist Syrian friends would hold up Ad-Dounia as proof of media independence in Syria. How can you possibly be so na├»ve? I would wonder – as they often did about me, when I told them that the CIA and Mossad couldn’t possibly be behind every bad event in the Middle East.

As you might guess, I never accepted the Syrian government’s narrative, because 1) it came from the Syrian government, 2) I couldn’t believe that in a country with an omnipresent secret police presence, such a vast conspiracy could be coordinated by foreign powers, and 3) after Egypt and Tunisia, and considering Syria’s 20% unemployment rate, unbelievable corruption and minority dictatorship, a foreign conspiracy was not needed to explain the country’s unrest. Yet it was extremely difficult to convince anyone who had bought into one narrative to accept the other. My conversations with my Syrian friend “Emmanuel” would go like this:

“Don’t believe the BBC; they lie!”

“Why would they lie? They’re an independent news organization. Why would they try to hurt the Syrian government?”

“Because they are a tool of the Western governments, and Syria is the only anti-Western Arab country! Besides, we know they’ve been lying!”


“Didn’t you see that report on Ad-Dounia?”

“Yes, but Emmanuel, why do you believe the state press?”

“It’s not the state press, it’s private!”

“(Sigh). Fine, but even if the BBC reported an inaccuracy, you can’t really blame them, because your government is keeping them out of Syria, and preventing them from verifying anything!”

“I’m glad the government kicked them out! They are liars and saboteurs!”

In the end, we each had to choose which narrative to believe, to presuppose it, and then use it as a lens to examine everything else we heard. I chose to believe that the Syrian government was full of it, because it fit my political worldview. Emmanuel chose to believe his government, because as a minority, he saw the government as a source of protection, and badly wanted Syria to stay stable and peaceful.

Emmanuel was right about one thing: the BBC and Al-Jazeera got at least some things wrong. About four weeks into the protests, I went to visit a friend working in Hesseke, a town in northeastern Syria. That Friday afternoon, April 1, we walked all around the town (it wasn’t very big). We ate lunch, saw all the parks, and walked to some of the archeological sites. It a typical lazy day of prayer in Syria. Not many people were out. Traffic was light. We chatted and joked with some of the locals and soldiers we met on the street. Then we went back to his flat to cook dinner. When we got there, I got a frantic phone call from “Sadiiq” another Syrian friend of mine. “Joel, are you all right, man?” he asked.

“Yes, Sadiiq, I’m fine.”

“But there are huge protests in Hesseke! It’s on the BBC!”

“No…there’s nothing. We were just outside. We walked around the whole town!”

Later, my friend and I talked to one of his English-speaking friends, who told us that it was rumored that fifty men had gathered for about fifteen minutes outside the main mosque in Hesseke after prayers. This was reported as a “major protest” in the international media.

There were many events that neither narrative could adequately account for. State TV ran footage from the funerals of soldiers murdered by the “terrorists” (complete with music from The Lord of the Rings playing in the background). Were these funerals faked, and the soldiers merely invented? Were they shot by the government for refusing to fire on civilians, as the opposition claimed? Were there genuinely armed gangs inside the country with the power to attack the Syrian army? Who was attacking cars on the road from Beirut to Aleppo at night? The government, trying to sow instability and create a justification for its own crackdown? The pro-government mafia, known as the Shabiha, unleashed at last? Terrorists, trying to start sectarian troubles? No matter what you believe, you sound awfully paranoid.

A more recent example: The Syrian government claims that last weekend, 120 of their soldiers were killed by armed gangs in the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour. What happened there? An army mutiny? A government-directed purge, which is now being attributed to these seemingly omnipresent "armed gangs"? An attack by armed Islamists? A foreign attack? Desperate, enraged Syrian civilians striking back at the government at long last? At this point, I have no problem believing any of these scenarios.

In cases like these, reaching the truth isn't merely a matter of disbelieving the Syrian government. Once we throw out the official version, there's no way to answer the question, "What happened?" We are adrift in an ocean of ignorance, without landmarks or bearings. It's the ultimate existential crisis.

Now that refugees have begun flooding out of Syria into Lebanon and Turkey and sharing their stories, we have another stream of information to draw upon. But anyone following the events in Syria has to be aware that, until and unless the Assad regime falls, the reality of events inside Syria must remain a mystery - not only to us, but to the Syrian people. The Assad regime has successfully deprived its opponents of a common reality to operate in. Considering that these opponents may soon be the new power brokers of Syria, that's a pretty terrifying thought.

Check out this page at the Syrian Arab News Agency's website for a glimpse into the regime's alternate reality: The Reality of Events.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

More pictures than any reasonable person would ever take the time to look at

...are now posted on my Picasa page! Knock yourself out.

Bosra, Syria, once the capital of Roman Arabia.

Shabha, Syria, the town of Philip, the Arab emperor of Rome.

Byblos, Lebanon.

Tyre, Lebanon.

Sidon, Lebanon.

Hezbollah's "Resistance Tourist Landmark" in the Chouf Mountains of Lebanon.

Beirut, Lebanon.

Coming soon: a "best of" folder, and some commentary on Syria's Arab Spring.