Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The War on Jaramana

Today, in a Syrian town called Jaramana, four bombs went off simultaneously, killing 77 people.  There were no army checkpoints or police stations nearby.  It was a premeditated slaughter of innocents.  It was 7 AM in the morning, and many children were on their way to school.  One car bomb exploded near a gas station; another car detonated as it drove against traffic down Jaramana’s narrow streets.

Jaramana is a suburb of Damascus, part of a network of slums encircling the capital city that the government, apparently without irony, calls the riif (or “countryside.”) Compared to the other cities of the riif, it is fairly new and prosperous.  The buildings are newly-built and the streets are well-paved and lined with tiny malls, specialty shops, and overpriced cafes. 

And just imagine the fabulous live shopping you can do at Snoopy!

I would go to Jaramana often to volunteer-teach at a rare Evangelical Christian school, or to visit friends.  The minibus from Damascus’ Old City would take me into the clustered streets of the riif and through multiple faux gates bearing the likenesses of President Assad and his relatives, ending up at the “Square of the Swords,” a Syrian war memorial.

Most of the people living in Jaramana are either Christians or Druze, followers of a secretive religion with its origins in Shia Islam.  When millions of Iraqis, nearly half of them Christians, fled to Syria to escape Iraq’s sectarian violence, many of them chose to settle in Jaramana.

So many Iraqis fled to Jaramana that when I visited there during the Iraqi election season, I saw campaign posters like this one lining the streets:

Iraqis living in Syria were the only people in the country allowed to vote for their leaders.

Jaramana also had the best Iraqi restaurants:

One of my best friends in Syria was a young Iraqi I’ll call Khaldun, a crazy-smart, fluent-in-English, hyper-ambitious renaissance man. 

Khaldun’s family fled to Jaramana from Baghdad after his dad was kidnapped.  The terrorists found him on the street and pushed him into a waiting car – right in front of a police station.  Khaldun’s family was Christian, and his dad had light skin and blue eyes.  Because of this, the terrorists thought he was a western missionary. “They were not too bright,” Khaldun told me.

Khaldun’s dad was tortured and hung from the ceiling by his wrists.  But he had always been a generous man, and when his Sunni Muslim neighbors found out about his kidnapping, they made inquiries, discovered who was behind it, and were able to intercede for his release.  After that, the family made for the border.

With that kind of trauma in their past, it's amazing how whole this family was, how warm and welcoming they made their home.  Some of my best times in Syria were spent at their flat, listening to Khaldun play the oud, eating his mom's delicious cooking, looking at family photos with his dad, and playing wrestling video games with his brother.

Khaldun is now studying in the United States, along with his younger brother.  A few weeks ago, he told me that his mother, father, aunt, and youngest brother – age 10 – had fled to Beirut in mid-September.  A large explosion had occurred just minutes away from their flat, and was followed by another explosion shortly afterwards.  That’s when they decided to leave.

At age ten, his young brother has had to flee for his life from two different countries because of his ethnic/religious identity.

I have other friends in Jaramana, but I don’t know if they’ve left or not.

Because Jaramana is mostly Druze and Christian, its residents are largely pro-Assad.  Many of Syria’s religious minorities fear that the downfall of their country’s secular dictatorship will lead to a religious government, persecution, and perhaps even genocide, as in Iraq.  Those fears are now being borne out.

The more extreme elements of Syria’s uprising have evidently decided to target Jaramana’s people for murder and terror.  This latest bombing attack was only the deadliest so far.

On August 27, two supporters of the government were killed in a bomb attack.

On August 28, a taxi plowed into the funeral procession for those two men and exploded, killing twelve people, including five children.  This was the attack that prompted my friends to flee.

On October 19, Father Fadi Jamil Haddad, a Greek Catholic priest, was kidnapped in Jaramana while trying to ransom a kidnapped parishioner.  His body was found six days later.  It bore the marks of torture.

On October 22, a car bomb detonated outside the church of St. Abramo in Jaramana.  Thankfully, no one was hurt.

On October 29, a car bomb exploded outside a bakery in Jaramana, during the Eid al-Adha, the biggest feast on the Islamic calendar, which was supposed to mark a ceasefire in the fighting.  Eleven people died.

Reuters reported today that, according to a resident of Jaramana, the town’s Druze leaders had “repeatedly forbidden” rebels to operate in the town. “Tension have risen between Druze elders and rebels and now there are 3 or 4 small explosions a week,” she said.

Apologists for the Syrian opposition claim that the government is behind the attack, and is trying to stoke the fears of minorities to ensure their loyalty.  This is rather like claiming the Israeli government staged the bus bombing in Tel Aviv last week to get its people riled up against Palestinians.  With the Christians of Qusayr and Homs driven out of their homes, multiples churches bombed or burned to the ground by rebels, and Saudi Arabian channels broadcasting anti-Alawite propaganda on a daily basis, we're well beyond that point by now.

Sheikh Adnan al-Arour, a Salafist Muslim leader in Syria and a key figure in the Free Syrian Army leadership, has promised that, after the revolution, religious minorities who supported Assad will be “chopped up and fed to the dogs.”

Here’s what that looks like:

Jaramana is just one of the many towns that will be swept away in the maelstrom of hate and terror that the Syrian civil war has become.  My friend's family is just one of millions.  Bashar al-Assad in his mad quest for survival, the Syrian rebels in their mad quest for revenge and Sunni Islamic supremacy, and the U.S. in its mad quest to stay forever on top of the Middle East dogpile, will brush them all aside without a second thought.

But I hope you'll join me in taking a second to remember.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Election Post

(My friend Adam M. demanded this post.  You can blame him.)

So, congratulations to my progressive friends, I suppose.  President Barack Obama has been re-elected for another four years.

A lot of liberals on the websites I read have been crowing that this election marks the victory of science and pragmatism over willful ignorance and fearmongering, or something like that. (I'll link only to the worst offender here.) But let's get real, people.  A "war on women"?  Bain capital?  The Obama camp was just as guilty of using ignorance and crazy fundamentalism as weapons in this race.  I know I sound like a know-it-all jerk when I say both parties suck, but seriously, guys: both parties suck.

I always thought Obama would be re-elected, because a) he was relatively successful, given his goals and where he started from, and b) the Republicans never had much substantive to say in response.

What surprised me was how close this election was.  This great article at Slate points out that only three elections in the 20th century had a popular vote tally closer than this one.  Less than three million votes nationwide separated Obama from Romney.  Both campaigns blitzed the ten battleground states with ads, rallies and get-out-the-vote operations, and ignored the rest of the country.

That being the case, I think it's foolhardy to try to draw sweeping conclusions about the "national direction" or grand ideological shifts from this election.  Neither candidate ran a national campaign, and as a result, neither candidate can truly say that they received the support of the nation in the election.  In a race where 121 million votes were cast (representing only 57% of eligible voters), 3 million votes signifies nothing more than the technical superiority of the Obama campaign, and possibly the advantage conferred by incumbency.  Unlike 2008, when Obama shellacked John McCain by 10 million votes, this time I don't think it can even be said that the nation "chose" Obama.  Rather, the Obama campaign chose - and wisely - which neighborhoods and counties to pursue.  The nation has spoken, but with a deeply and evenly divided voice.

The Slate article concludes with this sentence: "Close elections may in fact be a sign that nobody, on either side, is thinking big." I think the author is right.  Here's a small list of huge issues that were almost completely absent from the campaign:

  • Global warming, and the possibility that human civilization itself is threatened by it. (Obama claims to believe this, but acted curiously unconcerned about it.  Romney never denied it, but used a joke about it as the climax of his RNC acceptance speech).
  • How to integrate the 12 million undocumented people living in our country.
  • The war in Afghanistan (which is going terribly by the way).
  • Our falling national education standards.
  • A U.S.-dominated Middle East that is quickly slipping into radicalism and sectarian war.

Both Romney and Obama are surely aware of these issues.  Both were also surely told by their advisers that it was risky to talk about them.  Best play it safe and make fun of that guy who thinks women can't get pregnant from rape.

Of the four candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency, only Paul Ryan, with his radical budget restructuring proposal, could be accused of "thinking big" - and after accepting the nomination, he wasn't allowed to talk about that proposal.

Any well-funded politician can hire strategists to analyze the polls and maximize turnout in the battleground states.  It takes real statesmen to change the way a country thinks, propose a new direction, and then get people to follow him (or her).  I don't even know if I believe in statesmen anymore, but they didn't show up in this race.

Partly because of the problems that went unaddressed in this race, and partly because of the ones that were addressed, but inadequately (the debt, entitlements, abortion, gay marriage), I don't think America will be a great nation anymore by the time I'm old.  And maybe that's okay.  In my opinion, all the things that make this country a great place to live - our tolerant society, political freedom and economic prosperity - are seriously marred by the way we've exercised our national power around the world.  Maybe it's time for us to step down a notch, pay the real price for our luxuries, struggle a little bit, learn what it means to be a neighbor when that requires more than pleasantries and minor favors.

A lot of my hyper-conservative friends are posting that Obama's re-election is God's judgment on this nation.  Maybe.  I've come to believe that God's judgment is not vindictive, but restorative, in nature. "The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son." - Hebrews 12:6

In the Old Testament, the two greatest villains were the Assyrian Empire and the Chaldean Empire.  They were fabulously wealthy and incredibly powerful, laying waste to kingdoms from the Persian Gulf to the Nile River.  Being human empires, both, in turn, fell.

Today, the Assyrians and the Chaldeans survive as distinct people groups in Iraq, Syria and Turkey - and nearly all of them are Christians.  They were some of the first peoples to convert to Christianity, and have held on ever since.  They still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, centuries after the Arabization of the Middle East.

We should never confuse power or wealth with blessing.  Superpower or no, America's best days may be ahead.

Election Day Grace

Ed. Note: If I didn’t tell you already, I’m living in the Los Angeles area for the next three months, for a temporary work assignment.

On Election Day morning, I rode my bike to work, and stopped at the Post Office to mail a package. I only bought my bike last week from a couple I met on Craigslist, and I don’t have a lock for it yet, so I propped it up against the wall outside the Post Office, and periodically looked back at it while I was in line to make sure no one took it. (Although, if someone did, I don’t know what I would have done – run after them really fast?)

I was in line ahead of two petite blond ladies who were talking together about the election. (Not about who they wanted to win, but about their experiences volunteering as poll workers.) One of them noticed that I kept checking on my bike, and told me I should go bring it into the Post Office. “I’ll hold your spot in line,” she offered. I thanked her, and ran out to bring the bike inside.

When I came back to the line, she pressed ten dollars in small bills into my hands. “That should be enough to buy a lock,” she said. “You can get it at the Do-It-Yourself store down the road.”

I was flabbergasted. “I can’t accept this, ma’am,” I said. “I have a good job; I’m very blessed.”

“No, you have to take it!” she insisted. “You’re new to town, and you need a lock!”

From behind her, her friend said, “You remind her of your brother.”

I didn’t know what else to say, so I gave in and thanked her profusely. I offered my hand and said, “I’m Joel.” She took my hand and said, “Hi, Joel; I’m Jane.” And I realized there were tears in her eyes.

I was touched beyond words at Jane’s gift, and I’m not very good at on-the-spot conversations with strangers to begin with, so I didn’t say anything else. But Jane of Westlake Village, CA, if you ever read this, I’m donating your gift to help rescue enslaved people in Africa. Thank you for showing me grace and love in a new neighborhood. I pray that God will bless and take care of your brother, wherever he is, and that he will continue to use you to bless the people you come across.

I was busy pulling a tick off of my landlady’s dog when they called Ohio for Obama, so that event doesn't stick out in my mind as much.