I know nothing about the internal or external politics of Syria save what I’ve been told by CNN and Fox News, along with our glorious President. I am sure their government is, like ours, corrupt in many ways, if not through and through. And I’m sure that like ours, it has nefarious and sordid connections of all sorts.
However, it has been demonstrated time and time again (Iraq, Palestine and now Lebanon come to mind) that demonizing people so you can feel better about destroying everything they hold dear is not the best route to peace in any region.
Therefore, I would like to offer an alternative to counteract the fear-mongering demonization of Syria that seems to be the one thing our administration is now willing to stand for (besides doing the same to Iran):
The Syrian people are some of the most welcoming, kind and forgiving people I have ever encountered. Some notes from today to illustrate this point:
1. The CNN International or BBC World - can’t remember which - news report on the tens of thousands of refugees in and still streaming into Damascus on a daily if not hourly basis
Many of these refugees do not have to spend the night in the shelter because they are taken in by Syrian families. Just like that. It would seem that the spirit of socialism still has its benefits.
2. Habib: Habib is the man with the kind voice who answered the phone at the Beit Wakil hotel in Aleppo when I called to ask if they had room for two. Here there are it seems three official prices: One for Syrians, one for other Arabs, and one for foreigners. This is commonplace and not meant to offend, and frankly seems perfectly fair to me given that everything here is remarkably cheap.
So Habib, as is standard, asked where I’m from in order to give me the price. Now I had called Habib just after a particularly strong wave of emotion in watching the news, feeling angry, ashamed, and utterly helpless. When I told him my mom was Lebanese but my husband and I hold American passports, perhaps he could hear the apology in my voice, or perhaps it was the sadness and held-in tears. Without hesitation, he said he would give me the discounted price - nearly $40 off what I knew from my guidebook was the rate per night. I thanked him profusely in my halting Arabic, wishing I knew more ways to say “grateful,” “thank you,” “sorry” and “bless you.” There are no words in English like the phrases in Arabic used to express hospitality, generosity, and caring. But it was the kindness in his voice that made me cry. I gave him our cellphone to confirm, and he gave me his, saying if there was anything we needed at any time, to please call him, he is the owner of the hotel and would love to help in any way.
3. A trip in Syria: In our half-hearted attempts to take in the beauty of Syria in the midst of all this, we ventured to find the bus line office to purchase tickets for Palmyra (Tadmor in Arabic) - one of the most amazing ruins in the world. As is customary here and in Beirut, we simply stopped as often as necessary to ask the way. When I said the name of the company, the first woman I stopped smiled, said she was going that way asked if would we like to come with her. I said (in Arabic - I”m doing my best), “Oh no, we don’t want to bother you,” but she insisted, literally took my arm and off we went. On the way I told her we had come from Beirut, my mother is Lebanese, father American, we are so angry with our government, how beautiful her country is, in typical spill-it-out-Leila fashion. She smiled with genuine warmth and told me how sorry she was for what was happening in Lebanon - how horrible the killing of children, and how much she hopes it will stop. I told her how hard we are trying to stop it, our friends and family pressuring our govrenment but nothing seems to work. We shared a moment of understanding - something Syrians and Americans have in common - a sense that governments do not always represent the will of their people.
The kind-hearted lady not only led us all the way to the ticket office, which by this point was clearly out of her way, but waited and asked them if it was the right one, which it wasn’t, then led us to the ticket window and told the guy, in Arabic, to take good care of us - then asked us if we needed anything and if should she stay. We assured her we were fine and I said I didn’t know how to thank her, because once again I had no words, but managed to tell her that I would tell our friends in America how amazing her country and people are, how welcoming, how kind. She smiled, said no need, and was on her way.
4. A taste of Syria: We are once again in an Internet cafe in the heart of the Old City, this time in the Christian Quarter. Today is Sunday and we heard church bells all day and last night where we are staying, and later on, the call to prayer. We passed stalls filled with racy lingerie, revealing tank tops, and scarves, next to many a woman fully veiled. Our Syrian female companions went off on the veil and how they never used to see it here - another reminder that the more we attack a culture, the more they cling to what is most different from us. The woman with the pretty pink hijab (head covering, no veil) and the jeans in the Internet cafe next to me asked me how to fix her MSN messenger. I, the email dinosaur, had no idea. She went back to Skyping.
5. Spirit of defiance: We saw the last remaining storyteller - Hakawati - in the old city today - a mixture of tourists like us and old-time locals who joined in at key exclamatory moments. I understood only words here and there but part of it I know was about a king who wanted to conquer the whole region, from Egypt to Damascus, to Beirut. There was something in the air in the cafe, or perhaps I was projecting it - a sense that here in Damascus they will not let another conquest happen, or perhaps that they are used to these designs and this too shall pass - I couldn’t tell which. All I could tell is that this is not the first time their sovereignty has been threatened.
6. Oxygen: Next we went to what our guidebook called a good nightspot, Oxygen, in the Old City - near the Christian Quarter. We had a hard time finding the place (or at least, I did - Adam knew the way all along but I didn’t trust him), so we asked for directions several times as is usual. Finally, we stopped into one of the many little CD stores with iPod posters selling Souad Massi, Sting, Arabic classics and American favorites. There was a young woman behind the counter - no hijab, just jeans, a t-shirt, and lots of eye makeup. She had no idea where it was but, as is typical, went to find someone who did. Three other young women, similarly clad, came in and argued a bit about where it was, until finally their male friend cried “Oxygene!” We all laughed and he pointed us the way.
The restaurant was amazing - an old Damascene house restored with candle light, a full bar and a giant TV screen. There was a Hezbollah flag outside the door, something that still gives me pause. But we have come to realize that those flags here now are much like the American ones that sprang up throughout New York in the days following 9/11 - a sign more of what they DON’T support than necessarily what they do.
At 9:30 we were the only ones there, quite early Arab time, but they were gracious and welcoming. The dashing waiter spoke to me of Lubnaan (Lebanon), how he had spent twenty days there and found it the most beautiful country in the Arab world. He hoped that no one would take it from us, and I said I hoped so too. The giant TV screen which normally plays MTV had Al-Jazeera on - and all the waiters were watching. They turned on American pop when we came in, and for a few minutes we had the surreal experience of watching the bodies of women and children dragged out of what is left of south Lebanon while listening to Turn Around, Bright Eyes. Finally, while holding back tears, I told them they could turn off the music since we all just wanted to watch the news. They did, until some trendy young ladies speaking Arabic in tight jeans and tank tops arrived, and the channel was changed to Arabic pop but the music coming through remained classic American bubble-gum pop.
As we were talking about Syria, I told the waiter how beautiful it was: He said the best thing about Damascus is that all religions live here in harmony, next to one another. “This is the most beautiful thing about our city” - he sounded like a New Yorker to me.
He treated us to shots after our meal and wished us a safe journey home - I explained we didn’t want to return but before I could finish he said it for me - “Mama will be worried.” They understand. We ended the encounter as they all do here - with a ma’a salaame go in peace.
I have been treated to hospitality all over the Arab world - we are legendary for it and it is something every people prides itself on. But what I feel here is special - perhaps because of the circumstances - but I feel something more. When I think of the recent animosity between Lebanon and Syria, and the way Lebanese often put down Syrian workers and scoff at Syria’s “backwardness,” the kindness and welcoming of every shopkeeper, waiter and taxi driver we’ve encountered, the work so many here are doing to care for the thousands of Lebanese seeking refuge from Israeli terror is truly moving. We are American, and our government’s continued aid - both financial and political - allows that terrorizing of a nation to continue. That we are welcomed in spite of our government’s animosity is amazing and, for me, beyond words. Many people - Arabs, Arab-Americans, and others - tell me that the difference between Americans and Arabs is that Arabs can separate the government from its people. I try to tell them that Americans can too - I hope that I am still right.
Next time you hear our esteemed president speak of Syria’s purported evil doings, remember the people I have described. For you can be sure that if we allow our government to attack their nation as we have so many others, it will be these kind strangers who will suffer.
Please help me keep my promise to each of these people that I would spread word of their kindness throughout America - perhaps best summed up by the words of the little boys in the souk trying to get my friend Najla’s attention: “Hello, I love you,” they would say over and over again. I laughed, teased her that she had many admirers. She smiled and said, “No. That’s just the only English they know.”
Leila Buck is a founding member of Mixed Company, a bi-cultural theater collective, and Nibras, with whom she performed Sajjil for the 2002 New York Fringe Festival 2003. Her one-woman show, ISite, has traveled across Europe, Asia and the U.S., most recently featuring in Lebanon’s Daily Star and The New York Times. Leila is a teaching artist dedicated to using drama to educate about the Arab world through performances and workshops across the US and around the world.