Tuesday, June 30, 2009

General of the Stamp

When I was in Cairo in January 2009, my desire to make a lighting visit to Israel required me to enter the Mogamma, the very heart of darkness for taking care of visa procedures in the Arab world. The very name is intimidating: Mogamma. And the stories told of what awaits the intrepid visitor inside the walls of the brutish concrete behemoth are even more daunting. Imagine drowning in a bureaucratic swarm of stamps, sweat and boiling tea, with waves of poorly payed government clerks robbing the visitor of his final dignity.

Perhaps I was lucky. Or perhaps the terrible Wizard of Oz was always simply an old man hiding behind a curtain. Because my foray into the Mogamma to extend my Egyptian visa was so seamless, that for a time I was convinced that bureaucratic Egypt is a sheep in lion’s clothing.

Fast forward to Monday June 8. My fifteen day Syrian visa was about to expire and so I was forced to enter the Syrian heart of darkness to extend my stay. This time around there was no brooding Stalinist relic. But the chaotic innards at the Syrian Immigration Ministry rivaled anything cooked up at the Mogamma. The office was only near to bursting the morning of my visit. And I had a friend by my side that made sure we had all the necessary paperwork in hand.

Nevertheless we still had to bump and grind through a flood of Iraqi refugees to get to the first official. After looking at our papers, he informed us we needed to go outside and get a stamp. So we slipped out with no idea where to find this stamp. Lo and behold, an old man in street clothes immediately tugged on my shoulder, waved a pile of stamps before my eyes, and sold me one while explaining that he is the ministry’s official stamp provider. Eh, right.

Back into the grind, stamp in hand. Again I push my way up to the desk. Now the officer looks and is satisfied. But instead of extending my visa, he scribbles something in Arabic and hands it to me with a nod toward an office down the hall.

So I am back in the hallway, waving the note and shouting for advice to every mustached official in view. A hand points to a non-descript office. But when I barge in, the furnishings are almost luxe. Sitting at the desk is a two-star general. Above his lip curls an impressive mustache. And in his hand he bears an even more impressive stamp. The general takes my note, the mustache signals its approval and slam goes the stamp. Then the general of the stamp signs my passport with a flourish. And with a twitch from his mustache, signals that I am done and free to explore his dear Syria for fifteen more days.

Balloting by the Sea

Sheikhs jet to Beirut for the nightlife, Israelis walk out of the waves after the terrorists, and backpackers motor in from the Syrian border when they want a break from chasing the ghost of Lawrence of Arabia across the Arab world. But for Andre and I, two SAIS students to the core, the lure was politics. And D-Day was Sunday June 7 when polling booths on the mountains and by the sea would witness a rarity in the Arab world: a no-holds barred election to decide Lebanon’s political future for only the second time since Syria’s hasty exist in 2005.

Or at least politics is why I thought we were in Beirut for the weekend. My traveling buddy turned out to be more interested in hitting on Lebanese girls. And so our weekend ended up with two separate themes. Neither of which quite worked out according to plan.

Based on the portrayal of the elections in the New York Times and elsewhere, the vote would be decided by independent voters choosing between the pro-western incumbents or an opposition led by the militant Shia Hezbollah party. In other words, whether the region would tilt towards America and the moderate Sunni regimes or towards Shia Iran and its message of radical religious militancy was up for grabs in the Lebanese parliamentary elections.

The reality, from what I observed during my weekend in Beirut, is that the elections promised far less drama because democracy Lebanon-style is at once far more structured and corrupt than what we are familiar with in America. Far more structured because Lebanon operates according to an arcane confessional system that guarantees a certain number of parliamentary seats and government positions to the eighteen religious and ethnic groups that call the country home. And far more corrupt because so much money was pumped into Lebanon by Saudi and Iranian sources that no one I spoke with in Lebanon even pretended that financial support from their politician of choice was not a key factor behind their vote.

So when the western media suggested that the outcome depended on what independent voters thought of the opposing political platforms, they were fooling themselves. The only swing-vote of any interest was the split within the Christian community due to the attempt by former general Michel Aoun to buck tradition and pull Christian voters into his alliance with Hezbollah. But the only swing-vote of any real consequence was how effectively the two sides had spent their Saudi and Iranian millions to ensure their supporters came out in the right numbers on Sunday. As Andre observed, the elections were more akin to a face-off between politically savvy Mafiosa than an authentic display of republican democracy.

Andre and I witnessed this face of Lebanese democracy when we spent the morning of the elections in the ancient Phoenician town of Byblos. Known as Gebal in the Bible, the town is really known as the birthplace of the modern alphabet. I was hoping to see the Roman and Crusader ruins in addition to talking politics with the locals. But all the sights were closed for the election so I had to sate my curiosity with unraveling the Christian town’s political loyalties. Although the two traditional Christian party led by Samir Geagea and the Gemayel family were well represented in the colorful flags and banners that covered the town, the dominant hue was the orange of Michel Aoun’s upstart Christian party. Even when Andre and I met up with the main Armenian party at their beachside headquarters, all we heard was praise of Aoun.

Our last stop in town was Aoun party headquarters. After we declined an invitation to vote, Aoun’s supporters confided they were confident their side had the election in hand. It was hard not to share their enthusiasm. Until we returned to Beirut, of course, where the gleaming downtown reminded me of the Saudi financing and powerful Hariri influence that had rebuilt downtown Beirut and continued to dominate Lebanon. For all the enthusiasm on the ground in Byblos, I did not share their confidence that all that Saudi money would fail and swing the election towards the “pro-West” March 14 coalition.

Before we left Beirut and Lebanon, Andre and I spoke to a few more folks about the election. Seth, a high school friend of my brother, told us about the uneasiness that had gripped the capital over the last few weeks. A young soldier from the Bekaa valley spoke to us while he stood sentry over the rebuilt downtown district. After assuring us that his Hezbollah dominated hometown was safe for American tourists, he added that the army’s mission in Lebanon is “to protect the country from the politicians.” The young Syrian who shared our van ride back to Damascus would probably have agreed with the soldier’s cynicism about the Lebanese democracy. Like many Syrians, our traveling companion tried to persuade me that the Syrian political system is preferable to Lebanon because in Syria money is not wasted and corruption is reduced by avoiding the pageantry of sham elections.

I even heard an Egyptian perspective on the elections, courtesy of two wealthy young Egyptian tourists I ran into after Beirut had went into curfew on Saturday night. Like my Syrian friend, they preferred their own political system; which in Egypt consists of an authoritarian party and a proscribed Islamic opposition in the Muslim Brotherhood. Bear in mind that the Egyptians were hopping furious that Lebanon’s nightclubs had closed for an election. In Egypt, they assured me, elections were far too unimportant to lead the government to take such drastic measures!

My last stop in Beirut was outside the seaside hotel where Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005. Four years after his death, Rafik’s legacy continues to define the mission of the coalition led by his son Said Hariri. A leaked report that the international tribunal investigating his death had found evidence linking the perpetrators to Hezbollah was the major story in Lebanon all week (Nasrallah and gang were quick to blame the Zionist enemies as launching the story). Overlooking the poshest hotel in Beirut, where Jimmy Carter and others had set up shop to monitor the elections, stands a brooding stone likeness of the slain Lebanese leader. It was only fitting that having begun my visit to Beirut at the statues Hariri erected to the martyrs of the Lebanese Civil War, I concluded my visit at the statue to Hariri himself.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lebanon for a Day

Crossing international borders is one of the great attractions of traveling. For all the necessary bureaucratic drudgery, the satisfaction of entering new territory combined with the cool passport stamp will always be sought after by the independent traveler. When I slipped over into Lebanon on Friday June 5, the border crossing was especially appealing because only four years ago the border between the two countries was a barrier in name only. I am all for the free flow of goods and people. But territorial sovereignty still has a place in today's world. Especially when it is enforced through the will of the people, as was the case in the spring of 2005 when Syria was forced to withdraw its army from Lebanon in the face of mass protests in Beirut.

Those protests were on my mind when I set off for Beirut with Andre, another SAIS student. Our goal was to size up the pulse of the country as Lebanon went to the polls on Sunday June 7. The international media was billing the election as a critical showdown between the pro-Western March 17 alliance and the coalition of parties led by Hezbollah. No one could say for sure how the losing side would react to the election results. Everyone we spoke to in Syria and Lebanon though, was sure that our plan to return to Damascus on Sunday evening would be impossible. The first guy we spoke with upon arriving in Beirut even insisted us that our only option would be to return to Syria on Saturday night. The alternative, he warned, would be risking our necks on street that would be taken over by protestors and militias after the polls closed.

While our return leg remained shrouded in doubt, the road to Beirut from Damascus is simpler than anything you can imagine. As long as your visas are in order, the actual drive in a shared taxi takes less than three hours. Throw in an hour for customs on either side of the border, and in four hours I went from haggling with taxi drivers on the outskirts of Damascus to watching the sun set over the Mediterranean from a hotel balcony two blocks from Martyrs Square in Beirut.

Martyrs Square is where nearly two million Lebanese, over a quarter of the country’s entire population, rallied on March 14 2005 to demand Syria leave Lebanon. The site is far smaller than I expected, perhaps a tenth the size of Tiananmen Square. On one side of the square, or parking lot considering how many cars are splayed out over the concrete grounds, looms the blue and tan, and surreally Disneyesque, Al Amin Mosque. Initiated by Rafik Hariri in the years before his death, it now houses his tomb. With the Mediterranean on the northern edge of the square, the only other thing to see when Lebanese are not protesting by the thousands is a dramatic monument to the “martyrs” of the Lebanese Civil War. It is far from clear whether the stirring stone portraits of dying civilians are Shia, Sunni, Christian or Druze. Perhaps that is exactly the point.

On Friday night Andre and I headed out with some of his friends to tackle Beirut’s vaunted club scene. His friends chose a fairly subdued bar and so nothing I saw quite matched the madness of a night out in Beijing or Shanghai. To be fair, perhaps I did not see what I was not in the mood to appreciate. I am never very comfortable spending Friday nights away from the comfort of a Shabbat table. And as anyone who knows me well can attest, I am as hot and cold when it comes to dancing as they come. With the right company and music, I can go all night. But faced with unimaginative techno, cigarette smoke, an empty dance floor and memories of the friends I wished were by my side, I was colder than the Titanic.

On Saturday I wrapped up my prayers early in the morning so Andre and I could spend the day walking around Beirut. The city gets called the Paris of the East and all sorts of vampy names that seek to capture its liberal vibe (my two cents are for referring to Beirut as the Qingdao of West Asia). No doubt Beirut is far more liberal than any other Arab city. Having come from Damascus, the contrasts could not have been stronger. A free press! Outspoken citizenry! And of all things, a contested election!

But the northern stretches of Beirut are also empty. Not just of soul, though critics have described the rebuilt downtown area as lacking quite a bit in the character department. No, Beirut is empty of people. Even with sharply dressed soldiers deployed at every intersection, the capital resembled a western where nothing but whirling hay and the occasional slammed door greets the hero as he strides down main street on his trusty steed. The few Lebanese we had a chance to speak to on Saturday explained the empty streets as a result of the election. Although everyone in Beirut will tell you they come from the city, much of the urban population remains registered in their home villages. And so when the polls open on Sunday, that is where they must vote. Perhaps. But I have a strong suspicion that the spanking new downtown area always looks fairly empty. The human waves that surge through the streets of downtown Cairo and Damascus simply have not yet had a chance to come to terms with the wide avenues and glass office buildings of downtown Beirut. When they do, I can only imagine what new direction this most liberal of Arab capitals will be heading.

Old Brooklyn

The Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Damascus is home to one of the most ancient Jewish communities in the world. Identifying any of the sixty odd Jews that have avoided the lure of exile is nearly impossible. Not simply because their appearance does nothing to suggest their religion but because the government carefully monitors the Jewish community's involvement with foreigners, American Jewish visitors in particular. Identifying the Jewish Quarter itself is much easier. All you do is wander through the southwestern corner of the Old City's narrow alleyways until the silence of boarded up houses shouts out that you have arrived at the former homes of families no doubt comfortably ensconced in Brooklyn and Deal, New Jersey. A Syrian friend explained to me that when the last burst of Jews left during the first Iraq War, they kept the deeds to the houses so no one in the last two decades has moved in.

On Thursday June 4, I found myself passing through the spooky emptiness of the Jewish Quarter en route to an Armenian music performance at a nearby courtyard sculpture garden. The singer was a beautiful Syrian-Armenian lady named Lena Chamamyan. Her voice was even more beautiful and for over two hours the overflowing Christian and Muslim crowd hung on her words. The silence of the Jewish Quarter, however, is the sound that was still ringing in my ears later in the night.

Syria may have more scenic abandoned homes than anywhere else in the world. South of Aleppo are the Dead Cities, a series of ancient ghost towns whose residents mysteriously disappeared some fifteen centuries ago. Along the border with Israel are the empty concrete houses of Kuneitra, which the government uses as a propaganda tool to display to foreign dignitaries how Israel laid waste to the town before pulling out in 1973. And right in the center of Damascus, in the quietest corner of the Old City, are the bordered up homes of the Jewish Quarter. They tell another story of Syria's sixty year stand-off with the Jewish state. It is a narrative that may have as much to do with the mystery of the Dead Cities as the tragic statement of Kuneitra. Unfortunately it is not a narrative that few Syrians are likely to take much interest in anytime soon.

Hope and Change

President Obama's speech to the Arab world on Thursday June 4 marked the start of two weeks of busy geopolitical events in the region. And like everyone else in the Middle East, Syrians are political news junkies to the core. The funny bit is that unlike their peers in Egypt and Israel, who from my experience will loudly and fiercely debate the merits of any political decision, Syrians are hesitant to share their opinions on the news. A Syrian friend explained to me that the hesitation is a holdover from the tight reins that the late President Hafez al'Assad maintained over the country. No one has quite the same fear of his son and successor, President Basher al'Assad, though the anticipation in 2001 of a Damascus Spring has chilled into what looks to be a long winter.

The irony of Syrian reticence to talk politics is that their country is probably the Arab state most affected by the political events this June. If Obama's desire to unclench the fists of America's opponents in the Arab world is to bear fruit, the harvest will necessarily take place in Damascus. And the ramifications of the elections in Lebanon and Iran have strong implications for the country that considers the former its territory and the latter its closest ally.

Obama's Thursday morning speech from Cairo University was replayed on all the Arab channels in primetime. Most locals I spoke to had caught some if not all of the president’s remarks. But they did not seem to give the speech much thought. Syrians remain cautiously optimistic of Obama, though the Arab street is deeply skeptical by nature and remains unconvinced that anything but actions will signal a new direction in American policy in the region.

Obama’s decision to locate the speech in Cairo did elicit comment from many Syrians. Like my chess opponent in the mukhabarat, many Syrians voiced envy that Damascus had lost out in the location of the speech to its perennial opponent for leadership of the Arab world. Although Syrians recognize that the idea of Obama speaking in, let alone visiting, Damascus remains a pipe dream in the near future, they were not ready to concede that the decision to locate the speech in Cairo says much about the political bedfellows that the Alawite regime has chosen to align itself with in the region. As I told a Syrian friend, as long as Syria is tied up with Iran, Hezbollah and perhaps the radical Palestinian groups, America will find it difficult to make much progress with Damascus.

Shavuot on the Mountain of Moses

When I decided to come to Syria for a month this summer, one of the toughest parts of the decision was accepting that I would necessarily be sacrificing the chance to observe many Jewish rituals. My tfellin were left behind for fear that their discovery in Syria would prove dangerous. And although I did bring a small siddur (Jewish prayerbook) with me, I knew in advance that whatever experience I had developed in observing shabbat on my own in atheist China would be put to the test in not quite atheist Syria. My first shabbat in Syria came wrapped in an even bigger challenge because the Jewish holiday of Shavout began on Thursday night, meaning that the spiritual opportunities and mundane restrictions required on shabbat would start one day earlier. How could I properly observe one of the key holidays on the Jewish calendar in a Muslim police state, especially as I had only arrived in the country three days before and barely knew how to find my way to the closest ATM, let alone whom I could trust with my religious needs.

I knew I had to leave Damascus. And if there was one place in all of Syria that spoke the language of the holiday commemorating the reception of the Torah by Moshe and the Jewish people in the wilderness, I had no doubt it was the ancient Monastery of Mar Musa. The monastery is perched on a desert cliff face 100 km from the urban bustle of Damascus. The closest town is nearly twenty km away, though visitors to the monastery are welcome to stay for free in any one of several dwellings that look out over the wilderness of northeastern Syria.

The setting alone may have been enough to draw me to the monastery. But it was the history and contemporary mission that sealed my decision to spend my holiday weekend in what after all is a Christian enclave. Mar Musa is named after its legendary founder, a traveling Ethiopian priest named Moses whom is said to have been the rightful heir to the Abyssinian throne of Solomon. Moses established the monastery in the sixth century, five hundred years later a church was added and only in the early years of the nineteenth century was the site abandoned. In the 1980s, an Italian former Jesuit named Father Paolo reestablished the monastery. With the support of foreign monies, the ingenious father and his small crew of coed acolytes have created a wonder along the rock face (complete with modernish electricity and plumbing!). The purpose behind the reborn monastery is simple: to create a hospice for spiritual searchers and to promote a message of spiritual faith and tolerance.

The mission of the monastery was tested shortly after I arrived at Mar Musa on Thursday May 28. Over a modest vegetarian dinner, one of the six resident monks asked me why I had forgone consuming the bread and wine that had been served during the evening mass. Earlier in the day I had gingerly decided to sit in and observe the Christian prayer service held in the eleventh century chapel that lies at the heart of the monastery. The soulful Arabic prayers sung by the worshippers redeemed my hesitancy to attend, though it was frightfully awkward when Father Paolo looked around in confusion after one slice of pita and sip of wine were returned to him untouched by yours truly.

So when the priest asked, I replied without hesitation that I was not Christian and so was not prepared to take an active role in the service. If I was not Christian, was I perchance...? No, I replied, I am Jewish. Silence. You know, Jude. Juden, Yehuda? More silence.

Just as the meal seemed likely to grind to a complete halt, a visiting Syrian Christian girl to my right perked up and cautiously inquired whether I could marry Jesus. Marry Jesus? At first I was sure she was confused at how Jewish belief differed from her own. But when my attempts at some basic clarification went nowhere, I realized what she was really asking with her limited English. So I explained that barring unusual circumstances, Judaism strongly discourages intermarriage with Christians (Jesus having been the best translation the Syrian girl could come up with for Christians). A few folks laughed, a volunteer came at me with some more questions and the tension passed. Only after the meal did one monk tell me on the side that he was so glad I had come to visit the monastery. But he urged me to be very cautious in letting word of my religious faith slip in the rest of the country. As he put it "American? Challas (enough/too much)! American and Jew? Double Challas!"

Mar Musa is a wonderful place for weighty conversations. And over my three day stay, there were plenty. A young Syrian girl long since distanced from her Muslim roots was full of questions about what stereotypes Jews in American have about Arabs and Muslims. An Italian guy of mixed Jewish ancestry was fascinated by my explanation of the theological divide between intent and deed in Judaism and Christianity. A Christian Syrian-American and I exchanged very different opinions about the merits of considering Bin Laden a fair representative of Islam. And most memorably, a young Frenchman who lives at the monastery as a long term volunteer was full of questions about Jewish mysticism and prayer. But what he really wanted to know was what went into a Jewish shabbat meal to make them so special. As I tried to convey to him the magical energy woven through song and Torah discussion by the shabbat table of, say, Rav Machlis in Jerusalem, I could only smile as my mind replayed Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi's words to the Roman emperor when the latter asked what spice was missing from his luxurious spreads that the Rabbi included at his Friday night dinner. The spice is Shabbat, the sage explained, and in all your treasure houses, oh emperor, where can you find Shabbat?

The monastery also gave me a chance to dwell on questions of my own. In this I was hardly alone. Another visitor was visiting Mar Musa in order to understand what had recently driven his older brother to embark on a solitary hike that began in Paris and wove through a few dozen countries--including Syria--before concluding at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. I sought my own questions through prayer, bits of meditation and old and new biblical favorites like Ruth, Psalms, Song of Songs and--hear me out on this-- the book of Matthew from the New Testament. I fell into reading the New Testament when I spied a Chinese/English copy of the Bible and began flipping through to see how the biblical cadence was captured in Chinese. My language talents gave out before my patience and so when I turned a page and saw the words of Matthew, I settled down for the first time to see what the New Testament had to say for itself. I was fascinated to see that Matthew is the origin for so many of the greatest lines of Lincoln and other great orators; surprised at how polemical the text actually is; and pretty confused at some of JC's line. My favorite may be what he says in response to his disciples when they are upset at seeing a lady pour perfume on their leader. Not quite what I expected, though it captured the mix of spiritual and intellectual questioning that marked my Shavout stay at Mar Musa.

Religious Quarters and Hindquarters

When I write to friends and tell them I am living with an Arab family in the Old City of Damascus, I am sure that most of them imagine my summer home as a few turns off from the Arab shuq in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is a reasonable assumption as the old quarters of both capitals bear more than a passing resemblance. The main difference between the two, besides the lack of bathrobe bearded haredim in Syria, is that the old city in Damascus is so much bigger. And as everyone from Mark Twain to the Bible support Damascus's claim to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, no doubt the old quarter has at least a few centuries on its junior cousin in Jerusalem.

It is a tossup which old city has the more impressive collection of scenic sights. Damascus does not have any churches that can compare with the Holy Sepulcher. And whatever Jewish synagogues that may still exist in the heart of Syria's capital would never be able to shine a candle on the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. The Umayyad Mosque is far more impressive than what I have seen of Jerusalem's Al Asqa, though throw in the Dome of the Rock and Jerusalem may have the edge. The size and vibrancy of Damascus's Old City make its numerous souqs and khans unlike anything Jerusalem has to offer. But Jerusalem wins hands down when it comes to old city walls, as the few ramparts left in Damascus have nothing on the walls of the Holy City. After the sun goes down and the gold and silver glow from man-made lamps and the moon and stars leave their mark, nothing in the world is the equal of the Old City of Jerusalem.

The most fascinating contrast between the two ancient quarters lies in the demographic divisions each has within its walls. The fissures between the four quarters of Jerusalem's Old City are all too obvious, though I have not spent enough time in the Christian and Muslim quarters to say with full confidence that they dwell in separate universes like the Jewish and Armenian zones to the south. The Old City in Damascus is also divvied up between the three different Abrahamic faiths. But since most of the Jewish community has long since decamped to Brooklyn and New Jersey, the Old City is essentially a two faith camp--or three, if you count the Iranian financed Shia pilgrimage sites in the Muslim area. And just like Jerusalem, the easiest way to know where you are in the Old City of Damascus is to look at what the locals are wearing and discern from there whose prophets are calling the faithful to prayer.

Except instead of looking for hasidic caftans, Christian crosses, Muslim worry beads and Armenians with their arms full of Judaica for sale, in the Old City of Damascus you need only to stare at the girls. By the Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque, an Iranian designed Shia shrine to the daughter of Hussein of Kerbala, the girls are swallowed up in black burqas, or 'garbage bags' as one of my Christian tutors disparagingly terms the getup (I prefer to think of them as novice ninjas). Walk east for ten minutes and you arrive in Bab Touma, where the girls are still wearing black. But you probably won't notice that they prefer their tanktops in that color, as enough skin is on display in the Christian Quarter to keep one mighty distracted. Girls in the rest of the Old City cannot help but dress either more or less modestly than their Shia and Christian sisters. How they dress hardly makes a difference to the first and last observation about the city that every visitor quickly discovers. As Hannah, a wonderful British friend from SAIS, exclaimed to me with awe "the girls here are all such babes!" Or as another British traveler wrote in 1870, "As for the women of Syria, no finer specimens of the female exists anywhere in the world." Considering the latter opinion comes from the pen of the colorful 19th century explorer Richard Burton, whose many achievements include one of the earliest translations of One Thousand and One Nights and the Karma Sutra, and you can rest assured that the conclusion reached by most contemporary visitors to Damascus has some distinguished pedigree.

My own home is located squarely in the Christian area, a five minute stroll from the social mecca of Bab Touma (Thomas Gate). After moving rooms due to an invasion of bed-buggers, I am shacked up in a boring little rectangle whose only claim to fame is that it has a massive portrait of Bashir Assad across from a more modest drawing of the Christian savior. A careful balance between Church and State, no doubt.

My room looks out on a two floor courtyard dwelling inhabited by the extended Nejem family and several other itinerant foreign students. Across the way is a 24 year old blond Italian girl named Beatrice. Jesse, another one of the students, described her as one of those girls who would be hooking up with the local radical minority rabble rouser were she on a college campus in the States. In Damascus she makes due with Iraqi Palestinian refugees, whom she is spending the summer interviewing in their makeshift homes on the southern outskirts of the capital. Jesse is a 25 year old culturally Jewish guy from California. He turned up a week ago after spending much of the first year of his MA at George Washington University studying in Istanbul. Although he speaks a slew of languages and has traveled around the world, I get the sense his heart has not quite yet moved on from the five years he spent as a student athlete at UCLA. A small shed on the roof of the courtyard complex is home to Emil, an 18 year old blond and blue eyed giant of a Dane. Emil has a rich past to make up for his relative youth, having grown up as a soccer wunderkind playing futbol in the streets of Brazil. His folks work for the World Bank so like Jesse and myself, he calls Washington DC home. After turning down the Danish military's request to serve for six months as a sentry outside the Queens palace, Emil decided to travel to the Arab world in pursuit of the stories he had read and watched about Lawrence of Arabia. When he reached Damascus he realized he needed to set aside time to learn the language before he continued traveling. Six weeks later he has not left, though in the interim he has charmed seemingly every shopkeeper and club owner in town.

All three of my tutors belong to the Nejem family. Two of them are siblings and live a few rooms down from where I sleep and attend class. The real star of the family is the grandfather, known to one and all as Abu Musa (Father Moses). Before he left to visit his two sons in California, Abu Musa was always pattering around the courtyard, making small talk with students and insisting we share breakfast together when no one else save the two of us was awake to greet the morning sun. Since arriving in southern California, he has not called his family once. Instead he places daily calls to Beatrice, confiding in her that he is having the time of his life sitting for hours every day in his son's cafe in Palm Spring, gazing at the local girls. When Beatrice asked if he did not miss the girls in Syria, Abu Musa expressed no regrets, insisting that however pretty the girls may be in Syria, southern California left nothing to the imagination.

In the Spirit of Dante

"You seem to have done quite a bit of traveling" my cousin remarked a few years ago after looking through my photos from my year at yeshiva in Israel, "but I thought you came to the country to study?!" Rather than allow the same misconception take hold about my current visit, let me take a few lines to explain why I came to Syria and what it is that is occupying most of my days while I am here.

The top reason is to study Arabic. My graduate program grants all students studying the Middle East a generous stipend to improve their Arabic in the country of their choosing. I chose Syria because the local dialect (amiyya) is pretty much interchangeable with Palestinian amiyya, both of which are closer than any other colloquial Arabic to the standard language (fu'sha) taught in university. Then again, I may have chosen Syria even if the locals were still speaking Aramaic, if only because no other Arab country has the same appealing mixture of political isolation and historical treasures. I am hardly alone in coming to this decision. Damascus attracts hordes of foreign students over the summer, most of whom live like myself in the Christian quarter of Bab Touma and arrange private lessons with a tutor. My school alone has close to ten students in Damascus over the summer.

Perhaps the only part of my decision that is unique is that I am only studying the local dialect, Syrian amiyya. While other foreign students do likewise, every other student from SAIS is only studying fu'sha. The distinction between the two languages is not minor. Fu'sha is what all students learn in universities and it is the Arabic that SAIS students must demonstrate proficiency in order to graduate. In the Arab world, mastery of fu'sha allows one to understand the media and decipher government reports. Fu'sha can also be used in conversation from North Africa to the Gulf. But it is an akward process, somewhat akin to communicating in pig latin with an English speaker. The problem with using fu'sha to converse is that Arabs do not and often cannot do so. Instead every region in the Arab world has their own spoken dialect, no two of which are exactly alike.

For me, the decision to focus on Syrian amiyya is a no brainer. Like anyone else, I want to eventually have the ability to follow Arab media and converse with the man on the street. But in the short term, Arabic is important to me for where I will be serving over the next two years. I have always associated having a working knowledge of Arabic with making Aliyah. And I have no doubt that it will be invaluable to be able to understand the language of Israel's Arab neighbors over the next two years. Impressing SAIS professors and future Chinese employers with my knowledge of formal Arabic will have to wait.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Moor is of a Free and Open Nature

Chose the neighbor before the house. Ancient Syrian Proverb

I flew from Dubai to Damascus on Emirates Airline flight number 911. Only in the Arab world, apparently, do they still number flights after the calendar date of the September Eleven attacks. My eyes were glued to the Syrian landscape as we broke through the clouds and approached the capital city. The only time I had seen Syria previously was in grainy Israeli war documentaries, where the camera peers down on the tail end of a bomb dropping over some poor Syrian ammunition dump or military base. So setting my own eyes on the country with no bombs in the way was a revelation. Not that there was much to see besides rocks and sand. Until we approached the airport, that is, when anti-aircraft guns could be discerned buried along the approach to the main tarmac.

The Damascus airport is a dusty throwback to the way overseas airports looked before the glistening temples of Dubai and Beijing changed the equation. My flight touched down at ten o'clock. By ten fifteen I was settling into the bus that for eighty cents would take me on the forty minute drive to the center of the city. Clearing customs in the airport was a breeze. They merely stamped my passport, gave me the perfunctory "from America? Welcome!" and then outside the airports a few touts lamely tried to wrap me up with offers of a forty dollar taxis ride.

Two years ago, when I arrived in Beijing for the first time in December 2007, I also chose to ignore the cab stand and take a cheap bus into the city. The difference was that then I was arriving in a city with fairly clear street signs (albeit in Chinese characters!). Damascus does not really go in for street signs. So when I got off the bus at the advice of other passangers, I had no idea where I was or where I should go to reach the centrally located hotel I intended to reside in for my first two nights. Fortunately a young Syrian got off the bus by my side and guided me towards my destination. He was returning home after covering the night shift at the airport's car rental. His day job is as a part time student at Damascus University where he is studying English Literature. And like nearly every student at the university that I would later meet, my volunteer guide was enrolled in the university's Shakespeare course.

It has been nearly a decade since I last trundled through the Bard's plays but I was still able to provide some insight as we discussed the finer points of Hamlet and Othello. The latter play, my guide informed me, is taught every term. I am not sure whether this reflects the characterization of Othello as Arab or whether it simply is the only work the professor understands well enough to teach. It is a relief to learn that Syrians are not being drilled on The Merchant of Venice and learning all about Shakespeare's understanding of the conniving Jew.

I wished my guide good luck and with more than a few wrong turns, eventually made it to the Al Rabie Hostel in the Souq Saroujah neighborhood. I later discovered that the easiest way to find the hotel is by navigating towards the closest landmark, a huge concrete hulk of an uncompleted building that dominates the skyline of central Damascus. I would only stay in these digs for two nights, enough time to arrange necessities like an Arabic language tutor, a room to rent, a cellphone and local SIM card, and a convenient gym membership. All these tasks were completed by the close of my second day in Syria.

The first day had been devoted to wandering through the byways of the Old City, copying down the names and numbers of tutors advertising their services on notes taped to the ancient stone. The first tutor to respond was a Christian fellow named Basel Nejem. We met at his family's house five minutes from Bab Touma Square, the busy eastern entrance to the Old City. There was nothing I did not like in the reasonable rates, the promise to find me a nearby room in Arab family's home, and the assurance that no payment was due until after I found the classes satisfactory. So the next day I arrived for my first class with my stuff. When our two and a half hour class wrapped up, Basel directed me to where I would live--in his own Arab family's courtyard residence!

My room is spartan with only a cot, a desk and a small cupboard. But from the nearby roof, all of Damascus can be seen. And from the courtyard I can look across to the New City, as the Nejem residence forms part of the eastern wall of the Old City.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree

God sends almonds to those without teeth! Ancient Syrian Proverb
My journey to Syria began at a subway station in on the Upper West Side. On my back I had a backpack packed with all I would need for the next month. In my hands I clutched some pizzas and calzones from Cafe Viva, all I would eat through the course of my thirty hour trip to Damascus. My brother wished me a fond farewell, thoughtfully leaving me with the parting request that I avoid getting into trouble and screwing up his wedding in late June.

An hour later, I left NYC transport behind and arrived at JFK. My check-in gate for my flight to Dubai was split between Indians and Arab families, the latter of whom largely sported flashy jewelry and designer jeans. Emirates Airlines can and should be criticized for its disgraceful lack of kosher food (see previous post). But it also should be recognized as possessing the most impressive entertainment options of any flight I have ever been. More important, the staff give Emirates the appearance at least of the world's first truly international airline. The stewards and stewardesses speak a range of languages and reflect an even wider range of nationalities. A disproportionate number of the stewardesses, though, are Asian. I suspect this is anchored in economics yet also draws off the age old association in the Arab world between Asian women hospitality and female beauty (see classical Arab art as a historical example).

I chewed on calzones, slept some and watched a smattering of five films during the smooth flight to Dubai. We arrived on Monday evening and after a quick assurance that no passengers had swine flu, I was issued a fifteen day visa to the United Arab Emirates and driven to the complimentary hotel room I received thanks to the layover I had requested when booking the flight. The layover gave me a chance to see Dubai, the modern marvel of the Arab world and the financial linchpin in what many are now calling the New Silk Road between the two ends of the Asian continent.

Dubai is not a city to enjoy on the cheap, however, and so I passed on the pricey nightclub scene for a walk along the beach and a tour of the glamorous hotels and malls that sparkle along the coastline. The city is not known for its soul. But as I waded through the waves of the Persian Gulf and gazed off at the distant coasts of Iran, my MP3 supplied the soul thanks to the tunes of Idan Raichel, Soulfarm and Moshav. My steps eventually led into the Burj al'Arab, the deluxe luxury hotel that symbolizes the city's boundless mercantlist ambition. The hotel resembles the sail of a boat, and it plays the likeness one step farther with its location on an artificial island one thousand feet from the shore. I had read one scathing critic describe the hotel as "the very pinnacle of tackiness - like Vegas after a serious, no-expense-spared, sheik-over." From my single visit, it is a marvel of engineering and as stunning as it is beautiful. Looking up at the interior of the hotel from the palatial interior, with the aqua blue rooms providing a honeycomb effect as they spiral upward, is marvelous.

I did not have the means or the manner to do anything besides look around. So after riding the glass elevator and taking a second look at the expensive cars in the parking lot, I slipped off to a nearby mall known as the Mercato. The mall has a fair share of local and international clothing and food stores, with the only rule seeming to be that everything is upend and top-class. At first I was struck by how the international inventory recalled the legendary bazaars in Baghdad and Damascus from the Arab world's golden age, when the treasures of the Far East mingled with exotica from darkest Africa and the benighted lands of Europe. Gradually I realized that this modern reinvention lacks the authenticity of the original. Dubai may be tops for banking and trading but nothing of cultural or material value seems poised to emerge from within. I left the city the next morning sure that I will return, though, so my reservations about Dubai will surely have another chance at engaging the urban reality in the future.

A Rosen By Any Other Name...

"If you want to cause him confusion, give him a choice" - Ancient Syrian Proverb

I flew to Syria on Sunday May 24 on Emirates Airlines. In less than a decade, Emirates is expected to become the world's largest airline. I am not sure what this may mean for Israeli travelers, as the United Arab Emirates is officially off limits to visitors from the Jewish state. Visitors with an Israeli stamp in their passport, however, face no problems like they do in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in Arab lands. I am also unsure what a globe trotting Emirates Airlines will mean for travelers of any nationality that would like kosher food. A Jewish community leader from New Zealand was not provided with kosher food when he flew Emirates to Wellington in December 2004. On board the flight, according to an article I read in Wellington's Dominion Post, the Jewish passenger was told that Emirates does not serve kosher food, despite providing nearly two dozen dietary options for a range of religious and cultural traditions. The Jewish passenger was later informed that as Emirates is an Arab airline, it does not expect Jews to make use of it.

The blatant racism has its own logic, one that ignores that Jewish Arabs have lived in the Arab world for over two thousand years. Jewish Arabs can even be described as providing the earliest blueprint for the ambitious Arab airlines. I vividly recall reading in Benjamin of Tudela's twelfth century travelogue how in the Middle Ages Jewish Arab traders were the mercantilist glue linking the cities of the Arab world. The lack of kosher food is also an ugly rejection of the distinction Arab spokesmen tend to make between their strident opposition to the Jewish state versus their acceptance of the Jewish faith and people. To see such a hateful policy advanced by one of Dubai's flagship enterprises is especially disappointing, as the dynamic city-state has built its reputation on putting aside religious and political tensions in favor of economic development.

In preparing to spend a month in Syria, I had sought advice from rabbis and my parents before deciding that in Syria I would refrain from publicizing my Judaism. When I traveled to Egypt in January 2009, the conservative Islamic climate had not proved enough to prevent me from bringing along a pair of tfellin. This time around I did leave my tfellin at home, though I did pack a small siddur on the assurance from previous visitors to Syria that bags are rarely, if ever, checked on arrival into the country. And although the first leg of my flight on Emirates Airlines was from New York to Dubai, I had been careful to avoid requesting a kosher meal, settling instead for the vegetarian option.

Having since read of the Arab airlines policy against kosher food, I am sorely tempted to request kosher food on my return flight from Damascus to New York, via Dubai. Doing so would blow my cover as a secular American of Italian--and by extension, Roman Catholic--descent that I have assiduously developed in visits to Egypt and Syria. It is a cover I first came by accidentally in conversation with my Egyptian host after I had just arrived in Cairo. He was sharing an anecdote about Egyptian family life when I shared that my mother's relatives did the same thing. Except instead of saying my mother's relatives in Israel, my mind acted of its own accord and substituted another Mediterranean country listed under the letter I in the UN roll of states. Likewise when my Syrian Arabic tutor asked me during our first class where my parents come from, I claimed Italian roots. My teacher nodded in agreement, informing me he had known I was Italian from my dark hair and whatnot. Nearly every Arab I have met in Egypt and especially in Syria has come to the same conclusion as my tutor. Even before discovering that I have an Arab name (Sami means grandeur in Arabic and is a fairly common name), Syrians always insist that I look Arab. When I admit to being a foreigner, locals suggest I must be of Spanish or Italian background. Considering that some friends of mine continue to insist that I have a Chinese look to me as well, I tend to think that appearance must be shaped in part by geographic and culture curiosity.

Traveling through the Arab world with an Arabic or at least European appearance, and with an Arabic first name and a generic last name, has its perks. But as I contemplate how I want to engage this region in the future, I doubt that practicing the Shia tradition of taiqqiya (dissimulation) on my religious and political beliefs is the long term solution. Considering the ramifications of the decision I am taking this July is enough to remind me that ultimately I have to come to terms with the Arab world through my own identity. Whether that includes requesting a side of kosher chicken that I will not even eat on my flight from Dubai to New York, however, remains less clear.

Monday, June 1, 2009


I did not set out from Deir Musa, the desert monastery where I lodged over the Shavout weekend, intending to get detained by Syrian security forces. But as that is what transpired on the night of Saturday May 30, that is the story I will share. I will limit myself to the brief disclaimer that the incompetence of the Syria's infamous mukhabarat [internal security] is at least as responsible as my own apparently inexhaustible supply of good fortune for ensuring that nothing too unfortunate occurred that may have prevented me from ever sharing the following tale.

Deir Musa is an hour away from the outskirts of Damascus. The closest town is Nebek, 18 km away, and the pit-stop for visitors coming to or from the capital. Save for the occasional monk that elects to hoof it over the mountains, everyone leaves the monastery by car from the foot of the cliff-face. Everyone, that is, except myself and another visitor, a charming German theater professional whose appearance does nothing to suggest she had ten plus years on me. Read into that what you will. And yes, her name was Christina. For as a friend once told me, when G-d tempts the Jewish male, subtlety is not necessarily employed. My German friend was kind enough to add my limited belongings (read: toothbrush, passport, spare cash and notebook) to her pack in return for my accompanying her on what we were told by an earnest novice monk would be a breezy three hour trek. And so we set-off.

If you have persevered through all five-hundred plus pages of the Chinese best-seller Wolf Totem, you would appreciate why my otherwise resolute hiking companion was terrified of the wild dogs that populate the Syrian wilderness. The monks had warned us of the danger of the predatory dogs that range over the mountainside. And so when my surgically enhanced eyes caught sight of two large males likely to intersect our path, Christina and I took the proscribed precautions. Holding tight to what would probably have been useless sharp-edged stones, we silently shifted our position westward until the four-legged fangers passed us by.

I'll leave the memoir to describe what transpired to leave Christina and I standing some four hours later before fifteen feet of barbed wire fence that stretched as far as the eye could see. As the sun had recently set, the eye in all fairness could not see much. When my quick exploration of the fence revealed that it continued up and over the nearby hills, Christina and I realized that the path we had been following by torchlight had come to a barbed end.

Perhaps because I had just left behind two days of preternatural calm at the monastery, I did not immediately insist to Christina that we get the heck away from what surely was a dangerous place to decamp for the night. Instead I followed Christina's lead and settled on the ground to rest a bit and consider our options. We quickly agreed to retrace our steps a hundred yards, grab some sleep and wake at first light to continue our hike to Nebek. But neither of us was ready to move just yet, as the brilliant star show above us was enough to keep us by the fence for another few minutes. Van Gogh would no doubt have sacrificed his remaining ear for the starry night above us. And Syrian military planners would probably have chosen such clear-skyed desolation as the perfect location for a secret air-force installation. Unfortunately for us, they had done so.

Two twenty-year old Syrians decked out in basic army fatigue approached. Before I had chance to rationally get rid of my prayerbook, I was up waving my flashlight, convinced that the best way to keep two trigger happy cadets calm was to not have have them stumble across us lodged right outside their base. I was right. If only by dumb luck than anything else. The two sentries began shouting like mad and, of far greater concern, they were cocking and thrusting their rifles at us amid their cries. This was a time, the 'lil voice told me, when playing the 'naive-student' card was not gonna cut it.

A couple more sentries arrived, we were ordered through the barbed wire, and after much more shouting in Arabic and broken English, our little troupe began marching over the field. It would be difficult to describe the flood of emotions I experienced as we marched if not for the fact that I had over an hour with those emotions, as our guards slowly marched us across the vast expanse of the base. My emotions really became my only companion over the final forty minutes of the trek, when Christian and I were blindfolded by our wary captors. More than anything, I was seized by a remarkable calm. When I contemplated the worst case scenario-- my bags searched, prayerbook found, followed by a host of unfriendly questions about what a J-toting American with a book published by and written in a neighboring country's script was doing by this base after dark--my mind responded by dwelling on physical sensations, taking the full measure of every passing wisp of wind and shred of stone. When my mind raced through every possible scenario and best response (like reading a Choose your Own Adventure novel in hyper-speed), my palms responded by squeezing Christina's hand and my tongue by bantering with the young guards about the past week's Barcelona v. Manchester game (great discussion to have with a blindfold and an assault rifle prodding your backside). But the walk, especially after we were blindfolded with our own t-shirts, was unnervingly calm. My thoughts turned back to my January visit to Ethiopia and the night when I had walked with pilgrims for forty minutes through a pitch-black subterranean passageway in the grotto churches of Lalibela. Christina later told me she was thinking how terrifying such a walk would be for people bearing real culpability. I was not as sangfroid, perhaps because the guards had remarked at the start of our march that we had no reason to be nervous "because you are not yehuds, we have no reason to harm you."

We finally arrived at a small room, Christina noting in grim humor that this must be when they get the video camera and dated newspaper. Instead our blindfolds were removed and we were sat before a TV screening the finale of the German soccer league (too bad for Bayern Munich). A modest and kosher friendly repast followed, though our passports and my camera and my friend's mobile were confiscated for dessert. The sentries had long since reclaimed their calm and were gracious and hospitable. Their commanding officers soon arrived but the graciousness remained. We waited for an hour and just as it seemed we may spend the night, the commanding officers bundled us into a military jeep and informed us we were off for Damascus.

Instead we turned off at a security office some thirty minutes later. No attempt had yet been made to search our bags and so my confidence sparked that the night was fast becoming material for a future blog post. And that is when things got really interesting. First we spent an interminable hour describing to two senior security officials how we had ended up by the barbed wire. Our reports were taken down, passport information recorded and our repeated queries about how we would be returning to the capital were turned aside. Once it became clear that we would be staying put for what remained of the night, Christina retired to a neighboring room to sleep. I was invited to face-off in a game of chess by one of the junior officers, who was the spitting image of Chris Farley if he had ever tried to look like the former Hafez el'Assad. Chess is far from my strong suit. But my would be opponent was such an endearing fellow. After he poked me with the black king and and implored me to lead President Obama's side to victory, I relented. Our game would last till four in the morning, at which point the war of attrition ended--Hama style--with his reborn queen providing the coup de grace to poor Obama. Farley el'Assad was gracious in victory, leveling with me that like most Syrians he is a big admirer of Obama, though he did wish the big speech planned for Cairo this week could have been relocated to Damascus. As he snapped my photo with his cellphone, I told him I looked forward to playing again when the tables were perhaps reversed. A 'lil sarcastic humor, I reasoned, is okay when the audience does not quite know English.

I retreated to the side room to find Christina wide awake. Neither of us were ready to breathe too deeply just yet. But I had a chance to let off some steam when Farley ambled in, announced we would be spending the night in his superior's office room, and then revealed a hidden bathroom behind the main desk. The bathroom came complete with a shower and towel. And so I washed off two days of monastery dust and one night of unexpected stress with a hot shower in the senior officer's private boudoir.

Two hours of sleep, repeated refusals at a chess rematch and before nine am we were on the road to Damascus. Rather than bid us goodbye, our guards turned us over to even more senior officials at the internal security HQ in the capital. And like everyone else I had encountered through this ordeal, the general in charge was incredibly cordial and hospitable. We were treated to breakfast, and then we chatted with the general about Syria's tourist attractions. He was especially keen that I visit his hometown of Hama. When I asked him how the parking lots were in the city that the former president Hafez al'Assad infamously destroyed when the Muslim Brotherhood revolted in 1982, the general did not appear to appreciate my sense of humor.

The general was more open minded when conversation turned to the previous evening, repeatedly asking if we had any comments on the experience. My innocent response was that perhaps a sign or two by the fence would ensure that no visitors make the mistake of trespassing near military property. The general sighed and said the problem is that the base is a secret and so they could hardly go ahead and put up a sign. Perhaps a sign could simply say "Do Not Enter." "Perhaps," the general agreed, "we will see what can be done." Our conversation continued for nearly two hours, as we waited in vain with the general for the Minister of Internal Security, whom we were told was to come and briefly speak with us. Ultimately he failed to appear to what apparently was one of the country's top security concerns over the last ten hours!

The fitting conclusion to the whole ordeal came near the end of our stay at the HQ. Having earlier informed the general that I was studying China, his assistant looked at me with sudden curiosity and in slow English inquired "What may happen to the world when all of China goes up and then down?" I started with an explanation about the millions of largely rural Chinese left behind by the country's rapid development when the general and his assistant's growing astonishment informed me I was losing them. But then their smiles and guffaws showed me the true answer, as between laughs my inquisitor explained that when all those Chinese go up and then down, the result would be a massive earthquake.

I left the HQ of Internal Security very bemused and sincerely grateful, clutching my belongings that throughout the entire ordeal had not once been rifled through. There are lessons to take-away from the experience. But I will leave them for you to share with me, as I still am having a hard time believing what transpired.