Friday, July 31, 2009

Lessons from Nights of Lamentation

My first chag, first Jewish holiday, as an Israeli was Tisha b'Av, a sobering reminder that the Jewish state I have committed myself to is only as resilient as the values embraced by its inhabitants. Of course, some may point out that as important as the fast of the 9th of Av may be, it should not be considered a chag. I disagree. If only for the added significance the day has in our day and age, when the most disturbing challenges to the success of the Jewish state come squarely from within.

Three friends that will be joining me on kibbutz came by my parent's home in Jerusalem for the traditional pre-fast meal. It was hard to focus my thoughts on the seriousness of the approaching fast as we joshed about our shared anxieties about the army. With dusk approaching we washed up and caught a ride to the tayelet in Talpiot, the outlook that is many visitors first stop in Jerusalem and that offers unparalleled views of the capital city.

Hundreds of Jerusalem residents gather at the tayelet the night of Tisha b'Av to recite the book of Eicha, the tear stained text from the Bible that recalls the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. As I sat on the stone promenade, with the entire city of Jerusalem laid out before my eyes, my thoughts turned to where I had spent the fast days in years past. The last two years I was in China, the first year nestled in a dorm in Suzhou as two other Jewish expats listened to me read selections from Eicha and then opened up about their own complex relationships with Jewish belief. Last summer I was on my own, debating whether to spend the night of the fast by the Great Wall and ultimately finding a chunk of the old Beijing wall on which to read some Eicha.

In past years I have spent Tisha b'Av at Bnei Akiva summer camps and in Israel, most memorably in 2002 when the teen program I was touring Israel with, Nesiya, commemorated the fast in one of a kind fashion. Yet nothing in the past compares to this year. Mourning for the destruction of past Jewish commonwealths is ever more complex once one has tied oneself to the modern Jewish state. The pain in Eicha is both more and less. And the lessons of the day, oh the lessons, are now longer only writing on the wall.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Catching Up On Israel In Beijing: Israel Studies Seminar at Peking University

At 7 AM on July 7 I made aliyah. Fifteen hours later I was back at Ben Gurion airport, preparing to fly to Beijing via Amsterdam for a week long academic conference at China’s premier university on Israel Studies. In other words, I would spend my first week as an Israeli citizen learning from some of China’s top Israel scholars about my new country (see here for images from the seminar).

[Update: Chinese language transcripts of the remarks from the conference were published and are available online here.]

My involvement in the seminar dated from an international Jewish leadership conference {ROI} I attended in Jerusalem in July 2007. I was invited to attend on the strength of Nikayon Zion, the organization my brother and I had founded to inspire Jerusalem’s residents to take responsibility for their city. On the first day, I met another participant named Seth who had come to the conference with a proposal to advance the Jewish world’s relationship with China.

Seth was the first person I had ever met that shared my passion for this cause. Over the last two years we kept speaking about how to advance China-Jewish ties. And so when Seth succeeded in organizing an Israel Studies seminar at Peking University, he invited me to attend.

Exactly what I would do at the seminar was never quite clarified. One job that became my own was keeping notes on the presentations given by the four leading Israeli scholars whose remarks formed the core of the seminar. I also took photographs and otherwise assisted Seth as he kept everyone on the same page. Besides the Israeli professors, the seminar included over twenty Chinese scholars of Israel and Jewish history. It was fascinating to get to know the views and personalities of these pioneering professors. I also made sure to speak at length with the two dozen Chinese graduate and undergraduate students. These students represent the future of Israel and Jewish Studies in China, and I have no doubt we will meet again in the future.

The Chinese scholars lectured on every conceivable issue relevant to Israel. I found two scholars particularly fascinating for what they said as well as what their lectures say about China’s interest in Jews and Judaism. The first lecture was delivered by China’s leading Holocaust scholar, an influential lady who also serves as the vice-president of Zhengzhou University. She titled her presentation “Currency Wars and the House of Rothschild” and over the course of a two hour lecture proceeded to deconstruct the malicious myth that Jewish financiers control the world economy and caused the latest financial crisis. The material would all be laughable if it was not widely believed by many intelligent people in East Asia, like the senior Chinese officials who raised the culpability of Jewish moneymen in a 2008 meeting with a Rothschild banker. Vice President Zhang Qianhong of Zhengzhou University rightly fears such myths and has actively worked throughout China to demonstrate their falsehood.

The second lecture I found particularly illuminating was by Fu Youde, the most influential Chinese scholar of Jewish Studies. Professor Fu accomplished the rare feat of establishing a government recognized center of Jewish Studies at his home institution of Shandong University. Working with a pioneering scholar/activist named Avrum Erlich, Professor Fu has worked to make Shandong a flourishing center of Jewish knowledge, hosting annual seminars, publishing several volumes and educating a growing number of students and state officials on the merits of deepening China’s knowledge of the Jewish people. Professor Fu is one of many Chinese scholars who look to Confucianism to revamp contemporary Chinese society. In his lecture, entitled “Lessons from the Reforms in Judaism on Chinese Culture,” Professor Fu argued that Chinese traditional culture should learn from the reforms that have allowed Judaism to flourish in the modern age. It is a fascinating hypothesis, one that I once researched for a project analyzing how the ethical imperatives of Pirkei Avot and the Analects of Confucius have influenced their respective communities over history.

An additional highlight to the seminar came when the Israeli Ambassador hosted the Israeli scholars, Seth and myself for dinner at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing.

It was my first time entering the embassy and meeting the staff of an institution my friends have enjoyed proposing will be my future home. While I have my doubts that my professional goals will lead straight into the arms of the Israeli government, the dinner was another fascinating experience. The ambassador and his staff engaged in no holds barred debate with Seth and the Israeli professors, speculating on the threat of Iran and what is needed in China-Israel ties. The embassy staff were very friendly and supportive of my own plans and I intend to do my best to remain in touch with them on my return to Israel.

After a week of conversing with Israeli and Chinese scholars in Hebrew, Chinese, English and even a little Arabic, I prepared to wish China farewell. The trip had exposed me to a wide range of ideas and individuals active on China’s ties with the Jewish world. I also met a wonderful batch of Jewish expats, including an endlessly intriguing fellow named Sebastian Pablo who generously hosted me in his small Wudaokou apartment.

Most importantly, my week in China gave me a chance to viscerally appreciate what I will be taking a break from over the next two years. If not for the army, I would be preparing to settle in for the final year of my Masters degree at the Hopkins-Nanjing Institute in southeast China. I would be developing my knowledge of China’s language and society, while also engaging myself in furthering the development of China-Jewish ties. Instead my feet will be firmly planted in Israel. In combat boots. Running up hills. Dragging myself through the mud. Following through on a promise that now and forever will, I hope, remain basic to who I am.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

July 7 2009: Aliyah On Eagles Wings

Argaz? Chozeh? Or maybe even Ben-Zion? The question of whether to change my name occupied my thoughts as El Al flight ## departed American soil and took off for Israel with 232 new olim (immigrants)—plus seven dogs and one cat— on board. Chester had served as my family’s name since my grandfather arrived in Canada from Russia in the early decades of the twentieth century. In choosing a new name I wanted to echo the spirit of the pre-state pioneers (like David Grün, better known to history as David Ben-Gurion) who adopted more Hebraic names on their arrival to Israel.

Before departing my brother’s wedding, I had convened a family summit of sorts to propose possibilities for my new name. Ben-Argaz, later modified to ארגז Argaz, came from my older brother who preferred the biblical term for a chest, ala a treasure chest, to the Hebrew term for a human chest, חזה chazeh. The theme, of course, is to sustain a parallel to the name Chester. Others were sympathetic to Ben-Zion, my father’s middle name and an obvious candidate for the heavy Zionist implications. And then there was my brilliant younger brother’s suggestion that I simply adopt his own name. Sammy Jonathan Shai. Sorry, Shai, not going to happen.

Two days later a friend suggested the name חוזה Chozeh. The meaning, “one with vision,” appealed to me for a bunch of reasons, including the association with the prophets of the bible like my namesake Samuel and the sages of Jewish history like the Chazon Ish and the Chozeh of Lublin. Plus, there is an obvious parallel to chazeh, which for all of its less than desired connotations of breasts is admirable in the sense that it is the chest that houses the human heart and other key organs. In Modern Hebrew chozeh most often denotes a contract, a meaning that has its own affirmative appeal. Finally, there are the transliterated and phonetic angles to the term: Chozeh in English is almost written as Chester. And the name sounds like Jose, a cute shout-out to my nonexistent Hispanic roots.

I wavered between Argaz and Chozeh as the official from the Interior Ministry approached me on board the aircraft. In her hand she held the electronic form on which my official name in Israel would be registered. Suddenly she was standing by my side. With bated breath, I scanned the form and informed her I needed to change my name. “Are you sure?” “Yes,” I told her, “I have never been as sure about anything in my life.” And with a flourish of her digital pen, she changed my middle name from יונתן to יהונתן , adding the ה that my parents chose to grace me with eight days after I was born.

Today my name in Israel remains שמואל יהונתן צ'סטר. In the end I decided against changing my last name. Part of the reason is that as personal as my name is, it remains a piece of my identity I would prefer to receive from someone else. The logic is rooted in the fundamental role that communication and language play in my appreciation for human relationships. The other key reason why I deferred changing my name is because I see my aliyah as marking the return of my greater family, past and present, to Israel. While we may never know when the last “Chester” departed the land, today we know when the Chesters returned.

The rest of the flight passed in a blur of excitement. I sat next to a friend, name of Nicky, who will be joining me on kibbutz as we prepare for the army. Our section of the plane were all about my age, with young families and a few elderly folks sitting in another section of the small El Al jet. As we prepared to descend to Ben Gurion Airport, Nicky and I laid tfellin and davened shacharit. Reciting the same prayers that have accompanied me through every morning of my life was the first time the emotional power of what I am doing hit me. For years they were simply words. And now like in the legends of the Zohar, the words have come to life.

Nicky and I walked down the gangplank, sun in our eye. We hit the pavement, backed off a few steps and bowed low to kiss the burning cement. The first Israeli to welcome me to Israel was a young reporter from army radio, Galei Zahal. She had interviewed me over the phone back in New York and now was on hand to record my first steps in Israel.

A few minutes later Natan Sharansky and a hundred others were welcoming us home with spinning flags and soaring tunes. I quickly locked eyes with my cousin, who had returned to welcome me at the same airport where she had arrived on aliyah nearly two decades ago.

After a flurry of speeches, I received my te'udot oleh, the first proof of my new citizenship. In a few days time would come further formal procedures. But the deed, the dream, has now slipped into the realm of reality.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Born in the U.S.A, Now I'm Making Aliyah Today, II

I'm leavin on a jet plane, Don't know when I'll be back again. John Denver, Leaving on a Jet Plane.

On my last full day in America, Sunday July 5, I had only one goal: to find that elusive pair of killer shades that would already confirm my IDF bona fides. Ever since having PRK laser surgery two years ago, shielding my eyes from the sun has taken on greater medical significance. So there were any number of reasons to celebrate when with the help of a friend, a flashy and polarized pair of Oakleys became my own. Israel, here’s looking at ya!

Monday July 6 is D-Day. My brother and sister-in-law join me on the train to the airport. Besides saving a bucket-load of cash, taking the New York subway to JFK Airport gives me a chance to savor the country I am leaving in a few hours. At the airport Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization aiding in my aliyah, is out in force. A friend of mine working for the aliyah organization gives me my paperwork and in less than ten minutes I have my boarding pass and am munching on strawberries alongside a brief send-off ceremony.

Downstairs awaits security, the last chance to say farewell to my brother and his wife. We take a photo outside a bar serving that most patriotic of beers, Samuel Adams. Then I take a picture with two American soldiers standing by security. “Godspeed,” says the Hispanic lady soldier, when I explain I am preparing to enlist for two years in the Israeli army.

Finally it is time to say goodbye. As my brother cries on my back and whispers how proud he is of me, I realize the next time I may see him will be in at least nine months, at which point I will already have completed the basic training for an Israeli combat soldier. With his marriage a week old and my aliyah a flight away from completion, we have both crossed a threshold of great promise and dynamic uncertainty.

Born in the U.S.A, Now I'm Making Aliyah Today, I

Going to a place where he can walk in the sand/and play his sax in an Israeli Rock n Roll band. Shlock Rock, Making Aliyah Today.

I departed America to the whizz-bang of the July 4th New York City fireworks display. Not quite the orgasmic greenery of Fitzgerald yet pretty metaphorical all the same. The fireworks, of course, were made in China. But their sense of possibility was all American. As they shattered the late night sky I wanted to believe they were sending me off overseas with that same sense of the possible.

The parsha, the weekly Torah portion, this weekend was Parshat Balak. It is a strange brew, featuring a gentile prophet by the name of Balaam who is called upon by the Moabite King Balak to curse the nation of Israel. Balaam agrees to help Balak in any way he can but notes that he will speak only as God tells him. Three times Balaam tries to curse Israel and three times blessing emerge from his mouth, including the famous words “How pleasant are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!”

The passage that caught my attention as I prepare to make aliyah is the curious incident that takes place as Balaam commences his own journey towards Israel. Despite initially granting Balaam permission to go to Balak, God seemingly reverses course and places a sword toting angel in Balaam’s way. The trick is only Balaam’s donkey can see the otherwise invisible angel, leading the prophet to beat his animal mercilessly when it refuses to lead them into the path of the angelic sword.

When the donkey simply lies down and stops moving after seeing the angel for a third time, something really strange happen. The donkey talks. God opens up the mouth of the animal and it asks Balaam why the heck he is beating his trusty steed. Balaam’s response is not “since when do you know how to talk?” Instead he threatens to kill the donkey. To which the animal replies, “Don’t you think I have a good reason for acting like such an ass?” And just as Balaam is preparing his own wicked repartee, God opens the prophet’s eyes to the flaming angel and Balaam understands his error.

The biblical passage leaves me with the lesson that as I commence my own journey, I need to pay heed to the advice of those around me. Sometimes the people with the clearest vision and the most trenchant advice are those I take for granted. Those like my family and friends with whom I am hesitant to share my future plans with until it is almost too late. Or those who may be below me in age and experience yet nonetheless may perceive events that I overlook. Don’t read me the wrong way: I am not saying that the donkey of Balaam is an apt metaphor for my family, friends and future peers in the army. Okay, maybe the latter but no one else! The point is that I embark on this journey I need to remember that perceptive advice can come from any corner, and it would be a grave error if I ignore all those that are capable of leading me in the right direction.

A Purity of Purpose

Below is the letter I wrote to family and friends on June 30, explaining why I would be making aliyah and enlisting in the Israeli military.

There are simply too many young guys with guns, I concluded to a young Ethiopian this past January. We had just spent the better part of a day long bus ride discussing the fighting in Gaza. My answer was not an attempt to ignore the many underlying issues that define Israel’s security dilemma. Yet those words remain as true to me now as they did then. As real as the kitchen table in my childhood home from where I am writing to you shortly after my twenty-fourth birthday to share a decision I arrived at some months ago with great excitement, confidence and, I hope, humility.

This July I will be making aliyah, accepting Israeli citizenship and preparing to join the Israeli army in early November.

I wrote that I came to this decision some months ago. The reality is that the decision to make aliyah and serve in the army represents the realization of a goal I embraced years ago. The decision harks back to my final year of elementary school when the tales of pioneers like Hanna Senesh and Mordechai Anielewicz began to fortify my sense of who I wanted to become and what I wanted to strive for in the future. Ten years have passed but that fourteen-year-old’s ambition remains undimmed.

I want to share with you the basis of my decision: why I am moving to Israel, volunteering for the army, interrupting my education, and leaving America.

Why aliyah? That is, why become a citizen of the State of Israel? The answer starts with an emotional bond: a love that may have been kindled by Zionist summer camps and childhood visits but that only seized my imagination as I began to experience the country through more mature eyes. It is the feeling I have when running through the streets of Jerusalem, hiking past waterfalls in the Galilean hillside, sleeping under the stars in the Negev desert, welcoming religious holidays as part of a larger society. These are feelings I want to make a part of my daily life.

The answer continues, as it must, with the central role that an organized Jewish community plays in my religious identity. I have faith in the vision of crafting a society at the meeting point of western and eastern civilizations. One that strives to fulfill the dream of social justice envisioned by the prophets and sages of Judaism. One tempered by two thousand years of painful yet fruitful cross-cultural exchange.

The State of Israel may not fulfill the messianic dream of Jewish prayer. And the contemporary sociopolitical reality may at times make a mockery of any ideal, religious or secular. Yet behind the dream of Israel lies a persistent challenge.

A wise mentor of mine describes Judaism as a conversation. My commitment to this understanding of Judaism, to a faith which recognizes that growth comes from engaging others, leaves me confident that in some small way I have what to contribute to realizing the dream that underscores the Jewish state. Much like America, Israel is a society whose promise is in great part due to the waves of immigrants that in every generation arrive on her shores. I do not accept the idea that the state only needed a generation of visionaries at its founding. Or that the country no longer has a need or the space for outsiders to come and revitalize the persistent dream that in varying forms has defined the Jewish message from time immemorial.

And the army? What does being trained to kill and constantly ordered around have to do with my perhaps romantic rationale for moving to Israel? The answer again starts with an emotional response: a desire to recapture a purity of purpose that has dissipated over the last two years. I want to rekindle a passion that has diminished in the face of the repetitiveness of academic life and the frustration of engaging an unresponsive community. Military service will no doubt have more than its fair share of monotony and apathetic peers (I do not expect to enlist in an army of Yoni Netanyahus). But voluntary service in defense of Israeli society also promises to return that purity of purpose.

There are, of course, many ways to serve a cause larger than oneself. I am not so naïve as to imagine that the Jewish cause is best served by having one more young man enlist (for that matter, my desire to enlist does not encompass any idolization of military service). There may in fact be more effective ways to utilize my skills. Yet there is a component of personal growth and self-discovery that compels me to serve in the army, a desire to uniquely challenge body and soul.

Motivation aside, the army is also a peerless vehicle for integrating into Israel; for grasping the language and people that comprise one of the most diverse societies on earth. And while there are viewpoints within that society that repel me, I accept this diversity as akin to the differences within a family. Hence I truly look forward to engaging Israel’s many voices, including those that call out from other religious communities, other places of birth, and opposing positions across the ideological divide.

My professional ambition is to find ways to best leverage China’s growing role in the Middle East towards greater regional peace and development. Aliyah and serving in the Israeli army are as much a piece of fulfilling that ambition as my university education. Neither decision, however, is about rejecting America, a country I admire greatly. Aliyah is about realizing my potential rather than rejecting my past.

Four years ago I left Israel to commence my university education as my Israeli peers prepared to enlist in the army. Now as many of them enroll in college, I am preparing to enlist. I have no regret that I am making this decision now. The last four years have taken me to places and introduced me to people that will inform my future steps as profoundly as my experiences in Israel will over the next few years. I also have no regrets because past experience has taught me that there are challenges that cannot be rushed. As a child I took extra time until I walked and talked and yet my joy in running and conversing has hardly been hindered. Amos Oz writes “the only way to keep a dream intact is never to fulfill it and so Israel is flawed and imperfect precisely because it is a dream come true.” In this sense my aliyah is ultimately about revitalizing the dream of Israel that at present remain only a promise, as I strive to realize my own unfulfilled dreams.

Wedding Bells

How do I describe one of the best days of my life? I have already tried to capture the elation of my brother's wedding through a photo album (see here). So now is the time for words.

On Sunday June 28 my older brother Alexander married Jen Gonik. They had been together for a few years when he surprised her with a ring last Thanksgiving. So I was hardly shaken by the timing of their wedding. Instead I was overcome by the sudden reality that the one person besides my parents who accompanied me through my childhood was now finally and forever entering adulthood.

A few days before I left for Syria my closest friend in high school got married. The wedding left me emotionally befuddled. I had only myself to blame, having come to the wedding with unrealistic expectations, plus a bum knee from having run my first marathon two weeks previously. The knee pain was at least laced with irony. Outside of the mental and physical strength it would provide for the army, I had run the twenty-six plus mile race with the idea it would leave me in great shape for summer weddings. Silly, perhaps, but that is really how I think.

No quixotic expectations accompanied me into my brother's wedding. On Monday Jun 22 I spent the afternoon atop the castle walls of Kraks de Chevalier, the twelfth-century headquarters of the Knights Hospitallers and the largest castle in the Crusader world. The walls of the citadel were my base as I contemplated what I would tell my brother and his bride in the speech they had invited me to give over shabbat. While writing the speech (see below for the full text) I realized that at their wedding, I would let the celebration come to me. That is, despite having the dual responsibility of serving as my brother's shomer and the MC under the chuppah, I would not approach the wedding with undue expectations.

My brother's wedding became one of the best days life thanks to the presence of so many people I care about. Anyone who knows Sammy from simchas has some inkling that once I get into the dancing, nothing adds to my excitement like sweeping those I care about into the dancing. Nearly everyone at my brother's wedding was fair game.
And this time around I had an almost biblical mandate to drag cousins and uncles into the mix!

The wedding also provided me with an opportunity to say farewell to my extended family only a week before I would make aliyah on July 6. The story was much the same on my return to New York two days after the wedding. On my first night in the city I had the chance to say hello and goodbye to a dear friend at her sheva brachot (the festive meal that continues for a week after a wedding). Two days later a fascinating friend married his equally fantastic girlfriend in Lakewood, New Jersey. Again I kvelled in the opportunity to share farewells with friends prior to my aliyah. But the best part of my friend's wedding came when the bride and groom, both leaders in the Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva, were dragooned into leading everyone in a boisterous singing of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. With four days to go, there was no better time to sing:
כל עוד בלבב פנימה/נפש יהודי הומיה/ולפאתי מזרח קדימה/עין לציון צופיה/עוד לא אבדה תקותנו/התקוה בת שנות אלפים/להיות עם חופשי בארצנו/ארץ ציון וירושלים

Speech from my brother's Shabbat Chattan

MAAAWAGE. Maaawage is what brings us together today. I could not help but start with that line from the movie, Princess Bride. Not just because it plays in my mind whenever the subject of weddings comes up. But because there is another scene from the movie that helped me realize something about language and love. Something that made me appreciate what I was really saying to my brother for oh so many years.
The scene comes midway through Princess Bride. A hero in black has just braved a host of difficulties to rescue a beautiful princess from a gang of kidnappers. But instead of thanking him, the girl calls him a pig and knocks him sideways down the side of a hill. As he falls, the hero shouts out “As you wish.” At which point everything clicks for the princess, she realizes the man in black is really her long lost love, and she throws herself down the hill to join him.
As you wish, of course, had been her lover’s way of saying ‘I love you’ all those years before fate had set them their separate ways. Sometimes the words we say when we are young are a mystery, I suppose. But I’d like to think a child’s very first words have some special meaning. Or at least that mine did.
My first word, my parents tell me, was Bobbi. Like the pin perhaps. Or the younger Kennedy. Or maybe I was trying and failing to pronounce Babba. As it is, the term became my name for Alexander. And before I became an older brother myself, in the good old days so to speak, when there were just two boys and a little girl appeared to gobble up our parents’ attention, Bobbi was also a best friend, and a rival and always the role model, setting the course two years in advance that I would follow. And then one day Bobbi went away to high school in Canada, Alexander returned, and things have stayed that way since.
What did I mean with the name Bobbi? The question tugged at my mind as I studied and traveled around Syria for the last month. As I dodged Beduin dogs and got to appreciate the Syrian police my first weekend. As I my attention slipped from my Arabic to the 80 style hairdos that adorn the girls of Damascus. Until finally, earlier this week, I was sitting atop a crusader castle staring off into the hills through a stone doorway when my recent experience in Syria clicked with my childhood memories and I realized what I had meant by calling my brother Bobbi for so many years. Or at least, as hindsight in the service of speech making can be a tricky business, what I may have meant ;-)
To find out what I meant in calling my brother Bobbi, I ask that you join me in exploring what the term actually means—not simply in English, but in several other languages that I have been exposed to in the last few years. Perhaps you’re wondering what relevance these languages have to a term that I first spoke when I could not count to ten, let alone converse in the language of Mohammed and Confucius. Well,
There’s a midrash that says everything one will learn in their lives is taught to them by an angel before they are born. And then before the child enters the world, the angel touches them above their lip and all that knowledge slips away until hard work and new horizons one day bring it back. So even if I only began studying Arabic this past year, I already possessed some potential sense of the language when I opened my mouth for the first time and called my brother Bobbi.
Arabic has two meanings for the word Bobbi, which together do much to capture what my brother meant to me when I first spoke, and what he still means to me all these years later. The first meaning comes from fu’sha, the standard Arabic they teach you in school. The first word taught in every university course is Baab, or Baabi when the possessive suffix ‘ee’ is added. It means my door, ‘my doorway,’ or even ‘my framework.’ My brother has always been my role model in the most visceral sense, with his every action and decision providing a sense of what was possible in my own life, the doorway for my future.
But there’s more.
In Amiyya, the colloquial Arabic used with regional differences throughout the Arab world, Bobbi has a very different meaning. In colloquial Arabic, especially in conversation with young children, Bobbi means dog. Don’t get the wrong idea, that I am suggesting Alexander is my dog or the like. Come to think of it, the only association I have with Alexander and dogs lies from a visit our family took to the Kosseffs in South Africa back in 1991. Berel and Rusty had a huge black dog in their house, a fearsome beast reminiscent of Sherlock Holme’s hound of the Baskervilles. I was, of course, terrified of the animal. Alexander was made of sterner stuff, and as usually is the case, he would have to learn his lesson the hard way. One day the dog chased him across the lawn and then followed him right into the pool, where the two of them emerged with the dog’s teeth clamped on Alexander’s backside as it dragged him from the water. A true story, though it has little to do with the meaning of Bobbi....
What does have to do with Bobbi, however, is how my brother has not simply set the framework but he has been my guide in ensuring I reach the goals his own example has established in my mind. There are so many stories I could share that illustrate how my brother has come through for me when I have been at risk from straying from my path, even if that path has taken me beyond my brother’s own experiences. Alexander said it best just yesterday, when he expressed his amazement I had not immediately called him when I arrived at the airport since, as we all know, “I am the only really responsible one in this family!”
Bobbi also has two meanings in English. In England it can refer to a policeman. And for the rest of us it is shorthand for those long pieces of metal women sometimes find necessary to stick in their hair: the bobby pin. It hardly seems necessary to explain the many times my brother has taken the role of the policeman, laying down the law on my backside. But there is something to glean from the modest bobby-pin. Not in reference to hair but because in movies, hairpins tend to be put to a more important role when amateur locksmiths use them to pick locks and open previously shuttered doors, allowing me to enter somewhere I never could have gone by myself. My brother has not simply served as my example and guided me forward when I have strayed— he also has opened so many doors for me—be it my appreciation of music and sports, my grasp of anything digital, or the confidence to live apart from our family and attend high school all on our own at the age of 15.
Bobbi also has a meaning in Chinese. At this point in preparing these remarks, I opened my Chinese dictionary convinced that the Mandarin would supply a meaning for Bobbi that captures everything my brother means to me. Bobbi, in Chinese (搏髀), only has one meaning. It translates to ‘to beat time by slapping one's thighs.’ So I am afraid the Chinese word is not going to be of much help.
Even without the Chinese, I think we’ve discovered a great deal about the sort of brother I was looking for when I named Alexander Bobbi years ago. One last mystery remains, however: Where did Bobbi go? Why did I lose the Bobbi I knew as a child when my brother moved onto high school and returned as Alexander? I do not ask this question glibly but with the knowledge that I have never quite known Alexander the same way that I did when we were children, when no one else was his equal as role-model, guide and best friend.
Perhaps the answer can be found by taking a second look at the pivotal scene from Princess Bride I referenced earlier. When the man in black yells ‘As you wish’ as he is falling down the hillside, he is hardly doing so for the first time. During their early, idyllic years, when the future hero and princess lived a far simpler life, the man would whisper ‘as you wish’ at every opportunity. His words were always another way of saying ‘I love you.’ But it hardly mattered because the future princess failed to comprehend what he was saying. It was only when the princess responded to the words ‘as you wish,’ only when she expressed her love back to the hero by diving down the hill after him, that true love materialized.
Because that is what real love is about: an exchange, a mutual give and take. Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. Love is not about sophomoric crushes that burn with desire even as they remain unrequited. Love is about giving and receiving in turn, creating a ceaseless circle of communication that can never be broken as long as both partners remain committed to their love.
Perhaps my favorite memory of Alexander comes from a Yeshiva University lag b’omer carnival we attended on my birthday when I was in high school and Alexander was in his first year of university. The carnival had this activity where two folks could step into an inflatable boxing ring and with a cushioned helmet and giant cushioned boxing mitts on their fists, go at each other until one person knocked the other down two times. Alexander and I tried it out. And our game quickly became a no-holds barred battle of wills. Neither of us went down for five minutes, until I finally hit the surface from a crushing left hook from my older brother. Then Alexander went down. The student manning the booth attempted to end the match and call it a draw because we were taking too long. But when he was informed we were brothers, he smiled, nodded and stepped back. The intensity picked up and we traded blows, neither of us willing to concede. And on and on it went.
Some of you may say that the memory of that boxing game remains so dear to me because I finally had a chance to let out my aggression against my older brother (Alexander eventually went down, as it happens, ending the match!). Maybe. But I am sure that the real power of the memory derives from what our exchange of cushioned blows really represented: a reflection of the communication we shared—with far more than our fists! — in those simpler, idyllic times when we were just children. When I used the name Bobbi to convey all that my I hoped my brother would be and he responded by meeting and even surpassing my expectations. We boxed with such energy and determination, in part, because we both knew that the closeness we had fostered during those Bobbi years had slipped as we matured and Alexander went off on his own to high school. And so our sparring in part spoke to what once was and what, with renewed commitment to communicate in the future, could again be.
My blessing to Alexander and Jen is that they take to heart and realize in their marriage that truly vibrant love, and a healthy relationship, is rooted in communication, in giving and receiving in turn. Not only when one of them appreciates that the other feels like he or she is falling down a hillside. But all the time, every second of everyday.

Dubai by Day

Homeward bound was the theme as my plane departed from Damascus international airport on Thursday June 25. In twenty-four hours I would be in Detroit, meeting up with my family in the eleventh hour of preparing for my older brother's wedding this Sunday. First, however, I had a six hour layover to make the most of the desert wonderland of Dubai.

When I flew to Syria, my layover in Dubai occurred at night so my options to see the city were limited. This time the afternoon was my oyster. And so I went to the one place that shouts DUBAI like no other: Emirates Mall, home of the world's only indoor ski resort.

Ultimately I did not ski, concluding that the conspicuous consumption and cost were more than I was prepared to indulge. But I did feast my eyes on the very luxe mall, with its international clientele, the majority of whom are clearly not from the region. Before leaving the mall at closing time, I did make one purchase, finding a late night salon to clean up my bangs and ensure I am more presentable for the simcha that awaits me in the States.

A Final Taste of Chummus in Damascus

Wherever I have traveled, I have left secure in the feeling that some day in the future I will return. Perhaps it is my way of not wanting to let go. Or perhaps it comes from needing to believe that I will have a chance one day to return with friends and share with them in person the places and people that have so inspired me.

Today, Wednesday June 24, I leave Damascus. Farewell to Abu Hassan the juice guy, my hosts the Nejem family, and the sights and smells of the Old City of Damascus that have become home over the last month. So long Syria. For the next few years, that is. Because I know I will be back. With a different cover story , perhaps. With peace? Ideally, though even before Syria come to terms with Israel, there will no doubt be reasons for my return to the Syrian Arab Republic.

On my last day in Damascus it was time to indulge in some classic Damascene tourism. Sure, I have strolled through the main drag of Souq al-Hamidiyya, letting the color and cries of the market draw me down the endless allies that split off from the central strip. But today was time to visit the heavyweights: the Umayyad Mosque, Azem Palace, the most celebrated of the city's bathhouses, Hammam Nur al-Din, and finally, the classic twilight views of the capital from atop Mount Qasioun.

The Umayyad Mosque lies near the center of the Old City. A laundry list of superlatives would not do justice to the magnificence of one of the world's oldest and largest mosques. Muslims of all stripes are drawn to the many venerated sights within the mosque's stone walls. Sunni congregate by the tombs of John the Baptist (honored as a prophet by Muslims and Christians alike) and Saladin. Shia make a beeline for the shrines dedicated the martyrs of Karbala, including the stand upon which the head of Hussein ibn Ali (Muhammad's grandson and the central figure of the Karbala narrative) was displayed after his forces were slaughtered by Umayyad troops at Karbala. Iranian ladies, swathed in black burqas, surround Hussein's shrine, liberally dispensing tears and Iranian rials covered in pictures of Khomeini.

What I found most endearing about the mosque is how relaxed it is despite the many places of veneration. Within the prayer-hall, men and women relax under green and crimson arabesque mosaics, making light conversation while children run about.

The sun drenched courtyard is even more alive. Foreign women draped in brown wizard's robe (loaned to them to ensure their modesty) dodge the chirping children whom slip and slide across the marble floor. There is none of the solemn distance or pagan mystery of European cathedrals and Tibetan temples. The Umayyad Mosque is at once animate and venerated, providing a worthy model of dynamic spirituality.

The Azem Palace is only a short walk away from the great mosque. An Ottoman governor established the palace in 1750, building on the grounds that in previous centuries had been home to the palaces of the Umayyad Caliph, and Roman and Byzantine governors. Today the complex is home to a cultural museum. But a brief visit is worth it for the design of the palace, widely regarded as the best example of Damascene architecture in the city. When I did not have small change to pay the student fee, the doorman just smiled and waved me in free of charge!

The next stop on my route was the most renowned bathhouse in Damascus, the Hammam Nur al'Din. The Kurdish run bathhouse traces its origins back to the eleventh century. Today it represents a dying breed, as the city's once numerous bathhouses are steadily vanishing as centuries-old traditions give way to modern indoor plumbing, allowing most Damascus residents to bathe at home. Although I have never had a particular weakness for getting saunaed and scrubbed by mustached manly men, traditional bathhouse culture has had a soft spot in my heart ever since I saw "Shower," a wonderful Chinese film about the disappearance of the traditional bathhouse in Beijing.

Today was my second trip to the hammam, after having first visited the all male bathhouse with two of my housemates earlier in the week. So when two friends from SAIS expressed interest in checking it out for themselves, I was eager to accompany them. The experience itself is hot, wet and foggy. After donning a sheet and clogs (in contrast to China, Arab culture refrains from bathing in the nude), we entered a steam room and were instructed to wash ourselves with the Aleppo olive oil soap to our hearts content. The rest of the experience consists of a hasty massage and a more painful session where an attendant goes to work on my arms and legs with a steel sponge. The best part is when its all over, and I sip tea with my friends in the thousand year old antechamber, wrapped up in towels like a Bedouin desert explorer.

Most visitors to Damascus begin their trip by gazing down upon the city from the height of Mount Qasioun. I finally made it to the mountaintop on my final night. After a perilous cab ride up the mountain, three friends from SAIS gathered with me for a farewell dinner. With the entire city lit up, I dined on chummus in Damascus for one last time. In Israel they have a saying that "when there is peace, we will travel to eat chummus in Damascus." Peace will come. And when it does, I look forward to sharing with my Israeli friends the sights and tastes of Damascus.

All the Mind's on Stage at Bosra

The best of our theater is standing on tiptoe, striving to see over the shoulders of father and mother. The way out, as the poet says, is always through. Arthur Miller

I was not keen on seeing Bosra. Having done Palmyra, there did not seem a need to see Syria's second best collection of Roman ruins. Sure, Bosra is really more Nabatean than Roman, the former being the same guys who created the wonder that is Petra. Oddly enough, both Nabatean cities are well known for the unique coloring of their stone. While the stone of Petra is famously red, Bosra's ruins remain a charcoal black color from the pumice stone from which they were quarried. The Nabateans only moved to Petra in 106 CE when the Romans arrived and took over Bosra. The black stone city would serve for four centuries as the capital of the empire's easternmost province of Arabia, home to 80,000 people and the departure point for trading caravans with the Persian and Chinese empires.

It was not the history that finally convinced me to pay a visit to Bosra on Sunday June 21. It was the theater. Bosra's magnificent Roman theater is one of the largest surviving amphitheaters in the world and it is why most visitors take the two hour trip south from Damascus. My inspiration came via a remarkable essay by the British columnist A A Gill where he describes the stage as the arena that best captures the drama of being human. "Just because somethings old doesn't make it good or interesting or relevant," Gill comments on his visit to the Roman theater at Delphi, "but in all its essentials, theatre is precisely as it was 2,000 years ago. Shakespeare would be able to walk onto any London stage and feel at home, as would Sophocles. Theatre was conceived word perfect. It must have been created to fill some collective need. From it all other narratives flow."

Gill's words left me hooked. I needed to visit Bosra, to cast my eyes over the seats and tap into the wellspring of narrative that has flowed from this stage for thousands of years. Perhaps my over active imagination is to blame. But as I sat in the theater in the heat of the afternoon, with my ears tuned to a song a girl gave to me before I set off across the world, the stage did come alive. A beautiful songstress slowly walked across the stone floor, her face masked in shadows, a long dress spilling behind her as she sang the words that are forever playing in my ears.

Kuneitra Lessons

In eastern Europe I walked through the blasted showers and crematoria that laid waste to a generation of my people. In western China I volunteered in villages whose homes had crumbled like matchsticks in the face of the raw power of the earth. And so when I visited the town of Kuneitra on Wednesday June 17, I was not as overwhelmed by the senseless destruction of the border-town as my Syrian military guide would have preferred.

Over thirty years ago Israel and Syria waged a bitter fight in and around Kuneitra. When the 1973 October War drew to a halt, Israel agreed to return the town to Syrian civilian control, establishing the current de-facto border that runs along the edge of Kuneitra. The decision to cede control of the town to Syria was not made without controversy in Israel. Following Syria's humiliating loss of Kuneitra and the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War, the former provincial capital became seen as "the badge of Syria's defeat, an emblem of hatred between Syria and Israel and a cross that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad had to bear." Many Israelis feared that returning Kuneitra to Syria in 1974 would be rewarding Assad for attacking Israel in the Yom Kippur War.

A much larger controversy ensued after the Israeli withdrawal. Kuneitra lay in ruins. And while Israel claimed that most of the damage was the result of the last two wars, Syria succeeded in getting the UN to rule that Israel had systematically destroyed the town before withdrawing. Ever since Syria has preserved Kuneitra as a symbol of Israeli aggression, a lesson visiting dignitaries like Pope John Paul II and the Chinese foreign minister are asked to accept on their scripted tours of the town.

I hardly qualify as a visiting dignitary so perhaps the Syrians will not mind that I do not buy their narrative. From my perspective, Kuneitra is only a superficial symbol of the 1970 war. The real lesson to draw from the ruins is the failure of the Assad regime to emerge from stilted Cold War politics. Thirty years ago nearly every Arab state was committed to a doctrine that demonized Israel and vilified the western world at large. And while the Assad regime now plays a wily game of alliances with newly assertive Shia voices in Lebanon and Iran, the rest of the Arab world has come to terms with reality and today more or less accepts Israel and the influence of America in the Middle East.

What does Syria have to show for Assad's Machiavellian politics? A country whose citizens are genuinely afraid at the stirrings of liberal democracy in their erstwhile allies, Lebanon and Iran? A regime that boasts of embracing the "China experiment" (al tajriba al siniya) by embracing economic reforms without political liberalization, yet ironically fails to heed the cardinal rule of the China model: separating economics from politics. As Hong Kong based economist Ben Simpfendorfer points out in his recent book "The New Silk Road,"

[While] there are many similarities between the Syrian economy today and the Chinese economy in the 1980s...Today Japanese manufactures are free to invest in China even as Beijing criticizes Tokyo about visits to the Yasukini Shrine where Japanese war criminals are interred. Taiwanese manufacturers build factories in the mainland Chinese province of Fujian not far from the same military arsenals that target Taiwan....[Japan, Taiwan and South Korea] have invested nearly $300 billion dollars in China during the past decade while also transferring years of managerial and technological expertise to China.

Meanwhile, Syria remains committed to a tired mantra that demonizes the very neighbor that could prove crucial to its success. Some of Syria's leaders at least seem to appreciate this strategic malaise, such as the former Minister of State Planning who wrote an article in March 2004 arguing that his country has suffered greatly because of its refusal to come to terms with the State of Israel. The influential former Minister, Issam Za'im, of course was quick to qualify his criticism by insisting that Syria has had little choice when faced by the threat of the "Zionist enemy." The tragic irony of this whole political failure is that Syria is a far more liberal society than the other major Arab states. Radical religious voices like the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabi imams are far less established in Syria than they are in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Syria seems poised on the threshold between dynamic social and economic development or continued malaise. But who will emerge with the courage and wherewithal to take the country in a new direction?


Most guide books provide incredibly unhelpful directions on how to visit Kuneitra. The reality is that one must first stop by the Ministry of Interior in Damascus. After showing them your passports and assuring them you are not a spy, the office provides the necessary--and free--permit. Travelers can then simply catch a ride on a really cheap minibus that regularly leaves from the main bus station with its final stop outside Kuneitra.

When I visited on June 17, the minibus driver offered to accompany me and my friend into Kuneitra in return for a few dollars. We accepted his offer and after touring the ruins for an hour--easily enough time to see everything--we had become friendly enough that the gracious young driver invited us over to his family's nearby house for lunch. We spent another hour conversing over watermelon and tea, by which point the driver had insisted that next time my friend and I are in Syria, we consider living with his family!

It was fascinating to stand atop a ruined minaret in Kuneitra and gaze across the nearby border into Israel. I had looked down upon the town numerous times before during visits to the Golan Heights in Israel and so I was grateful for the chance to literally see how things looked from the other side of the fence.

The most compelling ruin in Kuneitra is undoubtedly the hospital. From the roof one can gaze into Israel and check out the small UN military complex charged with safeguarding the ceasefire in the area. Inside the hospital there are all sorts of messages scrawled onto the walls. The most intriguing is a series of paintings of beautiful, dark eyed girls. It took me a few minutes to realize that the artist was probably visualizing one of the seventy virgins promised to martyrs by Islam. The best part of the hospital may be the sign by the door. In large English and Arabic script, it boldly proclaims: "Golan Hospital. Destructed by Zionists and changed it to firing target." Because, you know, those Zionists hate hospitals that much.

Palmyra by Night

On Monday July 15 I spent the night amid the ruins of ancient Petra, atop the altar of Jupiter in the inner sanctum of one of the largest temples of the Talmudic era. But first, some backstory:

Palmyra is the Petra, the Luxor, of Syria. It is the big kahuna for tourism in the country, a fact immediately apparent by the four-fold rise in prices and the crowds of touts that greet visitors to the oasis in Syria's western deserts. What is Palmyra and why is it such a big draw for visitors?

Any guide book can tell you the basic story: Palmyra, or Tadmor as it is known in Arabic and Hebrew, was a vital caravan city for travelers crossing the Syrian desert. The Romans prized the oasis as an outpost against the Sassanid empire of Persia. But it was in 267 C.E. that Palmyra became known throughout the ancient world when the widow of the assassinated Roman provincial governor took power and declared an independent Palmyrene Empire. Five years later the legions showed up and dragged pretty queen Zenobia back to Rome in gold chains. Not much of a story except that the modern Syrian state has dramatized Zenobia's brief reign as a proud epic in the history of the Syrian nation. So while tourists come to Palmyra for the grand Roman ruins and epic desert landscapes, local guides play up the tale of the lone queen who bravely faced down the western imperialists.

Palmyra is as can't miss as Syrian sights get so I was determined to visit. Especially because the town known since ancient times as the Bride of the Desert may have been founded by none other than King Solomon, the great Jewish monarch who established the First Temple in Jerusalem. The Bible twice references Solomon as founding Tadmor, a fortified town that the Talmudic commentators explain is located in the western deserts of Syria. So in order to see the history of my people in Syria, Palmyra was a must visit.

There are two downers to visiting Palmyra. First, as I mentioned at the start, Syria's main tourist draw is known for its annoying touts and sky-high prices. Second, the small town hugging the ruins has no single bus stop. Instead it has several, none of which have posted times and none of which will sell tickets more than a few hours prior to departure.

Through a mixture of good sense, daring and my usual fortune with transportation I overcame both obstacles. And if you read to the end of this short note, you too can experience Palmyra in such a way that will never leave your imagination.

The first trick is to arrive in Palmyra in the evening. I got dropped off at what qualifies as the main stop for arriving traffic--a random rest stop four km from the modern town-- around 9 p.m. Three hours earlier I had left Damascus, having paid a few dollars for the long ride into the desert. After brushing aside the few touts waiting to gorge themselves on foreign suckers like myself, I dawdled at the rest stop for a few minutes and then joined a Syrian fellow hitching to the nearby town. Modern Palmyra consists of little more than the main drag where all the tourist hotels and restaurants can be found. Two British travelers invited me to join them over the remains of their dinner and our short chat convinced me to follow through on the crazy idea I had been throwing around on the bus ride through the desert. Rather than stay in a dingy hostel and fork over fifty dollars like my British friends, I was determined to nestle down amidst the ruins for the night. Best decision any visitor to Palmyra could ever make.

Ancient Palmyra lies five minutes away from the modern town. The ruins are open at all hours, save for three of the grander remains that can only be visited by purchasing a ticket during regular hours. Night fall does not qualify as regular hours. Instead it is the time when even the most modest thousand year old arch becomes a glorious reminder of another era, bathed in the glow of the stars and well placed floor-lamps. Palmyra may be worth visiting during the heat of the day but at night it is simply enchanting. The desert wind sweeps through the stone causeways. Dilapidated temples glow with a spiritual sheen stored away for the last thousand years. And best of all, the intrepid visitor has the site completely to himself. And so it was that on Monday July 15, Palmyra was all mine for the night.

After contemplating the ancient city for several hours, I directed my steps toward the pièce de résistance, the Temple of Ba'al. The remarkably well preserved temple may have once been dedicated to a who's who list of pagan gods (Ba'al, Jupiter, take your pick, they were all worshiped here at one point). But its the design of the temple that is fascinating to the inquisitive biblical visitor. According to a BBC documentary, the Temple of Ba'al is the successor to a similar temple that predated the Romans by two thousand years. "Its form," intoned the wise British documentarist, "a large stone-walled chamber with columns outside, is much closer to the sort of thing attributed to Solomon than to anything Roman." In other words, for the time being, seeing this temple is perhaps the only way moderns can glimpse a live visual of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem!

I intended to sleep outside the Temple of Ba'al, next to the western retaining wall that more or less serves the same presence here as the famous Kotel (Wailing Wall) once provided to the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Instead I ended up sleeping within the inner sanctum of the temple, atop the Altar of Jupiter. My plans changed when my flashlight noticed a draining pipe entering the temple through a small gap in the stone wall. As the main gate was locked until 8 am the next morning, the gap was the only way in. When my shoulders proved up to the task, I squeezed the rest of my body through the crevice and in no time was approaching the inner sanctum, more or less the equivalent of the central sanctuary in the Second Temple of Jerusalem. As I unrolled my sleeping bag on a raised surface, I had no idea that the Altar of Jupiter was serving as my mattress for the night. All I knew was that the bright light of the stars, the ghostly howl of the desert-wolves and the tunes on my MP3 were coming together to make this a night I would never forget.

I woke the next morning before dawn. Once the sun rose, the desert heat and the army of touts would make viewing Palmyra by day a dreadful assignment. Plus I was determined to grab the first bus at 8 AM back to Damascus. Saying farewell to the Temple of Ba'al was simple enough. After checking that the Bedouin guard was still sleeping by the entrance, I squeezed back through the hole in the wall and set out to explore the city by the light of the early morning. A few intrepid folks were already snapping pictures of the inimitable landscape. I had them snap a few of me before setting my sights on the last challenge to conquer in town, the hilltop citadel of Palmyra.

Most of the danger I get myself into is self-inflicted and what happened next is no exception. Instead of following the road that loops around and up the hill to the citadel, I decided to climb straight up the steep incline. The ascent proved far more treacherous than I had anticipated, with the rocks underfoot crumbling down the hill with my every step. Only after throwing my water and sleeping bags back down the hill did I slowly, inch by blistering inch, wedge my way up the rockface and atop the crest of the hill. The citadel, like the temple, remained lock and so after nearly losing my life reaching the main door I was not even able to enter! Some lesson in all this, no doubt.

My last challenge in Palmyra was to get away. After retrieving my bags at the foot of the hill, I ran back to the modern town. A cab driving by offered to take me to the bus station. Of course, since Palmyra does not have a bus station, we proceeded to drive around for twenty minutes, stopping at any number of places in town before finding a bus that was leaving that moment and had exactly one seat remaining! With my luck in place, I paid the driver the only money I had spent during my visit to Palmyra and boarded the bus heading home to Damascus!

Sweating with Syrians

I have been working out for the last several years. Not much to show for all the weight work but it has taken me to some sweaty gyms I doubtless would have otherwise missed.

My gym is Damascus is right off Tahrir Square, northeast of the old city. I was directed there by a Christian Arab after coming to the conclusion that the city's most well known private gym, known as Nadi Barada, was too far from my pad for daily visits. Nadi Barada draws an eclectic mix of spoiled rich teens, iced-coffee sipping gals, and foreigners. An even more impressive group of weight lifters are at work right nearby the entrance to Nadi Barada. For a few dollars, the gruff old man outside this second gym explained that his outfit is a government complex. The equipment was decades older than what I would find in Nada Barada, he admitted, yet his gym was "where the men of muscle come is the gym of champions."

While the coffee crowd and the men of muscle were enticing, I turned down both offers for a more modest gym that is just a ten minute walk from Bab Touma. The owner of the gym is a spitting image for the former professional wrestler Bill Goldberg. And so I was not surprised when the manager, another lumbering guy by name of Fadi, told me during one of our many conversations that like many Syrian men, he is a devoted fan of professional wrestling and a fan of Goldberg in particular. Considering that the wrestler is, of course, Jewish, I cannot think of a better way to jump start American-Syrian relations than for the US government to sponsor a barnstorming tour of the country by professional wrestlers. If ping-pong diplomacy worked in China, no reason why wrestling cannot serve a similar purpose thirty years later in Syria!

Fadi and the other regulars are very friendly, spotting my lifts and amiably chatting me up about life in America whenever they can bear to look away from eying their own selves in the full length mirrors. Perhaps I am the only one who finds our easy socializing disconcerting, harboring as I do the knowledge that my training in this Damascus gym is in preparation for serving in an army whose opponents are likely the buff Arab men that surround me.

As the temperature rose in Damascus, my futile search for a place to swim led me back to Nadi Barada. During my last two weeks in Syria, I swam for over an hour every morning in the gym's outdoor pool. Men only have access to the water from six to nine and by seven am the pool would already be full of legs and arms flailing away. One day, after the lifeguards had blocked off a third of the pool for kiddie swimming lessons, there was almost a revolution. As I smiled and sputtered "viva the resistance," two regular swimmers, an Arab and an Italian, vehemently protested the lifeguards attempt to press a dozen grown men into the remaining three lanes. Their protest was squelched but at least for one moment, in one pool, west and east came together in harmony to advance the rights of men.

Aleppo and Bananas

A saving grace of the developing world is the near universal presence of cheap fruit juice bars. In Ethiopia a few avocado, carrot and mango smoothies would set me back a dollar and stand in superbly as lunch or dinner. The Middle East is no different. Within hours of arriving in Cairo for the first time, I was sipping from a pint sized glass mug of lime green Asab juice, the sweet and tangy sugarcane drink that reigns supreme across Egypt. Asab cannot be found in Syria. According to my favorite fruit juice dude in Aleppo, this is because the Egyptian favorite is the lesser man's drink.

While the juicer's explanation left me laughing at his display of Levantine pride, we were both reduced to tears of laughter moments later when I asked for a milk and banana smoothie and received a whole banana and the wish that I enjoy my time in Aleppo. The joke lay in my confusing the Arabic word for milk, "haleeb," with the Arabic (and Hebrew) name for Aleppo, "Haleb." Mooz wa Haleb, indeed!

Whatever one calls Aleppo, the shortest stay in the city is enough to leave the visitor convinced that nowhere else in Syria has the same degree of charm and old world beauty. Aleppo is a classic example of a can't miss sight without any can't miss sights. Besides the stunning citadel at the heart of the old city, there is nothing in the town visitors must see. What makes Aleppo, one of the world's most ancient cities, so alluring is the magic of wandering through the slanted stone byways of the old city, skipping past the endless displays in the meandering shuk and imbibing the pungent aroma of the olive oil bars of soap that have been an Aleppo hallmark for centuries.

Aleppo was once the final stop along the Silk Road and so there are any number of writers that have evoked the charm of the city's mercantilist spirit. I tackled the city the weekend of June 13 with the added motivation of tracing the legacy of a Jewish community that Haim Sabato recalls in Aleppo Tales. Today the community is only a distant memory. Locals were kind enough to direct me to a synagogue north of the old city. On arriving I found a few stone archways framing a dilapidated parking lot. Not quite the Jewish heritage tour I may have hoped for.

The rest of my weekend was a marvel thanks to an Armenian silversmith, the American star of the national women's basketball team and most of all, John Travolta long lost Syrian cousin. The silversmith came into my life when I staggered into the Christian neighborhood in Aleppo known as al-Jedeida. I had been on my feet since the morning without a penny to my name to buy anything to drink--the risks of traveling solo on the shabbath day! So I am lounging in the shade of the single tree at the center of al-Jedeida when a kindly Armenian man invites me into his shop. Normally I would touch my hand to my chest to signal my disinterest in hearing his plaintive sales pitch. But I was tired and trusting. And better yet, minutes later I was drinking tea and listening to stories of how Aleppo's large Armenian community fled Turkey to their current home.

Before letting me go, the silversmith insisted I chase down the two young women that had stopped by his shop before me. I took his advice and quickly found myself talking with two of the only Americans in Aleppo. Both girls were English teachers. More importantly, they were both really cute and bought me orange juice. And best of all, one of the girls was on the Syrian women's basketball team!

Shabbat ended and I retraced my steps in order to take photos of the sights I had passed earlier in the day. When I arrived at the citadel a troupe of dancers in golden costumes were performing for a large crowd. While I angled for a good shot of the stone castle, John Travolta stepped out from the crowd and volunteered to take my picture. Or at least that is what I thought, especially when the Travolta look-alike said in nearly perfect English "My name is Travolta, perhaps you have heard of me?" Hassan, as Travolta's Syrian stand-in turned out to be named, took a liking to me and we ended up spending the next five hours together driving around the city in his car and then dining in a rooftop restaurant along with Hassan's Iraqi business partner.

The Persian Street

Pundits tend to harmonize about the Arab Street, that nebulous source of legitimacy, the Arab common man. So here comes the story of the summer, maybe the decade: a contested election in the Middle East erupts into popular protest when the common man smells a rat and tells their own government to stuff it. Except the common man isnt wearing a keffiyeh. He--and she--are dressed head to toe in Persian robes. Because it is the Persian street that is making their voice heard. And because I won't be in Tehran anytime soon, I can only stroll the streets of Damascus and wonder what the locals are thinking.

The answer is anyone's guess--I don't read minds, only start conversations. Most Syrians are hesitant to talk politics. Especially when the topic strikes too close to home. As a local girl told me, "Corruption in Lebanon, riots in Iran. Can you imagine what elections would bring to Syria?"

To find out what the elections have brought to Iran, I went to the source. "Nothing else will stop us," a young artist in Tehran wrote to a friend of mine. "Not this shootings, killings, violence, pressure. A re-run of elections,that is what we want as our right, and we are not gonna give up until we get it."

Perhaps my friend in Syria was right about what the Iranian elections could mean for Syria. Because the rest of the young Iranian artist's words have a lesson for the wider Arab world.

"This thing can only be compared to the revolution itself. Nothing else. They attacked the same dorm again and they threw people from windows. [This] is about a tiny guy who came on by fraud, and is trying to stay whatever it takes, and he has hands everywhere because his types have the power in every part of the government. They think that to keep the power, you can do anything--pressure, violence, fraud. This is not what the revolution was for--this is what the revolution was against."

The Victory of 1973

Who won the 1973 October War? Why did Syria and Egypt attack Israel on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar? What did they want?

If you do not know the answer to any of these questions, then do not expect to find answers at the Syrian October War Panorama. Like a similar structure in Cairo, the panorama is a memorial disguised as a museum that purports to tell the story of the 1973 war through captured Israeli tanks and bombastic oil paintings and sculpture. The most curious part of the story is that it does not even try very hard to explain away the less than glorious bits of the fighting. That is, much attention is paid to Syria's successes in the days after launching a surprise attack on Israel. But nothing is said about the second half of the fighting, the bitter tank battles and daring counter-offensives that left the Syrians desperate for a cease-fire with Israeli guns in view of Damascus.

Having visited the Egyptian October War Panorama during my visit to Cairo this past January, I was curious to see what the Syrians would do with their own memorial museum. Both panoramas turned out to be very similar. The reason has nothing to do with the onetime allies and most times bitter rivals sharing a similar interpretation of the 1973 war. Instead it has everything to do with the fact that the same North Korean artisans designed both memorials. Apparently North Korea has some sort of monopoly on creating grandiose memorials that liberally interpret past wars. I suppose they have a lot of practice. Too bad no one ever visits North Korea to see the originals for themselves.

The panorama in Syria starts out with a line of Israeli and Syrian tanks and rockets facing each other as if the fighting just ended yesterday. All the Israel equipment, of course, is destroyed while the Syrian weapons sparkle. The best touch in the outdoor lineup is the inclusion of the Soviet shuttle that took a Syrian cosmonaut into orbit in the 1980s. As if the broken English instructions emblazoned on the outside of the space vehicle were not enough, the entire shuttle is housed within a Korean pagoda!

Inside the main hall I was treated to a ridiculously over the top documentary and three rooms that use vast oil paintings to celebrate Bashar Assad's military prowess in the 1973 war. The first room consists of four large canvases (all painted by North Koreans), each one showing another grand victory from the Syrian-Arab peoples past. After seeing past conquerors like the Umayyad caliph Al-Walid and Saladin, the paintings culminate with a heroic depiction of Hafez al-Assad directing his troops to victory in the Golan Heights.

This room is only preparation for the top floor where the entire room is painted and sculptured to create a panoramic 3-D visualization of the Battle of Kuneitra during the 1973 War. Visitors sit at the center of the room while their chair slowly spins in a circle. The military guide that led me around was quick to point out that the artwork is only a work of the imagination as the real battle in Kuneitra was nothing like what is depicted. He was less sure what message is being communicated to Syrian visitors--including the schoolchildren that visit every year--when such feats of the imagination have to be used in depicting their country's great military "victory."

All that Glitters is not Gold

A friend in Beijing once described to me how all experiences fit into three categories. The best category, according to her reckoning, are those activities one suffers through at the time yet comes to treasure in retrospect. Perhaps that is how I should understand the halfway point of my summer in Syria, when bed bugs and food poisoning came together to leave me suffering in the stifling heat for two miserable days. Until they struck, everything I had encountered in Syria had come edged in gold. My classes, the weather, the food, my newfound friends...everything impressed me. And then I spent two days in a world of retched pain and when I recovered, nothing was the same. Syria still amazes me. But the glitter is gone.

Guns & Roses

Syria, I wrote to my cousin, will be a terrific place for me to contemplate my decision to serve in the Israeli army for the next two years. Save for the need to keep my Judaism a closely guarded secret, I could not have picked a more ideal police state to consider whether I am really ready to enlist.

My commitment remains unshaken. When it did weaken, however, it was not because I found Syrians so gracious and hospitable. Truth be told, I expected no less. The times I found myself questioning my decision to give the next two years to the Israeli army came when young Syrians would share with me the lengths they go to avoid serving in the Syrian army. All Syrian males, except for only children, are required to enlist for two years. And all Syrians, or at least the dozens of guys I spoke with over the summer, have nothing but absolute distaste for the army. Soldiers are rarely granted home leave and their training seems to mostly consist of a series of demoralizing exercises. Or as one Syrian told me, "the two years serve one purpose: making Syrian guys into lifelong alcoholics."

With uniform antipathy for serving in the army (even the army guide that escorted me around the military's memorial to the 1973 October War was dismissive of serving in the Syrian army), Syrians only differed in explaining to me the unique measures they had adopted in order to evade the army. One had obtained dual citizenship in Jordan (thereby invalidating his ability to enlist) through a combination of bribes and family marriages. Another found a doctor who provided him with the drugs that convinced the military board he was medically unfit to serve. Others first deferred their service with university and then fled to the Gulf to earn enough money so they could avoid enlisting once and for all. Paying off the government seems to be the most straightforward way of avoiding the army. The financial option explains why a military officer told me that the army is nothing like what it was in the 1970s. Three decades ago, he insisted, men were eager to die in defense of their country. "Today," the officer explain, "only the poor and those without education are foolish or desperate enough to embrace the army."

My discussion with Syrians about the Syria army naturally led them to inquire how conscription works in other countries. America, I told them, had enough of conscription due to the student movement and the fallout from the Vietnam War. A Danish friend of mine explained that in his country matters work a little differently. He was selected through a lottery to serve as a sentry outside the Queen's palace in Copenhagen. Quite the cushy post, though not tempting enough as he simply told the military he was going to university instead.

I did not have the chance to speak to any Lebanese about their country's army. And so I left only with what I saw. And from appearances alone, the Syrian and Lebanese armies could not be more different. The Syrian army is still driving around in Soviet tanks from the 1970s. And many of their soldiers can be seen in t-shirts and jeans because the one uniform they are issued either does not fit or is too ragged to wear. The Lebanese army, meanwhile, are dressed as if they just raided a North Face factory. The reality is that their spiffy uniforms--and even shinier looking guns and tanks--reflect the millions of dollars of equipment the West has donated to Lebanon. The idea seems to be that a strong army is Lebanon's best hope against the ethnic militias that could return the country to the dark days of the Lebanese Civil War. I am curious how effective this strategy works in practice, as it seems to be the go to move in countries across the Middle East.