Friday, September 28, 2007

A tale of two cities - my first visit to Syria in ten years

For the first time in over ten years, I came back to my country. Everywhere I looked the signs were Arabic first, then some other language. As I walked through the airport, I heard that sweet sweet Syrian accent taken for granted and spoken everywhere. Everybody from the porter to the immigration officer were Syrian and didn't think the slightest thing of it, why should they? They lived there. For me that was the most beautiful thing to see, hear and feel first. It marked that moment when you land in a different country but this time it was your own rather than some mysterious far off place.

As I flew in, the night sky was clear and I could see a beautiful crescent with a star hanging just above it. Damascus stretched out before me in the early morning darkness, precious, small and fragile. The green gems of it's minarets and the sparkling lights twinkling below, kept getting larger and larger till I could see cars driving around. On that first bump of the plane as it landed, I knew I had arrived home and my family were waiting for me as soon as I came out. I was too stunned and open mouthed to utter anything beyond mindless greetings as I hugged and kissed them all,seeing my brother for the first time in 10 years as a grown and handsome man. We drove down to Damascus and I was still mostly speechless, just looking at that familiar airport road with the trees, with the advertising signs flitting by. Mile by mile I got closer to my home in that old neighbourhood in Damascus. Absolutely nothing had changed, yes, she was wearing a different dress, but Damascus was just as I left her. The old buildings of our 7ara, (neighbourhood) were still the same, the same old man across from us still woke up at the crack of dawn every morning and had a quiet cigarette on his balcony as he always did. Life had carried on after I left as it always does. In the end it wasn't till I sat down in my home that I felt a lump in my throat. I had stayed quiet as my brothers chatted to me, later I got up and walked around the house, touching walls, doors and tables. All was as I left it almost but the house was smaller than I remembered it. It even smelled as I remembered it, that smell of home. That old house that saw generations of us was always there for us when life got rough whether for my father or my uncle or grandfather. The smell of coffee wafted to my nostrils in the morning and we later ordered manakeesh and fatayer with cheese on my first morning back from the bakery below us.

The two weeks went by like a blur but throughout that time, it was not me that visited Damascus. As soon as I landed, it were as if I was in the passenger seat of my body, staring out of the window and making small talk with everybody. I didn't care about what people were saying, I just wanted to sit with them, see them and hear them. It was such a strange feeling seeing my family again after all this time, it was only now that I realised how close we all really are. How life continued without me and how they all had comings and goings and were busy being a family while I was away. It was indescribable to have that feeling of belonging again, that is all I am going to say.

Syria itself had become a lot busier, not as busy as London, but busier. The cars congested the road incredibly and the pollution actually made breathing uncomfortable while walking the streets. I marvelled at our refusal to conform to any kind of regulations or control and I'm still not sure if that is a good or bad thing. During the plane ride a lot of the Syrian passengers were driving the staff crazy by not wearing seat belts or getting up to use the toilet literally whilst the plane was landing and I think enough has been said by others about the chaotic driving in the streets. It was amusing to say the least, but that was not with regards to the pollution and with Syrians' now obscene level of smoking, which is downright dangerous and a ticking time bomb for a country with a fragile healthcare system. I was also disgusted to find a KFC had opened near my home, but elated as time went by to find it was always empty and at almost all times of the day. My cousins later drove me up to Qasyoon mountain where we found some great views of Damascus and the air was considerably cleaner. Garish neon lights and popular Arabic music was blaring for the punters from rickety roadside cafe's and restaurants where one could sit, enjoy a drink and play backgammon or cards to their heart's content.

I ambled through the old districts of Damascus, prayed in the Ommayad and touched it's pillars, feeling the weight of millenia of history and grandeur in this dirty, chaotic and crowded city. A city flawed but which I loved regardless and with no qualms or reservations. In my last week I managed to finally visit my grandfather's grave in Wadi Barada, buried in his own land. He passed away in 2000, a few years after I had left Syria. On seeing his grave I managed a cool 62 seconds before 7 years of overdue sorrow and longing burst through my defences. I couldn't stop myself, nor did I want to. And I was left alone to sit next to him and contemplate under the orchards he had planted a lifetime ago. It was pleasant and soothing listening to the chirping of the birds overhead and praying for him in the peace and quiet. The air in Wadi Barada was beautiful and clear, unlike the polluted mess of Damascus' streets and the sun dipped quickly behind the Abu al Shamat mountain which overlooks the valley, I thought it was a great place for him to be buried. Later that day, we quickly returned to Damascus to make it in time for the Iftar, but first we managed a stop over at a place very dear to me, Maysaloon. The gate to the burial place was locked, but I did manage to see Yousef al Adhmeh's final resting place. To me he was a Syrian who didn't want French men ruling his country, an Arab who didn't believe that not having enough guns, cannons or men was a problem and who wasn't ashamed of his "backward" Arabness, of his Islam or of his history. We drove past the trees planted by the road and the rock formations and I fancied seeing young and old Syrian volunteers, ill equipped, scattered and outnumbered, putting up a brave but futile defence of their home which was only a day's march away. I imagined their ghosts mouthing silent protests at the fact they had only one life to give, that they could not go back and die fighting again...

The trip was over far too quickly, but a terrible weight was on my mind by the end of the first week. This wasn't just "Syria" for me anymore, an artificial state with its own flag, national anthem and football team. This was "the beating heart of Arabism" as Mansfeld put it, for Muslims, Christians and Jews it is the land where they believe the final showdown between good and evil will begin, where Jesus will return. I can't emphasize the sheer weight of seeing history living and breathing in front of me, both in the streets of Damascus and in it's National Museum. Stereotypes which had been imposed on me since birth by virtue of an education in the West were now being completely stripped away. I didn't just understand Edward Said, I lived what he had said. I also felt frightened because for the first time in my life, I felt acutely aware of who "I" am, not just a Syrian, but an Arab and a Muslim. Both of these terms I was to recognize carry with them immense responsibilities and a breathtaking shift in the lense one might normally view the world with. They have been weighing heavily on my mind since I got back and this is where my post becomes serious.

I went back to Syria to discover two Damascus'. Perhaps they were always there, of them was. The other, the one I used to come from, the one I remembered nostalgically was the Damascus where someone coming from "abroad" was considered an intellectual; that by studying abroad, one had been touched with the magical and amazing powers of the Western Man. I remembered Shariati's writings a lot while I was in Damascus but did not get the chance to visit his grave near Sayideh Zainab. I was however lucky to have met many people from varying backgrounds while there, and noticed that there were broadly speaking two "types" of Syrians (I myself hate categorising people, but it is simply a way of identifying two broad modes of thought which I found operating). There were some of the Syrians who had been to Europe, America or Beirut and who had come back to Damascus keen on "liberating" their people. They had been in the presence of people they believed were better polished, educated and richer than themselves, people who let's say had a nervous illness. When these people got back to Syria and had a pain in their foot, the level to which they internalised the arguments of those supposedly richer, more polished people meant that rather than ask for a cure for their foot, they wanted a cure for the nervous illness which made them think there was pain. They believed Syria should "modernise", open up, remove traditional and cultural barriers so that Syria can 'take her place amongst the nations' so to speak. There was something wrong with "us" that we were not like "them". My honest opinion was that these people had appropriated ideas and beliefs which were not theirs, and internalised someone else's arguments. If you remember, a few posts back I had mentioned a book by Joseph Massad and both he and Edward Said mention how conceptions of sexuality, sexism, feminism and exoticism had been associated to the Oriental "other". Massad describes how some Arabs themselves internalised this Orientalist discourse, something we can see in many of these (sometimes) educated "elites", for examples see the trendy residents of Beirut and the nouveau "elite" of Damascus. For these people, Syria is the quaint "tradition" of Ramadan with it's orgy of overeating, endless and pointless television series' and the tea boy dressed up in "traditional" garb. Others want Syria to be liberal and open, they confuse the mistreatment of women and the marginalising of minorities as a sign of the inherent lack of values in our societies rather than due to bad education and even worse manners. Thus, Syria must be remade, it must be destroyed in order to save it. These people deep down, these "rebels without a clue", while keen on "liberating" instead show a racism of the worst sort, a racism towards the very people they have come from. It is as if our much admired history and heritage came alive but once we saw it breathing, fighting and sweating before us we became terrified of it, of ourselves. These "sleeping" Arabs have no self belief, they cling on to obsolete ideas of nation building and nationalism. Intellectually and morally bankrupt due to an upbringing which has ignored their original identity and history, they eagerly lap up theories of post-modernism, feminism, communism, liberalism or any other "ism" which manages to slip past their lazy study patterns and fortify their mind first. They see the man with a beard and cringe, imagining him a misogynist, sexist and abusive husband whose wife or wives are chained home, breeding, cleaning and cooking for him. The woman wearing a hejab is seen as backwards, oppressed and suffering from a "false consciousness". No attempt is made to engage, discuss or understand with these people. "They" as the judge, jury and executioner have already concluded that there is no place for such people in their nihilistic vision of a future Syria or Syrias. It had reached the point where many average Syrians simply don't believe they are capable of greatness, of efficiency or of their own abilities, it is as if some great "purge" was needed. Some Khmer Rouge style reversion to a year "zero" which would see these inconvenient people re-educated and modernised, westernised. Syria itself, in that sphere, has become dominated by very rich people who run different sectors of the economy to their own benefit. The life giving fountains of "wakalat" were greedily divided between different big names in the "souk" (market). Their products would flood the markets as they monopolised different areas. I also noticed that somebody seems to be busy shaping Syria and Syrians' perception of themselves into something, I wasn't sure what, but I didn't like it. Propaganda had become much more slick since I was there last.

That was the Syria I had come from when I left in 1998 and those were the Syrians I was one of. It was still there and worse when I returned, but while there, I also rediscovered the Syria which was always there but which I had once ignored and despised for some reason. The Syrians who dressed and lived like the people in Bab el 7ara (a Syrian TV series) but who were not ashamed of not having enough money or not being fashionable, or of not speaking in English or French. In the old districts, the run down districts you could see how they eked their living. They made their living in the busy souks, relying on "Allah", they did not believe in emigrating, in avoiding military service or the overcrowded schools and downright dangerous hospitals. This was their home, they weren't going anywhere and they would endure the misfortunes life presented them by continuing to struggle and get on with their lives. They know that Damascus was slowly changing, that people were changing and looked at them funnily but shrugged it off. These people did not have to be educated to be "enlightened", I mean that word in the sense of someone acutely aware of their socio-political and historical background. The context and space they occupy is dealt with in relation to this background, these morals that they live and die by. These are people who "arabised" their technology and software, they sold the Hezbullah video game at the retail price of 400SP because they thought it was wrong to burn copies of it and sell it on. They knew who Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman and Ali were even if they weren't Muslim. They knew the stories and names of forgotten great Arabs and days gone by. They knew what being an Arab meant and carried that identity in our present world of technology effortlessly. These were the foundation and beating heart of Damascus. You will recognise them in Ramadi and Fallujah, or in Aleppo, in the South of Lebanon and dare I say it (something taboo for any Syrian to speak of) in Hama until 1982. They are at the heart of every Arab country, in the countryside and coastal areas and mountains, in the old and rundown parts of the cities, everywhere you will find them. They are the beating heart of Arabism in my opinion, not some superficial and shallow "elite" and "middle class" who would emigrate at the slightest wiff of trouble. A friend of mine who sported a Hezbullah keychain became angry and disturbed when I told him who they really were and the world view they represented. He was happy to cheer for them because they were winners in the "football" match he had grown up watching, the one between the Israeli's and the Arabs. Any deeper understanding and recognition, I felt, frightened him. For him and the people like him, the Islamic religion and our Eastern values are a cuddly pet to be stroked and then forgotten in a corner till the next holiday. To realise that these things had claws and teeth as well was unsettling and disturbed his complacent world view, it reminded him of responsibilities and duties. It made him think and see the world. Like an Arabian version of the Matrix, most people were too terrified to take the blue pill and see what was happening around them. It is not that my religion is a brutal one, but I gradually came to realise that it did prescribe violence when necessary. This is because we lived in a violent world and an unjust world, one where small countries are at the mercy of the big. Where a country like Israel exists in the region through might and not right. A terrifying modern world where thought police define what is the acceptable and moral framework for any debate and what should and shouldn't be a subject for moral outrage. I felt like an outsider when I truly questioned people as to why democracy was so great when even the great Greek philosophers themselves were so vehemently opposed to it. I asked myself questions, why is it fashionable for someone to label their political view "liberal" or "secular", why was "modern" treated as a positive term to be ascribed with, where did it come from? Was the Hejab really sexist or was it really a liberation? Such questions become unacceptable to some people because not only did they highlight deficiencies in their critical thinking and thought itself, but meant that everything they were nurtured on and which they eagerly endorsed was "wrong", something many people would normally find very hard to accept. This is some of what went through my mind on my visit.

I think I will stop now. I think people will not like my opinion on this, they will not like what I imply. I think it is best I stop talking of such things...for now.


Abufares said...

Thank you for an enlightening tour de force, for your homecoming post was exactly that.
I particularly like, and appreciate, what you had to write about the \"IBN AL-BALAD\", the typical Syrian, the average person on the street. Not only is he/she the backbone of our society, for some of us, he is an inspiration. It might be hard not to stray from this ideal once one has been abroad and \"enlightened\" but it\'s not impossible.
My idea of right and wrong, the football game as you called it didn\'t evolve at all. This is how many of us still see the world.
I consider myself lucky to have mastered another language but never another accent.

Maysaloon said...

Abu Fares,
Thank you. You understood what I was saying. I was worried people would attack me and hate me for this article. I think this article is about all of us. It's about Syrians of all spectrums, I targetted this at everyone and no one in particular.

eatbees said...

I've been reading your blog for a while and I really like this post in particular. Please go on with what you are thinking, I'd like to know where it comes out. I particularly like how your return home gave you perceptions you weren't expecting to have, and how the modernizing ambitions you once had now feel like cultural colonialism, and people who once seemed backward now feel like they carry the truth. Congratulations for being courageous enough to notice these changes in your perception and share them with others. I think your observations apply not just to Syria and other Arab societies, but to any culture under pressure to sell its soul for a "seat at the table"....

Maysaloon said...

Thank you, I like that phrase "seat at the table" as well.

The Syrian Brit said...

Those who succumb to the delusion that 'West is best' are in for a rude awakening.. Those who believe that they cay can simply shrug off their roots and assume somebody else's identity are equally deluded... But worst of all, are those who believe that just because they had the opportunity to visit or live in another country, now they are superior to those who have stayed behind in Syria...
Having said all that, I think it would be silly and short-sighted to dismiss the work and the intentions of expats as patronising and self-righteous.. Equally, to turn a blind eye to our deep-seated deficiencies would be an invitation to sleep-walk into disaster.. We have to face up to the fact that there are so many problems in our Society.. Until we look inwards and see our ugly souls.. until we cancourageously face up to our problems.. until we can faithfully admit that we have a problem, we will never be able to conquer those problems..
The examples you cite about those who refuse to look inward and face the facts are true and real and deeply worrying.. We, I fear, are still in a state of denial..

qunfuz said...

We're walking a tightrope. It's important not to romanticise 'authenticity' in such a way that we close down necessary debate, but I dont think you fall into that trap. Yes, much of the Syrian elite suffer a strange combination of national arrogance and inferiority complex. We need revolutionary change in many areas, but it is meaningless, and worse, oppressive, if not grounded in the desires and values of the ordinary people. The people who seek to uncritically import systems and values from the West without examining their context, and without considering how imperfect these systems are 'at home' are making a big mistake. What use is democracy without the demos? The delusions of the Westernised Iraqi exiles - the Kanaan Makiyas - show us how dangerous well-meaning expats can be.

I love the Greek script upside down in the walls of the Umawi mosque - a sign of the endless cultural recycling in Syria.

Great post. Forgive me for not visiting and commenting as often as you so generously visit my blog. Busy with teaching, reading and ,mainly, writing fiction. But you're writing great stuff which I always enjoy, even if I only have time for a 2 minute skim read.

with ref to the 'honour' post above - have you read, on Syriacomment, about the Kurdish girl killed by her brother in Sham, and the positive uproar this has caused. Good to see that the Mufti is campaigning against honour killing, and Fadlallah in Lebanon.

Maysaloon said...

Many thanks for the feedback Qunfuz, it's greatly appreciated! I think I may have heard of that fleetingly and I agree, it is a positive development, hopefully we will see more momentum in stigmatising such killings in the future.

Good luck with the teaching and writing, we still need to meet up one day!