Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Memories of Nasser, Syria and Cyprus

It is one of the ironies of life that many of us would only appreciate our parents or grandparents the older that we get. There are so many things that I would like to have spoken about with my grandfather and so many things I would have liked to share with him or ask him, but when he died I was far away and still more interested in chasing skirts - not that anything has changed - and partying than I was in sitting with some old man and talking religion, politics or just about life in general. Still, thankfully I still have my father and last night we had the longest conversation we have had in years over the phone, where he reminisced about life in Syria as he was growing up. He told me of the times when Nasser would stand on the balcony of the old official visiting palace, that one behind the Meridien when school children would stand outside and shout "بدنا كلمة يا ناصر" (We want a word oh Nasser). Sometimes he would oblige them and come out to wave - to their delight. My father saw him do this about three times.

Nasser is problematic for my father. On the one hand, he did much which was amazing, but he failed spectacularly in others. My late grandfather had been, along with many men in Syria, furious that Nasser hung Sayyid Qutb in 1966. I had never known that my grandfather liked Sayyid Qutb, or that he had the entire "In the Shades of the Qur'an" collection which he would read studiously when he had the time. In other areas, Nasser was instrumental in splitting Yemen in two. Nasser was vigorously against monarchism, but ironically Egypt's Mubarak today is grooming his son for power. In fact many parts of the Arab world that had intense nationalist and anti-monarchical sympathies are now "Presidential monarchies". See Libya, where Mu'ammar al Qadhafi uprooted the Sanussi King and is now preparing his son to rule, Syria has done the same and Iraq was on the same road before the toppling of Saddam. So nothing really changed in the Arab world with regards to monarchism, it has remained albeit under a different guise.

My father reminisced about how, in the eighties, the Arabs were accusing the Soviet Union of easing Jewish immigration to Israel at a time when the USSR was supposed to be our ally. He and another person from the embassy in Cyprus would go to Larnaca airport to watch planes from the Soviet Union disembarking, and count how many people in traditional Jewish garb would come down from the plane. At the same time, Mossad would be in the airport watching them, and the Syrians watched the Mossad and they both avoided each other. Apparently the Mossad people were known because they always carried little bags which when thrown to the ground would open and reveal a sub-machine gun. My father noted that these people would always move away from him quickly and worriedly whenever he approached, this was funny simply because in those days my father's usual apparel was a pair of flipflops, shorts, an open shirt to show off the typical hirsute Middle Eastern chest and a cap. So they would stay at the airport and try to profile these passengers, then send off a report.

In those days the Embassy was involved with many things, I remember coming to play there in the eighties when I was old enough to walk there on my own. The Greek policemen there all new me and were friendly and I remember a wonderful man there whom I would call Amo Abu Tareq. He was an incredibly erudite man, dark skinned with a handsome face, always immaculately dressed, and he always had time for me. He would call me his buddy and when I visited I would go sit in his office and we would have tea or Coca Cola and talk about things. He gave me a plant as a present once and I was so upset when it died a few months later in spite of my best efforts. He disappeared one day and I never saw him again. Many years later I would be told by my father that he was "summoned" for some reason back to Damascus and was imprisoned. Nobody heard from him again and I don't know if he is still alive today. Apparently he knew what his fate would be and was warned, but he told my father that he was not a coward and that he was a Syrian. Very sad story.

There was a man at that embassy who I was also friends with, it turns out he had certain "security" connections. He once gave my father a canary and my father joked with him that he wanted him to take it back. On being asked why, my father told the man that every time people started talking the canary would stop singing and tilt its head to the side to listen. The man laughed intensely. On another occasion, my father took me with his friends on a day trip to the beach. Barbeque, lots of beer, sun, sand and sea. I felt so grown up because there were no other children and I was with the guys. This man was a great laugh, but he kept annoying me because every few minutes in the car he would ask me "keefak Amo?" (How are you son?) and I would say, I'm good. At the end of the day I got a bit annoyed and when he asked me "Keefak Amo?" I told him "Ahsan Minnak" (Better than you). My father went completely red but everybody in the car roared with laughter, including the man.

One day this man walked into the embassy and walked into a secure locked room used to keep weapons. My father asked him what the matter was and the man told him "Now you'll see how the real men work" as he tucked a pistol behind his back. The next day the news carried a story of a Palestinian operative who was shot dead in Larnaca by two men on a motorcycle. At the time Cyprus was not yet filled with the Russians and the biggest immigrant community were Lebanese or Palestinians. No questions, no answers. This was the murky world of Cyprus in the eighties.

Another thing we recalled was how manky and tiny the flag at the embassy was in the eighties. It was pathetic. One day, all the wives got together and decided to sew a new flag and in a short while, a beautiful big flag was fluttering on its mast. It made such a big change! In a way, times were simpler then, and there was a certain innocence, though my father thinks I say this because I was a child. That some things were just as scummy and rotten then as I think they are now. I'm glad my father and I talked about these things and reminisced. There is still so much I'd like to talk to him about.


Maysaloon said...

Thank you dear Mariam, I do. Many people do not appreciate who they have in their lives until those people are gone.

Anonymous said...

your father seems to be somewhat of a wise man, the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree

Maysaloon said...

Thank you Meli, you're too kind though we both know this apple has rolled around a fair bit before settling! I dream of talking like this to my kids one day, all three of them.

Maysaloon said...

Well, maybe all six of them if you ask me what I'd really like! :)

Maysaloon said...

Ah yes, I understand what you mean. I assure you my father still tends to treat me like an infant regardless. I don't expect that to change any time soon :)