This is a story about my visit this morning to my friend Abu ‘Imad who owns a shop in Souq al-Jum’a. It is experiences like this that remind me why I love speaking Arabic and why I love living in Syria.

I’ve known Abu ‘Imad for years now, from the time I used to live just up the street from his shop when I first lived here. I know him well, through all the many times he has sat me down in at his shop and served me some tea to enjoy while we chat.

I like Abu ‘Imad a lot, but sometimes I avoid walking past his shop: I’m in a rush, and I don’t want to feel obligated to stop and say hello – while it’s great to know your neighbors, anonymity can also be a glorious thing, I have learned. What’s more, I sometimes feel like I have to hide parts of myself from Abu ‘Imad: he is a devout Muslim, married to a Pakistani-American devout Muslim, and I don’t talk to him about all the girls I hang out with or the haram things I have done and do. He is a tolerant person and would not condemn me, but they are topics that wouldn’t leave us much to talk about.

I try to stop by the shop at least every week or two, to say hi and see what is new. The shop is in the corner of a modern apartment building in the midst of this ancient and active souq. In front of the shop is a separate structure, a small and ramshackle butchery. Sitting at the shop, you can see across the street (now adorned with colorful banners commemorating the prophet Muhammad’s birthday) to an ancient tomb with a beautiful red dome that the Awqaf Ministry has rented out to a shopkeeper selling kitchen staples: pasta, eggs, spices. No one I’ve asked can tell me who is buried there.

Before last year Abu ‘Imad sold yogurts, cheeses and milk but he has now switched to costume jewelry, stick-on tattoos and small gypsum plaques of Quranic verses. Business is slow these days, especially when the weather is cold and in the morning before schools let out. We sit and sip tea; Abu ‘Imad shouts out greetings to passers by that he knows: “Welcome!” “Come on in!”

I have come to expect that Abu ‘Imad always has a story to tell me, and today was no exception. These are not your everyday stories either: despite his relative youth (in his 30s), Abu ‘Imad is a master storyteller, with dramatic shifts in tone of voice, questions to keep the listener involved (“… are you grasping what I’m telling you here?” or “… and what happened next, ya hazrak – can you guess?”), and all kinds of expressions – religious and otherwise – that give his stories such life and power, even if the subject would otherwise be unremarkable. Since I last saw him, he managed to get some foreign Shari’a students out of trouble with the police when they crashed a car they had rented, his partner argued with him and took their costume jewelry and started his own shop on the other side of the city, and a British friend of his wife, studying Islam here, was picked up by the authorities two days ago and until now they don’t know what’s the reason, where she is, and what might become of her. I was relieved that there haven’t been further arguments with his wife – this has been the topic of stories a few times in the past.

“I’ve had a big victory this week, ya Richard,” he told me – and what a brilliant start to a story! I’m intrigued, and, filling my role as active listener, ask “A victory about what? A victory over whom?” This turns out to be the latest in the saga of Abu ‘Imad’s rivalry with the butcher who occupies the dodgy butchery directly in front of the shop. (I can remember Abu ‘Imad joking with me in 2005, during the Hariri frenzy, “Tell your friend Bush about that butcher shop so that when he comes to bomb Syria he can use his fancy bombs to wipe it from the face of the earth!”) This time, it is something about a high court deciding in his favor about the contract that stipulates their (his and the butcher’s) use of that piece of land. This uncovered another story, from years back apparently, that Abu ‘Imad was certain that he’d told me before but he hadn’t. This one started with a scene of drama: while selling some yogurt and milk one evening, up the road walked about 100 policemen, secret police, firemen, fancy-suited officials – “half the whole government” – all looking straight at him and “foaming at the mouth.” His customers ran off and the men stormed into the shop, asking him where is his telephone and where are his electrical outlets. He had no phone, but they started to inspect his outlets, until they were rude and he yelled at them all to get out or explain what was going on. It turns out that there had been a fire at the nearby telephone transmission center (old fuses) that was traced to crossed wires at his shop. The whole center was destroyed, eliminating some 1200 phone lines. It turns out the butcher (“may God not grant him health”) was the one whose wires had caused the fire, but he managed to put the blame on Abu ‘Imad, either intentionally or by registering the phone numbers incorrectly.

The train of this story was interrupted by the passing by of a friend of Abu ‘Imad, who he invited over to have some tea. We made introductions and greetings and then they made small talk. “Are you working these days?” asked Abu ‘Imad. “I’m just going now to work.” “Good, and what are you doing?” “They have me working as an electrician.” “And how much are you getting per day?” “200 lira.” “Nice, 200 lira is a decent amount.” (200 lira is just over $4.) “Have you quit smoking yet?” said Abu ‘Imad. “No, not yet,” replied the friend, “It’s hard, you know. What about you, have you quit?” The friend asked this despite the fact that Abu ‘Imad’s lit cigarette was in his hand. “What, you can’t see me? No, quitting needs patience.” “Yes, it needs patience.” Pause. “Want to have a cigarette?” asked Abu ‘Imad. “If there is one, yes, may God preserve you.”

With a pack of cigarettes at 50 lira, you can see how they would be beyond the friend’s means. The friend was what you would call a simple man, very kind and eager to please. Abu ‘Imad gave him one of the cards with his phone number he had had made for himself a few weeks ago, written in English advertising his services as a tourist guide. (I had been a consultant on making sure the English was correct.) The friend struggled to read Abu ‘Imad’s full name from the card, getting two out of the three names correct. Abu ‘Imad complemented him on his reading and asked, “What year did you get to in school?” “I made it to the 9th but didn’t pass.” “Ok, not bad. Did something happen at that time?” “No, I just didn’t pass. God decided it for me, He is All-knowing, He has planned it for us, and I didn’t pass.” “Yes, God is All-knowing.”

This served as an opportunity to make a transition in the conversation, and the friend offered a story: “I heard about this man in Africa, both of whose parents were Christian, who became a Muslim when his son, who was just one and a half years old, memorized the Holy Quran.” “Really?” “Yes, he memorized the whole thing.” “How did he do that?” “I don’t know, but he did. He could even tell you the verse number and the page number. So right away, his mother and father became Muslims.” “Wow. You don’t know where in Africa, do you?” “No, just in Africa.” “Ma sha Allah – May God’s will be done!” “Yes, may God’s will be done. You know it says in in the Quran,” – and here he quoted a verse that says that Muslims will enter paradise and non-Muslims will enter hellfire.

“What?” shouted Abu ‘Imad with a smile on his face, “May God forgive you!” (You say this phrase when you want to disagree with something someone has said.) “And what about our Christian brother here? Is he headed to hellfire?”

I loved Abu ‘Imad at this moment. If he hadn’t said anything, I wouldn’t have minded much, since I’m used to going along with conversations in which I don’t agree with everything. At times I’m eager to discuss such issues seriously, but at other times (such as when with a person I barely know) it’s easiest just to let things pass.

The friend had assumed I was a Muslim of course. Not only is it is rare to see Christians in that neighborhood, but my fair complexion, when not plausibly Arab as it sometimes is, is unremarkable in an area filled with foreign Muslims from around the world studying Shari’a and Quran. Furthermore, throughout this whole conversation the few words I’d spoken had been in Arabic.

“Really?” he said, “He’s a Christian? You’re a Christian?” Yes, we replied. “Well, I’m sorry – I didn’t mean that – well, you know …” He was obviously very embarrassed and flustered, and he immediately apologized to me, yet Abu ‘Imad was eager to give him a good-natured hard time about it. The friend tried to change what he had said, saying something about Ahl al-Kitab and how it might possible for them to go to paradise. “Now wait a minute,” said Abu ‘Imad, “don’t try that, you just said that non-Muslims would go to hellfire, and now you’re changing what you said. I don’t like my friends to talk like this and then like that – I like them to talk direct! What do you mean?”

“Don’t take offence, brother, but what can I say, that’s what the verse from the Quran says, what can I do about it?” “So that means our brother Richard here is going to hellfire –“ “His name is Richard?” “—and it also means my grandmother is going to hellfire too, huh?” “Your grandmother?” “Yes, my grandmother was a Christian.”

I had known about this but forgotten: Abu ‘Imad’s grandparents are from the Balkans, his grandfather a Muslim and his grandmother a Christian. According to Abu ‘Imad, when a Muslim man marries a Christian woman, it is her choice to convert or not, and his grandmother did not.

Abu ‘Imad countered the friend’s assertion with other support from the Quran and the Hadith: that Christians and Jews will also enter paradise if they follow their prophets (who are also prophets within Islam). “How,” he asked, “can we expect a good Christian to be kept out of paradise while you have so many Muslims here on the street stealing and lying?” He then told some stories about his grandmother – that she was always true to her religion and also respected her husband’s and children’s religion. She would even have alcohol and pork in the house, for example, but she wouldn’t allow her children to have any, since they were Muslims. He told about her funeral with a crowd the size of which “a priest could only dream about” – Muslims and Christians all crowded in there on top of one another to remember this beloved woman. “And you’re telling me she hasn’t gone to paradise!”

What hasn’t come across in my account of was how this situation was at the same time a real argument about religion and yet hilarious and lighthearted – Abu ‘Imad and I were constantly laughing as this all happened. Abu ‘Imad was extremely amused by the poor friend’s embarrassment at having told me that I was on my way to hellfire, and yet at times he also seemed to be really asking: would my grandmother possibly not be in paradise because she wasn’t a Muslim? In addition to the friend’s flusteredness, I was amused by the whole situation because of where I had been earlier that morning: Abu ‘Imad and the friend couldn’t have known just how appropriate this discussion was.

I had just been at my friend Kate’s house, where we were reading and memorizing Quran together. No doubt an unusual activity for two kafirun – some other kafir friends wonder why we would do such a thing, and some Muslim friends would certainly disapprove (if we told them), fearing that we would not treat the holy book with proper respect. By their standards we probably aren’t respecting it properly, but I think our motives are sound: learning Arabic (the Quran is, after all, the most perfect Arabic around), practicing our recitation, and learning more about Islam. We both also happen to have a penchant for memorizing things.

Kate and I wondered, as we said goodbye, how this activity would stack up for us on the Day of Judgment if it turns out that Islam really is the way. Would we get plus points for knowing the fatiha and a few other suras, or would we get minus points for not doing wudu’ properly before touching the Quran and, what’s worse, for rejecting the true path even after being exposed to it?

And here I was, just half an hour later, discussing with a friend and a stranger where I, as a Christian, would be headed in the afterlife. The friend acknowledged that maybe non-Muslims could go to paradise, or maybe that the interpretation of the verse is that those non-Muslims who go to paradise become Muslims by the time they get there, even if they were non-Muslims during their lives. And in the end, I made sure to point out (and everyone agreed) that it isn’t for us to decide: “Allahu a’lam (God is the Most-knowing).”

The friend made a comment about Jews all going to hellfire, and Abu ‘Imad, not missing an opportunity to mess with him, said, “Oh, we didn’t tell you: Richard is a Jew.” This nearly gave the poor guy a heart attack: “What? Are you a Jew or a Christian?” At this point Abu ‘Imad was laughing so hard he was crying – the simple seriousness of the man was so evident, he really worried that he’d stuck his foot in his mouth a second time. We cleared things up, laughing all the while, and the friend took his leave and went his way.

As he laughed, Abu ‘Imad said how much he likes that man: “He’s a good man, a simple man.” “But seriously,” I asked Abu ‘Imad once the laughter had subsided, “what about the Jews?” Abu ‘Imad explained his position, and how the issue has become mixed up in politics: For those Jews who are Zionists, in Palestine killing people and kicking people off their land, they will certainly end up in hellfire like anyone who does such things to innocents. “But a Jew who is living, going about his own life, following his religion – I have no issue with him, surely he could go to paradise.”

With that episode over, Abu ‘Imad was able to finally finish his story about the butcher, the police, the fire in the telephone center, and the court’s decision – it resulting in a victory for him. He filled up our tea glasses once again. Omar, Abu ‘Imad’s 12 year old son-in-law, came by asking for money to go buy some bread for the house. I like the ever-smiling Omar, born and raised in Baltimore, and he seems to like me. After a few years here his Arabic is perfect but he likes to speak English with me and I’m glad to oblige. Then Hasan, a neighbor who manufactures the gypsum Quran plaques that Abu ‘Imad sells, came by to discuss with Abu ‘Imad in hushed voices the case of the British woman who has disappeared, and what they could do to find out about her situation.

I had to be on my way so I took my leave: “Daime ‘al-shay – thanks for the tea. In sha Allah (God willing) I’ll see you soon.” “You’re welcome. Stop by more often, brother!” urged Abu ‘Imad. “Yes, definitely, in sha Allah,” I replied, and I really meant it.

“To paradise, in sha Allah!” said Abu ‘Imad with a wide smile on his face, eyes full of laughter. “Yes, in sha Allah,” I replied, “Allahu a’lam.”

I wrote an article about hip hop in Syria for the January issue of Syria Today, an English-language magazine that is published here in Syria. I have done an Arabic translation here for the people involved who don’t read English.

الهيب هوب في سوريا

إذا سُئل ياسر جاموس، وهو مغنٍّ موسيقى الـ راب (rap) في دمشق، لماذا يقوم بممارسة وأداء نوع موسيقي أمريكي، فإنه يجيب على السؤال بطريقة تتحدّي أساس هذا السؤال: “طبعاً جاء الراب من أمريكا ولكننا أضفنا شيئاً إليه هنا، وإننا استوردنا فكرة الراب لكننا غيّرناها وطبّقناها علينا وعلى وضعنا الخاص.”

إن جاموس عضو فرقة لاجئي الراب، إحدى فرق موسيقى الراب ضمن مجتمع الـ هيب-هوب (hip-hop) الصغير والنامي في سوريا. ففي الوقت الذي يختلف فيه بعض مغني الراب (رابرز – rappers) وراقصي الـ بريكدانس (breakdance) في هذا المجتمع مع بعضهم في طبيعة الهيب-هوب، فإنهم يؤكّدون بأن ما يقومون به يختلف اختلافاً حاسماً عن مصدر إلهامه الأمريكي وأنه يوفّر لهم طريقة تعبير عن أنفسهم لا مثيل لها.

انتشرت (ثقافة الهيب-هوب)، وضمنها غناء الراب ورقص البريكدانس، من مصدرها انطلاقاً من مدينة نيويورك أواخر السبعينيات إلى كل أنحاء العالم. حالياً تظهر موسيقى هيب-هوب مميزة في بلدان عربية لا تستثنى سوريا منها ففي كل محافظة سورية هناك رابرز ففي دمشق يمكن أن نرى رابرز من مناطق وبيئات متنوعة.

غالباً ما يجتمع ياسر جاموس وفرقته، بما فيهم أخوه الأصغر محمد، في غرفة صغيرة في بيته في مخيم اليرموك حيث يسجّلون أغنيات تدريبية على الكمبيوتر ويتناقشون عن مستقبلهم ويشربون الشاي. وفي جزء آخر من دمشق قرب ساحة العباسيين في أستوديو تسجيل يلتقى أعضاء فرقة (شام أم سيز)، و(أم سيز) هو اسم يشير إلى الرابرز، ويرتجلون كلمات بالعربية مع إيقاع مكرر. وجنوباً في نادي رياضي في قبو في ضاحية السيدة زينب يتمرن بضعة شباب على حركات للبريكدانس دائرين وقافزين على بساط الجمباز. بالرغم من أن البريكدانس ممارسة غير لغوية فإنّ الراقص أيمن الدالي يجد فيه طريقة للتفريغ حيث يقول: “أحس كأنني مالك الكون وأنا أرقص بريكدانس. سواء كنت حزيناً أم فرحاً، ضجراً أم يائساً، عندما أرقص أنسى كل هذا.”

كلام من القلب
تعرف بديع عيسى، وهو رابر ومؤلف في فرقة شام أم سيز في الحادي والعشرين من عمره، إلى موسيقى الهيب-هوب وهو في الصف السادس عندما عرض صديق له فيديوكليب للرابر الأمريكي أمِنَم (Eminem) فعلّق على ذلك: “طار عقلي فيها مع أنني لم أكن أعرف الإنجليزية حينذاك. فهمت أنه يتكلم عن بوضوع هام من أعماق قلبه وأحسست كأنّ الأغنية تُرجمت لي مع أني لم أفهم كلمة.” أصبح منذ ذلك اليوم مهووساً بأصوات الهيب-هوب الأمريكي وأسلوبه إلى حدٍ يعتبره عيسى ساذجاً للغاية اليوم. “لما بدأنا نستمع إلى موسيقى الراب لم يكن لدينا خارطة عمل لنستدل بها فقلدنا كل ما عملوه.”

بعد أن أخذ بديع يكتب كلمات لأغنياته الخاصة بالعربية بدأ يشك بأن تنزيل البنطلون الذي مارسه من قبل جزء من رسالة الراب. أصبح الآن يرفض الفكرة بأن لبس الطاقية المقلوبة للخلف هو الذي يجعل الشخص رابر. إن بعض الرابرز في سوريا يلبسون بأسلوب يُعرفون به كـ(رابجية) بينما لا يتميز شكل البعض الآخر عن أسلوب الشاب السوري العادي.

في الوقت الذي بدأ فيه الرابرز يعيدون النظر في أسلوب الهيب-هوب، بدأوا كذلك يعيدون التفكير في مضمون موسيقى الراب في سوريا. يؤكّد عيسى أن فرقة (شام أم سيز) أصبحت تحاول ابتكار شيء “من أجلنا ومن أجل سوريا ومن أجل شباب سوريا وأرض سوريا … شيء له هوية الخاصة.”

مفهوم (الراب السوري) عند فرقة (شام أم سيز) يعني أغنيات فيها ألحان مبتكرة ذات جذور عربية وكلمات تعالج قضايا تهم السوريين بما فيها قضية صعوبة العلاقات الاجتماعية في سورية أو قضية مرور الزمن. لأن (شام أم سيز) لا يريدون حصر جمهورهم، فهم يغنّون بالإنجليزية إضافةً إلى العربية ليجذبون متابعي الراب الأمريكي.

كما يؤكد أعضاء فرقة (لاجئي الراب) ممارستهم لأسلوب محلي ولكن يسمّونه راب عربي لا ينقسم بالقوميات، “فلا يوجد راب سوري منفصل،” قال جاموس. إن هذا الموقف متوقعٌ من فرقة متكونة من فلسطينيَين وسوريَين وجزائري واحد تربوا كلهم في مخيم اليرموك. “بالنهاية نريد توصيل موسيقانا إلى كل العالم ولا نريد محادثتهم باللغة الإنجليزية بل نريد أن يسمعونا بالعربية ويتساءلوا: عمَ يتكلم هؤلاء الشباب؟ ماذا يشغلهم؟” يتضمن مفهوم (الراب العربي) عند لاجئي الراب أغنيات ذات مواضيع هامة ومحلية: الفقر وقضية فلسطين والعنف في المجتمع.

بغض النظر عن التسميات المختلفة، لا يعتبر الرابرز في سوريا موسيقاهم ثورة ضد الجيل السابق بل يقول أيهم النادر، من فرقة لاجئي الراب: “إننا نبذل جهوداً لنجذب الكبار بالإضافة إلى الشباب بمعالجتنا لقضايا تهمهم في أغنياتنا.” لبديع عيسى من فرقة (شام أم سيز) حلمٌ أكثر طموحاً: “أتمنى يوماً ما عندما يسأل السوري إلى ماذا يستمع فإنه يجيب: أستمع إلى جورج وسوف وفيروز وشام أم سيز. من المفترض أن هذا يكون شيئاً طبيعياً.”

العمل على نشر الهيب-هوب
ولكن في الوقت الحالي فإن اهتمام الرابرز منصبّ على مهمة إسماع موسيقاهم للعامة من السوريين وهي مهمة صعبة في بلد ليس لديه صناعة موسيقية وأهم وسيلة توزيع فيه هي القرصنة. يسجل الرابرز ألبوماتهم على حسابهم الخاص وتنتشر أغنياتهم بالتناقل بين الناس والإنترنت والتوزيع على المستوى الصغير. ولأنه لا يوجد رعاة للحفلات الرسمية فإن حفلاتهم النادرة تقتصر على النوادي الليلية. يشتغل الرابرز وراقصو البريكدانس في وظائف أو يدرسون في الجامعة أو يخدمون في الجيش أي في ظروف تجعل التمرن والتسجيل والأداء أمراً صعباً.

والأصعب من كل ذلك إشكالية التلقي فأغلبية السوريين لا ينظرون إلى الهيب-هوب كوسيلة تعبير وإنما يعتبرونه سخافة مراهقين أو تقليد للغرب أو عبادة للشيطان. يشتكي عيسى: “أصبحت كلمة (راب) مرتبطة بكلمة (نادي ليلي) بالرغم من أنه يجب ألا يكون هناك أي ربط بين الكلمتين.” يتجنب راقص البريكدانس أيمن الدالي النوادي الليلية لأنها تعطي البريكدانس سمعة سيئة. “في النادي الرياضي بإمكانك أن تكون راقص بريكدانس محترم.”

بالرغم من هذا التحفظ حول النوادي الليلية فإن هذه النوادي هي الأمكنة التي تطلب فيها حفلات الهيب-هوب الآن فخلال عطلة عيد الأضحى الشهر الماضي أدّت فرقة لاجئي الراب بعض أغنيات الراب بين مقاطع موسيقى أخرى في نادٍ ليلي محبوب في المزة. بينما انتظرت الفرقة دورها في البرنامج، كان جاموس قاعداً ساكتاً عند طاولة وهو ينظر إلى الجمهور الصغير المتحمس يرقص على الإقاع النابض وتحت الأضواء المومِضة بعيداً كل البعد عن غرفته في مخيم اليرموك. عندما حان دورهم وقف أعضاء الفرقة بجانب الخشبة وغنّوا بجاذبية .كان الراقصين يهزون رؤوسهم ويرفعون أيديهم إلى الأعلى يردون بحماسة أكبر للأغنيات التي تشبه الراب الأمريكي وفيها بعض الكلمات الأنجليزية.

إن تأسيس مجال في سوريا للهيب-هوب كوسيلة تعبير محترمة سيكون مهمة صعبة للرابرز وراقصي البريكدانس السوريين ولكن حسب قول جاموس يوجد أمل في استماع الناس لكلمات موسيقاهم فلقد كان أبوه يفكر أن هواية أبنائه هي مضيعة للوقت فقط حتى استمع بالصدفة إلى أغنية للفرقة عن موضوع فلسطين. قال جاموس، “سابقاً كان يظن أن الراب عبارة عن مخدرات ومسدسات ونواد ليلية لكن بعدما استمع إلى الأغنية واستوعب كلماتها بدأ يشجعنا والآن هو يسألنا: بماذا تشتغلون حديثاً؟

Since I’m on an Obama kick, I might as well get it all out there. Here are are some translation/summaries of articles about Obama’s inauguration in the Syrian press that I did just after the fact. Best line:

Because we are rational, we must judge that Obama will not erase what is called the state of Israel from the map, he will not bring to life the martyrs of Gaza, he will not heal her wounded sons, nor will he return Baghdad to its previous secure era, nor will he erase from the memory of Syrians how his American army killed civilians in Albukmal, because, in all simplicity, he is Barack Obama and not the Awaited Mahdi nor Jesus the savior son of Mary.

The link is to the blog of a website called Meedan where I’ve done some work helping with their beta testing. The idea is to translate news between the Arabic- and English-speaking worlds, and foster dialogue. Cool.

Despite the conventional wisdom among media commentators that Obama’s inaugural address wasn’t as inspirational as expected, I thought it was a great speech. Sure, it didn’t build up to a big emotional climax, but a good piece of oratory doesn’t necessarily need that. Unlike our former president, this man can form sentences that are not only complete and grammatical, but also that express intriguing and compelling ideas in an innovative way that makes us rethink the way we’ve thought something before. I love it.

The ideals and values that Obama expresses in this speech are ideals I want to consider my own, they are ideals that push towards the universal, ideals that inspire me:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

What especially amazes me throughout the whole speech is Obama’s ability to skillfully link the universal with the particularly American. In the passage above, the God-given promise is phrased as a universal (“all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness”), yet it is also a particularly American concept: it is our nation’s enduring spirit, with phrasing echoing the Declaration of Independence. America’s values are humanity’s values; humanity’s values are America’s values.

But this connection is not just on a level of ideas and ideals: Obama’s America will be the enactor of those ideals to the world:

And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.

This sounds great on paper, but growing up with eight years of Bush has left me permanently skeptical of governments claiming to be acting on the basis of ideals. Obama makes clear, however, that his approach is not one of ideals for ideals sake but rather that “our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

Yet we still must ask: is it possible in reality for the US to be a friend to everyone everywhere, assuming for the moment that they truly want to be? Could any nation do this, be an example and leader of universal ideals in the world? What about that nation’s particular interests? And what about differences in perception about who is and who is not seeking peace and dignity?

Obama’s answer to such questions is that the barriers that divide us are surmountable, and that it is America’s job to lead the world to that end:

And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

Although I desperately want to join Obama in believing that the old hatreds shall indeed someday pass, recent events have got me feeling that this is not very likely any time soon. Evidence for the extreme difficulty of shifting our allegiance from the interests of tribe to the interests of humanity can be found within Obama’s speech itself. Look at the sentence that refers to terror:

And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, “Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

I commend Obama for trying to use the word terror in the “lower-case t” sense rather than the “upper-case T” senses of the word, since it offers the possibility of escaping Bush’s mastery of our language of threat. Yet that word still triggers all sorts of associations and it is clear exactly who he means.

But if we step back from the associations that the passage arouses in us, Obama has given us a pretty solid definition of terrorism: inducing terror and slaughtering innocents as a means to advance aims. Whether or not we leave behind the word terrorism, with all its vagueness and Bush-era associations, we can agree that what Obama describes is a bad thing.

Looking at the Gaza conflict, Hamas’s rockets are certainly killing of innocents as a means to advance aims, but what about Israel’s airstrikes that killed, wounded and displaced so many thousands? As a reference I’ll use a New York Times “news analysis” about the post-conflict outlook in Gaza, since it cannot be written off as a source that is sympathetic to Palestinians. (If you’re not convinced of that, look at the first paragraph of this article: it mentions only destroyed buildings and fails to mention any destroyed lives.) The article asks,

Have three weeks of overpowering war by Israel here weakened Hamas as Israel had hoped, or simply caused acute human suffering?

The author notes that Israel’s stated aim was deterrence of further Hamas rocket attacks, and it is certainly fair to ask whether this succeeded. Yet the question as stated above, contrasting “weakening Hamas” with “human suffering,” falsely represents Israel’s strategy as the author outlines it later in the article:

Hamas wants to keep ruling in Gaza, not return to its previous role as a pure resistance movement. Therefore, Israeli officials say, an offensive that caused average people to suffer put pressure on Hamas in real and specific ways.

In this telling of Israel’s reasoning, the human suffering is not an unfortunate side effect of the weakening of Hamas but rather it is the tool to weaken Hamas. While the author acknowledges that most Gazans will only feel more antagonism towards Israel in response to this, he is mildly optimistic that maybe this strategy was successful:

There are, however, limited indications that the people of Gaza felt such pain from this war that they will seek to rein in Hamas.

So this understanding of Israel’s strategy is that it is to make “average people” “suffer” and “feel pain” to such a degree that they will “put pressure on” and “seek to rein in Hamas.” Sound familiar? Obama’s phrasing, “advancing aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents,” seems to fit perfectly.

Yet we know, from Obama’s statements of support for Israel’s right to defend itself that he would not dare to categorize the actions of its army as terroristic. Rather, we hear the same refrain: they have a right to defend themselves; Hamas rockets against Israel are intolerable. Yes, but if we’re talking about rights to self-defense and innocent civilians, what about what just happened in Gaza?

Obama is now offering rhetoric about the conflict that is more sympathetic to the Palestinians than his predecessor, but still without offering a word of criticism for Israel. At his announcement of a Middle East Envoy a few days ago he said, “Just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so, too, is a future without hope for the Palestinians.” We can be relieved that he’s acknowledging deprivation on the Palestinian side, but why can’t bombs aimed at innocent Palestinians, be just as intolerable as rockets aimed at innocent Israelis? Why is that never mentioned?

The inconsistency in Obama’s rhetoric about the Gaza conflict is just one example of how hard it will be to realize his vision of America leading the world in acknowledging our common humanity. Invocation of universal values rings hollow when they are not applied universally – this is true in Obama’s speech and also true among partisans on either side of the conflict who trumpet human rights and the Geneva conventions, but only for the good guys (us) and not for the bad guys (them). The lines of tribe are still very strong indeed.

What Obama does so remarkably is to link the values of universal rights and goals with the values and history of America, a nation which is, in the end, another sort of tribe. In his speech he honored those who “traveled across oceans in search of a new life,” and those who “settled the West” – without mentioning those who were displaced and killed for these newcomers, our predecessors. I am not accusing Obama of simplifying or idealizing America’s often brutal history, for he would not be one to do that. Yet for all his calling upon universal values, he still speaks from a profoundly particular, local standpoint – a fact that is easy to notice with Gaza on the mind.

I have not, however, written off Obama as just a more glamorous and more convincing advocate for the same old US interests and policies in this region. I was very impressed by Obama’s comments during an interview on Al-Arabiyya today. He showed some real understanding and empathy for people in the Muslim world, making me more optimistic than I was when I started writing this post. I especially liked his comment that he would make sure to listen to everyone involved, not just dictate. And he said it best during the interview: “But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration’s actions.” We will have to wait and see whether Obama’s rhetoric about Israel and Palestine will ever catch up with his rhetoric about universal ideals, and whether any of all this talk will have results.

The reality of Obama’s term will probably be inconsistent, and it will be difficult to judge his words and actions. With Bush it was so easy to say, “Oh, he’s just stupid and he doesn’t care about anyone, let alone the rest of the world, so no wonder he is inconsistent.” Obama has made it much more complicated for those of us who are very impressed by so much of what he says, yet not willing to embrace him fully as the politician who can do no wrong.

[Updated below]

As the double unilateral ceasefires start to take hold in Palestine, the world’s attention can now fully turn without guilt to Barack Obama’s inauguration. (Coincidental timing? Hmm… Get in your destruction before Bush leaves.) I suppose I’ll do my part to add to the media/blogosphere frenzy by offering up two choice Obama tidbits from this corner of the world. Enjoy.

The Syrian newspaper Al-Watan (the homeland) has been flamboyantly counting down until January 20th. On each of the five days a week that they publish, they give more space on their front page to the countdown than they do to the name of their newspaper; they’ve been at it at least since my arrival here a week after the election in November. One exception was when Gaza earned a full-page color picture spread. Is this countdown an example for the world’s excitement about the arrival of the transformational candidate, Barack Obama? Well, not quite…

My on-and-off collection of Al-Watan since mid-December

My on-and-off collection of Al-Watan since mid-December

"12 days until Bush's departure from the White House - humanity has an appointment with a new dawn."

"12 days until Bush's departure from the White House - Humanity has an appointment with a new dawn."

[Don’t forget to notice the picture below of the dead child in Gaza, who chances are you didn’t see if you were watching or reading American news.]

At one level the text and picture are pretty hilarious, like many things relating to our almost-former president, but at another level it is a pretty good measure of people’s sentiment here. The focus is on Bush: everyone is very, very glad to see him on the way out and there’s a feeling that no one could have been any worse for, for Arabs, for Islam, for the region, for the world, etc. I interpret the part about the new dawn as a negative statement about Bush rather than a positive statement about Obama. Some people I’ve spoken to are optimistic, to different degrees, about Obama, but usually that optimism comes back to Bush: It’s easy to be optimistic when you’re starting from far below zero.

Combined with that optimism is usually some kind of caution: لسّا ما بيّن “He still hasn’t shown himself.” Sometimes people mention fondly the Clinton years, hoping that Obama could be like Clinton. I’m always surprised at the degree to which Clinton is popular among Arabs – apparently his charisma translates – because in terms of Palestine, he was always vehemently pro-Israel, just as his wife and Obama are today. The people who are not so optimistic about Obama are interested enough in the Palestinian issue to know that fact full well. But Clinton did visit Syria, which probably made him irrevocably beloved here. An Obama visit here could potentially seal the deal, but we can acknowledge that making some Syrians like him is not at the very top of his list.

Speaking of Obama’s priorities, last month I received an email forward of a poem by Egyptian poet Ahmad Matar about that very issue, narrated in Obama’s voice no less. Below is the poem and my translation – the translation is of course missing the rhymes and sounds which make the original especially hilarious:

للشاعر أحمد مطر

مِن أوباما
لِجَميعِ الأعرابِ شُعوباً أو حُكّاما

قَرْعُ طَناجِرِكُمْ في بابي

أرهَقَني وَأطارَ صَوابي
(افعَل هذا يا أوباما
اترُك هذا يا أوباما
أمطِرْنا بَرْداً وسَلاما
يا أوباما.
وَفِّرْ للِعُريانِ حِزاما!
يا أوباما.
خَصِّصْ للِطّاسَةِ حَمّاما!
يا أوباما.
فَصِّلْ للِنَملَةِ بيجاما !
يا أوباما)
قَرقَعَة تَعلِكُ أحلاماً
وَتَقيء صَداها أوهَامَا
وَسُعارُ الضَّجّةِ مِن حَوْلي
لا يَخبو حتّى يتنامى.
وَأنا رَجْلُ عِندي شُغْلٌ
أكثَرُ مِن وَقتِ بَطالَتكُمْ
أطوَلُ مِن حُكْمِ جَلالَتِكُمْ
فَدَعوني أُنذركُمْ بَدءاً
كَي أحظى بالعُذْر ختاما:
لَستُ بِخادمِ مَن خَلَّفَكُمْ
لأُسِاطَ قُعوداً وَقياما.
لَستُ أخاكُمْ حَتّى أُهْجى
إن أنَا لَمْ أصِلِ الأرحاما.
لَستُ أباكُمْ حَتّى أُرجى
لأكِونَ عَلَيْكُمْ قَوّاما.
وَعُروبَتُكُمْ لَمْ تَختَرْني
وَأنا ما اختَرتُ الإسلاما!
فَدَعوا غَيري يَتَبَنّاكُمْ
أو ظَلُّوا أبَداً أيتاما!
أنَا أُمثولَةُ شَعْبٍ يأبى
أن يَحكُمَهُ أحَدٌ غَصبْا
و نِظامٍ يَحتَرِمُ الشَّعبا.
وَأنا لَهُما لا غَيرِهِما
سأُقَطِّرُ قَلبي أنغاما
حَتّى لَو نَزَلَتْ أنغامي
فَوقَ مَسامِعِكُمْ.. ألغاما!
فامتَثِلوا.. نُظُماً وَشُعوباً
وَاتَّخِذوا مَثَلي إلهاما.
أمّا إن شِئتُمْ أن تَبقوا
في هذي الدُّنيا أنعاما
تَتَسوَّلُ أمْنَاً وَطَعاما
فَأُصارِحُكُمْ.. أنّي رَجُلُ
في كُلِّ مَحَطّاتِ حَياتي
لَمْ أُدخِلْ ضِمْنَ حِساباتي
أن أرعى، يوماً، أغناما!

From Obama
To all the Arabs, common folk or rulers:

Your banging of pots at my door
Has worn me out and dispelled my peace of mind…

“Do this, Obama!
Leave that, Obama!
Shower us with alleviation and peace, Obama!
To the naked man, give a belt, Obama!
For the water-cup, fix a bath, Obama!
For the ant, cut out a pair of pajamas, Obama!”

A ruckus like this chews up dreams
And vomits up their echo as illusions;
The frenzy of this hubbub around me
Does not die out until it starts to grow again.

I am a man who has more work to do
Than you have idle time to spend,
Work that is longer than your rulers’ reigns,
So let me warn you from the start
In order that by the end I may be forgiven:

I am not your daddy’s servant
To be whipped, sitting and standing.
I am not your brother to be mocked
If I don’t look out for the relatives.
I am not your father to be implored
That I be guardian over you.
Your Arabness did not choose me
And I did not choose Islam,
So ask someone else to adopt you
Or else stay forever orphans!

I am an exemplar of a people that refuses
To let anyone rule them against their will,
An exemplar of a system that respects the people;
I will, for them and for no others,
Make my heart drip as melodies,
Even if my melodies sound
To your ears like bombs!

So take note, regimes and peoples,
And take my example as inspiration.
But if you wish to remain
In this world as cattle
Who beg for safety and food,
Then I will be honest with you: I am a man
Who, in all the stages of my life,
Have never once put into my consideration
That I would, one day, herd sheep.

The poem ends up taking a rather harsh stance about Arabs (for whom the poem is intended), and paints the new president in a certain kind of favorable light, without passing judgment on him too decisively. Yet I think the poet has captured well Mr. Obama’s tone: his calmness and coolness in the face of the whole world banging their pots at his door.

One point that I’m afraid the translation didn’t quite get across: the phrase “idle time” could also mean “unemployment time,” meaning that Arabs have a lot of unemployment, just as their leaders rule for a long time – but Obama has more to do than even those very big, long things.

A line that expresses a fear of mine is the bit about chewed up dreams coming out as illusions. Despite having my doubts about him from the beginning and all along the way, I supported Obama in his campaign, voted for him, and was truly moved and inspired the night that he was elected. I know that many of my wishes for his presidency will not come true, I’m just hoping they don’t all end up as illusions.

My favorite section is this:

I will, for them and for no others,
Make my heart drip as melodies,
Even if my melodies sound
To your ears like bombs!

First of all, I love the image of Obama’s oratory skills as “making his heart drip as melodies,” since that’s just how it is to my ears: I am a sucker for that man’s melodious words. Secondly, the Arabic original is very clever: the words “melodies” (anghama) and “landmines” (alghama) – which I translated as “bombs” – have such similar sounds, in addition to their rhyming with Obama’s name, just like most lines of the poem.

When I first translated this, I thought that maybe “bombs” was a little too harsh of a word, and I was looking for alternative ways of phrasing it. But then Gaza happened, and I left it as is – the harshness is real, is necessary. Obama’s lack of response to what was happening, excepting his few carefully phrased but meaningless statements, was pretty heartbreaking to me, if not surprising. Indeed, his crafted words were sounding very much like bombs.

So I will watch the inauguration and chances are I will be seduced by whatever Obama says. Yet in the back of my mind, I’ll be thinking of Gaza, of the ongoing occupation in Iraq, of the expanding occupation in Afghanistan, and of readiness to attack Pakistan at will. I am afraid that there will be plenty of bombs in the next four years as in the past four years, yet this time well-disguised as sweet, sweet melodies.

1/19 update: They’ve changed their format for today’s paper, the day before:

"Tomorrow: Obama to the White House and Bush to the garbage can of history - the world has an appointment with a new dawn"

"Tomorrow: Obama to the White House and Bush to the garbage can of history - the world has an appointment with a new dawn"

Gaza in Damascus


At a New Year's Eve vigil in solidarity with Gaza, patriotic songs

At a New Year's Eve vigil in solidarity with Gaza, patriotic songs

The assault on Gaza is continuing into its fourth week, and I am starting to despair here in Damascus.

For a few days now, I’ve urgently felt the need to write about this issue. It’s not that this will necessarily be read by masses and change the course of what’s happening, but the need to express myself, to do something, is strong at a time when I’m feeling such powerlessness – in myself and in the streets around me.

Emotions are running high in Damascus, and I can start with myself. I’ve been glued to the TV whenever I am at home, flipping back and forth between the various news channels. The graphic and gruesome images shown here of the dead, maimed and burned – which largely don’t make it to American news outlets – are stuck in my head all day. It is emotionally exhausting to watch it nonstop – some Arab satellite channels have only Gaza news, 24/7 – but there’s a feeling you can’t turn it off. When BBC or al-Hurra (a channel, by the way, whose American backing is painfully evident in its coverage) put on news about other things, such as life on mars, another bank bailout, or some Virginia congressman, I feel like I’m missing something. As I write, I’ve got Al-Jazeera on mute, looking up from my computer every so often to keep an eye on what’s happening.

Yet the images on TV are only a small part of what is making me despair. There’s also the scope of the tragedy on a basic human level, the fact that it has gone on for so long without anyone being willing or able to stop it, and the active support that my own government – Democrats and Republicans alike – so eagerly offers to justify Israel’s mass killing. This attack and its justification are certainly among the great crimes of our time – when I looked on the New York Times website earlier this week and saw the most recent news about Gaza buried far down on the World News page (it wasn’t on the front page at all), I felt an overwhelming despair.

For anyone who feels that perhaps I’m exaggerating the issue and that perhaps Israel really does have a right to defend itself in this way, please read this article by Glenn Greenwald. In it he very clearly shows how people like Thomas Friedman who justify Israel’s attack are supporters of terrorism, pure and simple, by advocating the deliberate targeting of civilian population to achieve a political goal. The logic of anyone who justifies this attack can only be accepted if one values an Israeli life nearly 100 times more than a Palestinian life – go ahead and check the latest numbers. Put in less gentle terms, justifying this assault is racism. Is that too harsh for me to say? I don’t think so. I’m sure many people must feel bad about what’s happening in Gaza yet are able to excuse it because people on the other side also feel under threat … I beg of us, step back, and ask ourselves what it is that allows us to value one person’s feeling safe as more important than another person’s life. There’s something wrong here.

Here in Damascus, in addition to hearing about the death and the disgraceful international response, the reactions of friends and strangers have affected me intensely. Nearly every conversation and every interaction I have with people here comes back to Gaza, sooner or later. While people have not stopped going about their everyday lives – work, school, exams, shopping – every way you turn there is a reminder of Gaza: posters, near-daily demonstrations, songs about the Arab struggle on the radio, and personal conversations. The most striking thing is the degree to which people, of all different backgrounds and ages, are physically and emotionally shaken by what is going on.

The first conversation that really affected me was with a stranger, a taxi driver while a Syrian friend and I were on a short ride within the city this past Monday. On the radio was a satirical piece mocking the Egyptian government’s cooperation with Israel, which sparked a conversation among us about the aggression. We all spoke about how upsetting it all is, the non-stop onslaught of pictures and trauma. The driver spoke with a raw honesty that touched me deeply, right from the start.

He said that he wasn’t able to sleep the night before. He’d seen the pictures of a little girl whose legs had been severed because of the attack. He has three daughters, he told us, and the sight of the little girl with no legs kept him up all night, put his nerves on edge, and prompted him to take three pills for preventing heart attacks – he showed us the half-empty package. The sight of her, this girl whose childhood has been stolen, made him think of his eldest daughter who is a bride-to-be and was recently fitted for her wedding dress; it made him think of his middle daughter who especially likes to try on new pairs of shoes; it made him think of his youngest daughter, the same age as the one in the picture, who comes to him and says, “let me dance for you, Daddy!”

He was not talking in the way that taxi drivers sometimes do to foreigners, to make a very particular impression on us, and in fact he probably didn’t realize that I was a foreigner at all. He spoke with a despair that sent shivers down my spine. It was as if he was reluctant to say anything at all, but just couldn’t keep it inside, he had to tell somebody of his despair.

Two days later, Wednesday, I was sitting sipping tea in the bedroom of R., one of my rapper friends, in Mukhayam al-Yarmouk. It’s an outlying part of the city that began as a Palestinian refugee camp and still carries the name “camp” and is mostly inhabited by Palestinian refugees – nevertheless, to call it a camp would be a stretch today: it’s built up into apartment buildings like so much of the rest of Damascus, and has the same services and stores as any other part of the city. We were listening to the final mix of a song that they had recorded in solidarity with Gaza on the previous Sunday. It’s called “From the Hearts of Refugees to Gaza,” and can be found on their myspace.

I had been there for the recording session, since the guys had invited me to come along with my video camera so they could use the footage to make a music video. It had turned out to be quite a thrilling evening: we started out in that same bedroom, waiting for all the group members to gather, when we heard shouting and a ruckus from the street below. It was a passing Hamas rally, complete with flags and slogans, condemning the attack and declaring support for the resistance in Gaza. One of the rappers suggested that we go downstairs and film the group joining in the march – it could be appropriate for a video about Gaza. So we did, running to catch up, and then diving into the middle of the crowd to get a couple minutes of jostly footage of them in the midst of it all, before we had to go our separate way to get to the recording studio. Many singers and musicians, both the famous and the not-so-famous (like my friends), have been making songs about Gaza, some of which are now turning up on radio stations that you hear while riding in a servees or taxi.

Wednesday, sitting in the bedroom of R. listening to the song, we were joined by E., another member of the group, an Algerian raised in Syria. He was just stopping by to copy some of their songs onto his flash drive, and he was actually in a rush: he was on his way to take his mother to the hospital. She had been stricken with a nervous condition, just from the constant images and news about Gaza. I didn’t get to learn much more about his mother, but E. himself was clearly not in a good state: His usual joking manner had been replaced by a serious one; a pall was over his tired face. He spoke of the fatigue he felt from watching the news, and expressed his feeling that this was bound to expand into some much wider conflict. He was clearly scared, upset, and unsure about the future.

That is my very clear sense: every indicator, every interaction I have here points to people being deeply emotionally influenced by what is happening, and feeling the need to express that in some way. One interesting example of such an expression is currently on the front window of a branch of “inhouse coffee,” a Syrian coffee shop chain that has done a pretty remarkable job of imitating the look, feel, and taste of Starbucks. They usually plaster their front window with big stylish snowflakes or a phrase such as “it’s a perfect day!”, but now they’ve replaced that with a large spread about Gaza:

Note the colors of the Palestinian flag, the keffiye-pattern background. In the close up below, most of the repeated Arabic words are translated into English except for سلام and حب“peace” and “love” – I wonder whether that omission was purposeful or not. While the exact message of the spread could be debated, it certainly asserts solidarity with the Palestinian victims and the resistance in Gaza. Let this be a lesson for anyone who ever thought that people’s love of American products and styles could foster love for American foreign policy!

As for debunking another false premise, check out these pictures from a rally I attended yesterday, organized by a communist party. Note the flags: mostly hammer and sickle, but also PFLP, Syrian, and Palestinian flags. You can also barely make out the yellow Hezbollah flag with green writing, and the tip of the Venezuelan flag on the right. The big poster reads: “Resistance is our only choice / dignity of homeland and citizen above every consideration.” Speeches from various leftist parties and groups emphasized that they are standing in solidarity with the resistance in Gaza. With the communists and the leftists cheering on islamist Hamas, it is crystal clear that the idea of reducing support for Hamas by attacking them is an absolute illusion.

Hafiz al-Asad looks down over the crowd

Hafiz al-Asad looks down over the crowd

Rally souvenirs: communist bandana, protest literature and a scrap of a burned Israeli flag

Rally souvenirs: communist bandanna, protest literature and a scrap of a burned Israeli flag

Tuesday evening I was walking to meet a friend when I noticed the front window of a mini-market that was plastered with posters about Gaza. These have been going up in various places around the city, but I never saw them as densely as on this particular store. The posters were similar to ones I’ve seen before: they condemn Mubarak of Egypt for being a traitor, suggest that he’s in love with Tzipi Livni, link Israel and the USA with Naziism, praise Turkey and Venezuela for condemning the attacks sharply, condemn the silence and inactivity of the U.N. and other international bodies, praise the resistance and ask, “Who has the right to defend himself?” – among other things. Note on the bottom right: devious Calvin as an Israeli soldier pisses on the U.N. and shits flame onto Gaza.

But what really caught my attention were the printed sheets of paper that had been put up in a few places on the storefront:

This is a first for me after years in Damascus. “Welcome to Syria” is usually the rule of thumb here, and probably the sentence most-heard among Americans here is some variation of, “We don’t like your government, but we love the American people.” So this is really something new, no more than a few days old, and obviously a result of the latest events. First let me say that this does not make me feel less safe here – I’ve been going about my life as usual, with no noticeable difference in the way people treat me. And let’s not forget, the level of safety of Damascus to begin with is incomprehensibly high from an urban American perspective.

I did not initially have a particularly strong emotional reaction to this. Having seen the elevated levels of emotions, passion and distress all around this city, as well as how America (Bush and congress together) supports Israel every step of the way, I can’t say that I was surprised to see the signs posted there. Nevertheless, the fact that this kind of thing is new is an indication of the intensity of emotion here right now.

Two days later, on Thursday, I was hanging out in the same area with a Syrian friend and I asked her to go into the store and find out from the owner what drove him to put the sign up. I knew that going into the store myself would not be a productive encounter, and I felt no need to prove to this guy that I wasn’t the kind of American he thought I was. This is the account she wrote out of her experience:

My mission of asking him was way easier than I imagined, he already was cutting a cartoon of a compass pointing towards Israel with an American flag on the pointer, and telling the other people in the shop about how mad he is because of the world conspiracy against Gaza, a conspiracy that is woven by the United States and Israel with the help of the Arab leaders!

I told him, “I understand why all those photos and slogans, but why did you write that thing about no Americans are welcomed here? They are not all the same, you know, I have some American friends who are mad for the crimes committed in Gaza.” He said, “Don’t believe it, they are all the same, they are the ones who elected Bush for the second time, and if it is true that they consider the war a bad thing, why did they elected him for the second time? I don’t believe that they love us or respect us. And you don’t believe them, do you know the poetry that says:

اذا رأيت نيوب الليث بارزة فلا تظن ان الليث يبتسم

If you see the fangs of a lion showing, don’t think that the lion is smiling.”

And here he told me a story to show he was right; he said: “I know an American woman who lives here in the same building and she used to be nice, but yesterday when she saw the sign she came into the shop, she showed me her passport and said, “I have an American passport and you are a Syrian dog,” so I asked her to leave. See, you can’t trust those people.

“And don’t think that Obama is better than Bush, they are all the same allies of Israel. Do you know that the rockets fired on Gaza are all American money? Do you know that they will cover all Gaza war expenses? I heard an American actress describing us Arabs as terrorists cause we sacrifice sheep in Eid Al-Adha, and she cares so much about animal rights? What about human rights? More than million died in Iraq and now in 19 days more than 1000 died in Gaza, so why is no one speaking now? At least we sacrifice the sheep to feed the poor, but what about them?? What is it they are killing all those people for? This actress spends on her dogs in a month more than a whole family on Gaza does on food!

“Every day all those kids in Gaza are dying and no one cares,” he said, and here the man was almost crying. “You may not know what I am talking about because you don’t know what it’s like to be a parent, but as I watch those children dying, I think of my kids and I think that this could happen to them too, I think of those parents in Gaza who are watching their children dying every day and can’t do anything about it.” As he continued to be almost in tears he told me, “you are telling me that there is different between the American government and the American people, but I am sick of this, I am sick of being the nice good guy with those people. We are good people and our religion tells us that we should have tolerance to all people, but until when we will continue being good and nice to them while their government is killing our brothers in Palestine and Iraq and they are doing nothing about it. If someone would support me, I wish I could go and blow myself up in the middle of a crowd of them.” He said that even though he didn’t do anything to the American woman who called him a dog and just asked her kindly to leave.

As I paid for the cookies I bought he told me, “I only want to tell you to listen to your heart and be honest. Those people are killing us every day, they want to destroy us with our religion, and if we allow them there will be a day when someone will stop you in the street and force you to take off your hijab right here in Syria.”

Although I of course disagree with him that every single American wants to destroy Arabs and Islam, I can find little to fault in his account. What have we, collectively, done to show that we have anything but hard feelings and violence for this region? And he’s right about many of the foreigners who come here – even those with noble motives. Besides the many students of Arabic here who are preparing to join the CIA or the military, so many “do-gooder” types care more about their own projects and their own future than about the people they’re supposed to be helping. As I go about my life here, I’ll try to keep questioning my own activities and interactions: am I acting as the smiling fangs of the lion?

And a note about the parts of this man’s comments relating to the conspiracy woven by Israel and the US. While I am not one to generally buy into conspiracy theories, the connections here do not need imagination or a pre-established anti-Israel bias: The US, under Bush and for decades previously, always supports Israel in these types of operations, even though usually the entire rest of the world is rightly in opposition. Israel buys most of its planes and weapons from the US, and the US gives more military aid to Israel than to any other country. This week, Al-Jazeera has juxtaposed footage of Fallujah in 2004 with footage of Gaza in 2009 in which you can see the same white phosphorous bombs falling over the cities (and their residents). Most US commentators might mock talk of an “American-Zionist Imperialist Plot” in the region, but where is the other plausible story? The narrative of “Israel as the poor victim democracy besieged on all sides” simply does not match with reality. That reality combined with a widespread feeling of common Arab identity makes this man’s narrative very understandable.

Just one more example. Remember that everything narrated in this post happened within the space of the past 5 days.

On Tuesday I met my good friend A., who is an art student of oil painting at the University who works as a freelance photographer in his spare time. We embraced and caught up on each other’s news since it we hadn’t seen each other for a few weeks. A. is a young guy with a wide smile and an amiable disposition. He lived in southern California for his 9th grade of high school, but he’s forgotten most of his English and prefers to speak Arabic anyways. He liked the USA when he was there, but living there also let him appreciate the benefits of Syrian society. Our conversation couldn’t stay away from Gaza for long, especially since we happened to walk past the store with posters and the “no American Citizen” signs.

We spoke of the horror of what is happening in Gaza; we spoke of the emotional fatigue and despair felt from the non-stop images. (So many people I know have been feeling just that!) Like me, he’s been glued to the TV, unable to pull himself away although he’s totally overwhelmed from watching. He said that in the past he has felt numb to the usual stream of grim stories and images streaming in over the news from Palestine and Iraq, but that this time it’s truly different. What’s happening in Gaza, seeing the brutality of the slaughter there and the passivity of the world, is touching him in a truly deep way.

A. said that he’s had a new idea recently. Usually – he reported – the Arabs are all talking, thinking, and working on how to improve their image in front of the world and especially the West – how to convince people that we Arabs are not terrorists, that we don’t ride camels or live in tents, that we are welcoming and friendly. This attack on Gaza, however, has made him think the opposite. It’s the West, it’s you (plural) – he said – who now have to work to improve your image in front of us: you have to prove to us that you are not as monstrous and hypocritical as is clearly shown by Gaza. I agreed with him, that we Americans really do have a lot of work to do, in deed and not just in word, if we want to show people in this region that we do not have a natural tendency towards violence and occupation.

My expression of sympathy towards this viewpoint brought us back to discussing the “No American Citizen” sign on the mini-market window. I wondered aloud whether this kind of sentiment might spread here in Damascus, but A. thought it very unlikely. In fact, the topic prompted him to laugh at the absurdity of the possibility that he, A., would stop answering my phone calls and break off being friends with me because of my nationality. It was another one of those things that an outsider might not imagine possible: how a bright, educated young man can be righteously furious about what’s happening, blame the West and tell his American friend that “you need to do something about this” – yet at the same time not relate that to our friendship, as too young guys with common interests in art, music, and journalism.

Now of course A. and the store-keeper are different people with distinct personalities, different ages and backgrounds, and different dispositions – yet the commonality between their reactions to what is happening struck me powerfully: the repercussions that this assault will have among Arabs in the region are deep and will be long-lasting.

“In the end,” he said, “this conflict doesn’t involve me directly, and I haven’t felt particularly strong about it all my life, until now. This, what’s happening in Gaza, is not the kind of thing that can easily be forgotten. The prospect of coexistence with the people who are doing this seems impossible now.”

I don’t know if there’s much more for me to say than that. Despair is easy to come by these days here in Damascus, despite the fact that we are still very safe here.

I’m imagining some who might respond to this and say, “But he didn’t say anything about the bad things Hamas does!” True, but I did not elect leaders who support everything Hamas does with enthusiasm and without the slightest bit of criticism, and nor do my tax dollars pay for Hamas’s rockets. I directly bear a share of the responsibility for the senseless slaughter that Israel continues to carry out in Gaza. They say that Hamas poses an existential threat to Israelis, but that is only in theory. Israel, on the other hand, poses a very real existential threat to Palestinians: In Gaza, Israeli planes and tanks are rapidly causing Palestinians to cease existing. Please, people, please, we need to take action to change the path that we are on. Talk to everyone you know about it, call your representatives, and be outraged.

1/19 Update: I’ve been thinking a lot about this post I’ve written, responses I’ve gotten from people abroad, and further conversations here about Gaza.  An update and further exploration of the issues is in the works, so check back in after a week to find some more writing.  Please leave comments – the button for it should look like something this: تعليق

1/21 Update:

My further thinking about what I’ve written, combined with some responses I’ve received, have made it clear that I need to explain my own position a little better, besides the fact that there is much more to say about all of these and related issues. I will address some of them here, and expand on others of them in other posts.

I’m sorry that I didn’t make it clearer how my own opinions and positions differ from the people who I quoted. My main idea, in fact, which I should have expressed more directly at the end, was that the sadness, bitterness, and antagonism surrounding me is what makes me despair the most, even more than the deaths of so many. That even among the most open-minded and educated of the Syrians I know, there is a sense that “we can’t live with those people” – this is a true cause for despair. In other words, I do not agree with all that I quoted.

I did not comment critically about what people said for two reasons. I wanted to let people speak for themselves as much as I could, and I also wanted to defend them. When confronted with stances antagonistic towards Israel and the US, a common reflexive response is to dismiss the people who express such positions as extremist, brainwashed, and irrationally hateful. I wanted to show that people who hold such stances are not insane, but rather that their sentiments and positions are based in a reality that is very real but that folks in the US (and elsewhere) don’t get to see. I wanted to let USers empathize with people they wouldn’t otherwise empathize with.

Of course, putting a “no Americans” sign on your shop is a pointless act of antagonism that is based on a vast and false generalization – plus, the shopkeeper should have included Europeans if he’s upset with people whose governments support Israel. Yet regardless of how we judge the man for it (one friend called him ignorant and said he made him ashamed to be Syrian) we need to better understand why he feels so angry. And sorry, it’s not because “he hates freedom,” and in fact his reasons, if exaggerated and simplified, are not utterly false. We do, theoretically at least, carry responsibility for our government and its actions – while I very much appreciate Syrians’ distinguishing Bush and me, they often asserting that the government and the people are utterly distinct, which ends up discounting the legitimacy of our democratic system.

As for the conspiracy theory bit, I do not believe that there is in fact a behind the scenes network of interests out to get the Arabs. But even without this, there is still the fact of American and Israeli economic, military, and tactical coordination and their two occupations of the Arab world: Palestine and Iraq. The fact of US military aid and unwavering diplomatic support for Israel is enough to identify connections between the two, especially in their aggression towards Arab populations, without digging deep or surmising.

This is not to say that all problems in the region stem from Zionism and US imperialism, on the contrary. Indeed, these ideas are often used as excuses for all sorts of less-than-ideal realities here. But we should be able to acknowledge the complexity of the situation: multiple parties deserve blame, and I must take responsibility for which I do carry a partial responsibility – this is another reason why I focused on US responsibility.

Despite all our efforts at empathizing and understanding, however, we’re still left with a situation in which there is a good side (our side) and a bad side (their side), hooray for us, down with them. That this dominant narrative on both sides grows in strength every time something like Gaza happens is truly a cause for despair.

Yet I reject the premise that this is an essentially equal conflict, with two hateful groups going at it just because they hate each other, always have, and always will. I think there is and must be a political solution to the situation, which would have to start with acknowledging its inequalities. Among them are the basic inequality of the occupation, the imbalance in valuing of human lives on either side (in my opinion, this is the real crime of Gaza,) and the inequality of narrative. One side’s good-guy/bad-guy narrative is generally accepted by Western politicians and media (we are a democracy fighting for our freedom and peace, they are terrorists fighting for the destruction of others) while the other side’s good-guy/bad-guy narrative (we are fighting for our freedom and self-determination against an enemy who is fighting to unjustly drive us from our land and take it over) is rarely if ever heard, despite the facts of history which offer plenty of legitimacy to it.

While I believe that we will never all agree on an absolute “right” and “wrong,” about this conflict and about everything else, I am confident – most days – that the path away from despair is through acknowledging the multiple narratives. I think that much of the despair here about Gaza was how thoroughly it proved that no one was listening. Living among that narrative, I felt that feeling of the world standing by, and it hurt. That’s why I felt an urge to write, and with emotion.

Other topics this has got me thinking about, which may become future posts:

– The fundamental challenge of writing about this issue: audiences and tone.
– Obama’s speech and how it relates to Gaza and what I wrote.
– Arabic TV news, its biases and surprises.
– Nationalism/tribalism vs. universalism.
– My own Americanness here in Syria.

1/27 Update:

By the end of the Gaza war, the man at the shop with the posters had increased his signs, adding a couple of ones in handwritten Arabic that were very condemning of Americans. My sister pointed out in the comments that the shop was selling a lot of American products. While it would be generous to view this as comparable to the inhouse coffee example, I think it would also be reasonable to call this hypocrisy: he’s willing to reject American citizens but not American products?

At some point between 1/20 and 1/25, the shop with all the posters was completely cleared of posters and signs. The reason? Not clear. There’s a possibility that someone in authority payed a visit and asked the owner to remove them. Other shops in the vicinity, however, still have some of the same posters up, but without the “no americans” signs. The other possibility is that the outrage ended along with the war. I’ve been a little shocked, actually, at how quickly Gaza furor here has subsided, now that people are no longer dying. Of course the situation is not resolved in any significant way, but for many people here, it’s enough to move on with their lives and forget about it mostly. This deserves further comment as well, but not now.

Around 6:45 pm today I left an internet cafe near Shahbandar Square and called my friend N.  While we were gchatting while she was still at work, she’d said that she might be in the area later.  Now she told me that she was near a demonstration that was happening by the Egyptian embassy over the events in Gaza, and she invited me to join her.

The horrific and ongoing attacks in Gaza have been very much on my mind and in conversations here in Damascus.  I know that this is big news anywhere in the world, but it feels very close here.  I’m not sure how that is exactly, since what happens across borders to the southwest of here usually feels worlds apart – and probably is worlds apart – but the current outrage in Gaza feels close.  (Check this Robert Fisk piece to put some perspective on the news-cycle coverage.)

So far, we’ve had the typical justifications, the typical response from the US, the typical talk from various world leaders.  I find myself wondering whether we’ll be back to the status quo when the current bloodbath ends, or will this time something really change.  I fear that the war will widen, God forbid.

There have been demonstrations all over the world in response, including here in Damascus.  I wanted to go to the one that happened two days ago in a main square, but despite its proximity to where I’m living, I was busy and couldn’t make it.

So today I went to join N who was waiting with our friend O by the Noura bus stop on Abu Rummane St. – just across the street from the Egyptian embassy.  I walked from Shahbandar to Abu Rummane, about a 20 minute walk, past Arnous Square, Sebki park, and Sha’lan St.  This is a very nice part of town – nice in the sense of both “upscale” (though certainly not the most upscale) and “really a pleasure to spend time in” – it is centrally located, there are lots of nifty classic buildings dating to the first half of the 20th century or before, and it is filled with lively (and stylishly dressed) pedestrians late into the night.

The Noura bus stop in Abu Rummane was just about on the edge of the demonstration.  The protesters were gathered on the main street – the crowd filled the street in the direction of Mount Qassiun to the northwest, and dissapated in the opposite direction towards Jisr al-Ra’is (The President’s Bridge).  Although I couldn’t see the whole crowd, we’re talking in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

Along the opposite sidewalk of Abu Rummane street from where we were standing was a long row of riot police, complete with helmets and shields – behind them, further than I could see, was the Egyptian embassy.  The large crows was riled up, chanting slogans but not in conflict with the police.

There were many different kinds of flags… there were Palestinian flags of course, but also communist flags and others.  While we watched, a crowd of guys carrying “Islamic Jihad” banners joined the crowd from the direction of Jisr al-Ra’is.  The diversity of flags can certainly be interpreted as a sign of how widely shared the shock and anger is here in response to the attacks.  Oh, and let’s not forget the Israeli flags which had been drawn on pieces of cardboard: they were burned, first held aloft and then stomped underfoot as they disintegrated.

Now, the popular image of the “angry Arab street” may be making some readers wonder: wasn’t he worried for his safety?  In fact, not at all.  The three of us (a blond American guy with two young women, one veiled and the other not) were just as calm as the people around us: a traffic cop relaxing by his motorcycle, relieved of his duties thanks to the demonstration; two security guards for another nearby embassy chatting with each other about some unrelated topic.  A few feet away from us, a teenager struggled to climb on top of the bus shelter to join the chanting and wave his sign.

We watched for a while, and not much happened.  An adult friend of N’s came by on his way from the center of the protest – he greeted us and was headed home.  Somewhere between 7:30 and 7:45 we decided to go get something to eat – I was hungry and there didn’t seem to be much to see.

We walked back to Sha’lan to go to a place called Boz Jidi.  The name is actually a general term for any little restaurant that sells msabbaha (hummus), foul (fava beans), fatte (delicious bready porridgy stuff), and other traditional foods, but this boz jidi has expanded both in terms of menu (now also serving pizza, fried chicken, etc.) and space: the enlarged back section of the restaurant has been redubbed “Crunchy,” with a downstairs for guys only and the upstairs for mixed company, with the requisite flat screen TVs on every wall.  Despite the expansion, the front of the restaurant that faces the main street of Sha’lan still has its same traditional look, feel and service.

While we ate our fatte and sipped our tea, we kept an eye out for Al-Jazeera on the TV screen behind our table.  N, a Syrian, has been deeply affected by the attacks, and is especially infuriated by the preposterous comments of the US government spokespeople and others: that Hamas is responsible for the deaths.  She complained about her coworkers who were all talking about where they will be spending New Year’s Eve: at which party, what they will wear, drink, etc.  I also find that sort of thing in extremely bad taste at times like these, but N meant something more than just that.  She thought that as Syrians, as people who are members of the same Arab people as those in Gaza, they should not behave like this at such a time.

O, on the other hand, didn’t really care.  She was sad and upset about the attacks, but her Palestinian identity (daughter of a refugee) did not move her or make her feel any particular outrage.  Her reaction was along the lines of: “We can’t do anything about it here, and nothing will change, so why should we get all upset about it?”  She was blase about it to the point that I, the American, was offended.  I mention our nationalities here to make a point: that these identity labels are obviously not the primary factor determining our reactions … so much more than that is going into what shapes people’s response to these events.

We were interrupted from our discussions when N noticed something on the TV screen, whose sound was supplanted by Arab pop music:  “Demonstrators in Damascus try to breach the Egyptian embassy but are stopped by Syrian security forces.”  We had left the demonstration not 45 minutes earlier and we’d missed the action!  Not only that, but it had already made it onto the news.

N said that her friend who’d greeted us on his way home had warned her of this earlier, that there would be a confrontation with the police – and not a spontaneous one.  He predicted that someone important might encourage someone not-so-important to pick a fight or try to break through the police line, starting a scuffle, making a story.  Judging from the news report (I can’t find a confirming link, but I saw it with my own eyes on the screen) that seems to be more or less what happened.

We left the restaurant and walked back towards the place of the protest.  Again, you may be imagining some kind of chaos or panic on the streets, but no.  The waiters at the restaurant were as calm and polite as ever as they bid us farewell.  The main street in Sha’lan – not a three minute walk from the site of the protest – is the place where all the cool kids go, and tonight was no exception.  They were all out there, hanging about as usual, checking out the exceedingly expensive clothes shops and playing with their fancy mobile phones.  Absolutely nothing about the scene would indicate that there had just been a political protest a few blocks away.  Classic Damascus right there, just classic.

We were back at the site of the protest by around 8:45: the street was clear and cars and servees microbusses were zipping up and down.  The only trace of the demonstration were three big busses parked on the other side of the street, preparing to carry off the riot police to wherever they go back to.  That was that; it was over.  A protest that was at once an expression of the real and widespread fury over the slaughter in Gaza, yet also, to some degree, a controlled and managed affair.  N and O walked me down to Jisr al-Ra’is, where I caught a bus to meet some other friends in the old city.

If you’ve made it this far, all I ask of you is that you never again believe articles like this one in the NYTimes about a protest in Damascus earlier this year.  This article is a disgrace to the newspaper it appears in.  Lacking a reporter who was witness to the event, the article relies on nothing but assumptions and buying into tired old narratives about Syria, never imagining that this is a living, breathing place where people have families, emotions, pride, personal inconsistencies and everything else that people generally have.

If you can manage to imagine that here, then try to imagine it in Gaza.  Imagine those real people amid the lack of choices, the lack of food, the lack of medicine, the lack of knowledge of where the next bomb will fall – in other words, imagine the terror.  No, Gazans do not have a monopoly on these feelings in the world, but it is they who most need our imaginitive empathy with them now.  As we greet the new year, let us keep Gazans in our hearts and do whatever we can to stop this pointless slaughter.

Friendship update


I’ve been thinking about friends and friendship since writing my last update, and I’ve also discussed the issue with a few friends who read the post. With their help, and with some private reflection, I can say that the picture I presented didn’t quite capture the whole situation, and that I misjudged and assumed somewhat.

To some degree, it’s been a lesson in how easy it is to come to conclusions when writing or reflecting on something. We know, somewhere in our brains, that the reality of life is almost always more complicated than articles and analyses we read about it, but we still crave those narratives which let us sort the mass of information that we deal with.

So the nuance I now want to add to the picture of friendship and expectations I painted last time has just as much to do with me (with Americans) as it does with Arabs. I wrote of the difficulty I sometimes have in navigating friendships here that seem to expect much more of me than what I think is the norm at home. All true. A key thing I failed to mention is a difference between speech here and speech there, and the idea of rhetorical speech. I mean “rhetorical” here as in a rhetorical question: speech that serves some social or persuasive purpose secondary to its literal meaning.

Syrian Arabic is inflected with a huge number of polite expressions – I’m constantly learning new ones, or new nuances to ones I already know. There are expressions for all sorts of purposes that English does not have anything for, such as what you say when someone has showered or shaved, or what you say when someone dies – and each has its own individual response. That is not to mention the five or so different ways you can ask to be let off the servees (microbus) or the perhaps uncountable ways you can express gratitude, each which also has its own proper response.

Sometimes these phrases are used “rhetorically,” as in the case of the famous phrase: إن شاء الله (inshallah). It literally means, “if God wills,” and is used whenever talking about the future, as a reminder that it is in God’s hands. But anyone who’s lived here a little while has learned that sometimes إن شاء الله (inshallah) can become a way to make excuses. If you ask, “When will you have such-and-such in stock?” the answer, “بكرا إن شاء الله” (tomorrow, inshallah) may just be a polite way of saying, “we do not expect to have that in stock.” Or not. The challenge is how to know when. (By the way, many Syrians criticize this kind of usage.)

One common rhetorical habit here is inviting people. Friends fight with each other about who among them gets to “invite” the others for the $0.11 per person servees fare. When you see your neighbor walk by, you might say, “Come in and have some tea!” – and you may well not want them to come in, but it’s a polite thing to say. If you really want to invite them in, you would have to repeat the invitation after multiple refusals – it would be rude for them to accept after the first invitation. This is not to discount the legendary Arab hospitality, which is alive and well in Syria, but there’s an element of واجب (duty) to it – you must offer, whether you mean it or not.

For an American who is not used to these kinds of politeness games, this is all very tricky. I’m not used to offering food or drink unless I mean it, nor I am used to the polite turning-down/offering-again game. I have no instinct to insist that guests eat or drink after they refuse a first or second time.

This is not to say that we don’t have comparable “rhetorical” habits in the U.S. I’m thinking of our habit of awkwardly saying, “Let’s get together sometime …” or “I’ll call you …” when we end conversations with acquaintances. Sometimes we don’t mean it, except as a way to end the conversation politely. Syrian Arabic also has a “rhetorical” conversation-ender, though one that is much simpler and more honest. You ask, بدّك شي؟ “Do you want anything?” (i.e., Do you need anything from me before I go?) and the person replies, سلامتك “Your health.” (i.e., I only want your good health). Boom, the conversation is over, just like that, with no need to fudge with half-hearted promises.

[Side note: the Arabic word مبالغة means both “rhetoric,” as in the Greek science, and also “exaggeration.” I don’t know the etymology of these meanings, which came first, and how they are related to each other, but I’m very curious about the connection…]

It takes a finely tuned social sense to know when this kind of speech is meant literally or not, wherever you are, and my own instinct is to take people very seriously on what they say. So when a friend says to me, وينك؟ ليش مانك مبيّن؟ انا بدي ازعل منك لأنك ما اتصلت فيني… “Where have you been? Why haven’t we seen you at all? I’m annoyed with you since you haven’t called me …” my instinct is to feel pressure because this person is annoyed with me and I don’t want to annoy anyone.

But a close Syrian friend suggested after reading my last post that maybe these friends aren’t actually demanding anything of me and that maybe this kind of speech is not meant literally. It seems likely, in fact, that expressing intense missing, longing, and even annoyance in response to the absence of a friend is a way to show you care. In other words, maybe I shouldn’t be taking everyone so seriously and include this “friend chatter” among the types of talk that may – or may not – be meant rhetorically.

This is not a retraction of what I wrote before, however – I maintain that friendships really are different here. When I instinctively thank friends for a favor they’ve done me with a simple شكراً “Thanks,” they often get annoyed, because “thanks” implies that we’re not friends. You say “thanks” to shopkeepers, not to friends. Sometimes people even respond to “thanks” with, لا شكر على واجب “no thanking for a duty!”

Yet as I sit here writing about it, I can’t remember a time when someone has gotten offended over the phrase, الله يعطيك العافية “May God grant you health,” which is often used as a substitute for “thank you” – among other things. So perhaps this phrase – with all of its rhetorically layered meaning – is a way to thank a friend without hurting his or her pride.

It’s yet another thing to listen for. Needless to say, I’m still learning a lot.

November, 2008

I first came to Syria in the late summer of 2005, an eager and optimistic student on a gap year between my sophomore and junior year of college. I spent almost nine months here, and I loved it. I made friends, I explored the fascinating and wonderful city of Damascus, and I learned how to speak Arabic. That last bit was the key really, the learning Arabic: that was the purpose that guided me throughout my months there. I returned for a shorter visit in 2007, but my time and attention was taken up by the research I was conducting on music and musicians. Only now that I’m comfortably fluent in Arabic do I fully realize just how much studying Arabic was central to my purpose here when I first came. Only now that I’m here again, for a lengthy stay and without many obligations, does the question face me plain and clear: what am I doing here in Syria? It’s the question that has been constantly at either the front or the back of my mind since my arrival just under two weeks ago. I won’t answer it here, and I expect it will remain on my mind for a long while yet.

Well, I can start to answer it with some basics: I am here funded by what’s called a “post-graduate traveling fellowship” from my college. Put simply, they’re funding me to travel and do something interesting during the year after I’ve graduated. What’s extraordinary about it is that the granting organization does not ask for more than a few-page report on what its grantees have been doing, and it does not require us to stick with the precise plan we laid out in our proposals. Changes due to on-the-ground circumstances and even grand shifts of vision are permitted.

I took advantage of that flexibility in my planning for this trip and I was careful not to over-plan, keeping my initial obligations limited so that I can scope out the scene. My struggling with this question is thus to a certain extent a predicament of my own making. And about time: after years of schooling and college that always led to “the next thing,” it is refreshing to be faced with the challenge of real flexibility and open-endedness. What I wrote about my Arabic-study above is saying in other words that my initial year in Syria, for all of its sense of newness and exploration, was actually a part of that year-in, year-out sense of moving forward, with speaking Arabic as the particular goal of that year. Thus, my question of “what am I doing here in Syria?” is really just one aspect of the much wider: “what am I doing with my life?” Hence the sense of dread this question sometimes inspires in me. But don’t worry, most of the time I’m content with the immediate challenge and not preoccupied with weighty questions of the future.

To start to answer the question, I should explain another reason that I purposefully under-planned. In the past few years, my sense of caution and even skepticism about any “humanitarian” plans undertaken by “Westerners” in “underdeveloped” or “third world” countries has steadily increased. I’ve read and experienced how all too often the best of intentions end up leaving locals with no tangible or lasting benefits, if not making the situation worse; money and activity come with the foreigners and leave with the foreigners. Yet here I am, and my proposal that won me the fellowship consists of projects that involve assisting (loosely conceived) the vast number of Iraqi refugees here in Syria. Since writing the proposal, I’m trying to take a step back and not leap too eagerly into any particular endeavor as I get my bearings here. My initial experiences here have confirmed that this caution is a good idea, for in conversations with other like-minded foreigners I sometimes hear bald paternalism expressed towards Iraqis and others: an insistence that “we” know what’s best for them. Hopefully my caution about any plans or projects will allow me the chance to form relationships with Iraqis and others based on communication and collaboration so that we can build something successful and mutually beneficial, breaking down the division of “helper” and “helped.” That is my hope, in any case. More writings on this issue should be forthcoming as I continue to talk with people and think about it.

Another part of my answer to the “what are you doing here?” question is that I hope to do things that I truly want to be doing. More than a few times during my first year here I found myself justifying my presence in situations I might otherwise not enjoy by saying, “Well, I’m getting the chance to practice my Arabic.” For me, that was usually enough to make me enjoy the situation, since I got such a visceral thrill from speaking Arabic with people! That thrill is still there for me, but I’ve made it a goal to not let it be the only reason I’m in a particular situation. One result of being less intense about speaking Arabic as often as possible is that I’ve been more open to hanging out with foreigners than I was before. Although I’ve had close American and European friends here since the beginning, never before this week did I attend an ajnabi (foreigner) party here in Syria, let alone two. By ajnabi party I basically mean a house party with alcohol, hosted and attended mostly by foreigners. For me, these parties are strange, wallah (by God) – their atmosphere is so different from the social life in Syria that I’m used to, not to mention the feeling that I associate with the streets of Damascus. I got the feeling from some of my conversations there that the community of foreigners – students, journalists, UN staff – who are all supposedly here with a purpose related to this place and/or the people in it, are managing to very easily live a life that is distinct from this place and its people.

My feeling of ghurba (what you feel when you’re in a foreign land) at these parties is not just because I’m in Syria and I expect that people conform to some notion of Arab or traditional culture – in fact, I’m all about acknowledging and celebrating the diversity and apparent contradictions of people’s behavior here, contradictions that may not seem so contradictory when viewed from a local perspective. (Picture a women wearing hijab shopping for skimpy lingerie – Westerners love to take pictures of these things and comment on how “contradictory” they are, but I would wager that most Arabs do not think twice about such a scene.) The fact is, I feel that same feeling of ghurba at similar parties in the States; I’d rather be sitting around, talking with old or new friends, sipping a warm drink, maybe playing cards … oh, wait a second … that’s a fairly standard Arab social gathering: no wonder I often feel so comfortable here.

Which brings me to my Arab friends – I’ve been seeing and catching up with many them these two weeks. I’m blessed to have a number of them, and from all different walks of life: doctors, students, computer programmers, soldiers, workers, and shop owners; people from Damascus, from other Syrian cities, from Iraq, plus Palestinians born and raised here. They are mostly – but not all – male, since cross-gender friendship is strange and rare here. Part of the reason for that is because the nature of friendship – even the word itself, sadaaqa – is understood differently here than it is in the states, with differences that are often hard for me to navigate successfully. Here, sadaaqa is serious business: being someone’s friend implies a high level of commitment and dedication. You call your friend often to check up on him, you see each other as often as possible; you can ask demanding favors from your friend and he from you.

Of course we have friends like that in the States as well, but those relationships are usually built over months or years rather than days or weeks, and we have other, less intense kinds of friendships. The “default” state of friendship in the States does not carry with it a sense of obligation as sadaaqa does here. You can imagine that in a society that looks down on close premarital boy-girl relationships it would be hard to maintain such a duty-bound relationship with someone of the opposite gender. It’s hard to be just “casual” friends with someone (of either gender) when “casual” isn’t really a part of “friend.” That applies to both a Syrian interested in just getting to know someone of the opposite gender and to me, a foreigner. One thing I like about this aspect of friendship is that it’s not taboo to be openly affectionate with my male friends: habibi (sweetheart) is our standard term for one another, and walking arm in arm or hand in hand is not strange. The hard part is that I’m eager to stay in touch with the many people I’ve met and bonded with here, but to hang out with them and call them as much as seems to be expected of me would be a full-time job. I don’t want to offend, yet I also have to take care of myself and my peace of mind – this is where it is tricky to navigate.

Two days ago I called up my dear friend D, a young man who works in a shop as the sole provider for his mother and brother and in his spare time sings in a rap group. We met last summer when I was here doing research about music. From the first time we met, D has emphasized that we are friends, in the serious sense. Two days ago, we spoke, and D greeted me with ”ishta’tillak” (I missed you). It’s fair to say that this is a standard way to begin a conversation with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. (Remember, “a while” here could be defined as four days). Because I have missed D too, I replied, ishta’tillak ana bil-aktar” (I missed you even more), adding a rhetorical flourish that I’ve picked up. Mustahiil” (impossible), he replied, followed by a pause. Then he asked, “shayif al-bahr shi?” (Have you seen the ocean?) Not sure what to think, I said yes. shayif addesh kbiir?” (you’ve seen how big it is?) After I said yes again he continued, “ishta’tillak aktar min had ana” (I missed you even more than that.) Knowing I could not win this game, I responded and ended it with an enthusiastic, “habibi ente!” (you are my sweetheart! – or perhaps put more idiomatically, you’re my man!) This gives a sense of the easy affection between friends, and of my feeling sometimes that no matter how much I like a friend and his company, I will always fail to be as dedicated or as loving as he is to me.

That is not to say that all my friendships here are the same – in fact, each is as different as the person involved. Those whom I consider my closest are those friends who talk to me honestly about their lives, about Arab culture, and about Syria, and those with whom I can talk honestly about myself, about Syria, about the US – I can easily feel myself around such friends, rather than feeling that I’m playing the role of the good Arab friend. One of my great pleasures here is enjoying the conversations that emerge from such friendships: serious, respectful, and challenging discussions about cultures and the challenges that face those of us who explore outside our comfortable places of origin. Another possible project or plan here is making something of interesting out of such conversations. More information forthcoming, perhaps.

And don’t worry: for all my talk of no longer having Arabic as my focus, I’m still learning, writing down in my little notebook the new words and phrases I learn or hear. I may well also decide to work with a teacher on my writing skills in formal Arabic. With all respect to D and how much he missed me, I can assert that it is the wonderful Arabic language that is truly bigger than the ocean.

So that gives an idea of what I’m doing here, and what is on my mind. No single, all-encompassing purpose guides me, but in the meantime I’ve got plenty to work on and think about. There will be more writings to come, God willing, in both Arabic and English. Keep in touch, and if you feel like it, come visit us in beautiful Syria!

بقي أسبوع فقط على يوم الانتخابات الرئاسية الأمريكية وأنا قلق للغاية ومهووس بمتابعة أخبارها يومياً.  موقعي المفضل الأخير على الانترنت هو فايف-ثرتي-أيت-دوت-كوم الذي يقدم كل يوم موجزاً لاستطلاعات الرأي اليومية وتنبؤاً لنتائج الانتخابات. (عنوانه يشير إلى الرقم 538 وهو عدد “الأصوات الانتخابية” في “الكلية الانتخابية” التي تشكّل نظامنا الانتخابي العتيق الغريب …إن شرحه صعب وتبريره أصعب فسامحونا…)

هذا العام أحس بثقل الانتخابات أكثر مما توقعت بعد تجربة قلقي وخوفي أثناء منافسة عام 2004 للرئاسة وأنا خائف من أربع سنوات إضافية لنظام بوش.  من موقفي الراهن أعرف أن خوفي وقلقي لم يكونا مبالغة:  إن نظام رئيسنا بوش الثاني أسوء مما توقعنا فقد عانينا من سياسته الخارجية القاتلة الفاشلة والتجسس الداخلي السري والرد الحكومي الفاشل للعاصفة كاترينا… اللائحة لا تنتهي وهذا ليس هدف هذه التدوينة.

أما بالنسبة لهذه المنافسة الرئاسية فلماذا خوفي الشديد من فوز المرشح الجمهوري جون ماكين؟  لأن في هذه الانتخابات بديلاً مقنعاً وهو السيناتور باراك أوباما من ولاية إلينوي.  لا تعدوني من النوع الذي يعتبر أوباما المنقذ الذي سيخلّصنا (الأمريكان) من خطايانا الانتخابية ويقودنا إلى الأرض الموعودة السياسية, كلا, فإني أعترف بأن باراك أوباما لا يستثنى من قواعد اللعبة السياسية مع أنه فعلاً مرشّح استثنائي. أعترف بأنه قد يفشل لكنني واثق من مقدرته وحصافته فقد قررت دعمه – لكن مع بعض التحفظ.

يقع تحفظي على توقع رئاسة أوباما في سياسته الخارجية. أدعمه بأنه كان وما زال معارضاً للحرب على العراق من حيث المبدأ وليس من حيث التنفيذ كما يعارضها الكثير من الأمريكان ولكن مع ذلك يدعم أوباما تزايد الجنود في أفغانستان ويقول إنه قد يوسّع “الحرب على الإرهاب” إلى باكستان.  يخيفني هذا الكلام لأنه يشير إلى بقاء “تحدي الإرهاب” و”الحرب على الإرهاب”, المصطلحين اللذين كتبهما بوش في قاموسنا السياسي. خيّب أوباما أملي كذلك باتخاذه للموقف الضروري لأي سياسي أمريكي من الصراع الإسرائيلي-العربي: إن أفعال إسرائيل مبررة بغض النظر عن الحقائق والإنسانية.  مع هذه التحفظات, أقدّر أوباما لأنه يستمع إلى غيره باحترام وعناية ويفهم أن الوصول النهائي إلى السلام ليس عن طريق الدبابة وإنما بالحوار.

أثناء الأشهر الماضية كشفت الحملات الانتخابية الطويلة عن تيارات مجتمعنا وتغيراته وفيما بينها قضايا عنصرية أو عرقية ظهرت علناً وسراً أبرزها هي قضية عنصر باراك أوباما بأنه أول مرشح مختلط العناصر وغير أبيض من الحزبين الكبيرين.  يحاول المعلقون السياسيون تحليل هذه المعلومة لكننا لن نعرف أهميتها الانتخابية الدقيقة إلّا بعد أسبوع.  من الاستطلاعات الراهنة يبدو أن معظم المنتخبين يهتمون بمستقبلهم الاقتصادي أكثر مما يهتمون بعرق رئيسهم.  قد شاهدنا أبشع أمريكا في الهجومات على أوباما وأحسن أمريكا في تحالف المواطنين من مختلف الأصول من أجل مرشحهم.  تعودنا على الافتراض الشائع أن كلمة “مسلم” (أو “عربي”) إهانة ومن هذه الناحية الجهتين مذنبتان: قامت حملة أوباما الانتخابية “بمقاومة الافتراءات” فيما بينها الادعاء أنه مسلم وكذلك قالت امرأة في تجمع للسيناتور ماكين, “لا أثق بأوباما … إنه عربي” فرد ماكين, “لا يا سيدتي, إنه رجل عائلي محترم يصادف أنني أتخالف معه” كأن الصفتين (عربي ومحترم) متناقضتين.  أحس باليأس عندما أقرأ أخباراً كهذه لكني أعترف بأن أوباما يُشعرني بالأمل.  أدعم أوباما بسبب سياساته ومقدرته ولكن يثير التوقع لرئاسة أوباما فضولي عقب انتخابه حول العلاقات العرقية داخل البلد وخارجه فأنا متفائل بقدرة أوباما (لو انتخب) على زيادة تفاهمنا كأعراق مختلفة وقيادتنا بطريقة صادقة ومبدعة.  لست متأكداً من ذلك بل آمل به…