Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Golan Heights and Fatima

One of the attractions of Damascus was that from there I’d be able to visit the Syrian part of the Golan Heights. Large parts of this hilly land above the Sea of Galilee were lost to Israel in the 1967 Six days’ war. This happened when Israel took advantage of its military advances undertaken in response to Syrian air raids on Galilee. These raids had been provoked by a pre-emptive Israeli strike on Egypt, which itself had been triggered by Israeli fears of being attacked first.

Things tend to get complicated and interconnected in this part of the world. The high incidence of threats and paranoia, justifed or otherwise, lends an extra edge to the fraught convolutions of the region.

For Israel the Golan is a 'spoil of war'. One that Israel justifies its hold over by referring to the facts that a) Syria struck first - in the north I mean, and b) Syria refuses to make peace, in contrast to Egypt which did so in 1978 and Jordan in 1994. So as the logic goes: as long as the state of war continues, why should the gains of war be given up?

This is particularly the case because the Israeli occupied Golan affords excellent views over Galilee. As such, in the eyes of the Israelis, and perhaps in the eyes of the Syrians too, it might prove a very efficacious launch pad for military strikes upon Israel. Tactical necessity in this circumstance of continuing, albeit 'frozen' war (the mysterious warmth of September 6th 2007 notwithstanding) means Israel has assumed a stubborn, resolute attachment to the Golan, feeling unwilling to give it back in the absence of a peace, despite the various appeals of the UN General Assembly for her to do so in the absence of such a peace. Such an attachment, it must be admitted, is no doubt increased given the fact that 15% of Israel’s water supply comes from the Golan.

Nevertheless, the assumption one is persuaded to come to is that Israel would give it back if there were peace with Syria, in the same way Israel gave back the Sinai (eventually) to Egypt after peace was made with Egypt in 1978, courtesy of Carter, Begin and Sadat. This, indeed, is what was agreed to by Barak as part of the peace negotiations pursued with Assad in 2000: that the Golan would be returned. Well, except for that fateful ten metres of land, land that proved all too important for Hafez Al-Assad to sniff at.

Anyway, as I say, I wanted to go to the Golan and see the area for myself. Emily told me she'd like to come as well but unfortunately changed her mind because she had to study. Then I reflected on time pressures and the fact that you have to go to the Ministry of the Interior to get a Police pass and decided to postpone. I told myself that hopefully I'd have time to go when I got back from Lebanon, which I was now itching to get to.

In a hunt for a substitute distraction from Damascus I took a cab to the October War Panorama, which I hoped would be the next best thing. What Israel calls the Yom Kippur war, because Israel was invaded on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Syrians call the October War, because it happened in October (1973). What Israel considers a war it won and Syria lost is considered by Syria to be a war it won and Israel lost. Such is the flexibility of language.

The museum has proudly displayed in its garden a few Israeli tanks and anti-aircraft weapons, along with a collection of its own Russian built armaments. Inside are paintings commemorating the most significant moments in Syria's history, including Zenobia's near conquering of Rome and the moment when friendly relations were established between the ancient Syrians and the Arabs. The main attraction, the upstairs revolving panorama, is a pictorial representation of the 1974 Battle of Quneitra. Syria’s eventual success in this battle underlies Syria’s claims to have won the War, despite the fact that Syria failed to reacquire the vast majority of the land it lost in 67. To my understanding, only in the sense that Israel’s proud feelings of invincibility were questioned can it be supposed that Israel didn’t win. Or to put it another way Israel lost because the 1973 wasn’t the remarkable walkover 1967 had been. In any case, regarding Quneitra, a town right on the Syria/Golan border, Syria lost this in 67 along with the rest of the Golan but got it back again in 1974. The ferocious battle that happened here is lovingly, lavishly detailed, although Israeli flags are oddly absent from amongst the Israeli forces, while much is made, as one might expect, of the disreputable way in which the retreating Israelis trashed much of the city as a goodbye gesture.

And trashed the town of Quneitra remains. As I understand it, the political capital to be made by the Syrian Government in keeping Quneitra in the wreck of the state it’s in, still exceeds the value of doing anything more constructive with it, for example rebuilding and redeveloping it and allowing it to be resettled. So it’s kept as it was found after Israel moved out, glorious evidence of the inglorious bestiality of the losers, etc.

My guide around the museum was a friendly, happy-looking tour guide. Let’s call her Fatima. You can’t visit the museum without such a guide, which comes with the relatively expensive cost of the ticket. Because I was alone, I had her all for myself, which was nice. She kindly let me take a photograph of a painting of Bashar Assad’s family, which I think was against the rules, as well as a painting of Assad standing next to the president of North Korea, who gave money to Syria for the building of the museum. The picture of Assad’s family included his elder brother, Basil, who died tragically in a car accident in 1994. Because of this accident his younger brother’s plans to be a relatively obscure eye surgeon in London, married to his British born wife, were scuppered by his father when he ordered him back to Damascus to prepare for his future Presidential role by joining the army.

A great deal of my tour guide’s speech was clearly scripted, one suspects not by her. State propaganda, or selective interpretations of reality, might be phrases you might want to employ to describe the content if you wanted to be uncharitable. In any case it was illuminating at least of how Syria sees itself in relation to its regrettable tensions with Israel - or regrettable at least to we who wish peace for the world. Maybe the regime actually benefits from these tensions. On this my jury is still out.

What was really interesting, however, was how Fatima changed not only in what she said but how she spoke, her tone, her timbre, when we walked between the exhibits. Normally when she has larger groups she's presumably silent at these times. But now, alone with me, she wanted to speak off the script. No, she didn’t open up and confess to disbelieving everything she’d just told me about the glorious struggle etc. She just wanted to know, after I told her I was an English teacher, how she could improve her English. The surreal juxtaposition between this honest human enquiry and her self-conscious performance as a formal representative of her nation, an Ambassador of her Government, was striking and amusing. I suggested she could listen to the radio, to BBC World Service for example, or else watch CNN or BBC World. Also that she could join the Damascus British Council library, from which she could borrow books and tapes at various grades of language competence. A problem, of course, is that this way she doesn’t practice her speaking, nor can her grammar errors be corrected. For this she needs to attend a course. I suspected, rightly, that her pay bracket would exclude her from the British Council’s courses (which are typically the best in any given city) – she sighed whimsically as I suggested such a course – but I told her there must be other cheaper courses, many of which would be almost as good if not just as good. Finally I left her with an idea that seemed to impress her. Why not ask your employers to pay for British Council lessons? You're an important tour guide in English, speaking to people like me. Lots of companies pay for their staff to learn at The British Council if it assists the selling of their products. Why not ask them to subsidise you so you can be even better at your job? Of course, I didn’t expect her Government to agree to the idea but one can but try.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


As my presumably small readership will have noted, I've been silent for over a week. This is not because I have become uncharacteristically laconic and spared the world my words but because I have opened a new blog at:


On that blog I write about my life and salient thoughts since leaving Egypt, and I will write about Kuwait, where I have now been living for 8 days.

This blog will continue to post entries about the rest of my trip through Middle East. I promise to get through to Egypt one day, achieving finally in my words what I accomplished in my body. But it may take awhile. Internet access is limited here for me. Obviously, I begin to forget things so the clock is ticking I know.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Middle East and Turkey

When Emily and I talked generally about the Middle East we sighfully agreed that it’s in a mess.
She blames Israel and America more than I do. She focused her thoughts on America however, since she feels as an American that America is more her business than is Israel, which is an attitude I very much respect. Personally, I want to look more into the history of the region, and note how the problems might be traced to the collapse of The Ottoman Empire, which in its own bungling, tyrannical way until 1918 had at least kept the region in relative peace and harmony for most of the previous 400 years. The opportunity only arose for the French and the British (that would be people like me) to carve the region up into artificially devised nation states under their own Christian suzerainty because the allies had won the First World War, and because the Ottomans had elected to fight on the losing side. When I was in Gallipoli I learnt how Turkey’s decision to side with the Germans was actually a very close run thing. Nineteenth century tradition put Turkey on the side of the British and the French against the Russians, after all. Now, in 1914, while Russia was still the enemy, so too were Britain and France, and Germany, strong as she’d become in the late nineteenth century, was not strong enough to prove a good bet for the Ottomans to support.

The ‘What if’ train of thought regarding the Ottomans choosing different friends during the First World War interests me greatly.

· Turkey, had she joined the Allies’ side, would have allowed the Allies, early in the War, to open a third front against the Central Powers. The Allies would have quickly got what they would have only achieved eventually if Gallipoli had been successful: a way, with the Russians, of exerting an encircling pressure on Germany and Austria from three sides, from the South as well as from the East and West. Also, Turkey’s support would have allowed Russia and the West easier access for military co-operation through the Dardanelles. The War might not have ‘been over by Christmas’, but would it have lasted a full four years and led to as many deaths as it did? Would it, moreover, through the sufferings it imposed on the Russian people, have established the conditions appropriate for the reception there of the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky. Would the Russian revolution have happened? Would we have witnessed Stalinism? Might the idea of communitarianism, of there being possibilities for communal life beyond the power of money, still be a relatively pure one? Might capitalism today not be quite as smug as it is, if communitarianism as a vision had not been mired as it has been by the disastrous legacy of the Bolsheviks?

· Although the Ottoman Empire had been weakening throughout the nineteenth century, without the experience of defeat in the First World War, would it have collapsed as it did? If Turkey had remained either neutral or fought on the Allies side the chances of Turkey losing the War would have been lower, the chances of her Empire surviving correspondingly higher. If it had survived, as it probably would have, how different would the Middle East be today? It is hard to know. Most probably Turkey’s empire would have been dismantled at some point because it had been ailing for so long. But perhaps this would have happened in a more gradual, less arbitrary manner, in a manner moreover overseen by Muslims, not Christians. Maybe the Persian, Arab and Turkish Muslims would have been able to come to some kind of peaceful agreement as to how best to reconfigure political relations between their peoples in a new dispensation replacing the Ottoman. Then, not only might the numerous twentieth century wars between Muslims not have happened, but the sense of humiliation that the Islamic world has felt in the face of Western and Israeli power in the region not have occurred. In consequence, Muslims not feeling such a resentment and injustice, would have meant far less impetus would have been given to the development of Islamic fundamentalism, a phenomenon which, as many a Muslim would agree, has wrought considerable damage not only on Islam itself but on the world in general.

· Quite probably, there’d be no state of Israel today, for good or ill (depending on your opinion). Or at least not the kind of State of Israel we have now. Zionism begins in the late nineteenth century so one cannot attribute the origin of the desire amongst Jews to increase their presence in the Holy Land to an opportunism provoked by the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. Quite probably Turkey’s nineteenth century decision to make land legally available for Jewish buyers would have continued. Had the Turkish Empire survived, the British wouldn’t have written the Balfour Declaration but possibly Turkey, as a victorious ally of the British and French, might have been persuaded to continue their history of relative toleration towards the Jews and allowed them some more land, or even a state of their own, under the umbrella of their continuing imperial dominion. That would have been more likely if Turkey underwent a degree of secularization in the years after WWI, something which might still have happened, at least to an extent, without the specific need of an Ataturk, though by no means necessarily. Also important is that much of the impetus behind the intensification of Jewish desire to settle the Holy Land in the 1930s and 1940s was the threat from, and the need to escape, the European Holocaust. Hitler may still have risen to power in a nationalist reaction to the German defeat in WWI. But how long would that war have lasted? Surely it would have been over sooner? And then, would the defeated Germany have been quite as seriously humiliated as it was by the 1919 Treaty of Versailes, a treaty which to a great extent was a calculated act of vengeance against Germany for the very expensive war that had lasted over four years and cost millions of lives? And if in consequence of Germany not being as crushed into the dust as she was, would we have seen Hitler? And if not, and had not experienced the holocaust might we have found that many more Jews would have been happy to stay as they had for generations in a Europe that many of them had grown to consider their home?

· There having been no need for the failed Gallipoli campaign, Australia and New Zealand wouldn’t have experienced their greatest military disaster ever. Nor, on the other hand, would they have felt the same impetus that they did feel, given the incompetent callousness of the British High Command, to sever (or loosen at least) the umbilical cord connecting them with the Motherland and so develop a sharper sense of separate, national identities.

· Would the population transfers/massacres of the Armenians have happened? Turkey justifies its understanding of the non-genocidal treatment it dealt out to the Armenians by referring to Armenian support as a fifth column within Turkey for the Russians, against whom Turkey was then fighting. So clearly, the Turks admit there were some significant attacks on the Armenians, even if they didn’t amount to genocide as they claim they didn’t. But if Turkey hadn’t supported Germany, there would have been no fighting against the Russians for the Armenians to support at all. On the other hand, if Turkey’s intentions and treatment towards the Armenians were indeed as genocidal as the Armenians and many other countries say they were, would they have behaved this way if they’d been on the side of the Allies? I suspect that had Turkey chosen differently, the country would have been less destabilized, which would have given Turkey less cover or justification for its policy. Also, it would also have given Turkey less need for such a policy, especially if the war had ended quickly and the Turkish nation had not felt under the mortal peril that it did feel under. After all, the Turks had not started massacring Armenians when the Ottoman Empire had been alive and kicking, albeit ailing. They only started, according to the Armenians, in 1915, when it was under the threat of invasion and collapse. And they only intensified their policies further when there was a need to ensure the new country's future identity against its potential internal enemies. I am explaining, not justifying, the genocidal policies, if indeed they existed, as I suspect they did.

This type of 'What if', or counter-factual historiography, has come in for a fair amount of criticism, much of it reasonable. That said, indulging in it is fun and can provide insights. Or at least it can help you imagine how things might have been different, as a result of causes that led us to the present not happening. The problem is that we cannot know if a similar (to whatever extent) historical reality might nevertheless have been arrived at by a different route. Nor can we know what unforeseen events might have happened which may have deflected events off unimaginably to us now. A shadow presumption I was loosely holding throughout the above was that it would have been 'better' for humanity as a whole (as well as for the Turks) if the Turks had fought alongside the allies. But who knows if it might have been worse ultimately, if unforeseen developments I cannot imagine had occured. And obviously I am not intending to blame the Turks for all that happened, since all agents are responsible for what they do. I was just thinking out loud, as it were, and reflecting on how so many things in history are interconnected, and how relevant the past is to the present.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Ten Metres and the Moon

A couple of days before I met Emily and her friends Israel performed that raid you'll have heard about, the air raid that Israel at the time denied but has now admitted performing.

Some circles say Israel was attacking an emergent nuclear capacity imported via Tartous from North Korea. Whatever it was (obviously it was something), will no doubt come out in the wash.

From what I gather the Syrian people are increasingly worried about a war between the two countries. Personally I fail to understand how such would serve the self-interest of either nation. Syria is threatening vaguely to retaliate somehow in the indeterminate future. Israel, after owning up, eventually, to invading Syrian airspace declares that her defenses have been tested and proved resilient (whether that be a euphemism for a second Osirak or not).

It must be nice to say that, in any case, after last year's embarrassment at the hands of Hezbollah.

But the main feature of the whole scenario has been silence.

A weird thing about silence is that when it arises inappropriately, as it has now, it often tends to increase attention not decrease it, which is what you'd expect those being silent would prefer.

Can you believe that Syria and Israel came to within ten metres of land of finding peace in 2000? I can, but then I bear no illusions about the eccentricity of this particualr region of the blue planet. Syria wanted the beach. The beach of the Sea of Galilee. Israel said no. Syria said no to Israel's no and then both sides decided that, actually, on second thoughts we prefer being at war to losing or failing to gain ten metres of land. How stupid of us to forget.

This is but one of the myriad examples of the insanity of human posturing collecting around the fertile crescent. I could name many others. So, no doubt, could you. Well, as long as they like all this hatred and fear and histrionic pomposity - let them all get on with it is what I think; or at least am often tempted to.

Emily, if I might risk the perils of categorisation, is somewhat anti-Israeli in her stance. Beyond that vague brush I wouldn't want to delineate. It was very interesting to hear from her about how badly educated the American people are about the situation in the Middle East and of how grateful she feels to have learnt the other perspective and expereinced how things 'really are'. The Media and education system in America, so she said, strides a fairly uncontroversially pro-Israeli line, in the context of its broader loyalty to the line of the American military, industrial and political complex.

Of course, to be 'pro-Israeli' can mean any number of positions from extreme left (the Israeli Meretz party for example, which some might even call anti-zionist) to extreme right, where ideas of removing the Palestinians from Israel proper and extending Israel beyond its 1967 borders begin to emerge. I'm not exactly clear where America positions itself, but somewhere in the middle I would imagine. Well, except amongst the Christian fundamentalists who'd be somewhere however wackily to the right, despite their inherent theological and somewhat patronising prejudices against Judaism.

I was a little unsure how Emily rated my stance regarding Israel. I wasn't that clear in my statements mainly because my position is not clear or simplistic, just as the region isn't. But I reckon she gathered that I'm not anti-Israeli, in that I think such a polarisation of reality, in this field as in all, is childish and irresponsible and that both sides, or as it were all sides in the Middle Eastern dispute, are to blame and at fault and need to yield (so it is in all conflicts). If that makes me an anti-Palestinian in some person's mind on account of my being a 'status quo' supporting fence-sitter then an anti-Palestinian I am in the mind of that person, but not in mine. Nothing would please me more than for Palestinians to be as joyful and happy as their fellow Muslims in Turkey and Syria seem to be, and for them to benefit, as can we all, from friendly relations with the ancestors of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah. Are we sure that makes me anti-Palestinian? I suggest it does not.

It was enjoyable telling Emily about my experiences as a 19 year old with the organisation headed by the curious, Korean gentleman known as Sun Myung Moon. She was shocked at first when I told, as are many. Then, as usual, she became less so when I told her I was only 'with the Moonies' for three weeks, that I never gave them any money (ok, three pounds), never stayed with them, never prayed at any of their services, and never abandoned my questioning mind to them. I say that just to make things clear that 'I Was Never a Moonie'. And I say that because, so I later learnt, alot of people at university thought I had been a Moonie all the years that I was there, just because they had learnt, correctly, that I had spent some time with them. Even highly educated Oxbridge rejects, so it seems, will formulate their own projections in the absence of supporting facts. So I'm obviously a bit sensitive about that.

It's nonethless true, on the other hand, that the Moonies' ministrations left my cognitive faculties somewhat temporarily impaired. I hadn't asked them to warp my mind, mind you. No, they did that without my needing to ask. How kind. Actually, whether or not they used the sophisticated mind controlling techniques, learnt during the Korean War, that many say they use, I'm not sure. Certainly I could believe this. But no doubt much of the effect they wrought on me must be linked to my own susceptibility to them at the time. It's true, before I paid them a visit I was young, I was idealistic (actually I still am! Or at leat when I'm not depressed). I was also unhappy with my University studies and generally feeling pretty weird and dislocated. I was very glad, moreover, to talk to people who at least pretended to talk about God and life seriously, with passion, without being conventionally religious. With people, who to all appearences sake, seemed extremely friendly and welcoming and even, might it be ventured, 'loving'. All that swept me into their power temporarily, it is true.

Beyond that there's no doubt that my experiences with the Reverend had an enormous impact on my life on account of how I reacted to the experience. Materially it meant I dropped out of University. I’m not sure I really needed to but to my Mother and the Principal of my college it felt like a good enough reason to convalesce. I didn’t put up any resistance. In any case there was still that original dissatisfaction with studying Philosophy (too arid, too pedantic) that had lain behind my lunar expedition in the first place. In any case taking time out sounded like a good idea. This was also because….

Spiritually, internally, the effect on leaving the Moonies had been dramatic. Note I talk specifically about what happened after I disengaged from The Unification Church, not the effect of that Church itself, which had been to turn me into a paranoid zombie. As I emerged from its malign and tentacled snare, which had stretched itself throughout my teenage mind, I experienced a tremendous feeling of rebirth and liberation, and ensuing psychic states of peace, bliss and ecstasy of a kind I’d never known before. Without question I increasingly came to associate this liberating force (correctly or incorrectly, delusionally or accurately) with the specific transcendent person of Jesus Christ, who became a very real and mystical presence for me.

As a child I had, to be honest, always held an extremely soft spot for the Nazarene. This absolutely in spite of my bored lack of interest in and basic disrespect for the established Christian Churches. Overall, however, my affection and regard had been cerebral and idealistic, not existential as such. I thought Jesus was a great and tremendous person, as so many people do. It was only after my rejection of the Moonies that my sense of closeness to Jesus and the vividness of my spiritual experiences in general came to significant life. The practical effects of this period of near mystical trance were twofold. Firstly, I lost all interest in finding work or engaging much in externally directed activities, keen as I became to savour and luxuriate in my newfound sense of a discovered inner treasure. Luckily, due to a modest trust fund and a mother who didn’t mind me doing nothing very much, this was possible. Secondly, I decided to return to Durham University in the autumn of 1991, but to study Theology this time as a way of giving expression to my newfound, developing interest in the spiritual, and the Christian tradition in particular.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Syria and The Family

The funniest, most memorable thing Emily said was about religion, something hard to evade in the Middle East. Reflecting in general on the madness of the world, she noted how bizarre it would be if Christians had their own variant of the muezzin's call to prayer, publically, loudly broadcasted:

'Drink the Blood of Christ! You must drink the blood of Christ to be saved!' shouted out five times a day

Imagining such a spectacle floating over a city full of people going about their business made me chortle and wonder at how eeirie, alarming and strange that would be.

Certainly the Islamic version seems less freaky. Undoubtedly, its content is less dramatic and extreme. Or maybe I only say that becasue I don't speak Arabic or hear it everyday. Church bells, our version of the call to prayer, don't mean anything. They're just a reminder that we ought to be up on the hill. If there must be a public chivvying (must there? Really?) I definitely prefer things this way, to say nothing specific about God, at least in public. Another advantage is that bells are less inclined to ring out at 5 in the morning.

It was fascinating to get a glimpse of the nature of Syrian family life, hearing about the Christian family Emily's living with. The Christians are just as religious as the Muslims and have similar attitudes towards family, courtship and marriage. Apart from obvious theological differences, then, the only existential differences are in the Christians' attire (no headscarves) and their belief in the sinlessness of alcohol, if drunk moderately of course. In practice, both Muslims and Christians drink in Syria, only Christians less of a guilty conscience.

As a Westerner from the progressive realms of family dysfunction and disintegration, I've been programmed to appreciate the all-surpassing supremacy of the individual in matters of familial politics. In the West, to an ever increasing degree, the extent to which families stay together and the shape of that togetherness when they do, is determined by the free individual decisions and commitments made by each of the members involved. Templates of formal duty and obligation being oh so droll and pre-sixties, it's now up to us in our own ways to determine if and how the nuclear, let alone extended, family survives.

Personally, I want to have my cake and eat it. Ultimately I feel I should be able to. Why else have the cake, or even make it? I want there to be no formal regimen dictating how families should be structured or interact. Yet I want that they cohere, survive and blossom into ever intensifying domains of happiness, wherein an intensity of personal freedom and authenticity combines with an intensity of rootedness, connectedness, and love. I fear, nevertheless, that as so often in life this is easier said than done, especially given our current Western spiritlessness and the moral disorientation we experience; on account of which we wrestle to make sense of the right accommodation to make between the claims of self and other.

Having lost to secular materialism a reliable mooring or anchor for a vocabulary of duty and obligation, it's difficult, and can sound hollow and trite, to tell people how they should behave. The only potent basis to do so seems to be the appeal to victimhood, as a tactic for securing self-advancement or compensation for real or imagined slights. This essentially punitive dynamic keeps alive the ghost of an overarching moral firmament. But it's a firmament that makes no demands on us and asks nothing from us, to deflect us from our freedom; until, that is, it rubs its nose in our faces when, as a result of its moral silence, we end up pissing each other off, often mightily. Its mode of operation, therefore, is passive not active. Morality reigns, but in a reactive, not proactive way.
One gets the impression, from our what is said by our media, art, teachers, even from our religious leaders, that little interferes with or questions this individual freedom. And yet ours, nonetheless, is an astonishingly litigious and punitive society; ruled by fears of petty officialdom, permeated with the strangulating self-righteousness of the aggrieved. That paradox is a central conundrum of our time. Through society's impositions and restrictions, we are daily reminded that we are not islands and must live together, despite the fact that our ideology is one of atomised individuality, enjoining loyalties to none higher than the self.

Needless to say, it's not like this in Syria, or the Middle East generally, where life constitutes a different kind of bed of thorns. Here the moral universe is still proactive, sometimes very. But with that same love of imbalance that we share - only differently expressed, the Islamic world makes certain to render its interpretation of proactive morality extreme and one-sided.
So much that our own 'Enlightened', democratic, individualised instincts tell us was wrong about the life of our own ancestors is still very much alive in the Middle East. By which I mean the imposition on individuals by the community to which they belong of an iron-fisted, inflexible order or schemata of how to live their lives. Young women, even Christian ones, must be home early in the evening and can't do what they want, or marry whom they want, unless their desires happen to co-incide with their parents'. As for young men, these too suffer, since unless they are to be secretive or indulge in gay adventures, they can't enjoy romantic love, let alone sex, until they're married, something which itself requires not only their parents' agreement but the satisfaction of their girlfriend's parents that they are respectable and, more importantly, sufficiently rich.

Much of this I already knew. What I was interested to hear from Emily, though, who has spent a long time talking to young Syrians and other Middle Easterners both in English and her rapidly improving Arabic, is what young people themselves feel about family life.

As I knew, loyalty to family is fundamental. Such a loyalty is nothing strange anywhere in the world except in the west to an increasing extent. In Syria, family is so often an economic necessity in any case, even before higher emotional or ideological considerations of love of family are considered. Young people will stay at home before they marry not only for reasons of propriety or mutual affection but economics, since parents, one hopes, make for cheap or even free landlords. Similarly, in an age of limited welfare, and unreliable employment and pension provision, to be old and without a family is not wise. So old people will often stay with their children until they die, and condition the young to look after the old, reminding them that they too will one day look and feel as unimpressive as they do. But beyond that it's clear Syrians hold the Family in a very high regard and consider their attachments to other family members to be more important than any other.

This is not so strange from a Western point of view, though it may increasingly be from a Western European point of view. In Slovakia, for example, young people have similar economic relations to their family. In addition, young Slovaks will also talk about their families, and visit their parents, in a way that clearly shows a very high esteem for the institution. How much of that esteem is heartfelt, how much routinised habit and convention, however, I was never that sure. A certain suspicion of taboo collects around talking negatively about ones family relations. Of that I was sure. Given the prevalence of domestic violence in Slovakia, yet the fact that I've personally heard about none, suggests to me at least that carpets must bulge in Slovakia, having had much swept under them.

Regarding Syria, I wouldn't want to speculate about the prevalence of domestic violence in the family. I'm not sure what kind of figures exist, or how data could be collected? I would suspect that the presumption is that all is harmonious in the family; that if it isn't, insubordination from children and wife is usually is to blame; that redresses made against the more tender elements of the family against that insubordination are justified, and that ultimately all this is the business of the head of the household, the man. One suspects Syrians, like most Middle Easterners, will basically be thinking – mind your own business, oh Western man of inferior religiosity and disintegrating culture. My family is private, it is not even a domain for other Muslims, let alone you.

Anyway, I'm just trying to map out the reality of the matter. If I am mistaken, I apologise, especially if I have offended, which I'm obviously not trying to do. I never try to cause offense. Offense as an emotion closes the mind and retards discourse. I do not seek boring, stilted or defensive interaction. Still, if one does find what I write offensive, join the club. I find much offensive about the world, including the idea that people might find me offensive when I'm not trying to be offensive:) Oh well, the world is an offensive place. That is no new revelation.

I didn't ask Emily about domestic violence. I just asked what Syrians had said about the normal restrictions of family life. She found they weren't always that happy about them but considered them so normal that nothing much could be done about them. Speaking out about the regulations or defying them is rare.

No doubt Syrians see family quite differently than I. You think normal what you know. It's hard for outsiders to understand or judge different forms of cultural life. Usually if you try you either idolise them as excessively superior to your own, or else desperately inferior if not evil.

Personally I wouldn't like to live in restrictive families that tell their adult members what to do, or how to live. I didn't like restrictiveness even when I was a child. I'd like it even less as an adult. But hey that's just me.

I'm impressed, anyway, that their families are so strong and cohere, unlike ours. Its just that, for me, I'd like a family that could combine that with radical freedom. A difficult concoction for sure. A challenge.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Popularity of Arabic

I arranged to meet Emily by the big Ummayad mosque, the main mosque across from the 3rd century Western Temple gate, Rome's offering to Jupiter. To here Jesus is understood at some time in the future to return before he converts all Christians to Islam. So much for the much anticipated drama of the Mount of Olives, then.

Emily brought along her Australian friend, Sarah, and an American called Kevin, who only arrived in Damascus the previous day. Like Emily they're here to improve their Arabic. Apparently, so I've been reading, interest in studying Arabic has risen noticeably since 9/11. I wonder what the motivations behind this might be. I can think of three reasons, all interrelated, in no special order of importance.

Firstly, on 9/11 the world suddenly became an 'interesting place' again, in a way it had stopped being when the Berlin Wall collapsed and nothing acted any longer as a defining, chiselling force to give shape to America's sense of identity and importance. Unrivalled hegemony was all well and good, but a bit vacuous and tended to mean the President's sexual proclivities became front page news. Nothing else had the power to fascinate in a more serious way. The nineties were years of global innocence, but trivial and inane. At last with 9/11, America had a proper enemy again and the West could get down to the serious business of being frightened and martial, just like in the good old, cold war days days when we could believe, like we can now, that our whole lives are being lived inside a second rate Hollywood blockbuster. On the principle 'Know your Enemy', therefore, Arabic became important as the language of the 'enemy', despite the fact that most Muslims don't speak Arabic as their first language.

Secondly, some people in the west felt guilty for the ways they perceived the West had treated the Arabic sphere in previous decades, to a degree sensing that New York had deserved being attacked by Al-Qaeda, despite the fact that lots of non-westerners died in these attacks and that much of the the Islamic world immediately condemned them. So again, on the principle, 'Know your enemy' but for the opposite reason - to be reconciled to it - Arabic became more attractive as a field of study.

Thirdly, I imagine Arabic has become more popular simply because more people are now aware of the Middle East than they were before. No other geo-political region of the world receives as much interest and attention, because of 9/11 centrally, but also because of the worsening of the Israeli-Palestinian situation after the failed Camp David summit and the invasion of Iraq.

I definitely got the impression, which was nice, that the people I met in Damascus were only learning Arabic for the second of the two reasons, for peaceable and genuinely educative ones, which is obviously a good thing.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Ash Sham (aka Damascus)

Four and a half million people live in Damascus and they do so 600 metres above sea level.

Today I feel like being historical. Apologies to those affected or offended if I'm wrong or oversimplifying.

So it appears, Abraham hung out here for awhile before moving south to Canaan. Later, from about 1100 BC, Damascus was the capital of an independent state called Aram Damascus which got into fights with the Israelites. With the Northern Israelites, it shared a common enemy in Assyria, a far larger Kingdom than either, to which both ultimately lost their independence and a large part of their populations in the eighth century BC, since it was a custom of Assyria to deport its conquered peoples and resettle them. Certainly, the notion that over 25 thousand Northern Israelites were moved east is the axiomatic belief underlying the indefatigable idea of the hidden, abidingly significant, existence of the 'Lost Ten Tribes of Israel'. Regarding the Aram Damascenes, it seems they were moved by one Tiglath-Pilsener III, whose name obviously suggests he'd have done better brewing beer, south to the Moabite town of Kir, near the Dead Sea, or to Al-Karak, as it's now known in Jordan.

Then, after the Assyrian domination, like so many places in this part of the world, Damascus was controlled first by Babylonia, then by Persia, Greece, Rome and finally by Byzantium.

During the Greek era under the Seleucids, it shone less significantly as a cultural centre than Lattakia and Antakya (Antioch) to the north, but under the Romans it became a more important city at last, as the northernmost member of the Decapolis, a union of 10 semi-independent cities; and then from AD 37 as part of the quasi-independent Kingdom of the Nabateans. Christocentric as ones education is, during this time one might say the most notable event to have occurred in Damascus was Paul's decision, courtesy of a celestial vision, to stop persecuting Christian Jews and become one himself. Before long he would take the message of the Gospel to the gentiles. A formative moment in the history of the Gospel and the world one might to say. And for good or ill too, depending on your opinion.

During the Islamic period Damascus' most important era was when it was the capital city of the first Ummayad Caliphate (Islamic Kingdom essentially) from 665 to 750, when Islamic hegemony reached to Northern Spain and the Punjab in Pakistan. Until the Abbasids and Baghdad usurped the supremacy, as Dynastys and cities do, since when Damascus has never been as important. After the Abbasids, Damascus yielded to the successive overlordship of the Fatimids from Cairo, the Seljuk Turks, the Ayyubids from Cairo- including Saladin - though some of these ruled from Damascus, the Mamlukes (from Cairo), whose rule was interrupted by the Mongols for awhile, the Ottoman Turks from Istanbul, and finally, after two years of a fledgeling independence, to the French of all people, whose twenty six year period of control finally ended in 1946 .

I didn't get to explore much beyond the Old City and the area of the new city directly to its west. Though I did find the time to get to Qasion, a mountainous area of bars and restaurants offering impressive views of the city. Though I'd probably have seen more and had a better time if it wasn't dark when I was there and hadn't been so windy.

Friday, October 5, 2007


At twenty two dollars my room was the most expensive I'd had in a while. I thought I'd flavour my entrance to the Syrian capital with a dose of luxury. Unfortunately, with no air con, no TV, and no private bathroom it definitely wasn't worth the price. Even access to BBC World in the living room area and the included breakfast didn't prevent me migrating to a hostel for the following two nights.

In the evening I strolled towards the old city, about half a kilometre to the east past the railway station. As soon as I entered the main covered bazaar I knew that in a crucial way the Syria I'd come to love was gone. The prevalence of other westerners was far higher. The inevitable effect on the locals was to make the likes of me both less of a curiosity, less of a novelty, and more of a focus for that kind of systematised, commercial targeting that always develops in tourist centres. I noted how the tremendously friendly, welcoming spirit of the Syrian people, though still in evidence, was less vivid, had become mixed with traces of an inauthenticity I hadn't felt before. This, no doubt, was born of a spirit of over-familiarity with the likes of I, a wearing away of that fascination for the strange and exotic which we westerners occasion in the rest of the country and would do here too, if only there weren't so many of us. It might also have to do with a greater knowledge on their part, acquired through practice and experience, of how we might best be persuaded to part with our money. Though I grant that's me being cynical.

On the other hand I can see how my perception was influenced by having come to Damascus after seeing so much of the rest of the country first. Most people don't do this. Most travellers come straight to Damascus, then travel on to either Aleppo or Palmyra, before seeing the more obscure areas. Some, of course, won't leave Damascus at all, though I'd say these would mainly be the westerners here on business. The other group of westerners I met in Damascus, beyond businessmen and travellers, were students, usually in their early twenties, here to study Arabic, often as part of a degree they were pursuing at home. If they took a course, it might be a month long, or last for many months. Or you could just turn up and plan to hang out in the place, learning Arabic while you're here. This was Emily's plan.

I was looking forward to seeing Emily again, who'd I'd left in Bergama in early August on her way to Izmir and the Greek Islands. Talking to her was not like talking to most people, no offence to most people intended, and I was looking forward to a bit of energy and fire in my life. We'd arranged to meet by the big Ummayad mosque at noon on the day after my arrival.

Before we met, however, I thought I'd check out the British Council in the morning because I was thinking I might like to work there. But there was nobody I could talk to about opportunities. So after reading the Observer for awhile and acknowledging, as expected, that the internal decor of the building was identical to the BC's in Sofia, Kathmandu, Cairo, Hong Kong and Bratislava, I took myself to the fancy Four Seasons. Here I enjoyed a five dollar coffee, a sofa, and the agreeable, amusing experience of being mistaken for somebody rich.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Reality Check

This blog has been hanging around in Syria for quite a while now. I just wanted to inform the universe that in fact I left Syria for Lebanon on September 10th. So I'm more than slightly behind. Now, as it happens, I'm in Jerusalem.

Anyway, for good or ill I decided to go slowly and be detailed and thorough and concentrate on some facinating conversations I have had, even if a lighter, more nimble approach might have been preferable to some or all of my readers - whoever you are.

A summary of where I've been since Lattakia before I return to my story. I'll try to sum up each place in no more than eight words.

Damascus - Massive old city, far more westerners
Beirut (Lebanon) - Soldiers on the street. Rife factionalism and Starbucks
Baalbek (Lebanon) - Enormous, extremely evocative ruins. Hezbollah T-shirts
Tripoli (Lebanon) Sunni dominated. Like Syria. No Hezbollah. Cool castle
Sidon (Lebanon) - Lovely gentle beach town. Very narrow streets
Tyre (Lebanon) - Lots of ancient ruins. Swam in the Mediterranean
Damascus (Syria) - Because I didn't want to fly to Jordan
Ma aoula (Syria) - Christian mountain town. Good views. Bought some Arak
Amman (Jordan) - Big and dusty. Ramadan strictly observed
Bethany (Jordan) - Israeli flag. Jesus baptised, Elijah caught a chariot
Petra (Jordan) - Vast Nabatean ruins built into rock. Camels. Bedouins.
Amman (Jordan) - Because I needed to cross at Allenby Bridge.
Jerusalem (Israel) - Schizoid capital of the Universe
Bethlehem (Israel) -Birthplace of creator of the Universe, (to Christians)
Tel Aviv (Israel) - Secular Israelis. Cafes and powdery sand. Diaspora museum
Jerusalem (Israel) - Because its Sukkot. Rest of Israel closes down

So now you know where I am and where I've been.

Plan now is to go back to Jordan on monday. I have to go back so I can get a Jordanian exit stamp. Otherwise supicious eyes will know I've been to Israel (as they might if they read my blog:)). Also, I left some stuff there. Then I'll rush down to Aqaba, take a boat to Nuweiba in Egypt and head to Cairo. My flight to Vienna leaves Thursday morning, the 11th October. One and a half days in Bratislava to remind myself what good beer tastes like and to pack up more of my stuff. Then I fly to London.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Hama in Noisy Motion

My abiding memory of Hama is the creaking noise of the turning of the enormous wheels called norrias that are scattered in the centre of town. Because both wheel and axle are made of wood, nothing works as a lubricant to induce a graceful flow. So an unearthly groaning, suggestive of a wounded extra-terrestrial dinosaur, breaks out from their motion. I saw one man hopefully trying to throw water on one. Did this help? It didn't seem to but maybe it limits damage in the long run. I'm no expert.

I'd read that young boys jump from the planks that push the water round as they turn but alas they weren't out and about when I was there.

In addition to the wheels, there's a hill that nothing seems to be on the top of, and the first modern shopping centre I'd seen in Syria. As well as this, there are some interesting lanes in and around the old city but, as I've written earlier, Hama suffered considerably during the bombings of 1982, when the whole city was besieged by the Government, so it's not quite what it was.

Finally, after twelve days in Syria I got on a bus for Damascus. And what a bus, not like any I'd seen. The seats were that light beige colour you find in swanky mercedes and jaguars; and so was their comfort, while the leg room was excessive and highly welcome. In considerable luxury I read up about Damascus and looked forward to the capital.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007


As I was waiting for my bus to Hama I did a very rare thing, for me anyway. I directly, unambiguously lied to someone's face. I don't just mean I allowed a mistaken impression to arise in his mind by remaining silent about a certain matter; or that I concealed the 'whole truth' about something and was 'economical with the truth'. Neither of these are lying, not really. They're just not being fully open, which is different.

If you insist they're forms of lying I'll say they're only 'negative' forms of lying. Spoken behaviours whereby you refuse to assume responsibility for the mistaken conclusions generated by your listener's projections onto or behind your words. The impression they might provoke could very well be contrary to what you meant, but that isn't because you uttered words confirming or constructing their false understanding. Doing that, as I see it, is the real lying - lying by commission, not omission. Obviously though, in a perfect world, i.e not this one, it would be wonderful if we could all be forever open and transparent with one another.

I didn't feel ashamed of my 'positive' lie. This might be because I didn't particularly warm to the 19 year old who asked me his lie-prompting question. If I'd told him the truth, this might have provoked him and his surrounding gang to pay me even more attention, when at that moment I just wanted to read my newspaper. But I must confess, there was a smidgeon of fear too; especially since this was an Alawite area and that, given my unusually pronounced sense of my own importance, I'd come to imagine I might be under the special scrutiny of the Government. I thought he might be a Government agent. Even if he wasn't I still didn't want to risk upping the stakes of my fledgling paranoia.
So when he asked me if I'd been to Israel I just said no while simultaneously wondering if my eye contact was relaxed and unassuming enough. I suppose that when you lie the eyes can give you away, either because they suddenly become distracted, or else too ardent in their gaze.

He seemed very proud of his culture and country. He was glad to point out, as I'd noticed, that the women are less hidden here. This is because there is more freedom than in conservative Aleppo and further into the Sunni areas to the east. Then a friend of his asked me if in the West women are different from men. I knew what he was getting at but I thought I'd try to be funny. So I gestured the outline of some shapely breasts and agreed that yes, they are different. It worked, which was great. What he wanted to say, of course, was that women have too much freedom, and wanted to know if I agreed. Unfortunately for him I didn't and just said that in my culture men and women are equal, which they are, if only in theory. He didn't want to defend his thoughts about women. I suspected he considered them self-evidently true.