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.

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