Arthur magazine‘s recent feature on life in the Middle East by Daniel Chamberlin was an excellent mix of travelogue/reportage. Iraq and the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict aside, the region was fairly peaceful last year. How quickly things change. This is from the latest Arthur email bulletin.
FROM ARTHUR CONTRIBUTING EDITOR DANIEL CHAMBERLIN:
Last summer I went traveling with my brother Paul in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. The result was “Dr. Moustache and The Egyptian Gentleman,” a three-part series in the November 2005 and January 2006 issues of Arthur.
Paul returned to Damascus this summer to refine his Arabic and research his thesis – he’s getting a Ph.D. in diplomatic history at Ohio State University – in Syria’s governmental archives.
The first sign that my brother’s tour of Syrian libraries might not go as planned came on June 25 when Palestinian guerillas linked to the Hamas government kidnapped an Israeli soldier and killed two others. The ensuing conflict with Israel was escalated on July 12 when some Hezbollah guys sneaked from Lebanon into Israel, killing eight soldiers and kidnapping two others, prompting Israel to start dropping bombs all over Lebanon, destroying the country’s infrastructure to the tune of several billion dollars and killing over 200 civilians as of July 18. Hezbollah shot more of their wildly inaccurate rockets back into Israel, killing some 13 civilians.
Paul is living in Damascus though, not Beirut, Haifa or Gaza City. But Khaled Meshal, the exiled leader of Hamas, also lives in Damascus with the permission of the government- he moved there after Israeli Mossad agents tried to assassinate him in Jordan in 1997 by putting poison in his ear. Israel expressed its discontent at this arrangement by having fighter jets buzz Syrian President Bashir Asad’s summer pad in Latakia shortly after things started getting bloody in Gaza.
As for Hezbollah, they do their own thing-whether it’s firing Katyushas into Israeli settlements, selling keychains in the gift shops on the Israeli border that Paul and I visited last summer or serving as members of Lebanon’s parliament – but they receive support from both Syria and Iran. The U.S. and Israeli governments have indicated they hold Syria responsible for the actions of both Hezbollah and Hamas. In an interview with Charlie Rose, the Israeli representative to the United Nations characterized this as not only part of the “War on Terror,” but went so far as to say that it was one of the early chapters of World War III. Tehran and Damascus, it should be mentioned, have agreed to back the other should Israel or the U.S. decide to attack.
Paul and I talk frequently via e-mail, and the following is his daily journal of what life in Damascus has been like lately.
Daniel Chamberlin Los Angeles July 18, 2006
LETTERS FROM DAMASCUS by Paul Chamberlin
*** Friday 14 July*** Tonight we met a man who fought in the Syrian army in the Golan during the 1973 war. He seemed considerably less concerned about the situation here than us, explaining that the people here could sense when a war was coming, and everything was fine.
***Saturday 15 July*** Things got worse today. I went to the internet cafe this morning to find my inbox full of emails from the United States urging me to evacuate Damascus immediately. My advisor at Ohio State-a historian of U.S.-Israeli relations-is suggesting that it might not be a bad idea to get out of the region as soon as possible while my friend Steve in Beirut recommends that I might consider heading north to Turkey. Apparently he’s heard from a contact in the State Department that the situation could escalate to conflict with Syria in the very near future. Rumor has it that the Israeli fleet is massing off of Tripoli in preparation to begin bombing the northern highways to Syria. Apparently he hasn’t heard anything from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut even though the city has been under Israeli attack for two days. To make matters worse, I find another email from my friend Mariam, also in Beirut, relating her plans to head to Damascus via the same northern roads that the Israelis are planning to attack. I send a cautionary email to her, convinced that it won’t reach her in time to make any difference.
I run into Steve online a bit later. He’s received the warden message from the U.S. Embassy recommending that all Americans consider leaving Lebanon but warning that current tensions might make evacuation impossible. However, the message continues, the embassy is considering the possibility of using U.S. Navy ships to evacuate American citizens to Cyprus. Evacuees will be required to sign promissory notes as this evacuation won’t be free. I’m struck by the absurdity of the Americans currently besieged in Beirut. Their tax dollars have paid for the Israeli bombs hitting Beirut and the American ships which may or may not be used to evacuate them, but they’ll still have to pay one last time to get out of the city.
Though my immediate instinct is to beat a hasty retreat to either Jordan or Turkey, the fact remains that the Israelis have yet to hit anything in Syria. All the same, Iran has pledged to come to Syria’s aid should the Israelis make a move against Damascus and President Bush is urging Israel to turn its attention away from the Lebanese government and focus on Syria. Everyone is waiting for a statement from President Assad and wondering what the hell the Israelis are thinking, given their previous experiences in Lebanon.
An article in al-Hayat is claiming that Israel has issued Syria a 72-hour ultimatum demanding information leading to the return of the captured Israeli soldiers or else the Israeli air force will begin attacking Syrian installations. So far none of the wire services have picked up the story, so we’re skeptical, but still a bit worried. From where we sit, the notion that Damascus controls Hezbollah seems completely absurd. We’re all hoping that this isn’t the pretext Washington has been waiting for to go after Iran’s nuclear program. I’ve also read reports that the Israelis have hit several minivans full of refugees fleeing Beirut on their way to Syria.
Later in the day I get word from Mariam that she’s made it to Damascus and we make plans to meet up at 8 o’clock. We talk over beers at a cafe overlooking Bab Touma, one of the medieval gates in the Old City wall. She’s spent the entire day in a service taxi flying down secondary roads. Israeli airplanes have taken out most of the major highways and bridges leading out of Lebanon. She tells me that the taxi driver decided to take the back roads after they drove by a recent bomb site. Oddly, she seems more concerned with the mundane details of the trip-the bitchy Lebanese woman sitting in the front seat complaining that her arm was getting burnt by the sun, the cost of changing her ticket back to California, etc.-than the fact that she’s just escaped a war zone. I suppose it’s only those of us who’ve spent the day in quiet, stable Damascus have the luxury of worrying about the international ramifications of the conflict.
I have dinner at large restaurant in Old Damascus with some American students surrounded by Syrian families some of whom seem to be celebrating a birthday while we worry about the next Mideast war. Halfway through dinner the lights flicker out and the entire restaurant instantly falls silent. The electricity returns a moment later, but the building is noticeably quieter. After dinner I go back to the internet cafe and chat with Steve, who’s still in Beirut. Apparently the electricity is out in his apartment and the landlord is running the generator from 7pm until lights-out at 11. He says he can her the sound of explosions and Israeli jets and he’s planning to evacuate with the U.S. Navy to Cyprus. At this point there’s nothing left to do but go home, try to sleep, and wait until morning to find out the night’s news from Lebanon. It’s amazing how fast all this is happening.
***Sunday 16 July*** I talked to Mariam online this morning. She’s somehow managed to change her plane ticket and she’ll be leaving tomorrow. “They bombed the lighthouse near where I lived in Beirut,” she tells me, “and I’m afraid that I’ll have to watch the same thing happen here.” The owner of the internet cafe is playing his favorite mix tape: Kansas, Celine Dion, the Eagles, and Chicago.
***Monday 17 July*** We had trouble catching a bus to the university this morning because a number had been diverted to ferry people to and from the large public demonstration in support of Lebanon this morning. At the university I find that my classmates are more worried than ever about the situation. Most are dealing with worried parents, Arabic exams, and the stress of living in a country that could turn into the center of a major war in the next few days. My Arabic instructor-a Syrian woman-says she’s more sad than worried. She explains that classes will continue as long as we show up. Even so, a number of the university’s facilities remain closed for the day; the people with the keys can’t make it to campus because of the demonstrations in the center of the city.
We walked through the Muslim section of the Old City this evening and were surprised to find new decorations flying from many storefronts. The yellow and green Hezbollah flags are out. I see one large flag that has been patched together from a Lebanese, Syrian, and Hezbollah flag hanging from a bread shop off the main street. If nothing else, Israel has managed to galvanize support behind Hezbollah. The other thing I notice are a number of kids wearing New York Yankees hats. I sat next to two of them on the bus home from the university today and I notice another walking along the southern wall of the Ummayad mosque this evening. The internet cafe is packed for the second night as I wait for a computer. Most of the new faces are probably refugees from Beirut; rich kids with nothing better to do in boring-old Damascus than spend their time chatting online with friends.
***Tuesday 18 July*** We woke up to an email from our Ohio State saying that they recommend that we return on the first possible flight to the United States. Never mind that tensions here seem to be leveling off a bit. Unfortunately, the message remained vague on the details regarding the financial and academic repercussions of our premature departure, so we really don’t know what to think. One of my classmates left Damascus at 2am this morning and a number of other students in our program didn’t bother to show up. We’ve also heard a rumor that Washington believes that “Syria is not/will not be a safe place in the near future.” There will also be a large anti-U.S. rally in Damascus this weekend. At this point there are too many unknown variable for us to make an informed decision and ironically, the military situation in the region has taken a backseat to our worries about what’s happening at home.
***Wednesday 19 July*** As usual I wake up a bit more optimistic today. While we’re considering heading to Egypt via Jordan and the Gulf of Aqaba, everything seemed a bit better this morning and I’d thought of staying in Damascus for another month. It seems that Ohio State is really getting our backs on this one and they’re willing to help us get out whenever and however we choose.
Opening my email dispels this sense of optimism. Yesterday’s rumor that Syria was about to turn into a very dangerous place apparently referred to a potential Israeli airstrike, the threat of which seems to have subsided. According to the rumor mill, however, things are bound to get worse before they get better.President Bush is now arguing that Syria is orchestrating Hezbollah’s actions, explaining that Damascus is trying to destabilize Lebanon in order to reestablish its presence in the country. From Damascus, it seems that the Israelis are doing most of the destabilization in Lebanon, but perhaps that’s just our warped perspective. The city continues to fill with refugees from Lebanon while those not lucky enough to make it to Syria are apparently stuck in the bombed out ruins of Beirut. The more we see the more it looks like it may be time to be getting out.
Another student in our program has decided to go home. She’s spent the last two days crying, not out of fear, but because she’s been trying to explain to her host family — who will, of course, be staying — that she’s leaving because her American university has decided that the situation is too dangerous in Syria. The people here seem to be especially interested in our anxiety / decisions to depart. Part of this comes from concern for us, our feelings, and our safety, but surely, the sight of so many frightened Americans evacuating the city must seem ominous to them.
We see two large red banners in the souq today, one in English and French, one in Arabic. They’re pledging Syrian support to Lebanon and Hezbollah and decrying Israeli “terrorism that kills women and children that is funded by America.” Still, no one I’ve spoken with has experienced any sort of hostility. There’s been a marked increase in the number of Syrian troops and armed men on the streets. While the people we talk to still claim to be unconcerned, the city feels tense.
Walking down the street today I see a woman, pushing her baby in a stroller, singing the Barney “I love you, you love me…” song. Tonight I’ll sit on the roof of my friend’s house, drink Syrian beer, and look at lights of Damascus. The mosques have green fluorescent lights, the church’s lights are blue.
What are we gonna do about it?
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