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Close up Lebanon and Syria and a tiny bit of New York

Syria 2003

“Alms to the Wayfarer*”: Fear and Hospitality

In Syria, I learnt something unexpected. I was walking down an ancient alleyway in  the Old town during my first week in the country when I suddenly noticed that something unusual was happening to me: I was relaxed. I didn’t even expect aggressive reactions anymore. Nobody in the streets of Damascus hissed hostilities or obscenities at me or tried to reach for me as had become the habit of many people in the one or the other office and on the streets of my home and elsewhere in the west, beginning shortly after the murder.

I should mention here that I do not live in New York but  It happened there, too, more than before. Weakness makes people cruel—and pain is attractive, said a wisened friend with the same problem, but this was not so in Damascus, towards me, apparently. For the first time in over a year I felt relieved, walking about freely. All I heard, if ever anything was said to me by strangers, was the expression “Ahlan!”—welcome, in combination with a sincere smile for me.

From the time that I stepped on Syrian ground, the main reason of people relating to me was to make life easy and worthwhile for me, the guest and woman on her own, who must be helped and protected and be made comfortable. During my first half hour in the country, I at first I suspected the man who asked me if I needed a taxi or change was a tout or secret police. But after he had gotten me the taxi, given me change for my large bills so I could pay for it, he dissapeared, and I hadn’t told him my destination to report to his possible unit either. He had probably been on the bus with me and seen that I was a foreigner, and a bit lost at that.

That man was the first in a long line of people whose primary aim it seemed to be to soothe my crushed soul, help me with food, lodging, even extra work, transportation—every aspect of my life that needed support of some kind. I was never “ripped off” the way it is customary in package tourist ressorts. People just weren’t greedy. I also learnt that in Syria, if you are needy, you must be helped, if you are wealthy, you are expected to share—I belonged to the earlier category.

It set my parents at ease to know I was in a place where, I was sure, I wouldn’t be left to die in the streets. Later I met a stranded European who was given a place to sleep and everybody who knew him shared at least their food with him, later he found work. They didn’t lecture to hi to leave their country as a burden of society. Everybody (inclusive of me) could understand why he refused to leave Syria, it wasn’t just the lack of papers and money. I wanted to stay too—even if I didn’t envy him for the economic hardhip—he said despite the shared meals and the home-cooked food that friends brought him he was often hungy. But it made me feel very confident: To be independent is really an illusion. Here was someone at people’s mercy, something you won’t come across if you are independent, i.e. wealthy without problems, and mercy was indeed dispensed with grace.

It also suprised me how many Americans were hanging out in the city (And they can’t all have been spies…or could they?) In Syria they could freely tell anybody where they were from: People were intelligent enough to distinguish between politics and people. In discussions the Syrians I talked to always listened and tried to relate, to views opposite of their own opinion, the word “opinionated” must be nonexistant in the local dialect. The word “humble” was mentioned by an American as I tried to find an adequate word to describe what I liked most about the people in Syria. And I had thought I had to tell them the truth about the people in America so that they wouldn’t hate and hurt my remaining people… It went the other way round: I learnt a lot about how peace works in practice. And so much generosity…

In the open space in front of the huge ancient Al Hammadiye Mosque an old kindly tea vendor carried his containers with hot water on  a bike. I wanted to buy tea from him, but he insisted to invite me even though his tiny income was based on the tea he sold. He had asked me which languages I spoke and his eyes lit up, he smiled and proudly he refused my money.  At the ice cream store I was told I could always get my free cone again—because I was a stranger, I assume, because that was all that we had talked about.

Suddenly I needed to go room hunting again. My landlady had put me in another room near the street where it sounded like people were talking inside my head when anyone passed by the alley next to my window at night. I went to ask around and decided to see a kid I knew who had a shop in his neighborhood. He was dreaming of going to the US, the wonderland, for him, but at that point not even an accepted Harvard researcher I had met was granted his papers. He wasn’t in but a brother I hadn’t met before. At once this one threw himself in charge of solving my problem and volunteered to show me these places I would never have been able to find on my own, closed down his shop and negotiated the rates down for me. He didn’t want anything from me—he had a girlfriend.

Later I had another problem—my phone didn’t work and on my last day in the city I needed to contact a girl in another part of town who had vowed to take care of any stray kitten I would bring to her—The old town of bab Touma was swarmed with cats that didn’t belong to anybody. Now, on my last and  busiest day, I had found a lost one. I had tried to call her eralier, but she hadn’t been in. There was always a very long line in front of the few pay phones in the neighborhood, so I finally went to this shop instead and there was the brother of the kid. He let me make the call and then, after all this time I had known him and used the shop as a hang out  to escape from heat or for company and tea, I found out he had already been stationed at the border, awaiting an American attack. He was shocked in turn, when I told him why I had come to Syria first.

It was a very strange moment, and it made me nauseated—I might not have met this sincere young man if the US had attacked—and in some way he had even reminded me of the person I lost—it was the same sincerity, and that got me. It felt like a cold clasp around my intestines to think that this young person could have been killed, too—basically, because someone else like him had been killed and other people had used that. It was so intense because “meeting all the good people while they were still alive” had been one reason for which I had come to Syria, as the US suddenly claimed the “weapons of mass destruction” had to be in Syria.

Before I went to the Middle East I had  joked on the net that since Damascus was like the Paris of the Middle East, and the US didn’t currently have good relations with France which was opposed to the war, they would likely claim that very thing next, to be able to justify an attack on Syria. That same week the exact same thing was proclaimed by the US government…Of course there was more to it. But the same week that former foreign minister Colin Powell went and a pipeline deal was closed, the earlier missing American flagg was blowing on the pole near the Trade or Congress Center in Mezzeh district again. 

It was all very touching and after that he wanted to stay in touch, but you see, Syria is a small country, so small that sooner or later meet someone who has pals in the information industry who dispense a lot of valuable information. I knew that mails (or calls) are never be 100% private or anonymous anywhere in the world. I had told him I would write about that encounter, and what else I did in the West, and he was concerned about the way I used “freedom of speech” in the West, (like this text here) and so we decided it was not a good idea to be associated with me. If you are one of those people who think “freedom of speech via Western invasion”, think twice: They are already scared of possible US authorities.

I once met an older Syrian man who was an experienced translator. At first he tried to tell me about the horrible situation of the Palestinians “Do you think that is right, how they were driven out and now live in these camps, without hope?” he said with passion, to make me understand what I refuse to understand, why people become terrorists. Then I told him my own issue and experience. I’m not trying to get a pilot licence either, right? We agreed that violence only breeds violence. Perfect, I thought, maybe he likes to translate texts into Arabic for this peace group I work with. But the man looked very scared when I asked him.

“It’s not about Syrian politics “ I assured him. “It’s about the American experience with terrorism, and the human angle.” “On the internet? With my name on it?” he said emotionally. (Actually it wouldn’t have needed that—any URL automatically attached to his mails would give him away.)”And then I will be on some black list, and when the Americans come here I will pay for that!” He had experienced a lifetime of turmoil in the region, he had lived abroad and had had contact with foreign diplomats and politicians. He knew what he was talking about.

Despite the unsolved Palestinian issue, Israeli prime minister Sharon and Syrian president Assad have since shaken hands, (when they met during the funeral of the pope)—a formality, said Assad, who admitted the handshake, unlike head of state Khatami of Iran who denied his, but progress is progress—a journey starts with the first step—I should say a thought. Adventurous Israelis have been said to sneak in as tourists with foreign passports, and—they liked it! Someone said even if he told people where he was from, he had no problem. I cannot confirm this, but have been told these people have told about their experience on Israeli TV.

I then remembered a girl who had come into the lobby of a hotel in Syria where I had been hanging out. “Where do you think she is from?” asked the receptionist. “Israel” I burst out, without thinking.

The girl looked a bit like someone else I used to know. I still wasn’t used to this whole Israel-no-no business which isn’t as no-no anymore as you may think, as people are open to talk about anything in private and are of course as curious about their neighbours as vice versa. The receptionist  looked at me with big eyes, then I remembered where I was and because it couldn’t be true, I thought, corrected myself. ”Maybe France, Italy…” But I had known quite a few Israelis and other foreigners in New York, where we often made a sports out of “ethnicity spotting” on the street and elsewhere, much like the traders in Bab Touma, and explained the markers to one another, for the most part body language. I was usually right…

Lots of friendly motion going on!

I’m thankful that during my stay in Syria the amount of hospitality still exceeded fear of evil foreigners by far, even if I met one black US sheep who, as I learnt later, willfully caused a lot of fatal problems for his local acquaintences. I hope many more goodwill ambassadors will come to Syria instead, it’s a beautiful friendly place with plenty of old crusader’s castles, convents, churches and mosques, history and intact local culture. Come before the touts arrive! I hope it will stay at only one black sheep and that “they” won’t take my second home and my new friends and hope away from me, too.


*”give alms to the needy( …)to those in distress(…)to whose whose hearts are to be comforted(…)to the wayfarer” from “the holy q’ran”  

The Lost Store: “The extra mile*”

Damascus was somehow magic and still very different, very homely. Thousands of years of soaked up hospitality evaporating from the ancient walls in the old town of this city, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, are perhaps the reason. Even though most people I met were by no means wealthy, (or because of it?) people are generous with their belongings, food, but also with their hearts and even minds—very tolerant to other’s quirks, while following traditional values themselves. As you know, tolerance means to accept what you don’t approve of, and not just something unusual, that you don’t mind. So with that in mind, here is my favorite story of them all. It happened during my first week in Damascus.


I passed by this store in the Middle East. In the window I saw a poster with the statue of liberty on it, and also this famous photo of an Iraqi kid with head injuries I had seen in the press earlier. It also had a zionist symbol or the star or something on it. I lost somebody in the trade center because allegedly some people were encouraged by this type of hatred.


Agressive nuts: East and West, they all have in common that they claim a superior motive but really want to have power either by becoming rich or by killing or by f…ng  and humiliating someone else as soon became apparent by the rants and by the behavior towards me by such people. Add to that brainwash indoctrination from a bigger group which makes it seem legitimate and less of a dare than acting on your own conscience if present, and you’ve got the perfect rapist and killer and thief, who only more needs approval and appliances and opportunity.


The problem is what is inside these people. It has nothing to do with needs: A good strong man doesn’t rape a girl or kill a man because of his needs, which are as strong as those of a nut.Family failure, I would say. They all copy one of their parents at some point, thinking and behaviour, in some way, I’ve seen it, too (even if I don’t know then how come I’m such a slob..) A good person is not a good person only when life is easy with the exception of extreme conditions for which you find convenient excuses to be an arsehole, no,  despite them! It comes from inside, not outside, unless you are still a five year old.


Public approval of such behaviour makes it more likely, leaves less scruples to overcome, because obviously people who can only establish their self worth with violence or deceit are mentally very very weak people, following only their lower instincts or bad habits installed by superiors rather than any type of conscience.


I asked the shopkeeper, an elderly man, what this poster was about. He told me it was because of the war and the "Zionist conspiracy" I had heard so many people rant about. I told him about my loss and what kind of people are killed by this hate propaganda and  that I knew of Jewish people murdered in the building, too, and their relatives protesting the war, and that I didn't agree with the war either.


I have since often heard Arabic people say that no Jewish people were killed, but that is incorrect. I’ve spoken to one and have heard from his mom since. How dare anyone claim her murdered son didn’t exist! Also many Muslims were killed, by the way, which in turn is not very widespread information in the Western community. The people that got killed were also mostly employees and clerks, younger but talented people on their way “up”, not older, wealthier, mightier bosses or executives: Like at my old job, until 10 a.m. my co-workers and I were free to malinger, because before that time out boss usually didn’t show up. The other thing the murdered majority would have in common is that New York traditionally votes democratic, and so does the majority of the young and educated and liberal, unlike older corporate people who are more likely to vote Republican-conservative, as anywhere in the world.


Whoever you blame, nobody had the right to do that to somebody I love, someone kind when I was just a stranger in distress, and so wise he is still helping me with what he taught me, from his grave, excuse me, I mean of course, varous sites where his found and missing body parts are rotting. And what’s your favorite nightmare?


I lost it and started crying, as always, when I talk about these things, and the old man cried with me when I told him about my loss and what kind of a person he was. The man said he knew not everyone in the US was the same,.i.e. supporting the attack on Iraq. He told me he had children living in the US and he was not against the people, but against what they were doing in Iraq, like with that child on the poster. He asked how old I was and then said that I was a little younger than his own daughter. He said I was like a daughter for him.


I told him even if he himself could differentiate, his poster might encourage more people to kill people like the person I lost, those who didn't know or didn't want to know better, because it signaled his approval to them.


I had taken down his address and a few days later I wanted to say good-bye to this man. I must say  I hadn’t had an awful lot of people since who cried with me, certainly not about my pain, and I was very surprised to have that reaction in Syria. From 9-11 unrelated strangers it was mostly “the poor building” that they knew, the entertainment value of what went on in the building was praised “It’s written so suspensfully” and self pity about having to see that on TV: “Oh, it was so terrible for me” and “we are so scared now”. But mind you, they knew to whom  they were speaking…and it was not the shock of my revelation to them. It was total internalized selfishness under any circumstances.


Picture me whining to someone I know has lost a loved one in Iraq about “having to watch it on TV”…! Okay, that means grief hierarchy, the newest or oldest way to destroy possible solidarity among victims of the same forces: hatred and greed. But luckily in the Middle East they didn’t play these “recognition games” yet.


I had a laugh when I had to open possibly Anthrax-polluted mail for my boss and when I announced it, the people AROUND me whined about the fear they had to suffer because of the threat it posed to THEM, wanting to leave the room…I insisted they stay with me of course, or I wouldn’t open it. But I have to admit: I was relieved these people were at least still talking to me—well, they had to.


 They were not like that in his office in the tower, by the way. The person I lost woud describe this behavior—not to care about other people’s wellbeing or suffering—as “cold” and “low”. Unlike me, he wasn’t annoyed by the sometimes filthy-looking NYC homeless who approached me on the street—well then I guess he also hadn’t been threatened by any, I only  gave to women anymore—but when he gave it wasn’t just a habit, he was really sorry for them. He never said no, while I looked the person over and judged them depending on how and where they had approached me, how poor they looked. And he once told me why he wanted to make a lot of money: Because money was the best way to help people.


I often called and arcustically “hung out” in that tower. There certainly was competition and pressure as well, but at least he and those to whom I spoke hadn’t given up their humanity or dignity. They weren’t too arrogant to chat with me, or ever harsh or annoyed, when there was a lot of buzz and pressure going on. They weren’t selfish when I called out of boredom or loneliness.


Remember, staying good despite pressure, see above? I know, because he told me it required a lot of strength to stay calm and sober when he dealt with certain people who tried to put him down, something I have not yet mastered, and he had told me about similar discomfort as mine with cold “suits” at another job. In the tower he had finally made friends. He made sure a layed off co-worker received a good deal to get on, a day before the attack. Most of his friends died with him.


The kind people dead, the living insane…It kind of soothed me then: The human madness around me in addition to all else that happened proved it was all only a nightmare after all, and so he had to be safe somewhere, or something much more horrible would still happen and he had really been lucky to get out in time with his soul intact. There is no other logic or justice, when people go through that type of pain and fear before they die from it, and when the world doesn’t get better one bit, when humankind is not one bit humbled because of such suffering.


Or is it? I think I mostly have grudges towards these cold peope like those I worked with for giving me the almost fatal illusion that everybody else anywhere under the same circumstances would always react like them.


I showed various people the directions the man had put down for me (in Arabic), but  couldn't find the shop.They kept sending me back and forth on that street, with many shops but not the same type of business.(As you know it’s a small world, and people have many grudges and ttitudes and rightful fears about things you wouldn’t even dream about, so I won’t say which kind)


I kept looking for the poster in the display windows on that street.. I don’t remember if the name of the business was on my paper, but if it was either that or the store name was in Arabic, or I had thought it was the man’s name. I didn’t find it. I asked again.


It turned out that I'd walked by it several times already. I just hadn't been able to recognize it because he had taken down the poster. Not because he saw my point, but because he saw my pain, and had given that priority over his own conviction.


That’s what I call compassion.


*”if someone forces you to go 1 mile, go with him 2 miles” from “the new testament”