Wednesday, January 10, 2018

War Guilt

This is an account of what it’s like to be far from loved ones who are living in a war zone. It’s a type of survivor’s guilt. This isn’t meant to illicit pity. Just understand that I will not always tell people what I’m going through, partly because I want to escape from it myself. I don’t expect you to relate. I don’t need big hugs or apologies. They make me feel guilty. I need people with ideas that help me hold out hope that some good will be gleaned from this horror. I need help doing something concrete to help refugees. I need reassurance that my family will survive. I need things no one can give me.
This is rough. I’ll probably re-edit at a later date. 

 In the past, the green belt around Damascus would have come about to the tops my
 ears in this picture. Sprawl has made food scarcer and more remote from city dwellers.

On Wednesday November 29th, 2017, I woke up to a call from my father in Syria. He’d been to our family farm. He just wanted to share his experience assessing the damage that had been done there by looters or “rebels.” We’re not sure which to call them. Some local rogue government militias and some villagers in the area have started their own civil war on class and are taking their frustrations out on absent landowners kept away by closed checkpoints and shifting war zones. These “rebels” blame families like mine for not helping them more, but the government took all our wealth away more than half a century ago. The village we once literally owned thinks we owe them a school, a well, a mosque, a clinic and many other things that we could not do for them on our own. 

A view of my uncle's table grape vineyard. One of the family's only incomes, mostly unharvested since the war.

So, when my dad calls from Syria and reminds me that about a year ago, looters torched our farmhouse after taking everything from antique furniture that was my inheritance from my grandmother to copper wires out of the walls, and even attempting to steal the floor tiles, I’m caught in that zone where I think everyone should know about this, but everyone is a foreigner who can’t relate. All they will feel is pity, or admiration for my “struggle”, or dismay at my need for attention. Perhaps they will think I feel entitled, because unlike so many refugees, my family has yet to lose everything, and I personally have a roof over my head. It is personal, though. Our farmhouse wasn’t looted or burned because it was on the road to somewhere. It was targeted because of my family name. Then I just want to scream, and it becomes a hum, white noise in the back of my head, blurring my senses to keep my subconscious squarely sub.   

I learned early in my childhood to compartmentalize between my two countries. Regardless of which end of the world I was on, I was ten thousand miles away from half my loved ones. That was in the days before internet, when it could cost a fortune for just one minute of international long distance on the telephone, and snail mail could take a month each way between Syria and the US. I had to live without knowing the day-to-day news of my family. We were on opposite ends of the planet.

Since the war, my compartments are a lot thinner. My co-workers probably think I’m a moody person. I’m by no means manic, but under the current circumstances I’ve had many days when I could barely force a smile and every minute felt like an eternity in a corrupted universe. On one occasion a co-worker asked me how I was doing, after some bombings she’d heard of taking place in Damascus. I confessed to her that I was having a harder time than usual compartmentalizing, but couldn’t speak much more than that because I couldn’t wrap my mind around both worlds at the same time. How do I speak of the nightmare of hearing about bombs in my city and not knowing where they were or where my family was at the time. The news rarely if ever reports the neighborhood accurately, and my family members live in several different areas and try to go about normal business when it is possible. They even send their children to school when they dare. I know from experience that a loved one could miss certain death just by stopping at a traffic light. On the other hand, my cousin was car-jacked (possibly by ISIS) only blocks from home.  

Damascus in snow.

On other occasions, people don’t know anything is going on. To them, I’m just being sullen, but my mind is ten thousand miles away, with my dad who sits inside his house wrapped in blankets to keep warm with steel shutters closed against random gunfire, my aunts and uncles, just as cold, who live less than a mile from an ISIS stronghold and are sometimes hostages in their own homes because of shelling. I might be thinking of my cousin, a mother of four, who spent last winter getting only one hour of electricity a day, between one and three hours of water at random times every three days and gas rations that either fueled a car or heated her house.  He situation is similar to those of many Damascenes, but her village suburb doesn’t offer a full supermarket and a car could burn a quarter tank of gas just going through the checkpoints between her and the nearest government produce cooperative. Syria is high desert, so it’s freezing at night, and the winter winds are like knives even through a winter coat. Damascus is just below the snow line. My father and my cousin both live in mountain suburbs that get snow regularly. I can’t tell you how many times I have wished myself there with them, because even to suffer along side them would seem more productive than my empty life.  

On a daily basis, I smile and give great customer service to people who are too lazy to read a sale sign, and want me to risk my job to give them a discount to earn their loyalty for the company I work for. Meanwhile, I’m thinking how shameful it is that I’m safe, clean, warm, clothed and fat in my own house while I have relatives who are using their life savings to buy eggs.

Once, a supervisor saw how agitated I was and asked me if there was anything he could do. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that it felt like someone had been dancing on my grave all day long and I was desperate to get off work and check online to see if there was anything about Syria in the news. Instead, I reassured him I only had to get through six more minutes of work: he didn’t need to worry. I wouldn’t let him try to identify with my experience. I knew he couldn’t. He stopped trying after that. When people ask how my family is, I reply “everyone’s safe, as far as I know. We’re lucky,” but I add silently in my head, “so far, they’ve only assassinated two of us and killed three others.” By the time my cousin once removed – I called him uncle – died last summer, from illness unrelated to the war, I didn’t bother trying to hide or explain my pain. I no longer felt compelled to justify the lump in my throat or the tears welling in my eyes as I worked.

Before the war. The farmhouse my father built, while it was under construction.

When I saw this video last year, I wanted to show it to everyone, “see, I have lost something! I’m not just a crybaby!” But, I was appalled, at myself. It was, after all, our farmhouse, not our primary residence, and I was ashamed that anyone would feel so loyal to my family that they would stand next to a burning house and film it while bullets were flying all around him, so I didn’t post it. I just went about my days at work and home with my brain blurred out. Let gossips and co-workers make what they wanted from it.

My compartments are usually strong. I have programmed myself so that I can go days without consciously remembering there’s a war ravaging my childhood neighborhood and annihilating my loved ones. When I do think of it, I just go blank. Now and then, though, it gets under my skin and makes my head spin.

My father is now safely in the US.
Here is the video of that fire in 2016.
On official reports, it is listed as a result of shelling.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Galleries and Hotels

 The next couple of entries are in honor of Reem Tarjouman, a friend I barely got to know before cancer took her from the world far too early. She was at once a modern woman, an educated woman and also a religious woman who loved her country from top to bottom. She showed me a side of my own hometown that made me want to stay forever. There’s a vibrancy to Old Damascus that defies time and politics, yet until this trip the intimacy of the area was lost on me. Thank you, Reem, for inviting me to see that world again.

On a tour through old Damascus, Reem showed me the workshop of sculptor Mustafa Ali. It is in an old Jewish home in the Jewish district of Damascus. People are still calling it the Jewish district although the last of our Jewish community left years ago. The Zionist equation had simply made travel to other communities in Israel and Palestine too difficult, so the Jews in Damascus had become isolated and had dwindling numbers over the last decade or so. Even with the wars over the last several decades, it wasn't until more recently that travel and communication became insurmountably problematic for them. With fewer than ninety families as early as the mid-1990’s, they believed that they could no longer marry or sustain their culture in Damascus. Even so, most of the Jews leaving supposedly chose to go to the US or other countries outside the Middle East rather than move to Israel. No doubt, they were tired of being forced to live such a politically charged life. It's very sad. The Jewish community in Damascus was probably one of the oldest in the world and the Middle East. It has been a cornerstone of the Damascene identity to have all three “religions of the book” (a.k.a. Judaism, Christianity, & Islam) living side by side in peace ever since the Muslims arrived in the 7th century.

When the Jewish community left Damascus, they sold their homes in the Jewish quarter, inside the walls of the old city. Some of those homes were very old. When I say old, I mean OLD. The ancient and revered Church of St. Ananias (Hanania in Arabic) is built on the two thousand year old foundation of the home of the saint himself, with the original chapel cut out of the bedrock beneath. So, even if a home in that district is only a few hundred years old, the property on which it was built has been a part of Damascene life for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

There is one upside to the situation. The departing families sold their properties. It was the first time so much real estate was available inside the old city walls, near Straight Street and the Eastern Gate. The area is full of locally crafted goods, from all three of the “religions of the book,” but buying into the neighborhood had been next to impossible for most of the last century. Artists bought some of the Jewish homes and made them workshop/galleries with private spaces attached. So, now, the Jewish quarter lives on as a cultural renaissance.

Mustafa Ali’s gallery is one such place. Reem and I browsed his catalog of work, saw scale models of some pieces, and looked at some of the work from local artists he was featuring in his gallery. Meanwhile, he was busy working in a building nearby while a team was renovating an upstairs wing into an apartment for an artist residency program he was anxious to get started.

His sculptures are intimate, lyrical, modern, and yet hold echoes of the ancient and prehistoric sites that are all over Syria. Just when you think you know his style, he introduces a new facet. He’s one of my all time favorites, and least of all because of being Syrian. Really, I just love his work. Please visit his facebook page to see some photos, there are many and they demonstrate how versatile yet unique Ali’s work is.

Here’s a link to a wonderful article about Mustafa Ali, written by Lara Dunston:

 After our visit to Mustafa Ali’s gallery complex, Reem and I peeked into the Talisman Hotel. WOW!! It’s a modern restoration of an old Damascene house with each room decorated using Arab handicrafts like inlaid furniture, brocade and embroidered table cloths. I had been to another old Arab house come hotel, Beit Wakil, in Aleppo with my father in 1998. That antique (possibly ancient) bed and breakfast was exotic but not particularly luxurious at the time. The rooms were all sparse little singles opening onto the courtyard (from its days as a hostel of sorts for trade caravans). What Beit Wakil lacked in amenities, it made up for in uniqueness. The reception area featured what looked like an Islamic dome that once sheltered a Muslim prayer area but also held a fountain hinting that the space may have been a Turkish hamam in a previous generation. In it’s second courtyard, where the restaurant was housed, Beit Wakil boasted five levels of cellars ending in a passage that may once have connected to a secret network that had served the Aleppo Citadel. So, when I tell you that the Talisman will blow your mind all over again, take my full meaning. Talisman begins where Beit Wakil left off! The intricate embroidery and mosaic, brass work and other local handicrafts is exquisite. At the Talisman, expect to experience luxury living at the level of princes in antiquity, even while sleeping in western style beds. Both Beit Wakil in Aleppo and the Talisman Hotel in Damascus are highly recommended. I don’t have photos of the Talisman, and my photos of Beit Wakil are not digital, so I defer to google image searches for the cream of this blog entry.

Here is a link to a google image search for Beit Wakil, Aleppo. Not every photo is from Beith Wakil, but most of them are. They have a facebook page but it currently features pictures of the damage inflicted by the war. I would rather you saw it’s splendor first.

Use this link for pictures of the Talisman Hotel. As you scroll down, beyond the 5th row or so, some are not from the Talisman but other hotels in Damascus or even elsewhere. If you search hard enough you might even see a picture of Brangelina standing in the main courtyard of the Talisman.  


Monday, January 13, 2014

Yousef al-Azmeh, Hero

Some of this is a repeat of Early 20th Century Syrian History, but I wanted to set up the Yousef al-Azmeh story as a stand alone post not contained in the history post.

Amidst the colonial turmoil of post World War I, Emir Faisal – that guy who went across the desert with Lawrence of Arabia – joined General Allenby in Damascus in October of 1918. The Emir began establishing a government. At the same time, the French, demanding that the English honor the Sykes-Picot agreement, arrived in what was becoming known as Lebanon and took over. In November of 1919 the British left Damascus to avoid conflict with the French, ending Syria’s hopes that the west would honor their sovereignty.

In March of 1920, after negotiations with the French collapsed under Arab pressure for independence, the Syrian Congress declared Faisal King of a new state: the Arab Kingdom of Syria. The Europeans responded by holding the San Remo Conference, and allocating governance of former Ottoman territories as they saw fit.

In July of 1920, according to the French, tired of King Faisal trying to convince the League of Nations that he had a better right to rule Arabs than the French and British did, the French sent King Faisal the ultimatum “surrender or fight.” According to Syrians (who have photographic evidence) the French bombed Damascus from the air, and threatened to reduce it to rubble if King Faisal did not surrender immediately. Syria had barely begun to form its military, and had no airplanes nor any anti-aircraft defenses, so King Faisal surrendered to save his people and the antiquities of his country, including the Umayyad Mosque and Straight Street, along with other sites sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews in Syria.

The French say Yousef al-Azmeh, King Faisal’s Chief of Staff and Minister of War, willfully disregarded his King’s surrender and led his men into battle against the French ignoring the fact they had no hope of winning against superior numbers, artillery, and training.

The Syrians remember Yousef al-Azmeh very differently. The young idealist knew what a blow surrendering to the French would be to the pride and hope of the Syrian people as well as their future bids for sovereignty. If they surrendered without a fight, it would be as if the Kingdom of Syria had never existed. Azmeh decided to recruit and lead a group of men in a fight against the French so history would reflect that the Syrians had not given up without a fight. In one respect the Syrians agreed with the French: they didn’t have the weapons, numbers, or training to prevail against the French invaders. No man who followed Yousef al-Azmeh into the Battle of Maysaloun Pass on 23 July 1920 expected to live. Azmeh died, as did most of his men, and the next day, King Faisal’s forces in Damascus surrendered to the French.

Today, Yousef al-Azmeh is remembered in Syria as a martyr who died for the cause of Syrian Independence. A statue of him is located at the center of a circle named after him in downtown Damascus, near the Cham Palace Hotel and less than 600 metres (roughly 2000 ft.) from Marjeh Square (a.k.a. Martyrs' Square) where the execution of Arab nationalists originally prompted the start of the Arab Revolt.

You may use these links to access the bibliographies on wikipedia and track down primary source materials if you wish to learn more.

Battle of Maysalun

Arab Revolt

Marjeh Square

Early 20th Century Syrian History in Brief - with heavy use of wiki!

Remember George Santayana? No? That’s ironic, since he reportedly coined the phrase, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Well, apparently, the US enjoys repetition. But, as events unfold in Syria today, foreign intervention looming on the horizon, it’s hard for Arabs not to remember how things went almost a century ago, and dread that history may be repeated.

Even before World War I started, Arabs were trying to break free from the Ottoman Empire and form their own nations. In 1908, Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca declared himself King of the new Kingdom of Hejaz. Throughout WWI the Hashemite royal family continued to correspond with the British (first with Lord Kitchener in 1915, then Sir Henry McMahon 1915 – 1916). On May 6, 1916 the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule was finally triggered when the sultan had Arab nationalists executed in Marjeh Square, Damascus. In the remaining years of World War I, Arabs helped England and France prevail against the Ottoman Empire believing it was their best chance at independence. Emir Faisal and a contingent of supporters attended western peace talks after World War I in an effort to secure a future for the Arab people as independent nations rather than colonial assets to foreign powers.

November 1917 was a particularly disappointing year for the Arabs. On November 9, a paper publicized the Balfour Declaration of November second, essentially giving Zionists official British support for establishing a home in Palestine. On November 23 the new Bolshevik government in Russia made the Sykes-Picot Agreement public, revealing the French and English had been secretly negotiating throughout WWI to rule over the Arabs while at the same time promising them self-determination.

Later an American report (King-Crane Commission 1919) showed that Syrians opposed both the Balfour declaration and the French and British mandates. The report was ignored as were Arab demands for an independent and unified Syria.

Here’s the part you might be familiar with. Emir Faisal – that guy who went across the desert with Lawrence of Arabia – son of Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, joined British General Allenby in Damascus in October of 1918, and began establishing a local government. At the same time, the French, demanding that the English honor the Sykes-Picot agreement, arrived in what was becoming known as Lebanon and took over.

At the Paris Peace Talks of 1919 – which resulted in the Treaty of Versailles – the US Secretary of State Robert Lansing identified the mandate system as a thinly veiled division of the spoils of war. In July the newly formed Syrian Congress passed resolutions demanding a constitutional monarchy with Faisal as King, and asking the US for assistance. In November, the British left Damascus to avoid conflict with the French, ending Syria’s hopes that the west would honor their requests.

In March of 1920, after negotiations with the French collapsed under Arab pressure for independence, the Syrian Congress declared Faisal King of a new state: the Arab Kingdom of Syria. The Europeans responded by holding the San Remo Conference, and allocating governance of former Ottoman territories as they saw fit.

Syria had no trained army to speak of and no air force at all, so when the French bombed antiquities and threatened to raze Old Damascus to the ground, the Syrians eventually surrendered (see my Yousef Azmeh blog for an important footnote).

“Henri Gouraud on horseback inspecting his French troops at Maysalun” This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. It was reportedly taken on 24th July, 1920 in Maysalun. The photographer is unknown. The file is from Wikimedia Commons.

The French ran Syria for well over the official 20 years of the mandate. The French Mandate of Syria was not formally approved by the League of Nations until 29 September 1923, when they had already been running Syria and Lebanon for three years and they did not leave Damascus until 1946. The French disdain for Arabs is exemplified by the story that after putting down a revolt in northern Syria, General Gouraud kicked Saladin’s tomb and said, “Awake, Saladin. We have returned. My presence here consecrates victory of the Cross over the Crescent.”

In 1946 when the French withdrew, they left a final mark in the memories of Syrians: they bombed parliament. One of my ancestors, a parliamentary guard, died in the attack. I don't know how many others died.  

Though remnants of French influence, good and bad, can be found throughout Syria, and French culture is respected, Syrians have not forgotten the bad taste of imperial rule. So, you see, perhaps the one thing that a Syrian fears more than a dictatorship is a foreign dictatorship. Ironically the best hope for Syria to stay intact both physically and as a government –we do have a parliament and a constitution - is the United Nations, the entity that succeeded The League of Nations, who created the mess in the Middle East in the first place.

The following links will help you find the bibliographies on wikipedia so you can get to primary sources, if you wish to learn more.


partitioning of Ottoman Empire

French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon

Battle of Maysalun

Marjeh Square

Arab Revolt

Dumpsters and Death Notices


 While I was studying International Relations in college, one of my professors had the opportunity to spend a year in Syria. He came back brimming with enthusiasm and a new depth of understanding for Middle Eastern Politics, one of his passions. As it happened we went through lecture material for his class at a fast clip the term after his return, so he excitedly put together an informative slide show of his time in Syria to spark class discussion.

He had a particular sequence of slides where he shared a dilemma he’d encountered. He showed a dumpster on an Aleppo street. In the picture, the dumpster appeared relatively empty but it was surrounded by bags of trash. The professor then showed another slide depicting postings pasted onto the entryway of a building. He told us the postings informed the public that the dumpsters were for trash collection and only worked properly if people put their trash inside the dumpsters. My professor seemed to feel the government had a very hard job making the people of Syria understand how to use a dumpster.

I did a very selfish thing that day. I kept my mouth shut. Inside, I was laughing, though I should have been crying. At the time I didn’t think of the long range indications my professor’s lack of understanding and its spread would mean for my people. I was close to graduating and wasn’t about to rain of a professor’s parade.

Here’s the information my professor, an expert in Middle Eastern Politics was lacking:

In Syria, whenever something momentous happens, a notice gets pasted up, EVERYWHERE. This is mostly used for death notices, since Muslims must bury their dead by the sun down after a death takes place. A death notice is basically an obituary with a brief history of the deceased, information about the time and location the funeral, and who will host the condolences. Death notices are plastered everywhere they might be seen. I’m not kidding when I say, if a bus stays still long enough, it will get pasted with a death notice! I saw it happen, when Damascus had buses.

The boys – yes, child labor - who were hired to do the pasting up were not educated and were paid to get the job done quickly. Once the government put up signs saying “no posting here” and within the day, the signs were covered in postings, prompting my father to comment that he doubted the boys doing the posting could read enough to understand the signs.

Damascenes once had kiosks where death notices were posted, but the government got rid of them because they were ragged eye sores. No one ever removed a posting, they just added layer after layer of pasty, papery mess. Now that the kiosks were gone every other surface had become fair game or not so fair game: front doors, walls, steps, banisters, trash cans, dumpsters, park benches, guard rails. Though everyone relied on the death notices, they also hated the postings being everywhere. The postings were viewed as litter. Imagine your front door being pasted all over with newspapers, a new layer almost everyday. Thankfully doors and windows seemed to be exempt, but shutters were not.

My father once spent an afternoon using a pressure washer to get all the postings off of our front porch. He proudly hollered into the house for us to come see how beautiful the porch was. We’d never seen it without any postings littering it up before, and we’d lived in that house for six or seven years by then. We went outside and admired the clean porch with father, then returned to making dinner. A few minutes later my father entered the kitchen red faced and grumbling. He’d gone back out to dry off the porch, only to find a crew already pasting notices on the walls! The porch had been clean for less than ten minutes. So, when you say, “litter,” postings encrusting the walls of your building is one of the top five things urban Syrians will think of.

A shop in 2010 with the remnants of notices surrounding the entry. This is miraculously clean compared to some buildings.

As for dumpsters, Syrians have a heavy duty cultural imperative against them: charity. For reasons of sanitation trash is put out after dark but before ten pm. After dark, street sweepers come by. I don’t mean one of those gigantic machines, I mean men in tattered clothing, with brooms made from twigs pushing little trash cans and dust pans on a makeshift cart. These are some of the poorest men in Syrian society. There are probably beggars who are paid better. Many don’t even have proper shoes. I’m not exaggerating about this. I’ve seen them with my own eyes. These men, will slit open trash bags as they go, and scavenge for anything they can use or sell. Even if you leave useful items to one side of the trash bag (shoes), they will still open the bag to investigate for themselves. Later in the night, the trash collectors come by and scoop what is left up into the garbage truck (a real one).

The dumpsters rarely have a lot in them, so they often get skipped, especially since most of them are damaged and won’t fit on the garbage truck’s lift anyway. In fact, I seem to recall that the dumpsters and trucks were purchased from separate companies and some were not even compatible with one another. So if a home owner was so ungenerous as to skip the road side charity, placing their trash in a dumpster, their garbage might be left to stink up the neighborhood for days. Even if that were not the case, the idea of forcing a street sweeper to dumpster dive was considered repulsive.

So, my professor had been given a euphemistic version of the situation. In the minds of government officials and foreigners, the populace were being backward and uncooperative. In the minds of the populace, the government had replaced one problem with another. They had taken away kiosks and given the city trash littered walls, they had then not only added smelly dumpsters, but posted more litter on people’s walls in an effort to persuade them to use the smelly dumpsters, all while ignoring the basic needs of their poorest citizens: street sweepers.

As the events in Syria unfold, now, it is tempting for westerners to believe that the west holds answers that Syrians haven’t thought of on their own. Please keep in mind that people from the west really don’t know all about Syria or it’s people. Syrians have to find their own solutions or they won’t work.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Two Tales of One Minaret

Recent months have led me to think a lot about perspective. As I watch politicians use half-baked truths to justify their agendas, it’s hard not to remember that every tale has two sides, or more. I could go on a rant about US politics in the Middle East, but instead I’d like to offer up a couple of entries about historical perspective.

The first entry is a story about a minaret that sits on the southern edge of the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

I first heard about this minaret while watching the documentary series Out of Egypt. In that series, a guide [Nimrod Luz] stands in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and points out the minaret as it broadcasts the call to prayer over the neighborhood. He explains to the series host,

            “we’re in the middle of the most important Christian site…you can take a 
             naïve approach and say, “he’s just calling to prayer.”…[but] there’s no
             mosque that actually needs this here. This is a challenge. This is saying, 
             “we are here, we are stronger than you, our voice is heard more than 
             your voice.”” … “I’m sure they [people in the church] know what it’s all 
             about and they feel intimidated when he calls to prayer.”
It should be noted that this man was serving as a general guide and commentator, he was not a representative of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Having grown up in a conservative Muslim neighborhood of Damascus, the vitriol of this interpretation was suspicious to me. In our neighborhood we had at least three mosques in a one-block radius and probably close to a dozen within a kilometer. My Christian mother and I particularly enjoyed the gentle tone of the early morning prayer call.

Generally, for Christians in Damascus, hearing the Muslim call to prayer was not considered a confrontation with Islam, but simply a call to prayer, which Christians were free to answer within the context of their own religion. I think it is possible some Christians in Jerusalem feel the same way.

A minaret on the west side of Umayyad Mosque (in Damascus, Syria), where Christians and Muslims shared the facility for roughly 50 years, and which is located in the old city where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together for centuries.

By contrast, the Muslim version of the story of the minaret is everything but confrontational. In fact, it’s quite romantic.

I first heard this story in the documentary series East to West, and have since found a couple of other versions. It goes something like this: In 637 C.E.(a.k.a. 637 A.D.), when the Patriarch Sophronius (a.k.a. St. Sophronius), ruler of Jerusalem, surrendered the city to Caliph Omar I, he invited the caliph to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While the caliph was there the time for prayer came. The patriarch invited the caliph to pray inside the church, but Caliph Omar I refused. He feared that future generations of Muslims would venerate the spot where he first prayed within the walls of Jerusalem. He thought there was a risk they might claim the site for Islam and create a monument for Muslim pilgrims. So, he went outside the church, and prayed there instead.

Caliph Omar I was correct. Muslims considered him very important, they still do. He was a companion to the late Prophet Muhammad, he was the second caliph ever to exist, and he was known for being a just man. So, in 1193 C.E.(a.k.a. 1193 A.D.), a Muslim Sultan (Al-Afdal ibn Salah ad-Din – one of Saladin’s sons) built the Omar Mosque on the spot where Caliph Omar I had prayed. The minaret in question is part of the Omar Mosque, which to this day is used for prayer only.

These two views of a single minaret are arguably opposites and each fueled by a specific view of Islam. Your view of Muslims or Arabs would be deeply affected by whichever version you heard, unless you had also heard the opposite version.

A couple of things that sway me in the direction of the Muslim version of the story are:

            a) Under the Muslims, Jews, who had been exiled for centuries by the 
                Christian rulers of Jerusalem, were allowed to return to their holy 
                city, and Christians were allowed to stay, confirming the Muslim 
                commitment to religious tolerance portrayed in the story.

            b) General Allenby’s official proclamation of marshal law upon taking 
               Jerusalem from the Ottomans in 1917 C.E. indicates that the story 
               of Caliph Omar I was known to him. He wrote:

                        “Guardians have been established at Bethlehem and on Rachel’s 
                            Tomb. The tomb at Hebron has been placed under exclusive 
                            Moslem control. The hereditary custodians at the gate of the 
                            Holy Sepulchre have been requested to take up their accustomed 
                            duties in remembrance of the magnanimous act of the Caliph Omar

                            who protected that church.

Allenby’s reference even implies there is more to the story than I have found so far. I’ll have to keep looking. For now, I choose to like the idea of a church and a mosque being so close. Perhaps that is because I am Damascene!

                                     *     *     *     *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

The second story I want to share is about a famous Syrian general, Yousef al-Azmeh. I will cover that in a separate blog entry, coming soon...

Friday, September 27, 2013

Misquoted and Misused!

 Recently, I learned a harsh lesson about being misquoted. With a B.A. in Communication and Political, Legal, & Economic Analysis, I’ve always been keenly aware of how the “telephone game” sows the seeds of misunderstanding, but this instance left me feeling USED. That feeling is appropriate to the topic: Syria. As the crisis has become international, it has also taken a turn that is alarming to Arabs: once again the West insists it not only has the moral superiority to judge the situation but also the right to interfere even though the majority of the mortal cost will be paid by Arab civilians. What used to be called imperialism, the US now insists on calling “global policing” or being “the world’s conscience,” while it consistently works to undermine the United Nations who are the agreed upon agency for those things. Never mind that civil rights barely exist in the US anymore, or all those guys still imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay who haven’t had trials. The US doesn’t participate in the world court. They just want to be the world court.

On September 2, 2013 one of my godfathers e-mailed me asking for insights about the situation in Syria for a homily he was to deliver to his Roman Catholic congregation the following Sunday. He was particularly concerned about what he called the Christian minorities.

Because I do not have his permission to share a verbatim copy of his homily, I will only include his misquotes regarding me.  He made me sound juvenile and bent on Assad’s destruction. One is wrong and the other wrong as well as dangerous to my life and my family. He also made it sound like some of my Syrian relatives were Christian and that there is currently a rift between my Christian and Muslim Mahayni relatives!

After fuming for a long time, I’ve finally decided that I must at least set the record straight regarding what I did say to him about my feelings on the US proposing to bomb Syrian military sites at the beginning of September. I also have to defend myself because he posted his homily online with my name attached, so his misquotes are there for the world to see until he or his Roman Catholic bosses take them down.

Below are excerpts from his homily, followed by excerpts from what I really e-mailed to him.

What he claimed I said:
She said that bombing would “engender a certain degree of righteous general satisfaction…as long as nobody except bad people get [taken out] and the damage is done against Assad’s military assets, with maybe surgical strikes against one or two of his palaces thrown in.” But it’s awfully hard to control the purposed “limited intervention” to Assad and his supporters and assets only.”

What I actually wrote:
The US has no more hope of success in Syria than it had in Afghanistan or Iraq. The Syrian people, my father among them, are cowering in their homes, now, waiting for US bombs to kill them, not knowing where they can go for safety. No matter what claims the US makes about accuracy, there will always be stray bombs, "collateral damage."

And what would any strike accomplish? The military has apparently abandoned military targets, leaving empty buildings. And, if the US hits any of the Syrian infra-structure, Syria will not be able to rebuild it. They aren't as oil rich as Iraq. Instead, Syrians will freeze and starve in their homes this winter because of rationing and not being able to safely harvest foods locally. Even if they could harvest foods, would [the food] be edible? Ghouta is orchard country, growing peaches, apples, plums, apricots, etc. How much of Syria's food supply is now poisoned? Whatever the US has planned, will it really make Syrians safe, feed them, shelter them?

What he claimed I said:
Lemia continues by saying that if President Obama [and the US] had earlier armed the rebels while they were still “relatively respectable secularists” and before Al Qaeda and other Islamists murderers got so involved, there might have been some hope of an “Assad-free” outcome. We in effect have blown that chance.

What I actually wrote:
The crux of things at this moment is that while the US has promised humanitarian aid, they haven't done nearly as much as they implied they would, and yet they have also blocked a lot of UN efforts to define and address the situation. In this case, the UN is the only plausible authority that could have success…
One thing that the US could do, that they should have done from the beginning is to work with the Assad government to ferret out terrorist cells among the rebels. It would be easier to [evaluate] the rebels if the Al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood type elements could be defanged or at least identified. It would also be easier to evaluate the Syrian government's reactions if we knew how much terrorists were involved in stirring things up. It is clear that some fundamentalist Muslims, some of them quite extreme, are eager to oust Assad. We can only guess what they would do if they replaced him. Otherwise, the US should stop dabbling in post-colonial imperialism. That's how [the US is] seen in the Middle East: imperialists.

What he claimed I said:
As far as the use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians, she has doubts and refers to an article by Peter Osborne of the “Telegraph” newspaper in London (August 29).

What I actually wrote:
While perfectly well-meaning people want someone, anyone, to step in and end decades of oppression, there is clearly more going on than a simple rebellion. Some things attributed to the "Assad Regime" simply don't fit the pattern of rationale or serve a strategy for keeping the regime in power. [For instance], why would Assad ask the UN to come and inspect the earlier alleged gassing sites and then launch such an obvious attack while everyone was watching? The pattern of the [Assad] regime that has been firmly established is to OPENLY retaliate against dissidents so that others [will] learn to keep quiet, know exactly whom they should fear most.

What he claimed I said:
Many of her family members are Muslim and although historically they have gotten along, lately there has been a good deal of tension because of the rise of Militant Islam thoughout the region.

What I actually wrote:
Old time Damascenes have been proud to call Christians their neighbors, but in less educated areas, there might be problems that I haven't heard of. In Sunni Islam, all "brothers and sisters of the book" are to be respected (i.e. if you believe in the basic tenets of the Old Testament, [Christians] are equal with Jews and Muslims who follow the same God). It is only the statuses of the "Prophet Jesus" and the "Prophet Muhammad" that separate the three religions. I hear that this has changed because Christians are perceived to be on Assad's side, but I think that is a double-edged propaganda tool. There are a lot of villages that have a mixed population, so the damage of such a propaganda-generated rift might be minimized by intimacy or doubled. It's hard to say how people react.

             [This is born out by the recent rebel attack on Maaloula. Although it was
             later found that some Muslim youth from the village participated in the  
            attack, Muslim neighbors did not attack the Christians in the village,  
           “Muslim” extremists attacked in the name of the rebels. In fact, Muslims 
           in the village are reported to have been shielding their Christian 
           neighbors from rebel harassment for months.]

         I believe ALL my Syrian family members are Muslim, and none of them
         approve of extremists, so there is NO TENSION between me and my  

Well, I’ve learned my lesson about trusting someone else to represent me accurately. I pray each day that Syria remains a place safe for mixed faiths and that the Syrian people will work together to find a solution that paves a road to a brighter future for all of us. It sounds naïve, I know, but I do pray for the best case scenario, nothing less.

God’s Peace be with you.