LETTERS FROM DAMASCUS by Paul Chamberlin – ARCHIVE


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. (Read Parts 1 and 2 online here. Read Part 3 online here.)

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

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.

Thursday 20 July
The Arabic program here is falling apart. About four people showed up
today and the university has started canceling classes. Most of us are
trying to arrange departure from Syria, which seems to be getting
harder every day. Hearing a rumor that cheap flights to Cairo were
available from EgyptAir, we went by the office today, only to find the
lobby full of people crowding up to the ticket counters, trying to get
out of the country. After about a half an hour, we managed to push our
way up to one attendant who smiled sympathetically, and told us that
flights were sold out through the end of the month. I notice that,
though many of the passports are Egyptian, the group beside us is
sporting Canadian documents. It seems like everyone is trying to get
out of the city.

The decision to leave has been a difficult one. As much as I’d like to
stay and wait to see if something happens, I’m not willing to stick
around if bombs start dropping, so waiting around would just make me
another body trying to squeeze out of Syria should something go wrong.
As is, I’ll be leaving a couple weeks ahead of schedule — and making
them up in Cairo, not a bad trade as far as I’m concerned. I have a
week to wrap things up here before my plane leaves (somehow we managed
to get tickets through a US travel agency).

While I still feel completely safe here, things continue to get more
and more tense. My friend tells me that he saw a fist-fight break out
between two drivers trying to get down the same street. I also walked
by two kids — maybe 10 or 11 years old — sitting in a doorway and
brandishing some sort of combat shotgun. Though they didn’t pay me
much mind, and surely had no intention of threatening me with the gun
(which probably wasn’t loaded anyway), the whole scene was a little
unsettling and contributes the weird vibe coming from the city lately.
We’re hearing that there are large anti-U.S. demonstrations in the
city tonight and people that know what they’re talking about are
telling us to keep a low profile. That all seems pretty far away
though. Tonight’s the weekend and that means weddings, which usually
degenerate into lots of cars honking and good times all around.

I told my host-mother that I’d be leaving and she started crying. I
tried to explain that it wasn’t because I was afraid of Syria or
Syrians … that I was afraid of President Bush and the Israeli
military. She just told me the Bush needed to come to Syria, then he
wouldn’t have so many bad things to say. Then she started talking
about a prime minister that came to Damascus — from somewhere, I’m
not sure where, my Arabic still has a ways to go — and he was very
nice and very fat. It’s going to be hard to leave.

Saturday 22 July
Things have been pretty quiet here the last couple of days. The slow
trickle of American students out of Damascus has begun with people
flying back to Europe and heading north overland to Turkey. The
Syrians in our neighborhood have started to notice. Today I talked to
my friend who works at shop around the corner from my house. He says
he’s worried, so he hasn’t been watching the news. It’s probably the
first time that I’ve spoken with a Syrian who will admit to being
worried about the situation in Lebanon coming to Damascus. We ran into
a man last night who spoke fluent French. When he asked, one of my
companions lied and said that we were from Canada–something I’ve
never done before. He started going off on Israel and the
international community for not doing anything about what’s happening
in Lebanon. I told him in my mangled French (my French prepositions
are losing out to their Arabic counterparts, which leads to some
confusion) that President Bush was holding up all the proposed
ceasefires, but he didn’t seem terribly interested in talking about
America.

We’re also starting to get some press back in the Ohio — there’s a
large contingent of Ohio State students here. So far everything we’ve
read has been pretty alarmist, talking about how we’re all fearing for
our lives. The sensationalist stories are making life difficult for
people with wives, girlfriends, and boyfriends back home. I’ve also
been amazed at the refusal of people back home to let go of this idea
that we face some sort of grave danger from Syrians and Hezbollah, as
if the people here were stalking the streets just waiting to kidnap
some unwitting American. No matter what we say, everyone keeps
bringing this up.

Sunday 23 July
In addition to the Ummayad mosque, the spectacular Old City, Bashar
al-Assad, and about five million Syrians, Damascus is home to the
french fry sandwich: A bun filled with coleslaw, mayonnaise, and fried
potato slices that hits the spot (and stays there) any day of the
week. We were enjoying one of these fine treats the other day in a
snack shop just south of Straight Street, the street that divides the
old city into the right and wrong side of the tracks, so to speak. Not
that Damascus really has a wrong side of the tracks (people don’t
really feel it necessary to use bike locks here, for example), rather
this is simply the side of town that you’re more likely to get funny
looks if you are obviously not Syrian. In any case, as we were trying
to finish off Syria’s answer to low cholesterol the owner of the shop
switched on Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV, which seems to run Hezbollah’s
theme song to videos of guys jumping around in the woods and shooting
guns every hour on the hour. So now that’s in my head, it really is
rather catchy.

We also found a pirated copy of First Blood the other night at a kiosk
in the new city. Someone had recorded it with Arabic subtitles off
satellite TV. It wasn’t long before we were all sipping Syrian beers
(Barada, after the river) and watching Rambo on an Egyptian DVD
player.

We went to a juice bar today to study and enjoy fresh strawberry
juice. One of the guys hanging out in the bar was an ex-commando in
the Syrian army. Everyone laughed when George Bush came on al-Jazeera.
The UN is suggesting that Israel’s attacks on Beirut might qualify as
war crimes (mass graves, whole families killed), Secretary Rice is
pledging to block ceasefires, Israel is massing troops and armour on
the Lebanese border, and the Syrian papers have picked up the story of
Washington sending more laser-guided bombs to Israel. At least people
here have kept their sense of humor.

Monday 24 July
Last night while waiting for a friend in the shadow of the Ummayad
Mosque, we ended up getting pulled into a conversation with a young
man selling rugs and Damascene souvenirs to tourists. “You’re not
rednecks, are you?” he asks. “There are a lot of rednecks around
here.” As it turns out, he knows a couple of the girls from Ohio State
that came here last summer. It’s a small world.

Unfortunately the rumors of anti-Americanism that we’ve been hearing
bear some truth. We’re seeing more Hezbollah flags and pictures of
Nasrallah everyday, and I’d swear that we’re getting more glares as
the crisis in Lebanon continues. A couple of my fellow students got
into it with a vendor in the souq yesterday. “Fuck you Americans,” he
told them. At the same time, we’re seeing more westerners in Damascus
than ever due to the situation in Lebanon. Many of those who left
Beirut have ended up here, ironically, making it increasingly
difficult to keep a low profile. On that note, my host family rented
my room out today. My replacement — a student from Seattle who was
studying in Beirut — moves in on Friday.

I spent the day waiting around for DHL to deliver our paper tickets
for the flight from Damascus to Cairo. Later, we found out that
they’re still in Ohio and we should expect them to arrive no later
than Wednesday, the day before we fly out. We’ve also heard that
EgyptAir is trying to cancel our tickets out of Damascus. They’ve
oversold the flights and are looking for seats to cancel. Getting out
early has been a giant hassle, I can’t imagine what it would be like
if something actually went wrong.

Wednesday 26 July
I ended up hanging out last night with a group of Syrian teenagers on a roof in
the Old City last night smoking sheesha. One of them was sporting a
big t-shirt that had the word “THUG” scrawled across it. In between
your typical adolescent “Ahmed is gay” and “Your mom is my girlfriend”
jokes I talked with them a bit about the situation in Lebanon. Most of
them were Christian but they all had great things to say about
Nasrallah and Hezbollah. They weren’t worried, they said, because they
knew that Russia and Iran were on their side. This business about the
Shi’ite crescent doesn’t seem to make much sense in Damascus, where
Christians and Sunnis join with Shi’ites in professing support and
admiration for Hezbollah. Hezbollah flags and pictures of Nasrallah
are everywhere now. We’re seeing a lot of glossy posters with the
three faces of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad, and Hassan Nasrallah
against a Syrian flag. My friend in Cairo suggests that Nasrallah is
becoming the new Nasser, the face of pan-Arab resistance, with
Israel’s help. So far, I haven’t spoken with anyone who has much of
anything bad to say about him.

We had a taxi driver last night who asked if we were Russians; he got
angry when he found out we were Americans and started venting about
President Bush. Apparently Clinton is cool, Powell is okay, but Bush
and this Condoleeza Rice character are no good.

We finally figured out what was going on with our tickets to Cairo.
Apparently, the paper tickets were intercepted by the Department of
Homeland Security, which is stopping most packages coming to Syria.
Thus, while we sit in Damascus amid anti-American demonstrations and
rising support for Hezbollah, the U.S. Government his holding our
tickets out of the country. Luckily, we were able to purchase
replacement tickets from EgyptAir. Now all we have to worry about is
getting a refund from the airline, but the money we paid to have the
tickets shipped to Damascus is gone.

Monday 31 July
We’ve made it to Cairo despite the combined efforts of Egypt Air, the
Department of Homeland Security, and Egyptian Customs. It really has
felt as if the best efforts of Washington, Israel, Damascus, and
finally Cairo have been massed against us. Upon arrival in Cairo we
were stopped by customs officials who discovered three carpets and
numerous tablecloths amongst my companion’s belongings. Still not
savvy enough to bribe our way out of our predicament, we resorted to
arguing with the officials until 1:30 in the morning whereupon we
agreed to leave the carpets in the airport (so that we couldn’t sell
them in Egypt, which we weren’t planning to do in any case) for a fee
of around $10. Upon settling the matter, we broke out smokes and
enjoyed French cigarettes from Syria with the Egyptian customs
officials underneath a No Smoking sign in the Cairo Airport.

Though we’ve left the specter of Israeli bombardment and Hezbollah
demonstrations in Damascus, Cairo has its own demons. Lines of
black-clad riot police encircle the Journalist’s Syndicate and
white-uniformed Tourist Police perch on nearly every street corner,
AK-47’s with attached bayonets hoisted over their backs. The tensions
here come not from Israel but from the deep discontent in Egyptian
society. The ubiquitous pictures of Nasrallah and Hezbollah flags are
replaced with the ramped-up military presence. Cairo exhibits glaring
extremes between the rich and poor, government and Islamists, and
European colonial past and uncertain future.

On Friday we manage to get an invitation to a small get-together
hosted by the daughter of the U.S. Ambassador at his residence inside
the American embassy in Garden City. The embassy itself is a fortress,
surrounded by 12-ft concrete walls and army officers, and cordoned off
from motorized traffic — Egypt is, if memory serves me, the world’s
second largest recipient of U.S. aid, behind Israel. My friend sets
off the metal detector, but the sole guard inside makes no move to
stop us. We cross a spotlessly clean courtyard underneath a large
American flag and make our way inside the residence. Inside, we’re
confronted with an oddly Americanized residence complete with bacon
and Roy Orbison cds. The ambassador’s daughter has turned the
oversized American-flag magnet on the refrigerator upside-down “until
the Lebanese invasion ends,” she jokes, and then turns it right-side
up again. We go swimming later and I enjoy screwdrivers and beer in
the Ambassador’s pool; Egypt really is a lovely place.

Nevertheless, it feels as if things have changed since I was here last
summer. My expat friend (with whom we’re staying) says he’s seen a
growing anger in Egyptian society and mounting resentment of the
United States. While Cairo still lets off a certain exuberance, it
seems as if people are less happy to hear that we’re Americans. Then
again, it could just be my imagination, or nostalgia for my previous
summer at AUC. While I’d like to be able to say that this summer has
left me with a clearer sense of what’s really going on in the “Middle
East,” I find myself less certain than ever, and more cynical in
regards to all the parties involved.

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About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in the rural wilderness of Joshua Tree, California, where I am a partner in JTHomesteader.com with Stephanie Smith.

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