Thursday, November 03, 2005

Anti-Mehlis Demonstration

(written 10/31)
I had claimed at first that this wasn’t a political blog, but here I go posting a somewhat political post. I’ve been feeling the pressure from the non-stop news about Syria – I want to get my take on issues up here before they become totally obsolete. So here’s my story about last week’s Syria news, the demonstration in Damascus.

On the morning of October 24, I was taking a servees (microbus) to the center of the city to run an errand. There were people in the streets, carrying signs, waving flags – I was immediately reminded of an email I had read the night before from the US embassy saying that there were reports of a demonstration planned for today, and that Americans should avoid downtown. But I had forgotten this (whoops!), and there I was downtown, … and, … well, I just couldn’t resist. What a great opportunity to talk to people and see what they are thinking.

When I finished my errand, I started out walking from Abu Romane, following the scattered folks who were following a big crowd moving a few hundred meters ahead of us. The wide street I was on was largely empty; I sidled up next to some high school boys walking and carrying flags to start a conversation.

Before I approached these boys, I had considered introducing myself as Canadian today, despite the fact that I’ve never once felt threatened here on account of my nationality. I had, after all, been warned not to come here – I was a bit scared. At the last minute, however, I decided against it. Partly because I’m no good at lying, and partly because that would ruin one of my goals – not only am I here to get to know Syrians, I also want to be an example of an American separate from his government.

I asked them about the demonstration, what’s the purpose, why they came, etc. Of course I knew what the purpose of the demonstration was, but I wanted to hear it from them. They proved to be a pretty lousy bunch. Only one of them actually spoke to me – the others acted too cool to even greet me. From the one who talked to me, I learned that all high schools had been canceled today because of the demonstration. He could tell me that it was against America and Israel, but when I asked about Mehlis, he didn’t even know who that was. Not very impressive. My conversation with this guy faded and then eventually trailed off.

I kept walking, turned right after the park towards Baghdad St.. The big group in front of me met and joined an even bigger group at a large traffic circle with a big fountain in the middle (it turns purple at night) – this was the center of the demonstration, where it remained for the next 2 hours or so. I took up a post by the side of the road a few meters from where the thick crowd began. At this point I was still a little bit scared – what is the deal actually with me being here – am I in danger?

What did this thing look like? Well, there were indeed a lot of people there. The entire traffic circle (it’s big) was filled to the brim, and the crowd spread out into the 6 or so streets that feed the circle as well. Still, I would estimate the number as far lower than the 100,000 reported by official Syrian news. I’m no expert, but it didn’t seem to me to be much bigger than the crowd we had in Philly on Feb. 15 2003 against the Iraq war buildup – and that was supposed to be 10,000 or 20,000.

Generally, to me it looked like any peaceful political demonstration I’ve seen. There were many signs, in Arabic, French and English, along with lots of Syrian flags and the necessary Hafizs and Bashars. From loudspeakers were coming the speech of some official speaker. There were also scattered groups of people doing some call-and-response chanting. There was of course a military presence, but much less than I expected. Lots of young folks were there (as mentioned, no school today!) but there was also a significant presence of adults, who seemed to be coming from different parts of society.

As I stood there leaning up against a wall by the side of the street, looking things over, I was greeted by a group of 3 men, probably in their 30s or 40s. Judging from their clothes, they were blue-collar workers of some kind. Ghazi, Shadi, and Khalid. They were friendly and welcoming, and of course somewhat thrilled at finding an American here – and what’s more one who speaks “al-lugha al-mazboota,” (the correct language) as Shadi called it, i.e., spoken Arabic and not Fusha or MSA.

This day for me at the demonstration was a personal language breakthrough. I spoke only Arabic with the people I met. Because so many foreigners only learn written Arabic, finding someone who speaks their normal language (not fluently, yet) seems to be a real treat for people here. I can feel them open up to me right away.

After we talked together for a while, Ghazi, Shadi, and Khalid linked their arms in mine and swept me into the crowd. There was somebody they wanted me to meet. They addressed this person as Ustaz, literally “professor,” but also a general term of respect for any white-collar type. This guy was just that – a respectable middle-aged white-collar type. We talked in Arabic for a while, and something of a crowd gathered around – not more than 12 people or so. Everyone was rather curious about me – I had trouble fitting asking questions to them in edgewise. They were glad to hear that I am against Bush and his aggression, but when it came to the Mehlis report, I was impressed with their restraint. They asked me about it and I replied “shoo bya`rafnee?” – a slangy phrase meaning “how would I know?” That is quite how I felt, having not read the report or any in-depth analysis of it. One of those present asked again, pressing me for an answer, but a chorus of voices quickly silenced him, letting me keep my silence on the issue.

Someone (I can’t really remember who) decided that that was enough conversation for me, and so everyone dispersed – a few thanked me and shook my hand. Ghazi, Shadi, Khalid suggested that I join the group of youth dancing in a circle, but I turned them down in favor of walking a little. Together we worked our way around the large traffic circle, squeezing between the crowd. Again I was impressed with their not wanting to take advantage of me as an American at an anti-American protest: After one of them suggested taking me to a TV camera, I said “ma biddee” – “I don’t want to.” That was that, end of discussion, they weren’t going to take me. We traded phone numbers and parted ways not long afterwards.

I continued my stroll around the perimeter of the traffic circle, and as I took a pause to take in the scene in front of me, a late-middle-aged guy (suit and tie) started up a conversation with me. We spoke rather briefly, and loudly as well, since we were standing near one of the loudspeakers amplifying the official speech. At one point he leaned forward and said into my ear, “I love the American people, but Bush is going to destroy the world!” Again and again this phrase or sentiment is repeated to me: “I love the American people.” Sometime I should go as a Canadian, if only to see if people still say that to someone who is not an American. My gut tells me, however, that most people really do mean it.

Things were getting a little crowded in the direction I was going, so I headed off on a side street and approached the demonstration from a different direction. I was next greeted by a group of students – some university and some high school. Again, very surprised that I was speaking Arabic. Having seen that school had been let out and that some teachers were shooing kids here and there, I asked these students whether it was required that they come here. They were absolutely adamant that it was not required, and that they were present of their own accord. [More on this topic later. And a side question for anyone reading: how could I have asked them that question without asking it? I.e., so as not to arouse their suspicions that I was accusing their rally of being fabricated?] One of the girls went on to say how much she loved her president: “Bashar habeeb elbee” – “Bashar is the love of my heart!” The young guys there backed her up saying it was great that he was so young. The one I ended up talking with was Annan, a Palestinian currently studying at a private medical university in Damascus. He was very aware of the issues of the day, but I did not discuss with him long, because I wanted to run back home and grab my camera to make some documentary evidence.

On the way there, not far from the protest, I heard a call from the side of the road: “Hello! How are you?” This happens fairly often: when kids see I am a foreigner they sometimes call out to me with whatever English they know. I’ve discovered this is a great way of starting conversations – I answer them back in Arabic and then we are on a roll. This ended up being a really nice conversation with about 7 boys in their early years of high school. These guys were very nice and very much aware of the purpose of the rally and the events behind it. Like the previous group of students I’d met, most definitely in full support of their government. They were rather curious about the anti-Bush types in America, and our conversation often left politics to just talk about life and culture. Once their teachers passed by, telling them to do something (I couldn’t catch what – were they telling them to go to the center of the protest?), but they excused themselves by saying they were talking to an American. By the time our conversation ended, the crowd at the circle was thinning out, so I gave up on getting my camera and wandered around the premises some more as it cleared out.

I’m glad I ended up downtown that morning and that I decided to go. I’m glad I had a lot of conversations with different sorts of people, and I’m really glad that Syrians can distinguish between Mr. Bush and me. What I really wonder about is the all the people who were *not* at the demonstration. I’m not saying that all those absent are in favor of the Mehlis report, but naturally everyone there was against it. How many people sit at home, watch BBC along with the Syrian propaganda news shows, and ask, “well, I wonder if our government did do something wrong?” But if people do think that, there is no place here to ask such questions.

It’s been a more than a week now since the protest. I’ve done some more reading about the Mehlis report, and faster than I can keep up with, international politics is moving on: The UN issued a resolution against Syria on Nov. 1st. I’m now going to try to boil down my feelings about the demonstration and the whole Mehlis report into a big, fat, blanket statement that perhaps fits both situations: The way things appear can keep people from looking honestly at their content.

In terms of the demonstration, I will refer to an article (within a blog post) of a Fulbrighter (Roland McKay) who was there: He gives some good description, but pretty much writes off the demonstration as a propaganda stunt. He’s largely right: the fact that students got out of school and were encouraged or required by their teachers to go does not make the protest seem very grassroots. Hence, the Assad government seems even more weak and desperate for support. What this line of thinking can miss is that most of the people I talked to there knew what they were talking about, had some real legitimate grievances about US aggression, and support their government. The fact that the protest was rather stage-managed hides the fact that most people there (excluding the first group of oblivious flag-wavers I met) were serious and passionate about their concerns.

The problem I see with the Mehlis report situation is that it has never been separated from the aggression of the United States. However true and unbiased it may be, the report will always be tied to the US/French/British escalation of this issue. It has seemed to me that this escalation is not based on the search for truth but rather on the goal of eliminating the current Syrian government. Thus, the Syrians will always have excuses – “The report is political!” “Mehlis is Bush’s puppet!” – and will not have to actually take stock of the potential criminality in their government. The fact that the report has been politicized by the US (whether it’s content is politicized or not) will hide from so many Syrians and other defenders against US aggression the truths that could be found in it.


Blogger upyernoz said...

i enjoyed reading your impressions

but you should learn how to make an in-text link.

for example, you could write this:

"I will refer to an article (within a blog post) of a Fulbrighter (Roland McKay) who was there."

to make the link you type this:

[a href=""]an article[/a]

except that instead of the brackets [ and ], you use greater-than and less-than signs < and >

it reads more smoothly when you embed your links in the text

5:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right after I read your latest blog post, I checked on another Blogspot blog that I keep an eye on; this one is maintained by a woman (Eileen Flanagan) at Chestnut Hill Meeting whose concerns and experiences are very different from yours: she's married, a mother, a teacher, a daughter. BUT there was an undercurrent in her post (referring to her time in the Peace Corps in Botswana) that reminded me a lot of what you reported as Syrians' reactions to you and your attempts to meet them face to face. So check out Imperfect Serenity to see if you see a connection.

Andrew Jones's dad (Philip)

7:19 PM  
Blogger Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Is it your job to keep the US Embassy informed?

6:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Support Syrian people who are caught in the middle! Check the new Friends of Syria website and sign the list.

12:26 AM  
Blogger bowlby said...

I am interested to know a bit more about your Arabic teacher and lessons. Can you e-mail me and let me know if it's possible for me to take courses with him as well?


6:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear "foreigner in Syria"
The link you mentioned is outrageous in many ways
The writer saw nothing but a "cattle" that gathered for reasons they didn't know or care about!He is too sure that he's smarter than all, and was able to sense the pulse on the street!!!Really pathetic and too silly. Where the F... does he live?I doubt he lives in Syria unless he's one of those smart Americans who believe the crap being told by George Bush, or an embassy worker who always know funny stories about "strange and stupid cultures"!
Please keep your site away from such political dirt- you have a cool site and you need no "observations" from such smart-ass to make your site richer.
By the way? Is he from Texas? If so, that explains a lot:)

9:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course a right wing pundit is going to write the demonstration off. But those people demonstrated because they were afraid for their country and their lives. They wanted to say do not destroy our country. It is not hard to tell how Syrians feel, they are frightened.

9:23 PM  
Blogger Kawe said...

Hey boys!!
I'm An Arabic teacher in Syria and I teach Both (Fusha) which is dusty and (Al Amiiya)..If want ta take classes just gimme a bell. The number is

7:48 PM  
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