Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Perceptions of the U.S.

This will be a quick one; a response to a commenter's question.

"In the end I would like you to ask all your Arab friends a simple question. What do they really know about the American community, how do the Americans live, their social behavior, and their day to day activities?"

As we are all apt to do when concieving of other groups of people we don't know, people here generalize a lot. I often find myself saying, "Well, not everybody in America does that..." Most people's perceptions come directly from hollywood films, and from that are often exaggerated to a greater or lesser degree. But when you think about it, much of the American definition of our own society has come from the movies, so that's not so very strange. More interesting to me is how people's reaction to that percieved American society defines their own cultural values. For instance, many folks ask concernedly if my relationships (with family, with girls) are really as they see in films -- this is definitely a socially conservative society.

In terms of what people actually know, some know more, some know less. A few people have relatives living in the states, so usually those folks' perceptions are colored by their relatives' experience, which of course varies. Some people have absurdly wrong perceptions, such as that I can just go to the American Embassy and pick up money, since all Americans live off the money they get from the government. One thing that people are generally ready to talk about is the lack of security in America -- of course contrasted with very safe Damascus. Even then I remind people that it depends a lot on where you are, but for the most part, they're right: the security here is unparalled in the US, except in isolated neighborhoods and regions.

Most often, even with those who have some personal connection with the America, I find that people have absolutely no sense the massive size and the astounding diversity (and I don't just mean racial diversity) of the United States. I myself have trouble getting my mind around those two a lot of the time.

And most of the time, rather than asking (notepad in hand) "what do you think about Americans?", I prefer (and I think it's probably more effective) to make relationships with folks where we really get to know each other. This way, any generalizations we make about each others' societies must be limited by our familiarity with this other person, who, naturally, breaks out of those generalizations in at least one way or another.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Iraq, My Neighbor

For a number of reasons, living in Syria has made the situation in Iraq seem closer to me than it ever has before. Most obviously, we're simply close: roughly speaking, Damascus and Baghdad are about as far apart as Washington D.C. and Boston. This relatively small distance, however, is not what has most made me feel this proximity.

I'll begin in a kind of roundabout way, with a story from my friends Gabe and Theresa. They are here studying Arabic like me, with the goal of working with Iraqi refugees. Before the war started, they traveled to Iraq 4 times as members of a peace group working against the sanctions, trying to show how they harmed the people. Back in the US, they made presentations about their work. Once, after Theresa pointed out a picture of a girl's birthday party that they attended, a woman asked, "Do they have birthdays in Iraq?"

Though it may by easy to call this woman foolish, take a moment to think about how many pictures of Iraq you have seen that do not relate to the war. Personally, most all that I can think of are some mounds of earth from my 10th grade ancient history class -- and even then there was minimal connection made between "Mesopotamia" and "Iraq". I think that for the people in the world whose active awareness of Iraq began with the war (most of us, probably), they understandably have trouble thinking of the country in terms other than violence.

Now, however, if I see on TV the aftermath of a bombing on a Baghdad street, my attention is first drawn not to whatever shell of a car is still smoking, but rather to the curbstones. Curbstones, you ask? Yes, the curbstones, because they're the type of curbs that often line the larger Damascus streets: Stones alternatively painted black and white; I'm sure in mini-imitation of the styles of Islamic architecture that use this alternation. It's a little thing, but it means a lot: rather than seeing a tragic explosion on a street in "somewhere else", I now see a tragic explosion on a street that looks a whole lot like my neighborhood. It makes for a very different perspective.

In addition to the curbstones, there seem to be a lot of physical similarities between the two cities. Among the Baghdad storefronts I can see the shop where I bought a sweater last month; among crowds of Iraqis I can pick out the guys who sell vegetables on my street. I imagine that Baghdad and Damascus are really quite similar cities. They've got similar climates, they are both the administrative capitals of states that have been isolated from types of international development over the past half-century. Judging by my impressions of Gulf cities, Cairo, and by my visit to Beirut, Damascus seems likely to be the city most similar to Baghdad.

The tragedy is that these similarities illuminate the differences. One of my very favorite things about Damascus is the children: running errands, playing soccer, crying, laughing; living life everywhere. Perhaps the children of Baghdad once played in the streets like this; now, however, I'm sure they cannot. Here, I can come closer to imagining the nightmare that it must be to live in Baghdad, constantly in fear of violence. All normal life is impossible.

The second factor that has really brought Baghdad to Damascus for me are the Iraqis themselves. A huge number of Iraqi refugees have moved here since the beginning of the war. I'm afraid that I don't know figures, but it's enough that I have met a number of them without trying. This very random sampling of mine has been quite diverse. One was a shebb (young man -- we really need this word in english) exactly my age who went to high school in Virginia -- the son of one of the few Iraqi diplomats who had been working in Washington. Very much a smooth talker, this friendly kid spoke very fondly of his days in the US, but not so fondly about the day of the beginning of the war: he and his family were evacuated with barely a chance to pack their bags straight into Baghdad, bombs dropping around them. Needless to say, an interesting character, and an interesting face of the "Ba`ath party officials" that Bush accuses Syria of harboring. Another I met was a girl about my age at the birthday party of a common friend. We did not have a chance to discuss the fact that my country is occupying hers; too busy playing cards and dancing the debke with everybody else.

The Iraqi who really got me thinking was a man named `Imad who I met once about 2 months ago. He was living at the time with some friends who I was visiting. `Imad had only recently come from Iraq; when I met him he was attending cooking school and hoping to go to Britain to start a restaurant. I'm not sure where he is now, but I can attest that his cooking was delicious. The conversation we had was not much of a conversation: At that point, my ability to express myself in Arabic was rather poor, but I learned a lot from listening to him.

He spoke, among other things, about the inhumane behavior of the American soldiers he experienced for 3 years. A hard thing to hear -- what can I say to that? There's no point in attempting to defend those poor American kids trained to be fearful of and violent towards the culture they are entering. I eked out a feeble "I'm sorry," and then tried to excuse myself by explaining that there were and are Americans against the war, including me. But `Imad then asked me straight: "how could the American people have let their government do this?"

I think it's a pretty damn good question. When I later told an American acquaintance about my encounter with `Imad, he gave me a response that missed the point entirely: "Is he Sunni?" These political-science types who love more than anything to assign people in groups that define what they think are really missing a lot. Sure, this guy I've met is just one of thousands of Iraqis here in Syria, but from this one guy we have heard a story of suffering. I have no idea of what `Imad's religion is, or even what exactly his experience with Americans' "inhumane treatment", but in my opinion, it doesn't matter: his grievance and his question remain as pointed and as relevant.

So I've asked myself: why didn't I do more to oppose the war? I could excuse myself by saying that Bush would have done it no matter what anyone said, or even by claiming that American "democracy" is nothing but a set of illusions to give people the sense of having power -- but I think those are lame cop-outs. What it's made me realize is that Americans (like myself) who have pride in "our" ideals (e.g. democracy, free speech, or citizen involvement), who complain about the evils of something in the system (e.g. Bush), and yet who don't actually do anything about it -- we are a big bunch of hypocrites. Yes, I went to that well-intentioned anti-war protest in February 2003, I waved my sign, but once the war started and I went to college, I didn't give much thought to it at all. In my own defense, I'll say that there didn't seem to be anything to do once it began, but I have to wonder: what would I have done differently if I could have imagined (as vividly as I can imagine now) the tragedy of the war and its incredible human cost? More importantly: what can I do differently? -- present tense.

On the topics of hypocrites and Iraq, I have some criticism to dole out for others too. Many people I meet here share my disgust for the policies of Bush, especially when it comes to the war. (Certainly not all, however: two days ago, I got into an great discussion with a Kurdish taxi driver who could not believe I don't like Bush.) When talking about the war with those critical of American policy, there's plenty we can say to condemn the American army and what has become of the situation. What gets me peeved are people who so easily condemn atrocities committed by foreigners, but who become suddenly silent if I mention the "resistance fighters" who kill 70-some people at a Mosque on a Friday. If pressed, they'll admit that this is just as terrible, but will quickly change the subject back to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. How can we work to condemn all wrongs, whether it is convenient for us to condemn them or not?

The third way that I've been close to Iraq is the elections. Just over a week ago, I was asked by a friend if I wanted to be an international observer for the Iraqi parliament elections -- those held here in Damascus for all the Iraqi refugees. It was not any special connection that got me this, just a friend who had happened to be involved and who thought I might also be interested. I thought this sounded like a rather unique and important experience, so I signed up. The IMIE (Internation Mission for Iraqi Elections) OCV (Out-of-Country Voting) authorities were looking for international people to observe these elections. First, I had to sign a pledge of respect, impartiality, and non-interference; then I received documents with the procedures to be followed at all the voting centers.

The elections lasted 3 days, followed by a day of vote counting, all taking place at 10 different centers in Damascus and 1 in Aleppo. I observed for a couple of shifts (4 hours each) of both voting and counting. This was not a thrilling experience, no, you could not say that, but it was very interesting. The other observers were fascinating folks (on my different days I ended up with a Brit, a Bulgarian, a Czech, and a Canadian), and I especially liked getting to know the Syrian translator/observer with us at each center. Talk never turned to politics, (since we had signed a form saying it wouldn't) and that was just fine with me. The one really interesting conversation I had was with a stylish young Iraqi woman there observing (not with our group) as a representative of an Iraqi political entity. We talked about cultures -- this mostly meant her offering up amusing opinions: "You Americans simply do not know how to dress!"

From what I saw, the staff running the voting and counting (Iraqis living here) were very professional and stuck to the rules well. I missed (but heard about) such dramatic moments as when people were rejected coming back a second time having tried to scrub the purple ink off their fingers. We all (observers) gathered for a debriefing session the other night, and although it was not an absolutely cheat-proof election, it seems like they did a pretty solid job here in Syria. Perhaps the most fun of all was getting to really talk with the other observers after the debriefing. There was an amazing discussion about Gay marriage, between: a Spanish ambassador, a few young Syrians, a Finnish ambassador, a Swedish student (snatching bits of scandinavian conversation with the Finn), 2 American students (one a Quaker, one a Mormon), and a middle aged Syrian woman -- and this in a country where homosexuality "does not exist." I'll let you guess who said what!

From the election days and the debriefing session I got a very hopeful feeling about the elections. Seeing this apparently positive step in the Iraqi situation, I have not retroactively become a supporter of Bush's invasion; nevertheless, I am not in denial of the current situation: any step towards stability must be encouraged. I sensed that the Iraqis voting could feel that hope too, yet I also heard people distressed about the security situation and very resentful of the occupation. From out of America's lies, and from the violence and the suffering on all sides, let's hope that some real good will come out of it.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

"we are with international legality but we refuse international mess"

This is the first time I've lived in a foreign country -- i.e. the first time I've not been a tourist somewhere. I like things much better this way. Among other things, it's an opportunity to witness change over the long-term. The tourist only ever sees a snapshot. There have been seasonal changes aplenty that I've been lucky enough to witness so far: Ramadan, `Eid, and of course the weather getting colder. One dramatic change in the city over the past few weeks has been an amazing explosion of patriotism.

The phrase in the title of this post is printed on a big banner above Baghdad St., along with a big Syrian flag and the Arabic equivalent. I didn't have time to write down or translate that Arabic bit, but I'm sure it sounds at least a little more natural than the awesomely awkward English version. More importantly: Sharia Baghdad is not an exception; the whole city has been pasted with flags and patriotic slogans painted onto banners.

As far as I can keep track, this big burst of showing your patriotism began in full force after the speech of the president early in November. In a move that nobody expected (none of the Western commentators, at least), he talked tough, saying that the behavior of the US and the UN investigation was nothing less than a kind of war against Syria. Although he called for cooperation with the UN investigation, the tone was one of national unity and defiance against the so-called "international mess".

Let's keep in mind that, for as long as I've been here, Damascus (and beyond, of course) has been pretty well coated with the faces of the president, his father, and sometimes his brother too. On any government building or office you're sure to find at least a few of them. (Regarding presidential faces on buildings, try this witty comment of another visitor to Damascus.) Many shops have a framed photo of the father or the son, and many cars have a bashar-in-sunglasses windshield sticker. About 3 weeks after my arrival, I wrote in my journal that the role of their faces (in terms of where people put them) seemed similar to how flags appear in the states -- while noting the significant difference of meaning between a single human being's face and a set of symbols. I've got two favorite types of pictures: one has the president up front, with his father and brother ("martyred" in a car accident) behind, each one floating above a shoulder, as if advising him from the beyond. The other one is with Bashar laughing -- not only is it nice to see his lighter side, but in that picture he's also sporting a riotous double chin.

In this new burst of patriotism, however, the majority of signs and slogans are (very wisely, I think) focused on the flag and Syria, rather than the ruling family. While before this happened I had only a vague sense of what the syrian flag looked like, now it has been indelibly printed onto my memory. Billboards all over the city are covered with them, and at at least two of the city's major traffic circles, (besides being covered with flags and slogans), there are tents set up for patriotism organization. Many of these billboards have little comments at the bottom such as, "May God take care of Syria." Letter-sized versions of these billboards now appear everywhere, in car and store windows. There are also lots of painted banners, proclaiming that "we all love Syria and will defend her" and the like. Mention of the president is of course not absent from all this new effort, but it seems to me to take a back seat.

And so what do I think, is it all manufactured by the state or a is it a true outpouring of patriotism from the people? I would say it's certainly a mix of the two, as it would be in any country in such a situation. Of course the big displays in the big squares and on the billboards are engineered, but that can't explain the newly-hung flag outside the miniscule snack-shop next door to my apartment -- our street is just inches wider than a car, so who would have interest to "place" a flag there? The way that flags and slogans are appearing in car windows reminds me of the situation of patriotism after 9/11 in the states. A country is threatened, and both its government and people feel the need to emphasize their national unity.

I must come clean: I dislike this kind of crazy, flag-wild patriotism, wherever it may be found. Not only does it encourage malicious "who's more patriotic than who"-type intimidation, but it also ... well, my good Syrian friend `Abdullah put it best: "All this flag-waving is silly. A person's true feeling about their country is found on the inside, not in how they show it." That pretty much says it all.

Nevertheless, it can't be denied that people reacted positively to the president's speech. One Syrian wondered why the US is behaving as it is, because they have only strengthened the popularity and power of the president. "People who were against him earlier now support him, because he has stood up against the US and its aims in the region." One American friend made the delightfully absurd hypothesis that maybe maybe the Syrian government hired the US to threaten it -- a 21st century "Mouse that Roared".

I don't want to make it seem, however, that his popularity is brand new. Although I don't talk about this topic with my friends a lot, I've gotten the sense that Bashar's popularity is, in fact, rather long-standing and widespread. One friend portrayed him as an island of honor and goodness in a corrupt government that (according to him) needs to be changed. A good illustration, I think, that most people are not either 100% for or against their government.

Despite the rumors of Americans now being turned down for visa renewals, the situation has not changed how people treat me when I first tell them my nationality. Ahlan wa Sahlan (welcome), they say, and, as usual, most seem to really mean it, though with some it's harder to tell. I can never know for sure, since welcoming guests is such a big part of people's pride here -- to not say Ahlayn (another form of the "welcome" phrase) would be unfathomably rude, no matter what you think. I hope in the future to write more about the richness of Arabic polite expressions, insha'Allah.

And, as always, the little bits of life continue without a second thought: The souqs open and close, people are buying long-underwear and replacement chimney-pipes for their heaters, and as I write I can hear a little girl counting to 40 outside my window -- they're playing hide-and-seek, I suppose? This whole Mehlis-etc. business has, at least for the current moment, made itself visible mostly as some TV news specials, increased discussion, and the flags that have flooded the city. Nevertheless, as we go about our lives, many of us here are watching very carefully as the drama of this "international mess" unfolds.