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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your posts are consistently thought-provoking and I really look forward to reading them. Your parallels between the two cities was particularly moving. Seems to me that if more people felt an affinity with nations that we invade or embargo, political action would be much more informed. What can we do/the media do to enhance understanding of other cultures? Oy. I still can't wrap my mind around all of the experiences you're having and people you're meeting. Stay safe--avoid deserted campgrounds (oh wait, wrong crazy trip)--and stay in touch. xoxo. Arielle

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading your blog, but especially this last entry. It's nice to read a perspective like yours, someone who knows America but also Syria, and not coming from an official media source.
(don't remember how I originally stumbled on your blog.) --K.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Ellen said...

I know the coolest people :) Keep up the posts, Rich, and keep exploring!
Love, Ellen

4:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Sir
I know you want to avoid getting into politics in your blog, but you have started this debit.
You say, you are against the war. That is a good thing, unfortunately the majority of the American people were with the war. America is a democracy whether people admit that or not. When Bush was reelected, this was a proof that when Bush lead them to war they were not blindfolded. However there is a good percentage of Americans, who were and still are against the war. But this “good percentage” wasn’t ably to prevent the reelection of Bush, do you know why? Because the majority of the Americans don’t find great difference between Bush and Carre (excuse the spelling).
The middle and working class don’t really care about the war in Iraq, as long as Bush doesn’t make them pay higher taxes or introduce military conscription. Let me give you some food for thoughts, if going to war meant, that you would be drafted, and you would be fighting in Baghdad instead of learning Arabic in Damascus, wouldn’t you have done all you could to prevent the war?
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? If you please, give us a blog about it, I am sure it will be interesting.
Another piece of advice, keep out of politics or you will get a good headache.

10:35 AM  
Blogger RCC said...

Dear Anonymous Friend,
Thanks for your comment. First of all, you're right to notice that I've given up my pledge to stay out of politics. I've felt the need to give my view on political issues, a view that is (i hope) coming from a not-so-"political" standpoint. The fact is: to avoid political issues is impossible, so I figure I'll try to get my perspective on them out there. The most important point I'm trying to make is that political issues are just a single aspect of this world -- the rest is, in my opinion, just as important and often more interesting.
In terms of the war, I think you're right. I (along with most of the rest of the country) would have had a very different take on the war if it affected our lives more directly than it has.
And in answer to your question about Syrians' perspectives of Americans, I think I'll take your advice and make a post about it.
Thanks again.

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Riyad said...

Hi dear
My name is Riyad i'm from Aleppo(Halap),Syria
I'd like2say i really enjoyed reading ur blog
And I agree with you with lot of points;like the wrong war and the peace majorty

I'm@11th year in high school. 16 years old
And i like western life-style that we don't hate many of it here in syria
Like i'm inserted in world peace and green life and that stuff. And i which some day to be part of peace group ‎ ‎

Ok. Take care
Email; charmed.sy@w.cn

6:02 AM  
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