Syria in 1994 and today (Part I)

Doing  this piece on Syria I am thinking back to my visit there in 1994. It was one of my usual summer trips to the Middle East that I did every year from 1989 till 2005. I am a pack rat but a disorganized one so when I went to look for the notes I took on the trip, I could not find them nor could I find  most of the photos I took. I have four filing cabinets full of articles, memorablia, even clothing from the Middle East. My wife always wonders why I keep it. I’m not sure but I just can’t bear to part with the stuff. Every time I do I am sorry. I have articles dating back to 1968 in Beirut. I have a Lebanese newspaper in which the leading article accuses me of being a CIA spy. Apparently one of the Palestinian students broke into the American University’s  ( Beirut) registrar office and found my records. I was an US army major at the time, a Foreign Area Specialist, ( the term used for Foreign Area officers of today). My proponent office was the Assistant Chief of Staff  for Intelligence. I had nothing to do with intelligence but the Arab love of conspiracy theories kicked in and the big wheels at AUB had to try to douse the flames.

Anyway I am upset that I can’t find but two pics of my travel in Syria. Being disorganized I also failed to caption most of the pictures of my travels from 1967 till 2006 in the Middle East.  But much of those travels are alive and well in my head.

I’m an Arabophile. I love their food, Lebanese music, their sense of drama, and zest for life and their language even though with my artillery hearing I was never good at comprehension. When I left Beirut I could read Arab newspapers pretty well, at least the news articles, but not the flowery( khara) BS of their opinion pieces. I also thought the girls were lovely. In my day at the American University, before the so called “Islamic revival” the girls wore miniskirts, strapless sun dresses, and unlike American girls who go to class looking like something the cat dragged in, the Arab girls, especially the Lebanese were beautifully made up with lots of attention to the eyes. It was hard to pay attention to the professor.. At the front of the class, I am not sure how the professor kept his mind on his notes, looking at all the girls in the front row ( on purpose) in student chairs with their micro minis.

And I loved the way they flirted with their eyes…and their  drawn out Kiii….fik ( Lebanese dialect for “how are you”) The way they said it made you think it was an invitation to ecstasy ( the emotion not the pill). But the wildest girls were those from Saudi Arabia. Freed from their puritanical constraints they were like kids in a candy store. As the young guys use to tell me the Saudi girls had to be home by seven but they managed to do everything the Western girls  did…only earlier.

But I digress. Yes we are talking Syria.  Arriving in Syria I did what I was required to do being a DOD employee…go to the Embassy and see if any of the State Dept people would give me the time of day. In Syria as I remember I talked to a number of the Foreign service nationals, Syrians working for the U.S. As in most Arab embassies they were Christians. They were very nice to me as was the US military attache…a Colonel I knew from years ago.

Then I did what I always liked best…get away from the embassy  and get out to the countryside. I was staying at the Damascus Hilton ( or Sheraton..can’t remember)and I rented a car and driver for a week. He spoke almost no English and so it was great for my Arabic refresher. I must admit that after  three days my head hurt…..he talked constantly about everything. After a while I felt numb and longed to just sleep

Getting around in Syria however requires caution. I had an official passport, not diplomatic, and the Syrians have no problem throwing people in Jail. In fact many years before the US major who took my place in Jordan as the military attache was driving with his wife through Syria  and was arrested for taking pictures of military installations. In Syria everything is a military installation. Even though he had a diplomatic passport, he was not accredited to Syria and therefore he spent quite a while in prison and was tortured to extract information. Never ever play games with Syrian intelligence. There is no ACLU or bleeding heart lawyers to defend you. A sequel to this story is that when he returned to US custody he was interrogated by our counter-intel people which was equally bad in a different way. I think they had a problem understanding how the Syrians operate then and now. For some reason, mostly to ensure continued access, US academics and journalists have always tiptoed carefully around the brutality of the Hafez Asad regime. Until very recently they continued to do so. People like Patrick Seale have been more than empathetic to the Asad regime.

The great thing about having your own transport and driver is that you pick up hitchikers who tell you all sorts of things. We picked up two soldiers  on the way to Aleppo and though I had a hard time understanding their Arabic ( they were bedu from the Syrian border with Iraq) they told me how much they hated the army, their officers, and they wanted out anyway they get it

But before I began my tour of Syria I spent some time in Damascus. At the hotel pool I made a cultural study of the young Syrians who were there. Obviously they were the privileged of Syrian society. In particular I remember one young man with a three – day growth of beard like the other men there ( apparently the role model was the star of Miami Vice). He was obviously from a top echelon official  family as he was followed around by a group of friends, young guys like himself kissing his ass, bringing him drinks, laughing at his stupid jokes…some in English to impress the girls. This is an example of what I call crypto-socialism. A new ruling class without any breeding or idea of good manners. Everything was pretence and sophmoric. He acted the way  fourteen years old olds do at a pool here.

The Syrian upper class girls were another story. They never went in the water…what would happen to their makeup? Their hair? From time to time they would disappear and re-emerge later with a new swimsuit. One did this several times. They too had a queen bee who bitched about everything…insulted the waiters, was constantly attended to by her retinue of girl pals. To me it was so typical of what I has seen elsewhere in the Arab world. Those on top treating those beneath them with contempt. To be kind to the peasants  is a  sign of weakness.

Thankfully there was a bar in the hotel. Bars are a great cultural laboratory anywhere. The bartender told me he worked two shifts so he could send his son to a private school. He said the educational system in Syria was abysmal. Teachers were poorly paid and were at the bottom of the social barrel. A guy next to me turned out to an American Syrian from Jacksonville Florida. He had returned to live in Syria. I was incredulous. Why I asked.

It was such a typical story that I used it often in my classes to illustrate the cultural differences. First of all his wife dumped him for another guy…something that is pretty rare in the Middle East. But most importantly, he told me that once when he was sick, no one from his work called, no friends came  to see him, he could have  died and no one would care. If he had been in Syria he would have been plied with gifts and flowers, food  and a constant stream  of visitors.  I understood that because Americans…lets face it…are very superficial in friendships. In an hour we’re great buddies and a week later we can’t remember his name.

I asked him about the the Syrian obligation to serve in the Military. He did not seem the soldier type. He had done his two years. He was in the Syrian army band he said. What instrument did you play I asked? None he replied. My family paid a lot of money and I was assigned to the band.

In that response you have a major reason why Arabs lose wars. We have our draft dodgers like  Bill Clinton but at least it is not accepted as the proper thing to do…. except maybe by  the liberal left. In the Arab world it is an accepted practice.

Then walking the Damascus Suk ( market place) I had a long conversation with a young guy running a pottery stall. He told me he was getting married soon to a sixteen year old. She had been approved by his mother. He had met her once. When he reached out to touch her she recoiled  in horror. He was dismayed. As it turned out he had lived in German for years …..had a German girl friend he shacked up with ( I’m sorry,  its not called that anymore). Why did his family return? Because his sister was coming of age  and to live in the German society was a constant threat to her chastity. He hated Syrian society and the idea of marrying a girl who was a child at best. But he was now over thirty and had to marry.  He tried to return to Germany but the Germans, who do not like Muslims very much, (understatement) said sorry you can’t.

In the same suq I found the best of Arab culture. I stopped to watch furniture makers do their work and of course they invited me to lunch. It was delicious  bread with lamb and mint and hommous, with tea.  I am a very messy person when I eat and as usual I had crumbs all over the floor. One by one the old man picked up each crumb and put on a napkin. Ai’ish  ( bread)  is life and to leave on the ground, a dirty place,  is to be ungrateful for God’s gifts.

They asked about America and of course every Syrian has relatives in the States. Did I meet the brother Ahmad who lives in New York?

This is getting longer than I thought so I will continue soon with my Syrian adventures.

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About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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