Reflections on My Visit to Syria
Apr 27, 2018 06:00AM ● Published by Pamela Johnson
What we Americans tend to seek above all else is simplicity, and we can hardly be blamed for it. With so much information and so many stimuli available, we’re encouraged to make decisions and form our opinions in moments, then on to the next topic. Is it bad or is it good? Is it right or is it wrong? Worth our precious time or not? Worth the outrage we’ve perhaps been told to feel?
When dealing with a place, especially one steeped in controversy, we want to know the exact shade of their grass. Is it greener than our own, or is it poisoned and dead? What is life like there?
I asked myself these questions, and carefully sought the answers in others, during my recent visit to my father’s native country of Syria, one of the most controversial nations in our modern world. The answers—if you can call them that—intrigue, frustrate and inspire all at once. And seeking them is itself a challenge.
To be fair, the majority of people who travel to a country situated along the Mediterranean are bound to find the grass just a little bit greener, especially coming from a place like New England. It’s embedded in the very air. I remember the first moment I walked out of the airport there and smelled the sea. With that smell, something clicked deep in my mind—I was in a very different place.
For this Bellingham native, the life I experienced in Syria was something of a paradise—sitting sea-side, talking, laughing, drinking the finest drinks and eating authentic Mediterranean cuisines, all for pennies on the dollar. For me, fresh off a volunteering stint in Europe and unemployed, it was the perfect place to watch the days and nights roll by, always with temperatures mid-sixties and always with a good time to be had amidst the stereotypical haze of a Middle Eastern café. How could I complain? Life was good.
This is where it is necessary to pause, and to ask the pivotal question—isn’t Syria a war-torn country? Hasn’t it been destroyed by terrorism, and choked by despotism? Well, yes—in some places.
Here I will specify that I spent nearly the entirety of my two trips to Syria (in as many years) in the government-controlled city of Tartus, on the coast. My uncle relocated my family there from Aleppo (where my father and his siblings grew up) several years ago when the war became too close for comfort—specifically, after a bomb hit the top floor of his apartment building. My family was fortunate enough to live on the bottom floor. My family was fortunate for many reasons, in fact. Not only did they survive the initial wave of destruction that swept over Aleppo when the warring factions converged there, they, most importantly, had the resources to relocate. This is the factor that often goes unsaid when watching a humanitarian crisis from continents away—the true victims of war are the country’s most destitute. Some are too poor to resettle, some too stubborn to abandon their homes. They are the ones caught in the crossfire, blown up, burned and buried beneath the rubble. Those who do flee are the refugees—the “huddled masses” who find solace in sympathetic societies if they’re lucky, and wash up lifeless on foreign shores if they aren’t.
How do we reconcile these two extremes? How is it fair that in Syria’s large cities so many have suffered and died while in the government stronghold of Tartus this American tourist sat, lazily sipping sea-side tea under the watchful smirk of President Assad, his image posted over every street corner, Russian battleships swaying complacently off in the distance all the while.
The answer is obvious—none of this is fair. It is as unfair, and as intrinsic, as our own social disparities here in the U.S. But unlike here in the U.S., there is no clear-cut political spectrum. Conflict in Syria is, as the Middle East has always been to us in the West, an enigma. Pointing the finger of blame not only leaves Syrian hands twisted in knots, but leaves Syrian blood in the streets.
Most outsiders will go straight to the top and blame the president—Assad, the dictator, the warlord responsible for chemical attacks and the crushing of any and all cultural dissent. He is the embodiment of what is wrong with Middle Eastern politics. Apologists be damned.
But he is at the same time the nation’s great enigma, as defined by a hushed conversation I had in private with an acquaintance on one of my last nights in Tartus. I put it to her simply—“Is the president popular?” No simple answer followed. No answer followed at all, actually. Not because such talk is illegal (although it is), but for the simple fact that no answer exists. She could but tilt her head and throw up her hands. Is he really as socially powerful as he is militarily, or is he a (comparably) liberal leader stuck between religious conservatives demanding a crackdown on Westernization? Is there no truth behind the folk-hero image depicted in the propaganda posters, sometimes stern, sometimes downright silly (or “So cute!” as one of my cousins described)—not a glorious king, but a first among equals, in a military outfit and sunglasses, ready to fight side-by-side with the other true sons of Syria?
And there’s one other faction to consider, at one point equally as powerful as the other two, but outside the bounds of moral equivocation—Daesh, known in English as ISIS. Though fortunately for us their relationship to the US is that of little more than a political talking point, for years ISIS was a tangible entity, their headquarters in Raqqah looming, both literally and figuratively, in the heart of Syria. More than anything, I recall one exchange between my father and my uncle which defines for me this terrible faction’s ability to both shatter the lives of Syrians and unite them with their problematic government in their shared quest for safety and stability: during one afternoon ride through town, my father commented that it was through my uncle’s leadership that the family had moved and found normalcy through life in Tartus. “We know Tartus because of you,” my father said. With a chuckle, my uncle responded, “We know Tartus because of ISIS.”
None of this helps to simplify the underlying ambiguities of the current condition of life in Syria, and how we as Americans should feel about it. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The silver lining to being a bystander to such a tragic episode is that it allows us to examine ourselves and our society through that lens. Where do we fall on the social spectrum? Where would we be if the bombs began falling, dropped not by an outside invader, but by tumultuous countrymen? Would we, or could we, move on and continue with life as normal while battles raged elsewhere? Do we, in our daily lives, take our safety for granted?
I learned the answer to this upon arriving in Tartus my first time. Weary from travel and wildly out of my element, I bemoaned the seemingly endless government checkpoints, one after another, stopping us to check documents and inspect the car. When will it end, I wondered. But that irritation was replaced by something else the moment we crossed the final threshold into the city, when the realization popped up in my mind that we were still in a warzone, but the war was now safely over the horizon. The checkpoints and barricades that had moments before irked me so—within them, they now made me feel so safe.
Overhead, the president’s image smirked on.