At Large

Innocence in Syria

Alas, even the nice girls of Palmyra think Americans hate Arabs.

By 6.2.05

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At night, the mosques of Damascus are lit up so that the domes and minarets glow green against the black sky, and you feel like you have entered another world entirely. This is not an inaccurate perception.

Pictures of Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad, dot the shops and street corners of Syria. If you happen not to think too much about it, the effect is fairly comic. Despite the poses he strikes, Bashar is less than imposing. In 1994 had been studying to become an ophthalmologist when his brother Basil died in a car crash. Overnight, Bashar became the heir apparent to his father, Hafez, in the world's most explosive region. With his weak chin and beady eyes, he has always looked more like an eye doctor than a despot.

I had come to Damascus from Cairo with two friends, unsure of what to expect. In Cairo, the universal language is a complex combination of screaming and hand-waving. Syria could not be more different. On our first day, the woman traveling with us asked a shop-owner where she could buy a scarf so that she could enter the stunning Umayyad Mosque. Instead of selling her one, he directed her to where she could borrow a scarf at the entrance to the mosque. Not only would an Egyptian shop-owner have sold her a scarf, he would have appeared on the verge of an aneurysm during the bargaining process.

The Syrians we met tried to sidestep our political differences. My male friend told one man that we were Americans, and his eyes immediately lit up. "America! George W. Bush! I love your President!" he said. When my friend asked him if that was what he really believed, he looked dejected. Disappointed that he could not in good faith stick to the compliment, he admitted, "No, not really."

We found there were often considerations that transcended, for most Syrians, their opinions on global politics. In Palmyra, a little town on the way to Aleppo, we ran into five Syrian girls who happened to be studying English. These girls wanted to practice their English, they wanted to talk about their favorite American movies -- but mostly, I think, they simply wanted to talk to boys. I had just made the mistake of hiking up a castle instead of taking a bus, and then made the greater mistake of taking a "shortcut" up a dusty ridge, where I scraped my shin against a rock. So I was dirty, sweaty, and a little bloody when I met the girls. Nevertheless, one of the them, Busaina, pointed to my scraggly week-old beard. "I think this," she ran her fingers against her jaw, "is very beautiful." Smiling, she said, "I think you are very beautiful." She thrust pieces of paper into our hands for us to write notes to them, and we had our pictures taken with all of them individually.

These girls could not flirt with Syrian boys in this way without being branded as disreputable, some sort of "loose women." In many Islamic societies, where women are supposed to be neither seen nor heard, their behavior would have been scandalous.

Beneath the friendly surface, Syrians cling to fiercely anti-Western beliefs. "I think Americans hate Arabs," Busaina confided to me. We tried to convince her otherwise, but it was no use. The father of the girls, who stood by quietly most of the time, eventually told us in halting English that he thought the American government was very bad and the Syrian government was very good.

And how could they believe anything else? Most Syrians have lived their entire life under the rule of the Assad family. The pictures of Bashar may seem ridiculous to an outsider, but they do not seem ridiculous to a Syrian who sees hundreds of them each day. Much of Syrians' information comes from the government newspaper, Tishrin. Its reporting about the United States seems to always mention how America is colonizing the Middle East to rob Arabs of their natural resources, or how it is complicit in Israel's "atrocities." A recent article in the English-language version of Tishrin asserts in one breath that whenever Ariel Sharon goes to the U.S. he "[comes] back more determined to blow away the last remaining pieces of the peace process" and that America's reasons for going to war in Iraq "were evident later on when the pieces of the Iraqi oil cake began to be distributed amongst the shareholders of the three companies who helped launch the war."

It doesn't help matters that Palestinian flags fly beside Syrian flags, and bazaar shops in Damascus and Aleppo hawk heroic pictures of Palestinian militant leaders.

It has become a common trope, in liberal circles, to blame America's poor reputation in the Middle East on its own actions. One gets the sense that these people believe that Syrians pick up a copy of the New York Times and, contemplating the situation judiciously, reach their opinions on international affairs. But in Syria, as well as other countries in the region, the governments intentionally make it impossible for America to be seen positively. Preventing America from achieving popularity among his population is a matter of life and death for Bashar al-Assad. Should Syrians ever want the rights Americans enjoy every day, the overthrow of al-Assad's government would inevitably follow.

A very different world, of course. But one that perhaps could be more like ours.

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