Monday, August 28, 2006

Impressions from Syria

There is a fascinating article in Ha'aretz by Danny Rubinstein, based primarily on reports from Martin Schellenberg, a young German historian who visited Syria during the war. Our own man in Damascus, whom I ran into today here in Berkeley, is back safe and sound and we are waiting to hear whether his impressions match these (among others):
In the days that followed, [Schellenberg] also did not see anyone paying any special attention to the war. While he did see new Hezbollah flags and numerous pictures of Nasrallah, he did not encounter organized or popular rallies in support of the movement, or any signs that the Syrian people were preparing for war. In one or two places he saw signs reading, "We identify with our people holding fast in Lebanon," and two or three times, following dramatic events such as the first missile strikes in Haifa, he saw young people driving, honking their horns and leaning halfway out the car windows, waving Hezbollah flags.


Seth Kimmel said...

During the month long war there were two extremely large protests in the Damascus -- public buses stopped running, people came from the countryside to join in, businesses closed, the whole downtown was cordoned off. The American embassy even sent out emails the night before so that we would be aware of the dimensions.

There were also other smaller rallies, whose chanting you could occasionally hear in the old city. These tended to break out after particularly destructive Israeli bombing campaigns.

And yes, Hezbollah flags everywhere (and for sale), pictures of Nasrallah everwhere (also for sale). Enormous signs in Arabic and French were hung from the famous bullet hole-ridden ceiling of the Hamadiya Souq declaring the Syrian people's support of the Lebanese people and Hezbollah. There was certainly no dearth of either "organized or popular support" of Hezbollah and concern over the death in Lebanon. Many Syrians have friends and family in Lebanon, and people go to Beirut (two hours from Damascus) to see censored movies -- up to a point there is a shared identity (at least from the Syrian perspective), that of the greater "Sham."

I am not sure what the "Syrian people preparing for war" would look like, but I did not see anyone stockpiling water or running to the store to buy batteries, if that is what Rubinstein and Schellenberg mean. I had the feeling that everyone seemed to know the drill on war in Lebanon, after so many violent years there, and so no one really seemed to think the war would expand to include Syria -- especially after both Israel and Syria made it explicit that neither wanted such an escalation.

Out of the city the perspective is certainly different. The news travels more slowly, it seems, and there are not televisions in every restaurant. And I found, while traveling more or less the same route as Schellenberg in early August, that as soon as I arrived to have a tea in a restaurant deep in the country, if there was a television, the owner would immediately turn the channel from the news he was watching to sexy Lebanese music videos -- so as not to interrupt Western tourist R&R, was my interpretation.

So there you have it -- nearly everyone I met was "paying special attention to the war." Perhaps because I am American, people really wanted to discuss politics with me more so than if I had been German. In any case, the picture that Schellenberg paints of Syria is not the one I experienced.

Amos said...

Thanks so much, Seth.