Syria: A Venture into Citizen Diplomacy

In Route to Damascus, Syria (January 2011) Part I

 When one is traveling to a new and far land, research is necessary. Naturally, one seeks to gain an understanding of the foreign place’s customs and how to relate to them, as well historical background in relation to interactions with neighboring countries and overall status as a global actor. It is a prerequisite to lift off. As a Jew with one parent born in Israel and for that matter, a whole gathering of Israeli family members, I need more than a “prerequisite” to visit the country I am currently in route to: The Arab Republic of Syria.

Of course you must wonder how somebody with my background should end up in such a place. Throughout my prerequisite travel, I have in fact repeatedly been asked the same question, which only makes me wonder, “What in the world am I doing?” On paper I am participating in a George Mason University course called Syria in Practice and Reflection through the Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR). Focusing on the work of Dr. Marc Gopin and his successes in establishing long-term relations with members of Syrian society, this course discusses the theory of citizen diplomacy and its practice within a police state. How can one challenge the status quo when eyes are always tacitly watching and ears are always yearning for more to inform on? How can one foster the relationships crucial to societal change if one partner is a visitor and the other partner is a resident who could face consequences from his or her closed society by the formation of a partnership with an outsider. These questions multiply easily, which is confusing, frustrating, and frightening. This is where you can find me right now. I am confused, frustrated (granted tired from the almost 24 hour traveling spree), and I am nervously on the frightened side.

I knew this was coming before setting foot on a plane. My slight nervousness began several weeks ago and has persisted, growing heavier as the day to leave approached. Of course my parents, who were being good, concerned Jewish parents, did not ease this process. What worries me most of all though is that I am not sure which actions are harmful to my safety verses which actions are simply permissible. There are of course obvious actions that would be harmful. My concern is not the black and white, but the gray. For example, I was told that I should not reveal my Jewish identity and hide all evidence of it. Keeping my identity a secret could be a matter of safety and protection from harm, yet hiding who I am is also harmful to me emotionally and mentally as a human being. My identity, a fabric of ideas, experiences, and familial history, is my everyday existence.

Not only admitting an inner respect for my identity, my name provides many indicators of my background. Shoshana, a Hebrew name meaning Rose in English, and even beyond that, an Israeli name! What if, upon introducing myself, a Syrian citizen asks me what my name means or its origin? What am I to say? To avoid the situation, what if I introduce myself with the English translation, Rose. A simple fix one can deduct, but Rose is not my real name in everyday life or written on my passport. In addition, I was told a few weeks ago by a New York City Buddhist cab driver that I looked like a Jew. Does that count as a harmful characteristic? Will the Syrians be able to recognize, upon my looks of semi-curly blonde hair and dark blue eyes, that I am a Jew? If we continued, we could analyze whether my main e-mail address that I was planning on not using because of the many references to my background, will become a threat since I find that I must check it daily anyway. Or how about the new e-mail address that I told my loved ones to reach me with? What if somebody slips up, unknowingly, and writes something that could put me in harm’s way? How about Skype chat or video chat? What about my necklace that I always wear, portraying Hebrew letters on two tablets next to the little chamsah my Tunisian students purchased for me as a gift this past summer. Will I need to hide the Hebrew tablets in my shirt or on the backside of my neck, because I refuse to take it off? It is a Catch 22. My strong willed nature might put myself in harm’s way, and yet on the other hand, I am held hostage by the fear of revealing my identity and yet of being forced to hide my identity.

On my first flight I was told by the passenger in my aisle, “YOU, going to Syria? But you are a Jew!” While waiting at the London Heathrow gate for my second and final flight to Damascus, I found myself whispering my identity to my new classmates. I was even given a little scribbled note on the back of a train ticket scrap from an American businessman stating:

“Do Enjoy ur trip. Careful who you Reveal to. 1 in 3 men in Syria work For Secret police. Your group will be watched. Phones are not secure. Nor is email. Don’t be afraid.”

Again, how could I not be afraid receiving this informative note WWII style? Finally once on the second plane and entering the same whispered conversations with a British passenger in my aisle, he praised my efforts and said that what I was doing was proper in order to learn about the other side. I nodded my head and said, “I know, I know”, perhaps like a dummy. Experience is the best teacher and in citizen diplomacy watching from afar is not enough. There is only one question left in mind now. For those who have faith to venture into the world of the “other side” to expand understanding and foster relationships, when does the cost become too high?

What We Can Learn From the Syrian People Part II

 Pre-Commentary: Current Day Reflection April 2011

My decision to finally complete this chapter in my “blog-life” comes at a moment of change in history. It is hard to read the following entry and not keep in consideration the current revolutions-evolutions of peaceful-clamorous, unsatisfied millions in the Middle East, including in Syria. As I reread some of my points from last January, I can’t help but wonder if they still hold true. It is hard to tell. As New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, pointed out in an Op-Ed recently, the current unrest in Syria is further complicated by the lack of a homogeneous population. Sectarian societies with religious and/or tribal factions tend to unravel even more within times of conflict, leading to the survival mentality of “me or them”. As I am not an expert nor do I have family in Syria (though a few wonderful Syrian friends), I do not feel comfortable changing my previous thoughts in light of current events in Syria. Not only do the reports of the unrest vary from newspaper to newspaper depending on the accounts at what some might call “protests” and what others might call “peace marches”, but as well, each newspaper holds a different slant. Conflicts, fought with physical force in the form of forthright interactions and reactions, posses an intangible dimension in the intellectual sphere of battling ideologies and vocabularies of language. Though what is currently occurring in Syria in comparison to my dated experience in Syria can be viewed as two very different environments and perhaps societies, both contain elements of this intellectual sphere originating from the individuals and sources that influence our thoughts. You, the reader, must keep this in mind while reading the entry below.

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January 2011

What do you think of when you hear the words: The Arab Republic of Syria? If I asked myself this question a mere three weeks ago, my response would resonate along the lines of, “police state”, “extreme”, “unfriendly”, and “repressive”. When the chance arrived to visit Syria with a George Mason University course through the Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR) several months ago, I grabbed the opportunity, despite my uncertainty and the surrounding questioning commentary by my peers and community. As the time to leave for Syria crept closer with the passing of 2010, my uncertainty grew stronger as the questions from my community became more adamant. What in the world was I doing going to Syria (especially in light of my family background and religious beliefs as a Jew), a country that I could only describe in negative terms?

It was not until arriving in Syria that I realized this adventure’s purpose, besides studying conflict resolution theories and practice. I was there to learn about the Syrian people from actual citizens of Syria and reflect upon my practice with them. Why do we still accept learning about a country from outsiders and not the actual citizens? Similarly with religion, shouldn’t we learn from those who practice, and not necessarily from those who preach, or at least from those who practice what they preach?

Though what I learned from the Syrian people is more than what can be described in a blog post, here is an attempt to squeeze everything into 5 lessons.

1. Get LOST!

This is the exact phrasing the First Lady of Syria, Asma Assad, used when explaining how to approach Syrian society as a visitor. Instead of merely basing one’s knowledge of Syria on scholarly books or newspaper articles, go out exploring and meet the everyday Syrian man and woman. Learn about Syria from the very people who do not need to use Cliffnotes to explain the dynamics of Syrian society. As well, First Lady Assad pointed out that in participating in this little adventure, Syria blooms into a very colorful garden. There are fashionable women wearing jeans, men wearing jalabyias, teenage girls who wear hott pink hijabs and lots of makeup, boys who are Christian with their Muslim friends, fathers going to work and then to pray, mothers in the Sook with several children by her side or maybe just one child in her arms, etc. Syria, at least in Damascus, is very diverse with religious and secular populations of a plethora of religions, including Judaism. This portrayal of Syrian society is never used in American discourse and was in fact, my first exposure to it.

2. Live beyond Tolerance

There was a lot of talk in meetings with various Syrian officials about “living beyond tolerance”, since tolerance is the most minute form of acceptance. For example, you tolerate your little brother’s annoying friends by closing the door to your room. You tolerate the cilantro in your salad, though you disdain cilantro, by pushing as much of it to the side of the plate as you can. You tolerate the gossiping girls sitting behind you in class by moving to the front of the classroom because you need to graduate. These are all examples of tolerance. Sorry if the word does not seem too pretty or admirable to you any more.

“Living beyond tolerance” is taking into account that even if you are of different religions or of different origins, you are still Syrian and part of a great Syrian nation. “I am Turkman, but I am Syrian”, “I am a Muslim woman, but I am Syrian”, “I am of Kurdistan, but I am Syrian”. This sentence format is used frequently and seems to be what many Syrians believe full heartedly. No matter the divisions and the fissures, we are all Syrian above everything else.

3. There’s the Good News and the Bad News

This just might be the most important lesson of all. We should celebrate what is “good” and not deny what is “bad”. This slogan repeatedly entered conversations held between us, the Americans, with our counterparts, the Syrians. It takes courage for a people to admit that there is room for improvement in their development and that there is some “bad news”. So many nations fear that elaborating on the “bad news” of a situation is a sign of weakness. The ability to realize and communicate problems within one’s society is the ability to tell the truth and look towards becoming a better society not in the ambiguous future, but in fact, tomorrow. There are several countries in the world that could benefit by adopting this outlook more often.

Taking this into consideration, my time in Syria was not all “good news”. Most of the time, I was fairly quiet about being a Jew and as well could not say in public the name: State of Israel. Though the other participants on the course and myself came up with plenty of amusing nom de plums, such as Disneyland, Ireland, and Nebraska, I personally disliked the forced name change for the land I consider to be a homeland. Truthfully, the connection of the State of Israel to Judaism made being a Jew in Syria more difficult, rather than the other way around. Yet for better or for worse, the two, the State of Israel and Judaism, are interconnected entities bound closer and closer every day. When exploring the Old City of Damascus with friends and stumbling upon a metal sheath about the length of a large door matt with a Star of David on it on the dirty alleyway floor, I tripped, gasped, and stared with disbelief as the feet of every day Old City Syrians walked across it, faces business usual. The Star of David can symbolize both Judaism and the State of Israel, making it very difficult to even establish any room for doubt. Every time I passed by the metal sheath, I was furious and refused to step on it. In fact, I secretly wanted to steal it and hide it, yet I realized there was no good hiding spot, I could endanger myself with such an action, and that nobody would probably even notice that it was gone anyway except for me.

4. Hospitality is Everything

As an outsider who is not Arab, it is interesting to learn how Arabs of different Middle Eastern countries view one another. In a way, it is like understanding how Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic Jews perceive each other. I learned that not only do the Syrian people set the trend in fashion in the Arab world and in their TV dramas, but as well Syrians are considered the most hospitable of all Arabs (and if this is not true in your opinion, don’t take it up with me!). All of our Syrian partners, the hotel staff at Al Pasha, and every day Syrians we met in the street were incredibly kind and generous. After demonizing a people so much or even just their politicians, it is easy to forget that they have hearts just like you and me.

The last full day in Syria was a free day to explore the city for one last time and then to conclude with final reflections. I decided to take my viola with me on this particular adventure to see if anything out of the unusual would occur. Just like an element of foreshadowing in a novel, it took only a few blocks for my friends and I to be approached by none other than Murad, a short Kurdish-Syrian with kind black eyes. He had noticed my instrument case on my back and caught our attention to show us newspaper clippings of him performing his instruments, of which he performed many from several ouds to wind instruments. After show-in-tell, he invited us to his abode for tea and music. Though we only met Murad around two minutes before, we went with it and followed him down the winding alleyways of the oldest city that has always remained populated throughout time. Before reaching his place though, he decided to introduce us to every Kurdish-Syrian restaurant owner he knew in order to show off the beauty of the ancient Arabesque styled compounds turned restaurants.

Upon reaching his home, it became obvious that Murad lived a very modest life filled with music and invited international guests who joined him and his lifestyle for a few hours. While putting up the tea, my friends and I fiddled with his instruments, which he had laid in front of us. After several hours of tea, chatting, making music together, and attempting to take photos and capture video footage, we left Murad with many thanks and smiles on our faces of an unbelievable afternoon in the Old City of Damascus.

5. Offer Your Hand in Peace

In my first full day in Syria, I found peace. My good friend, Alyssa Mische, and myself ventured out into the Old City of Damascus on our own looking for some mischief, a.k.a. two young blonde women exploring a city they don’t know in a foreign country. After starting off on the right track and then somehow venturing down a few alleyways because they looked pretty, we ended up at the square in front of one of the entrances to the grand Umayyad Mosque. While starring in awe at such a beautiful site and taking into account all of the various throngs of people surrounding the mosque area, a group of young boys playfully approached us, as the obvious foreigners and easy targets. The bravest of the group then attempts to communicate with me, yet what could we really express to each other without a common language. Then all of a sudden, he outstretches his arm towards me for a handshake and says in Arabic and then in English, “Salam.. Peace”. With a feeling of importance, I outstretch my arm and we shake hands in agreement as I respond back, “Salam”. In that moment, we made peace with each other.

Though peace seems unattainable, you can never guess when that outstretched arm might come your way. It is easy to say that there is “no partner for peace” and only commend yourself for the efforts you have made. In assuming that there is no attainable peace partner, you probably will not see the opportunity for peace when it presents itself. Moreover, making peace is not just creating a new reality for the masses, but also admitting a change in yourself that originates from the inner depths of your deepest thoughts and darkest held secrets. The decision to enter such a place can be attributed to many experiences or realizations, though clearly it includes the denunciation of a level of selfishness.

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As we watch the current events in Syria unfold from afar, unsure of what is reported in honesty or which actions are based in selflessness, we can only hope that a nation of such wonderful people that have so much to offer to the world can find their place of inner peace.

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