Often when I was returning from Damascus on the bus, I stared
out at the monolithic statue of Hafez il-Assad on a hill. With
open arms, he beckoned to the people. Assad was not Lenin, and
I was not in Russia, but near Tartus, Syria, not far from Lattakia,
where I lived. The coastal road wound along the Jebel Ansariya
mountains; the Mediterranean ocean, a royal teal. The natural
beauty was an airy, hopeful contrast to the dark Eastern-European
atmosphere of Syria. While I had come to Syria for a job and
adventure, many Syrians I knew wanted to escape from the unassailable
secrecy of the regime, talk of Secret Police and spies, snarled
bureaucracy, and lack of opportunities and resources. Many Syrians
were so frustrated by daily life they talked of nothing but
Daily life involved so much waiting,
that you couldn't help but think that you were on the stage
of a Waiting for Godot play.
Karim, my Syrian beau and I were
always waiting for goods or permission or a new plan. For example,
take the ink cartridges for my computer. We had made a four-hour
pilgrimage to Damascus, only to be told at the Canon shop: "No
ink cartridges. They might have them in Tripoli." Tripoli
was an hour and a half from Lattakia, but we could not leave
Syria without exit visas. Organizing visas took time, and required
visits to many offices. I would have to get permission from
the Dean and the President of Tishreen University. Many days
they were not available. After Karim and I got the permissions,
they would have to be recorded in a giant ledger in the Main
Administration building. After that, we could then make the
trek to the Immigration office to get the actual visas. These
chores might take as long as ten days. Without the cartridges,
we would have to use the computer lab at Tishreen University,
which was rarely open.
I had to learn not to plan. Plans
curled in on themselves, like the edges of burned paper. Plans
were soft apples that had been in my fridge for a month. Plans
smelled rank, like the garbage I had forgotten to take out.
Even the university schedule was
fluid. Tishreen University was supposed to open September 15,
but no one came. Various explanations were offered. The Faculty
of Arts didn't have enough space. The timetable wasn't finished.
The boys had military service. Unofficially, the university
opened October 1. Karim and I moseyed down to Kesseb, the mountain
resort on the Turkish border--a place of refuge for Armenians
fleeing from the Turks. There, we ate delicious fateyre, a small
pizza with sesame seeds and red chilis. Very tenderly, Karim
wiped the red oil from my chin with a kleenex.
When we returned to Lattakia,
he helped me choose material for the curtains in my flat. Not
the material I would have preferred, but better than the tattered
blood red my landlord, Samuel had provided: a swirled ocean
blue for the guest room, a rust and dabbed brown for the Arabic
coffee room, and an orange and blue hen design for the bedroom.
The man who sold us the material had a wandering eye.
We visited the offices at the
university and drank tea. And then Turkish coffee. After tea
and coffee, we switched to zurat, herbal tea. Another
day, we bought pillows for my flat--four squares of hard foam,
tied together with a piece of pink string. I was pleased by
small, concrete triumphs.
Surprises and cancellations reigned.
Unannounced holidays abounded: Ba'ath Party, Muslim, Christian.
Visitors arrived: the other Fulbright professor from Aleppo,
a poet from Britain, a delegation from the American Embassy,
accompanied by a rock band. (Karim and I ran around Lattakia,
putting up posters for the rock band.) I continued to pencil
in appointments in my pocket calendar, but realized this was
a ridiculous American habit in Syria--most events were spontaneous
or came together at the absolute last minute.
The other real difficulty was
communication. While I lived in Syria (from 1997-99), there
was no easy access to e-mail. Precious letters sometimes washed
up at the Syrian post office. Phone calls were immediate, but
so was the price: two dollars a minute. I spent a tidy sum on
phone calls the first year. Samuel, my landlord, scolded me:
"You are wasting your money."
Samuel's remedy for my punishing
phone bills: buy a phone card at Lattakia Centrale downtown,
instead of calling direct from his house. Hungry-looking Arab
men lined up behind three glassed-in phone booths. Once I got
the bluish floppy phone card with the picture of space-age satellites
on the front, I waited in line with all the men. Already claustrophobic,
once I had finally gotten into the glassed-in booth, I wanted
out. The phone call was a brief, shouted conversation in front
of a curious audience.
Instead, I could send a fax, although
sending a fax took as long as writing a Ph.D. dissertation.
Whole afternoons were chewed up at Lattakia Centrale. Sometimes,
the only person at the post office who knew how to operate the
fax was off running errands, or having tea. Or the fax lady
was there, but the overseas line to the U.S. was busy.
Even if I felt brave enough to
charge off to Lattakia Centrale alone, I couldn't. I had to
ask Karim to come with me to translate the fax since my Arabic
wasn't up to it. (Records of all faxes are filed with the Secret
Sometimes, I felt like Gilligan,
a castaway on a desert isle. Mostly, I floated in eerie silence.
Lattakia was the edge of Mars, far from the outside world.
I consoled myself that so much
solitude would make me more productive. Not so. Even my plans
for hiding were disrupted. Writing routines snagged on precious
electricity. The insistent ringing of my phone made my nerves
raw. The customers from the shoe shop next door rang my doorbell.
If the phone didn't ring, or the doorbell didn't ring, the painter
was moving furniture in Samuel's flat upstairs.
In between cancellations at Tishreen
University, there was time for conversation.
What were my Syrian colleagues
waiting for? For Assad's death. Better salaries. A flat. A job
outside Syria. A Fulbright to the United States.
The office that I shared with
four or five colleagues looked like the stage set of a Sartre
play, with the four desks, three chairs, and forest green strips
for curtains. A portable blackboard on wheels faced me. The
phone worked if you jiggled the cord. The office was redeemed
by the three chairs with brown cushions and a small coffee table,
a place where we gathered for jokes and gossip over Turkish
coffee. The next office was separated by a flimsy sheet rock
partition that didn't even reach the ceiling.
One morning, one of Karim's friends,
Mustafa, paced the office, like a hunted man. He could not support
his family on the ten thousand lira a month he earned as a professor.
His tomato farm was not making any money. He hated his job.
He needed to buy anti-depressants for his sister who suffered
from depression. His wife wanted a washing machine.
"What should I do?"
he asked me, lighting up another cigarette.
Above Mustafa's head on the portable
blackboard were diagrams of Chomsky's theory of grammar. A tree-diagram
sprouted from his head. I suppressed a smile.
I did not want him to think I
was laughing at him so I moved one of the forest green strips
which were supposed to be curtains, and looked out the window.
"I don't know," I said.
My hands were now covered with dust.
He fished in his coat pocket for
a kleenex, and handed me one.
"Maybe I should emigrate
Emigration would not help him
solve his immediate financial problems, but it seemed unkind
to point out this obvious fact.
The other Syrian professors who
had emigrated to Australia had returned. One had worked as a
barber. Many of them didn't like working other jobs outside
the university. Even though they complained bitterly about Tishreen
University once in Australia, they missed the status they had
in Syria . University jobs in Australia, like most places, were
hard to get.
My dialogues with Karim about
emigration were circular:
"Why do they get their citizenship
if they don't intend to stay?"
"Protection from the Syrian
government. To have another passport. They can leave whenever
they like," he said.
"How is it protection? They
"Magda has an Australian
passport. She can leave whenever she likes. Of course, if you
don't have the money for the ticket, you have to stay."
"You can't leave without
the money for the ticket. But if you are not committed to emigrating,
I don't see the point," I said.
"It's a matter of feeling
free psychologically. She can leave if she likes," he said.
"But she hasn't. How will
she get the money for the ticket? Why would she try again? The
last time she refused a good job because it wasn't at the university.
So she ended up with nothing and had to come back."
"Without the money, there
is no way out," he said.
Even if professors published many
books (an impossibility since they were weighed down by heavy
teaching duties and thousands of exam papers), their government
salaries would never exceed ten thousand lira, or two hundred
American dollars a month. Getting a Fulbright was one way they
could gain access to hard currency. They often lived very cheaply
in the United States so they could remit the dollars and buy
daily necessities in Syria. For example, one professor used
a good chunk of her Fulbright money to buy the furniture for
her flat. Who could blame her, if that's what she needed?
Competition was vicious for Fulbrights
Leesa, the Cultural Attache had
asked me to nominate one of the Syrian professors from the English
Department for a two-week seminar, sponsored by the United States
When the Vice Dean, Mahfouz, learned
that I had recommended Magda for the seminar, he harassed her.
There was a steady stream of meetings and phone calls.
"I should go. It is my right.
I need it more than you do. I have a family," he said,
cornering her after one of her lectures.
He was mainly thinking of the
financial benefits of the grant.
Mahfouz had recently returned
from a year-long Fulbright in Vermont. Still, he couldn't stand
for anyone else to have the opportunity to go to the United
States, even for two weeks.
He complained that I had not recommended
"You just returned from the
U.S. Leesa asked me to recommend someone who hasn't been. Magda
is teaching American Literature this semester, " I said.
"My field is American Literature.
Her field is the 19th century British novel. Why should she
For weeks, he treated me to tedious
monologues about why he was more qualified and deserving for
the grant. When I explained the situation to Ingy, Leesa's Syrian
assistant, she said, "Maybe we can find something else
for him. There is some Fulbright money left over this year."
In the meantime, Magda succumbed
to Mahfouz's pressure. Her mother had also been saying that
I was a CIA agent. Magda wrote a bizarre letter to Leesa, withdrawing
"Who is going to go on the
two-week grant?" Karim asked.
"I'm sick of the whole thing.
I didn' t feel like nominating anyone else. Leesa said we would
Magda had not gone on the seminar.
No one had gone. Instead, Mahfouz had gotten a month-long Fulbright
to the States. Perversely, he had been rewarded.
When I had first come to Lattakia,
Mahfouz had provided me with more practical assistance and support
than the Dean. He had taken me around to look at flats and he
and his wife had invited me over many times for dinner. However,
the incident with the grant had spoiled my good will.
Later, Karim told me that Mahfouz
had stolen books from the university in Minnesota, instead of
making photocopies. (Because of the scarcity and expense of
books in Syria, many people photocopy books when they are outside
of Syria.) Karim was upset by the theft. He was a honest person
and he was careful with books.
A similar take-what-you-can-get
attitude among professors emerged when the U.S. ambassador's
house was trashed for retaliation against the U.S. bombing of
Iraq in 1999. Karim had told me that many of the Syrian professors
had said they were glad that the ambassador's house had been
destroyed. I had offered advice to many of the same professors
on their grant proposals.
"You are upset."
"This is not the kind of
thing I want to hear on Christmas Eve," I said.
"It's politics. Not personal.
Not against you."
"I don't want to know what
people are saying. Really."
Even though I was no fan of U.S.
foreign policy, I was still upset by the professors' glee about
the destruction of the American ambassador's house. I had spent
a great deal of time, offering them advice on their Fulbright
proposals so that they could get a paid year in the United States.
"We don't care about your
political system. We want the opportunities," Karim had
told me once in a bitter, candid moment.
Hard-hitting al-Ba'ath socialism
had done nothing to foster economic opportunity in Syria. At
the same time, Syrians wanted the opportunities that the United
States had to offer, they resented the political power of the
The Fulbright Program had been
started by Senator Fulbright to promote "exchange and understanding"
between people of different countries. Unfortunately, such a
noble idea was undermined by American foreign policy, which
was driven by a desire for power and resources in other parts
of the world. Syrians lived in a country with limited resources
and opportunities. If they wanted to survive, they had to be
Leesa had asked me both years
to sit on the Fulbright Committee to select Syrian professors
for Fulbrights to the United States. She had also asked Henry,
who was fifty-ish and balding, retired from the State Department,
and now the spouse of a younger woman who worked at the Embassy.
His wife had recently had a baby, his first child. Even though
he still wore the uniform with his Oxford white shirt, blue
trousers, and penny loafers, he had a dry sense of humor, and
peppered his conversations with anecdotes from his years as
a consul in Saudi Arabia. He hated Saudi Arabia without apology:
"Women are like veal there. Tied up and left in dark rooms.
Happiest day of my life when I left the place."
In the first interview, a Soviet-educated
Syrian professor sailed into the room, another man in tow. "This
is Bob, " he told Leesa. "He comes with me."
Bob was a Syrian, who spoke a
slangy American English. Had he sold himself as a go-between
to this insecure professor?
With her petite figure and pixie
cut, Leesa looked like an elf, but she was not intimidated easily.
"I'm afraid not. No translators,"
Leesa said, shaking her head.
Without Bob, the professor's confidence
sagged, and he faltered in the interview. He shook his head
many times, and reverted to Arabic. I had been in similar situations
at Tishreen University, where I had been unable to communicate
There were other nutty moments.
Another Syrian professor, French-educated, could not speak English,
either. Both Henry and Leesa broke into smooth, Parisian French;
I felt excluded with my sketchy Spanish and hard-won Arabic.
Leesa insisted that the professor must know English; the professor
insisted that he would learn English once he got to America.
The entire interview was conducted in French. I imagined the
professor struggling to buy groceries at the local Winn-Dixie.
"I am sorry, but the purpose
of the Fulbright is research. If you improve your English, we
will consider your application for next year," Leesa said
But he did not understand so Leesa
repeated in French.
"Please," the man said
State Department guidelines for
Fulbrights were as bewildering as the interviews: 1.
Soviet-educated professors. Idea: they experience American
principles of democracy and the American way. (Their functional
English was poor.) 2. Clearly-written proposals.
(Many of the clear proposals did not match the speaking ability
of the candidates. Someone else had obviously written them.)
3. Usefulness to Syria. How will they use their
research when they return? (The candidates who spoke the best
English were the ones with the most "useless" proposals
for a developing country.)
Many of the scientific proposals
were out-of-date, archaic, and a tad wacky.
"In your proposal, you say
you are going to research formula milk? Hasn't that been done
with Similac?" Henry asked one candidate.
"How in the world would that
be useful for Syria? Don't most women breast-feed their babies?"
The professor and Leesa argued
about how many women in Syria breast fed their babies.
Leesa pressed the issue, "Do
you have any statistics on how many women in Syria breast feed
their babies? It seems to me that Syria doesn't need formula
milk. And as Henry suggested, formula milk already exists, so
what would you be researching?"
I did not comment since I had
no academic or practical knowledge of formula milk or breast-feeding.
(Nor did Leesa.) I glanced down at the professor's application
again. He was Dean at the University of Aleppo.
Finally, the flustered Dean backpedaled,
"How can we do research without the Internet? How can we
"I agree. Syria's has got
to get the Internet," Leesa said, sympathetic.
"When will I know the results?"
the Dean asked, humbled.
"In a few weeks I'll send
everyone a letter of their status," Leesa said.
"Our main problem here is
that we have no Internet. Our country is getting farther and
farther behind in the world," he said.
"I understand," Leesa
said, shaking his hand. "Thank you for coming in."
The Dean shook hands with Henry,
After the door shut, Leesa sighed.
"I'd like to send him because he's a Dean. Soviet-educated.
But what a bogus proposal!"
"With my modest knowledge
of science and recent experience with formula milk, I can see
the proposal is weak," Henry said.
"There are other people who
have better-written and researched proposals," I said.
The Dean was not on our list of
top candidates. I filled out the form, and put him on our rejected
pile on the floor.
The rest of the day we tackled
"usefulness." Was research on the quasi-autobiographical
novel more useful than research on improving the nutritive quality
of straw? (No.) Was research on Noam Chomsky's syntactical theory
of grammar more useful than the effect of pigments on cottonseed
oil? (No.) Was research on H.D. and the subversive role of women
in literature more useful than research on urban wastewater
for irrigation? (No.)
If you defined usefulness only
in scientific and business terms.
My sympathies were with the "useless"
more articulate proposals. The Fulbright to Syria had been my
way out. I supported my writing with low-paid part-time teaching
at the University of Alabama, credit card overdrafts, and loony
odd jobs. To finish my novel, I had just scratched by. Once
I had tutored a Japanese manager in pronunciation, mainly the
difference between l and r. There I am, sitting at a conference
table at the JVC plant, with a grim-looking Mr. Nakamura in
a white jumpsuit. Over and over, "Lice. Lice. Lice."
The lice job had paid well for a little while. In addition,
to sleepy Alabama students and a dull Japanese manager, I had
taught Koreans, Thais, and Japanese reading, writing, speaking--anything,
everything--I could do it, except deliver pizzas.
The most miserable part-time job
had been delivering greasy pepperoni Dominoes' pizzas to hillbillies
with ferocious dogs or on the West side of town. One night I
had delivered a pizza to the Motel 6, commonly known as Crack
Hotel in Tuscaloosa. As I went up the stairs, a black man jolted
towards me and said, "Yo, that's for me." Surprised
at myself, I retorted, "No, it's not" and kept going.
I had thought to myself, "My life might be worth a nine
ninety-nine pizza." Once back at the store, the manager
said, "You have to go back. You forgot to take their coke."
I begged and pleaded with some of the male drivers to go instead,
but they refused.
I sympathized with the Syrian
professors, who were interested in the cash. Even the most idealistic
academic, could not eat his research!
The most deserving candidates
should go to the United States. I didn't really care about the
scientific or Soviet affirmative-action agenda of the State
Department. In the end, though, it was Leesa, who ranked the
candidates, and sent in the recommendations to the Fulbright
Commission in the United States.
The first year, I had done many
programs for the Cultural Center so I could get my own Fulbright
renewed: a reading from my unpublished Egyptian novel, a Donahue-style
workshop on the "The Five Paragraph Essay," for a
crowd of one hundred, a presentation on "How to Write Using
Music" at a conference in Aleppo. I had even dressed up
as Santa's elf for another colleague's presentation on "How
to Teach Holiday Language in the Classroom."
I remembered the long wait, before
I had learned about the Fulbright to Syria the first time.
My brother had said, "Why
don't you leave Tuscaloosa? Get a job somewhere else? Houston?"
I could not even afford a U-Haul. Where would I go? How could
I even move, without cash?
The Fulbright committee in Washington
had gambled on me. My Fulbright proposals were detailed syllabi:
Travel Writing on the Middle East and Technical Writing for
Doctors. I had taught neither.
Like my Syrian colleague who had
spent her Fulbright money on furniture, I used the money for
what I needed. I set about paying off my monstrous credit card
debt. And more importantly, the grant financed my writing and
traveling for three years.
I will never forget Sarah. She
was not even one of my students, but had turned up at my office
hours. Her devotion to English was almost religious. Would I
correct her compositions?
One day she followed me home from
Tishreen University. After I made her a cup of tea, she sat
in my living room and read me her essay, which compared Assad's
regime to Nero's rule. "Nero belived that starving the
dog would make him more obedient," she read.
After she finished reading, she
begged me not to tell a soul about her essay.
I was flabbergasted by her political
sophistication and knowledge of history. She was only nineteen,
but she understood that a person could starve from humiliation
and cultural isolation.
his essay, "Homage to Marcus Aurelius," Joseph Brodsky
writes, "The most definitive feature of antiquity is
our absence. The more available its debris and the longer
you stare at it, the more you are denied entry." Viewing
ancient debris might be a pleasurable pastime, but it is also
alienating. Time is not friendly.
When I lived in Lattakia, Syria,
an American friend, Iris, gave me an Ugaritic pottery handle
for Syrian Teacher's Day. I was a little puzzled by this gift.
Inside the card, she had written, "Ugarit was the first
alphabet"--a fact I knew. (Before this alphabet, the
two known alphabets were hieroglyphics, developed by the ancient
Egyptians and cuneiform, from Mesopotamia. Both depend on
pictograms. The Ugaritic alphabet used symbols to represent
sounds, maybe the ancestor of the European alphabet.)
"I collect pottery handles.
I found it today at Ugarit," Iris said.
"But is that right?"
I asked. Somehow, it seemed wrong to snitch archaeological
artifacts from a site.
Iris shrugged. "No regulation
of antiquities in Syria."
True enough, I thought. Treasure
hunters and colonial governments had stolen artifacts throughout
history--the Elgin Marbles, the Sphinx's beard (now returned),
the Obelisk from Ethiopia, the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria.
The Nazis absconded with valuable paintings. The Marbles from
the temple that sits atop the Acropolis in Athens was a greater
heist than a chipped, earth-colored pottery handle from a
little-known Phoenician site in Syria. Lord Elgin had not
agonized too much over scruples, but was plenty interested
in the gold. The British Ambassador to Constantinople sold
the Marble frieze to the British Museum in 1816 for 70,000
pounds sterling ($110,000), now worth 2.8 billion sterling
(4.5 billion) (Hall). Now the Greeks were demanding their
return. I didn't blame them. Many objects from the world's
museums were purloined.
Should all the cultural treasures
of the world's museums be repatriated to their owners? If
the treasures belonged to individuals, rather than countries,
who should inherit them? What if the original owners were
The Ugaritic pottery handle
that Iris had given me was not dramatic, like the Elgin Marbles
or the Sphinx's beard, but was still a jagged reminder of
mortality. The Phoenicians hadn’t been around since
Like Iris, my grandmother had
collected artifacts. She had dug up small Mayan figures on
my grandfather's ranch in Mexico, brought them back to Texas
and squirreled them away in a tattered, brown suitcase in
a dark closet. After my grandmother died, my mother transformed
these abstract stone faces into mysterious masks, watercolor
wash rice-paper collage. Framed, they now hang in my Cairo
apartment--three faces from my mother's imagination, inspired
by ancient artifact. Colorful personalities, varied in expression
and texture. One is sensitive and observant, eyes cocked to
the right, pink, rust, and fuchsia. The pink and black one,
with pursed lips is curt and reserved. The colors in the third
are cheerful purple, yellow, and pink, but his expression
is flat or sad. I didn't take the Ugaritic pottery handle,
which looked like the shaft of a penis, back to Tuscaloosa,
Alabama with me. I imagined a Syrian customs officer, fishing
the pottery handle out of my luggage on my way out of the
country. But I wondered why Iris collected pottery handles.
She liked Oprah, People Magazine, salacious gossip, romance
novels and sewing. Were they emblematic of the boredom she
felt as a housewife in Lattakia or did she have a genuine
interest in archaeology?
The site at Ugarit was important,
but not flashy. There isn't much left of the royal palace,
just fragments of buildings, a few wells, evidence of pipe
systems. Enormous cisterns are plunked down in the field,
heaps of stone on a grassy knoll, with the dazzling, blue
Mediterranean in the background.
Ugarit was once an international
port on the Mediterranean. Present-day Lattakia is a port,
but not a bustling one because Syria's overemphasis on regulation
discourages active trade. The Phoenicians traded timber with
the ancient Egyptians and exported bronzework to the Minoans
of Crete. From Lonely Planet's handy summary: "Ugarit
fell in 1200 B.C. to the Philistines. The city never returned
to its previous prosperity. This marked the beginning of the
Iron Age. Ugarit declined because of the changing technology."
Did tramping through Ugarit
and reading a few, dry historical details about the Phoenicians
make them any more knowable? Just who were they?
No color. No anecdotal quality.
I do have one artifact from
a trip to Ugarit, a photograph of me with two Syrian professors.
We are sitting side by side on a low hill, which overlooks
the site; the remains of stone walls are visible below. Wild,
green grass and weeds have gladly overtaken what once were
the insides of buildings. A row of cone-shaped fir trees border
the site. Beyond is a farmer's field, crops for the living.
Manal is relaxed and natural and leans back on her arms. I
am leaning forward, peeking. Even though Sherifa's red lipstick
is prominent, and her hair is in place, she looks unprepared
for the camera.
Manal was educated in Kiev;
Sherifa, in Belarussia. Both were fluent in Russian, but wanted
to become proficient in English. They must adapt to a changed
political situation. The U.S.S.R. no longer exists and Syria
no longer receives aid.
The photograph from my trip
did not make me think of Ugarit, but of Manal and Sherifa
and my relationship with them. It is not only the dead who
Manal, an engineer, had just
returned from Ohio, where she had studied sanitation plants
on her Fulbright. Measured and careful, she was serious about
her research and sensitive to other people.
Sherifa was wacky and self-indulgent.
In her broken English, she offered me the latest tale of her
many suitors. However, her humor camouflaged a genuine sadness,
that she could not have a relationship with a man because
of her restrictive culture and her unmarried status. She was
forty-two, and probably wouldn't marry.
One day she phoned me and said,
"Gretchen, I miss you. When can I see you?"
When I opened the gate of the
courtyard, Sherifa was standing outside with a chubby, unattractive
male. He smiled at me expectantly. I was alarmed.
"How are you?" Sherifa
said, kissing me on both cheeks. "This is Dr. Fa'ed Omar."
"Nice to meet you,"
I said, as formally as I could muster. Even though Sherifa
knew about my relationship with Karim, I suspected this was
a set up.
Soon after I prepared the coffee,
Fa'ed said, "I have a conference in Japan. Maybe you
can help me. My English is not so good. I need practice. You
could come to my Faculty."
"You are welcome to sit
in on the Language Classes I am teaching at the Language Institute,"
I said. Fa'ed frowned. This was not what he had in mind.
"I need help with my English.
You can come to the Faculty to my office for conversation."
"As I said, you are welcome
to sit in on my classes," I said.
Sherifa chimed in, "He
has a flat. A very nice flat near Ziraa'."
"My education is Russian.
My English is not so good. If I am married to a foreigner,
my language would improve," Fa'ed said.
Sherifa repeated, "He has
As if God had said, "There
will be no more light," the room suddenly went dark.
Where was the stubbed candle in the jelly jar that I kept
around for power-cuts? And where were the matches?
Fa'ed said, "I have a car.
Perhaps the three of us could take a visit to my village?"
I had resolved to keep flashlights
in every room. Where were they?
"Maybe another time. I
am busy, working on an essay now," I said.
Fa'ed said, "I have a car."
"Is this an advertisement?"
Neither Sherifa nor Fa'ed knew
the word for advertisement.
After crashing around in the
kitchen, I finally found a match and the jelly jar.
"I am busy, teaching and
Fa'ed replied, "I am busier
than you. Can I use your phone? I have an appointment."
“Maybe,” I said.
We were going around in circles!
I pointed to the clunky rotary
phone I shared with my landlord, Samuel.
After I ushered him out, I asked
Sherifa, "Why don't you marry him? I don't need to get
married for a car. I can buy my own car. In fact, I have bought
my own car."
She giggled. "No. I could
never marry him. He's not handsome."
I sighed. These were not the
kind of encounters I enjoyed in Syria.
"Please, Gretchen, do you
think you could help me with my Fulbright application. My
English is so bad," she said, pulling her application
out of her purse.
Her proposal on potato plants
was unintelligible. I got my pen out.
Great powers fall.
Countries change. Relationships
between them change. People adapt.
For example, the Crusaders had
adapted Roman fortification technology to fit the landscape
of Syria. Syria's impressive collection of Crusader castles
on mountains, seaside, and on the plain is testified at Qalaa't
Salah ad-Din, Musayf, Qalaa't Marquab, Aleppo Citadel, and
Krac de Chevaliers.
The grandfather of these Crusader
castles is Krac de Chevaliers. The postcard that I have of
the Krac did not do justice to this august castle, which sits
on a high plain, facing Lebanon. A mighty moat surrounds the
building inside the Castle walls--exactly what I imagined
when I studied the Crusaders in elementary school. The moat
is dry now. But it's not hard to envision knights perched
up high, pouring boiling oil on their Muslim enemies below.
Hundreds of years later, I visited
this castle with Karim, a friend. I studied the moat, while
he scrabbled up to the highest tower.
"Come up," he shouted.
He had traveled to England to
study for his Ph.D. but had never seen this wondrous site
near his home.
He was in a buoyant mood now.
The day before, though, one of Assad's personal bodyguards
had appeared in our office at the university. Even though
I had not been able to follow the Arabic, I noticed the threatening
way the man had talked to Karim. When the man finally left
the office, I asked, "Who was that man?"
"One of Assad's personal
bodyguards. He wants his niece to pass," he said. Reflexively,
he lit a cigarette.
My daily life in Syria was like
the set of the movie, The Godfather. The stuff of fiction,
but not fiction.
"No wonder," I said.
"I should never have returned.
Better to be free and cook in an Indian restaurant in England
for my entire life," he said.
"You don't know how I have
suffered in my life. You have no idea. It's not your country.
You can leave any time you like.”
"I wouldn't say that it's
been a Florida beach holiday."
"It's not a joke,"
he said, stalking out of the office.
I had proposed an expedition to the Krac. "Why don't
we do something different tomorrow?”
"Who cares about castles?"
he asked, lighting another cigarette. "Is that going
to change anything?"
But the next morning, he was
game. We jumped onto a crowded mini-bus from Lattakia; near
the castle, the driver motioned to us to get out. We crossed
the dangerous highway from Damascus to Lattakia, and found
a small bus-stop. There, we waited for the next mini-bus,
which took us up to the winding road to the Castle. Karim
chatted with the people at the bus stop.
"This is the right place.
We just wait. Why don't you sit down?" he said, pointing
to the small bench inside the covered shelter. He enjoyed
his role as my escort.
Knights far from home, who had
come to protect Christian shrines and pilgrim routes from
Muslims, were sheltered in these castles. After the Conquest
of Jerusalem in 1099, there was a 200 year struggle for the
Holy Land. The Crusaders compensated for their lack of manpower
by building castles along the pilgrim routes.
When the Crusaders left, the
entire area reverted back to Muslim hands.
Now the conflict with Israel
remains the ideological center of Syrian foreign policy. And
the wars with Israel (1948, 1967, 1973, 1982) have been a
heavy drain on the resources of Syria. Even with Hafez Assad's
emphasis on the Arab nation, he still needed the external
help of a greater power. Besides the Soviet Union, Syria had
few allies in the 1980's, except for Iran and Libya.
Zenobia, the last queen of Palmyra,
decided to go it alone, like present-day Syria. Breaking from
Rome, though, was not difficult because Palmyra was not dependent
on Rome financially. (Palmyra, which was initially a buffer
zone between the Parthians and the Romans, became a Roman
colony in 212 A.D. under the emperor, Caracella.) To celebrate
her independence from Rome, Zenobia had coins minted of herself
and her son. In 271, the Roman emperor defeated Zenobia’s
forces at Antioch and Emesa. Rather than surrender, Zenobia
tried to escape on a camel through Roman forces. She was captured
and taken to Rome, where she was paraded through the streets
in gold chains. After her defeat, Roman forces torched her
city in 273.
The story of Palmyra is spectacular,
and so is the site, which is located in the desert. A feathery,
green oasis of palms creates an abrupt edge at the corner
of the desert; a striking contrast of green to sandy-colored
earth. The next view is even more dramatic: elegant columns
and arches line a large, flat expanse for as far as you can
Karim and I had bounced on a
small bus from Homs to Palmyra. However, the locals crammed
on the bus had not come to visit the site but their relatives
at the Palmyra prison, who had not been taken away in gold
chains. The bus was noisy; people smoked and spat sunflower
seeds on the floor. Hot wind blew through the open windows.
A bedouin woman with a tattoo
on her face shouted over the din to the man in front of her,
"You see, my son is in prison because he skipped out
on his military service. He only had two months left and he
ran away. He had a fight with his commanding officer. May
God help him. Now he's in prison for who knows how long."
The man shook his head and said,
"May God help you."
"Why is your son in prison?"
the bedouin woman asked.
The man shrugged. He offered
her some sunflower seeds.
Karim asked, "You never
heard of the prison at Palmyra?"
"No," I said.
"Palmyra, 1980. You don't
know?" he asked, incredulous.
In 1980, Rif'at, Hafez Assad's
brother and his forces torched the prison at Palmrya. Shortly
after an attempted assassination on Assad by the Muslim Brothers,
Rif'at's forces attacked. Sixty of Rif'aat's men entered the
prison with orders to "Kill everyone inside." Five
hundred inmates died. (In July 1980, the government made membership
in the Muslim Brotherhood a capital offense).
There was a great deal I did
not know about Syria. And much, I suspected, I would never
know. My immediate physical environment, though, which was
not hidden, was drab and gray, except for views of the Mediterranean.
The magnificent sites of Krac de Chevaliers and Palmyra were
day trips from Lattakia. Inside Tishreen University had the
feel of Bleak House, with offices piled high with files and
drafty lecture halls. My apartment was not a cheerful retreat
from the university, either, especially in January. I huddled
next to my tiny, black potbellied stove and refilled it often
with mazout, an oily kerosene. My night-time attire was a
warm-up suit and a heavy robe. I burrowed under three blankets,
like a mole.
I hid in the closet the four
hundred exams, which were divided into brown envelopes and
tied together by a piece of sad string. The tutors in town
had guessed what question I would ask on my exam: "In
his essay, 'The Execution of Tropman,' discuss how Turgenev
uses his own experience as a spectator as evidence to support
his thesis." Cribbed notes of my lectures were sold in
local bookshops. The students bought them to study for my
exam. Every morning I sneaked out an envelope and reread my
own lecture notes over and over again in varieties of poor
English. To stave off madness, I kept the linguistic artifacts
on the back of one of the exams: "We have here molded
wine." (The spectators drank mulled wine at the execution.)
"She says that he was born decomposed." (The murderer
or the executioner was born decomposed? Or were they confusing
death with birth?) "He was taken to the drowning room."
(The murderer was taken to the drawing room.)
I read The Lonely Planet Guide
to Syria and dreamed of viewing castles on spring days.
Many Syrians have not seen the antiquities in their own country,
even though the country is small, and the distances are not
When I asked Karim why he had
never been to Krac de Chevaliers and Palmyra, he said, "We
were too poor. We just didn't travel. The roads were terrible.
It took hours to get to Damascus; we always did our business
and came back the same day. We only went to Damascus to organize
our papers at the government offices. Other than that, I spent
all my time waiting in line for bread and oil. There were
a lot of problems."
People who were waiting in line
for bread and oil did not have the luxury of viewing ancient
"A lot of problems"
was a Syrian understatement. Patrick Seales’ informative
book, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East
details the problems.
Between 1977-1982, terrorism
within Syria was a constant worry. Many prominent citizens
were murdered in hit and run assassinations. Patrick Seale
notes, "In Aleppo between 1979 and 1980 terrorists killed
over three hundred people, mainly Ba'athists and 'Alawis,
but including a dozen Islamic clergy who had denounced the
Suicide bombers were a problem
in Syria before such a phenomenon became common in Israel.
Daily life included: assassinations, bombs in supermarkets
and schools, fires in government stores, and strikes. No one
left home after dark.
Muslim activists, upset by the
secular Ba'ath victory in 1963, had organized and gone underground
in Aleppo and Hama. Preoccupied with in-fighting, the Ba'ath
did not realize militants were forming cells, making contacts,
and training men in guerrilla warfare. In Aleppo, in 1963,
Shayk 'Abd al-Rahman Abu Ghidda had founded the group, Movement
of Islamic Liberation. In Hama, in 1965, Marwan Hadid recruited
young men for Kata'ib Muhammad, the Phalanxes of Muhammad.
The groups recruited the boys from mosque study circles (322-323).
Muslim activism, though, was not new to Syria. Islamic resistance
groups had resisted the French occupation in the late 1930's.
Mustafa al-Sibai, who was influenced by the founder of the
Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna, founded Shabab Muhammad,
Young Men of Muhammad. Sibai linked his group to the Egyptian
Muslim Brotherhood. However, even with Egyptian support, this
opposition had never reigned (322).
The Muslim opposition, though,
was fanned in the late seventies and eighties by a resentment
of corruption and hard economic times. Family and friends
connected with the regime got rich, while the majority suffered
from basic food shortages. In 1976-1977, the Syrian economy
had lost steam. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states had reduced
their aid because of Syrian involvement in Lebanon.
Assad himself narrowly escaped
death in 1980. Terrorists threw two grenades at him. One grenade,
Assad kicked away; a guard threw himself over the other. Assad's
bodyguard, Khalid al-Husayn, pushed Assad to the ground and
covered him with his body (328).
The situation during 1982 came
to a head in Hama, when "Abu Bakr" ('Ummar Jawwad),
a guerrilla commander, declared "jihad" against
the Ba'thist state. Hama, which had long been an enemy of
the secular Ba'ath, mobilized. Aware of the threat of the
underground opposition, citizens loyal to the Ba'ath had also
stockpiled arms and ammunition. In the first night, seventy
leading Ba'athists were murdered; the guerrillas announced
that the city had been "liberated." (333)
The battle for Hama lasted three
weeks, and was waged house to house. Without food, water,
fuel, many civilians suffered; some were buried in their homes,
which had collapsed in the shelling. Many were also killed
in the "mopping up." (The death toll is estimated
between 5,000 to 10,000.) Mosques, churches, and ancient monuments
were ruined. Entire neighborhoods were razed.
The experience at Hama made
Assad even more suspicious of outsiders. Because he believed
the revolt was a foreign plot, he became warier of the West,
the Israelis, and his Arab enemies. After Hama, he tightened
state control even further.
The regime had relied heavily
on Rif'at al-Assad, Hafez al-Assad's brother, for its "war
on terrorism." (Rif'at's army was 55,000 men.) Rifa't
commented: "Stalin sacrificed 10 million to preserve
the Bolshevik Revolution and Syria should do likewise."
And if Islamic terrrorists were going to kill every infidel,
he would fight 'a hundred wars, demolish a million strongholds,
and sacrifice a million martyrs' " (327).
When Assad was ill in 1983,
generals turned to Rif'at for leadership. Assad was displeased
by this and saw it as a challenge to his authority. Shortly
after, he began reducing his brother's privileges and power.
Rifa't sent his brother, Jamil, to negotiate for him. Assad's
answer sounded like Don Corleone, "I am your elder brother
to whom you owe obedience. Don’t forget I am the one
who made you all" (430).
Rif'at panicked and tried to
protect his remaining power. In 1984, he placed his troops
at strategic points in Damascus. Both Hafez and Rif'at forces
stood, guns drawn. However, Hafez outfoxed his brother, by
bringing his elderly mother from their village, Kerdaha, to
stay in Rif'at's home in Damascus. Hafez knew that she had
influence over his younger brother (433).
The standoff could have been
bloody. However, Hafez called his brother's bluff, by showing
that he was in charge. He dressed in his military uniform
and took his son, Basel, with him on a tour of Rif'at's troops.
On the way to a meeting with Rif'at, Hafez stopped and ordered
one of Rif'at's officers in charge to return to his barracks
At Rif'at's house, the two brothers
faced each other. Assad said, "You want to overthrow
the regime? Here I am. I am the regime" (433).
Hafez won: he was the older
brother. And he also knew he had the support of the Russians.
Soon after, Assad exiled his
brother from the country. Perhaps that was preferable to living
in a country, which was exiled from the world. On a personal
level, my Syrian friends--Karim, Sherifa, Manal, and others--felt
cut off. When I wanted to evade the heavy, political reality
of Syria, I believed a pleasant day to a site would promise
escape. But was that true? Seeing sites forced me to think
about the continuum of history, and this included, the modern
history of Syria.
Politics has indirectly affected
the viewing of antiquities in Syria. Syria's isolationist
policy and negative relationships with the West did not encourage
visitors to come to their country.
Under the new leadership of
Hafez al-Assad's son, Bashar, would Syria modify their attitude
toward the outside world and adapt to modern technology?
No trade and no communication
with the outside world meant isolation and eventual decline.
When the caravans stopped passing through on the Silk Route,
Politics intruded upon the viewing
of modern artifacts in Syria, too. My friend, Karen, came
to Lattakia once a month for lessons with the 'oud musician,
Seif Mohammed. (An ‘oud is a lute instrument.) Both
'oud musicians who Karen studied with did not permit her to
take notes or record them. NO RECORDINGS, NO RECORDS, NO NOTES.
Her brain bursting with new pieces, musical theory, snippets
of conversation. She pretended she had diarrhea, rushed off,
and scribbled down what she had learned on a notepad, in a
dark, Turkish toilet.
Did the musicians’ self-protection
arise from living with terror too long? Or was it just the
clannishness of traditional musicians, who carefully guarded
their family recipes?
Seif Mohammed had a curious
artifact in his living room, a crude pencil sketch of Beethoven
without his head that he had drawn at sixteen. I wondered
why he had kept it. To remind himself that any artist is but
a Roman torso without a brain? Did he believe there was genius
in his own music? But how would anyone extol his virtuosity
if there were no recordings? His 'ouds waited on their bellies,
their glossy, bulbous rumps, on faded, velvet chairs. They
waited for his Friday salon, when Syrian men in expensive,
tailored suits would sit in his bay window, listened and laughed
and shouted and sang and argued, about the greatness of the
Egyptian singer, Um Kulthum.
I did not have any artifacts
from the night when I went to Seif Mohammed's salon. I do
have the memory of Seif Mohammed, plucking his 'oud, while
his plump wife sang. The small audience sat in their bay window,
entranced by the lyrical music. At the end of the evening,
Seif Mohammed presented every member of the audience with
a few sprigs of dried lavender--courtly Arab charm.
Karen was my audience. After
we had shared a meal together, she lounged in one of the tattered
chairs in my Arabic coffee room, while I read her my Syrian
stories. Just as I represented the outside world to the Syrians
I knew in Lattakia, Karen was my connection to the world beyond,
bringing me news and mail from Damascus. Storing up anecdotes,
like a squirrel, I counted the days before her visits. We
were both Texans, both Episcopalians, both single, professional
women in our late thirties.
Kare entertained me with stories
about Seif Mohammed: "I was trying to play a difficult
note, when I saw something scuttling across the floor. But
he kept the apartment so dark, I couldn't see. A turtle?"
"A turtle?" I repeated.
"Seif Mohammed has a pet
The master was not always loveable.
One day, Karen returned from her lesson in tears. "He
started shouting at me; told me I was stupid. I left. Did
not even say goodbye."
"Have some lunch,"
I said, spooning out some green beans from the gigantic tureen
on the stove.
After lunch, she washed her face and retired for a nap. In
a few hours, she was ready to face Seif Mohammed again.
"Are you going back for
your lesson this afternoon? Why don't you take a break?"
Her eyes were puffy from crying
, but she smiled. "This is why I've come to Syria. I
can't waste time. I have to do my research."
I worried about endangering or offending my Syrian friends,
I did not show them my writing. I did not even show my work
to Karim. Towards the end of my second year, I had mailed
most of my work to some trusted friends in the U.S. through
the American Embassy pouch. In the end, had I succumbed to
Syrian paranoia or had I become as canny as the Syrians? Maybe
I just hoped that my writing about Syria would find an audience.
Artists needed open and insightful
audiences. That was only possible if the viewers or listeners
had not already made up their minds. Drawn the borders. Borders
were erected between men and women; between people of different
classes; between the educated and the illiterate; between
religious groups; between countries and between ancient time
and the present.
Monuments in Syria are a reminder
that great empires are ephemera.
I have another photograph from
Ugarit, one I keep in the drawer in my Cairo apartment. Karim,
in his favorite leather jacket, stands inside the ancient,
stubbed walls. He points his cigarette at the camera, like
a gun. He is joking. He was not thinking of the days when
he lined up for bread and oil. The bombings of the '80's.
His meager salary at Tishreen Unversity. The urgent needs
of his eleven sisters and brothers. His loneliness as a foreign
student in England. Or the unbearable tension he must have
felt when he saw Hafez Assad's niece and her bodyguards in
the lecture hall at Tishreen University. What would they demand
But five years ago at Ugarit,
the day was sunny and warm. Karim and I were showing the rubble
of Ugarit to an American couple from Damascus.
He was enjoying the present
Brodsky, Joseph. "Homage to Marcus Aurelius."
The Best American Essays of 1995. Ed. Jamaica Kincaid
and Robert Atwan, Houghton Mifflin Co: Boston and New York,
Hall, James. "Chip off the Old Block." The New
Statesmen. Jan. 2001: 4520. Academic Search Elite. Online.
EBSCOhost. American University Library.
Humphreys, Andrew & Simonis, Damien. The Lonely Planet
Guide to Syria. Lonely Planet Publications: Melbourne,
Oakland, London & Paris, 1999.
Seale, Patrick. Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle
East. I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., London, 1988.