Syria on My Mind

30 Jan

I have Syria on my mind because the 3zmeh there is so pressing, and violent. Egypt is always with me as well — on the phone today to Ashraf trying to understand what’s really happening and why he minimizes the impact of the revolution so we won’t worry.

I have Syria on my mind, as I read one upsetting news article after another. As I read Jonathan Shannon’s blog, Mohja Kahf’s posts, and think about cold weather food. For my Egyptian married-to-family, cold weather food is bisara – I made it last night. This is a white bean soup made with large amounts of parsley, dill, and coriander, then onions and garlic, and blended. For me, cold weather food is fatteh. Syrian fatteh is not the same as Egyptian fatta. And my favorite place to eat fatteh may not exist any more in Damascus, with its little tables, wooden chairs and plastic tablecloths. Fatteh with chicken, or with egg, or with meat.

Syria is on my mind throughout our musings about the government’s claims that these revolutions are all by “foreigners.” Whether regime change is achieved or not yet – how is that people see all power as being outside themselves? There’s a great example here in this description of the mood in Syria

My memories of truly crazy interactions with authorities include a similar entry at the airport. My printer was seized because, of course, it must be a fax machine. Even though it wasn’t a fax machine – but they were forbidden. So the official demanded that I turn it on and show him how it was not a fax machine. Without a stepdown (volt converter) how could I? And I was very, very suspicious, even with all of my introductory documents, and letters and so on, and my little daughter holding my hand. Copiers were tightly controlled then too. There was no email service. And in those days, if you went to a news shop, one could see the articles about Syria, or sometimes the Arab world had been cut by hand out of the newspapers and magazines.

It took about six weeks to get an iqama. Each time I visited the appropriate office, I could see my passport still sitting at the top of a pile in a battered old grey metal cabinet – doors ajar. Somehow I fell extremely ill with a high fever. The agent who had helped us find our flat came to call, and returned with a neighborhood doctor. No bottled water was available in that period of the summer, yet water was probably the carrier of this particular summer fever. I knew I had to visit the government office and check on the iqama or I’d never be able to travel down to the south of the country where I wanted to carry out interviews, since one had to carry a passport when traveling (a copy wasn’t sufficient). It must have been the fever, but I was so irritated to see that no-one had even touched the passport pile, that I muttered something in the office. Instantly, I was pushed into another office with an officer screaming at me at my insolence, and how he ought to this, and this and that. And amazingly, he shoved the passport with the iqama in it, into my hands.

My basement level flat was located underneath Syria’s Constitutional Court in Abu Rumaneh, a pleasant area of Damascus. The flat had a huge formal living room with an oriental carpet atop white marble floors surrounded by white couches and a separate entrance. The interior had two bedrooms, a small kitchen littered with the numerous empty wine bottles of the previous tenant, and a small sitting/dining room with a television. Buzzers were located near each doorway next to the light switches so the women of the household could signal that they were entering; many households still observed segregation of women from men who might call or visit. The Constitutional Court was one of the least-used governmental buildings; most people did not know that it existed. I wouldn’t have know it was there either, except that a few days after I moved into the flat, someone knocked on the door. He was a clerk from the court upstairs. “Telephone for you” he told me. My face was wrinkled up in questions. After, I took the phone call upstairs, and returned below. I spotted two men out on the pavement, near a box cemented into the ground. They were attaching something into the contents of the box. A few hours later, they were still there, smoking cigarettes. The next morning, I received a phone call intended for the court, so I went upstairs to call the clerk. Apparently, when the authorities installed the phone tap, they crossed our telephone wires. He promised to call someone to try and get them uncrossed.

When I went to the Ministry of Agriculture to submit my AIDS test, the waiting area was teeming with agricultural laborers, mostly from Iraq. The AIDS test completed in the United States was irrelevant; after all “the country is run by criminals and homosexuals are everywhere.” I had brought my own needle. Waiting went on for hours and then we were told to return on another day for results . The place was incredibly crowded on the return date too, and then suddenly, a voice barked at me in Russian. It was a woman, with short hair and she gestured for me to sit on a chair. I was grateful for the special treatment and she punctuated her delivery of my results with a little speech, in Russian which made the Syrian officials laugh, but none of the rest of us had a clue.

Successful paperwork meant that I could board a bus for Suwaida, in southern Syria in the Jabal Druze, renamed by the Ba3thist government, the Jabal 3Arab. My daughter and I were questioned for about 10 minutes before boarding the bus, passport number written down and then, we disembarked in the sleepy summer provincial town. I inquired about staying in the hotel in Suwaida where they explained that there were no guests, there had been no guests for ages, yes, there were guest rooms, but the hotel was used for weddings only. Then we made our way to the mudhafah of the al-Atrash family which was just opposite one of the Atrash homes. And my interviews began. At that time, the government cut electricity service on a rolling schedule in Damascus, but in this area, the cuts amounted to 10 hours a day without electricity. At the mudhafeh, the family was accepting condolences for one of their senior members, a lady. The women had gathered elsewhere and then men presented their statements in verse. They were amused that an American had come all the way to Suwaida to inquire about Asmahan. “Not about Farid?” “For he is the ambassador of the Druze! Asmahan, she, well, we were harsh on women, then, and she should not have been singing [in public]. “Not about Sultan al-Atrash? He was the leader of the revolution (of ’25) – you must meet his son. You’ll have to go to al-Qrayya.”

Most of the information about Asmahan is in my book. But not the delightful experience of interviewing the older family members who decided that they would quite enjoy helping me and reminiscing about their own youthful days, when quite a few had lived in Egypt, and traveled more freely from there to Syria and Lebanon.
We ate at the hotel the first evening, after all, they had not anticipated my visit. As there was no electricity, the food was cooked over charcoal.

Among the other highlights of these interviews was one that I held with Fahd Ballan, whose star had fallen after too much wild living, I believe. He met me at the musicians’ and artists’ building and of course, the electricity went out just as we arrived. He had little to say about Asmahan, but Farid al-Atrash had been his friend and mentor, and he had plenty to say about the demise of Arabic music, both technically and conceptually.

Enough, enough! I had meant to stick with the theme of Syrian authorities. Who did not intrude on my time in the Jabal, but on each return to Damascus, I learned more. The pockmarked buildings where suicide bombers had killed themselves in 1980-1981. The visits by “the friends” – who arrived at 4:00 a.m. The funniest question the mukhabarat posed me was “how many Jewish academics are there in the United States?” “Well, I don’t know,” I said, “I think there are thousands and thousands of them, as they are SO smart!” My answer was so wrong and so unexpected, that the interview soon terminated after more inquiries about what I was REALLY researching. “Asmahan.” Impossible. “No, really, Asmahan.” Just to be sure that I got the point, the next day, the younger brother of a Syrian friend arrived home with his ribs broken – he’d been viciously beaten and kicked. Vicarious cruelty is effective. I was more careful about what I said, and where I said it. Not as careful as I should have been. Not as careful as friends who cannot even speak within their own homes.


3 Responses to “Syria on My Mind”

  1. jhshannon January 30, 2012 at 7:08 pm #

    This is such a moving and evocative post, Sherifa. It brings back many more memories for me – the impetus behind my blog. Thanks and keep going!

    • sherifazuhur January 30, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

      Will try!

      • jhshannon January 30, 2012 at 7:40 pm #

        PS the anecdote about the crossed wire-tap is CLASSIC!!! I’m still laughing 30 minutes later 🙂

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