What I Saw on the Road to Damascus

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Damascus is my favorite Middle Eastern city. I love it not only for what locals call in English its "touristic" qualities, but also for the ones that remind me of my home in Iowa: both societies share an appreciation for tight-knit families and lifetime friendships; socially conservative "family values"; and traditional comfort foods, with shish taouk and mezze standing in for the steak and salad dinners that dominated Iowa's menus when I was a child.

I love Damascus, but I certainly do not love being here under these circumstances. I came here from Beirut a week ago, in the aging Volvo of a Syrian named Ali, a kind middle-aged Shi'ite who has driven my friends and me back and forth between the two cities many times. His knowledge of Lebanon's roads is matched only by his devotion to Hizballah. I would have trusted no other driver to bring me safely past the Israeli jets bombing our road. But fleeing Lebanon in a car decorated with the photograph of Hizballah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah while listening to Manar radio's "support the resistance" call-in chat show gave new meaning to the word surreal.

Reality returned sharply as we crossed the mountains at Majdal Tarchiche and heard the sounds of jets overhead. I had been hearing them for days in Beirut, and we both tensed, waiting to hear the boom of an explosion on the road. That did not come until we had descended past the town of Zahle and into the Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian border. We had stopped the car on a side road so that Ali could hand over his Lebanese mobile-phone chip to a friend heading into the country. The delay turned out to be a godsend. When Ali started the car again, it was to flee the bombs hitting the main road on our right. We sped away with the other cars, and I watched people running away on foot from the rear window as Ali reminded me to praise God for our safety.

Having packed lightly, I can tell by what I took — and what I left behind — how rattled I was. I brought a nearly empty bottle of perfume, rather than its unopened replacement, to save on weight. I left my plane tickets for a visit home, thinking that by August I might be back and that in any case the airport was closed. I remembered to bring the July Vogue for the wait at the border; I forgot my address book.

After Ali and I exchanged our goodbyes, thanking God for our safe passage, I dropped my bags at a friend's house in Damascus and walked to my favorite lunch place — where I knew I could comfortably dine alone without being stared at. It is a small, nondescript restaurant run by a team of gracious, deeply devout, conservative Sunnis. In the Middle East, most restaurant workers, from the maitre d' to the dishwashers, are men. When I go to this restaurant, I feel like I am being tended by a team of sweet old uncles. They all come over, one by one, to ask how I am and how my father is. This is how I know that they are both conservative and sweet: they have met my mother, but do not want to suggest anything rude by asking about her.

When I told them that I had just come from Beirut, one shook his head and said: the Israelis are crazy. I was stunned: no one in Syria seems to actually utter the word Israel. No one says Israeli. Israel features frequently in political conversations, but only via euphemisms or circumlocutions. Now, though, with Israeli tanks massing at the Lebanese border and Israeli warplanes continuing their strikes throughout the country, there is no way to avoid these words. I wonder what consequences, if any, this change will bring — whether Syrians' ability to name the enemy will make Israel and its people more real and easier to relate to. Much of anti-Israeli sentiment that I have heard in Syria before has been rhetorical, operating at the most general level with references to "the Zionist enemy" and "the Jews" and the sense of an eternal conflict. In Beirut, by contrast, I was frequently startled to hear everyone from cab drivers to political figures pragmatically compare Israel and Lebanon, wondering whose service sector would dominate once peace was made.

At the moment, however, this newfound recognition of reality seems to have only one result: strengthening Syrians' support for Hizballah, whatever the consequences for Lebanon. I see posters of Nasrallah plastered on private cars and police motorcycles, and the yellow of the Hizballah flag darts across my vision wherever I look. The support is genuine — the average Syrian is much more passionate about the Palestinian cause than the most ardent Lebanese — as is the anger at Israel, and at the United States. But it is a targeted anger.

When I stopped at my favorite mini-grocery store to pick up some milk, the shopkeeper was in the middle of a conversation with friends. "I hope the American Administration falls because of this," he told them. "I hope Bush falls." Seeing me, the blonde foreigner, he asked where I was from. I told him: American, but living in Beirut. He smiled and said: "American! Welcome! We hate your government, but we love the American people. You know, we all want to live there!" Syrians have told me this for years, whenever I reveal my nationality. It was reassuring to know that at least for now they still feel the same way: affection for Americans, antipathy towards our foreign policy. As long as they are willing to make this distinction, I am still happy to think of Damascus as my home away from home.

Since January, I have lived in Beirut, in a friendly all-Lebanese apartment building just off Sanayeh Gardens, a Sunni Muslim neighborhood in the center of West Beirut that has now become the city's largest refugee camp. I moved here for the opportunities to meet the scholars of all nationalities who come to Beirut on fellowships or research trips. As a visiting researcher at both American University Beirut and Notre Dame University, I found myself immersed in a rich academic environment created by the intersection of Arab, American and European scholarly traditions.

To lose all this is heartbreaking for me, but of course, not nearly as devastating as it is for the nation as a whole. If these professors flee, and the universities close, who will prepare the next generation to build a better future for the people of Lebanon and the Middle East?

Sitting here in Damascus, I am left with the difficult task of reconciling how much has changed in such a short time. On the day of the kidnappings and the initial Israeli response, I met with an American professor friend to discuss a non-partisan American voter-registration drive we were organizing in the Bekaa Valley. I had volunteered at a similar event in May, at which we processed over 100 voter registration and absentee ballot requests from expatriates and Lebanese-Americans.

I left that drive hopeful that it could serve as a model for Lebanon, where parties are often feudal arrangements of patrons and clients, based on ethnic or religious affiliations. The first drive had been held in Achrafiyeh, Beirut's most upscale Christian neighborhood. Holding the second in the Bekaa would allow us to reach more Sunni, Shia, and Druze Lebanese-Americans — a chance to demonstrate one of the American ideals I love most: that our diversity is our strength, and that we value all citizens, regardless of race or religion. Those ideals, of course, often aren't honored; the most recent instance of that, in my mind, came late last week, when President Bush insisted upon Israel's right to defend itself, and by doing so put the lives of the 25,000 to 30,000 American citizens in Lebanon, not to mention the millions of native Lebanese, at great risk.

As a historian, I take the long view on most events. As a Midwesterner, I often have a Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm optimism. At the moment, neither is proving helpful in understanding why the "open confrontation," as al-Jazeera calls it, is continuing. Hizballah has no chance of winning Palestine back for the Palestinians, and Israel's attacks on Hizballah do nothing, long-term, to make its borders safer. But if this conflict continues much longer, Lebanon will have no chance of remaining the special place it is — and I will have to stay in Damascus, a city I do love, for all the wrong reasons.

Stanton is a doctoral student in history at Columbia University, writing her dissertation on Middle Eastern radio in the mid 20th Century