Published: September 29th 2012November 7th 2012
It has been a little over a year since I returned from a summer long visit to Syria in late August 2011. I was twenty years old, and it was perhaps one of the best summers I had in a very long time. I traveled, I explored, I learned some Arabic, but more importantly I learned the values from a society that promotes generosity, love, family, peace, and friendship- values not easily learned when living alone. Last summer I was shown through numerous people, friends and family alike, that it is a hundred times better to give and to love with your heart even if you have little to offer, than to hold back or hold in any adoring emotions or possessions. The love I received from my family that summer is enough to empower me for years. Even today, a full fourteen months later, I still strongly feel the admiration and support of people who reside 6,000 miles away in a desert oasis. If that is not a remarkable feature of love, then I don’t know what it.
Recently when I was home in California, I spoke to my family after six months of being away in Chicago, and my heart broke as I noted the change in their tones from our last conversation in March. They were quieter now and a little more cautious on how they spoke. And they seemed very very tired, though it was a type of exhaustion that can only be experienced by living through hell.
My family finally acknowledge the severity of the situation. To quote my uncle when I asked how his kids were: “They’re alive, thank God”. I was speechless- this coming from a man who indulges our conversations in irony and humour, who is also one of the toughest people I know. The situation is much worse than I thought, and it has taken a clear physical toll on the family. I had spent so much of my time worrying over their physical safety, but it never occurred to me the sheer mental toll this war was taking on everyday Syrians, especially on the young; life seemed to be drained out of my cousin’s usually vibrant face.
My family and country-mates are going through hell.
I was in Syria for eleven weeks in 2011, from June until late August. Despite the growing disease of instability, that visit- the longest time I had spent away from the US since living there thirteen years earlier- revitalized my soul and reawakened a sense of personal identity. I left Chicago with the intention of learning Arabic and spending time with family, and yet I returned with an entirely different mindset and understanding of politics, society, and cross-cultural appreciation. Instability or not (though Damascus was fine while I was there), I simply was not ready to take that flight back to America.
I was so happy, I could have stayed in Syria forever.
I have to add, though, that having the ability to hop on a plane and fly to the safety of America carries with it a feeling of uneasiness, not of relief. A multitude of gratitude exists of course for being born in a nation where cars exploding on the side of the highway to promote a political cause is not the norm, a place that never has to worry about civil war, sectarian violence, or an ailing governmental system. I returned to the stable enclave of America, went back to school, and engaged in normal everyday life… but for a very long time it did not feel like I left. I seemed to have left my heart and mind with my family in Damascus.
While I was in Syria, I came to understand that there are concepts and 'ideals' that exist in the East that do not exist in the West; women are not treated better or worse in the Middle East but differently, and there are things that the West must admire and learn from Levantine societies. I am fortunate enough to serve as a mediator between the East and West- someone who grew up in the United States with a strong adherence to American ideals, and yet I hold a deep admiration for the Arab world because of my heritage. This past visit to Syria opened my eyes to what is missing in the West, which simply put is the absence of being treated exceptionally well on an everyday basis based on the appreciation society has for the gender that has the [incredible] ability to give life. That is, when I was in Syria I was treated like a goddess… by everyone. I was treated so well because I was a guest and because I am female- a sacred gender seen not as the weaker sex but as the gentler one, the important half of society making it complete. A strange notion for some to grapple with since the Middle East is no doubt often portrayed as a sphere of female oppression. But what scholars seem to miss when analyzing the “harsh” societies of the Arab world is that the everyday treatment of women, at least in countries like Syria and Lebanon, have two very important key elements: respect and appreciation. Respect for virtue and appreciation for being the ‘gentler’ sex.
Reflecting on this principle that it would be unfair to compare the East to the West, I argue that real reform and change in a political society should come from within, as a series negotiations between the people and their leader. Western media, policy makers, and analysts need to pull away from this creed that what exists and works for the West is the best system for everyone, regardless of societal make up, national sentiment, and cultural identity. Whether people choose to believe it or not, Bashar al Assad was a popular leader for much of last year, and he enjoyed the support of minorities, a large portion of the middle class, and business elites as well as having unshakable support from the upper echelons of the military. Early in 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied military intervention in Syria because she praised Assad as a reformer. As the conflict drew out, and after it was clear what was at stake in the relationships between Hezbollah, Tehran, and Damascus, the Obama administration changed their tune. By the end of my visit in late summer 2011, Obama release the statement calling for Assad to step down.
The battle for strategic Syria began.
During the final presidential debate Obama briefly laid out his administration’s strategy for Syria- a support for the opposition while dismantling the power of Bashar al Assad. He stated that the United States is mobilizing support from the international community and providing monetary assistance and political support for a moderate opposition outside Syria. He noted how the US is very concerned about the humanitarian crisis and is aligning itself with moderate opposition groups that will not pose a threat to American or Arab interests in the long run (he emphasized the importance of keeping arms away from extremists who may infiltrate the region). But after a year and a half of observation as well as knowing people experiencing the war, it seems that what the president is saying and what is actually occurring are two very different things.
After watching the series of events unfold over the past year and a half, the American strategy for Syria is extraordinary- indeed a better strategy in place than say what the Bush administration would have done should these series of events have happened ten years ago. The Obama administration is passing the buck to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to deal with the regional hegemony of Assad and Iran. Though no matter what strategy is in place, the sad fact remains that a geopolitically strategic country such as Syria with strong ties to Iran and Hezbollah will always be on the dark side of Western (primarily American) interests. It did not matter that Bashar al Assad actually enjoyed a fair amount of support throughout most of 2011 from his people as well as the upper echelons of the military, that the Saudi and Qatari governments are the furthest from free and democratic societies and that they rank terribly in protecting the rights of their own citizens, or that the Western media reports (as well as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya) grossly exaggerated the aggressiveness of the Syrian government while shedding very little light on the voices of the country’s moderate citizens or the brutality of the opposition. Bashar made his enemies by too closely aligning himself with Nasrallah and Tehran, and the US will do everything it can without direct military intervention to break apart this growing regional hegemon. I am disheartened to say that the argument for ‘protecting human rights’ and ‘concern for the wellbeing of the Syrian people’ serves as a mask to the real political intentions of the West. And the people who are paying most for this battle of regional hegemony are Syrians with their own blood. The people who suffer the most from this unnecessary war are people like my family. And there is nothing I, an American who enjoys the fruits of this powerful nation, can do.
That is the tragedy of being Syrian-American.
But what about those Syrians who had legitimate demands for reform early in the uprising, back in March of 2011? That initial group of protesters in Deraa who, inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, cried for reformation of the corrupt political system and the brutality of the secret police? Those calls should have been immediately addressed by the Syrian government, and it bears the responsibility for not responding in a prompt and peaceful manner to the people who demanded their voices to be heard. Changes in the stale governmental system came too slow, and the president missed numerous opportunities for swiftly avoiding any future internal unrest that was bubbling throughout last year. Quite simply, sweeping reformation and change was too little, too late. What should have been a swift movement to peacefully end an internal conflict has grown to be a civil and proxy war, with the glittering hope of peace fading with each passing day. The political future of my country remains at the present to be very uncertain.
What is certain, though, that the most precious news in the world for me now concerns the welfare of my family and loved ones who are currently living through this state of inferno. I promised them with all the sincerity of my heart that the moment things let up- the moment the country has a chance to breathe- I am returning to be with the people that I love. If there is anything I have learned from this extraordinary experience that began sixteen months ago, it is simply that I cannot live without the oxygen that is my family.
This beautiful country and society have penetrated my soul so deeply that it is now an undeniable characteristic of who I am.