We Jewish people internationally appeal to Jews and Jewish organizations around the world to remove Israel flags from communal spaces, whether at Jewish schools, Jewish Federation offices or synagogues. It is clear to us – and much of the world – as the reports of B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch have demonstrated – that the Israeli State is an Apartheid regime and therefore, as international law correctly confirms, it is an ongoing crime against humanity.
The government of Israel, since its start, has been determined to totally subjugate or remove the indigenous Palestinians from the land they’ve lived in for centuries. The Jewish supremacist state of Israel is deeply discriminatory and necessarily violent towards Palestinians who naturally resist oppression and expulsion. Israel logically allies itself with Far Right and Anti-Semitic forces even though this endangers Jews worldwide. That may seem astounding, but these noxious alliances have long been the practice of the Zionist organizations that worked to create Israel.
It is increasingly important for Jews to distinguish between Judaism and the State of Israel and its policies. By featuring an Israeli flag prominently in our communal institutions we permit anti-Semites to believe that our interests are inextricably linked to those of a state whose policies we abhor.
The Israeli flag has the status of the Confederate flag.
We are appalled at the idea that it represents us.
The composition of the class has changed; some students have gone to a higher class and others have gone in the opposite direction. Among the new arrivals, there are suddenly five or six Turkish men and women who are practicing Muslims (recognizable by their hijab) and others who are not; as for the boys, I couldn’t tell if they are practicing or not.
What are all these (mostly) young people doing here?
They are preparing to study at the university or to work in companies where they will be asked to speak Arabic; there are Syrians from abroad who want their children to learn their mother tongue or to do some of their studies here. I told you about the wives. I must be one of the few (no, there is Greta) who studies “for nothing”, for the pleasure of reading Arabic literature, and there is also Boul (Pavel becomes Paul becomes Boul – there is no “au” in Arabic and there is no P, hence Baris for the city of light) who studies to study.
You tell me about an earthquake, but I don’t have access to the news. A building did collapse because its basement was tapped by caves, C. tells me; Bush would have announced his intention to put us on his list. The news is received with a certain indifference; this project has been announced more than once.
Isolation is a bit painful: mail is slow – but not much more so than at home: a letter takes a good week – random e-mails, very expensive telephone, only for international calls whose rate has nevertheless dropped by 20%, but besides that there are so many advantages to living here. Since I’m going to study Arabic for a few years, I’m thinking of coming to Damascus for eight months a year (I’m avoiding the summer).
I’m already less tired in class and in the fog of Arabic broadcast by our teacher, I’m starting to make out some vocabulary silhouettes. I think I am making progress.
Tuesday 8 October 2002 (evening)
Bosra, a two-hour bus ride from Damascus, is more than its grandiose theater that hosts a festival in September; there is also the old city, with a huge reservoir, a basilica, a huge and well-preserved Roman hammam, mosques, one of which is said to have seen the Prophet pass by, etc.
I made the trip on Sunday with a luscious Brazilian girl from my class; on the way out, we were side by side, but on the way back, sitting at the very back of the bus, we took a seat at the windows. We wanted to speak Arabic. Three gentlemen came to sit between us; the one on my right sat at the front of his seat and remained very uncooperative during the whole trip. More or less the same for the man sitting to the left of M., but with the one in the middle it was a different matter. He made us do a serious mouradja (revision), all this in laughter and teasing, not very correct dress for a woman told me the look of a woman traveler.
There is a record store (NAI) in the Shalan neighborhood where I found something to quench my thirst for classical and good Arabic music. I was about to go to Brussels because I missed my CDs so much. You should never imagine that you can totally immerse yourself in another culture and manage to cut yourself off from your own.
It depends on the day; sometimes I go out on all fours, sometimes fresh as a rose. Today, I could feel my dark circles deepening under my jowls; the beautiful Siberian woman, whose beauty I never tire of admiring, has returned to my great relief.
Wednesday, October 9, 2002
Again the classes
I was quite jealous of the ease with which the Turks read the texts. Today, it was a revolution. I learn that the Turks have four years of Arabic behind them and that they are bored to death with us beginners. They want to leave.
Opening to the world
Suddenly, it’s like Christmas: my friend has installed a new box to receive satellite TV and radio stations and I will finally know what is happening in the world. I can receive vrt but not rtbf, France musique, culture etc. At least 200 channels in total.
These are costs that my landlady could have made, but whether it is by avarice or poverty, she leaves everything up to me.
October weather; at night, the coolness forces me to cover myself with a sheet. During the day, it is still very hot, with occasional bursts of relative coolness.
I always have my morning coffee on the balcony; a turtle-dove, perched on the neighbor’s clothesline, sends a feather onto my plate.
I still don’t know the kids next door; through the hammered glass I saw one this morning putting on his pants. The cats continue to come and go.
It seems that I am beginning to be accepted because the consumption of grapes, crunchy with freshness, washed in tap water, has been done with impunity.
Thursday, October 10, 2002
The counter at the window
When you go to get your visa to come and visit me, you will probably be surprised that you have to do the transaction through the window. I thought it was for security reasons, but I see that it is done here too, for example at the Saudi Arabian consulate, which is very close to my institute.
End of my second week of classes. The Turks have been relocated to a place more worthy of them and our class has shrunk accordingly.
I got conjunctivitis from having the fan in my eyes and it can hurt! I will try to get some eye drops.
I’m flattened; the whole week without going out the door, spent studying.
Tonight, old town and hookah; picture of Papa Joseph and his treasure den.
The eye drops, damn. The dodgy pharmacist in the old town that I had already inaugurated during my previous stay, refuses to give me anything and gives me the name of a doctor and a street, telling me that I need it. I go to Zak’s and ask him if he has camomile; he agrees with the pharmacist and tells me to see a doctor. I go up to Joseph’s (photos) and he tells me the same thing.
Two kilometers away, I finally find my ophthalmologist; I sit down in a very clean waiting room. I fraternize with two young women (mouradja, professor). A fashionable man goes before everyone else with his son. A shady man with a shady son enters when it is their turn and leaves.
We end up in the doctor’s office with three patients and their companions. The examination of the son of the fashionable man (the cup of coffee that he receives proves it to me abundantly; there is a whole code in the cup of coffee that one receives or not according to your relations with your host), I thus said that the examination of the son of that man finishes when suddenly we are all in pitch darkness: a short circuit is the cause; the small girl of one of the young women is examined with the electric torch and me too. I confess to the shampoos with Aleppo soap and the dose of pepper that I administered to myself by rubbing my eyes after spicing a dish, as well as the long hours spent bent over my books. He tells me that studying is good for the brain and less for the eyes. I will see him again on Monday because he wants to examine my glasses. Ah! and he speaks English.
The two young women take me to the pharmacy and there I receive such a warm welcome that I am quite moved; the pharmacists speak French, and well, it is “if you need anything, don’t hesitate to come”. It’s something else than the old grumpy guy from the old town who nevertheless did me a great service.
I’m too tired to go to the hookah and I’ll moderate my reading until Monday.
On my way back, I go for a pizza; in front of the counter a man unfolds his carpet and makes his prayer; he washed his feet because he wore sandals.
They tell me: the pizza is not good, we will make it again. I opt for a tabbouleh.
Illa lika; I’ll try to post this with my bad eyes too.
friday october 11, 2002
The white tornado just left; it disturbed the only cockroach in the house, which came out of its hiding place where the chlorox must have bothered it.
I take it and put it at the door on the balcony.
Ali (the Tornado) has been helping me with my homework for tomorrow; don’t think our day off is really off. I’m taking advantage of the brief respite the eye drops are giving me to write to you.
So, this gentleman who, at the ophthalmologist’s, passed by without even stopping in front of the receptionist and opened the door of the office without knocking, what’s the deal? The question has been on my mind since last night.
Probably the doctor told him: you can come by whenever you want; no need to queue in the waiting room.
Here, no one would think of protesting as I do at home: hey, I’m before you; to each his turn.
Last Sunday in Bosra, M. and I were emptied from a carriage whose price we had just negotiated (unsuccessfully); we were already settled when the coachman made us get off and to our great indignation, which we expressed loudly, he left with another customer. That’s how it is.
I’m stopping because the drops are starting to lose their effect and I still have to work a bit; we have a dictation tomorrow. At least, since the departure of the nice Turks, I won’t hear anymore: me, I made zero mistakes, me too, while me, it’s four minimum.
The system of four days of classes, followed by a day “without”, then a Saturday of classes and a Sunday “without” is finally good. I can’t see myself holding out for five days in a row. And in two “no” days we would be in danger of slacking off.
The other night (it was 8:30 p.m.) in the ophthalmologist’s office, the atmosphere was so pleasant. The chic man and his son, the two young women and the little girl, me getting my eyes watered while lying on the table and explaining to the chic man that I was studying the language because I wanted to read poetry in Arabic (I only reveal my own literary ambitions to a few). And when the blackout came, I didn’t hear a “shit”; the lamps and candles were brought out. And as I told you last time, the little girl and I (who were dreading being fired) went through the flashlight exam. The drops seem to be helping, but I’m going back tomorrow.
I have never felt such peace; I am bathed in compatibility. In the evening, the square in front of the Umayyad Mosque is practically deserted. The air is so soft that I can’t feel my body. Do you think, db, that I have found what I was not looking for?
The region has its terrible tragedies, but I live totally in the here and now.
Caveat emptor. It is not only the merchants who are thieves in this souk, the cabs that we find at the door of the souk, too.
I get into a cab, then another, and I get out each time I am told the price: double the maximum I pay and in which a tip is included. I get into a third car; I give the address and the maximum I pay; the driver gives me desperate looks, but I insist: it’s 50 pounds (one Euro), not a cent more. In the end, he manages to make me understand that he is not a cab driver. I apologize.
I end up finding a legit taximan. Complain to the police? Out of the question. A fellow student of mine did it for 10 pounds (40 cents), as a matter of principle.
I went to read my mail: today impossible on hotmail. I will be here on June 28; I will only come back here, if Dios quiere, in September to do a second year. Spending the summer in Syria is unimaginable for me.
The other day I timed my connection: 40 minutes to read two posts, reply to them, upload my post and four photos to my mailbox and try to reply (in vain) to db’s kind message.
Thursday, October 17, 2002
This will be my last posting for a while.
In the month I’ve been here, I’ve made a lot of progress in Arabic, especially since I started taking classes.
I have a lot of work to do and I don’t have the energy to fight against recalcitrant connections anymore.
I’ll be picking up my hotmail and compuserve email once a week.
Sunday October 20, 2002-10-20
No matter how much we run away, our sorrows catch up with us; the approach of a fateful date, of a painful anniversary is as difficult as the dreaded day.
Two years ago, in a gloomy staircase of the subway, a dragonfly- butterfly, as he liked to describe himself, crashed; has one ever seen a dragonfly or a butterfly crash? Charles, my ex-husband.
It is commonly said: life goes on; it is by limping that one continues the road.
Enough melancholy, let’s come back to the here and now, to Damascus.
It is still hot, but the noses do not bleed any more. At night, we cover ourselves because it is cool. The laundry always dries in a flash.
The first real rain (five minutes), I welcomed it like the sweetest music. You get jaded quickly: by the second one, I was already not jumping for joy, but I said it, I will never curse it as long as I am here. It’s like my magic fountain; sometimes when I go to Nafura, I just forget to say hello to it. You should never take things for granted although fountains are more constant than human beings.
A small scene from everyday life
If I travel by microphone, it is for the pleasure of being with people. The other evening, the door is blocked, retained by its padding; we finally succeed in opening it, but the problem is repeated each time the door is opened. Without a word, the driver hands a screwdriver and a screw to a traveller and this one makes the repair.
In all, four visits to the ophthalmologist; his waiting room is most interesting. Many people from the village, in particular a woman with a scarf tied behind her head. She has a brick complexion, prominent cheekbones and willing lips. Not the kind of personon whose feet I’d like to step on.
A man in a keffiyeh drinks from the jug like a gargoyle, without touching.
In the office it’s always a mess; I love it, but I lose my zen when the secretary keeps getting my appointments wrong, does not know at what time the doctor will arrive, when I’ll get my spare glasses, etc.
No, I don’t have a brain tumor,” he says after a very painful fundus; I just need new glasses. This week I should be able to see normally again. The optician was educated in Canada and speaks very good French.
My … do you really want to know? My hair
My hair is now pissy from being oiled and stripped. I bought a turban with a little pearl, but I don’t dare to wear it except when the cotton candy goes all over the place. And re-rinse is not going to help. The fish are rotting out of my head; I am an Aries though.
You ask me if we study history etc. Please! Don’t you think we have enough with grammar? I occasionally take a careless look at the books and think I’ll never get through it. Why not learn knitting instead?
Sometimes, when the teacher tells us something, our interpretations make us laugh: kèskidi? I think he’s talking about the signs of the zodiac (with the bull and the ram), no, he’s talking about horns, no, we don’t know. Nevertheless, and I don’t mind repeating myself, I recognize some grammatical terms now, but the notions they represent sometimes escape me.
So, if you come here, don’t forget to bring a grammar book with the Arabic terminology.
And my poems?
I read them to Zak, who liked them, but since I’m also a good customer…
Friday, October 25, 2002
Sorry Pascal for not meeting your expectations of exoticism. Damascus is a modern city with old neighborhoods, but people don’t live in tents, not even in the Yarmouk refugee camp.
Last night, I took a trip to the city and took some pictures of Damascus by night.
I took you into the big room of the hammam where you can
reception, rest and waxing.
Next Monday, I’ll take you into the large marble room where you lie down, get washed and massaged. I went back last Monday to get scrubbed and it was worth it. This time, instead of putting me on the plate, the washer made me sit on the floor and it is in this uncomfortable position that she did my washing.
Without waxing or shampooing, the afternoon was uneventful. Everybody was happy to be photographed for the internet except two French girls, mother and daughter, who refused to show their breasts for my friends back home.
Afterwards, Palestinian evening on a square of the city; an orchestra plays and sings patriotic songs and others very beautiful. At 6 pm, we wait for a group of young Europeans who have come to Palestine, Syria and Iraq to testify for peace. As the group does not count Belgians I leave towards 19H30 because it is cold. It must be said that we are in autumn and that we have only 28° during the day; in the evening, it is chilly. The stalls of the merchants tell the change of season because I see wool appearing.
Wednesday I went to my optician to get my new glasses. And here I ask for your attention, because you will see that the world is microscopic.
He said: I’m going to Paris for a congress (BTW, the ophthalmologist is in America, also for a congress). And where are you staying? In Versailles (it’s near the author’s sister), and then I’m going to my aunt’s in V. (that’s at my sister’s); and where does your aunt live? In the street E. (the street of my sister!), and to which number? No, not at my sister’s, but close by.
Some information about Syria
You feel patriotic here; people love their country and are proud of it.
I got the following figures from Encarta.
In 2001, the literacy rate was 87.8%.. Primary education is free and compulsory.
The main agricultural products are barley, wheat, tobacco and vegetables. Grapes, olives, and citrus fruits are produced in the oases. Intensively cultivated cotton is almost the only crop for export.
Livestock is very important (sheep, goats, cows and chickens). No fishing or forestry.
There is oil and gas; as for industry, it is specialized in food processing and textiles. The country also produces cement, tobacco and leather. Syrian handicrafts: brocades, carpets, marquetry and metal work.
I am told that brocades are produced by Muslims, metals were produced by Jews and marquetry by Christians. As there are only 50 Jews left, I assume that their activity has been taken over by the Muslims or Christians.
Well, I wasn’t very proud of my Europeans; I was smoking my weekly hookah when a bunch of drunken Spaniards came down the stairs to my terrace. They make a big fuss at the merchant’s whose store is next to my chair; he tells them that he has a sister in Bilbao, and to me, he tells me that he has a brother in Ghent, to Maria that his fiancée is Brazilian like her, etc.
The descendants of the Duke of Alba bang on a brass tray and hold it above their heads. Everyone (us Muslims and the like) opens their eyes; it is true that to share this euphoria one would have to have drunk as much as they have, which is obviously not the case for me since I have been living a life of abstinence. This kind of scene must be extremely rare here. The merchant tells me with a smile that they didn’t buy anything and that they covered him with scandal.
The Syrians I see have a quiet and warm dignity, without stiffness. Drunkenness is really nothing to write home about.
This post wouldn’t be complete without…
my hair. I took it to the hairdresser of a big hotel who greeted me with a clear Bonjour Mèdème while wiggling his butt as no homosexual in our country does anymore. Unfortunately, his French stopped there because he immediately passed me on to an English-speaking colleague who said, twisting the corner of his mouth: where did they do that to you?
Anyway, they are now brassy and I’m not fooling anyone anymore: it was never their color. It’s obvious I had a rinse.
Now I’m not talking about it anymore. I promise, I swear.
And my Arabic?
When I speak my crude literary Arabic (with all the endings) people understand me, but they are amused because nobody speaks like that.
Big difference with Morocco where, apart from people who have done high school, nobody understands you in the street.
The life of a student is uneventful, even in Damascus. It’s hard work, it’s anxious about exams (in two months), it sometimes makes you want to quit and go home. And except for the Turks (there are some left and they are talented) (see photo of incomplete class), we are all in the same situation at different times.
By the way, I didn’t see any red-light district. I have seen girls who were no longer virgins in a big hotel, but on the street, certainly not.
There might be homosexuals who are more or less whoring around; I read that in a book.
When at the Shams café I see the waiter making a terrible grimace , I look and I find: there is a homosexual couple sitting on the terrace, Europeans, of course.
Alcohol is not forbidden, but it is discreet, I hear that there are places where they sell it. Yes, there are Muslims who drink. That’s not surprising, but not in public.
Drug dealers are executed. And I, who am against the death penalty, agree.
Bin Laden is not popular here. He is not a good Muslim. Moreover, for 9/11, he was in cahoots with the Americans. And this hypothesis does not seem to me to be so far-fetched ….
When Patricia (a French convert) has time, we’ll put together an Islam for Dummies, but since she’s even busier than I am, I can’t promise you that it will be soon. In preview: the veil is a custom. Religion simply states that a woman should only show her face and hands, hence the hijab (headscarf) and the frock coat buttoned at the collar.
There are women who hide half their face, either by biting off a piece of their veil or by tying it behind. Some cover themselves completely; it is true that they probably rarely go out.
At the hammam, I was too tired to bring my camera. The hammam is still Capua. The room is reminiscent of an orientalist painting. We smoked hookah in every corner.
My neighbor tells me that he goes there with his friends around 10 o’clock in the evening and that they spend the night eating, drinking tea and telling jokes. They come out around 4 a.m.
Speaking of smoking, I’m on a real crusade with my friends and acquaintances who smoke like chimneys. We don’t see many old people, but I don’t know the life expectancy figures.
Next week, on November 5th, Ramadan begins. It is a period of purification. Those who smoke, smoke less or stop. Those who drink alcohol, stop drinking. One restrains oneself from having bad thoughts and one is more charitable.
As you know, we do not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. At the institute, we will not even be given the half-hour respite that civil servants get. The schedule remains the same.
On Sunday, we go with the institute on an excursion to Homs, Tartous and an island. I think we will also see the krak of the crusaders. I will tell you about it and you will have your pictures.
I wrote a long thread on #Syria one year ago for the 20th anniversary of its official metamorphosis into a hereditary republic – will RT it after this. Since then, none of the basic issues or root problems have changed, but recent developments would make you think otherwise. /1
Bashar Assad claims he’s been “re-elected” – though he was never elected in the first place. If you’re even remotely familiar with Syria, you know there’s been no such thing as elections since the Baath’s military coup in 1963. The farce just got more blatant with the Assads. /2
Meanwhile, normalization with the 21st century’s most murderous regime now seems to be all the rage. Several countries are openly flirting with the genocidal maniac, teasing him with the prospect of reopening their Damascus embassies at the chargé d’affaires level … for now. /3
Some Europeans now pretend all is well in Syria, so they can send Syrians back there. Adopting a post-war narrative that is music to Assad, Putin and Khameini’s ears, they find Damascus safe enough for terrified Syrians who had fled, but not safe enough for Danish diplomats. /4
Gulf countries, which never welcomed Syrian refugees in the first place, are openly playing footsie with Bashar Assad. Bring him back to the Arab League, they say. Enough with this revolutionary liberty nonsense, they pray. Amen to that, nod other authoritarians near and far. /5
Putin’s allies are all having a grand time doing what they do best, because why not? Forcing civilian airliners to land & arresting passengers – who then “confess” great conspiracies on Belarusian television – is now a thing. New precedents. What could possibly go wrong? /6
Still, the Biden administration couldn’t be less interested in Syria or in the havoc the regime created in the region and beyond. No one in DC got the memo that what happened in Syria did not, and will not stay in Syria; on this, apart from Iran issue, Biden = Trump = Obama. /7
The Iranian regime is biding its time, waiting for the new nuclear deal & its fringe benefits: every risk it has taken, every investment it has made paid off. Hezbollah reigns supreme, demographic engineering changed Syria forever, and IRGC leverage over Iraq is unparalleled. /8
The “international community” claims helplessness and laments Syrian suffering, but the butcher of Syria – proven perpetrator of chemical massacres, carpet bombing, sieges, torture, and annihilator of hospitals – has joined the executive board of the World Health Organization. /9
7 years of bad luck? Syrians have endured 21 under Bashar Assad, yet are told to swallow more of the same as the genocidal maniac’s malignant narcissism reaches new dizzying heights. Thing is, those darn Syrians still believe they deserve a life of dignity. Imagine that. /10
20 years ago today, I was at a Damascus hair salon when an assistant rushed to tell us Hafez Assad had died. What I saw and lived in the next days and years is set in stone in my memory. This thread is but a glimpse of life in #Syria then and the slow descent into implosion. /1
Hafez started preparing the ground for 2nd son Bashar in 1994 when original heir Bassel was killed in a car crash. While Bashar’s meteoric rise in army ranks and early public appearances in late 90s prepared people, Hafez was busy clearing regime ranks of potential contenders. /2
Big names Syrians had grown up fearing, from Hekmat Shehabi to dreaded head of intelligence Ali Douba, were officially retired to ensure only the most loyal and least ambitious men stayed. Bashar never had to fight an “old guard” in later years as some clueless media claimed. /3
Within an hour of Hafez’s death, parliament held a special televised session to amend the constitution. In 5 minutes, the required age for the presidency was lowered from 40 to 34, Bashar’s age. We all watched in stunned silence: we expected it, but it was still humiliating. /4
When Bassel died, Hafez Assad forced the entire country to shut down & mourn for 40 days. So when Hafez died, Syrians went into self-preservation mode: within a couple of hours, streets emptied & shops closed, with people at home glued to TVs, trying to interpret developments. /5
Turns out Bashar couldn’t care less if people grieved “the eternal leader” as long as they cheered “the hope” – the cute moniker his folks spread for us to repeat. Bashar was devoid of emotion, even flippant at the funeral, a bit ungrateful considering his hefty inheritance. /6
The formalities of Bashar’s “election” took place the following month, and many would have wanted the story to end with “and we all lived happily ever after” … but we didn’t. To begin with, the personality cult imposed under Hafez paled in comparison to what Bashar demanded. /7
Hafez liked being feared but Bashar was desperate to be admired. Over the years, he sidelined any Syrian personality who came even close to being popular or, God forbid, to outshine the king. Old wooden Baathist dinosaurs are still his core ministers & advisors for a reason. /8
To be admired, Bashar strived to be cool. The rumors about work ethics, love of technology and humble demeanor, the wife, the living quarters, the interviews, the cafes, the modernity, the posters magically appearing “against his will” – all meant to drip with coolness. /9
Before Hafez died, I was one of the first few thousand Syrians to buy a mobile phone. For that privilege, in addition to the cost of the phone (illegal to bring one from abroad) + various fees, I paid $1,200 to Syriatel just to have a number. That’s how Rami became cool too. /10
As portfolio manager of the Assad and Makhlouf clans, Rami was the most visible and most powerful “businessman.” But all the children of the Hafez buddies became the new business people of the Bashar era – not that it’s a feat of entrepreneurship with no competition allowed. /11
The so-called economic opening was merely an erratic crony capitalist economy so a few could live it up. As they watched mounting obscene wealth around them, Syrians were beginning to face rising prices, diminishing means, a dismal housing situation and a transport nightmare. /12
From the start, Bashar claimed the economy would be reformed; if this was reform, imagine the rest. There were a couple of private banks, some media, a few private schools – none of which had an effect on the lives of ordinary Syrians. On the political front, empty words. /13
Some dared to call Bashar’s bluff. In September 2000, 99 brave Syrian intellectuals signed a statement asking him to lift the state of emergency (in place since 1963), free political prisoners, allow freedom of speech … if you know Syria, you know where this is going. /14
Syrians waited for these basic freedoms and rights for an entire decade, and paid dearly for it. While Rami scooped up every possible penny made in or coming into Syria, Bashar was scooping up Syrians who dared to speak out and populating jails with prisoners of conscience. /15
The Damascus Spring, as we call it, turned rapidly into a Damascus Winter. Many old opposition figures who the world discovered in 2011 had been prisoners of conscience for years – under father and then son – for “weakening national sentiment.” Defying Bashar was verboten. /16
Abroad, Bashar played statesman with disastrous effect, giving absurd interviews pontificating on world affairs. A mansplainer of the first order, he tediously denied claims about any action by saying “it’s not logical.” He riled up the US by sending fighters to Iraq … /17
… even though he voted for Resolution 1441 on his Security Council stint, giving the US the unanimity it had sought and the justification it needed to invade Iraq a few months later (Bashar always wants to be wanted, and if that doesn’t work he makes trouble to be noticed). /18
And then there was Lebanon, which he had been messing up since the day he inherited his realm. In 2004, he forced the Lebanese parliament to extend then-president Emile Lahoud for 3 years (unconstitutionally), and in February 2005, with his ever stronger ally Hezbollah, … /19
… he killed Rafic Hariri, setting in motion a sequence of further assassinations and upheaval, and the forced retreat of Syrian soldiers who had been there since the 1970s. When brave Syrians dared to stand with their Lebanese counterparts, he threw them in jail, again. /20
Syrians watched Lebanese protesters publicly insult Bashar, shaking the regime for the first time. That is when the “menhebak” (we love you) posters started appearing, and when the regime began peddling Syrianism (basically, Syria First) to replace Baathist Arabism. /21
After the hasty Lebanon retreat, Bashar promised Syrians big changes were coming. We were not holding our breath, but when he then convened a Baath Party Congress (the first since 2000), some again dared to hope the regime had finally learned its lesson. Silly them. /22
The Congress declared that the economy (officially socialist for people, capitalist for ruling elite) would henceforth be known as a “social market economy,” whatever that means. Poverty continued to rise, the velvet society continued to sip frappuccinos at the Four Seasons. /23
Ostracized by the entire region and the world, Bashar was saved by Hezbollah’s infamous May 2008 assault on Beirut which led to a reconciliation agreement sponsored by Qatar, leading itself to his reintegration into the international community and an invitation to Paris. /24
The bigger Bashar’s head got on a regional level, the more his actions increased Syrian despair and disparity. And when he declared in early 2011 to WSJ that Syria was immune to the Arab spring, the children of Deraa pointed to the naked emperor and wrote: it’s your turn. /25
Syrians endured suffocating hardship over decades of Assad tyranny before they started the revolution – a revolution in every sense of the word. To understand this seemingly sudden unleashing of the free Syrian spirit, you need to know about the decade that preceded it. /26
This thread merely scratches the surface of the trajectory of Bashar Assad and Syria, which I researched for years at Chatham House, and wrote and spoke about in hundreds of articles, talks and interviews. Expertise on Syrian affairs is needed, above all from Syrians. /27
Hafez Assad bequeathed him a hereditary republic; Bashar took this massive trust fund and destroyed it over the course of 20 years, little by little at first through reckless abandon, and then with every weapon of mass terror and destruction. /28
This gluttonous, incompetent, barbaric regime is unreformable, proving repeatedly it will use all means at its disposal to maintain its violent power, 50 years on and counting. Since March 2011, most Syrians have sacrificed everything to liberate themselves, with little help. /29
As the world rethinks its selective commitment to fighting injustice and upholding human rights, after the exposure of horrific crimes on unarmed civilians, it should help Syrians get justice too. For that to happen, Bashar Assad’s 20th anniversary in power must be his last. /30
I reproduce here my diary from that time as was. The text accompanies my podcast “Pourquoi l’oralité” . Below, my first message sent from Damascus as well as those that will continue throughout the month of September 2002. My publishing partner was Pascal Hyde in Belgium who put my texts and photos online, at least in the beginning. Translated from the French with Deepl.
Damascus, Saturday night fever, September 14, 2002
I have seen you!
Let me tell you, (the trip is later) :
At the 3rd address, I find a functioning cybercafe: the machines turn on, I land on cc21, I see with relief that db messages me and she mentions ifead, (BTW, IFEAD is too difficult for me; I took a look at their admission test and realized it would take me a year to reach that level) (. And just as I’m about to reply from an Arabic keyboard coupled with a qwerty keyboard, everything freezes and the manager tells me no more internet today.
So,I’ll try to post tomorrow after sending this prose .
Db, if there was a quest, then I found it. I love Damascus, Syria and the Syrians, the Arabic spoken there and the beauty of which, even from my beginner’s level, I can appreciate. I thank you for your research. Nevertheless, I insist, there is no quest because there is nothing to find outside oneself. And you know, my quest also ended in Edinburgh and even in America (the one in the sixties that expired in 1975 with the end of the Vietnam war).
Let’s get back to the journey.
A Syrian friend of mine told me: for the weight, no problem, I travel with 50 kg, plus a big package in accompanied luggage; they never say anything.
On Friday, a friend, a luggage consultant, comes to help me for the dress rehearsal and I, who had weighed everything to the gram, under her impulse I get carried away and I say to myself: damn, I’m going; with a bit of luck, they’ll let me through.
And she says to me: this big winter coat, you are not going to carry it on your arm! Be classy and travel at ease; look, you have room in this kitbag.
Total: JBV drives me to the airport with four heavy bags that I could only lift with difficulty.
Well, I had to pay up for every extra gram.
Why didn’t you send it by air freight? Have you ever cleared something in another language?
I did it in Dutch with my car on my way back from the US and had the humiliation of having to admit later in writing that the inadequacy of my Flemish had made me fail to answer a question correctly.
I didn’t spare you the boarding, but I’ll skip the description of the meal on board (well, but the weaning begins: no wine. Fortunately, I filled up before leaving), to move on to my row mate. At first glance, I thought: this is a cousin of a well-known leader, currently in the crosshairs of the Yanks; he had a manly moustache and manners that were just as manly, if by manliness one means bad education.
You’ll see: “we don’t study Arabic anymore at your age, Madam; it’s good for the little children, but for you, it’s too late” and he mentions my 60s. I’m thinking shit, he must be a cop, NO ONE ever tells me my age.
As if mentioning my age wasn’t enough, he tells me to convert to Islam, put the hijab on my head (that’s the headscarf and not the bourqa for those of you who don’t know the difference) and tells me everything will be fine.
I’m not joking anymore, how can I explain in a country of believers (Muslims, 65%) that my only religion is the respect of others and the love of freedom?
I think I’ll have to hypocritically fall back on the religion of my childhood.
The debate is not even to be considered.
I also meet a Syrian journalist who is really moved when she learns that she is meeting a future great Arab writer, since this is my avowed ambition; we talk a bit about women and she feels very well as single woman.
I go through customs with my four bags and my laptop without any problem. Before, they used to put everything of value in your passport so that you wouldn’t be tempted to sell your belongings.
September 16, 2002
So, Damascus? Google will give you some very good sites about the city.
There is ugliness, pollution and magic. Yesterday, I stopped at the Bekdash ice cream shop whose owner’s wife is the daughter of the man I met on the plane (the one who thinks I’m too old to study) in the Souk al- Hamidiyya where they pound the ice cream by hand and for 25 FEB you get a big cup topped with pistachios. This place is always packed .
Then I went to my fountain next to the An-Nafourah café, but it was dry and I was sad not to take my hookah, because what’s the point of smoking in front of an empty cage (the fountain is in a cage).
In my confusion, I awkwardly kicked the pedestal table on which my glass of tea was placed, sending the whole thing waltzing on the jeans of a tourist sitting next to it. Without a word (and without having me pay extra), the boy came over and put a new glass on my pedestal table. The tourist was a bit more annoyed.
Water is THE problem of the region; why don’t we finance an aqueduct from Europe to here? We can live without oil, but without water? When you fly over Syria from Aleppo, all you see is a huge desert. The reason why the Israelis would refuse to give back the Golan Heights is because of its water resources.
Let’s get back to the magic. It is in the street, the people, their kindness, their easy contact.
In a store, I ask for an adapter for my computer plug; they don’t have one, but they send a little boy to get one for me. Another store has no floppy disks: same thing; they bring me some. In front of the barber shops, on the sidewalk, towels are drying on small plastic racks.
I’m sure I have to tell you about the women; in the neighborhood where I’m going to live, they are in jeans. The girl who is going to teach me wears the hijab; so what? What business is it of ours? On the plane, I met a journalist , who lives alone, not married, and who when she travels to Saudi Arabia, wears the veil. I am occasionally asked if I am Muslim; I answer that I am Catholic and the answer is enough.
Let’s talk about my hotel: a jewel. Exotic and comfortable, efficient and clean. It is for all new arrivals a first family.
Nevertheless, at my first shower, I still looked suspiciously at the neon sign that is not far from the (shower) head. [A travelogue had already taught me that Syrians are not afraid of electricity (a bare wire could at any moment turn the iron bed that the author shares with his lover into an electric chair)].
I found the apartment the day after I arrived; I knew right away that it was what I wanted: close to the institute where I’m going to study, and pleasant. I naively thought that all I had to do was pay and I could move in the next day. Wrong, but with the help of a gentleman, who serves as my interpreter and guide, I happily cleared the hurdles (embassy, foreign affairs, police station) and I expect to move in tomorrow, Tuesday, or at the latest, Wednesday.
As for the institute where I am going to study, it has students from all over the world, and we will be forced to communicate in Arabic; I can’t wait to start the classes.
Would you like to hear about my – dear – luggage? By the way, I forgot to tell you that the Dutch were in charge of the luggage at Zaventem; they even charged an extra fee at the foot of the bridge to some Syrians who had probably listened to Samir’s advice too.
Damascus, Thursday, September 19, 2002
First mail from my apartment
… and a second night spent on a mattress on the floor, my landlady’s bed being the surest way to a new passage on my orthopedist’s table. Since I must have cost my government a million dollars, I think buying a mattress is a small favor to both of us, especially me.
My cornak (for non-French speakers: person who introduces, guides sb), whom I will call the Friend from now on, finds me a workshop in the old city where they will make me a suitable mattress in three days.
Jonathan from Fez (American language institute, sorry… Arabic language institute, nothing to do with the first one, I was assured) studied here and warned me that without a solid knowledge of Arabic I would never manage to get past the administrative hurdles to get into an apartment. He was entirely right, but that was without counting on the Friend and his providential interventions.
Why didn’t I ask my bazine (landlady in Flemish) for a new mattress? There were plenty of candidates and it was take it or leave it. Besides, Syrian prices are not comparable to ours and having a mattress made is not a ruin.
Nevertheless, with the small expenses and the payment of the rent for six months, my capital is melting quickly; no, there is no way to go to a small box to withdraw cash, nor to go to a Bank to get funds on a Visa card. In case of emergency, you run to Beirut or Amman.
However, since a few months, you can open an account in Euros or dollars and have funds transferred to it. And the funds stay in Euros or dollars.
My sister says: ah, you have an apartment? Give me your address so I can write to you! I do have an address, but you forget to send mail there. I think there are no letter carriers and I have not seen any mailboxes. People have a post office box, or they phone each other. My host hotel will call me when I have mail.
So much for the practicalities for those who are tempted by the Damascene adventure.
Let’s talk about the intoxicating magic of the place; the nights are cool and you store this coolness in your walls, then you close all the exits as people in hot countries do.
From two o’clock to four o’clock, you take a nap; then I go to the old town and enjoy the slide from the still torrid heat to the lull, until the absolutely delicious temperature of six o’clock.
There, I sip my glass of tea at An-Nafura or at the café across the street, after a detour to the ice-cream parlour.
The fountain has water, but it does not flow; as for the hookah, I believe that I will give up because it becomes very quickly an addiction and the Friend tells me that only one hookah is equivalent to 20 cigarettes.
Wine, beer? It is extremely easy to do without.
I won’t take out an Internet subscription since I have a cyber in front of me and the connection is too slow to surf; besides, I will need all my time to study. I realize that I don’t know anything, but still…
Yesterday, in the old city, a lost and distraught couple hears me speaking English and asks me for a specific restaurant, near there, in an old house. With my rudimentary Arabic, I ask a boy: do you know where is a restaurant in an old house near here? And my interlocutor indicates it to us. My admiring anglos: oh, how nice it is to find someone who speaks Arabic and English. If they only knew!
L’Ami accompanies me on my first shopping trip so that I don’t get cheated; this man, who is the age that a son could have been, treats me paternally, but without any condescension. He thinks of everything, changes my lock and tells me that once I am settled, I won’t need him so much.
Good evening friends,
This mail is very important to me, especially since I don’t have access to mine yet. Hotmail is off limits for the moment. If you want to write me a note live try email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s talk about Damascus
One foot on the gas, the other on the brake, the finger on the horn. They are virtuosos. I haven’t seen an accident yet. We travel by minibus when we become more courageous; until now, it was the cab, but I want to travel like the locals. The minibuses have no other stops than those of their clients. When you are at the back, you pass your five pounds (four FEB) through the other passengers to the driver who, while driving, sends the change back the same way.
Evaluation of my Arabic knowledge
The teacher must have been much less impressed than the lost tourists of the other day.
Anyway, I don’t think I have to start from scratch
It is marvelous in its taste and comfort; the mattress would be suitable for anyone else who does not have my back history. The first day, I can’t light the butane and, to add insult to injury, I have to make myself not only a nescafe, but also a cold one. Having learned to turn on the gas, I think of you, Dominique, every morning, while making my Arabic coffee with cardamom in the little pot ad hoc, which must cost 150 FEB, and of the monster (my 600 Euros espresso machine) that I sold to you with relief.
I have a washing machine, fridge etc. I buy a plastic armchair for the mini balcony which has the only advantage of being outside; next door, there is a school.
The neighborhood is like mine in Brussels : many Arabs.
My next-door neighbors
There are three other apartments, one of which is occupied by a traditional family. When I ring the doorbell there is always a commotion, and when the lady of the house comes to open the door, it is with her veil on her head. At home, the women keep their hijab on if there is a man from outside. In the other two apartments, there are respectively Lebanese and a family whose wife does not wear a veil.
I’ll be much less talkative in two weeks when my classes start; I’m not taking pictures for now because I’m waiting to know how to speak before asking permission etc. A “mumkin? ” would suffice, but I’m in no hurry. What I love are people’s expressions, their poses, their whole way of being.
L’Ami continues to provide me with invaluable services such as paying the electricity bill (this is done in a small shack along an avenue) and telephone calls (local calls are cheap, but international calls with a card are 80 FEB per minute at peak hours; in the other direction, my sister tells me that from Paris it costs four Euros per minute. Is this possible?
I get a phone call at midnight, and unlike in Brussels, here it’s completely normal.
Arabs in Germany
My landlady was finishing her phone call when I came to pick up the keys and told me, almost in tears, that her daughter, who lives in Germany, had been summoned by the police and that the same applies to anyone with an Arab name .
Saturday, September 21
Friday indeed looks like our Sundays; I walk through the souks where all the stores are closed, or almost, but where there are people. Bekdash, the famous ice cream shop, is open.
That’s all for now. The Friend brings me today my mattress, a small table and the plastic chair and with that I will be equipped for my eight month stay. He also found me a cleaning lady.
If you have any questions, do not hesitate. Please contact me through Pascal or Dominique or through my private.
Tot ziens (Illa lika)
Sunday September 22, 2002
First coffee on the balcony
After an orthopedically correct night on my new mattress, six o’clock finds me, with my little Arabic coffee, on the terrace; the school next door must be a boarding school because there are three pairs of socks, one per window, drying stuck between the slats of the outside blind.
Aside from his rampant smoking, the Friend is very health conscious. For example, the foam on the coffee would be harmful.
And isn’t it dangerous to give up all my vices at once? My body has already been brutally weaned from its bacchanalian intake, am I going to deny it the pleasure of hookah? To look at my beloved fountain through the perfumed cloud of a smoke, which was after all washed, is it not worth a few days less on this earth?
On the radio, the fresh voice of Fairouz.
What do you miss?
Not much; you do. The jokes I used to exchange with Pascal, the days at the Turkish Bath in Saint-Gilles, my exchanges with my tabbagh and my baker. My dear Ayse. The daily conversations on the phone with my sister.
My music; because of my weight, I only took a CD of Oum Kalthoum . This shortage will be easily made up for because the CDs are very cheap here and I bought a small radio.
My home (continued)
I am very close to a mosque and last night I could hear some beautiful chanting on the speakers.
My building is set back from the street at the end of a passage planted with honeysuckle; imagine the perfume.
While taking inventory of the place, I find large plastic bottles, filled with water, under the sink. There must be twenty liters there.
Each apartment has its own water quota and as I live alone I don’t have much to fear, but it is better to take precautions. I will also have to get a small emergency butane; my tank is nearing the end and I have to hook up with the dealer who regularly passes by in the street. I also need an emergency lamp in case of power cuts.
Starting with a fresh mind
When I went to the United States in 1969, a colleague told me: go without prejudice. Anti-Americanism was the order of the day in left-wing circles at the time. This attitude allowed me to create my own America and I loved it a lot. It surely still exists under the clutter of current propaganda.
I do the same here. I am not a political specialist or even an intellectual; I am describing my life from a very personal – and of course, privileged – point of view.
It is with some trepidation that people ask me what I think of their country. All I can tell them is that I feel good there and that I like the people and the city. I haven’t had time to leave Damascus yet. I have to say that when I ask a foreigner in Brussels about his opinion of Belgium, I am also a little worried.
Monday, Sept. 23, 2002
On the balcony at six o’clock, with a quintuple ration of “Turkish” coffee since that’s what we call it; I can already hear the Friend saying that it’s very bad for the health, but I woke up with a terrible headache.
At boarding school, I count six pairs of socks. The kids get up at the same time as me because there is light in their house.
The task became urgent because I had the shaggy head of an old Belgian.
My teacher gave me the address of his hairdresser’s and I arrived at 7:30 p.m. without an appointment – that’s how it’s done – thinking that at that hour I would have no chance of getting a perm. Not at all. I tell the boy: not like a sheep please, and I leave (I didn’t want them to be dried) curled up like an astrakhan. In fact, when I get home, I’ll notice that the perm is very successful once I’ve given it a brush.
Ah, the steam room! Magnificent, and with the towels drying high on a wire.
From the street, where a man is posted on guard to prevent any unwanted irruption, you arrive immediately in the large reception and rest room; there are couches along the walls, a basin in the middle. This is also where you undress in a corner barely sheltered from view; there are few people at 10 o’clock in the morning. The women only have one day a week, probably because so few of them come.
The lady points out my bruises, which are always numerous, and I tell myself that given the strength of her pushes, they will soon join together to make one.
This being done, I enter the heart of the establishment: a rectangular room in the center of which there is a long marble on which one sits, then lies down according to the operations; another woman makes me enter a room which is the steam bath itself. There was no steam for fifteen minutes, but I was sweating! When the steam arrived, I thought I was in a pressure cooker. I didn’t stay long.
Finally, all clean, you’ll be sprawled out on the couches sipping sweet tea.
Note for those who would come in a Syrian hammam: we don’t walk around, as at home, with our buttocks in the air; we come with a little panties, but the breasts can be uncovered.
Alone in Damascus?
Yes, I am quite alone, even – apart from the Friend – quite alone, but meeting people is easy.
This morning, on the road where she was waiting for the micro bus (and not the mini bus as I wrote; the micro must have ten seats, the mini is bigger), an eighteen year old Circassian woman invites me to her village and I think I will go. This village would have received a distinction for its cleanliness and I believe also because they practice birth control there.
This young girl, who speaks English better than I speak Arabic, but with whom the conversation is exhausting, takes it into her head to lead me to the souk Hammadié where my ablutions must take place, taking paths as new for her as for me. At one point, we have to cross a cemetery. She hesitates and wants to go around it. I propose to cross it. We get lost among the graves and finally find the exit. She explains to me the meaning or the purpose of the plants on the graves. They would have something to do with the rest of the deceased. I will have to find out more.
In short, the walk is interminable and my headache returns. Nevertheless, I smile because she is so nice. She takes my hand as we do here, even between men. She asks me why I smile: I tell her I am happy. She is not happy. I ask her: broken heart? She seems quite determined to escape this trap. I will not know more. She makes this detour for me on her way to her grandmother’s house. She leaves me at the hammam and gives me her phone number.
Another woman who gives it to me (her phone number) – I meet her in the hammam – is a Moroccan woman married to a Syrian.
It is also there that I meet two Spanish women, one of whom lives in Beirut. When her sister told me she was going to Syria, people’s eyes widened: TO SYRIA ????
Before closing, there are demonstrations for the Palestinians; today it was in Yarmouk, a Palestinian camp/village (I was too tired after the bath to go) and on Friday here in Damascus.
It’s 10:45 am; I’ve been waiting for my landlady for 4 hours; at 6 am I asked for a break to get my mail and something to eat; she said, I’ll come at 10 am. I told you, there is no time here, but this is the first person who has done this to me. Finally , she didnot show up.
On the other hand, the Friend is always scrupulously punctual. Tomorrow, at two o’clock, he will introduce me to my cleaning lady.
Leyla sayda (good night)
The next morning (Tuesday, September 24, 2002) on my balcony
You can find them here and there; they are red, as always, and bear the words “Boîte aux lettres” and the equivalent in Arabic. The country became independent in 1946 after being under French mandate since 1920.
Today for the first time I realized that I had changed my name. It had actually happened when I went to our embassy, which had issued me a certificate in Arabic and French for the police.
In Assimil, Jacques Verneuil becomes Firnouille, and I am now Aani Rousenz because there is no G(ue) in Arabic, except in Egypt where they transformed Dje into Gue (Gamal Abdel Nasser, whereas it should be pronounced Djamal.). I’m going to drop Marie for eight months to simplify my life and that of others. The name of a great Arab poetess is apt.
It was the morning of registration and I was there half an hour before the opening. I respectfully stood in the waiting room where a totally exhausted Moroccan man was sleeping and came to accompany his Algerian friend. We were quickly joined by the African-American Muslim who admired my outfit (I’ll call him Abu Kamel, but if he has an Arabic name, it’s not that one), and by a bearded man in a cassock whom I thought for a moment was a priest, but I was wrong. We waited quietly and saw people passing by and disappearing towards the corridor on the right; the man in the cassock was the last to arrive, and we continued to wait until Abu Kamel decided to take matters into his own hands and went to the information office.
He finds the right office and comes to free us from our dead end. In the meantime, I won’t be able to finish the formalities today.
So, I met Aani Rousenz while filling out the forms; I also started to get familiar with my address since I had to decline it several times.
This is just the beginning and it is the easiest. Four stations in different offices and we are given our mission order.
First, go to the Bank (which is not near) to pay. Then, to cross the whole city to go to the AIDS office in order to get tested.
To help us, we are given little pieces of paper with instructions for the microbus or cab driver.
If you come for classes, take 16 and I’m not sure that’s enough (I’ve given out 12 so far, but I’m not done). You leave them everywhere (embassy, police, bank); at the Institute, I see that they ask for 7 and I blush, I only have 5 left. Relief, they take five; it’s when I get to the Aids office that I understand where the other two should be housed. There is a long line, but here women come before everyone else (ah machismo has its good sides!). So they ask me for the two photos I don’t have and photocopies of my passport that I don’t have either (you make six of them to be safe if you come); photocopies of all the pages.
Fortunately, there is a photocopy and photo store nearby.
There, thinking they were doing the right thing, they also sold me 500 pounds worth of tax stamps, which the Aids people saw and sent me back to the store RIGHT AWAY (and not after the injection as I would have done) to get my money back because students don’t pay.
The doctor is done with his shots and sits down at the desk . He vigorously stamps forms; signs papers and receives a pile of passports that come to rest on mine.
He handles the passports like a croupier or a magician; I am anxious. He calls out names at full speed and they all come to collect their property. There is one left: it is mine and the doctor finally takes care of me.
You will come back tomorrow at 10 am to get your certificate. I would have gotten there earlier, I would have finished it all in one sitting. And the AIDS office is FAR away! You don’t want to get tangled up in the little pieces of paper with the addresses and give the driver the one that goes to the bank when you want to go to Aids.
And my cleaning lady?
She didn’t materialize any more than Mohammed did, but that’s not my fault. There is a nasty virus in Damascus that is resistant to antibiotics. The horrible shingles I bought myself before coming will protect me from it, I hope. The lady may come tomorrow; if she is still ill, the Friend suggests a man who works at the hotel and who is perfect.
You must be getting tired of me praising Damascus, but I am under the spell; hypnotized.
Come on, masa al hayir (we say that in the afternoon) and you answer, masa al nour.
Thursday, September 26, 2002
I passed my AIDS exam; I arrive at 9 o’clock, but they told me ten o’clock and in the meantime I invite myself to a coffee at the place of the guy who made my photos and sold me the tax stamps yesterday. I chat with a woman I saw at the institute and who also invites herself to my hosts’ café. She will serve as my interpreter.
In short, I spend an exciting hour. At ten o’clock sharp, I go back to AIDS and they make me go up to the director’s office; I think to myself: it must be serious for me to have to go and see the Numero Uno, but frankly, only the Holy Spirit could have contaminated me.
Back to the Institute
Another small photocopy of the AIDS diploma and I am almost at the end of my journey. Nevertheless, you have to fill in a long questionnaire where they ask you the name of your maternal grandfather (I know him).
In the corridors, I meet beautiful, beautiful Russians and people of all colors. Abu Kemal also returned from his mission.
Finally, it is the consecration and the delivery of the student card.
Not so fast, Aani Rousenz, if you don’t want to end up in Alif, Bâ (abc for the roumis) class, there is still a language exam to do.
The sheet of paper I’m presented with is entirely in Arabic and I’m standing there deciphering it like functional illiterates do: by moving my lips.
I pass the first exam, I wouldn’t say with flying colors, but the result is good enough since the bar is set higher. This second level leads straight to the rapid weight loss that Greta told me about; she struggled so much that she became as thin as a nail. I could have used it, because as a lady in the souks told me: in Damascus, you don’t lose weight! Abstinence or not, sugar quickly fills the void left by the wine and it’s nothing but divine loukoums , pistachio sweets, little honey cakes and …. candied fruits!
I make a big detour when I pass by the Palestinian pastry shops because you can’t not go in to eat these white rolls, stuffed with cream, these grilled vermicelli that top a well of cheese and the trays of “madloka”. I’ll name names later.
Classes begin on Tuesday, October 1.
Although I’m working on my Arabic, I’m still on vacation, but Tuesday, things are getting serious.
My gaze plunges into the gardens of the first floor; the first one contains a dog kennel, a very rare animal in Damascus, thank God, and sorry to those who love them, but what a pleasure to be able to walk without looking where one puts one’s feet and to not hear barking! The second is a real garden with trees; further to the right, the gardens are under construction.
As I look at the cat on the wall, I think to myself, there it is, the charm of the people here. They are cats; they have the elegance, the voluptuousness, the flexibility, the attitudes, the softness, the seduction.
I guess that’s what it means to fall in love with a city.
I think of that peaceful shopkeeper in Hamadié’s large renovated alley, leaning against his window, watching people go by.
How could an American friend see Damascus as a “dusty, poor, third world town”?
Presto, to my cyber cave and I wish you a good one.
Friday 27 Sept. 02
Sipping tea at the fountain.
Tomorrow, Saturday, the Friend comes with the cleaning person, a man.
Here we do the big cleaning twice a year, says Suzanne (one of the French-speaking women I met last week, with whom I sympathized and whose maid, affected by the mysterious virus, is now cured). In autumn and spring we clean the walls and of course the curtains and drapes.
She tells me about Ramadan, which promises to be quite special.
Friday is for her a day of meditation spent reading the Koran and meditating; her husband goes to the mosque. I think of our Sundays in the past when we would put on our best clothes to go to mass and go to salvation in the afternoon.
When I tell her that I washed the grapes that a neighbor gave me – she had a whole tray of them; politeness would have wanted me to refuse them, but I couldn’t resist – so that I washed them with chlorine, she gives me a more civilized way, namely soaking them in water with lemon salt.
She explains to me again the extra red tap in the kitchen: it runs until one in the afternoon and the water comes from a spring. The rest of your water is stored in your personal tank and would not be drinkable.
Sunday, Sept. 29, 2002
The cleaning man
Yesterday the Friend came to introduce me to him.
Have you ever seen those ads for the White Tornado? I’m still lucky: it’s him. In no time at all everything was clean: curtains washed and put back in place, windows washed, etc. Also, this man is adorable. I continue to marvel at the gentleness of the Syrians I meet, a gentleness that does not fit well with the image that is projected of them abroad.
The other day, having exhausted my cash, I went with my heart pounding to the bank where I had opened an account in Euros. What did all those papers on which I had put my signature (in the absence of the Friend) say?
I had been assured that I could withdraw Euros, but I only half believed it. But that’s what happened. I left with bills in our currency. Actually, Syrian pounds would have been fine, but I wanted to test the system.
At the bank, many of the staff are women. These women wear the hijab and are dressed in a coat that must be warm in the summer. I think there is air conditioning.
In two days, it’s back to school! Tomorrow, the hammam, purr.
Monday, 30 Sept. 02
My Sunday of study was cut short by a telephone call from the hotel: two letters for you.
In the morning my sister from Paris had called me: pleasure to wait all week for a phone call, however brief. We only tell each other the essential.
The pleasure of receiving a letter, of reading it quickly, of sitting down on the usual terrace and reading it again and again. This has not happened to me for a very long time.
On the internet, I used to receive 200 messages a day that I would skim through, and if by chance there was one that deserved my attention, I would copy and paste it and answer it point by point, but that’s not the same as a letter.
At the terrace, I met a monosexual couple whose appearance I didn’t like at first sight, but who turned out to be quite charming. They are French and in love with Damascus, too.
I stop at Zak’s, my spice merchant, and he has a big surprise in store for me. His store is a narrow corridor, very well arranged, at the end of which there is the cash register, a chair and the air conditioning. He invites me to a coffee, sits down on a stool and makes me listen – it’s not possible – to my absolutely favorite tune “when I am laid in earth” by Purcell (Dido and Aeneas). Not only that, but he lends me the tape.
My music is one of the only things I miss.
I think I’m going to move here. I feel so perfectly at home.
“For the last time: Criticizing the State of Israel and its cruel and violent system of legally-enshrined racism is NOT antisemitic.Those making the claim that it is have done so much damage they literally have blood on their hands.
First, Palestinians who have been ethnically cleansed, oppressed and murdered by the self-proclaimed “Jewish State” have to bend over backwards to prove that they’re not “antisemitic” and resisting or even public talking about their own dispossession and erasure is attacked as aimed at destroying the Jewish people. Oppressed groups have enough to worry about without having to cater to the hurt feelings of their oppressors.
Second, politicians and other public figures who dare to speak out for Palestinians as they do for other oppressed groups have been subjected to systematic campaigns to destroy them. Lifelong anti-racists and champions of such as Jeremy Corbyn, Ilhan Omar, Angela Davis and so many others have been viciously smeared in this way and, in the case of Corbyn, helping to smash a powerful social justice movement that could have transformed Britain. It is no accident that pro-Israel forces tend to be more tolerant of racism in general and even of anti-Jewish racism, while true anti-racists are being smeared as “antisemites” by those same intolerant and Right-wing forces. The “antisemitism” is this ironically targeting true anti-racists and empower empowering actual racists.
Third, Jews who speak in support of their Palestinian brothers and sisters are also being silenced and smeared. I’m constantly told by pro-Israel Jews that I’m not “really” Jewish and even that I’m an “antisemite,” among many other things. This attempt to control what it means to be Jewish and what Jews can and cannot think, is itself a form of oppression against Jews and the very idea that to be Jewish is to automatically support the State of Israel is a fundamentally racist. To propagate this falsehood is furthermore to inextricably associate all Jews with this Israel and its crimes. In this sense, Israel is literally using the Jews of the world as human shields in its racist colonialist project.
Finally, the weaponization of “antisemitism” to shut down legitimate criticism of Israel ironically hurts all Jews, both Zionist and non-Zionist, as it makes a mockery of the charge of “antisemitism” and thus discredits and undermines the fight against real anti-Jewish bigotry, prejudice and racism.
When anti-racism to becomes synonymous with “antisemitism,” what does that say about Jews?We need to stop having this conversation. It’s time to put to rest once and for all this cheap and destructive tactic designed to silence critics of one of the most brutal systems of organized racism on the planet.
So, if “antisemite” means a person who opposes the institutionalization of Jewish Supremacy in Palestine (which is ironically directed against actual Semites), it’s a badge I’ll wear proudly. What I oppose is racism, bigotry and prejudice, including against Jews. And that is exactly why I oppose Israel: not because it’s Jewish, but because it’s racist.”
May 23rd marks the EU Day Against Impunity For Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide (the EU Day Against Impunity). For the sixth time, the European Commission, along with the EU Genocide Network, Eurojust and the Portguese Presidency of the EU Council, raises awareness to the issue of impunity for these most atrocious crimes. This time with a special focus on the EU and member states efforts to tackle the impunity gap.
On this important day, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) wishes to express its gratitude for the work accomplished by a great variety of actors working towards justice and accountability for international crimes committed in Syria. A number of significant signals have been sent in recent times that provide a silver lining for those who seek justice. However, it is more clear than ever, ten years after the start of the Syrian revolution and with the illegitimate presidential elections in Damascus around the corner, that there is much work to be done and action to be taken for justice to become a real perspective.
After long years of impunity, the past year has provided victims of the Syrian regime with the first tangible result of a quest for justice that was set in motion years ago. In February 2021, the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, Germany, handed down the worldwide first verdict by a criminal court. In the case against a former security service officer, the court found that the Syrian regime committed crimes against humanity in the framework of its state-run torture program. Another trial is underway at the same court against a higher-ranking officer and additional investigations are conducted and trials prepared in EU member states such as France and the Netherlands.
Thanks to the efforts of Syrian victims and witnesses willing to provide their testimony to bolster investigations and help bring along cases, criminal complaints regarding the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people were filed in the EU member states Germany, France and Sweden. On this EU Day Against Impunity, it is the SCM’s hope that these jurisdictions join forces to investigate these most heinous crimes of employing toxic gases against women, children and the elderly with the aim of terrorizing and forcibly displacing innocent civilians.
Next to these hopeful developments in national jurisdictions, the SCM compliments the recent and continuously crucial work that international organizations such as the Organisation for the Prohibition of ChemicalWeapons (OPCW) in The Hague and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM) in Geneva perform. The OPCW Conference of States Parties in April expectedly condemned the Syrian government for its repeated violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The organizations’ Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) responsible for identifying the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons used in Syria recently published its second report finding units of the Syrian Arab Air Force responsible for a chemical attack on Saraqib on 4 February 2018. Often in the background but indispensable, the IIIM is continuing to collect and analyze information, and provide national prosecutors with dossiers of evidence used in investigations and trials. The SCM is glad to see the intensive and fruitful cooperation between the EU and its agencies with both the OPCW and the IIIM and hopes that the mutual support and cooperation will only increase and yield even more fruit.
Meanwhile, the government of the Netherlands last September announced it would hold the Syrian regime to account, including for human rights violations and torture in particular. In this effort, it was recently joined by the government of Canada. The SCM welcomes this concrete legal step by a EU member state and encourages other EU countries to join the Netherlands in this effort. This encouragement for more action is reflected in a resolution passed by the European Parliament (EP) on the occasion of the 10 year anniversary in March this year. The resolution includes many valuable recommendations for further steps to tackle impunity for atrocity crimes committed in Syria. These were reiterated just now in a letter from members of the EP to Justice Commissioner Reynders and High Representative/Vice-President Borrell demanding a concrete EU Action Plan against impunity with concrete measures for victims and war criminals in the EU.
The SCM wishes to emphasize that while the aforementioned variety of steps, efforts and tools towards this goal are important and more than welcome, they do not represent wholesome justice. For this to become a reality, there must be transitional justice based on a political transition in accordance with United Nations Resolution 2245. Without sustainable peace, there will not be justice in Syria and, in extension, also in the region and Europe. The achievements of the past year are important signals and give hope in this regard, especially after the long period of impunity.
On the occasion of this year’s EU Day Against Impunity, to tie words to action and strengthen the praiseworthy developments in the EU and beyond further, the SCM calls for the following recommendations to be implemented as soon as possible:
EU member states and other jurisdictions should amend their judicial legislation. These amendments should result in an inclusion or expansion of existing provisions on universal or extraterritorial jurisdiction and related criminal procedure.
These amendments should also enable local and regional courts hearing universal jurisdiction cases to have the competence, resources and capacities to properly conduct these complex trials, invest in multilingual outreach to and accessibility for the affected Syrian community, and effectively protect witnesses when needed.
In parallel, national war crimes units investigating cases and analyzing evidence should be fitted with the necessary support and capacity to enable their expedient and complete handling of the increasing number of complaints and cases.
Meanwhile, the EU and its agencies as well as other relevant authorities should ensure that victims, witnesses, and defectors have access to the war crimes units and courts to enable real participation in the justice process.
To build on the positive results of national courts, member states and other interested jurisdictions should be encouraged to consider pooling their jurisdictions for the possibility of a treaty-based tribunal for atrocity crimes committed in Syria. Including as a response to some of the recommendations above, this effort could be complementary to and strengthen national universal jurisdiction efforts.
Fayez SARAH must testify today at the trial of Anwar Raslan officer of the Syrian regime accused of crimes against humanity, trial held in Koblenz in Germany . Fayez is a Syrian journalist who has been in prison several times, the first in 2008 for writing an article calling for the release of political prisoners, especially those who had signed the text of the Damascus Declaration, a text that called for a peaceful change of governance in Syria and a political opening of the country. After the beginning of the revolution, two of Fayez’s children were arrested in 2012 by Assad’s henchmen for demonstrating against the regime; they were released a few months later but his son Wissam (photo) was arrested again in January 2013. Being actively sought by the Assad regime, Fayez is forced to leave Syria.
On January 14, 2014 he learns from his exile in Istanbul the death of his son under torture via a cable sent by the military police asking his daughter who remained in Damascus to go to the military police detention center to retrieve the body of Wissam. But to recover the body of the deceased, the family is forced to sign a document that indicates that Wissam was killed by “terrorists”…
When I think that Fabrice Balanche during a debate I had with him on France Culture dared to call the “opponents of the outside” opposition of Hotel and Palace while the vast majority have fled forced and forced the barbarity of the regime and have left everything behind, I say to myself that the place of Balanche as that of Thierri Mariani or Regis le Sommier is in the same cage as Anwar Raslan in Koblenz for complicity in crimes against humanity.
Assad released the Islamists from his prisons in 2011 to replace them with intellectuals, students, doctors, activists… all of them pacifists. Many have died and others are dying in prison, and some continue to claim that the one who has fed terrorism is a bulwark against barbarism.
The cruelty, inhumanity and monstrosity of the Syrian regime
Yesterday, Friday 23 April 2021, Nabil Ghaleb Khair (photo) died at the age of 54 in Assad’s prisons after more than thirty years of detention, twenty of which were spent in the hell of Saidnaya prison. Nabil was born in 1967 in the town of Al-Qanawat, north of the city of Sweida, my home region.
Like many young people in the region, Nabil worked in Lebanon to help his family, and it was in Lebanon that he was arrested by the Syrian regime’s intelligence services on 4 June 1991. He was quickly transferred to one of the worst detention centres known as the Palestine Branch in Damascus, where he stayed for about six months, during which time he was tortured, lost several teeth and had his jaw broken.
Nabil was never charged, no clear accusation was made, he was arrested on the basis of a report written by an agent of Assad, the sinister moukhabarate equivalent of the Stasi. He was sentenced to death by a military court without a lawyer present, and then the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Nabil was not given the opportunity to defend himself or to hire a lawyer, and he was not able to contact his family during the “investigation and trial” period. Following the trial he was transferred to Saidnaya prison where he spent fourteen years without visits until 2005.
With the start of the Syrian revolution, the regime emptied Saidnaya prison of former detainees to send protesters, Nabil was then transferred to Sweida central prison on 25 June 2011, where he remained until his death yesterday.This is what the Assad’s anti-imperialist paradise has always been like, young people without a future are forced to go and work as labourers abroad and even leaving their country and abandoning it to the Assads, they are not safe from its tyranny.
Nabil has spent more years in prison than Mandela for no apparent reason. His only experience of life was poverty, which forced him to go and work in Lebanon, as a result of the takeover of the state by a mafia clan whose only objective is to enrich itself, and then torture until his death in Assad’s dungeons. May he rest in peace.