The bus ride headed 30 miles north from Damascus takes us – a rare group of American visitors — to Sednaya, the site of All Convent of Our Lady, Greek Orthodox Church. Mother Superior told us the Virgin Mary had visited this spot, disguised as a deer. The elderly woman with a twinkle in her eye prayed for George Bush to bring peace. Three years earlier she had told me she prayed for Bush to get a brain. The tour guide did not take us to nor mention Sednaya prison, which houses political prisoners, some of whom belong to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
In 1981, Brotherhood members assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Gamal Abdul Nasser, Sadat’s predecessor, had imprisoned and tortured MB members, including Sayyid Qutb, a scholar who said violence would cleanse souls and overthrow secular states – like the one in Syria. Sayyid’s brother, Muhammad, an Egyptian professor, reportedly influenced Osama bin Laden.
In 2005, despite electoral fraud, Brotherhood candidates won 20% of the vote and became President Hosni Mubarak’s most significant Parliamentary opposition. In 1979, MB violence hit Syria. MB attackers killed eighty-three cadets at an Aleppo military school, near the Turkish border. In 1980, “the fanatics,” as their opponents refer to the Brotherhood, murdered hundreds in Damascus car bombings.
President Hafiz Assad declared membership in the Brotherhood punishable by death. The MB retaliated by trying to assassinate Assad in 1980. Within hours, state security forces killed hundreds of imprisoned “fanatics.”
Rather than ending the conflict, Assad’s bloody response led to increased violence. In February 1982, Brotherhood organizers took over the city of Hama, calling it the “liberated city.” They issued a call: all Muslims in Syria should unite to overthrow the “infidel” (Assad). MB militants killed Ba’ath Party members and loyalists throughout Hama.
Assad demanded MB surrender. He warned Hama residents to leave or else consider themselves targets. Its leaders refused. Assad’s elite brigades attacked and were repelled. Assad then ordered artillery fire on the Brotherhood-held city of 350,000. Tanks and troops moved in. Air force jets bombed and killed as many as 10,000 in the two week battle (Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation, page 186).
Human rights organizations condemned Assad. “He did what he had to do,” a conservative Damascus business man told me in early March. “How do you deal with fanatics? Bush and his polices have made more of them,” he lamented.
“The number of fanatics in Syria,” according to a third world diplomat in Damascus, who served for decades in the Arab world, “has multiplied, although they don’t represent an immediate threat as they did under the first Assad. By attacking Iraq and threatening Syria, the most anti-terrorist of regimes, Bush has created enemies everywhere. ‘Fanatics’ hate the infidel crusader in the 21st Century and secularists despise him because his hypocrisy had led to the proliferation of religious fundamentalism in the Muslim world and aggressive Zionism in Israel and the United States.”
The Muslim Brotherhood confounds secular governments trying to modernize and liberalize. So, they jail and torture them. During the 10th Ba’ath Party Conference in June 2005, delegates agreed to allow for new non-sectarian political parties, a direct affront to the sectarian Brotherhood. But Party leaders apparently lacked confidence to declare an amnesty law that might have helped bring reconciliation. The number of MB members has reportedly grown, and the regime sees them as a threat. Ali Bayanouni, exiled in London, formed the Syrian National Salvation Front with former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam. They intend their political grouping to force regime change in Damascus. They will open an office in Washington, DC as well.
Try to imagine religious rule in this ethnically and religiously diverse country where Sunnis (the majority) and Shi’ites, coexist with sects like Alawites (like President Bashar Assad) and several Christian religions – and a handful of Jews!
“The Baathists’ secularism has helped make Syria one of the more stable regimes in the region, my diplomatic acquaintance assured me. “Look at the corrupt Gulf States and Egypt, the pitiful U.S. puppets in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even Israel, of course stable, has a government of clowning and corruption.” He referred to the February fiasco of Defense Minister Amir Peretz gazing through binoculars covered by lens caps and “seeing clearly.” “On the morning of Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, Israeli Defense Force Chief Lt. General Dan Halutz sold his stock portfolio. Two aging ministers groped the asses of young women in their offices.”
Such droll thoughts vanished when our tour bus stopped in Hama where tourists stared at ancient water wheels -17 of them. Kids, with parents supervising, ran around a nearby park. Two women wearing abayas and hijabs, one with a baby in her arms, begged from tourists and locals. The slowly spinning wheels, replicas of those originally built 2,000 years ago, lift river water onto aqueducts, which irrigates agricultural lands in the area. The wheels of up to 60 feet roll with the river current.
In 2007, Hama’s ancient history had eroded visible signs of the 1982 carnage. I noticed no signs or remnants of the 1982 battle carnage as the bus curled through quiet streets. Syrians have witnessed bloodshed for thousands of years. Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Arameans occupied the land. Hebrews settled near Damascus, an area later called Palestine. The Phoenicians occupied coastal areas along with Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Hittites. The Persian Empire grabbed Syria followed by Alexander the Great, succeeded in turn by Roman and Byzantine empires.
To emphasize the living antiquity in the country, the tour guide brought our group to Maloula, a village north of Damascus, where, residents still speak Aramaic – Jesus’ and Mel Gibson’s language.
Father Toufic greeted us. I had met this Lebanese-born, Greek Catholic priest when I first filmed in Syria in 2003. After reciting the Lord ‘s Prayer in Aramaic in the cold, stone church, he unleashed his wrath on Israeli and U.S. injustice toward Palestinians. Syria, he noted, has been exemplary in its treatment of Palestinians. An estimated 1.5 million (about 1/10 of the population) live in its territory and have been successfully integrated.
“Syria is the only country that has integrated us,” Omar told me, offering a cheese filled goodie from his bakery. “Palestinian,” he assures me about the pie-like yummy. “I came here as a child in 1948. I don’t remember Palestine, but I dream of it. We have relatives in Ramallah, but Syrians treat me like a Syrian, I have rights of a Syrian. My kids went to school with Syrian kids and are treated as equals.” He lives in an urban refugee zone, which looks like an ordinary Damascus neighborhood, apartment buildings, stores and lots of street life – with a mosque nearby, but inhabited by Palestinians and their offspring.
Syrians I spoke with, from Damascus hotel bellhops to a small farmer near Palmyra, agreed that Palestinians deserve to live in Syria as equals. The tolerant attitude extends to religion. The fervor men and women showed in prayer at the Omayed mosque doesn’t mean they are fundamentalist – “fanatic” as the businessman calls them. Those with covered hair and dressed in robes stand in stark contrast to teenagers in nearby streets wearing tight jeans and low cut blouses. To mix both into one society, plus Christians and Jews, Syria needs a secular government. Most Muslims appear to agree, no matter how fervently they pray in the mosque.
President Bashar Assad inherited the government from his father Hafiz al Assad, who ruled from 1970 until his death from cancer in 2000. Bashar, the unlikely successor, studied ophthalmology in London and became the heir apparent only after his brother Basil died in an auto accident in 1994.
Syria, like neighboring Iraq under Saddam Hussein, maintained a secular government in which minority Christians and non believers could function. Ba’ath Party founders in both countries emphasized Arab nationalism and state directed economic development. Immense and corrupt state bureaucracy, however, stands as an obstacle to progress. Corruption, according to my diplomat friend, begins with “bribing the traffic cop not to give you a ticket all the way to top levels where the bite is much more painful. The bureaucracy lives economically off the status quo and fights reform.”
My businessman friend and a Syrian diplomat agree. They want “progress”: WTO membership and privatization of state owned properties. They don’t mean dismantling health and education services, not free but accessible to most Syrians.
They argue that Syria must take advantage of its rich agriculture and two year grain reserve. It exports wheat, cotton, fruits, vegetables, meat and of course olive oil.
On the road, we waved to shepherds driving their sheep. Bedouins in colorful head scarves and toting long, flexible sticks steered their flock away from oncoming traffic. Near Palmyra, the sheep nibbled scant blades of grass still pushing their way through the ground. The rainy season ended in March and the shepherds will move their flock to greener pastures. Their ancestors did this for centuries before modern state borders imposed limits on pasture possibilities.
Bedouins represent Syrian past and the present, as do ancient ruins, churches and Aramaic speaking villages. Massive Damascus traffic jams force the present into the picture, sucking noxious emissions and witnessing the bustle of modern commerce.
The Christian Quarter is in the Old City, perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited urban area in the world. Bab Touma, St Paul’s Gate, and the Chapel of St. Paul, mark the spot where Paul was lowered in a basket after his conversion to Christianity. Nearby, Moshe runs an antique store. A Jew whose family moved to Brooklyn in the 1970s, returned to his native Syria. “Life is calmer here,” he said. “Too much stress in New York.”
In the Cham Palace Hotel room I stared at the city and listened to the honking horns. I too felt calmer than I do in New York. But I was born there.
Landau’s new book is A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. His new film. WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE, is available on dvd at [email protected]