Sunday, November 21, 2010

Kill Me, I'm American - Life in the Syrian desert + cartoons of Mohammed

I’m sure if you ever venture to the Middle East, you’ll find Arab culture to be overwhelmingly inviting. Enter any house, and the poorest family will lay out their best wares for you. There exists a general warmth and hospitality here that would humble most Westerners.
In Los Angeles, the prevailing attitude is “what can you do for me?” In Syria it’s, “Who are you? Tell me about yourself.” They really want to take the time to get to know you.
The average Syrian earns about $150 a month. Though beggars certainly exist, the majority of the population takes pride in being self sufficient, and as any just about any tourist has more money than all but the wealthiest of Syrians, you are seen much like a bee views a brightly colored flower.
Syrian children
But you don’t have to worry about being robbed of your proverbial pollen. Like the bee, they always want to provide you a service, or at least sell you something. I had one guy who persistently tried to sell me a headdress, and I told him that I didn’t want it, but that I would give him the money anyways. He refused. The challenge is, there are so many bees, and so few flowers. (it is the desert after all)
ruins of ancient Rome in Palmyra, Syria
I hadn't shaved in days. Walking through town I come across an old fashioned barber pole, probably imported here from the US in the year 1950. I enter the time warp; the interior matches. Two regulars sit on old leather stools, smoking cigarettes and reading the local newspaper, there just to pass the hot Syrian day. They speak no English, we communicate through sign language while the proprietor chuckles at our attempted communication while trimming a young boy’s hair. The warmth and laughter we share is genuine and mutual, though we don’t understand more a single spoken word of the conversation.
Now it’s my turn. The proud Arab barber sharpens his razor and goes to work. He is meticulous, pouring over every single detail, gelling my hair into shape as an added bonus, away from the listless mass I usually leave it in. He takes the blade to my neck. Like 99.9% percent of the Arab world, he’s not Al Qaeda.
He proudly displays his work, and charges me $4 for the shave, undoubtedly more than he would charge a local. I really don’t mind, I am happy to pay him for his excellent work, to share my pollen with him. I’m sure he’ll be able to make more honey with it than I would.
(me having my picture taken while I video Syrian kids playing with my other camera)
We walk through the remains of an ancient Roman town, which lies between the edge of Palmyra and our camp. I imagine how it looked at the time of Christ; bustling with soldiers, priests, and slaves, erecting these stone structures in the middle of the desert, an outpost for the great Roman Empire. Today, they lie in ruins.

Check out my view of some of the ruins.

For $10 a tour guide shows us where the Romans used to sacrifice animals to the Gods, where they laid their tables, and prayed. He shows us hidden artistic treasures of the ruins that would otherwise would be nearly impossible to notice. I can’t be sure he’s not making most of this up, but it sounds pretty good.

Meet Haji
Nearby the ruins is a restaurant with a camel out front. Like most businesses in this small town, it too has it regulars. Meet the big man on campus, Haji. His real name is Ahmed, but his parents went on a pilgrimage to Mecca when he was a child, which in the Islamic faith is called a “haj,” his friends all called him Haji. The name stuck.
Haji is in the middle smoking a cigarette, sadly this is the best picture I have of him
Haji was once a wealthy businessman, having lived in Romania and Hungary. He lost all he had worked for and saved during an Eastern European currency crisis, and came back to his hometown of Palmyra, where today he works jobs in construction and hopes to turn his building into a hotel, to meet, what he hopes, will be rising tourist demand.
He invites us back to his home. Haji is 43, and has two children with a woman twenty years younger than him. In Syria, men call the shots, and women dutifully obeys. Like any good father, it is immediately evident how much he loves his children.
Me, Annie, and Lars sit around talking to him. I ask him questions about what life is like here. Haji, having lived abroad, speaks by far the best English of any Syrian I have met.
“What do you think about Americans,” I ask.
“One of the things that hurts the most is that Americans know nothing about us. To them we are from another planet, like we were aliens,” states Haji, a look of sadness resting upon on his face, “The Europeans educate themselves on everything, I wish the American people would be more open minded towards us.”
“What about Israel?”
“It should not exist, but it does. That conflict will never be resolved. There is too much hatred on both sides,” replies Haji.
He laments the Iraq war and how it decimated Syria’s tourism industry, with the collective world fear created of traveling to Arab lands.
Haji, describes the sights and sounds of American fighters jets soaring over Syrian airspace at the onset of the war. He was working for a US construction company at the time, and an American pulled him aside, and asked Haji if he felt like killing him, if there was anything to fear. Haji’s reply was, “What could I possibly have against you. I work with you, I consider you a friend.”
Haji’s responses are largely measured, those of an affable man. That is til I ask him what he thinks about the Danish the cartoonist who created a cartoon with a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed (a strict taboo in Islam.)
A micro-expression of anger flashes across his face, then rather than try to hide his feelings the expression gains strength, and is finally expressed in words. “I tell you Richard, if I would find this cartoonist, I would kill him.”
Whoa. Strong words. At least he’s not trying to hide his feelings. I have a big challenge with human beings who assimilate some dogmatic rule into their identity, and a violation of this rule, could be considered grounds for murder.
“Would you kill me Haji, if I were to draw a stick figure and call it ‘Mohammed’?”
Haji laughs, “I know you Richard, you wouldn’t do such a thing.” … The sub-text is an undeniable warning.
“Do Arab people support Al Quaeda?”
“No, absolutely not. Our religion strictly forbids the killing of innocent people.”
“What about American soldiers?”
“That is a different story,” Haji answers.
He then offers to take us for a day and overnight excursion into the vast nothingness of the Syrian desert, alone with Haji, the harsh desert sun and wind, and the occasional hunter, toting his machine guns. With all we have been discussing, how could I possibly say no?


  1. ha!! :) too much amazing stories in syria,
    im wondering when ur getting to Jordan??

  2. I enjoyed reading your post. Very good.

  3. This sounds like it's turning out to be a truly amazing journey! =D Very inspiring... but I wonder, if you were a woman, rather than a man, would you be treated differently??? This is more of a concern to me than being an American lol

  4. ... amazing story indeed...don't know why but the reality of it makes me sad

    1. Hi Jilo, yes, it is sad. ISIS is wanton destruction and I fear the friends I made there might already be dead, and their children will be poisoned by Daesh's propaganda and the Roman ruins which brought tourists and commerce, destroyed.

  5. it is long time ago everthing exchang in syria war is very ugly
    i am haji


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