When I asked people in February of 2011 what they wanted from Syria, the usual reaction was a dramatic pause followed by, “Just come back safely”. The travel advisory page on the State Department website cautioned people not to travel to Syria, but I reasoned the trip to myself. I wasn’t traveling alone, I spoke enough Arabic to get by, and I had lived in Dubai and Cairo. The Middle East was not new territory. So, I boarded the plane and took off, much to the chagrin of my family and friends.
But Syria was a different experience. From the moment I landed in Syria, to the moment I left two weeks later, on the first day of rioting, I fell in love with the country and its charms. Damascus had a rugged beauty, with gorgeous ancient churches, synagogues, and mosques woven into the tapestry of the city. They were interspersed with tiny stone-cobbled streets and back alleys that led to great antiques shops, galleries, souqs, and shisha cafés filled with families sharing a meal. I drank freshly squeezed pomegranate juice amidst the ruins of Qala’at Samaan, toured the streets of Aleppo, locally known as Halab for the milk Abraham gave to weary travelers on the road, and meandered through ruins that gives Syria a rich tapestry of history. The country has been at the center of so many empires and religions through the passage of time.
But I also came face to face with a country whose people are not free to speak their minds. My friend and I were staying with a mutual friend from our university, and we peppered her with questions about what it was like to live in Syria. She smiled knowingly and gestured around her apartment, saying that the whole place had probably been bugged but that in her opinion, it was hard to live in a place where your own brother would sell you out if you criticized the regime.
This societal oppression seemed even more pronounced when compared to the streaming footage from Cairo, where Egypt’s revolution was in full swing. People in Syria were hooked, watching the footage in cafes, offices, and every little general store I entered. I would often ask, “Is that Egypt?” knowing it was a bland enough question to not rouse suspicion, but might spur conversation. Store owners would lift themselves up from their fixed gaze on the television, sizing me up, some saying, “Yes” or “Very dangerous”, all the while keeping a straight stony expression to keep from revealing anything.
I could feel the tension in the streets as Egypt rallied on against Mubarak, and the question hung in the air, Will it happen here?
One night, we returned home to find our friend deep in conversation with one of her Syrian friends. Eventually, the conversation turned to Egypt. The Syrian friend went quiet, but occasionally interjected commentary as he nursed his vodka tonic. Unable to resist any longer, I pigeoned together in Arabic, “So, what do you think about the revolution in Egypt?” He laughed and smiled at me, then leaned over to our friend and held up his hand to cover his mouth, whispering something into her ear. She laughed uproariously, and translated the following joke:
Assad and Evil are standing on a hilltop looking out over all of Syria. Evil points here and there and says, If I were to do something really bad, I would do this, and that, oh, yes, and this terrible thing! Assad interrupts Evil to say, Well, if I were going to do something really bad I would do this, and that, and this other thing, and… Eventually Evil cuts Assad off, shaking his head and says, Not even I would do that.
A few days before I was scheduled to leave, we started to get word of a protest against Assad, scheduled for the day my flight was supposed to leave Damascus. We found out through hushed whispers here and there, mostly from the outside world through our e-mail inboxes. The tension in the streets mounted as people went about their daily business quietly. I prepared myself for a long stay in Syria, worried that the government would shut down the airports and other various exits. I checked in with the American Embassy so they would know where to find me. But on the day of, I was surprised at how easily I was able to find a cab and quietly exit the country.
I returned from my journey and watched as the horror slowly unfolded on the ground over the next 20 months. Places where I had once stood appeared in pictures. Streaming photos of Aleppo burnt to the ground and of thousands of refugees fleeing the endless violence stuck with me. I follow the news closely, wondering why the U.S. government had given support to Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, but somehow neglected giving support to Syria?
The Arab Spring is the next wave of political growth for nations that have too long lived under careful monitoring. In the name of power, dictators have instituted emergency law, denied freedoms of speech, and brutally imprisoned or killed their own citizens for their opinions. Now, that oppression has moved beyond punishing speech, to punishing Syrians themselves. Various sources estimate between 30,000 to 50,000 Syrians have been killed in the crossfire and over 2.5 million have been displaced, crowding nearby Arab states.
The land is not the same either. Many of those unique sights and sounds I experienced as a traveler are now lost. Syrians, from all sides, have ransacked museums and historical landmarks and sold treasures on the black market to buy food or shelter or weapons to defend themselves. It’s startling what the world has lost in this cradle of civilization—the art, the architecture, the great castles, the mysteries of the past not yet uncovered.
Syria will never be the same, but I believe strongly that education about this conflict can help push people to help Syrians rebuild their country. They deserve to be heard, not to be slaughtered. They deserve to choose their own destinies.