Dispatch from Damascus: ‘We’re Ready’

DAMASCUS, Syria, July 18—The road to Damascus was bombed again early this morning, the seventh day of fighting between Israel

DAMASCUS, Syria, July 18—The road to Damascus was bombed again early this morning, the seventh day of fighting between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah. And though it is still possible to get from Beirut to Damascus along secondary mountain roads, the perils of the journey have pushed the price of the trip up from $10 for a seat in a shared taxi (or $50 to have the whole car to yourself) to $500 or more.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when Beirut seemed to have become the new Prague, or at least to have become, in the post-9/11, post-Saddam era, much as Prague was to the post–Cold War period circa 1994: a magnet for the creative, idealistic and mildly directionless young of the rich West, a place to live cheaply, learn a bit of Arabic, take a short course at the American University, to write something or to film something, to drift a bit, but still to get involved, somehow, on the right side of the Clash of Civilizations.

And yet, once you actually got to Beirut, it was impossible to believe that there ever could be such a clash. The city was too delightfully exuberant, too fashionable, too sunny, simply too much fun: a city that wore its materialism on its sleeve, and joyfully, unabashedly so; the city that Hariri had rebuilt after a brutal civil war; the city that hosted the Cedar Revolution; a city that labored phoenix metaphors till they were too burnt and spent to lift a single golden feather.

What a difference a week makes. Today, most of the Beirut-dwelling foreigners that I know have either fled to safety in Syria or are on their way back to their home countries. Many of the Lebanese who can afford it are leaving as well. It’s become impossible to find a hotel room in Damascus, and the Syrian Ministry of Social Affairs is providing free space in public buildings to needy refugee families. On a visit to the Syrian-Lebanese border two days ago, I saw flatbed trucks crammed with children from Beirut’s southern suburbs, being sent, alone, to stay with relatives in Syria. I was reminded, with a shock, of those old news photographs of London during the Blitz, all those small, tagged bodies crowding onto train platforms.

I’ve been living here in Damascus, on and off, since the summer before last. But I’ve never felt as completely foreign here as I have during these last few days.

Yesterday, across a café table, a new acquaintance, a man in his early 30’s named Muhannad, told me quite calmly, in flawless English, that he believed it to be the duty of all Muslims to hate Israel.

“It is our duty as Muslims to support everyone who moves against Israel,” this well-educated, well-dressed man told me, smiling. “If anyone tells you that they do not hate Israel, then they are not Muslims in their souls. There is a great feeling of happiness in Syria now. We wish for this to be the final battle.”

Muhannad then asked me to say hello to a mutual friend, whose wife is his colleague at an advertising firm in Dubai. I bent over my notebook and tried to hide my dismay. Final battle? Where did this kind of rhetoric come from, and how had it escalated so quickly? Had it been hiding in plain sight all along? Muhannad seemed to be hoping that the region could just push out Israel, 60 or so years on, like some sort of failed organ transplant that the body rejects.

Hour after hour, in interview after interview, I heard similar sentiments expressed by Syrians of all ages, professions and social classes. Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic leader of Hezbollah, was a hero. They felt energized by Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel. They condemned the destruction in neighboring Lebanon, but many seemed actually eager for Syria to join a war with Israel. They praised Sheik Nasrallah for doing what no other Arab leader seemed to be able to do: back up his words with action.

In fact, Syria and Iran are waging a proxy war on Israel through their support for the “Lebanese national resistance,” as Hezbollah is called in the Syrian state-controlled media. And to the delight of many citizens, Syria’s support for Hezbollah is becoming more and more overt.

“This may be the last battle, and we may be able to redraw the map of the Middle East,” a distinguished Syrian political scientist told me. “We are ready.”

This is bluster. The political scientist seemed gleeful, bursting with confidence as he said it, and yet there is no way the Syrians are ready for any kind of battle.

I couldn’t help thinking back to my one brief glimpse into the life of Syria’s army. This was last summer, when Syria’s foreign ministry organized a special journalists’ and diplomats’ tour along Syria’s eastern border with Iraq, so that we could see the four-meter sand berm that had been created with bulldozers to keep would-be militants from crossing.

The sun was white-hot and brutal, and precisely every three kilometers our convoy of four-by-fours, bumping along across the dunes, would pass a little mound of sand on top of which was a sort of white ribbed tent like the top part of a Conestoga wagon: a Syrian Army outpost. A sharp-eyed Canadian embassy defense attaché in the seat next to me was taking notes on the kinds of guns and arms that the little sand mounds were equipped with, which he said were antique and generally abysmal. I was more struck by the look of the soldiers, who rushed pell-mell out of their tents as our convoy passed: underfed-looking boys sweltering in boots and rough uniforms, standing at respectful attention in a straggly line.

The convoy stopped several times at various outposts, so that the general who was leading our group could explain some finer points of border security and take questions from journalists. At one of the posts, I slipped away from the group and lifted the tent-flap of one of the Conestoga-type structures. There was a soldier inside, not more than 18 years old, but with an ancient face, and looking terrified. I introduced myself in Arabic and looked around. I’m not sure what I had expected, but I remember feeling shocked at how little there was: five dark felt bedrolls, in a neat row, each with a toothbrush perched on top; a shaving mirror; a radio; a poster for the “Al Jaish” soccer team. Nothing else. Answering my question, the young soldier told me that he’d been there for three months without a break.

In back of the tent, there was a tiny kitchen hut with a mess of empty ghee cans strewn about outside. That’s when I saw the flowers. Beside the kitchen hut, someone had driven four wooden stakes into the ground and stretched a cloth over the top of them. There were about a dozen pink blossoms blooming under the shade of the rag. Which of the soldiers had done this, perhaps amusing himself one evening by planting the seeds in the middle of the scorching desert? They were so delicately, pointlessly beautiful.

At the time it struck me as such an utterly Syrian gesture, those flowers. Somehow, this is the image of the Syrian military that I keep remembering amidst all this jingoistic talk of worldwide defiance and “final battles.” At the time, last summer, the flowers fixed themselves in my mind as a manifestation of some kind of great Arab soul. It’s true that you can literally stake your life on the Syrian sense of chivalry and hospitality. In a country where state institutions are broken and unreliable, people rely on each other. Visitors are welcomed; the lost are put on their way again.

But now I think that much of what I mistook for soulfulness—the long, idle hours in cafés, the emotional intensity of the friendships—are also aspects of a great, almost unfathomable, national despair. There are no jobs, there is no hope, and in the state-run media, Israel is always and ultimately to blame. In this context, any action is preferable to inaction, Sheik Nasrallah is a hero—and a sane, well-educated young man can look me in the eye across a café table and tell me that he hopes a clash of civilizations will begin.

Katherine Zoepf is a writer based in Damascus.

Dispatch from Damascus: ‘We’re Ready’