Posts filed under ‘US Government’

UNHCR Damascus

I asked for the United Nations Refugee office, and the driver took me way out to the edge of Damascus to the UNRWA office. The UN Relief Works Agency, created for Palestinian refugees after 1949, still only serves Palestinians, who have never received the full complement of rights guaranteed other refugees.

One of the guards at UNRWA found another taxi for me, and sent me to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office. The driver didn’t actually know where the office was, or much about the neighborhood in which it is located. Syrians do not seem to learn map-reading in school, street names are not generally known (or signed), and people navigate by landmarks. Fortunately, taxi drivers here (all of whom are men) are not subject to the same hesitation so stereotypical among American men that it is a common topic among standup comics. The driver stopped every block to ask someone where the building was, at one point picking up his next fare, who helped identify it.

I spoke with Sybella Wilkes at the UNHCR Damascus office two days after busses left Damascus to return hundreds of refugees to Iraq. My only “research” into refugees was in 1998, while I was waiting to read some other documents at the League of Nations archives and found catalogues of the Nansen papers.  Nansen was a Norwegian working to assure rights for refugees from the catastrophic Great War (1914-18). Chief among the protections he advocated was the right of refugees not to be forced to return to a place where they fear persecution. This right was included in the 1951 Refugee Convention.  UNHCR’s statements that day were very careful. On one hand, they recognized the political pressures that weighed heavily on all the parties connected to Iraq’s refugees. On the other, as Ms. Wilkes informed me, UNHCR’s mission is based on the Refugee Convention. If Iraq remains too dangerous for their UNHCR staff, making it impossible for them to investigate the safety of local conditions, could they really support the busses carrying Iraqis home?

Ms. Wilkes was very clear about the huge role the government of Syria has been playing. The Assad regime has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees. Their hospitality has been hugely expensive. Food, fuel, medical care, education, and nearly everything else in this country is subsidized by the government. That means Syria is paying millions of dollars to host people displaced by a war in which the Syrians had no part. Their generosity is stunning, especially in comparison with the closed doors of almost every other country in the world. (See Human Rights Watch.)

The outlook for the refugees is growing worse. In the face of continuing widespread violence, Iraqis have nowhere to go.  Syria has just recently begun requiring visas that must be obtained in Baghdad. Jordan has closed its doors. In Iraq itself, internally displaced people fleeing violence are no longer allowed into 11 of Iraq’s 18 governorates.

Many of those who made it to Syria were middle class people, professionals, academics, artists fleeing violence. They left behind their homes, their jobs, and all the things that made them like me, Sybella explained. UNHCR uses its limited funds to provide medical care and living expenses to elderly and ill refugees, and to families with no means of support (often women with children but without husbands). UNHCR has produced a CD of Iraqi music by refugee musicians, and there is terrific artwork hanging on the walls in the Damascus office. Ms. Wilkes told me that they had been painted by some of Iraq’s most famous artists, and are available for purchase. (I can’t find a place on their web site where either the CD or the art is sold.)

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December 8, 2007 at 6:56 am 2 comments

Amman: Images of The Other

Syrian food is likely among the best in the world, but after two months in Aleppo, we wanted to find something else when we returned to the big city of Amman on Thursday.   We decided to start at the Irish Pub, who advertise a Happy Hour during Ramadan, which means that if you buy one drink between 5 and 7 you got the second free. The Irish Pub looks like it belongs on Franklin Street, the main street that skirts the University of North Carolina campus.

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Outside, groups of people had flooded the streets, apparently on their way to Eid celebrations. We saw similar scenes the next two evenings, people out in huge numbers, especially the 20- and 30- somethings out in the Shmaisani district, fashionable women dressed remarkably well, whether in long coats and matching headscarfs or the latest jeans and jackets. (Cowboy outfits seem the popular new holiday attire for the girls 4-8 year old set this year.)

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On the way to losing the French restaurant we had read about, we drove past the enormous grounds of the US Embassy in Amman. Apparently it is that big so US officials can live inside the compound for protection. (Is an embassy an embassy–that is, an institution set up to engage those of another country–if its members must be so completely separated from the people of that country?)

Frustrated at our inability to find what we sought, we stumbled upon Zee Diner, an effort to recreate a contemporary American diner, which in itself reflects recent efforts in the US to revive the 1950s and 1960s diner, which grew up alongside American car culture. It looks a bit like a set for a Jordanian filming of Grease. US license plates hung on all the walls, along with framed photos of old cars (no juke boxes). The menu was hamburger-heavy. Most striking was the clientele, affluent high-school aged Jordanian kids who were being cool and speaking fluent English with their friends.

I think I understood this a bit more the next day watching TV, which was repeatedly interrupted to advertise the newest season of US sitcoms that were to begin airig in Jordan in mid-October. They are all portraying and promoting an affluent (idealized?) American youth culture: clothes, cars, friends, jobs, sex and alcohol. The upscale and interestingly-named Mecca Mall sells the products they will need to enter into that consumer dreamworld. US culture, superimposed on Jordan’s elite youth, whom Malik suggested would know more about America than about Jordan and their fellow Jordanians when they become the new leaders of the country in a decade or two.

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No transitions seem to work from there to Jarash, a remarkably intact set of ruins for what the books claim is a typical Roman city. There seemed little overlap with Petra, except that both are striking remnants of a society that has evolved over many, many centuries. We visited the Temple of Artemis, Jarash’s patron goddess. William fulfilled the requisite speech-making in the north ampitheatre to check out the incredible acoustics, a good thing since there was a bag piper playing in the south ampitheatre (amazing what the British leave strewn around their former empire). Then on to the Amman coliseum and its attached folklore museum. A couple years ago, the government pushed a “We Are All Jordan” campaign, whose posters remain visible in many places. I’m fascinated with the disparate elements this society gets to put together to fashion that identity, and how politics, antiquity, royalty, Palestine, and US cool all fit into it.

The evening was spent with more of Malik’s wonderful friends. Mostly journalists, they answered many of the questions we had been developing over the past three months. They talked about diversity within Jordan, the challenges of being a loyal opposition, the complete comfort with which Christians and Muslims live together in Jordan, press freedom, the challenges facing the Middle East in the age of empire.

Bab al-Hara is finished, but the producers have promised a third season next Ramadan. I’m waiting for the whole 2007 season to be released on DVD. I don’t know a similar phenomenon, where the streets clear out as men and women, from school age to well past retirement, urban and rural and from all classes, stop what they are doing and watch TV for an hour each night. Seems to be a popular culture phenomenon. And this one is quite historical. I will muse for a while, I think, on the implications of Jordanians and Syrians in 2007 watching a program about the French mandate where the only real bad guy was a French spy. What is this about? Maybe people just loved the music and the costumes? Is there some role this plays in the construction of modern Syrian/Jordanian identity?

October 15, 2007 at 8:37 am Leave a comment

Aqaba

We toured Aqaba our second and last night. Malik, our long-time friend, had invited his cousin along. Basma is a human rights attorney in Jordan who has been insisting on prison reform and women’s rights through both her activism and the cases she has chosen to take pro bono. The four of us had dinner, then drove to what Malik called the “suq,” which looks like a downtown main street. Aqaba has been declared a tax free zone, making everything there cheaper than elsewhere in Jordan.

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People were out in large numbers, buying gifts and the necessities for Eid, the three-day celebration that ends Ramadan and will begin either tonight or tomorrow night when someone sees the new moon that indicates the start of the new month, al-Hijja (month of the haj).

Malik’s best friend Arif met us downtown and took us to Aqaba’s brand new mall on the outskirts of town, mysteriously named “Aqaba City Center.” Basma was trying to find information on new digital cameras, and we were along for the ride. (We also found a supermarket with vanilla extract and baking powder, two things unavailable anywhere in Aleppo.)  While downtown was jammed and jumping, the mall was very quiet.

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I asked to look at the Crusader-era fortress that Faysal’s forces had struggled so hard to liberate, according to the movie at least. It is quite small. A plaza has been built on the water nearby to celebrate the “Great Revolt,” and a huge, special Great Revolt Flag waves over it. A nearby nightclub was playing local music quite loudly, and the plaza was full of people.

All five of us went to the Royal Dive Club, formerly a private facililty of the Royal Family, which they handed over for others’ use. From the pier that juts into the Gulf of Aqaba, an arc of lights indicates Jordan’s Aqaba, Israel’s Eilat, Egypt’s Taba, and just beyond the last green neon, Saudi Arabia’s Tabuq (5 km away). Arif told me that there were efforts to create an infrastructure to coordinate the needs of the four countries’ ports. (He also told us that local people are ambivalent when the US Navy makes its annual appearance at the Saudi port for joint exercises; though they disapprove and dislike American policy in the region, the annual event is great for Jordan’s struggling travel industry. Why is Jordan’s travel industry struggling? I asked. It’s because people think all the countries here are Iraq, he said. They don’t realize that we are very stable; people aren’t traveling to the region at all.

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The lights of Israel’s Eilat, just across the Gulf of Aqaba, from Jordan’s Aqaba.

The remarkable proximity of the four countries was startling, even after spending years looking at Middle East maps.  The lights of Eilat seemed visible everywhere; in the daylight, the mountains of Egypt seemed very close.   Back on the beach, the Diving Club’s big tent with couches, tables, and large pillows provides a comfortable place to sit while drinking coffee or wine, and listening to whatever the DJ plays. (You can ask him for your favorite music, Malik told William, but he will play his own anyway.) Over coffee, we talked about the causes of continuing regional conflict, and the ways to begin solving them, and the need for more academic, citizen, and journalist exchanges.

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We said goodbye to Arif, and the next morning to Muhammad Sea and the staff, and had a nearly-uneventful trip back to Amman (until the car began making dreadful scraping noises.  It is in the shop now.) 

October 13, 2007 at 2:09 pm Leave a comment

Aleppo Ramadan

Ramadan is about to enter its last week. Although we arrived only a month before it began, the changes have been evident. The first few days of the month seemed quite strange, almost tense. There is a different feeling now, as if the city has settled into the fast. Our friend Samer tells us that the streets will become more crowded than ever as people begin to shop for the new clothing to wear during the three-day holiday that will mark the end of the fast.

For us, the month is marked by the visible changes in our friends and on the streets. For Muslim friends here, the month is more spiritual than material. Some who regularly drink wine (forbidden in Islam) abstain during Ramadan as part of a general effort to become reconnected with the faith. Those internal changes aren’t immediately obvious to those of us on the outside.

The days have a markedly different rhythm, from the first drums outside the house to the last call to prayer. In our neighborhood, the 4:00 a.m. drummer (listen to the drummer) plays something sounding quite bass; in Idlib the neighborhood drummer awakens people with a snare. There isn’t much time to eat then before the sunrise, when we simultaneously hear four calls to pray from the closest mosques (listen). People then go back to sleep for a few hours. School begins early enough, though, that there isn’t much time for more sleep. I’ve been surprised that, instead of letting the kids sleep later during Ramadan, the schools begin at the regular time and let the children out an hour earlier.

Activity seems to go on as usual until about 5:30, when the streets become frenetic with everyone hurrying to get home. Lines for the minibuses get longer and longer, and the large buses get fuller as everyone tries to get home in time to break the fast. For those out on the streets when the sun sets, there is a special kind of juice served. A few nights ago a friendly middle-aged purveyor of the drink insisted that William try some. Special rolls and sweet breads make their appearance.

For us, Ramadan has meant rescheduling things. Since it is impossible to find transportation between 5:30 and 6:30, we try to go out earlier or later. On Wednesday we found ourselves waiting and waiting for a taxi. A man in an SUV pulled up and offered us a ride. He is a native of Aleppo, and knew that we would never be able to find a taxi at that hour, so wanted to make sure we got to our destination. Where did you learn English? William asked. At Aleppo College, an American high school/junior college where my colleague Bob Cunningham used to teach. Our kind driver told us he admired the Americans, the school, and Bob’s colleague, the charming Makhloul Butros whom we had met just days earlier. (Many years ago, I’ll tell my students, people used to know the United States for the very important schools we established in the Middle East, schools like Aleppo College, Robert College in Istanbul, the American University of Beirut….We made many friends in the Middle East by educating children there, I’ll tell them.)

By 7:30, the empty streets seem more crowded and bustling than ever. The usual rhythm before Ramadan was that shops would be open from 10-2, then again from 5-10, so evening shopping is common. But now the hours seem to have changed, so that everything is closed, all the shops shuttered, and streets remarkably quiet between 6 and 7:30. Our radiologist friend has changed his hours, working during Ramadan from 9 to 4 and then again from 9 to 11 in the evening.

What my women friends and I know as “second shift” becomes even more challenging. My friend Rima returns from teaching kindergarten around 3:30. She hasn’t eaten or had anything to drink since 4:45 a.m. Three of her four children are fasting and hungry, and she still needs to get them settled, help with homework and cook iftar dinner before the sun sets around 6:20. She is a terrific cook, and the evenings we have eaten at her table during Ramadan, she has served soup and at least two main courses. After dinner, it’s the first tea and coffee of her day, which won’t end until around 11:30. The next begins a few hours later.

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A number of friends have urged me to watch Bab al-Harah, a special TV series created to play every evening during Ramadan at 9. A combination soap opera/costume drama, it is set in French-occupied Syria. The huge cast of characters speaks in Syrian dialect, and the plot is quite complex, with a number of sub-plots and romantic entanglements. Although the intended audience is clearly Syrian, the advertising sponsors (large multinationals Coca Cola, Maggia, Ferro Rocher) seem to reflect tastes further south. Like in the afternoon soaps, the ideal male portrayed in commercials is tall, dark, handsome, and smiling, playing with his children and winking at his beautiful wife, who always has spectacularly long and flowing hair. He wears an immaculate long white robe and white headcovering, not the Syrian version. I think I need to tape some of the TV commercials here to give my students a sense of what is considered attractive. The equivalent of a public service announcement airs at least twice during each episode, of a family sitting down to break the fast together when two sons look out the windown and notice a man sitting alone on the street. They consult with their father, who nods as the boys hurry downstairs to bring the lone neighbor/stranger to the table. The newcomer is shown at the end in thankful prayer. 

(Thanks very much to Russell for his help posting the audio.)

October 7, 2007 at 7:05 am 3 comments

Diversity, Division, Peace?

Two different experiences today made me wonder the extent to which this book I’m trying to finish is actually relevant to the present.

Before I left this morning for the Spiritual Library, a private library owned by the local Catholic Church, I read an email from a colleague in the US who asked what I thought of recent bipartisan calls for the partition of Iraq into three separate states.  

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I was on my to Aziziyah, where Mazin, our new friend and a library volunteer, thought I might be able to find some sources helpful for this book. (Mazin is a biochemistry graduate about to go to Germany for a year’s study, and he just likes being in libraries.) On the way, I asked the taxi driver about the music I was hearing, and he told me it was Kurdish. He is a Kurd, from Aleppo, and he reassured me there are Kurds in many places.

I met Mazin in front of a different church–they tell me 11 different kinds of Christians live in Aleppo. (While I was waiting and watching the two nuns wearing habits across the street, I mused on their clothing and women’s dress in the city.)

I came home thinking about various Christians, the Kurds, and the red-haired driver last night who told me he was from Antioch. He had actually never been there, he said, but his grandparents came from there, and they speak Turkish. I thought about all the times I’ve heard people explain to me that Syria is a very diverse country.

I spend most of my time here writing about the French mandate in Syria, especially the 1930s. The French appeared in the mountains of what we now call Lebanon centuries ago, claiming that they were there to protect Christians. Their behavior, their “protection,” the special privileges that resulted for many Christians, elicited a significant amount of animosity in some circles, animosity that many historians believe helped to produce anti-Christian riots in the middle of the nineteenth century. Needless to say, after the riots the French were even more convinced of the need to “protect” Christians.

That need to protect groups now more broadly labeled “minorities” provided the ideological justification for the French occupation of Syria after World War I, at least in French eyes. The French decided that they actually needed to separate one group from another, and divided what is now Syria into four different statelets, an Alawi state on the northern coast (based in Lattakia), a Druze state in the southwest, and two Sunni states, one centered in Damascus and another in Aleppo.

While using the language of protection, and convincing themselves that all these people couldn’t possibly be expected to live together, French administrators within Syria were also writing of their fears that Muslims wanted to recreate an Islamic empire, that Syrians were inherently anti-Western and specifically anti-French. Dividing the country would clearly be essential in order to prevent such plans.

Iraqis had hardly lived in a paradise, but they had clearly lived together. Apparently, even now Iraqis are trying to avoid separating into confessional groups. Why would a bipartisan group in Washington think dividing the country into three parts might be a good idea? (Oh, yes, and, after all, didn’t the partition of South Asia into India and Pakistan in 1947 lead to peace for all time?)

I guess the other observation on the relevance of my research will wait.

September 26, 2007 at 12:42 pm Leave a comment

Intro to Medical Care

I had entered the Syrian medical system with a bit of trepidation. I had telephoned the brother of our Idlib friends, who arranged for me to see a friend of his in Aleppo, an orthopedic surgeon. I took a cab, not realizing that a name and a neighborhood were inadequate to find someone. After all, no one in Aleppo uses street addresses. Directions specify only this or that monument, fountain, gate, statue. As we approached, I called the surgeon and handed the phone to the driver for directions. He sent me into a pedestrian street, where I found the sign and went up two badly lit flights of stairs to a sparsely-furnished room with some bilingual drug-company calendars on the walls, a desk, a chair, a table, and a couch. After making conversation with a woman who seemed to be a receptionist and a friend of hers, the doctor came in and ushered me into his office, the only other room in the suite. He examined my foot, told me to take lots of ibuprofen for a week, and if it wasn’t better, to get an xray, some lab work, and return. An office visit in Aleppo: $10.  (Foot pain has prohibited lots of walking, good for writing but not for blogging.)

I had never realized how daunting such instructions could be. How does one find a lab? Where do Syrians get xrays? I went online, of course, searching for radiologists, podiatrists, sports medicine clinics. I was reminded that Syrian businesses are seldom online. And I have seen only two telephone directories in the country so far.

Three weeks later, my foot still hurting, we got the name of a sports medicine doctor from a German friend here, along with directions. Sulaymaniya neighborhood, go to the roundabout, take the road to the right, walk 100-200 meters, it’ll be on the right. After many meters, we asked a local shopkeeper. He had never heard the name. We crossed the street, walked a ways, asked a man in an office. He exports bearings to Russia, and actually had one of the two phone books I’ve seen in Syria. He had never heard of the doctor, and he wasn’t in the phone book.

I contacted our friends in Idlib and arranged to see Nabeg’s brother, a radiologist. His clinic was quite different than the orthopedic surgeon’s office in Aleppo. He has one of two radiology clinics in Idlib, a city of 400,000. His includes not only standard xray equipment, but also MRI and CT scanners, flouroscopy and sonogram machines. He is awaiting delivery of new equipment for mammograms and bone density scans. The hospitals in town don’t have radiology equipment, so everyone comes to one of the two clinics. One other doctor works in his clinic, and a number of technicians. The setup was quite informal, with each patient’s family coming into the office to look at the films and discuss the results. A woman sat next to the doctor typing onto a computer form as the doctor dictated reports.

He set up the xrays, then had one of his staff people walk me around the corner to his friend, an orthopedic surgeon, another two-room office. Plantar fasciitis/heel spur, no standing or walking for six weeks, anti-inflammatory drugs (he prescribed Feldene, reassuring me that it’s made by Pfizer, along with something to counteract the effects on the stomach–I think I’ll go with something a little more basic.) All these drugs, like antibiotics, are available without prescription. No charge, nice to meet you, best of luck, thanks so much!

One of the staff people from the radiology clinic drove us out to our friends’ house, where we stayed for iftaar. Ramadan has been very difficult for people in northern Syria this first week. Temperatures have been climbing steadily into the high 90s. No food or water from 4:30 in the morning until about 6:30 in the evening, through school and work. We arrived around 4, with two and a half hours to go till sunset.

It is great to see our friends, whom we have come to love very much. Nabeg and Rima are clearly bi-cultural, functioning as easily in their native Idlib as in North Carolina. All four children are similarly bilingual and bicultural, and three of them are old enough to be fasting. All kids I know seem to come home from school ravenous–we used to call the time between 4 and dinner the arsenic hour. These kids were quite easy-going, considering how hot and tired and thirsty and hungry they must have been. The waiting got overwhelming, so we played basketball. (It’s a North Carolina thing.)

Dinner was terrific, a wonderful dish that is called “upside down” because the lamb and eggplant that start off at the bottom of the pan end up on top of the rice when the cook turns it into the serving dish. Had a fascinating conversation about networks, about relying on family and the people you know in the absence of easily available information about businesses and addresses.

And then it was time to leave, the one-hour bus ride back to Aleppo. The taxi driver, like all the others, wanted to guess where we were from. After a half-dozen misses, we told him we are American, and he grinned. Welcome, welcome! Americans are wonderful! Bush, NO! Americans are wonderful! Bush, NO!! Over and over. He refused to take money from us for the ride.

We hear it over and over and over. Americans, welcome. Americans are great. Bush, NO!

September 20, 2007 at 6:05 pm Leave a comment

Aleppo: Hospitality, Fast Food, and Censorship

Hospitality: It was still very hot at 5:00 when I walked to the main street to meet my new Arabic teacher, so I stood under an awning to wait. After five minutes, a young man from the framing store attached to the awning brought me a chair. After ten minutes, one of the proprietors brought me a glass of hot tea. After 15 minutes, he returned to offer me his cell phone to call my friend.

Fast Food: Ahmad introduced us to one of the foul shops (pronounced as fool) in the old suq. For $ .50 one gets a bowl of hot fava beans in tahini sauce with olive oil and spices, accompanied by sliced tomatoes, mint sprigs, fresh onions and bread.

Censorship: It seems the US government has decided that Mozilla’s Firefox is an inappropriate technology transfer to Syria (and Cuba and a few others), so we use Internet Explorer here, which apparently involves no technology transfer? It seems the Syrian government is dubious about the blogspot.com domain, so I can’t read Katie’s blog.

And more strolling: Our 23 year old housemate, a Public Policy intern from Japan, has been spending all of her time working since she arrived last week. We took her to the Jadidah section (the old Christian quarter) to watch the people stroll Friday night. I asked her if people go out at night in Japan, and she responded that some do, you know, go out drinking and partying. It sounds like the social scene at her college town is similar to ours. She was quite taken with the strollers in Aleppo, walking up and down the street, looking at the shop windows and at the street sellers, dodging the wind-up toys on display on both sides of the street.

Finally, Rami Khoury points out that a bit more about people’s lives in the Middle East might provide a more complete impression than the constant press focus on politics and violence.

August 12, 2007 at 11:50 am 2 comments


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