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.  


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

To Damascus

It had been six weeks since we had moved into Ahmad’s house, and we hadn’t left the Aleppo. A party in Damascus provided the opportunity.

The bus ride lasts about 4 hours, shades of beige out the window all the way. It is a beige rocky desert with tan hills, and the houses in both the cities and the towns are made of the same stone as the hills. Even the intermittent tents are beige (best missed shot of the day: a satellite dish next to a bedouin’s tent). The red checks on men’s headscarves are a welcome color change, as are the scattered trees.

Bus rides longer than two hours are interrupted for stops at central restaurant areas that seem to be dedicated to the long distance traffic. Most of the companies stop at a place just south of Homs offering various kebabs, drinks, sweets and sandwiches. There were many travelers Thursday, the first day of Ramadan, but few eaters.


The party was on the roof of a flat in one of Damascus’ suburbs. We arrived early for tea, and watched the sun set over the city. There was what journalists might call an “expectant quiet,” as the sun was setting. Immediately after the call to prayer, there was a remarkable quiet and the streets emptied as people went to break the fast. One of our hosts said that she remembered, as a child, hearing only the “sound of eating” all over the city.


The party began about an hour later, about 25 people, all of them dancing. I asked one of the best dancers where she had learned. She smiled and said she had never had lessons. “We drink it with our mothers’ milk.” The organizers were all tenants of the flat on the floor below, Christians and Muslims, married and not. One, a theater director, vied with William for photographs. Two of the residents work with the UN High Commission for Refugees, struggling to provide services to the nearly 2 million Iraqi refugees currently in Syria. The lives of these 20 and 30 somethings seem quite similar to those of my own children. They work (or try to find work), many studying at the same time, living in a room of a common flat to try to save money, and partying on the weekend when they can. The music they dance to and the food they serve seem the biggest differences. (“Steve” a.k.a. Mustafa, is both a terrific cook and very good in figuring out how to run a recalcitrant “sound system.”

damascusparty.jpg  damascusanis.jpg

In Damascus, like in Chapel Hill, we can’t stay awake much past midnight, so we left early. We were staying in a hotel in the city center, and the next morning we found the French Institute. While I checked their catalogue to try to figure out what I would need to look at there on our return later in the fall, William wandered the area. He greeted me with news about bookstores, espresso shops, and an Indian restaurant! We stopped at the Indian restaurant, apparently the only one in Syria, for a terrific meal. The bus home showed two movies consecutively. The first, apparently Egyptian, seemed to be patterned on the Pink Panther, featuring slapstick, silly injuries, and lots of shouting. The second, a cop movie about the LAPD with Arabic subtitles, featured lots of car chases and wrecks and a few murders.


Damascus seems a long way from Aleppo. It was only during the French mandate in the 1920s and 1930s that it surpassed Aleppo as Syria’s biggest city. I can’t think of any area in Aleppo similar to downtown Damascus. Downtown Damascus has wide, straight streets, a large foreign presence, and the stores that come with that. The party hosts, and a number of people in Aleppo, talk about how different Damascus is than other places in Syria. “More nightclubs, more action,” one told me. “More diversity, more freedom,” another said. I’m not sure how one would ever be able to scientifically measure social freedom in the two cities, or the extent of diversity. We live in a particularly conservative part of Aleppo, and visited an especially progressive group in Damascus, hardly a valid comparison. I’d love to extend my time in Syria, to live a semester in Damascus, another in Latakia. (I keep running up against the limits of travel accounts, limits I hadn’t even thought of when I listed my concerns as I began this blog.)

Perhaps the most curious thing to me this weekend, in Damascus as in Aleppo, is the lack of newspapers. In small towns like Chapel Hill, one can buy newspapers at the grocery stores, the drug stores, and from metal boxes on the streets. In big cities like New York and London, there seem to be newsstands on every street corner. In all the cities of Morocco, people spread newspapers out on the streets for sale. In Syria, it is extremely difficult to find newspapers. They are not for sale in the grocery stores, small or large. There are no newsstands on street corners, no informal piles of newspapers for sale on the streets. One has to go to hotels or bookstores to find newspapers. Has TV news completely overtaken print journalism in the country.

On the news, for more on last week’s Israeli attack on Syria, see Josh Landis’ blog. It’s hard to get information about it from inside Syria, and people don’t seem to be talking about it. Hala hadn’t even heard about it–she doesn’t watch the news, she explained. Seems another similarity between Americans and Syrians!

September 15, 2007 at 11:01 am 2 comments


Josh Landis has summarized coverage of the incident.  BBC suggests that the Israeli press is worried about the IDF flight over northern Syria on the sixth.  I found the story but no related news online while looking for information about the military aircraft flying overhead for about 20 minutes this morning.  No news, no reassurance, no alarm.

I still can’t read Katie’s blog, which is blocked by the Syrian government.  She is now in Turkey, and can’t read my blog, which is blocked by the Turkish government

 William put together a wonderful panorama of the leather dyers establishment in the Fez suq.


September 9, 2007 at 9:01 am Leave a comment

Israel Attacks Syria?

We first heard the news yesterday afternoon. William listens to BBC radio when he can find it, and around 2:00 he told me that Israeli jets had flown over Syrian airspace and the Syrians had fired on them. I assumed they had strayed over their common border inadvertently.

When we checked the BBC web site, it became clear that this wasn’t about an Israeli jet meandering a bit off course. The Israeli jet flew over Tall al-Abyad, near Raqqa, a part of Syria almost as far away as it could be. That made the BBC headline even more surprising. “Syria ‘fires on Israel warplanes’” suggests that Syria had taken action against an inactive Israel. The BBC story paraphrased Syrian sources that an IDF jet had broken the sound barrier flying over a small, northern Syrian town at 1 in the morning, been shot at by Syrian air defenses, forcing them to “drop ammunition over deserted areas and turn back.” (Drop ammunition over deserted areas? Does that mean bombing them?)


The Syrian TV news last night was full of analysts and analyses, speculating why the Israelis would violate Syrian airspace. One retired general thought Israel was testing to see how Syria would respond, whether the country had the political will or military capability to reply to an Israeli provocation.

I was curious about how other TV news stations would cover the story. Mostly, they didn’t. The BBC spent the first large segment of its news broadcast reviewing the history and talent of Pavarotti, then went into a long discussion of the Chinese traveling exhibition currently at the British Museum. CNN made a brief mention of the Israeli flight, but went on to focus briefly on Pavarotti and then on a missing girl.

Before writing this post this morning, I thought I should see how the New York Times covered the story. “Israel is Officially Silent on Syrian Report It Entered Airspace,” reads the headline over one of the most common images in Syria, a photo of Syrian President Assad on a car’s rear window. The article begins with Syrian “reports” of the Israeli action, then continues with Israeli refusal to discuss it. The story includes Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s response to a journalist, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” NYT seems to challenge the credibility of the “report” by pointing out that it only emerged 12 hours after the incident. The article then describes efforts to calm tensions and ends with Israeli attacks on “militants” in Gaza.

Needless to say, I was surprised that the event hadn’t taken place. I checked Al Jazeera’s site, where the headline read “Israel ‘violates Syrian airspace.’” After repeating Syria’s claims, Al Jazeera continued, “’This event never happened,’ Israeli radio said, quoting an unidentified military spokesman.” The BBC’s analysis, posted two hours after the report on the incident, refers to it as an “alleged” event.

Reuters provided more context to the denial: “The Israeli military spokesman’s office said in a statement: ‘It is not our custom to respond to these kinds of reports.’ The office has typically commented on such reports, but a security source said the government had imposed a news blackout on the issue. A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also said there would be no comment beyond the military statement. The White House also declined comment.”

There may or may not have been an Israeli incursion into Syrian air space in the small hours of Thursday morning? (Or, as William suggests, it may have happened actually but not officially.) Why would the Syrians make up such a claim? Why would the Israelis refuse to acknowledge it? What would Israel’s intentions be in flying over northern Syria? Did they actually “discharge ammunition” in a hurry after being fired on by Syrian defenses, or bomb a specific target, or check out air defenses? Each of the news reports relies on different historical contexts to analyze the event–-or non-event–the information chosen and emphasized by each report suggesting varying conclusions about its implications for war, negotiations, or escalating tensions in the area.

September 7, 2007 at 8:23 am Leave a comment




Syrian children learn English in school, and each one I meet wants to try out a couple of phrases whenever I leave the house. I respond countless times each outing to “Hello, how are you?” And “What is your name?” They run away giggling before I can introduce a new phrase.

Among the dozens of children on our street, most are friendly and curious, which seems to be an appropriate response for children who live in an area where foreigners seldom come. Friends in Syria seem surprised that we live in this old neighborhood, where restoration has begun quite slowly, where most of the residents are poor, and where people interpret Islam as requiring that women cover not only their heads, but their entire faces as well.

We had issues with only one young boy among the dozens that greet us each day, a child probably ten or eleven years old who harassed my Arabic teacher whenever she came to see me. William had words with him, and we haven’t seen him for two weeks.

But those incidents made me begin to worry about the kids, about what their parents said about the local strangers.

My anxieties were calmed on Thursday evening. Returning from dinner, we greeted a family walking on the street past our door. A small girl (maybe four years old) ran over to say hi and I greeted her back. Then her father smiled, picked her up, and held her up for me to kiss her. She seemed delighted when I kissed her on both cheeks.



August 31, 2007 at 12:24 pm Leave a comment


Ahmad took all of us, his international extended family, to his brother’s house to sample the pizza. His brother and sister-in-law plan to move to a city east of here and open a pizza restaurant. Based on our taste-tests last night, seems like it should be a winner.


Ahmad’s brother Juma has been restoring an old house not far from here. The house has a stone oven in the courtyard that works quite well for pizza. His wife Ghaida had already made the dough and the fillings. When we arrived, she brought them into the courtyard and put them on a table. Ghaida is fast and efficient. First she and Masayo, our Japanese housemate “daughter,” shaped balls of dough and set them aside to rise. Then she rolled them out, the small ones first, while Masayo and Magiko (our upstairs housemate) spread meat on some and red pepper paste on others to make lahmajun. When Masayo dropped out, I learned to make cheese pastries and lahmajun. Ghaida is a wonderful teacher.


Ghaida’s daughter, 5 years old, tried to help with all the stages. When I commented that her daughter could help with the pizza restaurant, I was quite surprised by Ghaida’s adamant response. No, she insisted, her daughter would go to school!

I told Ghaida that my own daughter is 23, and she smiled. “I’m 25,” she said. “How old were you when you married?” I asked. Fifteen. Ghaida hadn’t been to school, and her new husband, ten years her senior, taught her to read and write. Her daughter will go to school.


Both daughter Diana and son Hikmet (8) seemed quite attached to the French teacher who has been living in one of the rooms of the restored house. We also met his sister and her two friends, visiting Syria for three weeks from Paris.

After we ate too many cheese pastries and lahmajun, the pizzas were ready. They were the closest to American-style pizza we have eaten outside the US. No pepperoni.


August 27, 2007 at 9:54 am Leave a comment

Visa Extending

Today was the day to go to the immigration office to try to get our visas extended. There is no “security” in the building, no metal detectors or body searches. (We had noticed this at the Syrian embassy in Washington, DC, too. We walked right in off the street and no one even checked our bags.) The first floor is for Syrian passport applications and renewals. The second floor is for foreigners trying to extend visas and get identification cards.

People walking, waiting, and talking in the long corriders and by the long counters were wearing the most diverse kinds of clothing. Kurdish women and bedouin women wearing colorful dresses and headscarves, men with long jalabiyas and checked scarves, people dressed in western-style clothing with heads uncovered, women wearing long black coats (it’s in the 90s here) and scarves that cover their faces, and the Gulf women–I’ve not yet understood how they can make those long black dresses, black scarves, and spiked heels look so distinctive, distinguished, and elegant.

We had gotten eight copies of our photographs from the man with the camera in the courtyard, collected both required forms, and were waiting in the downstairs lobby for Ahmad to finish his passport renewal when a man in uniform with three stars on his shoulders spoke to us in Spanish. When we obviously didn’t respond to his entreaties, an old village woman tried the same thing (I think) in sign language. When he tried in Arabic, it became clear that he wanted us to go down the hall and to the right. We stood in the hallway until he arrived and showed us into his office.

Syrian hospitality and friendliness toward foreigners is really quite remarkable. When he learned I was a history professor, he was delighted. He had studied history, Middle East history, in Chile (hence the Spanish). He wanted to know why we were in Syria, how we liked Syria, what we would be doing here, and insisted that we drink tea. The conversation became more detailed when Ahmad appeared. Our host talked about the history of Syria, its tremendous importance in the world’s past, the importance of all the varied groups in the Middle East working together. He quoted the second Caliph, ‘Umar, on protecting people during war, and talked about Syria’s historical tolerance for others. Then he insisted we drink orange juice. When two other men from his village came, he greeted them, we all drank orange juice, and they sat opposite us and listened.

Somehow, it seemed clear to everyone that the conversation was over, and everyone rose to leave. Our host walked with us to the officer upstairs, who sent someone with us to the long queue. We waited there, two Americans and dozens of Iraqis, while our various forms were signed and stamped, stapled, copied and approved. It is a bit awkward, waiting in lines with Iraqis who are trying to get permission to live in Syria because of what my country has done to theirs.

When we returned to thank our host, he offered to take us to see some of Syria’s historical sites. I left hoping Syrians receive the same kind of treatment at a US immigration office.

August 25, 2007 at 10:22 am Leave a comment

Aleppo Modern

I continue to be fascinated with Aleppo. William and I walked today from our house to Bab al-Hadid to buy milk. Except for the supermarket at New Town, food stores specialize in certain kinds of things. One doesn’t find butter at the yogurt store, or the corner grocery, or the spice shop, for example; it is sold by the same man who sells breakfast cheese and zatar (a spice mixture).

woodhadid.jpg blacksmithhadid1.jpg  lumber.jpg

I was surprised to find, just a few yards from our house, a street of blacksmith and wood-working shops where people obviously still make tools by hand. Somehow, my tendency to see history as linear is challenged by the presence of these men working a short walk from the street where other men sell huge, industrially-produced pump equipment. I use “men” advisedly. The only consistent observation I have made here about small business is that men are the only obvious participants.


It does seem rather absurd to claim that “modern” and something else coexist in Aleppo. The city just seems to include a whole variety of forms of production. That range is evident not only among purveyors of tools and equipment, but also among clothiers (ready-made shops sell the latest European fashions and tailors make men’s shirts to order) and food producers. These photos juxtapose our stroll through part of the new city on Thursday evening to a “fast food” restaurant (great kebab) and the local equivalent of Starbucks (to-go cups, flavored syrups, cold coffee-drinks) with our walk through Bab al-Hadid area today. Thrown in are a couple of pictures from Saturday, when we took our Japanese housemate for her first walk through the suq. The reality of meat was almost enough to turn me into a vegetarian. We introduced her to our favorite foul shop (vegan).

fastfood.jpgcoffee.jpg  meat.jpgfulrestaurant.jpgfullunch.jpg

August 20, 2007 at 5:53 pm Leave a comment



University Entrance

Hala, my wonderful Arabic teacher, met me at the entrance to Aleppo University’s Faculty of Arts. She had introduced herself to the chair of the History Department the previous day to ask if he would be able to meet me. We walked into a huge hallway, past the empty hall used for exhibitions, and up to the third floor. Professor Abbasi welcomed me in his office, and, since what I had really wanted was simply to meet another historian (do most historians miss being around other historians when away from home?), we, of course, talked about history. Professor Abbasi does his research on the relations between the Ottomans and the Safavis, from 1501 to the mid-1700s. He also has studied Mosul, but 200 years earlier than me.

I asked him about the faculty. There are only seven full-time history faculty members in Aleppo, and the department relies on the teaching of a number of professors visiting each week from Damascus. He told me with some pride that nearly a dozen of their own graduates were now working on graduate degrees in Europe and other parts of the Middle East, and he was hopeful they would return to Aleppo to strengthen the local department.

Aleppo University Dormitory


Undergraduates in the department take an incredibly rigorous course load. Each history major takes six courses a semester. Their required courses include one in Geography, at least two years’ study of either Turkish or Persian, one European language, and a whole series of chronological/ regional courses on the ancient, medieval, and modern histories of the Middle East and Europe. They take one course on eastern Asia, and one on America. Although some students take more courses in geography or economics, they remain quite focused on their own major department. Hala, who finished her undergraduate degree in Arabic literature, tells me it was the same for them: an intensive course load that focused almost exclusively on the major. Hala is currently writing her masters’ thesis on Arabic children’s theater.

I enjoyed the company, the coffee, the history conversation, and then returned to work on my own project. When Hala arrived at 5:00 for another intensive Arabic hour, she brought a whole tray of kubbe that her mother had made for us! Trying to figure out what we could send back in the tray, I experimented last night with a Syrian peach pie. I know it is a poor craftsman who blames her tools, but I really do think that some measuring cups and a real pie pan would have improved the crust. We’ll try something else.

August 16, 2007 at 2:24 pm Leave a comment

Older Posts Newer Posts


Receive Blog by Email