An Irishman's Diary
BUFFETED by updrafts from the Chouf Mountains and Bekaa valley, the aircraft gradually descends into Syrian airspace towards Damascus International Airport, writes Tom Clonan.
My previous visit to Damascus was in March 1996 as an Army officer on leave from UN service in Lebanon. Back then, over a warm St Patrick’s weekend, I found the Syrian capital to be a welcoming, vibrant and essentially secular city with Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities cohabiting in relative harmony. Under President Assad’s watchful eyes – his portrait stares intently from every shop window, bar and souk in the city – the Guinness flowed freely. Despite Assad’s omnipresence however, conversations with ordinary Syrians flowed freely also.
I found the Syrians, rather like the Irish, to be a fiercely proud and intelligent people whose warm welcome to foreigners was surpassed only by their communication skills as natural raconteurs and their entrepreneurial talents as traders and merchants.
As the wheels thump on to the runway in March 2009, I wonder how Syria has changed after eight years of economic sanctions and political isolation during the Bush administration’s “global war on terror”. The first thing I notice is that the ubiquitous portraits of President Assad have been replaced by portraits of President Bashar – the late president’s son.
The elderly English ladies who were sitting next to me on the plane waltz through passport control. On the flight from London, they told me – over innumerable gins and tonics – that they were “off on an adventure”. Seemingly oblivious to the armed police thronging the airport, they hail two taxis and disappear into downtown Damascus.
The city itself is still vibrant, but fraying at the edges. In my hotel in the Christian quarter – Bab Touma, or “Thomas Gate” – there are regular power cuts before diesel generators kick in to take up the slack. But the people are as friendly as ever. Everyone responds warmly to the Arabic greeting “Ahlan wa-Sahlan”.
The welcome for the Irish is particularly pronounced. But many faces are strained and there is a sense of foreboding among ordinary Syrians who fear for the future of their country as a “rogue state”. I also notice an increase in the number of women wearing religious headscarves on the streets. Syrians acknowledge that there has been an increase in “religiosity” since the “Anglo-American invasion”of neighbouring Iraq.
On this visit to Damascus I am part of a group of European journalists invited to Syria by the EU to witness at first hand the Union’s “Neighbourhood Policy” in the Middle East. “Welcome to the Axis of Evil”, remarks one of our Syrian hosts. There are endless daily briefings and visits to Syrian ministries, educational institutes and businesses, including the fledgling – and eerily quiet – Syrian Stock Exchange.
As I recall from my last visit to Damascus, the food is spectacular, but not for the faint-hearted. Outside almost every butcher’s shop, the heads – with spines attached, of course – of camels, calves, sheep and goats announce freshly slaughtered meat for the barbecue. At one restaurant, these heads are displayed to remind us of just how fresh our “shish-taouk” and other local delicacies are.
One meal takes place in the revolving rooftop restaurant of the multi-storey Cham Palace Hotel in downtown Damascus. As the rotating dining-room creaks, groans and grinds alarmingly around the precipice of the building, the views of the city are both stunning and terrifying. Two groups are unconcerned – the gin-drinking English ladies whom I met on the plane – and our Syrian hosts. The Syrians are used to living on the edge and, unruffled by the view, speak frankly of their real fears – which range from the spread of religious fundamentalism in the region to terrorism and, above all, to Israeli and US aggression in the Middle East.
For our part, we also learn that Syria is a country in flux with significant domestic, regional and international political and security challenges. We learn over bread and hummus that Arabs and Europeans have much more in common than that which sets us apart. Gazing out at the encircling mountains – where, according to legend, Adam met Eve – we are reminded that for many centuries Damascus was a vital mid-way point on the silk route that stretched between China and Europe.
Today, Syria has the potential to play a vital role in the axis of communication between Europe, Iran and the ever-emergent Chinese tiger.
Shortly after my 1996 visit to Damascus, I and other Irish soldiers witnessed at first hand the slaughter of hundreds of innocent men, women and children at Qana and throughout south Lebanon in April that year. After the recent killing in Gaza, it is tempting to be depressed about the outlook for the Middle East 13 years later. However, the EU is to be congratulated on its Neighbourhood Policy. The simple acts of communicating with our Arab neighbours – of eating, drinking and trading together – can bridge significant gaps in understanding. One hopes, when President Obama speaks of “change”, that the US might learn something from the EU’s approach to reconciliation. As one Syrian put it, “Just like us, you in Ireland know that any fool can make war. It takes real humanity to sit down with your enemies and make peace.”