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Last month I was in Italy, where summer had steamed in early and politics had moved into operatic extremes of drama and imbroglio only slightly leavened by farce. Finally running the new coalition government are the boy wonder of the Five Stars populist movement, founded by a comedian, and the head of the proto-fascist League, who is no longer a joke. The two chose as the new premier an amiable law professor with a CV padded by drive-through sojourns at prestigious universities in Europe and the U.S.
While peculiar politics also reign in my own land, in Italy we tend to see their aberrations as a familiar comedy rather than a dark threat to the survival of the planet. Hard to remember that our Yankee republic was founded almost a hundred years before the bickering regions of the Italian boot could be laced together.
At least Italy’s revolution was accompanied, if not actually orchestrated, by music—with Giuseppe Verdi as its figurehead. Verdi’s poignant chorus from Nabucco, “Va Pensiero, sull’ ali dorate,” sung by homesick Hebrew slaves, has come to symbolize the patriotic fervor that led finally to Italian unification.
Waiting for Verdi is the title of a long-awaited new book by Mary Ann Smart, a music historian who writes brilliantly about opera and society. The title clearly contains an ironic reference to Samuel Beckett’s play, but also to the high anxiety shared by struggling Risorgimento patriots, artists and revolutionaries as they struggled toward Unification.
Often as Verdi’s work is linked to Italian revolution, A Masked Ball is set instead in colonial Boston, replete with an a doomed romance, an assassination, and a dusky-skinned fortune teller. Not very diligent research has revealed that the original libretto required Ulrica, the fortune teller, to be played by a “negro.”
Thus the Metropolitan Opera debut of the sublime contralto Marian Anderson, in 1955 the first African-American to sing there.
Nabucco was also playing at the Vienna State Opera when I was a student living with the family of an impoverished baron just a block from the opera house. But the concert and opera posters reminded me of periodic tables, and knowing next to nothing about opera, I went to the Richards, Wagner and Strauss, but never to Nabucco. Little did I know that it was a thrilling tale of King Nebuchednezzar, proprietor of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and featured madness, passion, betrayal, and wanton destruction of selected temples and gods.
In 2015, the Greco-Roman Temple of Bel at Palmyra, 32 CE, was destroyed by ISIS vandals soon after they had beheaded Khaled al Asaad, Palmyra’s much respected chief of antiquities. The Temple of Bel, according to another archaeologist, Khaled’s friend, had actually been a kind of a monument to religious coexistence. The main altar of the temple had been used for sacrifices to different gods, sometimes even side by side. The archaeologist also pointed out that ISIS had announced the destruction of Palmyra well in advance of the fact, but the international community had done nothing.
In any case, peaceful coexistence in Syrian lands is hardly even a memory. Now the best expectations are that some 75,000 Syrian refugees fleeing Daraa—where the so-called civil war began—can be sheltered in Jordan. Four million other Syrians are still homeless.
Meanwhile, the tragic histories of the ancient Middle East have fueled many operas besides Nabucco. How many works of art and music will commemorate the refugee flights of this century, and to what end?
For some years it has been proposed, and rejected, that Italy’s national anthem be replaced by “Va Pensiero,” the haunting Hebrew slaves’ chorus in Nabucco. Only recently it has been adopted by the far-right League, as its official hymn. Matteo Salvini and his League are committed to labeling and expelling all immigrants, including thousands of Roma who are legal citizens. Here, whatever Verdi’s politics were, we could use the intervention of the Anvil Chorus.
THE GOOD NEWS!!
Where to begin? Simply typing that unlikely heading suddenly turned my screen deeply black—tracked with tiny white letters like tearstains.
Anna, a Google emergency chatter, rescued me. I decided to persevere. Anna had promised to stand by in case the Dark Side returned.
Though the Comey imbroglio doesn’t qualify as Good News yet, it may prove the beginning of the end of 45’s reign.
For Genuine Good News, vetted by the UNHCR, Al Jazeera, BBC, and Wim Wenders, please consider the following:
RIACE: ITALIAN VILLAGE ABANDONED BY LOCALS, ADOPTED BY MIGRANTS
This southern Italian village saw its population plummet from 2,500 to 400 by 1998. It’s a familiar pattern, locals moving north in hopes of better jobs.
Riace mayor Domenico Lucano saw the international flood of refugees into Italy as an opportunity rather than a blight. When a boatload of Kurdish refugees landed on Riace’s beach, Lucano proposed that they remain in the village and occupy some of the hundreds of empty houses and apartments— while making themselves useful around town, in construction and gardening, learning Italian, and sending their children to school.
This they did, and before long Riace was becoming the model for other depopulated towns. Each asylum seeker receives ca. $39 a day from Rome to cover housing, food, clothing, and medical care. Much of this funding is recycled right into rentals and local shops—which have revived thanks to renewed needs..
Obviously the welcoming policy is more economically and socially sound than financing massive refugee camps outside the big cities. Riace is now inhabited by people from 20 countries.
The mayor of a nearby town, Gioiosa Ionica, notes that aside from the economic benefits, the presence of refugees also brings a certain cosmopolitanism to local children, who learn that people of another color or religion may play cricket, not football. But they can all play foosball.
In Germany a couple of enterprising mayors have also welcomed migrants into their dying towns, with mixed success. On the whole, European countries are notoriously unwilling to absorb more than a tiny number of refugees.
The question of admitting and resettling refugees has brought down governments across the world. Domenico Lucano of Riace certainly deserved his prize in the Mayors of the World competition, but the big picture is still dark.
The first group of migrants to accept Lucano’s invitation to settle in Riace happened to be those two (or three) hundred Kurds. The Kurds do have a distinctive history, relatively unknown in the West these days—though they are increasingly viewed as the most effective military force against ISIS in the Levant.
En route to China, Marco Polo met Kurds in Mosul, and had little good (or reliable) to say of them. The high point of Kurdish history seems to have been the reign of Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria in the twelfth century.
Saladin was a swashbuckling Sunni of Kurdish origin, lord of several Crusader castles.
Krac de Chevaliers, which I saw just before the outbreak of the civil war, has been many times threatened, destroyed and restored. Saladin was defeated by Richard I of England (the Lionhearted) in the battle of Arsuf in Palestine. Arsuf had been Appollonia in the Classical Age; such are the layerings common in the Levant.)
The Janpulat clan were Kurdish feudal lords in the north for almost a century before the Ottoman conquest of Syria. One was appointed governor of Aleppo in 1604, but that ended badly, as so many campaigns have in that ancient city.
A thousand years after Saladin, the United States believes that the Kurds of Syria are the most powerful indigenous force against ISIS. Certainly the Kurds would like to reunite their fragmented holdings in northern Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.
For many years Turkey has feared establishment of a Kurdish state and would like to insert the Turkish army into the battle for the ISIS capital of Raqqa.
“Let us, huge America, all these coalition powers and Turkey, let us join hands and turn Raqqa to Daesh’s [IS] grave,” Erdogan said recently. He could have added, “Without the Kurds!”
Raqqa is not so interesting, said our guide, driving us quickly into and out of the nondescript town in October 2010, shortly before Syria began to implode. In fact Raqqa was once a major capital, competing with Baghdad along the Euphrates River, until its definitive destruction by the Mongols in the 12th century.
Erdogan and Trump will meet in Washington on May 16. It will be the first meeting between the two authoritarian heads of two NATO countries.
Trump said early on that he planned to stay out of Syria, but then changed his mind. Mysteriously, the badly targeted bombs raised his approval ratings both at home and abroad.
Now what? Trump holding hands with Putin over the smoking remains of Syria. Though the present nation of Syria was of course only a convenient figment of western imperialism. The Kurds have at least as much historical claim to a homeland as today’s Syrians.
Those Kurdish refugees who chose to settle in the little town of Riace are not only out of the line of fire, they are in a grand tradition. In the 7th and 8th centuries BCE, the coasts of the Italian boot and the island of Sicily hosted—willingly or not—such large numbers of Greek immigrants that the area became known as Magna Graecia.
The reasons for the ancient exodus have never been clear: war, famine, expulsion, plague, simple overcrowding or a whim of the oracle at Delphi.
In 1972 a scuba diver discovered two bronze statues buried in the sand not far from the Riace beach.
They turned out to be splendid life-size warriors from the 5th century BCE. Probably they were part of an ancient coastal settlement now underwater on this “subsiding coast.”
But that’s another story, and definitely not Good News.
I was in the “wait and see” camp, and now we have seen.
Closest to home, the helicopters were back above Berkeley this week, along with the police from nine campuses and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. The latest techniques in protest enhancement include dramatic use of fireworks and safely contained fires.
Potus, always alert, tweeted a pre-dawn threat to defund Berkeley, for allowing and then cancelling, in the face of violent protest, the appearance of a truly scary young right-wing provocateur invited by the College Republicans. Nobody gained from the hullabaloo but the anarchist Black Bloc, of whom we’ll no doubt hear more.
Meanwhile we await Potus’s promised actions against the ongoing carnage in Syria and the globalizing terror of ISIS. Bombing ISIS does involve continued slaughter of civilians. The proposed Syrian safe zones for refugees would have to be defended. One thing he has already clarified: there’s no haven for Syrian refugees in the U.S.
In the early years of the rebellion, foreign journalists were variously expelled by the Assad regime or beheaded by the rebels. The major news organizations retreated to report on Syria from desks in Beirut or Istanbul. Only very lately have we had lucid analyses of events in Syria and the Levant. ( See Joshua Landis in TPR and Rania Khalek in FAIR.) Recent accounts explain how incoherent U.S.and U.N. interventions have only served to lengthen the conflict. There have never been “moderate” rebels to “support” with arms.
Meanwhile, no new road to peace has emerged amid the ruins of ancient cities and hardscrabble desert. But given Potus’s apparent bond with Putin, what seems likely is the restoration of the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. For the ten years prior to the serial eruptions of the Arab revolution in 2010, Assad managed to keep the peace in Syria. Sunnis and Shiites, Alawites and Druze, Iraqi Christians and Kurds, and Saudi versus Iranian oil interests–all were prevented from annihilating each other. Assad and his wife were popular enough to be able to appear in public without bodyguards.
Early on, Assad had outspokenly condemned the West’s war in Iraq as illegal, and even Obama never forgave him. (Two tall, slender, intelligent, somewhat arrogant men with attractive, charismatic wives…) Oil makes strange allies, but when the U.S. partners with such murderous regimes as that in Saudi Arabia, condemning the heavy-handed security measures of Assad’s generals could be seen as somewhat hypocritical.
Last week Russia, Iran and Turkey met in the capital of Kazakhstan, in the Astana Rixos President Hotel. For only $1,913, including flight and hotel, I could have provided first-hand news of the conference. As it is, we had to rely on the New York Times.
“Palm trees planted indoors belied the subzero temperatures and blowing snow outside, as a flute-and-piano duo wearing evening gowns played “Strangers in the Night” and the theme from “Titanic.” Western diplomats, largely sidelined, huddled in the hotel’s Irish pub, and the United States ambassador to Kazakhstan, who was invited over Iran’s objections and attended only as an observer, avoided reporters..”
While the diplomats dance and drink in Astana, Syrian rebels amass in Idlib province in the northwest, where the Syrian government’s Minister of Reconciliation has been relocating rebels from Aleppo and Daraa.
Daraa, the southernmost settlement in Syria, had been the main stopover between Baghdad and Damascus for a thousand years or so. When we stopped there for water on a hot October day in 2010, the dusty square was filled with what I gathered later were refugees from the drought in the northeastern desert, Others had moved across its porous borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.
Not surprising that this place would be the Syrian flashpoint of the Arab uprisings. A few months later, some bored Daraa boys posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested. The locals massed to protest, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones, not unlike the chroniclers in Berkeley this week. When one of the protesters died, videos of the funeral went viral, sympathetic rebellions broke out across the country and were brutally repressed.
Protests erupted next in Deir ez Zor, a dreary town on the Euphrates that was once an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India. In October 2010, we Americans were welcomed as the harbingers of coming tourist masses. The owner of our hotel gave us a preview of his new restaurant, which had a southwest American motif and dance-hall chandeliers. Tourism had increased fourfold in the past year, he said.
Further south, we explored the ruins of Sumerian Mari and Roman Dura-Europus, where the ancient east-west trade routes intersected with the Euphrates. Returning to Deir, we crossed the old suspension bridge over the Euphrates; its eastern end was at the Iraqi border, then quiet.
Note: Marking the long tradition of conquest in Syrian lands: Daraa, Deir, and Dura all mean “fort” in different ancient languages.
Syria’s latest conflict has killed more than 300,000 people and forced 4.8 million to flee. Turkey has taken in more than 2.7 million of them, according to the UNHCR, followed by Lebanon with more than a million, and Jordan with disputed figures, some 228,000 to Iraq, 115,000 to Egypt.
Some 6.6 million have been internally displaced, driven from their homes. These would be the inhabitants of Potus’s projected Safe Zones.
A million ambitious Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe, and we read in the news just how few of them are welcomed.
The U.S., that nation founded by immigrants on the backs of its natives, has found room for some 14,000. But no more. Potus and his advisor, the Cromwell of Breitbart Manor, have closed the gates after the Syrian forbears of the likes of Steve Jobs, Paula Abdul, and Jerry Seinfeld. According to an Ellis Island Record, Selim Hosni, Jerry Seinfeld’s maternal grandfather. arrived in 1909 from Aleppo, Syria, aboard the S.S. Hudson with his wife and infant daughter.
In any event, this is no time for comedy. Or is it?
Last week’s well-publicized Russian concert in the ruins of Palmyra just happened to overlap the centennial of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement. Russia had only a minor role in that hasty, furtive divvying up of Syria and the Middle East to please French and English interests. As we have seen, the new borders failed spectacularly to transform tribal Syria into a national state on the European model.
In other news, “Czechia” was approved last week by the government, if not the people, of the Czech Republic, as a further clarification of its national status. Elaborate historical justifications for adding “Czechia” omit a more pressing motive– that sports franchises want a shorter, snappier name for their teams and equipment.
Czechoslovakia was created somewhat arbitrarily—not unlike Syria—but in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Moose Hall, by a committee of Czech and Slovak activists led by philosopher-politician Tomas Garrigue Masaryk. Having drafted the agreement, later in the year Masaryk became the new country’s first president. He was nominated seventeen times for the Nobel Peace Prize that a later Czech president, Vaclav Havel, declined in 1991 in favor of the Burmese Aung San Sui Kyi. Just then, Havel might have been depressed about the impending breakup of his country.
The Treaty of Versailles has been blamed even more harshly and more often than Sykes-Picot for setting the stage for multinational conflict and carnage after World War I. Even now there’s some nostalgia for the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, dismantled and replaced by new nations with conflicting ethnic and linguistic minorities.Lebanon and Jordan were no longer part of Syria, and Slovakia no longer belonged to Hungary.
After my enthusiastic review of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, suddenly I began to receive piles of freshly translated fiction by Slavic writers. I did note that Kundera was born Czech-Moravian, like Tomas Masaryk, Freud, Janacek–and my maternal grandparents. Still, I knew next to nothing about Czech history and literature. Auditing a meeting of Czech I on campus, I found that it was a conversation class, led by a small but dynamic American graduate student.
McCroskyova argued that I would be a better critic if I knew the sound and structure of Czech. Followed, a slippery slope into unexpected years with the Czech language and culture.
Shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we ventured with my mother into communist Czechoslovakia . After a tense crossing at the Austrian border, we stopped in the first town with a hotel. Sehr einfach, very simple, said the young innkeeper apologetically, showing the beds, foam pallets covered with large dish towels. Downstairs, an open kitchen spewed fumes of stewed pork and steaming bread dumplings. Good beer, we discovered, flowed in the pub.
Next morning, we drove around the Moravian countryside with a map, looking for my grandparents’ villages. And we did find them, dreary, plain rows of stucco cottages, sehr einfach. Our German was useful.
At a bus stop in Mohelno, my grandmother’s village, we got directions to the cemetery. My great-uncle Antonin was there—according to my mother a cocky, annoying fellow, who traveled more than once to California to sponge off his relatives. Several other Peskovi were on the memorial obelisk to World War I dead. On the horizon, a cluster of Russian nuclear reactor towers discouraged any idea of picturesque rusticity.
In the nearby village of Rohy, I was surprised to see my grandfather’s family name, Pozar, above the entrance to the most imposing building there. (Later I learned that pozar means fire, and the building was presumably the firehouse—whereas Rohy means simply Crossroads.) Outside Rohy, a wizened German-speaking farmer stopped hoeing long enough to point to a barnlike building on the opposite slope, as the Pozar place. My grandfather’s eldest brother Alois had become the head of the family. That Alois was a hard man, said the farmer, confirming the reason my grandfather, youngest son, had left home.
After the Berlin Wall fell, I followed closely, along with many others, the Czechs’ Velvet Revolution, and was lucky enough to see Vaclav Havel’s very moving inauguration.
In 1992, I returned to Prague to research a piece on the state of the arts in post-communist Czechoslovakia. Long story short: deprived of government subsidies and samizdat glamour, publishing and the theater were in serious trouble. Do I repeat myself?–the Golden Age of Czech Arts turned out to have been under Soviet domination. Also, at that point Slovakia was already chafing at the dominance of the Czechs. Even Havel’s remarkable human skills failed to keep the Slovaks in the federation. In 1993, from the troubles leading to the Velvet Divorce, two countries emerged—the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Federations of any sort, from fourth-century Greece to twentieth-century Europe, often have short lives. The Hellenic League against Persia fell apart after sixteen years, and the Weimar Republic after fourteen. Empires seem to hang on somewhat longer, maybe by definition. An empire has one hegemonic state, while federations involve, theoretically if not actually, equal sovereign states.
In any event, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and of Syria are episodes in an endless kaleidoscopic shifting of national borders, altered to suit the interests of the reigning powers. Once, land and treasure were the prizes; then oil. Although some say that we are entering the post-oil era, it isn’t clear what prize every country seeks now. When Donald Trump wants to Make America Great Again, what does he mean? Not, surely, a state walled against immigrants, who now animate Silicon Valley, colleges, finance, and the arts, or are farmers, like my Pozar grandparents, who came to Galveston and then California in hopes of a better life.
In a couple of years it will be the centennial of the Pittsburgh Agreement that established the new state of Czechoslovakia.
This occasion may not be much marked.
Map from ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists)
“The Panama Papers” could be the title of a mid-century noir starring Humphrey Bogart or maybe Alec Guinness. In fact it is an ongoing opportunity for our failing news media to research juicy data on global tax evasion by the rich and unscrupulous here and abroad. The 11.5 billion documents are from the files of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca and incriminate evenhandedly heads of state, corporations, and figures in sports and the art world. The prime minister of Iceland resigned immediately following exposure of his offshore bank holdings, and David Cameron has had to defend his father’s dealings. Putin seems to be condemned by association, and Bashar al Assad’s cousins are definitely enmeshed. (Much more will be revealed by the ICIJ on May 9.)
Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca
Our press, after reporting, often gleefully, on the rowdiest and least morally serious primary campaign in recent memory, now has an opportunity to reveal to the U.S. electorate the shady investments and slippery connections of donors and politicoes at home and abroad. There are no Clintons on the Panama Papers list so far, but some of their closest confreres have been named. Bernie Sanders will not have needed a tax shelter, and no doubt Donald Trump has other ways to protect his billions. Still, we can expect an exciting round of follow-the-money discoveries in the coming campaigns, in addition to the usual salacious reminders of sequential marital difficulties on the part of the major candidates.
Moral seriousness seems to be in short supply these days, not only in journalism and politics. This puts into high relief Adam Hochschild’s fine book on the Spanish Civil War. While the topic may seem remote just now, as the world warms, the Middle East implodes and Europe falters under the waves of its refugees, Hochschild focuses on a related issue: when is intervention in a foreign war justifiable?
The poorly armed Spanish Republicans were unable to prevent Generalissimo Franco, backed by Hitler and Mussolini, from taking over. If the U.S. had officially joined Russia in reinforcing the ragtag Spanish Republican army, might that have forestalled the slaughter of the Second World War? If the U.S. had more heavily armed an elusive “moderate” Syrian opposition against the Assad regime, could the bombing of that hospital in Aleppo have been averted? It seems safe to say that in each case, the only certain outcome would have been greater bloodshed.
During demonstrations against the U.S. war in Vietnam, I remember a spirited peace march through through San Francisco on a sunny day, with my parents, husband, and two young children. It was one of the few times that I saw my father, an embittered veteran of World War II, suspend his cynicism. And we did eventually get out of Vietnam, whether or not our antiwar protests were crucial.
Demonstrations against the U.S. war in Iraq seemed less spirited, but then we were thirty years older, wiser, and sadder. Today, our weaponry and soldiers are still in Iraq, as well as Syria and Afghanistan—although many of the U.S. tanks and missiles have ended in the hands of the Islamic State and al Quaeda. But there are always more where those came from, given that the Uncle Sam is the largest arms manufacturer in the world, by far.
The important question of justifiable intervention in a foreign war is only too relevant, fiscally and morally, to the current presidential campaigns., “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk” by White House correspondent Mark Landler (NYTimes Magazine, April 24) examines at great length the evolution of her belief in military solutions, including her long-term friendships with various army generals. of which David Petraeus is the most photogenic.
Landler scarcely mentions Hillary’s controversial role in Libya, perhaps because the Times had recently covered it in an earlier pair of in-depth articles. The Times, which has endorsed Clinton, seems to have displayed unusual initiative in publishing these pieces, which conclude that American voters may be presented with “an unfamiliar choice, a Democratic hawk versus a Republican reluctant warrior.” Donald Trump claims that he was an early opponent of the Iraq war, which he said would destabilize the region. Fact-checkers report that he said no such thing at the time that he said it.
However these distorting, disheartening campaigns develop in the coming six months, unpacking the Panama Papers should result in more transparency about global networks of money and power.Whether the electorate’s responses will be too jaded to make the logical connections, time will tell. But after the election we can always look forward to the movie. For his part, Ramon Fonseca jauntily says that he plans to use the material in a novel.
In June 2014 , in the fourth year of a devastating civil war with no end in sight, Syria’s minister of tourism blithely announced that his country is now welcoming visitors, that “Syria Shines Once Again.”
Yes, Syria has six UNESCO World Heritage sites dating back six thousand years. Yes, Aleppo is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, a prize among imperial conquests long before Alexander the Great. But in this 21st century civil war, nobody wins; some 200,000 Syrians have died, and 2 million more have fled their country. Amid the human carnage, Roman temples and crusader castles, mosques, markets, madrasas, and oil fields have all been damaged in the crossfire between the Syrian army and rebel militias.
Most recently, the incursions of ISIS, the new Islamic State, both bloody and benign, are foiling any attempt at normalization by the survivor regime of Bashar al-Assad. ISIS offers bread as well as weapons. Their latest attacks are close to the Iraqi-Syrian northeastern border, impinging on Iraqi Kurdistan.
The proxy war also continues, with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah supplying arms and fighters for Assad’s army. Various Sunni-majority states, such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, along with the U.S., Britain and France, are supporting, sporadically and covertly, the discordant rebel factions.
Where does it all end, and where can one usefully bear witness?
We were staying in Damascus in a quiet guesthouse near Bab Sharqi, not long before the poor Tunisian fruit seller sparked the series of uprisings first known as the Arab Spring. Syria took longest to ignite, but every place where we stopped in October 2010 would soon be ravaged by the rising fury of young men without work, of impending famine after a four-year drought, of Shia, Sunni, Alawites turned against the regime and each other.
That October, a Palestinian exile, our driver, and the Iraqi Christian who gave us breakfast, were still safe under a firmly non-sectarian regime.
On a day trip from Damascus to the Roman ruins at Bosra, we stopped for water in the dusty little city of Daraa.
Daraa, the southernmost settlement in Syria, had always been the main stopover between Baghdad and Damascus. That October it was crowded with refugees from the drought in the northeastern desert, and with others from across its porous borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Not surprising that it would be the Syrian flashpoint of the Arab uprisings.
A few months after we passed through, some bored Daraa children posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested. The locals massed to demand the release of the children, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones. When one of the protesters died, videos of the funeral went viral, sympathetic rebellions broke out in other settlements to the north and east, and were brutally repressed.
Protests erupted next in Deir ez Zor, a town on the Euphrates which had once been an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India. Near Deir, in 2006, the Israelis had bombed a nascent nuclear development plant, acting on intelligence from both the C.I.A. and an Iranian general. But only four years later, we Americans seemed to be welcomed as the harbingers of coming tourist masses. The owner of our hotel gave us a preview of his new restaurant, which had a southwest American motif and dance-hall chandeliers. Tourism had increased fourfold in the past year, he said.
In a 2014 news photo of the main street of Deir, every facade has been shattered, leaving cross-cut views of the crumbled interiors.
Further south, we explored the ruins of Sumerian Mari and Roman Dura-Europus, where the ancient east-west trade routes intersected with the Euphrates. Returning to Deir, we crossed the old suspension bridge over the Euphrates; its eastern end was at the Iraqi border, then quiet.
Note: Marking the long tradition of conquest in Syria: Daraa, Deir, and Dura all mean “fort” in different ancient languages.
Syria’s northeast regions, including Deir ez Zor and Rakka, hold most of the Syrian oil reserves. There the land and the oil have been controlled by tribal warlords, with the regime looking the other way as long as they received a share. Now the new Islamic State is taking over, with an effective combination of intimidation and nutrition. They have established an effective network to produce and distribute bread at a low cost, and free to the poor.
In the far north, Aleppo, the largest and most historically important Syrian city, was bombarded by both the government and successive rebel factions. When the seventeenth-century Souk Madina went up in flames, we tried to make out, on some video footage, the smoky corridor that led through the market to the old house hotel where we had stayed. We did remember lovers trysting in the shadows of the citadel.
North of Aleppo are the ruins of the monastery church of St. Simeon Stylites, where the saint was alleged to have lived atop a pillar for thirty years, its height increasing with his growing distaste for the mob below. A stub of the pillar where he preached his angry fundamentalist sermons sits there in the middle of the Byzantine ruins, but we were more interested in the activity on the slope below. Two women in headscarves were laying cloths on the ground while small children scampered among the olive trees. Not a picnic, said our driver–an olive harvest. Olive oil is Syria’s number one export, he said, adding that the women were Kurds, and shrugging when we asked him how he knew.
Kurdistan was part of the area sometimes called the Levant, which also included the coastal Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and part of Jordan. After the First World War, the victorious Allies–in a series of agreements, some public and some secret, all self-serving and conflicting–carved the lands of the former Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence. With desultory attention to tribal religious and linguistic questions, the new borders were in complete accord with colonial interests. Russia’s share included most of the former Ottoman Empire, Britain held the Palestinian mandate, and the remainder of Syria, much diminished, became a French protectorate. The boundaries set by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 form the main western carapace now targeted by the newly-formed Islamic State.
Southwest of Aleppo is the desert town of Ma’aret al Nouman. On a hot, dusty morning, we parked in the crowded market square by the old mosque. In the courtyard, two teachers came out to meet us, and we glimpsed a few boys’ faces pressed curiously against the schoolroom windows. The girls, of course, were in another school.
Ma’aret’s museum was a former caravansary carpeted with late Roman mosaics, mainly lively animal and vegetal fantasies, improbably well-preserved. Following us through the rooms ringing the central courtyard, an emaciated guard with kohl-ringed eyes turned on lights and offered cups of tea.
In Ma’aret in 1098, when the bloodiest of the Crusaders’ battles were raging, a pack of famished Franks fell upon a heap of recently slain townspeople, cooked and devoured them. The babies, it was said, were spit-roasted. More than one contemporary chronicler recorded this tale of Western brutality, which of course survives in the Arab world even after a millennium. Crusaders slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Muslims, but during the colonial decades, western schoolchildren were taught mainly about the barbarism of the infidels occupying the Holy Land.
The Ma’aret museum was shelled in October 2012 and at last report was serving as a rebel stronghold. A video from an archaeology site showed a young soldier in the courtyard, trying to fit a jagged mosaic fragment into a larger design. Months later came reports of a truckload of Roman carpet mosaics being stopped at the Lebanon border.
The soil of the Roman ruins at Apamea is now densely pocked with looters’ exploratory holes. There are those who hold that looting has at least the potential for saving precious artifacts from destruction.
As we traveled west from Ma’aret and into the mountain passages that led to the eastern Mediterranean coast, our driver pointed out that most of the towns were mainly Christian; women were moving about freely with uncovered heads. However, our next stop was Ugarit, whose cuneiform alphabet made it the center of the literate world in 1300 B.C.E. At the excavation site we were served refreshments by two women who were the wives of the cafe’s owner.
Down the coast we stopped briefly in Latakia, formerly the capital of the Alawites, whose religion is an offshoot of the Shia faith and counts the Assads as members. Latakia’s ancient history seemed mostly concealed under thriving commercial development; the port facilities had been modernized during the French mandate, and the city was later given to Syria, whose other ports had been lost to Turkey in 1939 .
Especially in Alawite country, Bashar al-Assad’s mild, unprepossessing image was everywhere, on awnings and kiosks and windshields, fluttering on banners. Our well-connected driver said that Bashar and his wife often went out of an evening without guards. He had been introduced to them in a restaurant and confessed himself impressed that Assad stood up from the table to shake hands.
A thousand years after the Franks had abandoned their last forts along the eastern Mediterranean coast and in the mountains, Christian settlements still endure where the Crusaders first invaded, constructed forts and castles—and deposited their genes and their religion. We stopped in the little port of Tartus.
Ibrahim ibn Yakub at-Turtushi was a well-traveled Jewish trader whose tenth-century description of the city of Prague begins many Czech histories, including one I edited. I had never expected to see Ibrahim’s hometown of Turtushi (Tartus). Originally a Phoenician colony, it became a marginally prosperous port, with an inhabited crusader fort on the embarcadero festooned with citizens’ laundry.
Intermittent attempts have been made to depict Tartus as a powerful Russian naval base, supporting the flow of arms to the Assad regime. Yet reportedly only four men run the Russian port facility and one of its two floating piers is inoperative because of storm damage.
From the port we progressed to a very plain Gothic church, once an early Marian chapel, later a mosque, later still a billet for Ottoman soldiers, then restored by the French and eventually turned into a museum of musty Crusader tombs.
Tartus, largely loyal to the regime, has remained relatively unscathed during the war, and a sizable number of its youth try to avoid serving in either the army or the rebel militias. Both Alawites and Christians live in increasing fear of the rising power of the new Islamic State.
From the coast, we turned back east and drove out of the marine heat up into mountains, across pine-strewn ravines and around rocky hairpins, arriving finally at a hotel on a promontory just across a deep gorge from Qualat Salah es din, Saladin’s castle. Looking across the gorge in the gathering coolness, we decided to take the last hours of light to wend our way up its precarious access road. From the fortifications, the marauders’ sea was a distant blue through the pines. The site seemed impregnable, but Saladin and his forces drove out the Crusaders before the mortar was dry in the walls. On the way out of the castle, we stopped in the entry hall, where our driver was having tea with the guardian, an old friend who was keeping the site open late for us. But neither of them could explain to us how the immense stones of the wall had been dragged up the mountainside and fit into place a millennium ago.
At our hotel across from the castle was a more modest construction site—adding a new floor for the anticipated tourist rush. The work stopped only after we returned from a nearby hostelry, where we we had enjoyed our grilled fish and near beer entire alone in the establishment. In the morning our driver handed us water bottles for our coming trek through the mountains and across the Al Ghab plain to Homs.
Homs was Syria’s third-largest city, but its population as well as its buildings have been decimated by repeated shellings by the government and the insurgents.
In 2011 it seemed a very prosperous place. We stayed for only a day in a large, comfortable hotel liberally lined with oriental rugs and potted palms. In the hotel restaurant we were approached by a voluble young woman with a French accent who declared herself delighted–in a curiously proprietary way–to find that Americans were visiting Syria.
We stood on the edge of the Homs tell at sunset, listening to the calls of the muezzin across the city. A countertenor from a minaret on the left horizon rose above the others. One deep layer of the tell mound had been dated back to the biblical David and Solomon.
Later, as we circled the darkening citadel playground, small sheep-eyed kids shouted “Hello, hello!” and a few were brave enough to answer when asked their names.
We had taken a side trip that afternoon to Hama, half an hour away. The youths in the Hama souk had been far from friendly.
In the markets and mosques of Damascus or Aleppo, in any public space, our driver, tall, dark, and broad-shouldered, usually marched slowly a few paces before us, looking directly ahead, running interference. In Hama’s souk, we strolled through a dark gallery during the slow period of the afternoon when markets were often closed. Dour young men in kaftans lined up to watch us pass. Nobody tried to sell us anything.
Hama was the home of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, where in 1982 Bashar’s father, the Lion of Damascus, brutally quashed a rebellion by leveling the old town and killing tens of thousands of citizens. The silent hostility in the tunnel of the Hama souk was just a shadow of that catastrophe. To some extent, Bashar al-Assad’s hope of saving Syria from chaos may rest, for better and for worse, on his people’s memories of the sectarian violence leading to the terrible Hama massacre, as well as the regime’s violence in crushing it.
To the east of Homs was the Krac des Chevaliers (Qal’at Hosn), said by some to be the most perfect crusader castle in the world.
Our hotel that night was another one under construction, in a big way. The manager had been to hotel school in Damascus and had learned to tell customers what they want to hear…in our case that the hammering would end in half an hour.
After we went to our rooms, our guide and the manager began a long-running backgammon match on the terrace. Meanwhile the racket continued.
During the backgammon match, we went for a walk around the road to the hotel, past a scatter of ugly new buildings, followed by a very orderly Bedouin camp oddly close to the roadbed. Farther on, scorched olive trees spilled down a burnt slope in an old quarry. In the valley, plumes of smoke rose from the fires of stubble preceding winter planting, and a few lights glimmered on the slopes across from the castle. The landscape reminded us of one on the other side of the Mediterranean, in postwar Italy. It seemed possible just then that Syria, with its ancient treasures, might indeed attract hordes of tourists. Meanwhile, it was a very long night, with acrid smoke from the day’s burning in the valley filling our room.
On our trek back to Damascus from the coast, we detoured to visit Maloula, an old village of yellow and blue houses layered pueblo-style down a slope of the rugged Kalamun mountains. Biblical Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was still spoken there, and pilgrims visited its ancient monasteries—before the war of course.
To enter a fifth-century chapel in the lower monastery, we had to pass through a police cordon, which seemed odd. Our guide pressed rapidly ahead into the small crowd, mostly in western dress, clustering around two smiling couples.
The tall man in jeans and a blazer was Bashar al-Assad, with his elegant wife Asma. With them were the late Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, and his young daughter, as well as another man in Arab dress, unknown to us. Assad and Chavez had just signed oil agreements in Damascus.
Shortly before this meeting, Chavez, in a cheeky press blitz of countries not allied with the U.S. or Israel, had exchanged vows of loyalty and affection with the late Moammar Khaddafi of Libya. Assad, the mild-mannered opthalmologist, is the only survivor of this trio of strong men.
In November 2012, Maloula, still mainly loyal to the Assad regime, was struggling to stay out of the conflict, which one of its citizens said was the beginning of World War III. This was hardly an exaggeration, given the increasing part played by countries from Iran and Russia to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. More and more this was becoming a proxy war. By 2014, loyalists in Maloula had fled to Damascus, where Bashar al-Assad plans to stay on as president of Syria, whatever is left of it.
This is what remains of the small town of Azaz in northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border. In 1125 it was the scene of a famous victory of Crusaders against the Seljuk Turks. A thousand years later, during the Syrian civil war, it was captured by insurgents and then leveled by government forces. We didn’t see Azaz in 2010; this is a file photo.
*Unless otherwise credited, all photos are by the author or taken from open sources.