The Syria Files: Secret Rebel at the Embassy

On the surface, the Foreign Service seemed like the perfect career for me. After all, wasn’t it right up my alley to have an excuse for moving to a different exotic country every couple of years? When I was taking Arabic classes in college, the Foreign Service (and other more bellicose elements of the U.S. government) loved to proselyte us. What better thing than to explore the world while serving your country and making a comfortable (and unbeatably secure) living? What better thing indeed.

I thought about it. I was still thinking about it when I went on a semester abroad to Syria. In fact, I can remember the exact moment when I decided that the Foreign Service was not for me. We had been in Syria for a month or two, not very long. We were on an intensive Arabic program, so our main homework was to talk to everyone and practice our language skills. Every day we went to morning classes at the University of Damascus, and then spent the rest of the day talking to Syrians. We talked at the university, in the bus, at the market, at friends’ houses, and in the fascinating winding streets of the Old City. Occasionally all the talking got us in trouble. I remember one bus ride where I and another young female student struck up a conversation with what seemed like a nice (and very chatty) man. After a while, the conversation got a little strange, and I began to have a rather horrible feeling about him. He was more and more aggressively insistent that he needed to walk us home. We politely demurred. It was getting dark, and there was no way we wanted him knowing where we lived. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do to prevent him from following us off the bus. Seeing nothing else for it, we had a rapid private conversation in English. As soon as we got off the bus, we both set off running. We ran past the watchful eyes of the security guards who stared and whistled at us in the mornings, hoping they would take pity on us and stop whoever was running after us. We ran all the way home, slammed the door, and locked it behind us, panting. Whether he couldn’t run as fast as we could or really was stopped by the guards, he never showed up again, much to our relief. And from then on, we realized it was good policy to always be friendly with the guards, even if the ogling was a bit annoying.

Most of the talking to strangers turned out much more pleasantly, though. We were often invited to dinner, and always treated with respect and cordiality. Nearly without exception, the Syrians were friendly, welcoming, and interested in us. And to my surprise and gratitude, they never held my nationality against me. Although relations between the two governments ranged from bad to worse, the Syrians were unfailingly understanding of the fact that I was not personally responsible for what the President of the United States happened to be doing or not doing. This was all the more interesting to me when I compared it to the typical (much less charitable) attitude of Americans back home upon learning that I was planning to go to Syria.

But I didn’t realize how much I was falling in love with the country until we were invited to a lecture given especially for us at the U.S. Embassy. To begin with, just visiting the Embassy was an experience in itself. It was even more fortress-like than a normal embassy. The walls looked several feet thick. And there was barbed wire everywhere, almost as if they had used it as a decoration instead of Christmas lights. Even the American flag, way up at the top of the building, and by no means accessible except perhaps by armored helicopter, had its own barbed wire wrapped all the way up around the pole, as if to guard against some terribly serious game of capture the flag. Walking along the austere white outer wall toward the heavily fortified front door, I felt like a moving target. I suddenly wanted intensely to either get away from the immediate environ of the embassy, or to get safely inside. There was a palpable aura of hostility that surrounded the building, as if it felt itself continually at bay, and the very air outside of it were dangerous to breathe. The official who ushered us in (after proper security precautions, of course), was cordial and welcoming. He motioned to a door on his left, which he said was an English language library. He told us we were welcome to come borrow books anytime. I shuddered involuntarily, unable to imagine returning to that neighborhood by choice.

The lecture matched the building. It was almost surreal. The Syria he described was a menacing wasteland, crawling with terrorists and government hit men. At any moment, we were in danger of being kidnapped, tortured, or at least intimidated. The local people were hostile, and all in sinister league with their insane rogue government. Picture the orientation for new arrivals on Pandora in the movie Avatar (“everything on this planet wants you dead”), and you have the basic substance of our embassy friend’s perception of Syria. I blinked perplexedly. Were he and I living in the same country? All I had encountered during my time there so far were kind and generous people who loved family time and good food, and were eminently willing to accept and embrace strangers, even foreigners. And thanks to the numerous machine-gun-toting guards in front of almost every building, I felt far safer on the streets of Damascus than in any other large city I’d ever lived in or visited before. Sometime during the lecture, I finally realized that it had happened to me. I had gone native. I admit it, yes, I even had in my pocket at that very moment a garish keychain with the Syrian President’s face on it, wreathed in flowers. All the scary “otherness” that so unnerved our embassy host was just comfortable, happy familiarity for me.

At the same time, I realized that if I were to have the responsibility of officially representing and supporting the U.S. government to everyone I met, I might feel differently too. Perhaps if carried around Embassy business cards with my name printed on them, I would also carry around that feeling of being an alien on an inhospitable world. And who knows? Maybe I would even end up being treated the way I felt.

So that was the moment when I decided I would never work for the Foreign Service. Of course, I have nothing against those who do. I’ve met (and been very kindly invited to dinner at the houses of) many delightful and interesting people posted at various American Embassies. And I’m sure the conflicts are much less gratingly obvious in countries other than Syria. But it’s just not for me. I want to meet people as myself, not as an attaché. I want to stay as long as I like, and go as native as I please. And read propaganda from any government, even my own, with a healthy grain of salt. Perhaps it’s just my inner anarchist, but I’m with Aristotle. Call me a citizen of the world.

As my grandfather used to quote Kipling:

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

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