This time last year I was in Tunisia, breathing the heady air of revolution, and observing curfew every night to stay out of gunfights between the army and the rogue police still loyal to ousted president Ben Ali. Egypt had followed close on Tunisia’s heels, and Qaddafi’s Libya was teetering. But as of yet, despite widespread unrest across the Middle East, Syria was still as silent as the grave.
Today in Tunisia, representatives of over seventy nations, (including the United States, but conspicuously missing China, Russia and Iran) are meeting to consider once again what can be done for the people of Syria. The party (known as “Friends of Syria”) was briefly crashed by several hundred Assad supporters who had been bussed to the hotel where the talks were being held. The infiltrators gained access to the hotel, but were eventually stopped at a security cordon.
Never having visited Tunisia while huge posters of Ben Ali’s face still graced every building, I couldn’t compare pre-revolution Tunisia to the euphoria of freedom I saw last year. But I could make a pretty good guess at what it must have been like. After all, the Syria I lived in was similarly plastered with posters of Assad, and the Syrian secret police were equally effective at stamping out even whispers of discontent.
Yesterday I opened my box of Syria memorabilia to see what pieces of Syria I had kept. It was a bit like opening a box of letters from a tragically-ended love affair. My heart did that same little double flip in the pit of my stomach. Among all the maps, postcards and brochures, here are a few of the things I found:
One fairly ornate green dress, which I fell in love with and bought at the Souq el-Hamidiyeh on one of my many outings there “to practice my Arabic.” Yes, I used to wear it sometimes afterward.
A gorgeous inlaid wood box; one of those arts like damask tablecloths for which Damascus is famous. I actually have several of these, of varying sizes and shapes.
One poster of Bashar al-Assad’s late father Hafez, wreathed in flowers and fireworks (dog-eared from having been hung in our apartment in Damascus when a dictator straight out of 1984 was still a novelty to me).
One small book of out-of-focus official photographs from a Mother’s Day visit to the border of the occupied Golan territory. If you can’t read it, a sample caption is the upper one: “Al – Golan hospital destructed by zionists. !!”
The offending keychain. He hasn’t really changed a bit, has he?
Journals I kept during my time in Syria. I am a sporadic journal-keeper, but I wrote almost every single day in Syria. I’m curiously reluctant to open these. I turned twenty-one in Syria, and living there was in many ways a rite of passage for me. It was the first time I’d ever been so far away from everything: my family, my friends, my country, and the way I had always understood the world. I found myself suddenly dropped into what was simultaneously a beautiful dream and a sinister nightmare, and I attacked it with all the passion of an uncontrollably romantic temperament. I was enamored of everything. I was in love with the whole country; the ancient streets, the beautiful colors of the souq, the incredibly hospitable people, the unresolved angst of the Golan, the ghostly ruins rising out of the desert, the attentive men who were always proposing marriage, and a whole way of life that was so foreign as to be irresistibly alluring.
Always in the background was that hint of danger; the stranger around the corner, the look of fear on a friend’s face when I said something insufficiently circumspect about the government, the security guards with machine guns everywhere, the feeling of being slowly suffocated by totalitarianism. I was both fascinated and repelled by the amount of control the government exercised over people’s minds. I was always in disagreement with myself about whether I could stand to live long-term under such severe repession. Because other than that, Syria was a perfectly beautiful place to live. My secret dream was to buy one of those crumbling houses in the old city in Damascus and slowly renovate it, like a sort of “under the Arabian sun.”
In fact, I’ve tried our whole marriage to convince Tony of how delightful it would be to live in Syria. The closest we’ve gotten is Tunisia. And in Tunisia, after that gloriously unexpected revolution, when I watched everyone I met taking in great draughts of their newly discovered freedom, of course I thought immediately of Syria. Of how much it would mean to so many Syrians to feel what the Tunisians felt on that incredible Friday when they filled Avenue Bourguiba and demanded that their president leave, and he went. And then they could talk, for the first time, really say everything they had wanted to say for a lifetime. They didn’t stop talking for weeks, and listening to them was like listening to the birds sing and the tigers roar on the first morning of the world.
There’s really nothing more to say, except that I hope beyond hope that something will come out of this meeting in Tunis today; that something will come out of something sometime soon that will bring peace, real peace, to Syria.