‘Bill Clinton is Syrian’ and other tales of Obama’s speech from Damascus

The traffic flowed through Damascus last Thursday, peaking as always in the early afternoon. There was little buzz about President Obama in Cairo, and given all the packed taxis and microbuses clogging the street, it was a typical day in Damascus – and no special arrangements to watch the speech.

“Of course I know,” taxi driver Adnan replied when asked about Obama’s visit to Cairo University. “He was in Saudi yesterday.”

The oil-rich kingdom is hardly popular here, owing to its mass accumulation of crude cash, its support for Sunni fundamentalism, and its closeness with America.

“Obama goes to Saudi, he goes to Egypt. He goes to Turkey and soon enough he’ll go to Israel,” Adnan complained. “But he doesn’t come here.”

Before an American ambassador returns to Damascus, before US sanctions are lifted, average Syrians will likely continue to ignore gestures of American oratory and reconciliation.

More of my recent HuffPost.


Disaster Tourism at the Edge of the Golan Heights

A few weeks ago at a popular haunt for old men, writers and boozers in Damascus, I was talking with one well-traveled old man about the Golan Heights. Some weeks earlier I had visited Quneitra, the Golan’s capital, which fell to Israel in 1967.

The town was reportedly dynamited and dismantled by Israeli soldiers before their withdrawal following the October or Yom Kippur War. Removable fixtures down to light bulbs and any salvageable building materials were allegedly stripped from abandoned homes and sold to Israeli contractors. Bulldozers knocked down houses. The United Nations condemned in successive resolutions the “deliberate destruction and devastation” of Quneitra. Israel insisted the damage was caused by two wars and shelling from both sides; Syria downplayed any role of its own guns in the ruined shape of Quneitra.

“The whole thing was Henry Kissinger’s idea,” the old man said as he nibbled on a lettuce leaf between big glasses of whiskey. “Why else would the place be as it is today, 30 years later? He arranged for the Israelis to give it back to us, but they had to blow it up first, and the Syrians couldn’t ever rebuild it.”

Read the rest of my recent piece on visiting Quneitra on the Huffington Post.

Don’t Let It Sink

A recent Huff Post of mine.

They can aim sea, sky, and earth at me, but they cannot root the aroma of coffee out of me. I shall make my coffee now. I will drink the coffee now. Right now, I will be sated with the aroma of coffee, that I may at least distinguish myself from a sheep and live one more day, or die, with the aroma of coffee all around me.

So begins a passage from Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982. Under the terror of jets and shelling, the Israeli siege of Beirut, Darwish is making coffee. He takes it seriously, a refuge from the war and a brew to other thoughts. “Coffee should not be drunk in a hurry,” he writes. “It is the sister of time, and should be sipped slowly, slowly. Coffee is the sound of taste, the sound for the aroma. It is a meditation and a plunge into memories and the soul.”

Read the rest here.

It’s About Occupation

Another recent Huff Post:

What does Quneitra have to do with Gaza today? It expresses the truth a conflict that becomes more hopeless with every crudely launched rocket from Gaza, every section of the apartheid wall weaving through the West Bank, every “highly efficient” Israeli strike: Arab land is occupied by Israel and has been for 40 years.