We were standing outside in the increasing cold tonight, the regular break in colloquial class. The sundown adhan, the evening call to prayer, had just gone off, coinciding with seven o’clock and the halfway point in our two hour class. We were standing there, on the roof of the American Cultural Center, where we take our class, when we heard the news that SANA was reporting the government’s decision to shut down the “American School” and the American Cultural Center.
Below and across the street, beyond the high walls and Jurassic Park fencing around the building, there was a party on at the Chinese Embassy. Chinese guest workers have been busy on the building for weeks and this was the new grand opening, it seemed. They’d installed a pool that lit up the embassy’s yard, even though it’s too cold for swimming now. Tables were being served by a team of waiters; everyone looked dressed-up.
When we went downstairs, an hour later, after class to collect any mail that we might not be able to get tomorrow, or the next day, if indeed the cultural center is closed, the shrill voice of a Chinese opera singer rang outside the window. This building might be cleared out tomorrow, or the next day, or maybe the government will just block the street and prevent people from going inside, and meanwhile next door the Chinese were having a party; a woman in a high voice was singing opera that echoed through the diplomatic neighborhood.
We were shooed out of the office by the cultural center’s staff readying for a long night. As we left I heard down the hall, from one office to another: “Where’s the pizza we ordered?”
It’s hard to gauge all of this, the stream of news stories and television coverage. Last night Syria One produced a dramatic montage of a camera panning over a farm house in the dark, the camera’s lamp illuminating scattered possessions, before cutting to close-ups of dead bodies and medical examiners pointing out bullet wounds. The dead bodies at the farm, according to the news here, are a father and his three children, the farm’s guard and his wife, and a fisherman. These were glossed over in today’s New York Times article, in favor of salacious CIA reports of tracking a terrorist smuggler.
The White House’s shrew spokeswoman revealed what some of us are thinking here: that they have done it, they have struck Syria finally before they expire and retire, and now they will sit back and smile, and offer “no comment.”
Question: What is the likelihood of more raids into Syria like the one we saw this weekend?
Perino: The United States government has not commented on reports about that and I’m not able to here, either.
Q: So we’ve talked about Pakistan, the raids into Pakistan, whether by ground or by air. And there’s been some acknowledgment by U.S. officials that those are happening. We’re now seeing this sort of thing spread to other countries. Can you not — you can’t shed any light on why, when, where, how, whether we’re going to…
Perino: I can’t comment on it at all, no.
Q: Have you heard anything about whether the target was successful, that it hit the target?
Perino: I’m not going to comment in any way on this; I’m not able to comment on that.
Q: You’re not even able to say that there has been some decision taken by the administration that ‘If you guys can’t clean up your act, we will clean it up for you’?
Perino: I’m not going to comment on the reports about this, no, I’m not. Anybody else?
Q: Can you comment on Syria’s protest?
Perino: I’m not going to comment on it at all. This could be a really short briefing.
Q: Has anybody from the White House spoken to anybody from Syria?
Perino: I don’t know. I don’t know.
Q: Let me ask you this one: You have another government making claims. At some point, you either have to confirm or deny the claims they’re making, no?
Perino: Jim, all I can tell you is that I am not able to comment on reports about this reported incident, and I’m not going to do so. You can come up here and try to beat it out of me, but I will not be commenting on this in any way, shape or form today. Or tomorrow.
Q: What about another agency, nobody — if it comes, it’s going to come from here, and so it’s not going to — nothing is going to come out of this?
Perino: I don’t believe anybody is commenting on this at all.
Q: Dana, why can’t you comment? Is it a reason for national security, or is it political? I mean, why —
Perino: To give you an answer to that would be commenting in some way on it, and I’m not going to do it.
Q: But, I mean, Dana, you can’t give us anything? I mean, this is a major issue —
Q: This is a major issue —
Perino: I understand the reports are serious, but it’s not something I’m going to comment on in any way. [VIA]
Meanwhile here in Damascus we read the news and wait. A cab driver yesterday, after two of us told him when asked that yes, we were American, was not confrontational. He cackled a bit, tinging his critiques of toppling Saddam and stealing oil with sarcasm and dark humor. Like so many people here, he asked us what was wrong with our government. What was Bush doing? Why don’t the American people stop him?
“With Reagan, with Clinton, things happened, okay. But never like this. In Iraq, in Palestine, now here in Abu Kamel… this American government will do anything. It will attack everything.”