Life in the Ruins

deknatel_lifeintheruins_ba_img_0How the destruction of architectural treasures became a weapon in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

Assad’s staging of a soft-focus victory lap in Krak des Chevaliers represented more than a culture war unfolding in the civil war’s cross-fire. Targeting historic architecture for destruction or co-opting it for propaganda exercises are both regime tactics, to be added to an arsenal that also includes barrel bombs—metal drums filled with explosives and shrapnel and dropped from helicopters onto rebel-held territory. Many of the bombs fall on Aleppo, whose covered medieval markets were burned by regime forces in 2012. “That was totally punitive,” Amr al-Azm, an archaeologist and member of the Syrian opposition who teaches history at Shawnee State University in Ohio, told me. “When Aleppo rose up, the regime had constantly reminded and threatened the city’s merchant classes that if they did not control their local population—if they did not support suppressing any protest and the city was allowed to become a hotbed of demonstrations—there would be a great price to pay.”

As a warning in 2011, al-Azm said, the regime sent tanks into the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, on the Euphrates River, which has close commercial and cultural ties with Aleppo, and besieged it. “If you want to make a demonstration of force without destroying Aleppo itself, burning the commercial center of Deir ez-Zor would be a good way to remind the people of Aleppo: ‘This is what I will do to you if you also start protesting.’” When the protests finally took off there in 2012, “the regime burnt the souks down—wanton destruction just for the sake of destruction.”

It was only the start. When the eleventh-century minaret of Aleppo’s grand Umayyad Mosque collapsed from a mortar strike in April 2013, the Syrian government and the rebels traded accusations over who was to blame. Satellite images show that a corner of the mosque’s rectangular courtyard is missing. Where the minaret stood, there is only a pile of stones. But as Diana Darke states in her memoir, My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, much of the destruction of Aleppo’s mosque involved strategic terror tactics focused on symbolic and historic places. “Before leaving, the regime soldiers scrawled the same chilling graffiti on the mosque’s water dispenser that was starting to appear all over the country,” Darke writes, “Al-Assad aw nahriqhu, ‘Assad, or we will burn it.’”

Read the rest at The Nation.

A Syria Roadtrip

An Indian, a Croatian, and an American were lost, barreling through villages in northern Syria.

“Peace be upon you! Sir, is this the road to al-Ghab, to Apamea?” Ali asked a bearded man on a motorcycle.

Even though Ali hailed from India, people often considered him Arab — khaleeji, from the Gulf.

The bearded man stopped, shook his head, and said to follow him. “Up this hill, my friends, is the shrine of Job.”

The Faster Times has just published a long Syrian road story of mine, based on a memorable cruise around the country with two close comrades. Read the rest here. The photo is of the rental Kia on the trip, dusty from the sands of Deir az-Zor and elsewhere. The photo is somewhere between Serjilla and the Ghab, probably near al-Bara.



I sat in a backseat with two older women, muhajabas. We talked about the sea and language. I probably communicated the hardness of accents and grammar and agreement, but at least I said or should have said that I love the sea, as they said ‘But there is no sea (there).’ Up the road, across the anti hills not really mountains, and down to the oasis that has dried up: concrete. But the olive trees (are they olive trees?) or the shrubs at least, along the road, they scarlet in fall.


Obama apparel and opinions

They’re selling Obama T-shirts at the knick-knack tourist shops on Qaimaria in the Old City now. Alongside grey “University of Damascus” tees (“since 1923”) and tees with the Iraqi flag now hang red tees and white tees and blue tees with Obama in raised white lettering across the front, in Arabic and English. They’re hot commodities, and the vendor who otherwise sells overpriced scarves must know the value of the shirts: he’s charging 450 Syrian lire now, almost 10 dollars. A friend on his way of the country bit the bullet and bought a few; a good welcome-home gift from Sham for friends in America. The shirts might say something about Obama’s popularity here; wearing his white and blue Obama tee, my friend was the target of plenty of warm hellos and congratulations in Damascus and especially over the weekend in Beirut. Every news stand from here to there is plastered with magazine and newspaper covers of Obama’s serious or beaming face (okay, they’re more numerous in Beirut). There were slurred high fives from night-lifers in Lebanon Saturday night, offering the typical line of Bush destroying America’s standing but Obama offering more than superficial redemption. One bartender said Obama’s election was the first time that he thought Americans had finally “made the right decision.”

“I’ve been following the news in the States since the early 1990s, since the first Gulf war. And I’ve been following the NBA.”

His dream was to move to LA and finally see a live game.

“I love the NBA, the Lakers, Kobe, Shaquille O’Neal. He plays where now? Arizona?”

“Yea, Phoenix.”

“Ah, the Suns.”

“What about the Celtics?” I had to ask. My brother scored season tickets high up near the roof of the new Garden last year just before the playoffs. We took in a few Celtics drubbings although both of us missed Game 7.

“I hate Larry Bird. I hate the Celtics. I follow the NBA for a long time: Jordan, Magic Johnson, Dr. J. But I hate Larry Bird.”

I didn’t argue, took another sip of my drink. At least he liked Obama, and here, now, in our time, isn’t that what matters?

“As if on cue..”

What I wrote from an email exchange with Josh Landis on Graham Bowley’s ridiculous Times story:

“This Times story was a crock. the protest was government-orchestrated — university students and working people were encouraged or even shooed into the Square and it dispersed pretty quickly. No surprises. But the tone of the article disregards any Syrian grievances. Bowley’s last article was filed from New York, he’s cribbing off of the AP and BBC reporters here and projecting his weirdly aggressive bias thousands of miles away, based on the anonymous US officials’ story.

Large scale popular protests may not be permitted… a fact of politics here… but that doesn’t mean people aren’t anrgy over the raid. I haven’t talked to a cab driver here who thinks the family in Abu Kamel was connected to this shadowy Iraqi smuggler. People are genuinely angry: their country was invaded. Why would the Times doubt that?

Bowley seems to delight in scorning Syria; the government and the people, whose anger is somehow illegitimate because their protest was “apparently stage-managed by the government.” Maybe Bowley, like BBC’s Paul Wood, should actually go to Deir az-Zur, to Abu Kamel, and interview people. He’d hear outrage and the widely held view here that the Americans killed civilians. He might even interview some of the wounded, or the relatives. But it’s a story the Times doesn’t want, so they don”t send their reporter.

Why is it that all of the articles about Syria this week in the Times are filed from the States or from Baghdad? As you wrote, where is Robert Worth? Damascus is no so far from Beirut.”

What will shut down

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 —

Perino: Nothing.

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.”