The man in the Damascus shop who sold me the best falafel I ever ate told me he liked George Bush, and was glad that Bush president and invaded Iraq.“Iraqis are free,” he said, “No more Saddam.“Sure, I said, but what about the dead?
25 Pounds, he said, as the first Syrian who I heard liked Bush handed me my food. I forked over my 50 cents worth of coins and walked east on Sha’ia Mousalem Al-Baroudi, towards the medina, the oldest part of the oldest city known to mankind.Mark Twain visited here, and in 1869’s Innocents Abroad, he wrote: “Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus… She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.“The ancient walls of the Souk tower over the modern city’s bustling streets. Inside the covered marketplace, beams of sunlight sneak through holes in the arched roof and illuminate the wall to wall people. People – 30 deep, coming and going – pore over small stalls selling leather bags, clothes, wedding dresses, sheets, silks, carpets, chess boards, tea and more.Small girls push carts selling sesame and nougat treats. A man hawks handbags that he held in his arms, down his biceps, elbows, forearms and wrists, his hands locked so as not to let the bags fall out.Whether you’re in the new city or the medina, you can’t escape carts that peddle sweets from bushel size buckets: pistachios, candied dates, garlands of figs, fluorescent sugar snacks. Fruit vendors offer star fruit, watermelons, bananas, and fresh orange juice served on blocks of ice. This place is a gourmand’s dream.One ice cream store hangs three pictures of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in its window. The two on the flanks feature Bashar in the standard military outfit, while in the center one, Al-Assad sits on the sofa with a bearded man in a turban, who looks a little like Moqtada Al-Sadr.I spied a man smoking a cigarette in front of the shop, pacing in the chaos like he was important. I asked if he knew English – a little, he said. I showed him the picture, pointed to Al-Assad and said his name, then pointed to the man on the sofa and shrugged my shoulders.Oh, he said, Hasan Nas’Ralah.Assad, Syria, I said. Assan, and I shrugged my shoulders again.Hezbollah, he replied.Chukran, I said, thinking that the word itself sounds like a bomb, gritty and ready to go “Boom,” taking with it dozens of Marines in Beirut in 1982. The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization because the American point of view does not allow for legitimate armed resistance against Israel and her allies.Yet Damascus is one of the safest places I’ve ever been, one of the safest cities in the world. Aside from the obvious police presence on every street corner, 20 years ago, dictator Hafez Al-Assad eliminated any opposition when he ruthlessly attacked his fundamentalist opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood, also in 1982.His troops massacred more than 20,000 men, women, and children in his attempts to eradicate the right-wing zealots, which were based in Hama, just north of Damascus.Weaving my way through the marketplace, I stopped in a carpet store. Rugs here are much cheaper than in Turkey, and the dealers do not push themselves on you. I will add one or two to my collection, for sure.Hassan sold me a Persian and thanked me for being a journalist. He appreciated my job in relationship to Syrian-American relations. His assistant, Ahmed, is 19 and tomorrow will join the Syrian Army for a mandatory two-year enlistment. He seemed okay with it.Of all the soldiers I’ve seen, and there are tons, I’ve encountered no women in uniform. Men hold most public positions – cabbies, shop keepers, cooks, cops, hoteliers, truck drivers, janitors.The only jobs I have seen women hold are farming, clerking (bank teller, postal worker, etc.), waitressing, or housekeeping. You know what a women dressed in a black veil and gown and lugging a baby in her arms or driving a stroller does.It is so stinking hot here, I barely fathom that people wear pants, forget the suffering that must accompany wearing black from head to toe. I have an inkling, and it wasn’t pleasant.On my trip to Abu Kamal, I wore blue jeans. We stopped at some Roman ruins in the mid-afternoon heat. Within 10 minutes, I thought my thighs would fry. I couldn’t run because it was so dry and toasty, but I hurried to the shade.“We don’t want other men to look at our women,” a dentist I interviewed said. He explained that women have plenty of rights, that when he was in the army, his commanding officer was a woman.Besides, the dentist said, women control domestic life, and that, he claimed, often leaves men crying for mercy.Some women in Damascus are more cosmopolitan than those in the Syrian hinterlands. About a third eschew the head scarf, and dress western, in tight jeans or slacks and shirts that show their curves. Another smaller portion dress western, but wear head scarves.Both those categories look positively provocative compared to the half of the females who don the traditional black veils and gowns. The women must boil in the black veils and gowns. If it seems oppressive, that’s not the worst of it.In the mosques, women sit in the back, men pray up front. On the buses, women don’t disembark until all the men exit. Women don’t talk unless spoken too, and will not address a stranger. Eye contact is avoided on streets.They walk behind men, and if you surveyed the streets, there seem to be many many more males than females out in public. This is true in Damascus, and even more apparent out in the eastern province of Deir Ez-Zor.What’s crazy, too, is that in Deir and Abu Kamal, every woman wore the black, and it is so much hotter there than Damascus.It’s funny, because in the Harper’s that I read on the plane to Damascus, the editors described a scenario where a U.S. professor at a women’s studies department advocated violent overthrow – regime change – for this kind of oppression against women.Syria, America’s sworn enemy, seems liberated territory for women compared to our allies like Saudi Arabia.But who am I to judge? This city is a must visit. It is far dirtier than dangerous. In fact, the whole country is dirty, not just because it is a desert. Garbage flows everywhere. Litter and trash piles are everywhere.“We are Arabs,” my interpreter said when he dropped his soda can out the car window. A few state employees patrol the streets with brooms and dustpans, but mostly, it’s a mess.Some shopkeepers sweep their sidewalks. I prefer that to when they hose and squeegee the sidewalks, because a wretched stench accompanies the water. Potable water and water pollution, like the nasty little stream inside the medina, are another story.It doesn’t matter, because the dirt accumulates rapidly. And I think the lax auto emissions standards contribute to particulate. Standing on top of the mountain north of Damascus, watching the sunset, you can see the brown haze settle over the city.Auto safety standards seem archaic, too, in Ralph Nader’s homeland. Ralph is Lebanese and he speaks a perfect Arabic. I wish he could convince people to wear the seat belts he advocated so strongly for.Cabbies and drivers show consideration with horns, but in Istanbul, Liz and I watched a mini van barely hit a pedestrian – a woman dressed in black – and as she backed away from the driver’s side window where her body made contact, the driver reached out and whacked her in the noodle.I suppose when countries like Syria and Turkey suffer intense poverty, pedestrian accommodations sit lower on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.Next, I go to the Ministry of Information for my interview with the Minister of Foreign Media Affairs.