Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Spare a thought for those Syrians in their expensive cars as they drive to and from Beirut every time the tensions rack up. I mean how bad must it be for them to have to inconvenience their lovely mundane lives in the well protected posh districts of Damascus and come face to face with the kind of Syrians that they have spent the last forty years ignoring. That’s right, you know who I am talking about. I’m talking about the small people who have cleaned your houses, washed your cars, delivered your groceries and are the unwitting subjects of your mediocre photographic skills and nostalgic writings. Yes, those Syrians, the ones that don’t have enough money to drive straight through the Masnaa’ crossing area and have to squat down in the sun whilst the Lebanese border guards beat them with hoses to keep everybody in line.

Your Syria is the Syria of jasmine and cardamom, of “mosaics” and thousand year old temples built by long dead civilizations that have nothing to do with you. Their Syria is of shanty towns, plastic, and diesel fumes. You don’t know this, but Syrians are the Mexicans of Lebanon. They squat and stand at the street corners waiting for somebody to drive by in the pick up and hire a bunch of them to clean out his backyard or do some other menial work. But your nostrils only flare with indignation when you are the one discriminated against, when your visa gets turned down or your promotion is delayed. Only then do you make up the myth that the reason Syrians are despised is because out of all the Arab nationalities it is the Syrians that refuse to bow. Well I have news for you Mr Proud Syrian who won’t bow. We have been bowing for forty years whilst you sipped your black coffee on the balcony in Damascus and wrote your bad poetry – and we will still bow because Syrians have always been treated like dirt in their own country. You just didn’t notice because you were able to pay a bribe not to bow, at least not physically.

I have other news for you. The Damascus you think is the centre of the universe is actually an insignificant speck that nobody had heard of until the revolution showed the whole world our warts and dirty laundry. Nobody cares about what Mark Twain said of Damascus, or about the socialites who stopped by this or that place. You were a quaint little stopover that they forgot about as soon as they left, remembered more because people wanted to preserve everything they said than because what they said about your city was important. If you dig down deep enough you aren’t even from this city. Nobody really is. It’s been raped and pillaged so many times in history that you’re really just the descendant of rural labourers who now has the luxury of despising the newer rural labourers moving into the capital. And you don’t even see the irony in all this.

Didn’t you just love when you could sit with those foreigners as an equal in Bab Touma and talk about politics, art and society? About how Syria is the land of churches and minarets, about our lovely tolerance and how we were urbane Levantines in the “oldest continuously inhabited city in the world” with a five thousand year history? Did you ever realise that your entire life was about taking credit for what others have done? It never struck you as odd that you and everybody else around you could only exist because your parents had connections and money, and you never thought it odd that whatever you did, if you were unlucky to have just that Syrian passport that you are so proud of, you would have only found work in the family business? No, that wasn’t odd at all? Strange perhaps? How silly of me, of course it wasn’t when that was all you ever knew. You might have gone abroad to study and seen a bit of the world, but you came right back to that safe little world, because deep down you were scared of getting out there on your own.

Then your chest would burst with pride at your “British educated” first lady while she treated the entire country like one giant fashion accessory. You’d talk about the “Doctor” and about his wisdom and humility, about how he would walk into the restaurants and mingle with the normal people. When somebody mentioned Syria you would always say “We”, and you never thought for an instant, you poor soul, that it was never a “We”, just a “Them”. You were an accessory to fit into their little doll house of a Syria that was a “mosaic”. Their Syria was a quaint little place to be mentioned in a travel brochure. A country that you were taught from a young age to have a manifest destiny, just like every other joke of an Arab state around us. Maybe that’s why Arab governments hate each other so much? They see in each other the frauds that they have become.

So I’m sorry about your jasmine and your magically long Damascus nights. About the cool aniseed drinks and skewers of kebabs. The religious tolerance and the mosaic of cultures that you could show off to the world as if it were your own. I’m also sorry you never saw the shanty towns, the desperate people sitting in crowds outside of government hospitals waiting to be treated or for their loved ones, the queues for bread and government handouts, the girl selling chewing gum at the traffic lights, or the young labourers who had to leave their drought ridden villages and become casual labourers in Lebanon. Maybe if you saw all of that before the revolution started then you might have stopped and thought a little bit about why you were living and why things were the way they were.