Saturday, December 19, 2009

Seeds of Conflict

I had my old room back in Damascus. Three beds, second floor in an ancient house that now had about twice as many right angles as it used to. I was looking at a piece of paper in my hand. It was exit tax receipt for five hundred Syrian Pounds-- around $11. On the back was a girl's name where mine should have been. The Syrian authorities had mixed up a few of these when four American passports without visas had come across their desk at the border crossing from Lebanon that morning. I read the name again. A part time firefighter with the Forest Service and a part time freelance writer, she'd written "journalist' as her occupation in her entrance form. Her visa application was denied ("not" the Syrain authorities were quick to tell us "because of her occupation"). I wondered where she and her sister had gone. Lev, a friend I'd met in Syria and re-met in Beirut, and I had gone on after being granted visas about two hours later.

I put away the slip, chucked my bag on my bed and started getting things out. The door opened, and one of my two roommates walked in. He was a quiet, well-dressed guy, about my age, with glasses and a shy smile. I slowly got him to open up. His name was Mohammad, and he was from the UK, studying in Cambridge. Actually he was born in Afghanistan. Actually his family was Iranian, but his mother still lived in Kabul. I asked him if he was asked a lot of the same questions over and over when people found out he was from Afghanistan. He said no, not really. I guess people are too intimidated. He asked me about my interest in the Middle East. I told him that, after the Bush administration, there were a lot of misconceptions about the region floating around the US, and that I thought the best way to combat them was to visit, learn something, and encourage others to do the same. Frankly I'm surprised I got him to talk so much. I got the distinct impression most people never got him past Cambridge.

A few hours later, I was upstairs, chasing a wireless signal for my laptop, I heard an older woman with an American accent come in and ask someone something. She was told that beer was kind of hard to find in Damascus. She said she understood. I heard Lev come in and say something. Turned out they'd both traveled South America. They were still talking about it after I'd gotten my email and left to get something to eat.

The next morning, the breakfast area was quiet. The American woman, whose name I never did catch, was sitting at a center table. I went to say good morning to the lady cooking breakfast, came back, and sat opposite the American woman a seat or two down. We started talking with a simple nod and smile, as Americans tend to do. Turned out she'd been on the road five months longer than I, on a slower and more complete route of Latin America and Europe before coming to the Middle East. She said she loved it and she really hated to go home to the US, but that she'd have to soon.

She'd had kind of a rough time over the last few days though, and was glad to be back in a hostel. She'd come over the border from Lebanon a week or so ago, and hadn't gotten across until past dark. She was nearly seventy years old. I expressed the  disbelief called for and how impressed I was that she was traveling solo. She smiled and said it just meant she didn't much like going on her own into town after dark. A nice Syrian man came up to help her some. What with one thing or another, they ended up figuring out they'd save money by getting an apartment together in town. Nothing romantic about it, they would be on separate floors with separate everything. The police didn't like the idea at all, since they weren't married, but the man had told them she was sick and needed someone looking after her. Possibly palms were greased. In any case, it was permitted.

But the two didn't mix.

"And he was so controlling!" She said. "I'd just be sitting there, and he push food in front of me and say 'Eat.' I told him 'thanks, but I'm not hungry,' and he'd get so pushy! 'Eat! Eat!' he'd say! I mean maybe he can boss some poor Muslim woman around like that, but not an American woman!"

I bit my lip, thinking of my friend Stef's advice about Lebanese culture: 'We show you how much we love you by how much we feed you. You show us how much you love us by how much you eat.' I held my tongue, figuring this woman just needed a sympathetic ear to vent to for a while, uninterrupted.

"The last straw," she continued, " was when I went out late one night. We each had keys, right? So I went to leave after he'd gone to bed. I found his key in the lock on the inside. I took it out and put right next to there on the stairs where he couldn't miss it, and then I left. I come back three hours later, and he's furious because I 'locked him in.' The key was right there, I said, but he just kept yelling and carrying on until finally I said that's it, I'm leaving."

I think this was around the time Mohammad came and quietly sat down to breakfast opposite me, a chair or two down from the woman.

"But that was just the last of a lot of small things. Like there was the time something was wrong with the TV, or so he said, so he cut off the plug with a pair of scissors! I was like, honey, you're going to electrocute yourself, but he went and stripped the wires and stuck the bare ends right into the socket.

"And then there was the praying! These Muslims, they do this five times a day. I'd he'd hear him upstairs yelling, banging on things, carrying on, and I had no idea what he was doing!"

This didn't match up with what I knew of Muslim prayer. It always looked very quiet and subdued to me. The loudest part I could think of was maybe washing up beforehand and rolling out a rug. Face Mecca, run through a few postures like bowing with your hands on you knees or kneeling and touching your forehead to the ground, and quietly say things like "Allah akbar" (God is great).

"Then there was this lady who was the neighbor's-- no he was the neighbor's second wife. Second. The poor thing had to stand in a shop all day, and when she was done go right back into her part of the apartment. Sometimes we'd have her over for dinner and hoo boy did she smell! I mean she must not have bathed! I'd offer her our shower, I'd ask 'would you like to use our shower' and she'd always say no."

I thought about all the perfumes I'd been offered and all the important cleaning rituals I'd seen in the region. This wasn't making sense. Was she exaggerating for sympathy, or was she really meeting outliers? Both? I refrained from interrupting until she'd come back to "these Muslims" and the prayer thing.

"I don't know what he was doing up there, banging away, talking to his God, and maybe his God was talking back to him. I just hoped he wasn't telling him to kill the infidel downstairs!"

"I think that's unlikely." I said, laughing nervously, hoping that was just a joke in bad taste rather than a real fear. My commitment to let her vent uninterrupted broke a few minutes later when she leaned forward and said, conspiratorially,

"You know, these are the people that strap bombs to themselves."

"Whoa, okay," I said, "that's not part of Islam."

"Oh I know" she said "I've seen some of the crazies we've got at home! There's that preacher on TV, whats his name, who is calling for us to drop the Bomb on someone! He thinks we have to start the next world war to bring about the book of Revelations! I mean-"

"Why," Mohammad said slowly, "are you in a Muslim country if you hate its culture?"

"I'm sorry" she said quickly, "I shouldn't have said that."

"No, don't apologize to me. That was extremely rude and offensive, what you just said."

"You're right, I'm sorry I said it."

"I don't care! Why don't you go back to your vulgar American lifestyle."

"I... well, I don't know what to do. I've said I'm sorry, and you won't accept my apology, so I'm sorry." And she left.

Mohammad looked at me, his attitude changing visibly as he remembered that I too came from that 'vulgar American lifestyle.' He quietly apologized. I did as well as I got up, simply asking him to remember that there are 300 million of us, and not all of us are alike."

A couple hours later, Lev and I were outside, heading out to cross another border, this time into Jordan. I told him what happened. He said he'd heard her say a little about how she'd been having a hard time the last couple days, but hadn't gone into specifics. He also said she'd revealed that the reason she had to go back to the US was that she'd just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

I think I learned something that day about where these conflicts come from.


  1. Oy...I can see why you said this was an important post. People get carried away so easily; and it's impossible to unsay what you've said.

  2. Something tells me that the fraction of Muslims who are willing to (or even vaguely in favor of) suicide bombings is a lot smaller than the fraction of Americans who think this is an accepted part of Islam. Which is a very sad state of affairs.

  3. Having just read what I wrote, I meant to say (1) "willing to perform" such that the grammar outside of the () work, and (2) both of these fractions should be zero, and if one of them has to be higher is it probable the one where Americans are being wrong. I simply meant that Americans being wrong is still a very sorry state of affairs, although much less sorry than the violent terrorism that a tiny minority of Muslims engage in.

  4. While her illness may have increased her negative expression, it seems unlikely that all of the attitudes expressed originated with that.

    There are good things we Americans are known for--- generosity and optimism. Unfortunately boorish behavior as depicted in the 1958 novel "The Ugly American" has also been true. I like to think with many more Americans traveling that this has abated somewhat. I was more embarrassed by my fellow Americans in the 70's than I have been in recent travels.

    Of course every culture has bad hosts and bad guests and good hosts and good guests. You've had some wonderful hosts. I am proud that you know how to be an astute observer as well as a respectful guest. ---