Suicide Bombers, Iraqi Insurgents, and Jello Shots

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

If you have been following the international news (and I know some of you do), you might have heard about the attempted suicide bombing attack on the American embassy yesterday. Three of four attackers were killed, and one Syria guard. Fortunately they were not able to set off their explosives, two vehicles full, that if they had detonated, would have been incredibly powerful. Well, that took place about two blocks from where I am staying. I actually slept through the grenade attacks and machine gun battles that took place (Hey, I've been sick). I walked by the embassy today around lunch time; as you might expect there were a lot of uniformed and plainclothes people walking around carrying machine guns and giving everyone the eye. It seems it was not specifically linked to Al Qaeda, although just the day before Al Qaeda gave a warning about attacks in the Middle East on American interests. It looks like it was a home grown outfit, but they are still investigating.

It's been interesting watching the fallout of this. The States have actually been very publicly thankful to Syria - after all, they prevented the bombs from being set off, and lost one of their own soldiers doing so. This is somewhat in contrast to the US recent position on Syria, which has been to label them a terrorist harbouring, and sponsoring country, one branch away from the "axis of evil". How long this good will last should be interesting.

Again, I'm struck by the seeming disconnect between the people I've been meeting and these kinds of acts. I guess that is the point - the people I've been meeting aren't the type of people doing these attacks. The militant Islamists seem to have more to do with, say, militant Conservative Christians who shoot abortion performing doctors, or Timothy McVeigh types than the everyday, average Muslims I've met. The type of Islam to which I have been exposed to so far has been benign, gentle, intelligent, peaceful, and poignant. Most people just seem to want to live their lives - selling in shops, sitting in cafes, living life. If anything, there is often a sense of fraternity and care for others that seems occasionally lacking in the staunchly individual West. Granted they are quite rabidly anti-Israel (although it can be argued that both sides bear some blame on that front), and I admit I have some issues with the roles and rights of woman, but overall, there is a culture of hospitality and friendliness here that is all pervading and very powerful.

Damascus claims to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world (contested by Aleppo in the north), with evidence of human habitation going back over 11,000 years. My third day in Damascus I fiulnally got into thte old town, only to spend most of the afternoon and early evening with an Iraqi guyt about my own age. He was from Mosul in the north-west of Iraq, near the Kurdish zone. He said he had come to get away from the isanaity for a while. He talked about the situation in Iraq from a very personal, very real perspective. He spoke about seeing bodies in the streets on almost a daily basis, killed by both insurgent and U.S. forces. He said his girlfriend had been killed, but by whom - insurgent forces, U.S. soldiers, or outside terrorist groups - no one knew. This is someone who is living the headlines we skim over in the morning paper, or that get in a 30 second sound bite on the evening news.

I asked him what he thought needed to happen in Iraq. His answer was surprising. He said to bring back Saddam Hussein (which ironically, as I write this 2 months later was just sentenced to death by the Iraqi court trying him for murder). He said Saddam was a very bad man and that many people had died when he was in power, but that he was strong and Iraqi people respected and reacted to that. He said while some people were educated enough to understand and appreciate democracy, most did not understand nor respect it. He said people would throw garbage in the streets or do any number of petty acts, and when confronted about it would say it was freedom and they could do as they pleased. He said democracy just did not work in this part of the world; maybe in 100 years, but not now.

From there the conversation took a strange turn. The talk turned to women (don't ask me how), and led to a discussion of whether I thought Syria women were beautiful. I answered that those I could see (meaning those not wearing full chador and veil) were often very beautiful. He somewhat scorned them, saying most women in Iraq did not wear the veil. I went to mention that in my travels around the world, I had found beautiful from all countries and races. He then went to utter a number of comments that were incredibly racist, against African women, and black Africans in general. The absurdity and ignorance of his statements completely bewildered me, especially in light of the intelligence and equilibrium he had shown on the other topics we had discussed. The one thing going through my mind was this - here is a 30 year old, male, Iraqi Muslim from one the most unstable areas in Iraq, one of the most unstable countries in the world. In the West, there could not be a better poster child for the perception of a terrorist. Anywhere in the western world, there is probably no other group at this moment suffering more from racism and prejudice, and yet, despite this, he was one of the most blatantly racist people I had ever met. If anyone might be sensitive to the unfair and unfounded claims of racism, I thought he might. I guess not.

Thursday night was Jennifer's (one of the teachers from Dana's school) birthday. I was invited to the party - a vodka Jello shot party. After some jello related debauchery, a group of us ended up in a Syrian nightclub dancing for most of the night. All in all, it was a very entertaining evening.

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