Danielle Capalbo’s Blog

Talking heads

Posted in Cultural differences, Encounters, General Updates, Miscellaneous by Quiet Giant on May 28, 2009

In a couple of hours, we’ll meet the Syrian Minister of Information. Pretty incredible, but I’ve got a hunch it’ll seem familiar.

Since Monday, we’ve had unique access to a staggering number of high-ranking officials. Different people from different departments. Sort of.

They’ve all had the same stunning gift for sidestepping (or bulldozing, really) critical questions, and ultimately, they’ve all delivered the same carefully packaged, quality-controlled message about their country – from the minister of Foreign Affairs to the minister of Higher Education. Even the president of Damascus University eschewed real answers for aggressively one-sided fast-facts about the Syrian Accountability Act (SAA) and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s like there’s a short list of really specific statistics embedded in the collective consciousness.

But I’m glad we met them. Otherwise, I wouldn’t believe the extent of this government’s concerted effort to appear functional and wrongfully vilified.

It’s mesmerizing, how precisely the Syrian political machine controls its image. Every morsel of information we consume, anywhere – from government buildings to our own tour bus – is shaped and delivered by someone with ties to the government.

Nick put it pretty well:

I didn’t take this trip to ask ministers to elaborate on a public relations pitch. There’s this notion among some of us that we have to evoke quiet respect and adoration, as these same Syrian authorities are our host. But I call bullshit! … I take warnings that we’re being watched as reason to give them something to see!

It’s important to recognize our nation’s faults. Like the SAA. I’m opposed to sanctions on principle, because they disproportionately affect the wrong people. One well-recycled talking point here does actually move me: Because no imports to Syria can be comprised of more than 10 percent American parts, hospitals lack crucial equipment and medicines, and schools across the country struggle to update their technology systems. Not to mention, America erected this embargo in 2003 for all the wrong reasons. Weapons of mass destruction? Nope. Supporting terrorism? No one here perceives Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

But it’s not like Syria is just really misunderstood. Things have to change here, even for the sake of honoring basic human rights.

And the notion that we’re playing into these officials’ hands – setting them up to wax rhetoric on the SAA’s impact without asking about its origins – is especially scary since we have the unusual benefit of getting to ask questions in the first place. Myself included, some of us started to drink the super-strong Kool-Aid without tempering the information we receive. The stories are loaded, aggressive and compelling. So, that’s part of it. But maybe it’s also because we yearn to seem human here. To show these people we didn’t support our last administration’s bizarro agenda. We compassionately yearn to say sorry – to apologize for the way our country has misrepresented Arab citizens.

But we don’t owe that apology to this government.

Anyways. This blog’s been a little heavy as I try to make sense of the schism between appearance and reality. Sorry about that.


3 Responses

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  1. Nancy said, on May 28, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Great post Dani!

  2. Padre A said, on May 28, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Regardless of the controlled reality.. you guys are seeing it and being educated by it’s existance. Now, get the hell out of there!

  3. Jeanne Mendez said, on May 30, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Yet another fantastic post, Dani. You’re all seeing a glimpse of how complicated international affairs can be — there is no black and white. Just shades of grey – some much darker than others. It is ironic that the flaws of our own government in the recent past (and of course even in the present) make young, open-minded, idealistic Americans try harder to give the benefit of the doubt to the other sides’ arguments. And of course it is indicative that those same flaws can lead others from different backgrounds and environments to resort to “terrorism”. Important lessons.

    Thanks for finding those internet hideaways!


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