You know when you’re in the car in the summer and you roll up the windows to put the air on, and all the vents are positioned to blast in your direction, but everything needs a minute to actually cool down, so when the air gusts out, it feels like someone is blow drying your face on turbo?
That’s a lot like walking down the street in Doha.
Last night, Christina actually walked out of the sauna and said, “It was great – it was cooler than being outside.” Probably not an exaggeration.
Sorry for the radio silence! We touched down in Doha Monday night, but the wealthiest city we’ve visited – with the most pervasively Western tendencies – is also the hardest place to track down semi-reliable Internet at a reasonable price.
Posts to come soon.
Some perspective, for you and for me.
Since May 2, we have:
– taken four flights on two different airlines
– acquired two new visas
– eaten (or politely disposed of) multiple transit versions of breakfast, lunch and dinner
– slept in five hotels and at least six different rooms
– spent too many hours to count in vans and buses, like this weekend, when we stayed in two major Syrian cities in two days
All those numbers change tomorrow, when we fly to Qatar around 5 p.m. And after four days on the gulf coast, we fly to Boston.
Lookin’ tough at Umayyad Mosque in a culturally appropriate get-up.
Before I start uploading a backlog of posts about our latest Syrian adventures, I should describe my situation. For two reasons. First, because it’s great. And second, because tonight’s events really testify to our group’s intrepid pursuit of the Internet on a global scale.
Katie, Carlene and I needed the web tonight to post stories and entries, but we couldn’t seem to find a single cafe with wireless access in the bucolic suburbs of Homs. Meanwhile, our guide and dear friend, Osama, seemed confident he could deliver us to the Internet. That’s how, after a 20-minute drive and navigational input from Osama, his close friend, his close friend’s family and people on the side of the street, we located a “computer center,” with an uncanny resemblence to how I imagine a stockroom at CompUSA looked in the early ’90s.
When we got here, a kind patron led us through swinging blue doors, tech-saloon style, to a small office with four prehistoric desktop computers and cardboard boxes of office supplies. That’s where I’m typing from.
Point two: Our absolute willingness to go wherever the Internet happened to lead is just one strand in the greater thematic fabric of our trip. We are always searching for the Internet. It is never easy. Not only were we semi-giddy to be en route to any establishment with any degree of web access, but we knew, intuitively, that some bizarre adventure was the prerequisite to finding a place to post.
It’s going to be so weird when I check my e-mail in less than 45 minutes next weekend.
Enormous thanks to Michael Slackman at the New York Times for recognizing our program yesterday in his article “Why Freed Dissidents Pick Path of Most Resistance.” Michael specifically linked to my entry about Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour, who recently revealed plans to finish a well-publicized prison sentence. Nour was jailed in 2004 following a bid for the presidency on an opposition ticket. In February, the National Democratic Party released Nour four months ahead of schedule. Since then, Nour said the government has denied him basic rights, like the ability to open a bank account or practice law.
Thanks again, Michael!
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.
Sorry for the gigantic image (from here), but I want the details to be visible.
When you’re (sort of) living (in a hotel) somewhere, it’s easy to forget your geographical place in a broader sense. But yesterday, after an address from Abdul Fattah Ammoura that focused on seething turmoil in Lebanon, Israel and Iraq, it really struck me: Here, we’re in the political nucleus of the Middle East. We’re pretty well nestled between those three countries, and later this week, we’re driving to Golan Heights – Israeli-occupied territory in the southwest, on the border of the West Bank.
Yet we’re safer than ever. Not least because of the constant presence of government watchdogs. Strange contrast.
My profile on Egyptian musician Mohamed Ragab is up on the main page.
Otherwise, plenty of updates to come – after a day browsing the marketplace.
Not to get all personal or anything, but I’m going to write about my emotions now.
You just can’t intellectualize some things, or even make them sound a little bit smart.
When we landed, my emotions became immediately trivial compared to coping with the logistics of cultural upheaval. You know: international ATM charges, conversion rates, what foods will ruin me, how to cross the street, figuring out when it’s OK to accept a stranger’s help or when trust will translate into a 30-minute tour of Aly Baba’s perfume shop.
But I’m settled now. I can think about personal stuff before bed. (Though I mostly use that time to read Twilight, no joke.) And in the van the other night, we got talking about gushy stuff. I took the opportunity to verbalize this one particular thing I’ve been reflecting on.
Right before I got on the plane at Logan, I experienced this crazy metamorphosis. It wasn’t profound. Pretty anticlimactic, actually. Unplanned, unannounced. I didn’t notice it until recently, even, in retrospect. But since May 2, I’ve been absurdly calm. Quiet inside. Unshakably present. Really, really peaceful and happy.
I can’t find a direct connection between those feelings and this trip. Instead, I’m filing it under “great coincidences,” because, for a generally anxious person, that emotional sea change gave me the chance to sink into my work and surroundings to an invaluable extent.
Egypt helps, too. There’s the inherently meditative quality of walking through a mosque, barefoot. And the city’s policy of zen-by-force: the competing sounds and smells of Cairo will pummel your Western sanity if you don’t mellow out.
And the people are great. They inspire me to take it slow and, as much as I hate to say this, because it’s an unfair luxury of a disconnected American, seeing the way so many Egyptians struggle puts life into perspective.
Finally, I’ve never been this far away from the people I love, which makes me realize, more and more every day, simply having them close is the best thing ever. Details are totally important, but mini points of contention are not.
A lot of things mean more than my narrow definitions of comfort and perfection. For once, that’s comforting unto itself.