I lived in Syria from 1995 to1999.
And I truly believed there was going to be peace in the Middle East, and soon.
Yitzhak Rabin had negotiated a treaty with Yasir Arafat and the PLO, while Jordan recognized Israel’s right to exist just before I moved there.
On more than one occasion, we saw the United States’ Middle Eastern envoy Dennis Ross’ convoy rushing towards President Hafez al-Assad’s residency, hoping to finalize peace between Syria and Israel and return the Golan Heights to Syria
Naively, I assumed peace would be followed by a more open society.
As I look back, I’m reminded of the scene in The Perfect Storm when George Clooney’s boat is being thrashed around, but for a moment there is hope – a beam of sunlight shines through, and the seas calm…but only for a moment. As an expat I saw things differently, and thought there was hope, but that ray of sunlight was never seen by the locals.
In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood was crushed by the government after a few years of working against al-Assad.
It is estimated that over ten thousand died in the siege at Hama, but no one is sure – the bodies are buried under a hotel and its parking lot with no mention of the events from forty-one years ago.
While I was there, Syrians were subject to harassment, wiretapping, informants, and other methods of police state enforcement.
I attended a wedding for the sister of an colleague of mine – the groom spent years behind bars for being a communist. Another Syrian told me of going to the polls and voting for someone else other than Hafez. They were questioned before they left the polling station, and when they admitted they “may have made a mistake”, the guard nodded, said they’d rectified it, and to “make sure it didn’t happen again”.
That year, Hafez al-Assad was reelected with 99.9% of the vote, and a 99.1% turnout.
Obviously, he was quite the popular president.
For the first part of my time in Damascus, I was oblivious to the issues an average citizen had to deal with – Syrians were invited to join us at embassy bars (a complete no-no), went to our parties, and blended into a very Western community within the conservative Arab town.
Unfortunately, there were some informants as well, and we didn’t know who they were.
When midnight struck at the Vicars and Tarts party, myself and another host got on stage and welcomed the crowd, then offered a few acts of entertainment: five Australian backpacking girls (dressed as the Spice Girls) engaged in a contest involving some bananas. The headmaster of the British elementary school read “The Gospel According to St Mark”, a spoof honoring myself and the other host.
I then took the stage dressed as a monk (hood, robe, rope belt and pouch for my ID), and told the guests they were living in sin.
“Look at all of you sinners!
You drink too much, smoke too much, dance too provocatively, and allow yourself impure thoughts!
You have allowed sin into your heart!
You have allowed the DEVIL INSIDE!!!”
At which point the DJ played the INXS song and I took my clothes off, revealing a T-shirt, devil’s horns, a red tail and shorts. A few minutes later, I was down to the horns, tail and a Speedo.
There was more debauchery taking place elsewhere in the party: the bed on top of the apartment, the elevator of the apartment building, and in the window off to the side of one of the bars…and in the bathroom was a Marine and a Syrian.
Neither was female.
In February of 1994, the Clinton Administration established the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for the armed forces.
In a way it was a step forward for the military, but there was no such thing for the local Syrian – homosexuality was illegal, and those who committed it were subject to three years’ imprisonment and (most likely) beatings and torture.
I stayed at the party until the last guests left around 5 am, fell asleep for a few hours, then wandered back to my place. That afternoon, word spread quickly about the two men in the bathroom, breaking the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. By Monday morning, the Marine was no longer posted at the embassy; the remaining Marines under strict instructions not to discuss what had occurred.
The Syrian had been a frequent visitor to the embassy bars and a part of our expatriate community, where he could be himself, but no more – someone at the party had noticed.
We never saw him again.
The last four months of my stay in Damascus were weird.
The British Embassy closed its location just a few buildings away from my apartment, and opened a new one closer to the embassy, with strict rules of entry.
The American and Canadian bars were more often closed than not; I don’t think any of us visited the Czech or German bars after it.
We’d gone too far, and we became more isolated from the country we lived in.
Over those last few months I would wander into the Old City (something I hadn’t done at all before) to hang out with an acquaintance of mine Hani, who was building a new restaurant – we’d have tea, talk in limited Arabic and dream about a brighter future for Syria. The ray of sunlight, amidst the Perfect Storm.
It never happened. Not that I would’ve been around to see it.
After all, I had four months left in Damascus
…even though my contract was for six months.
…to be continued…
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