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SYRIAN MEMORIES
- Beauties and horrors of difference

On January 30, 2008, a group of scholars working on Gandhi convened in the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. The organizers had in mind a daylong, informal, unstructured, conversation on what aspects of the Mahatma’s legacy were still relevant. I had been invited, and would have gone, except that I had already accepted an invitation to visit Syria in the last week of January. Ahmedabad was a city I knew well and would go back to; but this was my first, and very likely last, chance to see Damascus.

Thus it was that, on the 60th anniversary of the Mahatma’s martyrdom, while my friends were gathered on the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad, I was in the seminar room of the University of Damascus, speaking on Gandhi. I stressed three aspects of his thought in particular. I spoke, first, of his precocious environmentalism, his fear that the emulation by India (and China) of Western patterns of industrialization might, in his words, “strip the world bare like locusts”. I spoke, next, of his remarkable religious pluralism, his lifelong endeavour to build trust and respect between different faith communities, culminating in his last, heroic, walks and fasts for communal harmony in Bengal and Delhi. I spoke, finally, of his techniques of non-violent resistance to unjust authority, which I argued were less harmful and more sustainable than the methods of armed struggle so common in the Middle East.

The audience was composed mostly of university teachers. The environmental argument they did not quite understand. The pluralism argument they understood and endorsed — Syria was one of the few states in the region where religious minorities were not victimized or persecuted. The non-violence argument they emphatically repudiated. How would their brother Palestinians win freedom from the Zionists except through armed resistance? I pointed out that the Palestinians had tried missiles and suicide bombers; all that brought them were more settlements and more army encampments. Had they tried non-violent satyagraha instead, they would have embarrassed the Israelis, and brought world opinion more firmly on their side. My hosts remained unpersuaded; Gandhian methods, they insisted, would not work against the hateful Zionists.

The next day I visited the Umayyad Mosque, one of the oldest and grandest in the world. I admired the pillars, the courtyard, the carpets and the turrets, and then went for a walk in the curving streets that lay behind the mosque. There was a warren of shops selling fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. Goods that were packed or tinned — such as rice, oil, soap, milk, coffee — were all, it seems, manufactured by local companies. There was not a single label that I could recognize. It was like being back in the India of the 1970s, when there were virtually no global brands. But there was, however, a certain non-Syrian presence in this old market behind the Umayyad Mosque. This was the Lebanese leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, whose portrait was everywhere, presumably because his Hizbollah group had just waged a hit-and-run campaign against the Israeli army. The one foreign‘brand’ apparently liked and admired in the Syria of 2008 was of this Shia cleric.

After my walk through the market I turned back for the mosque. I approached it from the west; as I came near, I saw two bearded Orthodox Christian priests, dressed in black, with silver crucifixes across their chests. One of the priests was pointing out the high turrets to his colleague; he wore a look of wonder, admiring the antiquity and solidity of a structure built for and by a faith that was not his own. It was a magical, most revealing, sight; sadly, I had no camera to capture it.

After Damascus I proceeded to Aleppo. There I walked through the town’s souk, as magnificent, and as redolent with history and myth, as the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. A talk had been arranged here too; this time, the audience, which I was told was composed entirely of cadres and office-bearers of the ruling Ba’ath Party, heard me out in stony silence. Afterwards, I made my way back to the capital in an old Turkish train.

I did not write of my visit to Syria at the time. But when the civil war broke out there earlier this year, some memories came back to me. I remembered that on every wall, every turn, I had been met by the unflinching gaze of the country’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad. I had noticed the ban on free speech and intellectual discussion, but also, more curiously, a ban on motorcycles and bicycles on the roads; when I asked about this, I was told that two-wheelers had been used in the past to mount attacks on officials and political rivals. Altogether, of all the countries I had visited this may have had the most hard line, authoritarian, repressive, and paranoid regime.

The Assads, father and son, have been bad for Syria, for the Middle East, and for the world. But there is no saying that what will replace them will be any better. In a recent piece in the New York Times, the Indian writer, Kapil Komireddi — who knows the region well — notes that the opposition to the Assad regime, who call themselves the ‘Free Syrian Army’, are dominantly Sunni, and increasingly Wahhabi. They have little time for Shias and even less time for Christians. Komireddi describes how Syria’s 2.3 million Christians, once safe under the Assads, are now being hounded out of their homes and killed. “The day begins here,” he writes, “with the call to prayer and ends with the roar of gunfire. Syria’s pluralistic society, which once rose above sectarian identity in a region often characterized by a homicidal assertion of religious belief, is now faced with civil disintegration and ethnic cleansing.” The calamities unfolding are architectural as well as human — already, parts of the grand Aleppo souk have gone up in flames in the fighting.

When I visited Damascus and Aleppo in 2008, George W. Bush was still president of the United States of America. Syria had been described by Bush’s regime as part of the “axis of evil”. Americans were forbidden to travel there. As it happened, after I returned from Syria, my next visit overseas was to the US. I had to give a talk at Madison, Wisconsin, for which it made sense to fly in via Chicago. The immigration officer at O’Hare airport took a long, hard look at my passport, then called me out of the queue and placed me in the hands of a superior officer. He, in turn, took me without a word of explanation into a room in the airport’s basement, directed me to a bench, and vanished. I knew at once what the problem was — namely, that the first stamp on my passport was Syrian, for that was the last visa I had acquired and the country I had most recently visited.

After an hour the officer returned, and asked what business I had in the US. I told him the details of the conference I was to address, and also mentioned the titles of my books. He disappeared once more, I supposed to consult Google to confirm these details. I was eventually released, after three hours in the dark: this, in retrospect, a small price to pay for that unforgettable sight of admiring Christian priests outside the west wall of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.