Damascus, my eternal city

Tales of Two Cities

“I know this girl and now she’s locked up in Syria. She’s imprisoned by an oppressive regime halfway around the world.” Britta Perry, “Community.”

“What could be more important than strategizing ways to publicize yourself? I don’t know, maybe the banking crisis or what’s going on in Syria …” Dan Humphrey, “Gossip Girl.”

“Local news is the only news I watch. I don’t wanna hear about the Syrian revolution from Bryan Williams. I wanna hear about the Syrian revolution from some Syrian guy who owns a local Dunkin Donuts.” Danny Castellano, “The Mindy Project.”

Last week in my conflict management class, my professor showed us how some class material can be applied to Syria today. She then smiled brightly and said, “Syria is my favorite case these days.” She excitedly started explaining why this is, until her eyes landed on me, sitting in the front row and staring at her, at which point she trailed off and hastily changed the subject.

Every political science class I’m enrolled in this semester brought up Syria at least twice, what with it being the new hot topic these days. My first class in conflict management was wholly dedicated to the Syrian “case study.” I listened to political science students analyze and dissect the war, each with the deep conviction that his or her strategies are capable of solving the Syrian crisis. I watched the projector dwarf each thousand refugees into a dot that could be plotted on the graph in front of us. I heard the names of people I know be wiped out and instead be bunched up in statistics and numbers.

It was possibly the most difficult class I have ever sat through.

When I first moved to Berkeley, barely anyone knew where Syria was. I quickly learned to clarify this by saying, “I’m from Syria … which is in the Middle East” to spare others the embarrassment of asking me where that unheard-of country was. My senses were heightened to any kind of Arabic I heard around me or mentions of Syria when I first moved here, making the spike in conversations about Syria around March 2011 especially noticeable to me.

Now it’s difficult to step into a cafe and not overhear at least one group mention it. Now, whenever I mention I’m from Syria, I get sympathetic looks and saddened head tilts rather than confused faces.

Syria is currently riddled with war criminals, Islamic extremists and internally displaced peoples. The United Nations declared it the most dangerous place in the world in 2012. Massacres are numerous, and so are pictures of piles of dead children, whether shot down, bombed or gassed. But that’s not the Syria I remember and love.

Having lived there for most of my life, Damascus is where my brain wanders to when I think of Syria. Its winding streets and old buildings, its old markets and ancient mosques and its vast imposing mountain mix together to paint the familiar picture of home. It is said that our prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, reached the mountain and looked down on Damascus for the first time. He said man could enter only one paradise, and he preferred to go to the one above, so he sat down and filled his eyes with the earthly paradise that is Damascus, then left without entering its gates. Mark Twain, captivated by Damascus’ grandeur, wrote, “Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies. Though another claims the name, old Damascus is by right the Eternal City.”

As eternal as Mark Twain may deem it, Damascus cannot withstand any more fighting. So much blood has seeped into Syria’s ground that I’m surprised the land itself has not started bleeding.

I understand Syria is being studied from a political science perspective in my classes, but I wish that instead of projecting graphs and lists on my Barrows classroom, I could put up a picture of the woman I watched cross into the freed parts of northern Syria after having been politically exiled for decades. She promptly fell on her knees, crying and grabbing on to her estranged land. Or the picture of a doctor who choked on his words from crying hysterically as he tried to explain how he was trying to treat the infected children after a chemical attack.

It pains me that Syria is seen only through the lens of war and political strategies. I don’t know what it’s like to know about Syria only from that angle, because to me it has always been home. A British photographer once told me he had never seen a people love their land as much as Syrians love theirs. And although the probability of Syria going back to its former state is very slim, that’s the Syria I will forever preserve in my memory.

Sarah Dadouch writes the Friday column on global perspectives of Berkeley. You can contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @SarahDadouch.