Thursday, 21 May 2015

Snapshots from my visit to Palmyra in 2008

The month I spent in Syria was one of the highlights of my most recent trip around the world in 2007-2008.

[We spent an entire day exploring the Roman city of Palmyra, most of the time without a single other person in sight.]

There were bureaucratic hassles, but these were caused more by the US than the Syrian government. US financial sanctions against the Syrian government, which made travel to Syria difficult for US citizens, predated the current civil war in Syria. Our bank went even further than was required by the US government (and probably further than was legal) to retaliate against us for having legally travelled to, and legally spent money in, Syria.

But the measure of pleasure in my visit to Syria wasn’t how I was treated by border guards, visa officers, or banks. As was also the case in Yemen, the attitude I met on the street, in shops, in the hammams (bathhouses) and in other places in Syria was, “We hate the people who rule us. You probably hate the people who rule you. Why should we care if Assad hates Bush, and vice versa? You are our guests. We love Americans. Please be our friends!”

Communications are difficult (and, with the secret police watching, potentially dangerous) through the great firewall of Syria, and I neither speak nor read any Arabic. People spoke more-or-less freely with me, but usually without giving their names. I haven’t kept in touch with any of the people I met in Syria, and I don’t know how many of them are dead or alive, homeless or displaced.

As for the places we visited in Syria, I know that many of them are no more, or are only remnants of what they were just a few years ago.

All five of the World Heritage Sites we visited in Syria have been substantially damaged by the fighting. None of the factions or foreign intervenors in the Syrian civil war (including the USA and its proxies) have spared these places any more than they have spared human life: the covered souks and grand mosques and minarets of Damascus and Aleppo, the Roman amphitheater at Basra, the Krak des Chevaliers (originally a Crusader castle, where I celebrated my birthday while snow fell on the cedars of Lebanon, and which has been used again in the current war as a fortified hilltop gun emplacement), and last but not least, the Roman provincial capital city of Palmyra in the inland desert of central Syria.

[The Roman structure on the butte-like hill in the background has been conspicuously visible as a fortified high point and source and target of shelling in recent news images of the fighting in Palmyra.]

I’ve seen the depressing toll that war takes on cultural treasures before: in Amritsar five years after Indira Gandhi ordered a tank assault on the Golden Temple, and in Hue, where the central palaces and temples of Vietnam’s Forbidden City and historic capital were destroyed by US and allied forces during the reconquest of the city after the Tet offensive in 1968.

Palmyra is a remarkable place — one of those where the sometimes-arbitrary designation, “world heritage site”, actually seems appropriate. It’s unique and irreplaceable.

But human lives, it should go without saying, are also unique and irreplaceable.

I find it disturbing when people seem more concerned about what is going to happen to the stone column of ancient Palmyra than about what is going to happen to its present-day inhabitants. The headline about the fighting in Palmyra in today’s Los Angeles Times, for examples, mentions the “Fabled ruins, artifacts of Palmyra, Syria” but says nothing about people. The first four paragraphs discuss threats to museums, artifacts, ruins, and statues. The human death toll isn’t mentioned until paragraph five.

[This man arrived at the long-distance bus depot in Palmyra while we were waiting for our bus to Homs. The sheep — legs trussed but alive and shitting — was loaded into the luggage compartment of another bus as unaccompanied cargo.]

As in any foreign war, it’s easier to say I care about the people I met in Palmyra, or about people I’ve never met in places I’ve never visited, than to figure out how to translate my concern into action.

[We met these boys at the top of the hill overlooking the Roman city. They were just playing. Unlike urchins we’ve encountered at tourist attractions in some other countries, they didn’t ask for handouts, they didn’t try to sell us anything, and they didn’t try to pick our pockets. Today, if they’ve survived, they are old enough to have enlisted or been conscripted into fighting for one or another faction in the civil war.]

The US government, acting in my name, is neither improving the lives of the people on the ground in Syria nor increasing its understanding of their grievances by sending in more small arms and inflicting more death from above. And the US government needs to be prepared to recognize facts on the ground: an organization that controls territory, wields power, and carries out some level of administration is a government, whether we like it or not. Establishment and maintenance of diplomatic relationships are typically more important with enemies, with whom there may be few if any other channels of communication or opportunities for “citizen diplomacy” through tourism and business, than they are with friends.

US refusal to recognize governments because the US disagrees with their policies has had long-term negative repercussions with Cuba, with Iran, with Vietnam, and elsewhere. The US was wrong not to recognize that the Taliban was, at one time, the (evil) government of Afghanistan, and may be equally wrong in selectively failing to recognize other governments it doesn’t like, such as in Somaliland and the Western Sahara (SADR). It’s not as though moral or political legitimacy is a criterion of US diplomatic recognition, as is evident from the US recognition of absolutist family monarchies and practitioners of apartheid, where the Emir’s word is law and his son will become the next emir, democracy be damned, in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait (where the US fought a war to reinstate the monarchy), Oman, Bahrain, and the U.A.E.

But at the end of a day with news like today’s, it’s hard to know what to do except mourn for Palmyra, and its people.

Link | Posted by Edward on Thursday, 21 May 2015, 16:49 ( 4:49 PM)
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