Michael Totten

From Syria to America

Tomorrow my Syrian friend Ali will become an American.
I call him Ali (which is not his real name) because he does not want me to quote him or even mention his real name in passing in my public writing. He’s still afraid — deathly afraid — of Assad’s all-seeing mukhabarat, the secret police. He worries that if they catch him saying or even implying anything bad about the Syrian regime they will do something terrible to his family. He lives in Portland. They still live in Syria.
I think he’s way too paranoid about this, but I don’t hold it against him. His personality was shaped inside a fascist state. No one who grows up in a place like that escapes without mental and emotional baggage.
Some years ago I read about a man who fled to the United States from the Soviet Union. Even after he was free in America he stayed up all night every night. He couldn’t sleep until he saw the sun rise. It was the only way he could be sure they would not come to get him that night.
When Ali was a teenager he went to visit his cousin’s house in his home village near Aleppo. His cousin worked, and probably still works, for the mukhabarat. When Ali got to the house he heard screams from around back.
“What is that?” he said. “A cow?”
“That is no cow,” his cousin said and flashed a sadistic and conspiratorial grin. “It is a person.”
“Who?!” Ali said. “What’s going on?!”
“That is none of your business,” his cousin said. “We are taking care of it.”
Ali never saw that cousin again. He refused to see him again. He refused, as best he could, to live in Syria at all.
So he went to Lebanon.
When I told him I was going to Lebanon myself he said “Oh, you’re Mister Lucky Man.” He loves and misses Beirut. “It really opened my eyes and my mind,” he told me. “It was a free country, the first free country I ever saw. I could do and think whatever I wanted.”
He was there in the 1980s, mind you, while Lebanon was still busy chewing off its own leg. He willingly went into a war zone. And he loved it! It was a mind-blowing improvement over what he was used to back home in Syria.
A lot of people who lived there during the civil war will tell you that, horrible as it all was, Beirut was a still a good time even then. Rockin’ parties were thrown just down the block from street fighting and even mortar fire and shelling. Thomas Friedman summed it up perfectly in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem when he quoted a hostess asking her dinner party guests if they would like to eat now or wait for the cease-fire.
Life goes on even in war time. And life in Beirut is nothing if it isn’t fun. That was, amazingly, true even when Beirut was blood-spattered and burning. It’s not at all surprising that the street along the formerly pulverized Green Line is where you’ll find the best nightclubs in the entire Middle East. The Lebanese wouldn’t have it another way.
Ali eventually had to go back to Syria. After experiencing even bloody chaotic war-time “freedom” he found his own country under Baathist rule unlivable. So he left. He walked out of Syria and smuggled himself into Greece. Later he made his way to Portland, Oregon, where he met me. And tomorrow he will become my fellow American.
I had lunch with him yesterday and gave him my congratulations. He’s so happy to be free forever from Syria. At the same time he is finally free to go back. His American passport will keep him from being conscripted into the army. (That, and a hefty baksheesh which he can now afford.) It has been so many long years since he has seen his family. Now he can finally see them again.
He will also revisit Lebanon while he’s in the neighborhood. The country was on fire when he reluctantly left. He has yet to see it rebuilt and at peace.
“I’ll see you in Beirut at Christmas,” he said. I’ll see him in Syria, too.