Michael Totten

The Stranger from Damascus

Syria is only 28 miles from my apartment. Yet I’m as far from Syria as I can get inside Lebanon without wading into the Mediterranean. That’s how small this country is. Metropolitan Portland, Oregon, by contrast, is more than 28 miles across.
For the most part the hyper-near presence of Syria is an abstraction. Mount Lebanon, the (tiny) Bekaa Valley, and the Anti-Lebanon range stand between me and it. But every once in a while I can feel Syria over the mountains as though it’s breathing on us.
While I was walking alone through downtown Beirut, a young man tapped my shoulder from behind.
“Salam Aleikum,” he said as I turned around. Then he said something else in Arabic I did not understand.
“Do you speak English?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Do you know where Monot Street is?”
Obviously he was not from around here. Everyone in Beirut knows Monot Street. It’s the former Green Line where most of the best night clubs are found.
“I know where it is,” I said. “It isn’t far. Where are you from?”
“Damascus,” he said. Syria.
“Are you working in Lebanon or are you on vacation?”
“I’m on vacation,” he said. “Would you like to sit and have coffee at Dunkin Donuts?”
“Um, no,” I said. “I am going to meet a friend. But I can show you where Monot Street is. It’s on my way.” So we started walking.
I didn’t know why he asked me to join him at Dunkin Donuts. I’m told that’s where gay men go to meet other gay men. The stranger from Damascus was young, good looking, and, according to my not-so-hot “gay-dar,” potentially gay. Then again, if he were Syrian and didn’t know where Monot Street was, he might have no idea what it meant that he asked me to Dunkin Donuts. Plenty of straight people hang out at Dunkin Donuts. And I’ve been asked out to coffee by strangers enough times in this part of the world that it by itself doesn’t feel forward at all to me anymore. It might not have meant anything. It was just an ambiguous moment between two foreigners in a third country.
Since I had the attention of someone from Syria, I couldn’t resist asking: “What do you think of Bashar al-Assad?”
What?” he said, as though I had said something totally crazy like I’m going to kick your ass.
“What do you think of Bashar al-Assad?”
His face flushed red, his lips opened just slightly, and his eyes darted rapidly back and forth. He then tried, but failed, to laugh.
“Come on,” I said. “You can tell me. We’re in Lebanon.”
He looked pained, like I was hurting him and he was gearing up to whine about it.
“Assad is good,” he was finally able to say.
I felt like a jerk now for asking. I wasn’t trying to torment the poor guy. But since I had started, I needed to ask one more question.
“If you didn’t think he was good, would you be able to tell me?”
“Yes,” he said as his eyes darted rapidly back and forth once again.
Okay, I thought. Time to put the poor kid out of his misery. He looked like he was afraid mukhabarat agents were about to snatch both of us, even though we were in free Lebanon. If I had had any doubt, for whatever reason, whether or not he was really from Syria, that would have settled in. I have yet to meet a single Lebanese person who shows fear when any political subject comes up in conversation.
“Monot Street is just on the other side of that Armenian church,” I said as I pointed up the street. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
I couldn’t help but wonder, as we walked, if I was the first person who ever asked him in public what he thought about Bashar al-Assad.