Michael Totten

From Beirut to Homs

John Pedro Schwartz is a Mexican-American from Texas teaching English literature at the American University of Beirut. Last month he rode his motorcycle from Lebanon into Syria and filed a first-person narrative dispatch with Foreign Policy magazine.

The entire thing is gripping and well worth your time. Here is but a sample.

After breakfasting on goat-cheese sandwich wraps and freshly squeezed orange juice, I break the ice with two men in their mid-30s who are sitting at a plastic table just outside the rear entrance to the restaurant. Upon explaining that I’m a Texan professor from American University of Beirut, fresh from Hama on a motorcycle trip, they open up on the subject of politics.

“America good,” Mahmoud says. “France good.” “Russia-” at the evocation of the Syrian government’s ally, he stamps on the concrete pavement with a grimace. “China-” the same disdainful gesture.

The two of them demonstrate every evening, they tell me. When the sun goes down, thousands fill the streets, calling for the fall of the regime. “And they kill us,” Mahmoud says.

“Who kills you?”

“Hezbollah and Iran.”

“How do you know?”

Mahmoud draws his hand down over his face to a point, suggesting the beard that many members of the Lebanese Shiite militant organization Hezbollah wear. “The way they speak,” he adds. This is a common, if controversial, claim made by Syrian activists — that the Assad regime has brought in mercenaries to help crush the protests, their southern Lebanese and Persian accents a giveaway.

Mahmoud looks up at me, an idea forming on his face. “Do you have a camera?”


“Will you stay here tonight?”

“No. I have to work in Beirut tomorrow.”

Disappointed, he pauses for a moment. Then: “You are a professor at American University of Beirut. I want you to tell the world what is happening. Do you want to go to see the bullet holes?”

“Yes, I want to go to see the bullet holes.”

He looks over at Bilal and asks him to come with us. Bilal, smoking, casts a wary glance down the street and does not answer. He is weighing the odds — if they get caught showing a foreigner around sensitive sites, they will likely be imprisoned and tortured. “Will you come? Will you come?” Mahmoud asks. Bilal is smoking, looking away, smoking, thinking. But Mahmoud insists, repeating the question a half-dozen times. Finally, Bilal nods.

“You are not American. You do not speak,” Mahmoud warns me as we hail a taxi. Five minutes later, we step out onto Bab al-Sebaa Street where there is no movement and no noise and nothing is open, and three tanks manned by six armed soldiers have their turreted guns pointed at our backs as we make our way, slowly, down the street.

Read the whole thing.