Finding Common Ground in an Uncommon Nation


Mar 19, 2008

This commentary originally appeared in Malibu Magazine on March 19, 2008.

RAND researchers Cheryl Benard and Ed O'Connell have been to the far points of the Muslim world as a part of developing the think tank's Alternative Strategy Initiative, which addresses the effects of extremism and sectarianism on those too often are hiding in plain sight: youth, women and refugees. But after a recent trip to Syria where they found themselves happening one night upon an unsettling and perception-busting TV program, they went back there to find out how a director in a country known for defending terrorism could produce "entertainment" that portrayed quite the opposite. They tell Malibu Magazine their story.

With practiced efficiency, the young man is strapping something onto the young girl. She is 5 or 6 years old, and as he tugs at her braid to avoid snagging her hair on the harness, viewers will at first think that he is helping her with her backpack to get her ready for school. But as the camera pans back, viewers hear the sound of a woman weeping and protesting in the background, and come to realize that the young man is a terrorist, that the thing he is putting on the child is a vest with suicide explosives and that what he is preparing her for is bloody oblivion.

Coming upon this scene quite by accident as we flipped idly through the channels of Arab satellite TV, during a trip to the Middle East, we were captivated by its sheer dramatic power, shocked to learn that it was based on a true event and completely amazed to hear that its producer was, of all things, a Syrian. In conventional U.S. perception, Syria is an autocratic state where artists and filmmakers cannot function or flourish. Furthermore, as a member of the "Axis of Evil," even if it did have any filmmakers, they would be defending terrorism, not condemning it.

"We" are Cheryl Benard and Ed O'Connell, and we are researchers with the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization with headquarters in Santa Monica. RAND's commitment to objective and rigorous research rests on a relentless search for the facts. Our president and chief executive officer Jim Thomson often alludes to Dragnet's Sgt. Joe Friday with his deadpan, "Just the facts, ma'am." In that spirit, we have spent the last six years since 9/11, crisscrossing the Muslim world from Mostar to Bosnia to Khiyam in Southern Lebanon to Iraq and to Afghanistan.

Upon landing, we are immediately whisked into the airport's VIP lounge and offered tea. The hostesses are gracious, but our passports are gone and our fellow travelers are elsewhere, and we find ourselves speaking in muffled tones as we try to determine why we have been singled out for special treatment. The answer, as we will soon discover, lies in the identity of our host: Najdat Anzour, it turns out, is not just any filmmaker. He is the Syrian equivalent of Fellini and Bertolucci all rolled into one elegant, debonair package. In Syria, he is a star, and by association, it seems, so are we.

Our passports are eventually returned to us without incident, and we are handed over to "Mr. Hammed" and "Mr. Ahmed" (pronounced Ak-med) — assistants to Anzour. Hammed flips open his cell phone to show us the photo of a very attractive blonde woman while insistently repeating, "Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara." After a few minutes, we are able to make out that his daughter and grandchild live in the United States.

The Cham Palace in downtown Damascus — our home for the next week — somewhat dims our good mood. The cavernous lobby, defective neon lighting and sulky employees make you feel that you have somehow landed yourself in the Soviet Union of the 1980s. Furthermore, the hotel has the dubious distinction of allegedly having been the meeting place of al-Qaeda operatives and Iraqi insurgents back in 2003. But we don't have too much time to reflect on that, as Hammed and Ahmed have instructions to deliver us to Anzour.

The Art House, in the upscale Mezzeh neighborhood of Damascus, is a lovingly restored former mill that now serves as a boutique hotel, spa, art gallery, restaurant and hangout for the city's intelligentsia. Architect Ghiath Machnok, gives us an extended warm and sincere welcome and a tour of the premises. As we walk through the rooms admiring the antique Syrian furniture and the carved doorways, and plotting our escape from the Cham Hotel to this much more congenial location, a photo catches our eye. The man in the picture is Mustafa Akkad. Our new friend tells us he was a Syrian film producer. He and his daughter were killed in the terrorist bomb blast at the SAS Radisson Hotel in Amman, Jordan, in November of 2005. His voice shaking with emotion, Machnok tells us that Akkad had been one of his best friends. Upon hearing that Ed had been at the site of the second hotel bombed in the same attack and had narrowly escaped being killed, Machnok stops in his tracks and mutters, "Alhamdulillah" roughly translated as "thank God" in Arabic.

Here we have our first complicated matter to think about. It is known that Syria supports violent extremist organizations. Yet terrorist acts also have created a sense of revulsion toward terrorism. The scene in the television serial, for example, was based on the actual event in which a small child was scheduled to blow up the Syrian Palace of Justice in Damascus with potentially enormous loss of life. It was averted only because the mother mustered enough courage to defy a radical cleric and inform the authorities.

Machnok walks us out onto the roof of the Art House, opening up an amazing landscape of riches in all directions, the golden dome of a mosque on one side, the sparkling heights of the city of Damascus on the other, and in the middle, this oasis of calm surrounded by old trees and enlivened by the stream that formerly fed the ancient mill.

Next, we walk downstairs and enter a vast hall with a beautiful buffet spread out on one end and an exhibition of modern Syrian art displayed at the other. It is here we finally encounter Anzour himself. Ever since we landed, Ed has been preoccupied with a somewhat peripheral worry – not his for safety (nor any possible anti-Americanism); what had been worrying him is his hair, or rather, whether its length would be out of place here. The conventional American thinking is that Arabs don't respect professionals with long hair – just one of the deep insights from the new wave of U.S. cultural and "human terrain" experts who have cropped up to "explain" the Middle East these days. 

In reality, the basement we walk into could be anywhere – London, Paris, Tokyo — and Anzour himself wears his grey hair to the shoulders. His companions – artists and actors – sported similar styles. Sitting next to him is the improbably named Honey Al-Sayed, with her infectious throaty laugh that has helped make her Syria's top radio personality. It's her real name, she hastens to tell us in her impeccable English; her parents chose it in honor of a popular fashion model of their day.

The mood in the Art House cellar is exhilarating. Poets, painters and actors drift in and out, stopping for a few minutes to joke with one another and to inquire earnestly and respectfully after each others' work, taking time to praise it for the benefit of us, the newcomers.

After these casual introductions, we all sat down to eat at an oak table in the depths of the Art House basement. We are introduced next to Ahmad Moualla and his wife. Moualla is Syria's top artist famous for his paintings While Waiting, Wing Tomb and Damascus.  As if to reaffirm the realization that we are meeting some of the Middle East's best and brightest on our first night, we are casually introduced to "the man who created the now-successful TV station Al-Jazeera based in Qatar," Mohammed Jassim Al-Ali, who walks over to join us briefly.

The next morning we are taken to Anzour's workshop. According to his biography, his family is from Circassian stock, from the southwest corner of Russia. In 1931, his father made Syria's first silent film, Under A Damascus Sky. In his chaotic "studio" – really more like an apartment that just happens to have lots of electronic equipment — Anzour is the picture of an artist at work: chain smoking, scripts in hand, manipulating the buttons of his rather rudimentary film-editing equipment, again wearing his trademark long-sleeved black turtleneck. A few of his assistants mill about, bringing Turkish coffee and biscuits – some of them, he tells us, have been with him for more than 20 years and are "absolutely loyal," an assurance more common in the police-state days of the country's former President Hafez al-Assad.

Sitting down at the controls, sleeves rolled up, Anzour shows us some of this recent works. Al-Hur al-Ayn (The Virgins of Paradise) was a Ramadan serial, or soap opera, which had set the Muslim world abuzz in 2004. This particular episode shows a cleric treating a boy with epilepsy by exorcising his demons. In the end, the cleric wins the gratitude of the epileptic's healthy brother, who the cleric then plots to recruit as a suicide bomber. The serial is narrated by a fictional character, an older woman, who has lived through the bombing of a neighborhood compound "somewhere in the Middle East."

Another one is called Al Mariqoun (The Renegades). It catalogues the social ills confronting many families in the Middle East, including such taboos as spousal abuse and pedophilia. One film clip shows a father confronting his two daughters, both of whom have been out on the town until the early morning hours. One of them has come home heavily made up and drunk, while moments later her sister appears in full hijab (the traditional female headscarf), having joined a women's secret extremist religious cult. His work and his message, Anzour tells us, are all aimed at "the middle" – the large majority of average Arabs and Muslims who are repulsed by both extremes: liberalism gone amok and religious fanaticism.

Interspersing his explanations with the occasional gleeful, "This caused a lot of controversy," and "This was very shocking," Anzour walks us through his fascinating oeuvre.  He expects his current project will generate even more excitement. Titled Al Kawareer, it is composed of 20, 70-minute-long episodes, each by a female screenwriter, each addressing a problem faced by women in Muslim society. His press release for Al Kawareer states:

"The series is a reflection of what Third World women have to go through from worries, suffering and degradation, and so we hope when placing the spotlight on such issues, it will help bring back women's natural rights… rights that have been taken by a society governed solely by males… socially, economically and even emotionally!"

The next day we visit Pakistan Street – not far from American Street – the home of Syria's first private radio station, Medina FM, and its famous DJ/morning talk show host Honey Al-Sayed. Once inside, we discover a very modern studio where hip young DJs abound. Honey is in the middle of her very popular morning radio call-in and music show, Good Morning Syria. The sound engineer, Abdullah, sits on the other side of the soundproof glass from Honey, and both seem to feed off of the other's energy. Bopping to the mostly pop music being played, Abdullah at times cannot contain himself, but must leap to his feet for a bit of Arabic dancing.

In many ways, Honey is a reflection of the national consciousness: She is probably in touch with more Syrians from all walks of life than any other figure in the country. She receives hundreds of calls and text messages every morning from not only Syria, but from parts of Iraq, the greater Middle East, and even the United States! Her signature laugh — a sort of half-chuckle, half-giggle — is said to be the most recognizable in Syria. When she started a few years ago, Honey tells us, it was unheard of to laugh on the radio at all. Radio was a serious, solemn affair, with news and commentaries read in great earnest and in classical Arabic. Honey single-handedly revolutionized the airwaves, speaking in the colloquial, chatting with her listeners, joking and teasing. Bit by bit, she brought further innovations. The national college entrance exams, a time of great stress for students, causing more than a few suicides, inspired her to bring psychologists and motivational speakers to her show, and what at first was unfamiliar became the new standard. 

Meanwhile, her broad range of listeners — from truck drivers to farmers, from college kids to housewives — have all been initiated into the world of Feng Shui, learned the principles of "the laws of attraction" and "The Secret," and are finding new age spirituality more appealing and planning for a happy future more interesting than extremist politics.

Our second night in Damascus finds us atop Qassioun Mountain, a popular destination for Syrians of all economic stripes. For the ordinary folk, roadside picnics and mobile kebab stands do the job. With Anzour, however, we travel to the very pinnacle, where the staff of a luxury restaurant falls all over itself to welcome us — actually him. Once seated at the best table with the most panoramic view, however, Anzour waxes pensive.

"Look down," he tells us, with a dismissive gesture. "Do we see all those countless little triangles lit up in neon green? Those are all the minarets of the mosques, more mosques than any city could possibly need. And how many cinemas do we suppose the city has, by contrast? One! Change that balance and you can change the Middle East! Entertain people! Make them think! Give them hope and a wider horizon, and the radicals will soon be on the run. Sometimes I feel like, as an artist, I can't breathe here," he says, adding quietly, "I would just like to take my wife to the cinema once in awhile, that's all."

Yes, Anzour is a star here in Syria: respected, revered and listened to. But the world is bigger and so is his talent, so he has accepted a new project and a new patron: Muammar Qadaffi, Libya's eccentric leader, and onetime U.S. enemy. Qadaffi has written a script and commissioned Anzour to film it. The screenplay concerns the Italian invasion and occupation of Libya at the start of the last century. The budget is no problem, not when "The Leader" has decreed that this film shall be made. As for Anzour, he dreams of getting a Golden Globe for this film, dreams of enticing Omar Sharif, Anthony Hopkins and Sean Connery to play the lead roles. Below us, thousands of lights twinkle in the city below . . .

The following morning, we make our way to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees office on the outskirts of Damascus to learn more about the large number of Iraqis who have fled to safety in Syria. A line of applicants, all hoping to register for rations and residence permits or better still, for visas to the West, snakes across the vacant lot behind the office. Spotting us as Westerners who perhaps work for an embassy and can help them, they quickly surround us, pushing tattered files and fistfuls of documents under our noses and pleading frantically for help. Two women, shaking from nervous exhaustion, beg us to intercede. They come here every day, but no one receives them, no one tells them anything.

Inside, country director Dietrun Gunther is almost as nervous as the refugees. Understaffed, the German-born official's office is no match for the estimated 1.4 million Iraqi refugees who have made their way to this country. They have to wait months and months for an appointment, let alone an answer, and she feels for them, but the day has only so many hours and what can she do? The Syrians – government and population – have been surprisingly hospitable, but the strain is significant, overloading everything from housing to the electricity and sewer systems. Her agency just can't keep up, and it bothers her to think of the consequences such as daughters sold into prostitution by their destitute Iraqi families. She worries about the many who may lose hope and go back to war-torn Iraq, back to unsafe areas.

Returning to the city center, our visual impressions confuse us more than they explain anything. The city seems so secular, so relaxed, with the usual urban Middle Eastern paradox of girls poured into skin-tight jeans, but wearing the Islamic headscarf – the "sport hijab look" as the young boys in Jordan call it. We also notice clusters of other women in full abaya — a traditional over-garment.  Anzour explains that these are indeed members of a clandestine sect, the so-called Qubaisiate. Commanded by an elderly female preacher, this sect-like movement first recruits women into religious discussion circles, then advances them through a series of secret initiations into ever more clandestine cells. A woman's "rank" in the sect is reflected by the color of her hijab, but beyond that, little is known of the actual agenda of the movement, and no one has seen its secretive leader recently.

Anzour had explored the dynamics and psychology of the group in his 2006 miniseries The Renegades.  By now we expect the unexpected out of Anzour — and Syria — so we are not surprised to learn that his proactive series implied that the cult is run by manipulative, predatory lesbians who use religion to seduce innocent Muslim girls. Concerned about the rising influence of Islamists in Syria, many apparently took to Anzour's insinuations with gleeful irreverence.

We next decide to visit Palmyra, the site of expansive Roman ruins and just a short drive from Damascus.  At some point in the past, someone apparently thought it would be a good idea to route the highway directly through the middle of the ruins instead of diverting half a mile to preserve them. Consequently, cars race past, spitting gritty exhaust onto the antiquities, while scruffy children play football and hawk postcards among the ancient arches. Elderly tour guides sit disconsolate on fallen columns, wishing for business.

"American?" we are asked by the guide who has been assigned to us. "Go back to America," he adds, and for a moment we think that we have finally met with the aggressive anti-American sentiment everyone warned us about. But it's not what he means. "Go back to America and tell your friends to come here," he continues, launching into a sad tale of declining business, empty hotels and no income ever since the U.S. government declared Syria a no-go pariah state. All that's left now, he complains, is the occasional Italian, Korean and Japanese tourist – not enough to sustain an economy. 

Palmyra is ready, should the Americans return. Squeezed between grocery shops selling giant bunches of dates and souvenir shops offering "genuine" antique weapons, we find The Pancake House, and sit down to one of the greatest breakfasts of our lives. Enjoying her meal at a neighboring table is the third American in Syria, Marla Mossman, an artist and photographer from New York. This is a way station on her trek across the Silk Road for a documentary she is preparing on the role of women and religion on that historic trail. We give her a lift back to Damascus, where she and Cheryl impulsively decide to wash off the dust of the road in a traditional hammam, or Syrian bathhouse, in the old market district. For those who have not visited such an establishment before, here are the essential basics: For a pittance, you will be handed a threadbare towel and a pair of much-used slippers. Your very existence and your cluelessness will be the occasion of great universal merriment among the other female bathers. Expect to discover that this is a popular teenage hangout and anticipate clusters of giggling young girls throwing handfuls of water at each other as the elderly matron rebukes them and threatens to throw them out onto the street.

In the steam room proper, do not be surprised if clusters of naked women suddenly clap their hands and leap to their feet for a spontaneous bout of Oriental dancing and ululating that may or may not (their English was too shaky to tell) be related to an upcoming wedding.  And if you are a man, do not despair. Your turn begins at 5 p.m. when the hammam switches from women-only to men-only, though we cannot attest to any comparable levels of celebration.

Anzour and Honey have warned us that they want nothing to do with politics, that art and culture are all they are concerned about. So on the next evening, we leave them behind and venture out on or own to visit a dissident from the short-lived, but impressive Damascus Spring movement. We travel to Berze, a neighborhood high up in the hills outside Damascus. We climb a few flights of a darkened stairway to a utilitarian apartment building until finally a smallish, soft-spoken man answers the door and invites us in. 

His impeccable English, we learn, came to him at a high price – he taught it to himself during his almost 20 years in Syrian prisons. Jailed without a trial at the age of 18 for being a Communist activist, he has only recently been released from prison. There is still something of the socialist intellectual about him, and the same is true of his wife, who walks in briefly and wordlessly to plunk down a tray of tea and biscuits. Nonchalantly, he nods in her direction and relates that she spent seven years in prison. 

His story, as it unfolds in a serene manner, is nothing short of horrible: years in prison without even being informed of the charges against him; the loss of his youth; at last, a trial and then a sentence. And yet with light at the end of the tunnel, on the day when he should have been released, he was sent to yet another prison, the one all dissidents fear: the one in Palmyra.

"This is the one where they torture you," he says, stoically. "Not because they want to get information out of you, or even a promise that you will henceforth refrain from political activism — no, just to destroy you."

In any event, the plan failed: despite the torture, he was not broken. Thoughtfully, he offers his assessment of Syria today. "It is much better under the son Bashar than it was under the father Assad." He himself, for example, is able to publish political articles and editorials. He is not allowed to have a passport or to travel, but a publishing house in Lebanon is printing his prison memoirs, and of his friends who joined the Damascus Spring movement, most experienced no sanctions at all, while a few were imprisoned temporarily.

On our last day, we head for the Shia neighborhood of Zeinab. The gigantic Umayyad mosque in the heart of Damascus is a major tourist attraction – or would be if there were tourists. Honey has taken us to this beautiful and unique ancient overlay of Roman temple plus Christian church plus mosque. But perhaps the more interesting religious destination is a different mosque, Sayyida Zeinab, in the bustling, commercial, working-class and refugee neighborhood of Zeynat Zeinab. Zeinab was the Prophet Mohammed's granddaughter and this is a major Shia shrine and place of pilgrimage. 

Approaching on foot, we look up this time at the mosque's minaret lit in green, and the golden domes and flocks of birds vivid against the gradually darkening nighttime sky. We are not sure what to expect – to be turned back at the entrance seems a distinct possibility since it is quite obvious that we are not Shia pilgrims. The bigger question is: How politely will that be done?

The mosque is surrounded by a night market: Rows of tables are lit only dimly with gas lamps and piled with all conceivable wares from amulets to linen sheets (which the seller tells us are for wrapping up the bodies of the dead) to cheap plastic children's toys and little red capsules containing decorative black kohl with which to rim your eyes. But after browsing for a few minutes, we approach the entrance, which is guarded by several soldiers, some elderly men, and a large and formidable lady wrapped entirely in black. In the end, the men just gesture to a pile of shoes where we are to leave ours, while Cheryl finds herself heartily embraced by the large lady, who bellows, "America … Welcome!" as she wraps the foreign guest in a loaner chador (an all-encompassing black veil worn by ultra-conservative women). In an instant, we are inside this very exotic scene, instantly part of the moving bedlam. This is an important shrine, and Shias from all over the world make the pilgrimage. They find themselves emotionally overwhelmed to have finally made it to the site of their long-held devotion. Old men kiss the gate and the entryway; groups of pilgrims beat their chests in unison while chanting "Zeinab, Zeinab" — the name of the prophet's daughter who is buried there. In one corner, a storyteller relates the tale of Ali, causing his audience to wail. Inside the shrine, a crush of excited people fight to touch the gold-enclosed tomb, or to hold a piece of cloth to it, which will then become sanctified. In hopes of a miracle, the sickly and the handicapped, as well as babies, are pushed forward through the mob. In between these scenes of havoc, children scamper and play, sandwiches are unwrapped, amulets are purchased and pictures are taken. For these people, it is a very special and sacred place and we feel grateful for their generosity in letting us be witness to it.  Unlike the Saudis who threaten to kill any "unbeliever" who tries to visit Mecca, here we are not just tolerated; we are actively welcomed as guests. In one of the arched corridors, Ed admires a poster. It is immediately taken down, with many eager fingers prying loose the Scotch tape, and given to him as a gift. Those who speak some English stop to see if we need any assistance or have any questions. Some regard us curiously, but no one is hostile. The mosque's beautiful lighting, the blue-and-aqua-tile mosaic throughout capped off by the mosque's golden dome against the clear starry sky, make it a near otherworldly experience.

As we fly above the Damascus sky the next morning, we feel content that we have observed the kaleidoscope below from as many perspectives as possible. We found common ground in perhaps the most uncommon of all nations we had visited – common concerns, common worries, common hopes, common dreams and yes even common hairstyles. Next stop for us?  Stay tuned.


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