Monday, September 26, 2005

demonstration and home.

the posters appeared at some point between when i left damascus two weeks ago and when i returned four days ago. there were two versions. one showed a crying woman in front of an iraqi flag. the other showed a fist crushing and american and british flag, with blood dripping from the flags down the wrist. i could understand enough of the arabic to read some of the caption: "international day of action against the occupation of iraq." but i couldn't read exactly what the action was. i could, however, read the date: september 24, 2005, my last day in damascus.

on the morning of the 24th, i was sitting in the souq sarouja outside sipping coffee and finishing the last of my postcards when one of my fellow travelers came by. he told me there would be a big anti-war demonstration at 6:00 p.m. near the syrian parliament building. i asked around and found a couple of other travelers who wanted to check it out with me. one on the condition that i not tell anyone where i was from.

so at 5:30, a russian guy, a french guy, and i set off to find the demonstration. i should mention that while the state department considers travel to syria to be safe (there are no travel warnings for syria, or even a syria-specific public announcement advising caution in syria) nevertheless, the u.s. government generally advises u.s. citizens to avoid political demonstrations, especially anti-u.s. ones, when they travel abroad. but i couldn't resist. i just wanted to see it too much.

the demonstration itself was a strange experience. the crowd numbered about 300-400, it wasn't huge, but it filled the small square. there were all different groups, some with palestinian flags, some with iraqi flags, a few with syrian flags, some with hezbollah flags, one with a soviet flag and a che guevara t-shirt (which, i must admit, made me laugh when i saw it). there was a guy on a podium giving a fiery speech which i couldn't follow. but what i did find interesting is that i heard the word "palestine" a lot more than i heard "iraq."

while my companions hung around the outskirts of the demonstration, i walked through the crowd, trying to read all the signs and figure out who was with what group. the people did not seem to mind me being there or taking photos, though they definitely noticed the foreigner walking among them. a couple flashed me a polite smile when i walked past.

there were a couple of news cameramen wandering around. when i was standing next to one, one of the protesters came up to him and said "come this way." the protester led the cameraman to the back of the crowd. i followed too. in the back there was a small group of protesters, including the guy with the guevara t-shirt. he was holding a crude version of an american flag, made with a red and blue magic marker on a white pillow case. the man pulled out a lighter and tried to light the pillowcase on fire. for several tries it just wouldn't catch. the pillowcase kept flopping around in the breeze and wouldn't light. the would-be flagburner kept asking the cameraman to hold on for a second and to be patient as he struggled to light it. finally, two other members of the crowd took a different corner of the pillowcase and stretched it out so that it would hold still under the lighter. after the flame took, the others backed off and the original guy holding the pillow case pretended to light it himself for the camera.

i had never seen a flag burning before. i always imagined flag burning to be an angry passionate thing. but this really wasn't. it seemed like the protesters simply felt they needed to burn an american flag at some point and so they set out to do it. it was more matter-of-fact than passionate. if anything, they just seemed frustrated when the damn thing wouldn't light.

after a while the speeches stopped and the crowd started marching through the streets of damascus. i followed for a little while, but then got bored and went back to the hotel to pack. as i left, i picked up a couple of fliers from the street as souvenirs and shoved them in my pack. i couldn't read them without a dictionary. i figured i would translate them later when i got home.

twelve hours later i was in the amsterdam airport waiting in line for my connecting flight to philadelphia. when i handed over my passport to the ticket agent, the agent asked me to wait a moment and then came back with an officer. the officer took me aside to ask some questions.

i suspected something like that would happen. the questions were pretty straightforward: what was i doing in syria, why was i there, where did i go, who did i talk to, whether anyone gave me anything to take on the plane for them, etc. i didn't mind asking the questions and i tried to be polite and forthcoming with every one. at one point the officer actually apologized to me for having to subject me to questioning. "that's okay," i said, "you're only doing this to protect me."

meanwhile, in the middle of my interview, it suddenly dawned on me that the fliers i picked up at the demonstration were still sitting in my bag. i had no idea what they said, for all i knew they came from one of the hezbollah guys and would look really incriminating. but the officer never asked to look in my bag. it had already been through the security screening, i.e. x-rayed. twice, in fact, once in damascus and again in amsterdam. when the interview ended, i boarded the plane and flew home.