Palmyra: A time of loss

This week we found out that ISIS has blown up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, the millennia-old Syrian UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s one of many destructions of ancient Syrian structures that carry special sadness for me. I lived in Syria for two years, and had the good fortune to visit Palmyra’s spectacular ruins on a couple of occasions. I saw bas reliefs of veiled women from pre-Christian times, set beneath corinthian columns and other classical features–features I suddenly recognized from San Francisco Victorians that mimicked the architecture of antiquity. I saw a mélange of influences from the Roman empire and peoples further east. I learned about Queen Zenobia, one of the few rebels who came close to resisting imperial hegemony. The sprawling site was a window into a rich and complex heritage that belied simplistic ideas about Middle Eastern history. For all these reasons, the ruins appear on Syrian banknotes: they are a symbol of the nation, a stand-in for its old soul.

Tom Holland writes eloquently about the news of the temple’s annihilation in this fantastic column in the Guardian:

The temple of Bel was (and how it stabs the heart to be obliged to use the past tense here) a monument fit to be ranked alongside the Parthenon or the Pantheon as one of the supreme architectural treasures to have survived from classical antiquity. Built soon after the absorption of Palmyra into Rome’s sphere of influence, it was dedicated in 32AD, at a time when Tiberius ruled the empire, and Jesus still walked the Earth. …

The very process of constructing the great complex, by giving to the various tribes who inhabited the oasis a common purpose, seems to have played a key role in fostering a shared sense of identity among them. As the focal structure of the city, and a cult centre open to all, Bel’s temple served as a fitting symbol of what the Palmyrenes were gradually becoming: a single people.

Every thriving polity has its Palmyra, I believe. That shared treasure that reminds a group of diverse people that, despite our differences, there are some things we stand beneath together, in awe. As a Californian, I feel that way about Yosemite, about the redwoods, and the giant sequoias. What would it be like to see those things destroyed? (Maybe we don’t have to wonder: biologists are now intensely studying the Big Trees and asking whether this exceptional drought–and similar episodes that are likely to become more frequent this century–could be their undoing.)

The annihilation of one of the most remarkable features of this site gives me the feeling that we are living in a time of great loss. In a way, it should only be a footnote to the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, and the displacement of millions more, in the country’s civil war. But it is also a sort of apt headline for a heedless violence so vast it is hard to describe.

From a far distance, most of us are all but powerless to do anything about it. The best we can hope for, I think, is to seek an opportunity for greater understanding out of this incredible turmoil. And try to apply those lessons in our daily lives and our nearby communities.

Music break (sort of): Ravid Kahalani

There’s a standard speech I give when people ask me about the Middle East, and in particular the Arab-Israeli conflict. I have shied away from writing on the subject in this blog for some time — it often seems that all the arguments have already been made, and every discussion devolves into a screaming match that brings out the worst of the blogosphere, which is tiresome.

But today, in light of the news and a recent musical discovery, I gently put forth the crux of my standard speech, which is: From a cultural perspective, it doesn’t have to be this way. The division between Arab and Jew is an inorganic one. The precolonial Middle East and eastern Mediterranean were dazzlingly diverse. Major cities contained the three “religions of the book” in equal parts, and among these were many sects. But identities had as much to do with the city one called home — Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Istanbul, Salonica, Jerusalem — as they did one’s religion. (I have written about this more here.)

And yet, the mainstream media constantly tells us or implies that the “Arab-Jewish” conflict is an age-old one. Not only is this inaccurate — it is a 20th century phenomenon — it’s a confusion of terms: Arab and Jewish are not exclusive categories. They are used to describe ethnicity and, in the case of the latter, ethnicity and/or religion that may overlap with many different ethnicities. One may take issue with the use of the terms in one way or another, but the thing is, we continue to have evidence that one may be both Arab and Jewish.

Take Israeli-Yemeni singer Ravid Kahalani, whose music I just found out about.

“Most of the people are like, are you Arab or Jew?” Kahalani says. “I am Arab, I am Jew.”

There. You. Go. (The link is from a February podcast on Kahalani by The World’s Marco Werman — I can never seem to beat him to an international music discovery.)

I could write a whole essay about what I like about Kahalani’s music, which a friend introduced me to a couple of days ago. There’s the lovely pentatonic scale; the combination of oud and darbakeh (Arabic drum); the evidence in his voice of his background as a synagogue cantor; that rolling trance-like feel to his rhythms that reminds me of Ali Farka Touré and makes me picture the desert. His album is called Yemen Blues.

Anyway. To bring my speech back to current events. I woke today to images of unarmed marchers setting out from Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank, attempting to to cross the border into Israel. Troops of the latter opened fire, killing at least a dozen and injuring scores.  Many of the protestors were reportedly Palestinian refugees — there are nearly 5 million of them in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

In my standard speech, I make my point about identity because I think, however one evaluates incidents such as these, it is important to remember that they are a result of political grievances that have their roots in the events of the last 100 years. (Specifically, many of those Palestinian refugees continue to carry the keys to the homes their families were kicked out of 63 years ago when Europeans escaping persecution wanted a place to live.) Age-old religious animosity does not really factor in.

I certainly do not have Kahalani’s permission to entangle his music in this argument, but as I sit back and listen to him sing “Um min al Yaman” (Arabic for Mother is from Yemen), I can’t help thinking — and hoping — that alive out there still, is another vision for the Middle East.

Inauguration exclusive: the audacity of hoping for a better U.S. policy toward Syria

LGD Note: I reported this piece back in October and wrote it in November for a class at Columbia, with the intention of publishing it on a foreign affairs-concerned website. At the time, the handful of advocates for a better U.S. policy toward Syria were sounding optimistic. Then came the U.S. attack on the village of Sukkariyyeh in eastern Syria, which brought relations between the two countries to an all-time low. It also complicated my story in a way that I couldn’t untangle during midterms. I offer the piece here with the caveat that all comments were obtained back in October before the attack, and long before the Gaza war. But I think there is some interesting food from thought here that is relevant despite all the things that happened since I reported it. What kind of change will Obama bring to our policy with this overly maligned country?


November 15, 2008

American voters aren’t the only ones celebrating the election of a new president this month. In Syria, which is still reeling from the October 26 attack by U.S. commandos on the village of Sukkariyyeh, people are hoping the new presidency will mean a different American approach to their country. Continue reading

Syria Closes American School and Cultural Center in Damascus

In response to Sunday’s U.S. attack on Syrian soil (which, by the way, Baghdad has condemned), Damascus has closed the American primary school and the American cultural center, according to Al-Jazeera.

These are two of the remaining positive U.S. presences in Syria. It’s a shame, but a reaction like this was certainly expected. I guess those in Washington who made the decision to go in simply do not care.

I wonder how far back our relations with Syria have been set. I’ve poured a lot of energy into trying to change the perceptions of the Americans I know toward Syria. High profile activists have been working step-by-step for years, and have seen painstaking progress. I guess as long as W is in power it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. Have our hopes for an evolution to peace been completely dashed?

I can’t wait for a new White House.