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Monday, September 12, 2005

Dispatches from Deir Ez-Zor, The River Euphrates

The ongoing adventures of Ken, slightly crazy journalist from CT: Dispatches from Deir Ez-Zor, The River Euphrates My high school Western Civ teacher would have been jealous, I thought, as I strolled the south bank of the Euphrates in Deir Ez-Zor on a busy Friday night. After the bus station incident, the Euphrates proved relaxing. Recorded history pretty much begins with life on the Euphrates, and I felt in awe of humanity itself, watching the parade of veiled women and men in long robes and head scarves, camouflage or western outfits pass. Children, boys and girls, dressed western too, wearing Superman, NBA and psychedelic flowery t-shirts. Under colorful lights and palm trees, my guide Mr. Maher led me through town. Down one street, we found a Syrian government magazine called Black and White, which featured Jordan’s King Hussein on the cover. A prankster, though, had drawn devil’s horns and a mustache on King Hussein, and wrote in Arabic over his forehead "The Son Will Slay You!" The son, of course, refers to Bashar Al-Assad, the president of Syria. We flipped through the magazine, looking at pictures of George Bush I and American soldiers on our way to the pedestrian suspension bridge spanning the river Euphrates. "Mr. Ken," he said. "This bridge is French." We crossed the river, and he pointed down, saying, "Mr. Ken, fish." Sure enough, when I returned at dawn to photograph the town, I saw little boys tossing bread to fish at the irrigation canal across from my hotel. On the Euphrates pedestrian bridge, men fished throwing lures and lines by hand. "Mr. Ken," Mr. Maher called for my attention. He grabbed a steel cable on the bridge and shook it. The bridge trembled. It was sturdy, but I was glad to step back onto land, this time in between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the so-called Cradle of Civilization. Mesopotamia proper was probably deeper into Iraq, but since 120 kilometers downstream, war rages, I settled for that moment. Walking through town, you can see why the first city dwellers built here. The desert stretches from Saudi Arabia to Deir, as the locals call it. Once you hit the canal just north across the street from my hotel, the landscape turns green. The temperature drops approaching the canal, and once at the Euphrates, lush vegetation crowds the banks, and the area feels cooler than the canal. Thousands of Syrians take advantage of this at night by the riverside. Small tour boats ferry people up and down stream. Men and boys on bicycles cruise the sidewalk strip. Men lounge around on plastic lawn furniture, tables and chairs, and smoke tobacco out of hookahs. Further upstream, city officials blocked several kilometers of boulevard by the river and let merchants set up stalls for sidewalk sales: notebooks, books, pens, soaps, clothes, rugs, washing machines, refrigerators, televisions, stereos, Arabic CDs, movies, sweets, falafels, sandals, shoes, cigarettes, lottery tickets, tea, coffee, folk art, etc. The outdoor mall teemed with people in a massive pedestrian traffic jam. I was jealous that Hartford has a river, but nothing like this. City planners in Deir balanced the automobile and the ambulator. Markets like this never happened under the Father, Hafez Al-Assad. The father focused on foreign relations, on building pan-Arabic unity, as the philosophy of the Ba’athist party guided him. And Syria suffered internally for it. Bashar, though, has focused on Syria’s economy since he assumed the presidency in 2000. He’s tried to open markets. Although few of the goods I saw were American, as recent sanctions prevent that (although the elevator in my hotel was Otis). Occasionally, you’ll find a Chevrolet, but mostly, its Chinese, Russian or European cars. The same goes for Coca-Cola or 7-Up. Arab companies have cornered the Syrian bottled beverage market. The availability of consumer goods will hopefully hasten the transition to democracy, Mr. Maher indicated. He is a local figure in the pro-democracy movement, and some research echoes his sentiment. The tipping point that helps secure a developing democracy is a $5,500 annual per capita income, according to Fulbright Scholar Joshua Landis’ website, Syriacomment.com. Syria, at an estimated GDP per capita income of $1,165, is still a stretch from $5,500, but open elections can’t be far behind Internet cafes and Benetton boutiques. Although, only one personal computer exists for every 56 Syrians, according to the U.S. State Department’s web site. Navigating the crowds, Mr. Maher bumped into many friends and neighbors, including a veiled mother and three of her 11 children (4 daughters, 7 sons). One of the daughters was in her late teens, or perhaps early 20s, already a mother and veiled. The children, Kasem, a 12-year-old boy and Hudda, an 11 year old girl, dressed like they could be from Manhattan. They walked with us for 15 minutes, holding Mr. Maher’s arm. Syrian culture might disturb some Americans. Many Syrian men hold hands, or stroll together arm-in-arm. When men greet each other, they kiss on the cheeks, European style. I saw no such show of affection among women. Among this homogenous crowd, I was the only tourist, and certainly the only American. When we reached some riverside tables, Mr. Maher bid us to sit down, and he disappeared to retrieve some beverages. Every time a breeze passed, a nasty garbage stench hit my nostrils. At first, we sat there in silence. I watched Kasem play with a cheap Chinese lighted plastic wristband. Hudda held a plastic bag tight on her lap. I thought that but for a line in the sand, drawn by Winston Churchill on a napkin, these people might be under attack by my government. I have no problem with them. And it occurred to me that if the US invades Syria, Kasem might take up arms against the American army. I felt sad, because I am certain that life in Al-Qaim, the main town on the other side of the Iraqi border, is no different than here in Deir. I broke the silence with the children by trying to teach them new English words, and gleaning the Arabic equivalent in exchange. Hudda could count to 20 in English. Kasem took a minute to catch on that I was pointing at the table and saying "Table." We covered the vocab for chair, cup, teeth, nose, eyes, mouth, ears, eyebrow, and tongue. Mr. Maher returned, and UmmUmm (grandmother) told him I was nice. We had a round of tea, coffee and the children had soda. After our round, those people left, and two more friends of Mr. Maher’s showed up, two 30-something men. They yammered away in Arabic, and I heard "American journalist" bandied about before they turned to me. In English, they quizzed me about the Progressive, and wanted to know if it listed on the Stock Exchange and how big it is. It dawned on me that Mr. Maher suspected I might have been CIA or something other than who I purported to be because he kept asking me for a copy of the magazine, which I lost somewhere between Istanbul and Damascus. Was my name was in the masthead? Was I the editor? Trying to explain freelance writing to a culture unfamiliar with the battle between America’s corporate-owned and independent presses is like me trying to understand Arabic. Wrestling with this got us really nowhere, and Mr. Maher put me in a taxi back to my hotel, to meet at 9 a.m. to go to Abu Kamal, the Iraqi border.

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