meeting Syrians in Lebanon

In Lebanon for a few days (turned weeks), arranging a new Syria visa. The pleasant young hotel employee who also helps out at the shop across the street, where I get my water, shyly asks me, “May I ask you a question?”  Sure. “You’ve got a Palestine necklace, a Syria bracelet… where are you from?”

When I tell him I love both countries, he says proudly “ana min Souria,” (I’m from Syria).

The Western media’s allegations go that Syrians in Syria simply say they support President Bashar al-Assad because they are afraid to say otherwise. I don’t buy it. But my encounters with Syrians outside of Syria further convince me.

He replies to my very simple question “What do you want for Syria?” with the standard “Inno Syria raja mittle man kan ‘abl,” (that Syria is like it was before).  Since I don’t want to make assumptions on what he perceives the cause of the strife to be, I ask, “with the President?”

Akiid, of course with him,” he replies.

I breach taboo and ask what his religion is (people don’t do that in Syria, it’s largely not discussed, and most Syrians I’ve met will say “I’m Syrian” when I ask that question, and I ask the question not to play the sectarian card but to know and show that among supporters of President Assad are Syrians of all backgrounds, faiths, ages.).  He’s Muslim, Druze.

I ask my usual “is this a revolution?” He tsks, lifting his chin up in the Arab nod no, and says, “Many Syrians are not wealthy, some of them have been bought off, paid-off to participate.”

*****

Another night we take a walk to Beirut’s Corniche, the seaside walkway filled with joggers, walkers, lovers, fishers. An older man sits playing an ‘oud rigged up to a speaker. He wears a conical red hat and is singing some love ballad. “He’s from Haleb (Aleppo),” my new friend tells me. I ask how he knows. “From his clothing, and the song is a Haleb song.”

We stop into a shop for water, my friend saying to the shop-keeper “mesa al-hrir,” (good evening). After a few courtesies, he asks the owner, “where are you from?”  Sweida, same as my friend. Turns out they know each-others’ families. “I knew it from the moment you said good evening, knew you were from Sweida,” the shop-keeper says.  Then the usual back-and-forth, “there’s no charge for the water,” and “la, haram,” (no way, I’m paying) for about 5 minutes before he pays and we leave.

He tells me about the area he’s from, in the mountains and agricultural. “People are very poor there, but everyone is hospitable. If you come to someone’s house, they’ll feed you and you’ll sleep over. You’ll see, come to our village, everyone will insist that you visit and stay with them (which of course I experienced in Palestine as well).”

Returning to the hotel we stop at a petrol station where some of his friends work. From Sweida. I’m introduced, he mentions I’m heading back to Syria. “Beiti beitek,” the younger guy says, my house is your house. “Come stay at our house,” as though he’d heard our conversation of 10 minutes ago.

We near the hotel and get stuck between an oncoming car and a man pushing a food cart uphill.  He graciously apologizes, we apologize and step off to the side. My friend recognizes his dialect and asks, where are you from? Sweida. They comment on mutual friends for a minute, then the man says, “I want to serve you some food, drink, what do you want.”  I decline at first, but he keeps offering, so I take him up on the foul, the boiled broad beans seasoned with salt, cumin, chili and fresh lemons.  They chat for a while and the man readies to continue uphill. The discussion between who will pay ensues, my friend wins out with the logic, “If I were in your house, I’d accept your hospitality. We’re in the street. Take my money.”

We duck into his uncle’s shop to sit down. His uncle is of course from Sweida, as are a number of men in and outside the shop. More beiti beiteks.

*****

In the corner store where I’ve been buying groceries the past few days, the cheerful guy who bags the groceries–he’s always teasing the regular customers, always with a smile and great personality–turns out to be Syrian. He notices my wristband today and his smile gets brighter. But he jokes, “Are you with Bashar or with the ‘revolution’?” The inflection on the last word mocks it, revealing which side he is on.  “I’m with the people of Syria,” I say. “If you want Bashar, that’s your choice. But I’m not with the armed ‘rebels’,” I say, using the same inflection he’d used for ‘revolution’.

We chat a while, the Lebanese cashier joins in, so I ask if she’s Syrian. “No, but I love Syria.”

This charming young man carries himself with the same dignity I’ve seen already in Syria, and with those I’ve met here, and in occupied Palestine. What is it about being screwed over that makes one dignified?  It’s like a theme…

The waiter in the breakfast lobby, he too is Syrian. He’s been working here for a while, and goes back every few months or so to Deir Zror. He hasn’t fled because of the situation, he came here for work.  He asks what my hurry is to get back to Syria.  “I came here to learn about Syria and share what I see and what Syrians tell me,” I reply. “Besides, it so nice there, you Syrians are so damn nice!”

“It’s heaven there,” he says.

*****

Another of the employees is from Deir Zror. “Fi mishekels honak, Da’ash,” he says. “There are problems there, ISIS is there.” ISIS and al-Qaeda groups are fighting there, he says. And the army is fighting against all of the armed groups.

He’s worried about his wife and kids. What can he do? Can’t afford to bring them to Beirut, is worried for their safety there. “They just stay at home all of the time,” he says. But that even that won’t guarantee their safety.

*****

At breakfast one morning, still waiting for my visa application to be processed, I sit working on my laptop.  A man keeps glancing my way, and finally comes over to say he likes the Syrian bracelet I wear. We get talking. He’s Syrian, from Aleppo. At the end of our talk, he says again how happy it made him to see me wearing this bracelet… and adds, “I can’t wear my Syrian flag here because there are so many stupid people, they might kidnap me or worse. I’m not afraid of my government, but I am afraid of these thugs.”

Below is our conversation.

*****

The Aleppo man isn’t the only Syrian here to tell me he can’t wear his Syria bracelet. A seriously cheerful employee at a maneish (flatbread Lebanese version of pizza [forgive my rough approximation!]) and pastries (stuffed with spinach) stand calls me habib-gelbi (habib=love, gelbi=my heart) when he sees my Syria wrist-band. He particularly wants a Hands Off Syria wristband, which I will try to get to him. But, he notes, he can’t wear it at work. Why? “My boss won’t let me.”

*****

Disturbingly, there is racism towards, well, many people in Lebanon. Not to the tourists, but towards Palestinians, Syrians, hired-maids from various countries. This is well-documented, although–of course–not all Lebanese are such (and in the south I didn’t see many hired maids, and there was a lot more brotherly/sisterly good-will). My Sweida friend talks about this one day. He works in a hotel, and also–without pay–minds his uncle’s simple shop. In fact, he’s given up his own personal life to better that of his family: in Syria these days, because of this nonsense, manufactured war and crises, and the sanctions, and the insurgents’ looting of factories, and so many more things… life is more expensive than it used to be. He came here not to flee the fighting, but to support his brother’s university studies… to become a doctor. He, himself, was on the road to being an engineer. But he’s put everything on hold, works two jobs, helps whoever comes into his shop with a graciousness not often seen, never complains, and is on top of all of this subjected to classist racism from some Lebanese who deem him inferior.

His dream was to be a mathematics prof, but while he is intelligent, he was one percentile below the required entry level. So he studied engineering instead.  “But my dream was to teach math,” he said.

One day, he’s busy tutoring two Syrian teens who are poor in math. He’s doing it balesh, without pay, because he wants to help and loves math.  A hotel manager walks into his uncle’s shop where he is tutoring, scoffs at him and snarks something like, “do you even know anything, how can you teach?”

He endures belittling comments like this all the time. “What can I do, I need to work, so I nod and say, okay,” he says, making a mouth-zipped motion.  But in that instance, his already straight back straightened and he told the man, “I am educated, I am an engineer. I’m working in the hotel because I have no money. But don’t think that this defines who I am.”

The man slinked away, and later apologized to him, saying, “I had no idea.” He apparently calls my friend ya Professor now.

But that slight happy ending aside, the racism is discouraging. Recent news reports that Palestinians fleeing Syria, from wherever, are not to be allowed into Lebanon.

“When they had their civil war, many Lebanese fled to Syria. We opened our doors to them. We fed them and wouldn’t take money,” my friend says. “But now that we are suffering, no one helps Syrians in Lebanon, we are treated like dirt.”

In general, I agree, from what I’ve seen on the streets and heard. But that said, a caveat, twice while walking I’ve seen Lebanese stop and give money to the Syrian women with children camped on the sidewalks daily.

*****

Biding my time, waiting for paperwork to be done, I end up in a place north of Beirut, with a very generous friend who gives me a room for 5 days. Near some of Lebanon’s wonders, I visit Jeita Grotto, Jbeil (Byblos), and the cable-car leading up to the hilltop where –in the Middle East–the largest statue of Mary resides. I’m more interested in the scenery, and lovely scenery it is. Coming down from the hill, a thin older man with a pleasant face stops my car and opens the door. We start chatting immediately, I think it began with him detecting my ajnerbia intonation. “Where are you from?” he asks. I reply and ask him the same. Syria. I knew it, from his presence, his humility and dignity. I know this sounds a bit repetitive, but walahi come here and meet these people, and you too will be repeating yourself: they are kind, dignified, humble, intelligent, know what the US/NATO/Zios have planned for them…

We chat a bit. He is also from Haleb (Aleppo), has been working here for years, not because of the manufactured war. But because of the situation, he’s recently brought his wife and kids here. I ask my usual simple questions: “What’s the problem? What do you think of the President?”

He replies–noting that he is speaking his mind, isn’t afraid to do so–that he will vote for President Assad . “I’m with him. Before all of this we were safe and had few problems.”

I ask the taboo question again, for the sake of clarity, and he replies “I’m Sunni Muslim, but in Syria it’s not important what religion you are.”

He’s Sunni. Bashar al-Assad is Alawi. The Western media has made MUCH of the so-called Alawi devotees to President Assad. But in my experience, in Syria and out, Syrians across the board support Assad.  It just depends if they’ve been corrupted by NED/Soros or other funds or whether they’ve been seduced by the Wahabi, Takfiri notion of raping, desecrating, destroying Syria for greater pleasures in a promised hereafter.

****

In a village near the Chouf Cedar Reserve, I come across another Syrian who has left because of the armed gangs in Aleppo. He’s a talented woodworker, and one evening stops by the hotel to have a cup of warm milk. I’ve already had a coffee (he saw me in the street earlier and invited me to his employer’s house for coffee), and a instant-coffee-milk mixture (everyone calls it Nescafe, whether its Nestle or not) with the guesthouse manager while talking Syria, but “Ibrahim” keeps insisting he buy me a coffee, something.

He shows me photos of his handiwork–lovely wood furniture, cupboards, intricate ceiling decor. I ask if this is what he did for work in Syria. “I had my own shop, but its been destroyed. Our house was destroyed, too.”  I ask when he’ll go back. “I can’t go back, the ‘rebels’ are there, I can’t get back.”

Haleb helua, ahlan mekkan. Aleppo is beautiful, the most beautiful place,” he says.

We look at online photos of Aleppo.

“See how beautiful it is!” He points out the landmarks, repeating himself, Haleb helua.

The Umayyad mosque, a castle, a hotel which he says is one of the oldest in the world…

Bas kharaboo.  But they’ve destroyed it all. Here, our house is here…. but it’s destroyed. The most beautiful place n the world.”

All this is said in the same soft voice, not a trace of anger or bitterness, just sadness, longing.

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