On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Ali Haidar today, in the course interviewing. Trained as an eye doctor, Dr. Haidar became Syria’s Reconciliation Minister when the Ministry was formed 2 years ago.
Before we officially began he asked about my necklace. “Is this the map of Palestine?” Yes (well, he knew, but was politely asking). “You know, for us, Palestine is a part of Syria,” he said, a comment I’ve heard from many other Syrians, also from Palestinians.
Later, driving back through a Damascus area, S pointed out the neighbourhood nearby where President Assad lives. The street is blocked off but otherwise it is a completely normal area. “He lives in an apartment, not a house,” S said. I ask if he’s got a bunker or something. “He lives with other families in the building, like anyone else. Sometimes he walks to work.”
S mentioned a pro-Assad demonstration in early 2012, in Umayyad Square. “He came walking to the demo with his wife and kids,” S said.
Arriving in the central Damascus neighbourhood where S lives, we somehow get to talking about the diversity and non-sectarian nature of the area, as in most of Syria (minus the freedom-loving ISIS and Nusra imposing their version of Islam on Syrian in areas like Raqqa…).
“In our apartment building one floor is Shia, another is Christian, another in Sunni,” says S.
As part of an article I’m writing on Syria’s rugby team, this morning I joined the team for their Friday morning training at the Fayha stadium in Damascus. The team trains for a few hours in the growing morning heat, with a backdrop of Qasioun mountain, on a near-perfect pitch (at one end, a blackened hole marks where a mortar landed, one of over 150 mortars fired on Damascus on June 3, when revolution-bringing armed groups rained mortars on civilian areas in an attempt to disrupt voting.).
A Syrian army plane flies over, reminding me that I’m in Syria where the army is fighting against a manufactured war and foreign terrorists. The players, some of them doctors, others students, one an architect…are playing rugby because they love the sport and also because they want to represent Syria in a different way than normally portrayed in corporate media.
One of the doctors says for him its the fitness, but also to relieve stress. From Homs, his house destroyed, his parents killed by a sniper, he knows stress.
During a short break before their final scrimmage, my friend S puts on a soft head-guard. “It’s usually worn by the hooker, the position which usually gets his ears battered when playing,” one guy explains to me. S puts it on to protect his head which still has 4 pieces of shrapnel in it from his last injury, when “freedom-loving revolutionaries” fired 2 rockets on a civilian area of Damascus a month ago (“On May 6, the same day I was injured, 54 mortars were fired all over Damascus. In this neighbourhood alone, 27 mortars were fired on us,” S told me a few days ago. “There is no military, or any kind of security forces here, just civilians. The two mortars on this single street caused at least 15 injuries. By the end of the day, there were around 50 injured and two martyred.”) Having helped the first batch of injured, S was hit with shrapnel all over his body and in his head.
Yesterday, meeting with someone to coordinate a visit to an area outside of Damascus, after taking a phone call, he lamented that pretty much no corporate media will cover the story he’s just been reminded of: a man from the Latakia countryside whose male family members were slaughtered and female members kidnapped by foreign mercenaries in August 2013. The man himself has gone blind from an injury at the time. “They don’t want to hear these stories, it doesn’t suit their narrative,” my contact said.