Mike and Bob From Hama

 

I just spent the morning talking to two Syrians from Hama. One has been here for many months, the other arrived in Turkey last week. I’ll call them Mike and Bob because for obvious reasons they didn’t want me to use their names. I mostly spoke to Mike, the one who crossed the border last week. Bob arrived much later in the conversation and I didn’t have a chance to talk to him at length.

A Turkish friend put me in contact with them. I knew only that Mike was a firsthand witness to what’s been happening in Hama lately, and that Syrian security had tortured the hell out of him.

Mike’s mother is Syrian, his father is Palestinian. His father was expelled from Jaffa in ’48. That means Mike is Palestinian, because having one Syrian parent isn’t enough to have citizenship. His father worked for the United Nations in a Palestinian refugee camp.

“I remember the day. It was Wednesday at about 6:00 p.m. We lived in a new suburb. My father said, ‘I’m working for the UN, I have nothing to do with this.'”

I interrupted to ask if his father was in the Ikhwan. Absolutely not, he said, and neither was he. “I’m not related to the Ikhwan,” he said. “I totally agree with the American and European system.” I think that’s true, by the way — he had no reason to say otherwise. I can’t verify anything he said independently. I’m very aware that everyone who speaks to a journalist is trying in some way to manipulate public opinion, but generally if you’re an Ikhwani trying to manipulate the Western media, your line isn’t “I’m not related to the Ikhwan.” It’s “the Ikhwan are so misunderstood.” And basically, my gut said he was telling the truth.

He was six years old. They took his father to the basement along with the other men and killed them all. He was in the house. They left the bodies there for days. There was no food or water. “You can imagine the smell. I will never forget the bulldozer.”

I feel a real sense of obligation to try to recount the rest of the conversation as accurately as I can–the details are important, and some part of it might be useful to anyone who’s trying to understand what’s going on there right now. It might corroborate other accounts or fill in some piece of a larger puzzle.

I’ve got many pages of notes. I’ll have to approach this over several days. But I suppose the place to start is at the end. I know the look he gave me when I left. I see it a lot: “You’re a journalist. Please, make the world understand what’s happening to us. If they understood, they wouldn’t let it happen.”

People keep believing that even when the evidence for that belief is not good at all.

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  1. Profile Photo Thatcher
    @Percival

    “Please, make the world understand what’s happening to us. If they understood, they wouldn’t let it happen.”

    A warm, sunny Sunday morning is not time or place for the thoughts that went through my head when I read that.

    Of course we won’t let it happen. Unless it is complicated, or is happening far away, or would cost us time and money to fix, or we are distracted.

    A dark, cold winter’s afternoon would be more apt, somehow. I want Hafez out of there, and something like a real chance at a decent society for the people suffering under the misrule of that chinless wonder. I don’t see us as doing anything useful, and it is infuriating.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Inactive
    @CrowsNest

    The guys over at Coffee and Markets recently did a Podcast on the premise that the GOP candidates have been basically absent on foreign policy. FP also ran an (somewhat interesting, somewhat banal) article about the way the candidates are assembling their teams.

    There’s no question that the state of America’s debts and our economy needs some serious attention, and we should make that case as forcefully, cogently, and persuasively as we can. It is the #1 issue. But we need leaders who can walk and chew gum at the same time. The most expansive powers of the Presidency are (thankfully) not in the office’s ability to create jobs. They are in foreign policy. We’ve seen what a “present” vote looks like in office–now how about some leadership, GOP?

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire

    The awful thing is that no amount of American leadership can obviate the fact that there is no happy outcome here. This is going to end somewhere between “river of blood” and “Apocalypse.” The former is the best possible outcome. We sat there for hours discussing all the possible ways this could play out. He and I certainly didn’t agree about everything. But his basic handle on reality was good, so we could have a lucid conversation about this. Neither of us saw anything better than “river of blood” in Syria’s future. Absent good luck and incredibly skillful statesmanship–not just from the United States, either–the worst-case scenario seems quite plausible.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Contributor
    @judithlevy

    Claire, please convey to them most sincere good wishes from your friend in Israel.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Inactive
    @SteveS

    Hello Claire, My prayers are with those near you without freedom but I trust still with hope. I wonder if you could help me and possible others who are novices in foreign policy matters in understanding as to what we , as concerned Americans can do other than to offer prayers and good wishes.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Contributor
    @judithlevy
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Israel P.

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Mike’s mother is Syrian, his father is Palestinian. His father was expelled from Jaffa in ’48.

    Accepting the enemy’s narrative, are we now?
    In what sense? I suppose I could use the word “dislodged” to suggest the degree of historical controversy about these events. By the way, Judith wrote a fascinating master’s thesis about Plan Dalet. Judith, want to weigh in?

    My eyebrow also twitched when I saw the word “expelled” in your post, Claire, but I assumed a) that that was exactly the way Mike told you the story and b) that you decided to let it slide, in view of the circumstances, rather than halt the flow of his narrative about what’s going on right now. The Arab flight in 1948 is obviously a matter of tremendous controversy, and if you want to avoid having some of your readership shut down on Mike completely, you might want either to replace “expelled” with something less blithely accusatory or explain Mike’s use of the term in a bit greater detail (even a single parenthetical line).

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire
    Judith Levy The Arab flight in 1948 is obviously a matter of tremendous controversy, and if you want to avoid having some of your readership shut down on Mike completely, you might want either to replace “expelled” with something less blithely accusatory or explain Mike’s use of the term in a bit greater detail (even a single parenthetical line). · Jul 11 at 1:18am

    I know you didn’t mean it this way, but obviously it would be unethical to try to keep my readership sympathetic to Mike by omitting important words he used. I’ll try to describe what he really said accurately; people can judge for themselves whether he’s “the enemy.” He used the word “expelled,” but as you say, Judith, these are hugely controversial events among historians, including Israeli historians. If everyone who uses the word “expelled” to describe this is the enemy, I’d say the enemy is defined too broadly for peace to be possible.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Contributor
    @judithlevy

    Honey, it wasn’t clear that you were directly quoting Mike there; that’s the whole issue. We don’t know what he said on the subject, only your interpretation of it. If you’d quoted him as using the word “expelled,” of course I wouldn’t suggest you alter it. All I’m saying is that your readers, not seeing any quotation marks around that word, can’t help but wonder if that’s Mike talking or you talking.

    I agree with you completely about the use of the term “enemy,” which I did not bring into this conversation. The use of the term “enemy” here is even more loaded than “expelled.”

    This debate might offer a clue why some readers might prefer to keep their eyes fixed on domestic deficit reduction proposals, by the way. It can be difficult to wade into this region without raising hackles, even unintentionally.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire

    Yes, I should have put it in quotation marks. I was paraphrasing for economy, but I suppose it’s important to make it clear that he said that.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire
    Israel P.

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Mike’s mother is Syrian, his father is Palestinian. His father was expelled from Jaffa in ’48.

    Accepting the enemy’s narrative, are we now? · Jul 10 at 12:47pm

    Edited on Jul 10 at 12:57 pm

    In what sense? I suppose I could use the word “dislodged” to suggest the degree of historical controversy about these events. By the way, Judith wrote a fascinating master’s thesis about Plan Dalet. Judith, want to weigh in?

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire
    Stephen S.: Hello Claire, My prayers are with those near you without freedom but I trust still with hope. I wonder if you could help me and possible others who are novices in foreign policy matters in understanding as to what we , as concerned Americans can do other than to offer prayers and good wishes. · Jul 10 at 10:32am

    I’m going to work on this over the coming few days. There’s lots to think about in what they said–and of course, what they said needs to be put in as much context as I can put it.

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Inactive
    @IsraelP
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Mike’s mother is Syrian, his father is Palestinian. His father was expelled from Jaffa in ’48.

    Accepting the enemy’s narrative, are we now?

    • #12
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