Axis of Evil … or Hospitality?

In light of present situations, I feel a bit of a reminder is in order concerning Syria and its people.

Many terrible things have gone on throughout history (the Black Plague, the Spanish Inquisition, Germany’s blitzkrieg on Poland, apartheid, the 3rd Matrix film), and, unless the world gets whacked by an asteroid “Armageddon” style tonight, I am sure these won’t be the last of them. But there has been a great wrong placed upon a particular part of the world … or should I say, the people residing there. Terrorism is one of the horrid evils of this world, and religious fanaticism usually rears its ugly head to claim ownership, but many of us have blurred the line between a handful (in percentage terms) of nut jobs and finger pointing at entire nations. A certain former US president (let us call him “Mr. Numb-Nuts” for the sake of anonymity), during one of his countless brain farts, decided to label a particular Middle-Eastern country (let us call it “Syria” for the sake of clarity) an “axis of evil” shortly after the horrific events of September 11th. Things were bad, tensions were high and people wanted answers. Understandable. But instead of seeking out the particulars, investigating all the options, doing any form of research whatsoever (anyone yet seen those weapons of mass destruction?), Mr. Numb-Nuts blindly invaded a country and painted an entire religion and people as bomb-toting fanatics hell-bent on blowing themselves to bits in order to bring about the downfall of Western ideals (whatever those may be). Islam and the Muslim in general have been given the shaft (and unfortunately I do not meant the ultra-cool 1971 American Blaxploitation film or the Isaac Hayes soundtrack) … yet again. Let us go back in time a few hundred years. Pope Urban II had the same idea donkey’s years ago and decided to get the panties of all Europeans up in a knot by claiming that the Holy Lands and the city of Jerusalem were under threat from a “strange people” with a religion that, get this, recognised Jesus as a prophet of God (though not as the son of God), lived in harmony with other Christians and with people who devoted their lives to being hospitable and living in peace. If you are wondering, no, I can’t understand the reason why he thought all this was a threat either. All I have been able to come up with is that maybe Urban II was a religious fanatic himself. “Christian fanaticism!?!?” I hear some of you cry is disbelief. Just as an example, let me throw out Jim Jones and that Waco, Texas guy. Let’s not even mention the witch trials, right? And Jim and Tammy Faye Baker – sorry, they are just too funny to take seriously. Anyway, for the next 200 years, the official “Crusades” royally screwed with the area. I use the term “official” only for history book purposes, as many people I have met in the Middle East personally believe the Crusades are still going on today, but now concerning oil – a view that I tend to agree with. Come now, the former Crusades where just as much a land grab as they are today, no matter what you try to pull over people’s heads and make them believe!

Now, I was around Syria for a bit and have even worked my way down to within 25 km of the border to Iraq, and to comment on the local people’s reaction to a group of American / Canadian tourists meandering the area and snapping countless photos, so far the only fear I have experienced has been “oh bugger … was the uncooked tomato and raw lettuce in my kebab a good idea to eat?” (For those wondering, no, I have had no horrid stomach pains or mad dashes to the squatters yet, but thanks loads for thinking about my well-being.) Before you get any funny ideas, I just want to clarify that I don’t think intentionally tainting salad with raw sewage is an evil terrorist’s new method of toppling governments … though, if you think about it, that may not be such a bad idea! It would really be much easier to club your enemies over the head when they are either doubled over with stomach cramps or are dropping their guts all over the scenery whilst at the same time frantically hunting for Imodium tablets or a wine cork. Anywho, the warmth and welcoming attitude coming from most of those I encountered has even overshadowed the infamous hospitality of Georgians (the US state of, not the former Soviet bloc country) to say “hey, how yall doin’?” to every individual they pass on the street, whether they know them of not. And for those of you who have travelled to Egypt or Morocco, very rarely do Syrians try to sell you a camel or carpet or ask for “baksheesh”. Many times, they are actually just interested in you and gracefully welcome you to their country! Most have been so pleased to see Americans disregarding the propaganda of fear and coming to see for their own eyes what the actual story is. They shake your hand or kiss your cheek. They inquire about your family and compare the stories to their own. They let your child share a bag of crisps with their own children and keep them from falling over on a moving train. They want a photo with you and always have a pocket full of sweeties to share afterwards. Are you shaking in your boots from all that “evil” yet?

Look, I am hopefully intelligent enough to understand that the political factions of countries aren’t the most honest of individuals, and there are many things going on behind our backs, but that should not twist our perception of the average Joe. If 98% of the population just wants to take care of their families and live in harmony, then who cares if the Syrian government wants to keep up good relations with Iran or Iraq? They are neighbours after all, so you can’t blame them for not wanting to rock that boat and provoke strife! As for the Commercial Bank of Syria being blamed for laundering money for terrorist groups … oh, please! Scratch the surface and you will find similar things going on within European and US banks as well. But has the US put sanctions on Switzerland or Europe yet? I don’t think so. “What about Syria’s poor relations with Israel (or “the occupied Palestinian state”, as Syria calls it)?” OK … I’m not going to touch that one here and now … too volatile from both sides for even me to handle! I know where to draw my lines.

I have met many new friends around the cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Palmyra that I hope to visit again and again throughout my life. And I had no reservation in my mind a couple of years back when taking my family there with me for a holiday. They are a beautiful, honest and fascinating people that deserves more than many Westerners give them (talking about the Syrians here … not my family). Don’t take the previous US administration’s word as that of gold. Go for a visit yourself when and if all the turmoil that 2011 has brought calms down and have a cup of tea with anyone who invites you into their shop or home. Just please see things with your own eyes wide open. If you have one of those rare travel agents that provide excursions to Syria, then take advantage of the chance! The prices in the country are still fair, though increasing, the history and sites, phenomenal, and the food is exquisite. But it is the people that can be the most astounding part of your trip. Take with a grain of salt the broadcasts you are used to hearing from politically backed media outlets. These are not a people sworn to chaos and destruction. Saying that, I still would not head to Syria or anywhere in the Middle East wearing an “I Love George W. Bush” t-shirt … but, if you think about it, you would get the ever-lovin’ crap beat out of you in your own country for doing that!