When I Met an Iraqi in Syria

10/9/2007 by Erica Gies
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Deafening Silence I met a man recently at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, ducking behind an ancient column to escape the heat. We asked where the other was from: “the United States,” I said. “Iraq,” he said. We looked at each other for a few moments, barefoot in the courtyard. The usual tourist chitchat — asking about his family, his hometown — seemed macabre. Almost certainly he was taking refuge in Syria to escape the chaos and violence back home. In hindsight, I am struck by the rarity of the moment. Not being a soldier or a senator, this was my first encounter with an Iraqi since the war began. Rare because our country has accepted fewer than 1,000 Iraqi refugees. By contrast, Syria and Jordan have taken in millions, driving up the cost of living dramatically. It would be easy for Jordanians and Syrians to resent Americans for this hardship. Yet every Arab I met said, “Welcome!” and many offered food or drink. They said, “We understand you are not your government.” Experiencing this warmth abroad, I grew cynical upon returning home, where pundits raved that we should “nuke Damascus” and the State Department warned about “dire security concerns in Syria.” Our dialog about the Middle East seems locked in “otherness,” per Edward Said. We divide cultures to make the “other” seem inferior to legitimize its conquest. When I met the Iraqi, I felt like apologizing, or explaining how I had protested the war. But these approaches seemed defensive and hollow. His inquisitive eyes accused me of nothing, yet it seemed that we both knew why he was in Damascus, that his entire world had been destroyed on the whim of my government. I think I was afraid, or ashamed, to ask him his story, to listen in helpless testament to his loss. Eventually we just said, “Well, good to meet you!” and both moved on. With a Perspective, I’m Erica Gies.