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The Road from Damascus
The Road from Damascus - To the Reader
Posted by Davis, Scott
Wednesday , November 04, 2015
Scott C. Davis

To the Reader

The point of this book is the humanity of men and women in a country that the US State Department has branded a "terrorist nation."

I am writing about the ordinary people of Syria, and they are a way for me to pose questions about my own country. If Americans live in a democracy, then why don't the principles of fairness and decency that apply to our domestic life apply as well to our foreign policy? Who decides how the US acts abroad, members of the political and moneyed elite or ordinary citizens? How can Americans condemn our enemies overseas when we have little idea of the US actions that have triggered their enmity? When will the doors open so that Americans can face the full truth of our actions in the world since 1945?

Fairness and decency—do these principles still apply to our domestic life? In the wake of September 11th, the US administration has made dozens of large and small decisions to limit the Freedom of Information Act and Fourth Amendment rights. The Attorney General, for example, has announced that he has the right to label any individual a "combatant" in the war on terror, to deprive the accused of all civil rights, and to act without court review. Are the secrecy, arrogance, and contempt for civil liberties that have long characterized our foreign policy now poisoning domestic policy as well?

In my experience, Americans know little about the lives of Middle Eastern Arabs and Muslims. Following the September 11th attacks and the current violence in Palestine, fear and ignorance are the dynamic behind American public opinion. As I write, more than a year after September 11th, the impulse of the citizenry is to give government leaders carte blanche in foreign affairs.

The issue of the moment is the proposed US invasion of Iraq. Members of the administration are touring the talk shows, whipping up the fear of the populace. 60 Minutes reports that many of the facts they use in their arguments are false. Still, they have been effective. The evening news reports that in a recent survey, a majority of Americans wrongly identified Iraq as the cause of the September 11th attacks.

A few years ago tens of thousands of people were slaughtered in Rwanda and the Balkans while the US stood by. Why did the US not act decisively then? Why is military action imperative now?

Did the public ever really learn what happened the last time the US attacked Iraq? Since the Gulf War, hundreds of thousands of children and elderly people have died from diarrhea, the calculated result of US bombing of water treatment plants—which we did in order to "put pressure" on the regime and to "give bite" to the sanctions.

I imagine that very few Americans would have approved this strategy. No need. The decision was made on our behalf, without our knowledge, and the US media has never covered this story in depth. As a result, most Americans are unacquainted with the grim results that occur when misguided think-tank strategies are tested on real men and women. Can we count on the promises of today for a clean, quick "regime change" any more than we should have trusted the Gulf War rhetoric which promised laser-guided accuracy?

Sad to say, policies created by a few insiders against a backdrop of public indifference or ignorance are often the wrong policies. They have unintended effects. They backfire and harm the United States. And they ruin the lives of innocents in foreign lands.

Why did I come to the Middle East? In 1986 Libya and Syria stood accused of sponsoring terrorism. In May the United States responded by bombing Libya, killing fifteen people including Qaddafi's infant daughter. Commentators suggested that Syria was next. By December Syria was routinely denounced for harboring the world's worst renegades. Still, I had trouble jiving the TV image of Syria with the one Syrian whom I knew. In Seattle, I had built a restaurant designed by Hasan the architect. He was mild, fastidious, courteous to a fault—a Poirot, a real fuss-budget—and a family man who indulged his daughters. Was he typical of Arabs in the Middle East? Or were they, on the balance, violent people bent on martyrdom?

"I've got to go and see for myself," I announced. I had spent a decade building my construction business and needed to take a break. As a destination, the Middle East seemed more adventurous than, say, Hawaii. I wanted to meet the people I had seen in the news.

One more thing: I was angry because, coming out of college, I had worked hard to put my life in order. The hatred and killing in the Middle East, geographically distant as it was, nevertheless distorted my mental world. The Middle East defined the possibilities for human behavior. Cruelty, fear, and revenge were kept alive in my life in Seattle because they dominated the story that came out of Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv.

"The world's leaders have failed to solve the Middle East conflict," I thought, "despite those hefty salaries they have been collecting. I guess I will have to do it myself." This was a vain thought, typical of a carpenter convinced of his can-do prowess.

"I am joking," I told myself.

Yet as my journey progressed I found that Syrians constantly restored the mantel of responsibility that I had so quickly shed. "We must think, and pray, and yearn for the ideas that humanity needs to survive," Syrians seemed to say to me. "Ultimately individual men and women, not experts, not power brokers, achieve peace."

Why Syria? This country is a microcosm of the Arab Middle East. What I learned in Syria, I felt, would apply in some measure to all Arab countries. Also, I had an advantage with Syria. The contacts that Hasan the architect provided could help. This country had amazing ruins and very few tourists. Even more compelling: Syria had dozens of cultures and subcultures developed over five thousand years' time, probably unmatched in the world for a country of its size. Syria was a cultural storehouse—the Amazon rain forest of raw cultural material.

I wanted to isolate the special capacity that enabled men and women of different races and faiths to live together. In Syria I sensed that I had the best chance of finding the answer for which I was searching.

I also wanted to write about my journey, and I hoped that Syrians would honor this endeavor. As it turned out, I met many Syrians who encouraged me to put my travel to literary use. In the old Crusader seaport of Tartus, for example, I took tea with a local English teacher, a short, plump man who listened to my itinerary, then interrupted.

"You must have a purpose for your travel," he said. "Something for humanity. I think that you should write a book—not a funny book, but wise, very wise. In the Middle Ages, before a man wrote a book he traveled the entire world, talked to the people, saw the customs. Only then did he sit down to write. Syria—it is the world. All the philosophies, all the history, all the peoples of the world are here, right here, in our small country. You see, you speak, you make a note. Then go home and write a book of wisdom."

- Scott C. Davis is a writer and photographer based in Seattle, Washington

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