Saturday, February 07, 2009

Flashback Friday: In which a middle name saves the day

Where to start with this Flashback Friday? Let's get three things out in the open:

1. Most of my pregnancy with Miriam was spent in Damascus, Syria.

2. We gave Miriam the middle name Damascus. Middle names are great like that - you can have it be something totally obscure, wacko, or awesome, and no one has to know about it unless you tell them.

3. Syria is a police state. It also has a secret police, the mukhabarat, who somehow maintain a simultaneously invisible yet ubiquitous presence throughout the country. Except I don't really get the "secret" part since they have an office in the Muhajireen neighborhood of Damascus, and everyone knows about it and where it is. In fact, there are occasions in one's life in Damascus when you have to go there to obtain permission from the secret police to do something, which brings us to our Flashback Friday story.

In the summer of 2007, we were living in Jordan. Late in the summer, my mom and brother came to visit, and we decided to take another trip up to Syria. Jeremy, Miriam, and I had already visited Syria a few months before, and it was great to see all our old favorite haunts, walk around in our old neighborhood, eat at all our favorite restaurants (The Barfait, below), etc.

It was especially fun for everyone to meet Miriam, and for her to visit her namesake.

Jeremy had too much to do in Amman, so the four of us - my mom, my brother Steven, Miriam, and I - set out for Damascus. One of the main things we wanted to do while we were there was visit the war-ruined town of Quneitra, in the Golan Heights. The actual ruined area is under the administration of the United Nations, and you're not allowed to visit it unless you get a permit from - you guessed it - the secret police, the mukhabarat.

Jeremy and I had visited Quneitra a few years before, and so I knew that getting the permit could be a time-consuming, annoying process. Worse, it wasn't even guaranteed. The secret police could deny us a permit for whatever reason they chose, or made up. Basically, we just had to go to their office, hand over our passports, and hope for the best. Jeremy and I had managed to do it once before; I only hoped I could do it again, this time with my mom and brother and Miriam along for the ride.

Early in the morning on the day of our intended visit, we made our way to the secret police office (that still sounds wrong to me somehow). There had just been an election (I am seriously not putting that word in quotes lest I anger someone, somewhere) and so there were posters like this hanging up all over town:

Actually, wait - no, this was just a poster hanging outside of a glass shop. The posters of re-elected President Bashar al-Assad looked more like this. And they were everywhere:

So we felt very much like Big Brother was watching us, even as we made our way to Big Brother's office to beg for a permit to Quneitra.

As usual, there was a gaggle of armed guards hanging out on the steps of the building. We handed over our passports and settled in for a wait of indeterminate length, trying to keep our distance from the men brandishing large firearms.

To our collective amazement, only 15 or 30 minutes had gone by before one of the secret police came out and told us that our paperwork had been processed and approved, and another worker would bring it out to us shortly. I couldn't believe it! It was definitely our lucky day.

When the worker came out with our passports and permits, it turned out to be no other than one of the senior secret police. I have no idea if he was the actual top guy, or just one of his higher-up minions, but he was dressed snazzier than all of the other workers and he certainly had an air of authority about him that was not derived from having a gun on his belt. I remember realizing at the time that he was head of something, but I couldn't say for sure that he was the #1.

He handed over our paperwork with supreme graciousness, and then turned to my 1.5-year-old daughter, Miriam Damascus.

"Miriam Damascus," he said. "What a beautiful name. Welcome to Syria, Miriam Damascus."

It was pretty much the most deference Miriam had ever been shown in her tiny life. This secret police top gun was just enchanted by the fact that Miriam's middle name was Damascus, and he had come all the way out of his office in great state just to tell us so. I'd never been happier about having given her that name.

With our paperwork complete, we were free to catch a minibus to Quneitra. It's just about the least happy tourist destination I've ever been to, but it still has a certain melancholy appeal:

We had a very good visit, and a very efficient one, thanks to Miriam and her middle name.


Suzanne Bubnash said...

I'll add a few extra details here. First, we went to the secret police for a permit the previous afternoon and for no apparent reason they turned us away, telling us to apply the next morning at 9:00. I'll bet the ones on duty that afternoon wanted to make sure they got home on time.

Second, when the boss-man came out to greet Miriam, I recall he brought at least one other guy, & maybe two, along with him. The SP were all smiles gaggling over lovely little blond Miriam.

Kristen said...

The first election poster seems obscene to a non-Arabic speaker.

The second one is apallingly huge.

And the photo of the bullet-ravaged stone walls is startling.

Your FF story this week is all culturally significant, while mine is about flirting. A pathetic contrast.

Liz Johnson said...

That's awesome. He must've been so impressed. I'm so glad that you were over there giving the rest of us a good name. :)

Linda said...

It makes me think that Syria and Jordon might also be good names. For who knows what reasons, but they really are pretty! I love your flashback friday posts. You have alot of great stuff to flash back to!

Anonymous said...

You propably know this already,but most syrians don't have middle names,instead they use the father's first name when they need to state their full name,and that applies for boys and girls,but your daughter does have a nice name
and I hope she likes it when she grows older. I also want to thank you for posting the Quneitra pictures,my mother was born in that city,and she has been back to it once in its ruined state.

Britney said...

I love your posts about names, and hope the Baby Name Wizard picks up on this one.

I'm envisioning an article titled, Caught In the Middle: Whittling Down Cultural Barriers One Middle Name At a Time... We've heard of the riddle of the middle, but how about the "whittle" of the middle?

Or maybe not. :) Middle name power would be an interesting topic to research though.

Mikael said...

gosh. your life is so exciting! I feel like my blog sucks when I read stuff like this :)

Susanne said...

Although Blogger is banned in Syria, I was able to check my Google Reader and saw this post while I was in Damascus last week! It was really cool except I saw the talk about secret police and thought, "Uh oh, I hope I don't get in trouble for reading this!" ;-) Nice story about how Miriam Damascus was a little celebrity with her name. Thanks for sharing this!

I was like :-O with all the pics of the President ... everywhere! Is he God or something? Geez!

Btw, Samer posted pics if you want to see some familiar sites. It's fine if you don't. I know you have pics of your own. :-)


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