Saturday, August 01, 2009

Flashback Friday: Accosted by Iraqis

This is the story of a picture. Here is the picture:

And here is the story...

In July 2004, Jeremy and I had just moved to Syria for him to study Arabic at the University of Damascus on a joint Fulbright/AFIC scholarship. My first impressions of Damascus could fill many blog posts, but suffice it to say that I found the city to be dusty, noisy, hectic, and incredibly foreign. It was also enchanting, beautiful, and rich in historical treasures - to this day, Damascus remains one of my most favorite cities in the world.

The staff at the University of Damascus took Jeremy and his three classmates under their wing and in our first few weeks there, they took us on several field trips around town and around the country. One of our very first ones was to the Omayyad Mosque in the Old City of Damascus.

Since the Omayyad Mosque is still a functioning mosque, all visitors were required to dress modestly. For the women, this meant putting on special clothes in the Putting On Special Clothes Room.

I confess I felt a little bit like some kind of a Hobbit.

As I remember it, while we were in the courtyard of the mosque, a group of women and children a few yards away kept eyeing us intently. We were all used to being stared at because we were foreigners, but these people looked like they might actually get up the courage to come approach us. That was something that didn't always happen.

I should preface what happened next by noting that at that time, the United States was in the early, heady days of their military operations in Iraq. It's easy now to look back and see how things went wrong and how many terrible mistakes were made. But the complete and total disillusionment with the operation that is so prevalent now was still fairly latent in the summer of 2004.

Anyway, as we made our way out of the mosque, one lady from the group of people who had been watching us approached us and asked if we were American. Why yes, we were, we answered. She said that they were visiting Damascus from Iraq, then insisted on taking a photo with Hannah (one of Jeremy's classmates), Khaloud (Jeremy's teacher, on the left in the Hobbit robe), and me. She literally, physically grabbed me, as you can see in the photo, gathered together the rest of her group, and we had our picture taken together as she told us how much she loved us as Americans.

That was one of my first formative experiences in the Middle East. It was integral to my eventual realization that people are not always politics, and that personal encounters with other cultures are absolutely vital to creating understanding between countries.

As far as I know, we never saw those Iraqi women again, though we saw and met many other Iraqis during our stay in Damascus and in subsequent years in Amman. Not all of them proclaimed their love for America or even Americans. But these women did, they were the first, and I'll never forget them.


Anonymous said...

I remember that day!


Susanne said...

I love stories from Syria! I didn't meet any Iraqis, but met a young med student from Gaza. Just a few days after the January conflict with Israel ended. He was incredibly gracious and spent a few hours of his day with us. (Oh, we met him at the Umayyad mosque, too.) Man, you are making me miss Syria. I still haven't gotten over that place although it's been 6 months since we went there. *sigh*

Thanks for this wonderful story! It's cute how the lady is wanting a picture with you! :-)

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Several times in Damascus we were approached by Syrians who said something like, "we don't like Bush but we love Americans." And several times Kurds went out of their way to express gratitude to us Americans.

Aimee said...

I have a similar story. In 2001, I was in a German language class in Vienna. In that class was an Iraqi woman. We sought out each other to speak poor German, and try to learn about our "enemies." We became very close and then three weeks after class began, 9/11 happened. Hala was the first person to come up to me when we returned to class, and apologized profusely for her country's part. She still had her whole family in Iraq and she was worried about what would happen. We lost touch after my semester ended, but I will always think of her and all the other Muslims who went out of their way when they heard me speaking English to tell me how sorry they were, that this was not how most Muslims behaved, etc. It was an eerie time to be overseas, and like you, I learned first hand, that "people are not politics." Great flashback.

Nancy said...

Ah, the hobbit robes. :) At least they aren't bright green like they are in Cairo, but we don't have the room for putting special clothes on, which is really unfortunate.

We have so many pictures with random people here and our poor baby is floating around on so many cell phones... :)

It's true, though, how you can't really understand things until you've been there, done that. I was so scared to move to the Middle East the first time because of all the hype in the media in the States. But (most days) I love it now.

Liz Johnson said...

That's really cool. I really love what you said - "people are not always politics, and that personal encounters with other cultures are absolutely vital to creating understanding between countries." That is so true. It should be stitched onto a pillow and handed out to world leaders.


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