Tuesday, November 01, 2005

I'm back in Cairo...

"While protestors took to the streets in Damascus..."

BBC World was reporting today on the Syrian crisis, and showed a bit of footage of a pro-Syria rally where people waved Syrian flags at cars driving by. The average educated viewer would easily be fooled into thinking that this was one of those government-engineered pro-regime rallies and that there was chaos on the streets.

Actually, I was at the demonstration pictured. And it really wasn't like that. At all. It was pro-Syrian, but explicitly not pro-regime, and as far as I could tell it was completely spontaneous, not organized by the government. And it was tiny.

I made a few friends there. I'll writing about it for Slate shortly, so I don't want to say much more.

Coverage of the unfolding series of outrageous statements and counter-statements was on just about every TV in every hotel lobby and cafe the entire time I was in Syria. That said, nobody once gave me a dirty look when they found out I was American. Quite to the contrary.

The closest I came to having an "issue" with American-ness, I believe, was last Tuesday when I was looking for a microbus that could take me to Qardaha, birthplace and burialplace of former president Hafez al-Assad.

"Excuse me, how do I get to Qardaha," I said to a random man at the crowded microbus lot. It's about the only Arabic I know.

He replied, saying something I didn't understand.

"Qardaha," I repeated.

He kept talking in a language I didn't understand. He gestured for me to follow him. On the way he made he hands into the shape of a gun and began shooting.

"I'll be shot there?" I said, incredulously. (This was before he found out I was American.) To this moment I have no idea what I was trying to say.

Finally he managed to convey to me that to get to Qardaha, I had to take one of these little buses that were all over the microbus lot.

No shit, dude. I'm trying to figure out which one.

After a few other people got involved, I finally discerned that I was supposed to wait in this one place and they would tell me when the correct bus came along.

Meanwhile a friend of the first guy began speaking some English to me.

"When you get to Qardaha," he said, "don't tell anybody that you're from America!"

"OK, from now on I'm from Czechoslovakia. My name is Vladan and I'm from Czechoslovakia."

"Yes!!!" They all got a kick out of that.

When the correct van came along, the first guy went up to the driver and yelled out (so that everybody inside could here, and it was packed) what I could only assume was, "Hey, this guy's from America and he wants to go to Qardaha!"

Thanks, buddy.

Qardaha's a little village up in the mountains. Nobody there could care that you're from America. In the end, onyl one person asked where I was from: I paused awkwardly and said I was Vladan from Czechoslovakia, but I had a great deal of difficulty keeping a straight face. It was totally not necessary.

By the way, about that pro-Syria rally -- I was told by one of the students there that if I took off my glasses and brushed my hair down, I'd look just like Eminem. No, really, he told me that.


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