by Ken Krayeske
Drab four story concrete buildings, brown with years of desert wind and dust abusing them, populate the streets of downtown Damascus. Every once in a while, a building with fine aesthetics, like the Indian Embassy, reminds the passer-by of what quality architecture is.
The Indian Embassy sits on a six-lane highway, although like most roads in Damascus, there are no lanes painted on it. About two kilometers southwest of the Indian Embassy lives a 10-story edifice that houses the Ministry of Information.
All total, it is a standard 10 minute, 50 pound ($1) cab ride from my hotel. And on a normal morning, the traveler will see a battalion of Syrian ground troops, in full camo with Kalishnikovs, stopping morning rush hour traffic on the east bound lane to practice maneuvers.
The Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Information hides on the eighth floor of a concrete communist monument. The Soviet Union helped build modern Syria, thus many buildings reflect the function domination over form in Damascus.
To enter the Ministry, like always, you have to pass through a police checkpoint at the gate. The first floor of the building has a large atrium with floor to wall to ceiling in brown Syrian marble. The atrium houses a small art exhibit of bronze sculptures commemorating various points of ancient and modern Syrian history.
The bank of three elevators across the atrium always has a crowd hanging around, because the elevators move so slow. A broken clock, stuck at 8:30, greets you stepping into the hallway off the elevator car on the eighth floor. This average office wall clock is even more special, though, because it has a sticker of Basel Al-Assad, the deceased son of Hafez Al-Assad, on its face.
The hallway signs on the walls and doors are all in Arabic except one English posting for the "Office of Foreign Media Affairs." However, it's not on a door, and the blue arrows following it lead you in a circle back to the elevator.
On my second pass, I knocked on a door, and in Arabic, I was directed two doors down. Once inside the Foreign Media Affairs office, an English speaking aid greeted me, and bade me to fill out an identity form, designed for French journalists. The English ones had been all used up.
Then I sat for an hour alone. I wanted an interview with Mahdi Dahklallah, the Minister of Information, but first I had to pass through a gatekeeper, Mr. Nazer, the Minister of Foreign Media Affairs and his office.
The office was a plain white room with two computers, with a bank of windows, but the curtains were closed. A woman in a head scarf pounded away at a computer, and there were about six college-dorm style lounge chairs against a wall, where I sat.
Mr. Nazer was not in, so sitting in my chair, I listened to Al Jazeera on satellite TV in Arabic, and next to my chair, I noticed a box of 100 copies of the September issue of the English-language magazine of the Syrian government, Syria Today.
It featured a Million Dollar Baby story about a boxing clinic in Damascus that attracts foreign women and a more critical look at Syrian-Iranian relations by a local doctor of economics, I was impressed by the book's seeming intellectual freedom and quality of production. An American journalist is on staff, and the production quality is much better than the pictures of president Bashar Al-Assad for sale on the streets.
This one photo of Bashar riding his black full suspension Cannondale mountain bike with his son in a jumper seat can be had one at least two different backgrounds. At this one junkie little shack on my street that sells cell phone belt clips, you can buy this bicycling image of Assad photoshopped onto a garden, or a city street. And trust - it is a bad photoshop job.
I wanted to ask the Minister about that, and the millions of photos of Bashar and is father and brother everywhere, but a different English speaking aid, Basel, told me I would wait at least an hour, because Mr. Nezar Mihoub, the Minister of Foreign Media Affairs would not be for at least that time.
He offered me a cup of water, made small talk for a few minutes and told me to go enjoy Damascus. At 2, I phoned him on my cell, and he told me to be there in the morning at 10 a.m., when they open.
My cellie was my Syrian savior. I bought an unlocked tri-band cell phone in the U.S. and in Damascus, bought a chip. About $20 activated my phone and gave me 1000 units, plenty to set up all my interviews and hotel rooms.
The phones in Syria can be used in the U.S., but my U.S. cell phone cannot be used overseas. One of the reconstruction arguments in Iraq was that U.S. cell phone companies might create a network that would only use phones compatible with the American network, and not with neighboring countries.
When I returned the next morning, I savored passing the giant tile mural on the Indian Embassy. Back on the eighth floor, I met the aid from the day before, Mazen, and he said Mr. Nezar was not in yet, but should be soon.
This time, I had a translator for what was on Al-Jazeera. I'm glad, because the Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. was speaking in front of a podium with the White House seal on it. He called the Syria the "gate of evil." Basel called him a goat.
With this as the backdrop, he and I conversed for an hour about everything from yoga to telepathy to his love of American television shows that taught him English. If anyone can help me on this one, he loved a show with a character named Digby and he wants to know the name of it. For the life of me, I don't know a show with anyone called Digby. Any suggestions?
Suddenly, a commotion sprang at the door as an important looking man in a well-tailored suit walked in, followed by two gopher-looking guys. Basel jumped up and followed them into the office next door.
After a minute, he popped his head out of the door, looked at me and said "Bingo." I felt like I was in a bad Stallone movie.
Mr. Nezar understood English, but didn't speak it that well, so Basel translated. Mr. Nezar is a public relations professor at Damascus University, and at 38, is handsome and well-built. He wore a two piece suit and Armani watch. He had a small cut on his lower lip that he kept biting at.
On the wall behind him, he had created a 3-foot tall, 12-foot long, 160 degree panoramic view of Damascus, taken from the mountaintop. It stopped at 160 degrees because it is prohibited to photograph the President's house.
They lowered the volume on the TV so I could record the interview and he asked me what I wanted. I told him I went to Abu Kamal. Mr. Nezar asked how I got there without the Ministry of Information. I told him I went by cab, and hired my own translator. His jaw dropped.
During the first few questions, while Basel translated, Mr. Nezar scanned through three different Arabic newspapers, Tehreen, Al Seyassah and Al-Thawra (the official Syrian government mouthpiece).
As my questions grew more difficult, he stopped reading and began doodling x's and arrows in the margins of one newspaper. We finished in about 30 minutes. I was ready to go, but they offered me a cup of tea, which I gulped down thinking I could escape without hurting their hospitable feelings.
That's when Mr. Nezar said, "Now I ask you questions."
"What do you think of the Mehlis investigation?" he asked. Detlev Mehlis is the German judge who, at the behest of the U.N., is investigating the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
I didn't like being interviewed, but I felt since the Progressive has an editorial slant "A Voice for Peace and Social Justice," I could frame my answers in those terms.
First, I said, I don't agree with everything Bashar has done, particularly the torture of Maher Arar and the Canadian nationals in cooperation with the CIA. But, I said, Bashar is a doctor, and he took an oath of "first, do no harm." I said that this makes me wonder if he is capable of using the state as an instrument of murder. On some level, I really think this, because Bashar is not heavy handed like his father.
Second, I said, who benefits from the assassination? So far, Syria has only paid a price, like with its forced removal of troops from Lebanon.
And third, if the U.N. was really serious, why did they appoint a German judge, who might be prejudiced, and not, say, an impartial judge, like a Peruvian or a Zimbabwean? And further, why appoint such a commission into the murder of 20 people, and not one into the lies of Colin Powell before the U.N. in February 2003, which led to the murder of thousands? I fear, in this instance, the U.N. is acting as an instrument of U.S. policy.
Mr. Nezar added that he had read how Mehlis, while investigating the 1987 German nightclub bombing, swore he would find Syrian culpability. The actual convictions were against Libyans.
Then he asked if I thought President Assad should have gone to New York? Of course, I said, thinking of what Joshua Landis said to me earlier in the week. "Bashar is the only one who can defend Syria," I said. He has to take the risk that the U.S. will look stupid if it tries to embarrass him. Nevertheless, the U.N. General Assembly begins today with Assad in Damascus.
I seized the reigns for a moment and asked him about the god-awful photoshop job of Assad on the bicycle. Mr. Nezar knew the picture I referred to, because he showed it to me on his cell phone screen.
A Syrian law exists that prevents the sale and production of such pictures, but it is not enforced, largely because of a lack of resources. As a P.R. man (who loves the fact that PR, as a science, originated in America), Mr. Nezar said he understands the negative sides of such publicity, and has counseled the president to remove them, and crack down on it.
But anyone can log onto the Syrian government website, download the picture and use it for their purposes. He claimed that corrupt elements of the Syrian government leak these photos. Some merchants appropriate the images of Bashar so that they can skirt the advertising tax, he said.
Did the proliferation of a personality cult help develop democracy, I asked? No, he responded, Bashar has promised that he will not rule Syria for the rest of his life. And Mr. Nezar said he thinks Bashar will work to cultivate democracy in Syria, but it make take time, and for this to succeed, it needs economic help, not U.N. sanctions.
We discussed the tipping point model I mentioned previously in these dispatches. An astute reader of these dispatches has credibly disputed the theory that economic development leads to democracy. It certainly doesn‚t explain the success of India as the world‚s largest democracy.
I wish I had known that before this meeting, because I would have challenged Mr. Nezar. Like an adept P.R. man, he handled my difficult questions. He invited me back to Syria, and I hope I can come back to write more, because I enjoyed this assignment.
I left Damascus yesterday, and am now in Beirut. The next and final dispatch will describe our departure. Then I am on vacation in southern Turkey. Hooray! Mission accomplished!