My first step onto the sands of the Middle East did not start with me getting out of bed in the wrong manner or even being clear in my own mind that I was set on a course toward visiting Syria. No, it was the publication of two books. One of them being the Dutch translation of Gekaufte Journalisten by the late Udo Ulfkotte and the other a diary of a Belgian priest, issued by a well-known Dutch publishing house. Reading these books in quick succession, I was intrigued. The story of Father Daniel Maes was so different from the sad story of Syria anybody can read in the newspapers, while Ulfkotte’s confession raises questions about the reliability of our printed press/media. What if I could check Father Daniel Maes’ story and either disprove or confirm it?
Life, however, went on. I had half-forgotten the whole thing when a friend suggested I join a group of people who wanted to travel to Syria. I didn’t jump at the opportunity. The trip wasn’t expensive, but then it had, as its destination, a war-torn country. I knew some fellow travelers by face, but most were complete strangers with whom I did not even share a native language. I gave it some time and the longer I thought about it the better the idea sounded. So I decided that it was at the very least a non-standard vacation and I joined up for the Arab adventure.
Beirut and Damascus compared
In Beirut I joined my new friends: a former employee of the United Nations, a French teacher, two members of a Flemish student association and a Swedish journalist. It is safe to say it was a colorful group with which to enter Syria. As for the city, it is interesting to note that Beirut looks more or less like any seaside French city. Everything you can buy in France is sold in Beirut as well. We stumbled into a particularly surprising case of this when we got to our hotel. Arriving at 4:00 AM, we found the staff in the lobby, hard at work putting away empty bottles which had, until recently, held hard liquor. A ‘working girl’ in shabby clothing flitted past us, without a word, and hurried out into the streets. At least one person had had quite the party. Over the next few days, Beirut proved itself to have all the qualities of any other Mediterranean city, both the positive and the negative. What you will not find elsewhere, however, are the many Hezbollah checkpoints that control access to many parts of the city.
The day before we went on to Syria, we took a detour straight into the lion’s den, visiting a resistance museum that was founded and is financed by Hezbollah. The trip took us through the middle and south of Lebanon, right up to the Israeli border. Or, as the locals say: the border of the “Zionist entity”. Upon disembarking we were brought straight to a cinema and I got a first glimpse of what would become an important feature of the trip: big and dramatic antisemitic slurs against “the occupying force” or “Zionist entity”.
The look of the streets in Damascus is comparable to those of the Disney-film Aladdin
The movie we were shown was completely over-the-top pro-Hezbollah propaganda combined with rousing speeches by Nazrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, with an intensity and hatred I haven’t heard since the time I ventured out too far on the internet and watched actual Nazi-propaganda. Sentences thrown about such as “there will be a day when the trees speak to you, o soldier of Allah, and will say to you, there is a Jew behind me, kill him!” and “there were deeds done here [against the ‘Zionist Entity’] which the land tells to heaven”. I could fill an entire book with quotes like these, but I won’t. One should look up “Memri TV” on the internet to get an idea of what kind of intellectual environment produces material like this. Some accuse Memri TV of falsifying Arab quotes. But the first result of my fact-check trip was that I confirmed for myself that Hezbollah spreads propaganda that would make even the most seasoned and ardent Memri TV-fan blush like a schoolgirl. We went on to walk through the entire museum, which was filled with captured (or, as the locals put it: liberated) material. It was indeed quite the collection of seized tanks and other heavy weaponry, and it proved that Hezbollah does more than just bark.
After this first glimpse into Arab political culture, we traveled on to Damascus by bus. Our driver spoke excellent English, was clearly intelligent, very kind and interested in each one of us. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. In hindsight, though, I wonder if he might have been an agent of the Syrian intelligence service, sent to check the stories we had written down while applying for permission to enter the country. We were warned ahead of time that the Syrian regime, being a socialist dictatorship and all that, would check on us, and well, I believe it did. Given that none of the other bus drivers seemed to take any notice of us, our first driver’s interest was quite ‘unique’.
Damascus is another world. While the center and touristic areas make Beirut pass for a European city, Damascus feels altogether different. The look of the streets in Damascus is comparable to those of the Disney-film Aladdin, and all the traditional Arab classics one might expect were there. Locally produced food, lots of sugar- and honey-based candy and locally produced products for the Shisha (the traditional Arab water pipe, which tastes quite good). The market is in the shade of Damascus’ Great Mosque, completing the Arabian look. One can almost feel the absence of multinationals like McDonald’s and Starbucks, making it impossible to ever mistake Damascus for any place in Europe or America.
Indiana Jones and the last Syrian monastery
Syria has quite a number of interesting places that are not ravaged by war. Two of them could easily be passed off as the film set of an Indiana Jones movie. The first one is Mar Moussa, where there is a monastery on top of a hill. The only way to get there is by a kilometer-long flight of stairs. That is probably the reason why the monastery is completely intact. There are two caretakers (or at any rate we saw only two of them) and the view of the valley from the monastery is breathtaking. Going down meant taking the stairs into the valley again. Goods could be delivered by a shaky cart on a cable, which only added to the Indiana Jones film set feel.
Later that day, we enjoyed the second sight that took our breath away. The city of Yabrud, not very far from Mar Moussa, has a steep cliff on one side. The cliff dominates the town. Within this cliff are carved out villages and churches, dating from the time of the biblical King Solomon. Deciding that “you only live once” I joined several travel companions in climbing the cliff to see the houses carved out of its surface.
It was like finding a treasure, a pirate’s chest full of gold. As no Westerner was in sight for miles around, it was all for us.
Syrian-style interreligious dialogue
Syria has its own brands of Islam and Christianity. In Europe and America, references to interreligious dialogue has largely excused bishops who, by buying into identity politics, have harmed the Catholic faith in favor of Protestantism, whereas in Syria, interreligious understanding seemingly involves seeking a real modus vivendi for the two main religions in Syria.
Nobody in Syria makes excuses for his or her affiliation; but there is also a real wish on both sides to come closer to each other. In the Great Mosque of Damascus there is a shrine for John the Baptist. Likewise, there are many Syrian churches (including in the monastery of Mar Moussa) where Muslims may pray towards Mecca.
That brings me to my next point: if Muslims and Christians can live together peacefully in Syria, from where do all the extremists come about whom we read about in the news? I learned that you can walk up to almost any Syrian, of either faith, and ask them: “How did the war get started?” and they will give more or less the same answer. They tell stories of ISIS fighters who were sent to Syria—all foreign extremists—who then started riots and shot at the Syrian army. And here we arrive at my final and main point of my recollection of my journey: who started the war and how did it happen?
Two conflicting realities
We can now recognize a clash of two opposing views, indeed two clashing interpretations of reality: that of the local Syrians and that of the Western media. Generally, the Western media claim that the war started after peaceful demonstrations were violently put down by the Syrian police, that the situation escalated as the Syrian regime tried to quash demonstrations organized in reaction to this police violence, and therefore that the cause of the violent extremism was the crackdown.
In the Syrian version the complete opposite happened. Almost all locals claim that there was no peaceful phase of the demonstrations, that they were fomented by foreign extremists brought in by the ‘Zionist Entity’ in collaboration with France and the United States. They claim that there were 400,000 of them, initially taking the Syrian army completely off guard because of their sheer numbers and brutality.
For almost two weeks I was submerged in a completely different environment than my usual one
One might say: “all the locals are indoctrinated.” But I think that it is wrong to dismiss first-hand experiences. The stories I was told about the ISIS extremists included personal accounts, as well as the general chronology of events I heard repeated over and over. One story that struck me was that of a Syrian soldier who fought ISIS and could not help but notice that all the rebels appeared to be drugged. When the bullets of their AK-47s were depleted, these rebels walked slowly towards the Syrian soldiers with their rifles pointed at them, as if trying to get themselves killed on purpose.
Another story involved the bombardment of a small village by ISIS, in which the Islamic rebels used shrapnel-filled rockets on the villagers. As some civilians tried to help the injured, they came under fire themselves by another wave of rockets with equally deadly results. Most Syrians believe that it was Bashar al Assad and Vladimir Putin who saved them from these people. Nobody can make them believe otherwise.
For almost two weeks I was submerged in a completely different environment than my usual one. As I see it, there are two views in the country concerning the plight of the Syrian people. One view is written up in European and American newspapers, and is replete with stories authored by the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights”—which is actually a lone, London-based attorney. This view includes the belief that Bashar al Assad drops so-called “barrel bombs” on his own people on a daily basis and invites Russia to occupy his own land. According to this account, Putin is hated everywhere in Syria.
The other view is one that, for better or for worse, is held by the Syrians themselves—in Syria. Whilst there is no freedom in Syria to disagree with Assad, it appears he is nevertheless genuinely loved and praised. It is felt that it was the Syrian government that withstood the onslaught of drugged-up Islamic radicals, rebels who came killing everyone in sight. The Syrian population seems genuinely grateful to Assad for that. And Russia, not the West, is seen as having helped to withstand this tide of terrorism. There is a reason why, throughout Syria, pictures of Putin are often placed next to holy images in shops.
Those of us from outside may bristle at such things and perhaps find it all a bit unnerving; but it is how many in the shattered country see things. And if I were to compare both views—and then recall Udo Ulfkotte’s book—I fear that the version that we read about in the Western media, like so many other mainstream media accounts of important struggles worldwide, is the one least ‘in sync’ with the reality on the ground.
Erwin Wolff is a Dutch conservative activist and the Vice-Chair of the Flemish Society for Arts, Science, and Literature in Brussels.