DAMASCUS, SYRIA –- "Can I use your first name in an article that I write?" I asked. "Yes, my name is 'S-A-P'" came the reply.
That's how my evening of talking with young "South Park"-watching Syrians ended as I leave this country after a brief stay.
There was obviously no illusion about Syria being a police state -– at least one of those at the table had been in jail -- but these Syrians are hardly asking for help from the U.S. government. Said one: "We will change things here, one step at a time, from the bottom up."
One despised the Asad regime; another didn't care who was president -- "let Asad be president, we will change the society."
They spoke fondly of the courage, though not the intelligence, of Syrians who went to Iraq to take up arms against the U.S. occupation.
But even as someone who works on media issues, I was taken aback by their focusing on the U.S. media. Said one: "We hate the U.S. not so much for your government as much as for your media -– your lying, shitty, racist media. Fix the media and the government will follow."
This is a city where the skyline is brimming with satellite dishes, each receiving a plethora of channels from around the world.
I asked them how they felt about "people-to-people" contact, like setting up sister-city projects between Arab and U.S. cities. Isn't that a way to do an end-run around the governments?
The reply was instantaneous: "We need sister media projects. People-to-people contact might be good, but it takes too long, it's one-at-a-time."
A young woman at the table from the U.S. studying Arabic for a year looked pensive. Her mother had cried when she first found that her daughter was going to stay in Syria for a year, but her mom ended up visiting Syria for a few weeks and enjoyed it.
Part of the dialogue with these Syrians for me was hearing from someone I'm typically not sympathetic with: a factory owner. One of those at the table was a burly fellow who runs a small textile plant and apparently keeps getting shaken down by government officials. "We don't have a government, we have a mafia." His stories almost make Halliburton's crony capitalism seem like an upstanding example of corporate behavior. (I heard him out -– then gave him an earful about what his workers might think of him.)
Even on my short stay in Syria, I got a taste of the state corruption here. On entering the country from the Jordanian boarder, my dad and I were given the run around by the Syrian bureaucracy. Each clerk would stamp our passports then pass us on to another clerk who would stamp it again or send us back to a previous one who allegedly didn't stamp it quite right. Each one demanded an under-the-table payment. Not just a payment, they would ask for "100 dinars" -– not "100 lira" -– the Jordanian dinar is worth much more than the Syrian lira. They were pretending to "unintentionally" ask for the wrong currency in hopes that an ignorant traveler, not familiar with the local currencies, who would give them the far more valuable 100 dinars.
My dad proceeded to pulled off his own form of "dialogue" -- yelling and raising hell at the corrupt apparatchiks. But of course each of the clerks would be lucky to make in a year what I make in a month.
Part of what would be needed to talk to others in a serious fashion is an appreciation of what you have: We in the U.S. -- even most Arab Americans like me -- have basic free speech rights like virtually nowhere else. If we don't use them, that's our fault. No amount of whining about John Ashcroft or Alberto Gonzales snooping around library records should distract from that. That's especially true after you look in the eye people who really do live in a one-party dictatorship.
We need for people in the U.S. to do an end-run around their government -– indeed for everyone to do an end-run around their governments and corporate or government media which are controlled in one way or another -– and find ways to meaningfully communicate with one another.
Doing this will alter our perceptions of the world. The background image on this computer screen that I'm typing on (at this packed internet café at 3 AM) features a globe with the Eastern Hemisphere, something you rarely see in the United States. (Yes, there is internet censorship here, but I had to look to find it -- you can find what pages are censored, try to go to them and get a "forbidden" message.)
Doing this will involved talking to poor people around the world and uncomfortably questioning premises -- like the notion that people in the U.S. have a right to a better standard of living better than that of people from the rest of the planet.
I think I got a taste of what kind of dialogue might be possible in a discussion I had in Jordan with a relative.
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We were sitting down to watch a video of a baby cousin of mine's birthday party. My mom noted that that all the mothers shown in the video brought their "Shankias" -– their maids from Sri Lanka -- to the birthday party.
An incredible number of upper-middle class households in Jordan have a maid from Sri Lanka.
So I turned to the relative seated next to me, Faris, a fellow of about 30 and asked why all the maids are from Sri Lanka. Why not hire people from Jordan? -- though perhaps I should have asked why they had maids at all.
He explained that "Even if you could hire a Jordanian from east Amman [the poorer part of town] for the same price -- she has a brother, a father, a husband maybe. They may make trouble." With a wink he added, "If it's a Sri Lankan, you have her passport." Meaning the employer thus had incredible power over the maid and could even kick her out of the country if they wanted. (A female friend later suggested that what he meant was that Sri Lankan maids are regularly raped.)
"Sri Lankans don't speak Arabic. What about language?" I asked. He patiently explained: "Orders are easy to understand -– do this, do that -– there's really no need for dialogue."
I let it sit.
We started flipping around the news channels and he started railing about the U.S. Media: "With Al Jazeera, I don't agree with everything they do, but they give you different sides -- the left, the right, different countries, secular, Islamic, everything -- and then you can make up your own mind. With the U.S. Media, they come from a particular place –- they want you to think a certain way. So they really don't want a dialogue."
There was that word again -– dialogue.
My relative wasn't too interested in a dialogue with the Sri Lankan maids, but he wants the U.S. Media to have a dialogue.
To start a real dialogue of our own, I challenged him on this.
He knew he'd been caught. He varied between being defensive, "I’m not a racist" -- most Sri Lankans have skin color darker than most Jordanians -- to explaining things away: "you don't want a dialogue right away, but if she stays with the family, then you begin to know her." There was probably some legitimacy to these "clarifications," but they didn't change the very different way he came at the two subjects.
I challenged him on something while agreeing with him on something else. This happens too rarely. Perhaps it was easier here because there was no power dynamics between us -– I didn't want a thing from him and he didn't seem to want a thing from me except to talk.
The only limitation on the conversation was to maintain a level of civility which was all to the good I suppose.
Most conversations are so cluttered with negative dynamics that they can't really be called conversations. One or more parties frequently want a pre-determined outcome, meaning they have already made up their minds and are not really open to "dialogue" worthy of the word. There are countless obstacles to real dialogue: There are power relationships, often unstated; there's fright of "burning a bridge," the need to "maintain access."
Many "dialogues" are actually based more on deal-making, or turning a blind eye to each others' shenanigans at some third party's expense, than actually trying to determine what's truly for the greater good.
That's perhaps clearest when corrupt governments talk. Witness the recent meeting between Saudi Crowned Prince Abduallah and President Bush. The Bush administration claims it is pressuring Saudi Arabia to democratized; the Saudis claim they are pressing the U.S. To help achieve a bit of justice for the Palestinians. But neither are really doing what they claim. They are working to maximize their own illegitimate power and cutting their deals behind closed doors for those ends.
And they will succeed in that -– unless. Unless we find other ways to relate to each other, to communicate with each other as inhabitants of this planet who are willing to question not just our governments but each other and ourselves in brutally honest ways.