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My Double Life in Damascus

Reporting from an antisemitic dictatorship in Syria

Peter Theroux
May 19, 2021
Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images
Damascus, 1994Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images
Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images
Damascus, 1994Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

One congenial day in Damascus in 1994 as we shared a flask of arak, the Arab novelist Abdelrahman Munif and I got on to the topic of the pains of leading a double life under an unnatural regime. Speaking very softly, he told me about a hunting trip he had recently taken with his friend Hamza al-Barqawi in southwestern Syria, in the wild desert outside Suwayda, and how when their conversation turned to domestic politics, they found themselves moving closer to each other and speaking in near whispers, before coming to themselves and chuckling at these insecure instincts. Even then, they did not risk raising their voices when discussing the dictatorship.

“We’re trained,” Munif told me sadly. “It’s an unbreakable habit with us.” I understood. Earlier that same late summer day, I had taken a poolside break at Le Méridien Hotel-Damas from my fieldwork for a National Geographic article on Syria, my little Grundig Yacht Boy radio tuned to Israel Army Radio via a discreet plug in one ear while I ostentatiously perused one of Syria’s unreadable regime newspapers, probably al-Baath.

The following night, my training in discretion directly intruded on my peace of mind in Munif’s company. I had joined him and his wife at the bright and commodious apartment of the painter Nazir Nabaa and his wife in central Damascus, off leafy Abu Rummaneh Street, not far from the U.S. ambassador’s residence. After a few cocktails, Nabaa showed us some of his recent paintings, then proudly led everyone down a hallway to see a couple of works loaned by everyone’s mutual friend Marwan—this was Marwan Kassab-Bashi, a celebrated Damascene then residing in Berlin.

“This is a series,” said Nabaa, gesturing toward a series of works, the first of which showed a row of young males seen in silhouette and slightly from below, facing the viewer, looking lost. It was skillfully done; as the figures challenged or appealed to you, their round solemn heads and expressive limbs hanging at their sides showed the influence of Balthus. Nabaa went on to explain that these young men were the ashbâl (lion cubs) who had “slaughtered the Zionists in Munich.” “The fedayeen, from the Olympiad,” his wife clarified approvingly.

“Here is another version,” said Nabaa, drawing our attention to a similar but less finished work, a study done in charcoal, and a third, a study of the face of one of the young murderers. “He was martyred, you know. They were all martyred,” he said, looking straight at me.

These were the Black September terrorists who had kidnapped, tortured, and murdered 11 Israeli wrestlers and their coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and I was being invited, by a roomful of writers and art lovers, to accept all this—this violence, terrorism, and Jew-hatred—in the name of hospitality, because I was twice a guest, first Munif’s, and also Nabaa’s. Was this a test, an insult, or a nonevent to them?

At one level, this was simply another round of the daily discomfort endured by visitors to any dictatorship. Damascus was particularly tricky that year, as it hosted not only a dozen Arab terrorist and violent dissident groups but also the world’s most senior extant Nazi, Alois Brunner, who was rumored to live on nearby Abd al-Malik Street and whose last sighting would be at the same Méridien where I was staying. I had spent enough time here to be able to separate Syria’s murderous regime from ordinary Syrians, who tended to be delightful artisans, cooks, and storytellers. Yet, the uglier aspects of the regime’s propaganda had a way of bleeding into the thoughts of otherwise decent-seeming people. Nabaa’s show of Kassab-Bashi’s paintings had led me into a penumbra where art, cocktails, and regime ideology intersected.

I wanted to tell Nabaa that for normal people, martyrs were men and women who led lives of heroic virtue, not terrorists who murdered defenseless athletes and then got shot by the police. How outspoken might I be, for basic decency’s sake?

“Marwan is great,” I ventured. “In his artistic skill, but martyrdom is a funny thing here, chez vous.”

No matter that Nabaa gave me exactly the quizzical look I expected, or that later on, the drive back to drop me off at the hotel was awkward, partially because I was preoccupied with two thoughts: I probably needed a new line of work, and I must never come back to Baathist Syria—not because I felt in immediate danger but because life here felt uniquely shameful. Living in Egypt as a student in the late 1970s had meant worrying about traffic accidents, pollution, and pickpockets, but not violence, and it certainly was no weight on my conscience. Jordan was an easier place to be; Israel was easier yet. I had made only short visits to Iraq, but immediately and deeply sensed the depression and tyranny affecting people in Baghdad and Karbala. Syria, on the other hand, although one of the most expansive and historically enthralling countries I knew, evinced a unique menace and horror to anyone used to the kindness of Middle Easterners, especially the gregarious Egyptians and upbeat Israelis.

Thanks to all this regional travel, I was already closing in on an informal rule of CIA operatives I would be taught later: “Never go against your gut.” While Egyptian plainclothes police were everywhere, they seemed protective, not malevolent; even a graduate student could see that. Jordan was not much different. Iraqis lived in fear and everyone knew why, because its Baathists tortured dissidents and had attempted genocide using mass killings and poison gas. Syria, by contrast, pretended to be an oasis of Old World tourism, mostly for Europeans visiting Palmyra, Ugarit, and the biblical sites. Yet the hotel lobbies of Damascus were full of middle-aged men in leather jackets doing nothing but surveillance, and the normal pedestrians were fearful of eye contact—the opposite of young Cairenes, who aggressively engaged foreigners in conversation, asking the time or where you were from. This was a predatory regime, and its people were the prey. Unlike the radical regimes in Algeria, Libya, Iraq, and Iran—whose remoteness from Israel concealed some of their anti-Jewish barbarity—Syria’s Golan frontier made it a front-line state in the Mideast conflict, and so its intermittent diplomatic engagements with Jerusalem gave it the veneer of a rational diplomatic player, obscuring its identity as a state sponsor of terrorism second only to Iran.

I was fortunate to enjoy a fairly domestic version of Damascus. As a socialist and native Saudi whom Riyadh had stripped of his nationality due to his anti-monarchist views, Munif was the safest of contacts in Baathist Syria. His family’s apartment, adorned with paintings by Kassab-Bashi and Dia al-Azzawi, lay in the western suburb of al-Mezze, on the road to the military airport and adjacent to the Iranian Cultural Center, a fact which his teenage sons and daughters despised. “Look at that!” they would gasp, pointing to the hijab-clad toddlers led by their parents’ hands around the center’s grounds. “Muslim girls veil at puberty. So what do those hijabs mean? That they see 3-year-old girls as sexual objects!” I, meanwhile, was led into the secular Munif home to the traditional pre-luncheon welcome of “whiskey or arak?” Lunch itself included a green salad bejeweled with pomegranate seeds, pistachio nuts, and chopped avocados.

The Nabaas lived in a wealthy downtown neighborhood between the popular Snack 24 and Sahet al-Marjeh, the plaza by the Old City where Eli Cohen was hanged. The modern Levant being largely unforested, wood tended to be scarce except for mosaic furniture or inlaid backgammon sets. Syrian homes were much more about stone: terrazzo floors, basalt and limestone walls and arches.

It was within the calcite purlieus of the Nabaa home that Salim, Munif’s nephew, once recounted his recent night shift at University Hospital, when the corpse of the presidential son Bassel al-Asaad arrived, shattered by a car accident. His team had barely pronounced the death of Hafez al-Assad’s presumptive heir when word of the senior Assad’s arrival was announced. Hospital management implored them to do everything possible to make Bassel’s smashed head as presentable as possible, to allay the president’s shock.

Salim’s story was met with tactful silence. This was in contrast to the chatty glee with which I would hear Bassel al-Assad’s death described in Hama, a city victimized by Assad regime massacres and rapes. “Bassel’s death was like divine vengeance,” I was assured by two young fellows entirely lacking in Munif’s and Barqawi’s discretion. “We all celebrate the anniversary—especially the women.”

Did I indeed need a new line of work? I was leaning toward yes. I could look forward to a translation conference to be held in wholesome Salt Lake City in the fall of 1995, where I could network for domestic translation and interpretation assignments that did not involve this. This visit to Syria felt like strike one against the idiot boss: in this case, self-employed me.

And yet I was back there a few months later to finish my fieldwork, and I managed to navigate my way around most of the country without too much interference. By now I was a known quantity to officialdom, and dutifully reported my presence to the local police, according to the terms of my journalist visa as I moved from Damascus up through historic Homs, indiscreet Hama, the Crusader castles, the Alawite mountains, Aleppo, Palmyra, Doura Europos, and then down to the Golan Heights.

The author, at right, and his driver, on a windy day in Quneitra, looking south into the Israeli Golan
The author, at right, and his driver, on a windy day in Quneitra, looking south into the Israeli GolanCourtesy the author

This was Syria’s most sensitive border, the one with Israel. To the west and north, the Lebanese and Turkish borders were easy, and to the east, the Iraqi border was tightly monitored but grudgingly open. (In the mid-1990s, Syria and Iraq were not at war but feuding, as pro-Iran Syria had done its utmost during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war to undermine Iraq.) The southern border was closed and sealed with a minefield. Syrian propaganda rarely even called Israel by its name, preferring Occupied Palestine, the Zionist Entity, or the Zionist Usurping Power. Like Allah, Israel seemed to have 99 names, though none of them flattering. This was the conventional overkill of Syria’s virile propaganda, in quaint contrast to its military failures against the country whose Iranian patron at least called the Jewish state by its right name, for the simplicity of the slogan “Death to Israel.”

For the Syrian regime, the crown jewel of the unoccupied Golan was the demolished city of Quneitra, dynamited by the Israelis as they withdrew from enemy territory in 1973 at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur War. The homes and houses of worship were all in ruins, as was the once-elegant Shams Cinema. The Syrians never rebuilt the town, preferring to keep it as a political tourist exhibition of Israeli spite. A smarter regime would have rebuilt it and brought back its people to show resilience, but the Syrian regime opted for the Palestinian model of enshrining and perpetuating victimhood.

The Damascus rule was that I could not visit Quneitra without a government escort, so they imposed upon me a Tony Shalhoub look-alike minder named Abu Ahmad, who showed up in front of my hotel that morning with a van and driver. We motored south from the capital on Route 7, stopping in the village of Beit Jinn to buy apples and then through the remotest part of southern Syria to the rising, scenic Golan, breezing through regime and U.N. checkpoints as Abu Ahmad flashed his ministerial credentials. We parked outside Quneitra and toured on foot the empty streets of the ruined town, gazed up at snowy Mount Hermon to the west and south, into Israel where jeeps busily patrolled the east-west frontier road, and I interviewed an elderly married couple, former residents of the town, who had suddenly emerged to meet me from a van like ours. I later learned that they were full-time employees of the regime’s Ministry of Information, who were whistled up to recite their story of displacement as needed for American, European, North Korean, Iranian, and other media, along with their hopes to return, ludicrously, given the regime’s policy never to rebuild. As a Californian familiar with Disneyland, I saw them less as credible sources than as theme park characters at the popular Quneitra Land attraction, but I could not express such a cynical thought in a National Geographic article, let alone to Abu Ahmad. We watched 20 or so Druze villagers shout across the 200-meter-wide minefield into the town of Majdal Shams within the Israeli line, using loudspeakers, trading gossip and family news over what was famously called the Wadi al-Surakh or Shouting Valley.

With the job done, in the late afternoon, we turned north back to Damascus via Route 7’s green hills, as Abu Ahmad embarked upon a shakedown routine. This was a weekend day, he reminded me, and he should have been with his family and not on the job, yet he had arranged for the van and given up his day off, so he wanted 100 U.S. dollars. I reminded him that I had never asked for his help and he had imposed all this on me; wasn’t the van government supplied, or if it was out of his own pocket, shouldn’t he be billing his own ministry? He sparred with me over how much time I had spent down in Quneitra and the Shouting Valley, talking to the old geezers when he had family members to take care of. Clearly, I thought, the time we had spent with the elderly refugees and watching the Golani Druze shouting over their valley had been an even bigger farce and waste of time to him than it was to me.

If this had been a carpet bazaar in Aleppo or Damascus, our spat over payment might have made for a colorful anecdote in the article. I was one of the thousands of reporters who had visited Quneitra to see and dutifully report, but the impoverishment and corruption of my government minder—by far a more revealing story—belonged in the back channel of my expense report, not in the published story. If I wrote truthfully about Abu Ahmad, National Geographic might lose access to Syria: Viewing Arab art was one thing, but exposing its moral ugliness would cross a line. Later, I would remember this as an introduction to managing information that belonged in front channels, back channels, and undisseminated operational channels.

After a brief stop in LA after returning from Damascus, I did attend the conference in Salt Lake City, weary from jetlag but excited at the thought of new and different opportunities. Attending seminars on handling audiovisual projects, dubbing or subtitling movies, and consecutive court interpretation in the sparkling Red Lion Hotel, without being tailed or scolded by snappish foreign officials, filled me with joy. Amid the hundreds of stalls at the job fair, I collected brochures from software companies, translation agencies, something called the Joint Publication Research Service, and even the FBI, whose representative asked my age (mid-30s) and portentously informed me that I could still be an FBI special agent, though the cutoff was age 37.

My last memory of the conference was of the late-afternoon event hosted by AT&T Language Line in a suite a few floors above the conference ballrooms. I filed into the suite amid a throng of distinguished literary translators, professors of literature, and every species of expert freelancer, chatting cordially about our respective projects and world travels. At the sight of buffet tables laden with cheese, crackers, mini-quiches, and even chicken wings with tangy sauces, however, all pretense of professional comity vanished. The prospect of free snacks galvanized the dozens of savants to swarm the tables like rapacious crocodiles or Africanized bees on the then-nascent National Geographic Channel. Many started at the closest end of the tables, far from the stacks of small plates, linen napkins, and silverware the food and beverage staff had supplied at the opposite end, but nothing deterred them, and they stuffed their faces and pockets with all the delicacies they could seize with their bare hands. The corporation’s keynote speaker smiled a little ruefully from her podium, commanding almost no attention in the room until the feeding frenzy abated, about 20 minutes later.

Just as a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for his client, I had a fool for a boss. This felt like strike three. I needed a new job.

Peter Theroux is a translator and writer in suburban Los Angeles. After more than 20 years in the U.S. government, he was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal.

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