4 and a half years ago I quit college tennis to pursue my dream of living in the Middle East. I joined a study abroad program, residing in Egypt for 3 months and traveling to Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel. I got to talk with journalists, politicians, religious leaders, cultural icons and average citizens in a quest to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural, historic, religious and political landscape of each country. I did things I never could have imagined. I lived in a lower-class Egyptian family’s home (no English) for a week. I talked to Israeli and Palestinian college students on consecutive days who had irreconcilably conflicting world views. I experienced Palm Sunday on The Street Called Straight in Damascus and Easter in Jerusalem, getting recruited to carry a cross with Serbian Orthodox Christians down the Via Dolorosa. That semester will be forever ingrained in my memory – without a doubt, I learned and expanded my worldview more during that semester than the other seven combined.
It was not without its struggles. The Middle East is the most complicated place on earth and coming back to America, people didn’t understand my experiences. It’s easy to laugh about all Muslims being terrorists when you don’t know any. Much of what I had been told about Israel and Palestine was wrong, simplistic or biased. I learned that people are the same everywhere. I didn’t want to be spoon fed information or be told what to believe anymore because there are at least two sides to every story.
And perhaps the hardest part was having my understanding of God shaken. In an essay titled, “Who gets into heaven and why?” I had to answer precisely that question. Having made life-long Muslim friends and coming to the realization that if I had been born in Egypt, I would have wholeheartedly believed in Islam made writing this essay instrumentally more difficult.
I have been to Syria, and my reaction to what’s happened over the last three years is that it’s incredibly sad for the people. When you’ve seen a place, you can no longer think of what happens there as merely news or statistics. Syrians were some of my favorite people in the Middle East. They were so talkative and friendly – even when we only spoke limited Egyptian Arabic. One street musician invited my friends and I to his Aladin-esque home where we sipped tea on the floor while listening to his live performance. And I learned how incredibly diverse people are. On Palm Sunday, throngs of Syrian Orthodox Christians paraded in the streets of Damascus, carrying dyed chicks instead of Easter eggs. While there, we also visited one of two towns in the world that still speaks Aramaic – the language that Jesus spoke. Other parts of the country are made up of Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Christians, Druze, and various other minority sects and religious groups. American news channels tell a single story about Syria and the Middle East but it’s more complicated than that: There are so many good things amongst the bad, just like anywhere else.
There is a TED Talk by a Nigerian author on the dangers of telling a single story, check it out if you get the chance.
I think it’s interesting that Arab countries, Iran, Israel, Europe and The United States have all rallied around defeating ISIS. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, my guess is the world hasn’t unequivocally agreed on something this strongly since World War II (And not everyone agreed about that) and right after defeating ISIS we will go right back to bickering.
As a hypothetical question I wonder though, given the choice, if ordinary Syrians would choose to overthrow Assad’s regime again? Assad was a brutal dictator and there’s no doubt freedoms were restricted under his rule, especially for Sunni Muslims. There were soviet-style torture chambers and secret police. We didn’t have access to Facebook or YouTube and we had to be extremely careful about what we wrote or e-mailed because big brother was always watching. And yet I think most people now would probably give up those freedoms in exchange for the security they had under Assad. I don’t know if that’s depressing or just human nature. One could potentially argue the same thing in Iraq and to a lesser extend, places like China and Singapore. Everyone gives up freedom in exchange for security – our choices are just not as drastic as theirs.
I wish I could offer hope or an easy solution to the conflict in Syria. I can’t. But I can stay informed, acknowledging that we live in a broken world and offering prayers for people in suffering. Hopefully we learn something from the lessons it has to offer and use those to make this world a better place.