By Fred A. Reed
2000! That was the year when hope, like dawn, gleamed bright on the eastern horizon. Effervescence transposed the molecules in the air in ways that felt strangely optimistic. Things would be better. Surely. In few other places did this unseen working out of social and political forces and vectors seem as palpable as in Syria and its next-door neighbour, Lebanon.
With a Canada Council grant in my pocket I travelled there to begin work on a book project. The auguries were favourable. My timing was impeccable. But though my subject was historical, I was quickly overtaken by the flow of events.
In Syria, president-for-life Hafez al-Assad had died. He bequeathed the country to his son Bashar who promised not more of the same but a new day. In Lebanon—which used to be Syria before France shouldered its way in to ‘protect’ the Christian minority—resistance forces led by Hezbollah expelled the Israeli-backed puppet regime that lorded it over the southern quarter of the country.
Problem was that looking back, the dawn was illusory and the hopes soon to be betrayed as indeed they always are.
I travelled through Southern Lebanon with my guide and interpreter Celina Nasser who later went on to a successful career as a journalist. We visited the infamous prison at al-Khiam and saw its torture facilities. We drove right down to the border: on the Lebanese side, there was parched earth and olive groves strewn with mines. On the Israeli side, villas with red-tile roofs and lush vegetation that looked like the Southern California of my boyhood, except for the video surveillance balloons hovering overhead.
I waved. Nobody waved back.
A few kilometers east, in Damascus, a world of possibilities had suddenly come into existence. Though Bashar al-Assad had received from his father’s hands a country, he seemed determined follow another path. Prisoners that had been held for more than a decade, some in solitary confinement, were released and stepped forward, blinking, into the bright light of day.
Citizens’ committees arose spontaneously, meeting in private homes but open to all. I attended some of those gatherings. The atmosphere was electric. “Could it be?” men and women seemed to say. “How long would it last?” they wondered.
As an accredited journalist, I had a press pass. It gained me entry into political offices, religious institutions and cultural monuments. People were anxious to talk: former political prisoners and dissidents, former Islamist militants converted to militant secularism (and who would later end up with right-wing think tanks in Washington), citizens who hoped for the best. And wanted to tell me about it; to them I lent an eager ear.
Soon after I arrived in Syria, my wife Ingeborg came to visit. We explored the old city, continuously inhabited for at least 4000 years. The great mosque, at its heart, was intact and radiated peace and tranquility. As all religious structures should.
I was there because I wanted to write about these places that are foreign and exotic to Westerners, but deeply imprinted with histories of blood and turmoil.
Blood and turmoil did not overtake us during our weeks-long wanderings. That would be soon after. Like all but its architects, we had not foreseen the events of 9/11. Not foreseen the Global War against Terror that would destroy entire societies and attempt to recast the Middle East. Not foreseen then-president Barack Obama’s 2010 speech at the American University in Cairo that launched the “Arab Spring,” one of whose intended effects was an attempt to destroy Syria.
But I am getting ahead of myself. It was the fall of 2000, and when we arrived in the ancient city of Palmyra, in the heart of the Syrian Desert, the only sound was that of the wind rustling through the palm fronds.
Our first stop in this ancient town—once a thriving center of trade that may have boasted 200,000 inhabitants when ruled over by Queen Zenobia—was the Palmyra museum. There, we were shown into the office of the curator, Professor Khalid al-As’ad. If you needed information about the town’s history, geography, sociology and artistic heritage, he was the man to ask.
Over tea, we spent several hours talking, and on our departure he signed a copy of his work on the museum’s collection. The following morning, on Dr. Al-As’ad’s advice, we visited the ruins before dawn, and watched light of the rising sun gradually illuminate the pagan, Christian and Muslim antiquities that surrounded us.
Fast-forward fifteen years. After being driven from—or transplanted to—central Syria, fighters loyal to ISIS invaded the Palmyra oasis. And what a prey it was for those greedy vultures. Ideological bedfellows of the earlier Talibans who had destroyed the great Buddhas of Bamian in Afghanistan, these Syrian “democratic rebels” set about destroying what they conceived as graven images, and worse, vestiges of paganism.
Okay for the stone columns, the temples, churches and amphitheatres. Those could all be rebuilt (as indeed they would be). But these same knife-wielding purists sought human victims and found the ideal one in Dr. al-As’ad, a distinguished scholar of advanced age. Him they beheaded and then hung the corpse on full display from one of the columns still standing amid the ruins.
No “white helmets” were on hand to film the scene or provide first aid.
One year later, Syrian government forces backed by the Russian army liberated Palmyra. And in the remains of the huge and magnificent amphitheatre they rapidly staged a concert before an audience composed of Russian servicemen and local inhabitants.
The event featured the Mariinsky Orchestra of Saint-Petersburg, flown in for the occasion, and directed by Valery Gergiev. They played Bach and Prokofiev. I can only imagine how those sounds would have echoed through the twice ruined—once by time, and once by the most ruthless of religious warriors—amphitheatre.
Conductor Gergiev, as alert readers will have noticed, is now on the All Things and Persons Russian blacklist. A man whose great talent was appreciated by Mr. Putin, he promptly lost his jobs as Director of the Munich Opera, a position he had held for seven years.
Maestro Gergiev himself has not yet been officially cancelled on all platforms. So after I post this item, I may well seek out one of his many concerts still available for a taste of what European and American audiences have willingly deprived themselves.