I haven’t shared many of this before, but I love Syria. Growing up on the outskirts of Beirut, my family and I would regularly go up to different parts of our larger neighbor to the east. I’ve made some of my fondest friends in memories in cities like Damascus and Aleppo. Seeing this now 4-year-old devastating war just a couple of hour’s drive away has been heartbreaking to say the least. Sadly though, the sharp divisions it has caused and the undesirability of the main factions in it, has kept me largely tight-lipped on the matter, save for writing about the plight of Syrian refugees in both Lebanon and Jordan and how to help. But, the fall of Tadmur into the clutches of ISIS (da3esh) really struck a chord.
As a teenager, I was a massive archeology buff. I’d go to the Byblos citadel and spend most of my time in the courtyards trying to find a secret Phoenician tomb so I can open the sarcophagus and discover who lays in it. Tadmur, honestly had the most awe-inspiring ancient ruins I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s an almost completely intact entire city that dates back two millennia in the middle of the desert between Damascus and Raqqa.
The wide avenues, the perfect arches, the network of aqueducts, the pristine amphitheaters, everything. It was gorgeous, and I couldn’t stop pinching myself at how surreal it all felt. For all its epicness and massive size, virtually no one visited Tadmur. It felt like our tour group was the only thing alive in this 2000-year-old ghost city, where Queen Zenobia ruled all those centuries ago, leading an uprising against Rome and briefly expanding her kingdom to include Egypt.
Getting lost in the ruins though, was always overshadowed by the whispers of what lay underground and in dark rooms in Tadmur. Tadmur, apart from being home to one of the world’s finest UNESCO World Heritage sites, was also home to one of the Assad regime’s most notorious prisons, where they unlawfully jailed and tortured political prisoners, including Lebanese, for decades.
Even after the tours, I’d want to check my Hotmail account (yes, it was that long ago!) and the only way to do that back then, with Syria’s massively censored and restricted Internet access, was going to an underground cybercafe where they’d use proxy websites and VPNs to access something as mediocre as Hotmail or Myspace. I still remember the cybercafe I’d frequent had posters of Eminem and Linkin Park, and I’d wondered back then if the owners would get in trouble for them.
What I’m trying to say, is that Tadmur is the perfect microcosm of the Syrian crisis for me. On the one hand, I’m absolutely horrified of what the Islamist terror groups are gonna do to it. On the other, I’m reminded of how the murderous Assad regime had used it as a location to annihilate any descent or free thought in the country. Secretly, under my breath, I always hoped in the past 4 years that no fighting will happen there. I was happy it seemed largely forgotten and that it never made the news. But, when it started to make headlines everywhere, I was genuinely devastated.
That’s not to say that this developments moved me any more than over 200,000 Syrians dead so far. But, to be honest, all my Syrian friends and acquaintances are safe in countries like the US and Lebanon, and thank goodness none of them were hurt or worse. My most frequented neighborhoods in Damascus were also largely safe, so, the gravity of the situation never really fully hit home till now.
I’m sad that we watch irreplaceable pieces of humanity’s heritage get destroyed live on Twitter and YouTube, while the world sits and watches. Killing the ISIS finance douchebag, warrants sending US commandos deep into Syrian territory. Iran sends its best military advisers to free Tikrit. No one lifts a finger to try and deter the Islamist terrorists from destroying what is not theres, or ours, but everyone’s.
Four years later, I’d be lying if anything is any clearer or more obvious. It just hurts more, especially when so many of us have gotten used to the daily accounts of massacres and atrocities. Tadmur should be a reminder to us all, that the choice is indeed a hard one: both Assad and ISIS/Nusra are horrid, vile and disgusting. They’ve all wrought havoc on the people’s of Syria and Iraq, and here in Lebanon. There is no love lost for the Assad regime after it occupied Lebanon for three dark decades, but there is also great apprehension from what might replace it, especially given how disappointing the Arab Spring has been in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Take this post as a chance to reflect a little on what is happening on our borders and further beyond them. It’s our lifetime’s biggest calamity, and we often forget that these days. It took Tadmur to remind me how dire the situation was, and I can only wish from the bottom of my heart that we will see the guns silence and a free, secular, democratic Syria rise from all of this. It’s hard to believe that though, and we have Lebanon as an example: 25 years after the civil war ended, Lebanon still is a broken, corrupt state where religious conservatives and extremists still hold way too much power and the economy is faltering under the weight of crippling debt, and an extra 1.5 million mouths to feed and backs to clothe…