When the 1st Marine Division thrust into Baghdad in March 2003, we erected headquarters at the ruins of Babylon, in the town of Al-Hilla with strict warnings that anyone caught touching a single stone or walking around the ruins would face court-martial. It was boring and frustrating stuck on base -- nothing to do but clean your rifle and exercise. One hot summer afternoon, I put on shorts, grabbed my rifle and went for a jog. Sweating in the hundred degree heat, I looked around in astonishment, passing sights of near-mythical antiquity: the ruins of the Hanging Gardens, the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar and the original Ishtar Gate.
Stopping to catch my breath, I looked at the walls of the palatial maze encrusted with three-thousand-year-old dust. Saddam replaced some of the ancient Sumerian bricks (containing the first language of cuneiform) with his own inscriptions of self-aggrandizement. I looked up at Saddam's palace overlooking the ruins, atop a massive gardened hill, and, enraged, I began jogging up the steep hill. My thoughts wandered to the solace of the inaccessible indulgences of my previous life. There, in the cradle of civilization, I needed to vent my frustration. I pumped out two hundred push-ups, knuckles down, until my hands bled.
Sometimes a man must return to his people, but what if he spent part of his life at war with them? An Arab-American born in Pennsylvania and raised in Washington, D.C., I returned to Syria every summer vacation as a child. I'd never thought too much about the meaning of my mixed heritage until that terrible day on September 11th, 2001, but it was to change the course of my life forever.
I immediately dropped out of college to join the U.S. Marines and fought two lengthy tours in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. A young man enduring an identity crisis, I wanted to show that Arab-Americans believe in and are willing to fight for their country. In the field of battle, I translated for Marine interrogators and conducted my own interrogations. I took part in countless military intelligence operations and dealt with the local populace every day. I grew frustrated with the Iraqis' lack of cooperation in fighting the destructive insurgency. I felt my attitudes towards Arabs changing.
In November 2004, I interrogated prisoners of war and fought on the front lines of the Battle of Fallujah. I returned to the United States, completed my four years of active duty and received an honorable discharge. Still drinking the proverbial Kool Aid, I became a de facto talking head for Arab-American Iraq War veterans. I defended the war and my actions, speaking publicly and appearing in numerous news outlets, trying in vain to explain the things the U.S. did in the name of the "War on Terror." Some called me an Arab race traitor. Eventually, BBC Arabic TV invited me to speak on a live talk show. I sat dumbfounded in a small dark room in BBC's D.C. headquarters, listening through a dysfunctional earbud as enraged Arabs harangued me in front of millions of viewers.
Now, in 2010, at 29-years-old, ten years had passed since I returned to my family's country of origin. But when I returned, my childhood memories had lost their innocence. After the war, I felt at odds with a place I had once felt at home in and my entire Arab identity.
Last year I worked as a contractor for the Department of Defense as an Arabic translator at a top secret unit at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Gitmo job turned into a disaster. One of my many, perhaps too honest media accounts of an Arab-American war vet got noticed and made some people very unhappy. They fired me and kicked me off the island. I did not complain for a moment.
I saw no abuse while at Gitmo, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth for ever working for the U.S. government, sacrificing my sweat and blood for our bungled overseas endeavors.
I suddenly realized the misguided nature of our operations in the Middle East since September 11th. I felt horrible. It hit me like a bullet to the brain: our wars in the Middle East are horrific blunders and we must extract our forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Now I wanted nothing to do with it and in a snap decision I returned to Damascus to start a new life. I was worried my people would reject me for my actions. I felt I needed to atone for my sins against this grand and ancient civilization, to understand the culture and build bridges between the West and East, instead of destroying them.
Much to my wonder, upon my arrival I discovered I had more in common than I could have anticipated and slipped easily into my peer group. Here I found upper-crust youths lounging around opulent pools, drinking at gorgeous nightclubs built into ancient bathhouses and hotels.
I found a diverse group. Ethnically, Syrians are Caucasians, but with olive skin and hairier bodies than European whites. Most are brunettes, ranging from chestnut to jet black, with a small percentage of blondes and even pale-skinned redheads. Approximately 70 percent of the women wear the hijab. You also do not usually see Muslim men wearing shorts. Christians make up approximately 10 percent of the population.
Hanging out with my Syrian friends and family I quickly learned Syria is secular and largely free of the sectarian divisions we in the West wrongfully assume divide Christians and Muslims. On the contrary, Christians, Druze, Sunnis, Shi'ites and Alawites (an offshoot of Shi'ism) all socialize together in the Damascene community. There is a deep sentiment of nationalism, brotherhood and solidarity. Nevertheless, the religious status quo is often maintained because marriage is forbidden outside of one's religion or sect.
Of course Westerners will notice a fundamental difference in attitudes towards alternative lifestyles, sex and drugs. Syria does not have the same history of counter-cultural movements such as those of the United States in the 60s and 70s. Syria's rulers were already officially secular and leftist (and remain so to this day). As such, young people during that time, the Syrian "Baby Boomers," did not conceptualize rebellion against the status quo in the same manner. Rebellion against tradition was not articulated through drug-taking and while poets and writers of the time did cover sex in their arts, Syria did not experience a sexual revolution.
Deep taboos persist. It would be a lie to say people do not engage in casual sex and party in Damascus. They do. But as Sid Hudgeons said in the late nineties classic, L.A. Confidential such things remain "off the record, on the Q.T. and very Hush-Hush." Family honor is held highest above all and living what we in the West call an "alternative lifestyle" will lead to social stigmatization.
It essentially is a small town and everyone knows everyone; people perform their own self-sustaining, self-correcting status quo maintenance. To go outside the norm is to risk being ostracized. Just like anywhere else, people talk. With talk, rumors become truth and your name and that of your family can turn to mud. Edward T. Hall, an expert in cross-cultural communication from the 1970's, described the Middle East as possessing "high-context" cultures. His studies in intercultural communication brought to light the reality that in such societies family and tribe are absolutely fundamental. Personal dishonor extends to family dishonor, the ultimate stigma. Hall defines "low-context" societies as possessing more of the Western ideological underpinnings of individuality, self-definition and personal responsibility. In other words, a person is responsible for him or herself when they indulge in forbidden pleasures or pursue a lifestyle that is alternative to the norm. Syrian society is "high-context." People here are not viewed merely as individuals responsible for themselves. A person is an extension of their family's pride and accomplishments.
Approaching an unknown person on the street of Damascus, someone may ask me "min beit meen?" meaning "whose house are you from?" or "who is your family or tribe?" Although I had left for more than ten years, walking into any high-class party, hotel, cinema or nightclub in Damascus I still run into a handful of locals who already know my story.
It was tough at first. I was the Syrian kid who became a U.S. Marine in the Iraq War. Usually people are polite and inquisitive, or simply avoid the subject. But they are not always so kind.
On my first evening at Damascus' hip rooftop bar, Z-Bar, I stood dumbfounded at the gorgeous panoramic view overlooking Damascus and Mount Kassyoon. The evening grew hazy and sweet with the glittering lights of the city below, the constant flow of Lebanese pilsner and the gut-thud of house music. I started talking with a Syrian woman. She spoke good English. She walked away for a moment to use the bathroom. Apparently on her way there someone took her aside and told her I fought for the U.S. in Iraq. She returned with a smirk on her face and asked if it was true. I never lie about my life, even to impress a woman.
"You mean you fought for them?" she said incredulously.
"Oh," she continued, "I heard about Arabs who fought for the U.S. in the news. Whenever I hear about you guys I just feel bad. You should know better."
"So," I replied calmly, "you're just going to stand there and judge me. You're not going to ask my opinion on the issue? What do you want me to do? Do you want me to cry and beg your forgiveness for a part of my life? I don't even know you."
I walked away, feeling a needle pierce my heart.
Closely connected society has its advantages. Unlike the wild antics you might see in the U.S., none of your friends will leave you drunk and naked in the street for a photographer to grab shots of your trashed and exposed buttocks.
When someone is in real trouble their friends will help them no matter how shady the circumstances. Out one night with friends in the beautiful old city, a young female friend had too much to drink and passed out in the bar, her friends rallied around her to make sure she got home safely. We covered for her, because she, like most unmarried people, still lives with her parents, and bringing her home in that state would mean trouble. In that situation and most of the time with young Damascenes, mom and dad will call and bother you once it gets late. And they will wait until you get home to give you a scolding like you are still in high school.
Ruba Nakawa, 23, is a student at Glamorgan University in Wales. Ruba grew up in Damascus and then moved to Wales in 2009 to study computer engineering for a year. In Wales she lived in a flat with other European students her age, English and Italians. She experienced culture shock upon seeing the English way of drinking and casual sexual interactions. One of the first nights out with her flat-mates they abandoned her at the bar. A proud virgin, Ruba felt uncomfortable with how people would hook up in public:
"Women don't respect their bodies over there," she said. "You go to the bar, once they get drunk they pull up their skirts right there ... They're more like animals in a forest. They just hump each other and go their own way."
To build bridges between Western and Eastern ways of thinking, it is necessary that we define culture in new ways. The problem is that different people have different attitudes towards sex. Nevertheless, these attitudes should not always be focal points in gauging progress in a culture. You cannot always change people's opinions when it comes to personal freedoms. Furthermore, it should not be America's job to shove our way of life down people's throats with guns pointed at their heads. I can tell you from experience it does not work. A religious revival is occurring in the Middle East and there is a direct link between America's wars and this revival. The "War on Terror" failed and is still failing. Terrorism is on the rise. We only served to foment discontent against the West.
Walking through the dusty, sun-bleached streets of Damascus, I am always reminded of Iraq and my time in Babylon. Some areas here look exactly like Fallujah. Poor Fallujah, the city I watched burn and crumble. I watched a young Marine lieutenant die in front of my eyes. A sniper hidden in the minaret of a mosque took his life with a single bullet. Afterwards, I shouted with glee as we destroyed every building and mosque in sight, pounding our enemies into the dust with the full force and precision of our spectacular war machine. Walking around at dusk on a hot day, I asked the streets of Damascus for forgiveness, studying the people walking by, searching their faces. People were simply going about their daily errands and jobs.
In Old City, I passed shrouded women, ancient mosques and churches, children playing, their laughter floating into the cooling air, relieving the oppressive day's heat. I passed a Syrian woman wearing tight jeans and no hijab. The electric snap of an insect burnt on a neon zapper at a nearby juice vendor woke me from my reverie, the sound reverberating in my mind, identical to the pop of incoming bullets hitting stone buildings. Moving on, I admired the fabric vendor with his tired eyes, leather skin and rough hands, his tiny space nestled into the row of shops along the ancient market, his cornucopia of textiles neatly displayed in sheaths, glittering with the same silver and golden luster as the ancient caravansaries of the Silk Road.
Later that evening, spending time with a Syrian friend, we drank a few beers together and I found myself spilling my heart, telling him how bad I felt about my past. He asked me if I killed anyone. I said no, not personally.
"Then let it go," he said. "You shouldn't blame yourself for something you weren't responsible for."
It was good advice, and something I'm still working at.