Note: This article is long, but it gives you an idea of what it was like in Syria -- like you had been there yourself.
Friday, June 13, 2014
Syria Unplugged: My excellent adventure as an observer of Syria's presidential elections
Note: This article is long, but it gives you an idea of what it was like in Syria -- like you had been there yourself.
Note: This article is long, but it gives you an idea of what it was like in Syria -- like you had been there yourself.
May 29: Just got a call out of the blue from a journalist friend of mine. "Want to go to Syria to be an election observer, leaving tomorrow?" Heck yeah!
I printed out my packing list, threw some stuff in a suitcase and then wiped out my savings account in order to buy a plane ticket to Beirut.
But then I received an e-mail from our organizer for this trip. "ISIS, a jihadist Al Qaeda affiliate that is funded and armed by American interests, has just announced its intention to disrupt the elections." Oops. But I don't dare tell my family that. They would never let me go. So I'm keeping that information to myself.
What books to bring? And how many? I ran out of stuff to read when I went to Haiti in February and it was truly scary. Four books should be enough. My flights there will take a total of 23 hours. I'm back on the road again!
My granddaughter Mena was sick today so I took care of her while my son Joe was at work. She helped me pack.
May 30: Yay, I'm back in an airport, going somewhere. Nothing like the prospect of going to a war zone in the Middle East to get me up and about. I'm amazed at how my usual lethargy has just slipped away.
Arrived at Gate 60 at SFO in plenty of time. Had some sushi from the Berkeley Bowl to munch on while I wait. And a good book to read. Flight 1188 to Seattle next, and then from there to Frankfurt. Who knows? I might actually fall asleep on the plane.
May 31: This day is lasting more than 24 hours due to all these time zones. It's 3:00 am in Berkeley and 12 noon in Frankfurt. I have no idea what time it is in Beirut -- and frankly at this point I don't really care. Too tired to care.
I'm a rotten flyer -- but staying home is a far much worser option. Just five more hours in the air and then all I will have to worry about will be some American-armed Al Qaeda guy trying to blow me up. I can deal with that.
On the flight from Seattle to Frankfurt, I watched "Monuments Men" and it was quite good. However, I just couldn't get through either "August, Osage County" or "American Hustle". I watched "Wolf of Wall Street" almost to the end, which was rather quite masochistic of me because it went on and on and on -- and we even arrived in Frankfurt before the end of it.
What was Leonardo diCaprio thinking about starring in such a poorly-edited flick?
Oh and I also couldn't make it through "Mandela" or "Blue Jasmine" either. Blue Jasmine had great actors but a lousy script. Mandela lived in a rather posh Jo-burg -- not the slum SoWeTo that I remembered from my Peace Corps days.
Now we are flying over Turkey. Almost there. Actually got ten minutes worth of sleep -- so now I'm (almost) ready for anything. Turkey, from the air, looks totally unpopulated.
And then suddenly I was there, arguing with a taxi driver in Beirut. "$150 to drive you to your hotel." Which I knew was less than three miles away.
"$10," I replied. Arabs always love to barter. But we settled on $15, plus he demanded a $5 tip. So okay. But the Asshara hotel was more than worth it -- an old pile of stone that looked like it had been left over from the Crusades. But it turned out to be brand new -- and also at least a four-star hotel with all kinds of amenities and an outdoor palm court with fez-wearing waiters who occasionally moved through the greenery swinging burning incense. And they had hookahs which they brought to our table if we so desired.
And, yes, I have a roommate, a fellow journalist. "I got 300 e-mails today," she told me. I should be so lucky. I usually get stuck with 600, most of them spam.
People-watching at the hotel restaurant was also four-star.
Except that, all of a sudden I have a very fragile stomach. Probably from all that airline food. Rats. The menu looks great, all that Middle Eastern hummus and falafels and stuff. "Got any chicken soup?" I asked instead.
Everyone in Beirut looks very Lebanese. Very Danny Thomas. Or like Marlo.
June 1: I actually slept for a while last night. Got up, checked my e-mail, read some more of my book, went back to bed. Then, suddenly, at 2:00 pm, we got the call. "Get ready! We are leaving for Syria!" No. Wait. We can't leave yet. I'm hungry!
So I ran down to the restaurant and ordered some chicken soup to go but the fixer shouted "Yalla! Yalla!" so I ran out to the street to get in the car. But the waiter, bless his heart, ran after me with the soup.
Six or eight black shiny vans and cars with black-tinted windows and diplomatic plates were all lined up outside the hotel. Serious vehicles with serious drivers, apparently supplied by the Lebanese government itself. Wow.
All of the vehicles were full with various American and Canadian journalists and observers. There were actually only about ten of us, but it between the fixers and drivers and drivers' assistants, it seemed like more. But finally I found one with an empty seat and we were off -- through Beirut, which seems to consist of hundreds and hundreds of six-story apartment buildings. A lot of them are new. And almost no sign of the devastation caused by the 1982 attack on Lebanon by bellicose Israeli neo-con pirates looking for loot.
I hate sitting in the back seat.
Then we drove onto an inter-city freeway with all those familiar American green signs. Reconstruction freeways. First you tear cities down and get paid for doing it. And then you reconstruct them -- and get paid for that too. Sweet racket, that is.
Beirut is basically built on mountainsides, running down into valleys, then running down toward the sea. Then more mountainsides and more valleys as we drove east. Even more apartment houses. Then there was a semi-parkway and… Sorry, gotta stop writing here. Too many curves. This is a really nice Toyota van. Wouldn't want to throw up in the back seat.
The driver keeps blowing his mega-horn. 20 or 30 times. Then more mountains to drive through. More apartment buildings. And then even more! The Israeli IGF was insane to attack this place. It would be so easy to defend. Where would they drive all their tanks? Plus the tanks would have needed mega-horns too. Beirut is huge.
Imagine a city as large or larger than Los Angeles but built on mountains that make San Francisco's hills look like sand piles. There must be 50 mountains right inside of Beirut. Everyone here has a view.
By now, all this horn-blowing is just getting annoying and weird. We're on a one-lane road now. No place for the traffic in front of us to go anyway, except over the edge.
We must have hurried up 3000 feet at least by now -- because at this point we are actually driving inside of a cloud. Then we drove back downhill again and voila! We were at the Syrian border.
So this is the Road to Damascus.
If I had to walk this road like Saul of Tarsus did, I'd probably be hearing voices too.
Maybe ISIS won't get a chance to kill me. Maybe I'll die in a traffic accident instead. I will never ever again criticize my son Joe for driving too fast. I promise.
There certainly are a lot of guys around here at the border station. Guys here dress like guys everywhere -- jeans and T-shirts. Women mostly wear scarves and wait in the car.
Then suddenly we were over the border and into Syria. And a man who appeared to be a Syrian state representative took us into a reception hall and served us tea -- with all the bells and whistles that are so common in the Middle East, including rows of sofas lining the walls. And a painting of Bashar Assad himself, president of Syria. And it also had a bathroom. And we all had a tea-server take turns taking photos of our group with our cameras, under the portrait of Assad.
Then they put our group into Syrian black diplomatic town cars and whisked us off to Damascus. Where we were welcomed at a grand hotel, the Dama Rose, with fresh-squeezed orange juice and -- I swear -- paparazzi! Even a reporter from Press TV was there.
Later we chatted with a local university professor. He talked about American hypocrisy, how they are asking for democracy in Syria but not in Saudi Arabia and how Syria faces dirty enemies who attack hospitals, power supplies, water supplies and schools.
"Syrians are defending their homes, their history and their culture." And the oil fields are exactly where the jihadis went first. Arabia is trying to balkanize Syria, and the main target and plan is to stop life. Jihadis have already shelled 300 schools. And they use children who don't know any better to plant bombs."
June 2: What's it like in a war zone? Perfectly normal. Except that you hear shell explosions going off every 20 minutes or so. Life goes on. Life continues. People eat, laugh and chat. And then another explosion happens. That last one sounded really close. But then there is hot water and electricity and room service and cake for dessert. And you get distracted and forget -- until the next explosion.
And then you cry.
"The foreign fighters and Al Qaeda have shelled 300 to 400 schools here," someone else reaffirms. "They target hospitals and water supplies and civilians. They use little kids to place bombs. They fight a dirty war."
And America supports and pays for Al Qaeda. "This dirty war is brought to you by…." It is a commonly known fact here.
Why? Because oil has been discovered in the Mediterranean waters off the coast of Syria -- and American, Saudi and Israeli neo-cons are now swarming around this place like vultures. Or flies. I'm ashamed to be an American, for what has been done and what is still is being done throughout the Middle East in the name of my country.
But I won't be ashamed if I get injured in a bomb blast. I will just be extremely pissed off -- to be hit by a bomb that has been paid for with my taxes. Screw that.
Got two hours of sleep last night. Hope I don't have to do anything that involves brain cells today.
Oops. Too late. Already this morning I've gotten into several conservations with other observers and journalists, over a delightful breakfast buffet in the hotel restaurant, instead of just sneaking over to a corner table and reading my book.
Then five of us Americans went off to street-hike about a mile to get sim cards so we could all call each other in Syria. "We could text each other too," said someone. Text? Me? In your dreams.
The streets of this part of Damascus are like the streets of any other large European or American city. Nice houses, sidewalks, cars, billboards advertizing clothes and TVs. Safe. Syria is really a quite modern country, the cradle of civilization in fact. Americans may think of Syria as consisting of mostly camels and tents. So very not true.
And we walked past the Saudi embassy on the way to a MTN store -- and it was all covered with Assad posters. How ironic is that! I wanted to take a photo of it but apparently taking photos of embassies is verboten ( I should know that by now, having gotten arrested by U.S. rent-a-cops for taking a photo of the American consulate in Shenyang, China, a few years ago). Rats. I will try to sneak back.
"The embassy is closed anyway," I was told.
And now I'm sitting in the MTN store, having taken a number and waiting my turn and trying to pretend I'm awake. Then we street-hiked back to the hotel. Hard to get lost around here, there are so many interesting boutiques and churches and mosques and Victorian architecture to use as photographic bread crumbs. Or you could just ask anyone, "Where is the Dama Rose Hotel?"
Then just when I'd gotten all settled down in my posh hotel room with my book, the phone rang. "You gotta get to the lobby right away. We're leaving to interview the Syrian election commission in five minutes!"
Then we got hustled off to a caravan of black town cars and motorcycle cops blocking traffic as we went. I never felt so important in my life.
At a government ministry office, we met with the election commission. It was all very impressive. Lots of couches. But no tea this time.
"You will observe the presidential election, where three candidates are running for president, and you will have absolute freedom -- and also you can choose where you want to go. We know about all the propaganda being waged against Syria and that there are many attempts to derail the elections. But we need you to show the truth of these elections.
"We are running these elections under the 2012 constitution, which calls for more than one candidate, transparency and freedom of voters to choose who they want."
So a commission was appointed, and it cannot be fired for the next four years. They are independent -- and here they were, sitting in the room with us, telling us how they plan to run these elections.
"We try to be as transparent as possible and not allow anyone to break any rules."
"All three candidates are allowed to have their own scrutineers. There are also procedures in place for complaints. Complaints at the local level are referred to a higher regional commission."
Ah. Here comes the tea after all.
"Regarding voting at outside embassies, there was an overwhelming turnout by Syrians abroad."
Crap. This isn't tea. It's coffee. Now I'll be awake all night. Again.
"We have created a committee through external affairs and we have been kept informed by it. Syrian citizens in Lebanon have proven to the world their nationalistic feelings. That voters outside of Syria went to such measures to vote show their determination. Over 95% registered to vote. Their results will be combined with votes of citizens inside the country. Their votes will all count equally and will be tabulated together."
Syria is a sovereign country and does not allow interference from foreign countries. However, Syria has invited observers and news media to come and observe.
"You can't ask for more openness."
And what are the nuts and bolts of this election? "Safety and precinct size are two important factors. Syria is considered to be only one precinct -- so any Syrian can vote anywhere that they want. There are 9601 polling stations. 11,762 polling boxes. 7:00 am to 7:00 pm are the voting hours. But hours can be extended up to five hours if necessary. There will be independent judiciary oversight. One box for each 1000 voters."
Too bad America didn't have an independent judiciary back in 2000!
"How can we find out what the opposition candidates' positions and platforms are?" asked one observer. All candidates had access to the media.
"Will we have access to voters? To ask what is important to them?" Apparently yes.
"The security situation is a problem," said one commissioner, "but in urban situations, they have accommodated the war into their lives. Ten minutes after a bomb drops, they go back to their lives." Sort of like London during the Blitzkrieg.
"Voters will need personal IDs to prove their age. There will be voter lists. Because of the crisis, the government has issued ID cards. ASAP, within hours, new ones can be issued if disrupted by the war."
Another of our group talked about election-rigging in America. "There is ballot box stuffing and dead people voting. What are the Syrian protections?"
"There will be no proxy voting here -- and we will use invisible ink that cannot be erased. We will count the number of ballots against the list of people voting. If over 2% deviation, then ballots will be randomly deleted.
"People who vote more than once are penalized. And dead people in Syria don't vote." We all laughed at this joke.
"Approximately 180,000 felons who can't vote. There are 15,845,657 qualified voters -- counting inside Syria and outside." There are approximately 24 million people in Syria. So about seven to ten million would be children. Internally displaced citizens are still allowed to vote -- which is why Syria is being considered as one large precinct.
I shoulda brought my knitting. I can tell that this meeting is going to be long. But interesting. But I was wrong. The meeting suddenly ended.
"1500 factories have been broken down into pieces and transferred to Turkey from Aleppo alone," someone said to me as we went off to another meeting. And me with no knitting in sight. Damn. But now we are going somewhere else. Where? I have no idea. All I know is that the new building has an elevator and I won't have to climb stairs.
Here's some other stuff that I learned informally from our group. "They didn't have enough ballots in Lebanon, there were so many voters in Beirut -- ex-pats who wanted to vote." Good to know.
Then we settled back into another set of couches. Someone is talking about "The criminal American policy toward the Syrian people." OMG. It's the Speaker of the Syrian Parliament himself!
"We have put a proposal to the international association of parliaments about a possible peace program. But there is a dog-eat-dog policy that Americans pursue where the strong eat the weak.
"Syria is the last non-sectarian country in the Middle East and America is trying to destroy it. Christian Syrians live side by side with Muslims and refuse to leave their homeland.
"Our government and people were able to survive the onslaught because Syria supports basic needs. Education and medicine are free. Fuel is tax-supported. Bread costs ten cents a loaf. Syria is self-sufficient for food production and has enough wheat reserves to last two years. The Syrians respect their government because it has made provisions for their survival. Outsiders rely on lies and false media reporting."
After 9-11, decisions were made by the UN not to aid and abet terrorists. But Britain, France and America under the new UN resolutions should have been tried in international court -- but they haven't been. "Why would Syrians destroy the infrastructures that they themselves built?
"You will see with your own eyes tomorrow how many will line up to vote. Voters closed the streets in Beirut. Other foreign countries closed Syrian embassies to prevent ex-pats from voting. Assad is popular because he stood up to foreign decrees -- but the people will decide."
Then someone brought us coffee and mango juice. Breakfast was seven hours ago. Wish they had included some pita bread or something too. Cookies perhaps?
"Some parliamentarians have been killed by the foreign fighters. Others have been kidnapped or had their homes blown up. Our parliament was first formed in 1919. In 1945, the French fired on the parliament building."
The weapons that are killing civilians come from neighboring states, France, Britain and America. "I'm a lawyer and as such I deal with realities. Syria requested a UN team to check on the saran gas. France and Britain objected. But the UN committee came and then was withdrawn. But when they came back, the investigation fell apart.
"The Syrian army is victorious on a daily basis. So why would we use chemical weapons -- which are desperate measures usually employed by the losing side. But outside forces are still looking for reasons to interfere in our affairs. We however are open for any discussion. Anyone who is sincere about wanting peace talks? I am willing to talk to anyone who is in a position to make a difference."
"What are U.S. objectives and what are the next steps?" someone asked.
"American strategies and actions are unchangeable -- but sometimes they are forced to delay them. If the American people's interests were in their minds, they would make international terrorism eradication their first priority. But America does not.
"We respect the way of others and this is our way of life. We do not support terrorism. But America supports the cradle of terrorism -- Saudi Arabia. America has become a hated people all over the world, and this does not benefit the American people.
"You will find the truth on the streets of Syria. The International Monetary Fund has impacted its programs all over the world but we ourselves rely heavily on our own self-production. We still have five million tons of strategic reserves of wheat, only use three million tons per year and can produce 2.7 million tons of wheat even in this war. 3,380 barrels of oil per day, 12 billion per year, spent in the service of the Syrian people. We are the fourth largest producer of olive oil. We also produce citrus and phosphates.
"The government has provided for the people and so the people are sticking with the government. Don't pay attention to what the foreign press says.
"Corruption is an international disease, found everywhere -- but when our nation was attacked, Syrians unified together. And a new phase of cooperation of the people came about. We've introduced new laws. We have mistakes, but we try to improve. And we are self-reliant. But we also have friends.
Perhaps that is a hint that Russia and Iran depend on the freedom of Syria to keep the balance of power.
"Armed gangs stole our oil, pilfered our artifacts. Aleppo's factories were dismantled and taken to Turkey. The U.S. is arming Islamic jihadis. It is a war by proxy.
"We are also facing a huge propaganda machine with huge lies. We have prisoners from 85 different nationalities here. We watch for people handing out money."
But then immediately after lunch I got the runs -- so I ran. Made it back to my hotel room but just barely. Who knows what I ate. The food here is really good. Too much coffee?
I seem to be okay now.
Except for wandering around the lobby trying to beg cameramen to interview me for TV. No dice. It was like I had a contagious disease -- which I do. The disease of being a woman and being old.
How can guys catch the female disease? They can't. But in the Arab world, the status of men is so much higher than the status -- or at least the freedoms -- of women that men clearly do not want to take any chances of catching this disease!
So. Tomorrow is the big election day. NPR asked why the rebels aren't being allowed to vote. That's crazy! You gotta be SYRIAN to vote!
June 3: It's almost becoming obvious that I'm never going to sleep again. But at least now my digestive tract is semi-under control.
So. Today is the big day. The soldiers in the lobby now have their flak jackets on, and stray cameramen are checking their equipment -- but compared to last night's crowded activity in the lobby, this place is almost deserted. It's 6:15 am.
And, more important, the restaurant is still closed. One would think that, with the polls opening all across Syria at 7 am, they would be serving breakfast earlier on this special day.
But the lobby right now is still pretty much occupied with men. It's like I'm a racial minority or something. That's okay. I've got a book to read.
I wonder why CNN isn't covering this election? Where else would they be if not in the lobby of the Dama Rose. But, hey, I've got my book.
9 am: The whole hotel is positively throbbing with activity now as reporters and observers get ready to go off to the polling places.
"20 people were killed by an ISIS bomb in Aleppo yesterday," someone said, ticking off the price of this brutal war on his fingers one by one, "and of course the American-backed Al Qaeda has seized the oil fields. And 62,000 Syrian Army soldiers have been killed. And don't forget there is now 50% unemployment too." I won't. Sometimes I am really ashamed to be an American.
Then I went looking for Syrian T-shirts in the hotel boutique.
Outside our hotel, it was like one big block party. We were next to a polling place. Exciting times. Show-off fighter jets fly overhead.
Then we hit the road to Sweida. In another caravan of black town cars. And just outside of Damascus, I started to see my first war damage -- whole square miles of apartment complexes destroyed.
Not many cars on the road. Our convoy speeds along. The weather is cool. "Do you think Sweida will have any UNESCO World Heritage sites we could see?" Why not? Sweida is parallel with the Sea of Galilee -- and everyone knows how old that site is.
"Damascus is a UNESCO site itself," someone says. "It's one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world." And we get to tour Old Damascus on Thursday.
Then, further south, everything started to look like Iraq -- that same kind of white-clay soil that almost looks like sand but when you add water becomes instant dirt.
20 miles out of Sweida and it still doesn't look like a country at war. Mostly it's just large open plains and an occasional hilltop. And sheep.
Oops, there's our first military pillbox, and a sign that read, "Sweida, the firm rock of the Syrian castle." I read where Sweida refused to secede even though it was the scene of the original non-violent protest three years ago. Or was that Daraa, also in southern Syria?
"The election today is to express the freedom of the people of Sweida," said the governor of Sweida, welcoming us. "You are free to visit our city and state -- to give the truth to your journalists."
Outside, people are singing and clapping. We are at the state capitol building. And they just brought us sweet tea.
"All the people in the world need peace," said an election observer from Bolivia. And there was an election observer from Venezuela there too. "The whole world's hearts and eyes are with the people of Syria." Hugo Chavez came here once to help Sweida. And apparently there is a large Syrian-South American population both here and in Latin America. There was also an observer from Brazil.
Sweida is not under attack by American-sponsored terrorists now, but it was. And these South American countries have taken this opportunity to be in solidarity with Syria. Guess that's because Latin Americans also knew the cruel boot of American repression. How poetic is that!
Then we went off to watch people vote. It was a party. My photographic money-shot for the day? A photo of a little girl who came to the polls with her mom because it was that safe!
Then we went off to more rooms with more couches.
"50% of our national income came from oil -- that money is now going to terrorists," said a former ambassador to Turkey.
"This is the will of the Syrian people, to show that they are not a rogue state but a people in control of their own destiny." Everyone in Syria is not opposed to freedom and democracy. Then he cited some statistics. "Over 600 hospitals and clinics and 300 schools have been blown up; 60 tons of explosives blew up a cancer hospital in Aleppo. They attack things that disrupt the lives of Syrians. Factories that manufacture medicines have been blown up. This has nothing to do with democracy." It is sacking and looting and piracy as far as I can tell.
One poll worker said that many of the voters were so passionate about supporting Syria that they voted using their own blood to mark the spot under their favorite candidate's photo.
"These terrorists come here and they bomb our schools and hospitals, kill and rape our women and children and even eat our flesh," said one woman. "It is like living in a Hollywood horror movie!" And I have heard this story again and again.
Syrians are civilized people, educated people -- and they are horrified at what is happening to their country.
There are so many stories here. And did I already mention that voters dip their finger or thumb into ink to show that they voted? And I got to dip my pinkie finger into the ink too. Solidarity!
And on to another polling center. And more tea. Oops. No. It's coffee.
The noise level is stratospheric here! People are so very anxious to show the American-backed terrorists that Syrians hate having these foreign fighters in their country, killing their children and stealing their oil.
"Force will get you into power," said Abraham Lincoln, "but it will not keep you there."
I'm sorry, but I am going to have to sit down. Enough of standing up. I'm almost worn out -- but not quite.
Then we went to a mosque. I am so at home in a mosque. I should go to a mosque more often when I get home.
Then we all toured more polling places and watched even more Syrians joyously vote. Then we went off to eat. A lot of food. At a dinner hosted by an organization of Syrians who have family ties to Latin America. I sat at a table with the Latin American observers and practiced my rusty Spanish. Then we all drove back to Damascus -- to eat a lot more.
At a banquet in Old Damascus, there was good news. I got to sit at a whole table full of Syrian MPs. But the bad news is that none of them spoke English. I wanted so badly to ask, "How do you make the hard decisions to fight and stand up to these thieves and thugs and pirates who are stealing your country? Even though they are financed with bottomless finances, weaponry and training by the U.S.?"
Do you just lie down in the face of orchestrated chaos? Even though 62,000 Syrian soldiers' lives have been lost and untold Syrian civilians have brutally been massacred?
But then we communicated via the universal language -- food! Plus they handed me a hookah of tobacco. My daughter Ashley would have cracked up.
June 4: It's my evil sister's birthday today. And also a huge gathering of the clans here at the Dama Rose for a debriefing -- and speeches by MPs from North Korea, Iran, Uganda, Venezuela, Russia, Brazil, Tajikistan, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, etc. "Syria, you have resisted injustice," said one of the American election observers.
Over 50 election observers were here. Plus another 60 or 80 reporters, camera operators and other observers who didn't have chairs at the long horseshoe table arrangement.
"Syria is not alone!" someone said, just like Hemingway and the Abraham Lincoln brigade fighting against fascism and Franco might have said. Only without the bandoleers and Ingrid Bergman.
"This is about the oil and gas in this region, and also to reduce Syria to the level of the medieval societies in Saudi Arabia -- not a democratic and progressive Syria," someone else said. Sure, he's right about the medieval society thing, but mostly it is about looting and piracy and bullying and greed.
Then I took a much-needed "Tourista" break. And then the press was asked to leave while we discussed what kinds of statements we observers were going to jointly and officially make.
Wouldn't it be amazing if Assad himself showed up.
One of the main speakers in this group is Iranian -- and tends to run on and on. Once again, I wish I had brought my knitting. But at least I am wearing my cool "Stillwater" band T-shirt.
What am I doing here in Syria? That's easy. "Eat, love, pray".
The whole population has taken part in this election. American propaganda says that people are being forced to vote. This lie should be contested. People came out willingly and joyously. And the opposing candidates were not just put there to camouflage this election.
Then the Russian MP spoke. "The election was held in a democratic manner. This is important for the world to know." And the world will know it because there are about 50 -- at least -- delegates here who will all speak out.
"We are supporting the legitimate government of Syria," said another delegate. I'm dying to know what the North Korean MP has to say.
Uganda's MP: 'We reject state-sponsored terrorism and we also reject the strong western propaganda that this election is not legitimate. But in Aleppo, where we went, the people were joyous -- not forced to vote." There's that word joyous again -- often used because it is an accurate description. "I also reject the notion that the other two candidates were not legitimate." He's right. I talked with people who were not going to vote for Assad. "And this political process will continue."
Sadly, however, some of these delegates talked too much -- and they stand between me and getting back to eating, loving and praying pretty soon.
"NATO stated that it does not recognize this election in Syria," someone else said. That is pure bull-dookie! It was fair and square. And they didn't even use Diebold.
Someone once said that civilization is all a matter of a balance of power. No man can be trusted to act in a civilized manner unless he or she is nudged in that direction -- and nudged a lot. That sounds about right.
Then I took a nice nap back in my room and then ran off to the Sheraton Hotel in a taxi with another American election observer to interview a Syrian-American woman about her views on the election. She voted in the election yesterday. In fact, she came all the way back to Syria to vote.
"Why did you vote for Assad?"
"We need Dr. Bashar at this time of chaos and war -- but even more important, I came back to vote because Syria is our mother. We are ready to sacrifice our lives for her. We used to live in peace and harmony and we want to prove that we are one nation.
"We Syrians want to live in a democracy. How can foreign terrorists be better? They took one man's heart and ate it. This is democracy? No, it is not."
"What about the Syrians in America who demand the overthrow of Assad?" we asked.
"They are not true Syrians. Why is America doing this? Of course it is the oil -- but they also want to diminish Syria. Syria is strong. They don't like that."
Then another Syrian woman told us, "I live in America but if I am not loyal to my motherland, how can I be loyal to any other land? I cast my vote as a Syrian citizen. But why vote -- if we already know what the results will be? Because we want the whole world to see that we support Assad. John Kerry said that the election was a farce. We want the world to see that we back Assad.
"I am a Syrian-American. I am here because I wanted to participate in the election. It is my right to vote. And to show everyone that we do love President Bashar, even we Syrians who come from America. What we read in American media is not how Syrians here think. And we could not prove that Syrian-Americans also support Assad because we were not allowed to vote in the Syrian embassies in America or Canada. They were closed -- so I had to come here.
"I wanted to be part of this historic moment. This will prove to the whole world that we choose the president we want."
These women spoke perfect English and they were more than willing to give us an earful in a language I could understand.
"Will the election help or hurt the war?"
"I hope that all the other countries that came against Syria will truly understand and stop this war. Not a day in my life did I think that Assad was a monster. I brought my children back to here to learn the language. I love both countries. It hurts me that America and Syria would not get along. Kerry says that this election is a farce? People in America need to see, to come here and see that people are happy.
"And we all felt right away that Assad was protecting us from the onslaught. We felt sure that he was in charge."
And then they announced the election results on TV right there in the Sheraton and we could hear the whole city outside, going wild!
Then some idiot shot off a massive rifle in celebration right next to me when we got back to the Dama Rose. Idiot.
"Syria has set a bad example," said the other American observer I was with, once the noise level went down low enough so that we could hear ourselves think again. "It has no foreign debt. It doesn't let any foreign companies own more than 49% of local industries. It keeps its national resources here and doesn't make Syrian markets overly available to be flooded with foreign goods. They do not give Syria away. So other countries might want to follow Syria's example -- and for this reason, Syria needs to be made an example of."
And now America is giving big wads of money to the same type of people who killed our ambassador at Benghazi. Hell, these are the same type of people that Americans created in Afghanistan to fight the Russians. And the same type that Bush allowed to blow up the World Trade Center too. That's so screwed.
"John Negroponte was famous for developing the technique of having snipers firing at both protestors and police in demonstrations," the observer continued. "And he did that here in Syria too. And in Ukraine. But his tricks didn't fall on fertile ground here in Syria and Syrians rejected Islamic militarism. Syria has a long history of being a secular nation."
Then there's the Saudi agenda. Wheels within wheels. "The Saudis want to overthrow Assad because he is buddies with Iran. So the Saudis are trying to weaken allies of Iran. Syria is the only Arab nation that still supports Palestine. Oh-oh. That means that those old Israeli neo-con pirates are secretly behind this plot too. Of course they are.
Then I went back to my room and stared at the ceiling and read my book and tossed and turned and cursed the darkness until 5 am. Another night with only two hours of sleep. Why me! Crap on a cracker.
June 5: I talked with that American observer from the Sheraton adventure again and he had put all the statistics together of who voted for whom -- and what was left. Only about a million were left in terrorist territory. That's big.
And the terrorists, inquisitionists and pirates in Homs had dug through saints' graves and broken up their bones. And they blew up a church, only to find another church underneath that was built in 59 AD, one of the oldest churches in the World. And they tried to blow that one up too!
25,000 dead in the countryside around Damascus. That's more than who have died at Homs. And someone talked about a military hospital here where things are really bad and volunteers have to come in and help feed the wounded troops because the government is so strapped by the war.
I could compare this with the VA hospital scandal in America -- except the Syrian government isn't trying to rob its own veterans like Wall Street and War Street do.
Breakfast sounds good.
"There's a chance that we could go see the military prisoners too," someone said. Chechen fighters. That would be interesting.
Then I got an interview with Mother Agnes-Mariam. I was just waiting in front of the elevator when the doors opened and there she was! "It would be impossible to coerce that many Syrians out of fear," she said. "People actually went out from rebel territory to vote. Even the rebels voted." What a pleasure to see her again.
I asked her if I could travel to Homs with her today, to see her convent, but she said, "Sadly, no. I have a very small car."
"Perhaps next year then."
So now I'm going on a tour of Old Damascus instead. If we can ever get out of the door. Trying to get eight people together in the lobby at the same time is proving almost impossible. I am about to tear out my hair! Good thing that these people aren't in charge of running the election. We are almost like a clown-car full of CIA agents at this point. Not that we are CIA. I'm just saying.
I just got some reporters from the India Times an interview with Mother Agnes-Mariam. They owe me bigtime!
And still we are waiting for our Old Damascus tour to get it together. And waiting. Good grief. Now some of them are ordering another coffee. It's 11:30 am. I've been at this since 8:00 am. All I want to do is to buy some freaking T-shirts. And a soccer jersey. Yikes.
"Jane! Jane! Come on! We're leaving!" Yeah right.
Then we finally got to the souk -- via a monument to Saladin wherein one Syrian said to me, "Assad is our new Saladin". Er, well, maybe. My knees hurt. I bought a lovely pink dress for my granddaughter Mena. 2000 lira. About $15. Hope it's not too small.
Then on to the ice cream store, the famous one. With chopped pistachio nuts on top. Yummers. No sign of soccer jerseys. Or T-shirts either. Rats.
With only two hours of sleep last night, I am exhausted. My knees hurt. Did I already say that? And my broken arm hurts too.
Then we went off to one of the most historic old mosques in the world. Beautiful. But then we had to listen to our guide drone on and on about it -- but only after he had dragged our group off to his friend's shop and made us sit around until some of us bought stuff. Finally I had to walk all the way back to the Dama Rose by myself because listening to him was making me feel sick. And then he had the nerve to charge me $40 for the tour after saying that it would only be $15. I only gave him $20.
Then I went off to one last press conference, for us to make statements about what we had seen, heard and done. I had a very good statement prepared, I hope. But how can you go wrong by quoting Mother Agnes-Mariam!
Dinner was next -- a raucous roundtable and political smorgasbord of conflicting and connecting ideas with everyone in our delegation talking at once. Then I actually got four whole hours of sleep! That's twice as much as two hours sleep.
June 6: Time to leave Syria. I'm practically crying. I've loved Damascus. I have a T-shirt with a Syrian flag.
So we all popped into our black town cars with the tinted glass and went back to Lebanon as if Syria had never existed (except in our hearts). I know that my experience in Damascus wasn't the same as that of those poor Syrians in Homs who were tortured and beheaded by ISIS and I truly feel their pain, but I am still terribly grateful for the wonderful experience I have had here.
Dinner in the garden of the Assaha Hotel in Beirut again. Aah. Life is good. I'm just soaking it all in, hoping to remember all this when I get back to my boring old life in Berkeley.
Having dinner every night (and breakfast and lunch too) in the company of a revolving crew of alternative-media journalists who are all experts on the Middle East each in his or her own way, made me feel like Dorothy Parker sitting around the roundtable at the Algonquin Hotel -- or maybe even King Arthur and his roundtable knights.
On this last day that we are all together, however, things started falling apart. Why? Stress of being in a war zone or lack of sleep or too much sudden input that none of us could easily digest. In any case, some of us started complaining about others of us. "He said, she said" sort of thing -- and then suddenly we weren't a group any more. The Syrian ties that had bound us together were suddenly broken.
This made me sad.
"and how can I go back home and tell the truth about all this," I suddenly wailed. "The truth is just too damn big -- but it is neither big enough nor strong enough to counter the wall of lies we will meet when we get home; lies that make these Taliban butchers into folk heroes and lies that make Assad and his defending army into bad guys."
"Assad isn't losing the actual war," one journalist replied. "But he is losing the war of propaganda." What could I do but laugh. "He needs a new PR guy." Badly. He really did. Assad's idea of PR was to cover the capital with hundreds of 50-foot posters of himself. He doesn't need to do that.
Those photos make him look like Barbie's boyfriend Ken -- an airhead. And Assad really is not. He's a strategist. He's a chess player. He's brilliant. He doesn't need to hang his photo in every hallway and elevator. His leadership speaks for itself.
The guy has fought off Taliban and cannibals and Al Qaeda and Saudi Arabia and even the U.S military-industrial complex for the last three years. It's like David and Goliath. He is that good. "Ditch all those photos, Assad. You are better than that." I'll be his PR assistant. He should hire me.
And what about all those smiling crowds at the polling centers? Were they staged just for us? Who knows. I tend to think not.
"But 7000 women were raped by Assad's troops," the Western press screamed. Yeah, but didn't the CIA spread that same exact rumor about the Cubans in Angola years ago? Couldn't the CIA at least have written some new material for their jokes? And the Western media also lied about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. And the Gulf of Tonkin incident too.
I would tend to believe Assad before I'd believe the mainstream media in America. Does anybody but me find that sad.
"I wish that Assad would have come to the Dama Rose and met with us," I complained.
"But, Jane, he couldn't." Why not? "One word explains that -- drones." Assassinate Assad and the oil goes to Exxon? "Right."
June 7: Time to fly back to California. A 24-hour flight. Time to say goodbye to the Algonquin.
One journalist slept on my hotel room floor because he couldn't afford a room of his own. What if journalists were only paid on the scale of how much they told the truth? That freaking commentator on CBS News who lied through her teeth would be sleeping in the gutter and I would have a suite at the Ritz.
"We need to go talk to the leader of Hezbollah tonight," someone said last night after dinner.
"I can't because if I do, I'll surely be put on some terrorist no-fly list or something." That sucks eggs. Journalists shouldn't be all the time worried about getting censored. We need to go where the news is -- not to be handcuffed and censored.
But anyway, I was too tired by then and so played the little-old-lady card. Again.
But I did need to get my money changed back into dollars. "Come with me, I know a currency exchange we could go to," said one of our group. So we street-hiked for about a mile through the older Arab section of Beirut.
"Stop! Wait!" I cried suddenly. "That guy is selling soccer jerseys!" But no. We were on a mission.
"This part of town is the slums," said my friend. No it isn't. I've been to Haiti and SoWeTo. This place is definitely not a slum. And I've seen more homeless beggars in Berkeley than I've seen here.
So I made my plane to Heathrow and wandered around there for three hours looking for ice cream. No luck. Sixteen more hours of flight time to go.
Good grief! They have maple-walnut ice cream at the Montreal airport. Ashley, eat your heart out. Only six hours and 17 minutes of flight time left to go. Plus another hour or two dealing with customs and/or the BART train. But I'm still okay -- if you don't count the pain in my knees and arm.
Plus I've seen four movies so far.
6:30 pm, PST: There are two and a half hours left to go on this flight and I don't see how I am possibly going to make it. My feet are cold, I'm hungry and there are no more movies left to watch. This is so hard! But at least I'm not being tortured by jihadis.
11:00 pm: Dozed off on the BART train three times, all crumpled in a corner and surrounded by luggage just like any other homeless bag lady living rough on public transit. You see more homeless people in Berkeley than I did in Damascus.
And then suddenly there came my daughter Ashley, walking toward me outside of the Ashby station like some angel of mercy. "Welcome home, Mom!" And then she carried my bags.
June 8: It's amazing what just six hours of sleep will do.