What took me to Syria?
I have always been most confident reasoning from the bottom up, which is sometimes referred to as reasoning from first principles. When I began my studies, I was naturally attracted to understanding the low-level dynamics of the world around me. This lead me to concentrate in physics while completing my undergraduate degree at Colgate University. I gained insight into the physical world by learning subjects such as electro-magnetics, thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. I was humbled to discover that the laws of nature can be highly counter-intuitive. However, I find it inspiring that the physical world can be encoded so elegantly into mathematical laws. I still don’t understand why that is the case - why should the concrete relate to the abstract so elegantly?
In my senior year, I had the opportunity to analyze the early formation of our solar system by measuring the isotopic composition of chondritic meteorites. Meteorites are perfect for this because they are essentially time capsules from the early solar system. Specifically, I helped design a radiochemical separation process for chondritic meteorites that enabled accelerator mass spectrometry measurement of select isotopes on the part per trillion level.
As I developed my understanding of physics and mathematics at Colgate University, I also gained more intellectual maturity. Towards the end of my time at there, I began to feel more comfort and interest in thinking about the higher-level dynamics of the world around me, including politics, society and world cultures. Fortunately, Colgate’s “Liberal Arts” structure allowed me to pursue these interests as well. I began taking history and political science classes in a couple of different subject areas, including Russia and the Middle East. Due to its popularity at the time, I took a particularly strong interest in the Middle East, and through the guidance of a supportive professor, I eventually found myself enrolled in “Arabic 101.”
I can attest to the fact that studying Arabic is difficult, but not in the way that many people might think. Learning Arabic doesn’t require more intelligence than is required to learn any other language. It simply takes more time and patience. So, it was certainly discouraging that after completing two semesters of Arabic, I had gained little confidence in my command of the language. However, I remained fascinated by the history, culture and politics of the region, and I liked that learning about it pushed me out of my comfort zone. So I stuck with it.
I left the United States for the first time to spend the summer living and studying in Amman, Jordan. As an American studying at the University of Jordan, it was easy to make friends and meet new people. In addition to my regular Arabic courses, I arranged daily language exchanges with a number of local students. I spent time with them at their jobs and in their homes. I even attended one’s cousin’s wedding. In my free time, I explored Jordan and the surrounding region from top to bottom. I gained valuable insight into the people and the culture and by the end of my time there, I finally felt comfortable speaking Arabic.
After graduating from Colgate I was hungrier than ever to indulge my curiosity. I had briefly visited Syria a couple of times on my last trip. It had a different feel than any other place I had visited. It was a country in political, economic and informational isolation. It was also a country rich with ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic diversity. Most importantly, however, it was a country that wanted to open itself up to the modern world but didn’t know how. With all of this unfolding, I had an intuitive sense that this was a place that was worth deeper exploration.
A few weeks after graduating from Colgate I flew back to the Middle East and enrolled in Arabic courses at the University of Damascus. Continuing the approach, I had developed the previous summer, I quickly began networking with local students who were studying English. I developed friendships with Syrians from many walks of life: Christians, Muslims, Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Allawites, Arabs and others. Through these friendships I captured glimpses of the experiences, perspectives, hopes and fears that defined Syrian life.
My strongest friendship was with a Kurdish Syrian named Rayber who was studying English and economics at the University of Damascus. I met with Rayber for daily language exchanges. We explored the city, shared meals, and practiced our languages. After several weeks Rayber suggested that I move in with him and his roommate Abd al-Malik. Our single room apartment was in a Kurdish shantytown known locally as “Khazan 87.” We cooked, ate, studied and slept on the floor.
During the rest of my time in Syria, I became accustomed to and adopted many of the normative behaviors of people living in fear under an authoritarian regime. For example, when we prepared our dinner setting by laying out newspaper on the floor, I learned to make sure that any pages containing pictures of Bashar al-Assad lay face up. I learned to speak cryptographically when referring to anything remotely political. I exercised delicacy and precision when probing “dangerous” topics. I had more than one inadvertent encounter with the Mukhabaraat, the feared Syrian secret police.
As my trip neared its conclusion, I toured Syria top to bottom, exploring Homs, Hama, Allepo, Der’aa, Hasake, Qamishlo, Quneitra, and Deir-al-Zour. I also took trips to Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. When I returned home to the United States it was clear to me that I had just had a life changing experience. However, little did I know that would be just the beginning of this journey. Less than three months after I returned, the Arab Spring erupted. Three months after that, civil war broke out in Syria. I continue to keep in close contact with many of my friends there, including Rayber, Abdulmalik, Ramyar, Aras and Akeed.