Four years ago today, I was living in Syria. Seeing yesterday’s news that the United States initiated an extensive bombing campaign there was a somber moment for me.
Reflecting on this news, I thought of one night I had spent relaxing on the rooftop of my first apartment in Syria. It was August of 2010 and I was renting a room from a Christian family in the historic Old City of Damascus. On the roof of the house was an open deck that overlooked the city and provided beautiful views of Mount Qasioun in the distance. The green neon lights that topped most minarets dotted the landscape. I sat on the roof and soaked in the beautiful views.
This night caught my memory because that day I had read in the news that the Syrian military would be conducting military exercises near the Lebanese and Israeli borders. This was a signal that tensions were high. A few days earlier, the Lebanese and Israelis had exchanged fire near their borders, resulting in the deaths of three soldiers and one journalist. I had only recently arrived in Syria and was just settling into my new home. Sitting on the rooftop that night and imagining the Syrian military conducting exercises in the hills beyond Mount Qasioun was one of the first times that I was able to process and reflect on life in Syria.
I was attracted to Syria for its intrigue and uncertainty. The history and culture were rich beyond imagination. Its future, at the time however, was highly uncertain. The country was crippled by deep ethnic, religious and political conflict. It was isolated and authoritarian. Ultimately, it was a country that wanted to modernize but just didn’t know how. I knew that it was a country that I had to explore sooner rather than later.
I sat on the rooftop and relished the opportunity to live in this forbidden land. I felt that the entire country was mine to explore, utterly exposed to my curiosity and desire. It was. However, the heightened tensions and military exercises that day were a visceral reminder of the instability that lay beneath. It was a sober reminder that future geopolitical events could quickly seal this country off from outside exploration.
I thought about these future possibilities that night as I looked out over the city from the rooftop. I imagined warplanes from foreign countries flying over the sky above me. I thought about the foreign pilots who might be tasked with dropping bombs in the areas around me. Would they be Americans like me? I imagined them looking down from their cockpits, themselves imagining what life could be like in such a foreign place. Would they ever get to know the country as I had seen it on that day? I imagined future spies infiltrating the country. Walking the streets that I walked that day would be a life-threatening mission for them. Would they at least see the city as I had seen it on that day?
One of the seeds that lead me to investigate the Middle East was the US led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. I observed how history could entwine two countries and I regretted the thought that many Americans and Iraqis would only know each other through the lens of war. I wanted to escape this trap. What did Iraq have to offer beyond war I wondered? How could I get to know this country on a deeper level? As the Iraq War developed and intensified, I realized that by the time a war has started it is too late answer these questions. The thousands of outsiders who would become intimately involved with Iraq during the course of the war might never have the opportunity to get see the country outside of the lens of war.
Here I was in Syria, experiencing this beautiful but unstable country outside of the context of war. Over the following several months, I explored much of what Syria had to offer, geographically, culturally and linguistically. The military exercises that day reminded me of the importance of such an experience. I left Syria in October and by the following spring, the window of opportunity to explore Syria like I did quickly closed up. The Syrian Civil war was set in motion that March, sealing the country off from the outside and paving the way for a US led bombing campaign that started yesterday.