:: Article

In Damascus

By Adam Lewitt.

We sat opposite each other, Zain and I, wreathed in a cloud of blue smoke produced by his cheap, unfiltered Syrian cigarettes. He offered me one, but I declined, preferring the less acrid smoke of the shish. We sipped small cups of strong, bitter Arabic coffee; Zain already polishing off his second. Cigarettes and coffee: the real fuel of life in the Middle East. We were well stocked with both and therefore ready to talk about Zain’s homeland: Iraq.

We were in Damascus, the capital of the Syrian Arab Republic, in one of the dozens of coffee houses that line its streets and alleyways. I had met him at the Immigration Ministry, which I had been forced to visit to renew my Visa. The Ministry building was in the centre of the city, just off Martyrs Square, and it was packed. Crowds of people were milling around on the street in front of it, smoking cigarettes and snapping irritably at each other in Arabic. From what I could tell, by glancing at their green-and-gold passports and listening to the dissimilar sound of their dialect to the local Syrians, the vast majority of them were Iraqi.

President Bashar Al-Assad glowered down at all of us from numerous portraits on the walls with his beady, close set eyes, watching while we navigated the turgid bureaucratic sea of his Ministry. Harassed looking immigration officers chain smoked mechanically; making decisions which would decide the future of hundreds of Iraqis like Zain. Would they be able to stay and find work? Or would they have to return to their homeland? That seemingly benighted country which, since the American invasion of 2003, has become an infernal cauldron, one of the most dangerous countries on the planet?

The Arabs are a friendly people, and an obviously confused Western tourist gave them an ideal opportunity to demonstrate their cultural knack for excellent hospitality. Zain, seeing that I was less than confident with the Arabic Visa form, rescued me from that bureaucratic black hole and served as my guide through the whole tedious procedure. Our passports stamped, we emerged from the Ministry. Nothing bonds travelers more tightly than common suffering at the hands of irritable immigration officials, and our new comradeship would be sealed by a trip to the coffee-house.

Zain was an old man, his face weather-beaten and his eyes dulled by years of stoical toil for limited reward. He spoke softly, but his laugh, frequently heard, was warm and unforced. When talking politics we shared more than one joke at the expense of our leaders; that Zain was able to laugh about the politics of his country was astonishing, as I was to find out.

His personal experience mirrored that of his country: war, dictatorship and Diaspora. He had fought in three Iraqi conflicts: the 1967 war against Israel; the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war (the longest conventional war of the 20th century); and the genocidal al-Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980’s. He told me of hiding from Israeli bombers and artillery in the hills of Jordan, furtively smoking at night with his buddies, fearful of Israeli spotters which would glimpse their match flames and turn their foxhole into ash. He told me of trench warfare against waves of Iranian jihadis, young men used by the mullahs to clear Iraqi minefields. He didn’t talk about the Kurdistan campaign, and I didn’t press him for details (according to Human Rights Watch, at least 50,000 people were murdered by the Iraqi armed forces in Iraqi Kurdistan from 1987-89).

When not soldiering, Zain worked at sea. He had found work on an Italian merchant ship which sailed from Genoa, and had frequented ports in Africa and the Near East. Tripoli and Algiers, Cairo and Port Sudan became pit stops for his voyages on ancient maritime trade routes.

On returning to Iraq, Zain was arrested by the Iraqi secret police. A decade away had thrown his loyalty to the regime in doubt. The Mukharabat were determined to reassert it. He still had scars on his earlobes and lips from their electrodes. A year after his detention, he was released – just one more innocent victim of Saddam’s terror state.

He was living in Baghdad when the Americans came and, initially, he sullenly welcomed liberation at the hands of a foreign power. His patience was quickly ended, however, when the Americans cut off his pension. As a retired soldier, he was almost completely dependent on the State for his livelihood. Under their head-in-the-sand doctrine of rapid privatization the Americans destroyed the state pensions system; ‘shock therapy’ had left Zain destitute.

On top of this, Iraq was consumed with inter-communal violence, the Occupiers either unwilling or unable to do anything to stop it. Neighborhoods that were formerly mixed Sunni and Shia became sectarian fortresses as the more numerous group flexed its bloodthirsty muscle.

Desperate for work and afraid for his life, he had fled to Syria in late 2005, along with 1.3 million of his countrymen. To its credit, the Syrian government has done its best to accommodate these people, but resources are stretched thin. Wages have fallen and inflation has rocketed due to this massive influx of new workers, many of whom are well educated, and a threat to Syrian jobs. Tension between the new arrivals and the locals has escalated- the Syrians are petrified that the violence across the border will spread into their cities.

Zain has been reduced to waiting tables and petitioning the UN offices in Damascus for aid; a cruel fate for a man who once lived the romantic life of the sailor. Inshallah, he would manage to find a steady job. Otherwise he would have to take his chances back in Baghdad.

Exiled Iraqis were almost one million worldwide before the invasion, a number which has quadrupled in the years since then. Until the mayhem ends and they can return, these people are in limbo. They join the Palestinians and Kurds as people displaced by violence, without a home.

After a final cup of coffee we shook hands and parted ways. Zain was headed to the pharmacy for painkillers to help him ignore his stomach ulcers. Subsisting on coffee and cigarettes does little for your health, as does the uncertainty of enforced exile.

Adam Lewitt is a final year Middle Eastern History student. He divides his time unevenly between England and the Middle East.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 9th, 2007.