Wild in the streets of Damascus

Recent riots in the Middle East turn a colony of young global expats upside down

Aatish Taseer | June 2006 issue
The last time I saw my friend Torbjorn Askevold, we were eating okra and mutton in my flat near the diplomatic quarter of Damascus, Syria. The 22-year-old Norwegian theology student, who had been in Syria for four and a half months, seemed impatient to go before a sheikh and make the simple testimony—“There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet”—that would induct him into the society of Islamic believers. But three days later he was on a plane back to Oslo, evacuated from a country that faced serious risks.
Torbjorn’s Christianity was different from that of most young people I knew back home in Europe. He was on his way to a career as a minister in the Norwegian church. He really believed that Christ died on the cross for our sins and was the son of God. Yet Torbjorn was on the verge of converting to Islam, with its “clarity,” its “completeness” and its willingness to enter spheres of public life from which his Norwegian church had long since retreated. Two days after our lunch the faith he was about to embrace did enter public life, but it was an entry far more violent than he would have liked. The same words that were to have been his conversion testimony had become the slogans of an angry mob attacking the Norwegian embassy, burning his flag and threatening his friends.
I had been in Damascus talking to young people in the Middle East about the place of religion in their lives. The Syrian capital is, to those interested in understanding Islam and Arabic faith, the key. Abu Nour University is a favoured destination for students from non-Arab Muslim backgrounds hoping to gain or regain knowledge of the religion. On an average day, Chechens, Indonesians, Pakistanis and British and American Muslims crowd the university’s corridors on their way to Koran and Arabic classes.
I met Torbjorn when I first arrived in Damascus on a rainy Christmas eve at a flat my friend Chad shared with him. Over the next six weeks, he and I came to know each other reasonably well. Also at that holiday party were my friend Chad—in Damascus to improve his Arabic—and two South Africans of south Asian extraction, brother and sister. The sister, Semeya, wore a head scarf and was bewitchingly pretty.
Torbjorn mentioned his plans for a career in the church. Inspired by his vocation and by being in the city where Saint Paul had converted to Christianity, I suggested that we go out, despite the bad weather, to find a midnight Christmas mass. The two Norwegians were fired by the idea and we set out in the direction of the old city, passing Straight Street, which is mentioned in the Bible as a street called Straight.” We, however, confused Catholic churches with Orthodox ones, and wound up, well past midnight, cold, wet and unblessed.
In the next few days I spent a lot of time in this curious milieu with Chad and his circle. The gatherings of Chad and his friends were inter-denominational, multi-ethnic and tediously respectful, but Islam was always present—although it was a sort of hippie Islam, if that is possible. You could feel it in the sparseness of people’s flats, the fondness for facial hair in the boys, the studied, serene voices and the abundance of fruit juice. After a Christmas dinner with no wine, I learned that Chad’s Norwegian roommate Even Nord knew a place where we could get a drink.
Like schoolchildren, Even and I gave the others the slip and headed off for a beer. Then Semeya, the South African beauty, found us and pulled Even aside, appearing to scold him in low tones. She knew where we were going and felt “uncomfortable” about its environment. It was fascinating to watch her, almost self-consciously demure under her head scarf and long eyelashes. At last, after withholding his purpose and describing our destination as a cafeteria, Even managed to extricate himself.
But the Journalists’ Club is not a cafeteria. It is a large gloomy room with a hideous blue-and-gold interior whose popularity can be explained by the fact that it is the sole drinking establishment in that part of town. Even and I settled down under the fluorescent glare and had just ordered a beer and a glass of wine when Semeya appeared again, looking like a terrified, hunted creature. She quickly came over to our table, fussing to Even about how uncomfortable she was. “I just don’t feel right,” she whispered. Then as quickly as she had come, she was gone.
I soon became aware of the strange appeal of both Islam and Semeya in Even’s life. “In the West, we are all about rights,” he said, “but we have forgotten about limits.” He mentioned that both he and Torbjorn had both been impressed by Semeya’s spiritual quest. It sounded like she had seduced them both with her piety. “She’s here only to develop her relationship with God,” he said, admiringly.
What had seemed to me a fine example of female guile was to Even evidence of how Islam curbed the excesses of modern Western life. “The only immorality in the West these days,” he said, “is to speak of morality. I am so tired of this hedonistic lifestyle, I want something simple.” He was blond, athletic and handsome, and knew a fair amount about Norwegian death-metal music; I expect he also knew something about the Western excesses of which he spoke. But I didn’t share his pessimism, and after a drink or two we parted ways. It was my first taste of this kind of talk.
The next day I left town and went travelling for two weeks with my girlfriend Ella. When I returned, I ran into Chad and Torbjorn at a real-estate office, where I was looking for a flat. Torbjorn had his parents with him. I learned from Chad that Torbjorn, before the arrival of his parents, had been travelling with Semeya.
Once I had settled into an old 1920s flat, not far from the French embassy, I asked Even to take me to the Abu Nour University. After lunch one day, he and I set out, walking through a souk on our way, past stalls full of dates, olives, meat and blood oranges, past electrical repair shops and camel butchers. It was there I caught my first glimpse of Abu Nour students. There were short Indonesian students with conical hats and wispy beards, African women in coloured veils and pale Europeans with red facial hair.
We finally arrived at a small square from where Abu Nour’s white minarets were clearly visible. The square was packed with Internet cafes, Islamic literature and a store called Shukr, specializing in stylish Islamic clothes for Western markets. We were looking for Tariq, a man known to all the new arrivals in Damascus. We found him on one corner of the square, a big, meaty figure with a friendly manner. “Where are you from, brother?” he asked. “I welcome people from every country because everyone was very nice to me when I was in Europe. I can help you.” It was Thursday and we agreed to meet the next day before Friday prayers.
On the way back, Even suddenly grabbed my arm and we slipped into a side street off the main souk. Even knocked on a black metal door and after a short wait, a small Asian man in grey Arab robes opened the door. He hugged and kissed Even profusely. He welcomed us into a sitting room and then into room beyond, which looked like a tiny presidential office. Above a big desk and chair there hung, on one side, the Syrian flag with a picture of the president, and on the other a flag I didn’t recognize: red stripes and yellow stars and moons on a black background. We were in the headquarters of the Patani United Liberation Organisation, of which I knew nothing, and the little man was its president in Syria. Cakes and soft drinks arrived and the man unburdened all the details of the plight of his Muslim people in southern Thailand. He produced his wife and a little baby a few minutes later. Then he insisted we watch a film about a massacre in Patani, in which a soft-spoken American narrator told of the horrors of Thaksin Shinawatra’s regime in Thailand. When it was over, the little man said, “Patani want peace, but Shinawatra want to make war.” At this he laughed maniacally and pointed to the wallpaper on his computer. “It say, ‘Thailand will be destroyed and Patani will rise.’” Again he laughed his hellish laugh and we took our leave, Abu Nour and its environs now seeming to me like some rabbit warren of extras from a jihad film.
The next morning Tariq took me to the translation room of the mosque at Abu Nour, where you can listen to the sermons and prayers in a number of languages. On the way I confessed to him that I didn’t know how to pray. “No problem brother, we will teach you,” he said. We entered the great building with hundreds of other people. Tariq led me up a few flights of stairs onto a balcony, from which I could see a river of white caps below. I followed Tariq into an annex where a handful of students were watching a sermon on television. Tariq sat me down next to a short south Asian man dressed in white. “Please brother, teach him to pray,” said Tariq, and with that he left. I greeted Mohammad, who turned out to be from Australia, and thanked him for his help as he passed me some headphones. When the sermon had finished, he suggested that we do our ablutions.
I followed Mohammad into the washing area. He taught me how to wash Islamically: my hands up to my elbows, my face, a portion of my hair and my feet up to my ankles. He seemed to notice that I was less diligent than he was, and he said, quietly: “The Prophet used to do it three times.” When we returned to the translation room, a few robed, bearded figures had come onto the stage. Mohammad whispered to me that Abu Nour often had guest speakers, and that today they had the grand muftis of Syria and Bosnia, as well as the Syrian minister of culture.
I put on my headphones and started to listen to an English translation of the words of Salah Kuftaro, director of the university and son of the former grand mufti. His speech, like those that followed—except for the grand mufti of Bosnia, who preached the need for understanding—was all incendiary politics. Each time the formula was the same: a proclamation of Islam as a religion of peace, tolerance and moderation; a reference to the glory of the Islamic past and the need to guard against the enemies of Islam; then congratulations to the present regime for doing so. Kuftaro finished by saying, “It is easy to get depressed in these times, to see the forces against Islam. The Islamic world is fragmented and divided. It is so because of the West and the influence of its ideas. First they rob us economically, then they rob our land, and once they have done that, they rob us culturally.”
After he had finished, we prayed. I had a rough idea of what to do and managed to get by without drawing too much attention to myself. When it was over, I was introduced to some of the brothers from Britain and America. Mohammad suggested I join them at the Kentucky Fried Chicken that evening, but I declined. As I walked back through the souk, I felt drained. The speeches had been so full of grievance, so closed to the idea of real reconciliation. I knew that in a country where the discussion of politics is forbidden, the mosques were the only outlet for these issues, but I still wondered why the preachers were so reliant on confrontation to get the message across.
I spent several days meeting privately with some of the people I had met at the mosque, trying to understand what had made them give up their lives in the West and turn to Islam. Simplicity, clearing away the clutter of modern life, was a big theme. Completeness was another: a single divine philosophy managing every aspect of life and conduct. Routine was another still: praying and fasting ordered the mayhem of life. And identity: feeling part of a universal brotherhood. There were brothers like Fuad, a British Asian from Doncaster who had escaped his corporate job in Bristol to come to Abu Nour. “It was so grey,” he said. “The drive to work every morning, operating on mechanized time, arriving to find you have 200 emails. I realized that to succeed in that world, in the corporation, you had to serve the corporation. And for what? For money? Instead I chose to submit to something true, something with meaning.”
There were many like Fuad. Since arriving in Istanbul three months earlier, beginning a journey through the land of the believers which would also take me back to my long-obscured Islamic roots in Pakistan, I had seen how Islamic “completeness” informed ideas of language, science and history. Nadir, my guide and translator, showed me that history itself came from Islam. In a frustrated moment, he said: “We used to have a great history. Not before Islam of course, but since.” By “we” he meant Syrians, who had invented the alphabet before Islam.
“This land has had a great history for thousands of years that predates Islam,” I said.
“Yes,” Nadir answered, “an immoral history.”
I had never heard of such a thing, but Nadir’s idea was part of Islam’s all-encompassing nature. If you had it, you needed nothing else. “If I find one thing,” Nadir said, “one thing that the Koran doesn’t cover, I will renounce the faith.” But Nadir could never find that one thing because Islam served as the source of everything.
It was during these disheartening discussions with Syrians and visitors alike that I saw Torbjorn again. We arranged to have lunch in the old city, in a restaurant that had once been a stable. His friendly face, supported by a physical and emotional solidity, made him the sort of person people like to trust. Seeing Torbjorn, I thought he would make a good minister.
I asked him about his plans, and he told me, “I’ve become more interested in Islam.”
“What has interested you?” I said.
“The fact that it handles politics more openly,” he answered.
This aspect of Islam was precisely what was putting me off, but Torbjorn felt that in the over-secularized environment of Europe, the church had lost its role as a forum on political issues. He also emphasized that he liked the prayers five times a day and the faith had a tangible quality that ruled over all aspects of its adherents’ lives. I had heard this a million times, but never from a potential priest and someone used to the vast freedoms of Scandinavia.
There was something touching about the openness of his thinking, his willingness to take on new belief. More than he knew, the open society he had lived in had shaped his thinking and made the conversion possible. Yet had it been too open? So much so that he now wanted to embrace its opposite?
I asked him if he was worried that his faith would diminish once he was out of an Islamic environment. It was hard to imagine the ritual ablutions among the pubs and wooden Lutheran churches of Brønnøysund, his fishing village in Norway. “Well, I’ll pray five times a day,” he answered. “And I’ll have the Koran.”
The next (and last) time I saw Torbjorn, it was for lunch at my flat. The furor over the Danish newspapers that had published cartoons about the Prophet several months earlier was heating up and a Norwegian paper had just printed the images. Torbjorn was critical of the paper’s decision. He said the publication was a small religious rag with a tiny readership, and that its decision had less to do with free speech than with circulation.
Torbjorn stayed with me most of the afternoon and we spoke again about his conversion. He said the most significant obstacle was a question on the nature of Christ. The Muslims treat him as a great prophet, and give him the title of Ruhollah, or “spirit of God,” but do not accept that he was the son of God and died for our sins. “No Muslim could accept that Christ was the son of God because to them God is a flawless entity. He doesn’t come upon the Earth and experience, hunger, poverty and death.” My concern was that the faith—not the precepts but the feeling of faith, and its limitless quality in Islamic society—was overrunning Torbjorn’s careful theological training. He admitted, “Lately, from friends and people I’ve been talking to, I’ve had more influence from the Islamic side. I feel like a split personality.”
The next day, the cartoons were the subject of the Friday sermon from the pulpit of almost every mosque in Syria. Even and I returned to the translation room at Abu Nour. From below, Kuftaro was speaking: “The Europeans are using all their power to destroy our faith.”
Not once did Kuftaro make any distinction between the papers that had published the cartoons and the countries themselves. “When our sanctity is oppressed,” Kuftaro continued, “we will sacrifice our souls, spirits and bodies for you, O Prophet.” Even and I looked nervously at each other. It was chilling to think of identical sermons taking place throughout the country, attended by so many people. Demonstrations were now taking place every day outside various European embassies in Damascus.
Even and I went back to his house and he prepared lunch for a few friends. We had barely finished eating when we heard the chant. “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet,” ringing out from the pavement below. We opened the window and saw that a small but fierce crowd of about 100 people, consisting of women in head scarves, children, youth and old and middle-aged men, was marching under the green banner of Islam in the direction of the French embassy. Even and I raced downstairs to see the demonstration.
Their message was so simple that a small child on someone’s shoulders led them in their divine slogans. His shrill voice raised their temperature and some at the front of the crowd began to scuffle with the police standing in front of the embassy. They pushed harder against the line of police, but they didn’t have enough momentum to break it. One demonstrator threw some garbage at the embassy’s steep concrete walls.
Suddenly a Syrian friend of Even’s appeared from the crowd. The man had been part of the demonstration, which had come from the Danish embassy now to the French embassy. He was in a state of exhilaration, laughing and joking at Even being a Norwegian. We followed him deeper into the crowd, but they were pushing against the police line again and I stopped. Even and his friend went closer to the front.
Then with no warning, the friend turned around and addressed the crowd. “This is my friend. He is a Norwegian and a good man.” A menacing silence came over the crowd. I feared for Even’s safety. The friend picked Even up on his shoulders and said: “Speak for your country.” If he was scared, Even showed no sign of it. He took in the crowd for an instant and then addressed them in Arabic. “This is just an embassy,” he said, in a loud clear voice. “It is not actually the country. This incident is the result of lack of understanding. We need to understand each other better. Then we will have the chance to live in togetherness and we can show proper respect to you. Inshallah, Inshallah, Inshallah.” The crowd roared in approval and someone shouted, “He accepts Islam.”
We went back to Even’s house afterwards with his Syrian friend. “I wish I could have said more,” said Even, the adrenaline still strong in his voice. “I didn’t have the words. What I really wanted to say was, ‘We know you’re angry, but we still don’t know why.’”
We knew still less about the anger the next day. Even walked with the crowd that set fire to his own embassy. Pretending to be a Swede, manhandled and accused, at one stage he feared the crowd would turn on him. Tear-gassed by the police, he sought refuge with the wounded in a mosque. But when he returned to my flat, the detail that had impressed itself on him was that the crowd had prayed in the street before attacking the embassy, crying, “Our soul, our blood, kind and gentle is our Prophet.”
Some of the Norwegians of Damascus were to have a dinner that night, but it was cancelled as the rioting continued into the evening. As the news made its way across the world, Norway announced it was evacuating its citizens. By 4 a.m., the first planes had started to leave. It was sad. I knew some of these people. They had come with an idea of public service and they were keen to be part of Syrian life. Even decided to stay. He felt he had many Syrian friends who would protect him should things get ugly. Torbjorn also wanted to stay, but his parents disagreed. The next morning he called me to say that he was leaving within the hour because of fears for his security. “I’m sure things will be fine in Damascus,” he said apologetically, “but now there’s this small, 1 percent doubt in my mind.”
Excerpted from the British magazine of current affairs and cultural debate, Prospect (March 2006).
Aatish Taseer, 25, was born in Bombay, India, to a Pakistani Muslim father and Indian Sikh mother. A prominent British journalist, he is working on a book about the role of religion in the lives of young people in the Middle East.

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