Two faces of Damascus - safety and suspicion

SYRIA often evokes images of scheming terrorists or women shrouded in the mysterious veil of Islam. But for the 300 Americans living in this Levantine country, its people and culture reflect a stark contrast of warmth and suspicion. Syrian fascination with Americans is often overpowered by a distrust spurred by the unyielding Damascus regime. The contrast was evident after the US Sixth Fleet crossed Qaddafi's ``line of death'' in April 1986. Pro-government students organized a march on the US embassy to show solidarity with Tripoli. ``A student was going around to the rooms in the dorm and calling people to go and demonstrate,'' explained Rick Hooper, a Fulbright student who lived in university housing. ``When I told him I was American, he was surprised at first but then very polite and asked how I was getting along in Syria and if everything was OK.''

The atmosphere in Damascus, the oldest city in the world, often belies its reputation as a terrorist command center for bombings and hijackings directed against both Western and Arab targets. Foreigners often play tennis or swim in the Olympic-sized pool of the luxury Sheraton Hotel, a short walk from the heavily-guarded air force intelligence headquarters, recently implicated in terrorist plots in London and Berlin. Indeed, many expatriates find comfort in Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's policy of encouraging troublemakers to act anywhere but on his turf. Due to Assad's iron-fisted rule, Damascus may be the safest Middle Eastern capital for Americans.

Most Americans are attached to one of four groups: the diplomatic community, the oil business, students and various academics (researchers or professors), or American women married to Syrians. After recently issuing additional sanctions against Syria, President Reagan ordered a cutback in the embassy staff and deemed the oil business presence ``inappropriate.'' Pecten and Marathon, the two US oil companies with offices in Syria, do provide valuable assistance to the Al-Euphrate Syrian Oil Company, which may have a significant find in eastern Syria. US executives' importance is reflected in their access to Assad. After the Libya raid, the Syrian President met with a top US oil company official to discuss the situation and reassure Americans of their safety in Syria.

Still, many Americans quickly learn the basics of survival in the tightly-controlled country. ``In Damascus, I did not initiate political discussions because I didn't necessarily know whom I was talking to - I had to exercise some self-censorship,'' explained Hooper, revealing the typical anxiety about the omnipresent undercover Syrian agents. Surveillance extends to US diplomats' homes and telephones, which are both bugged.

Concern for the safety of Americans living in Arab states increased dramatically after the US raid on Libya last April, when extremist groups in the region threatened retaliation against Americans.

But Capt. Steve Neely, of North Carolina, did not seem alarmed. ``I really didn't notice any different treatment from Syrians after the attack,'' explained Neely, who served with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in Damascus.

Despite deeply troubled relations between the two governments, recently accentuated by the US sanctions, most Americans say they are well-treated. ``Most Syrians make a big distinction between the [US] government and the people,'' said Karen Buckley, a graduate student at the University of Texas, who is studying Arabic in Damascus.

Hospitality holds a high place in Arab society. Syrians often shower foreigners with invitations. However, individual acts of cordiality are often countered by the harsh dictates of this police state. Western ideals of democracy and personal freedom are absent throughout the Middle East, and Syria in particular. It has been cited for numerous human rights violations by Amnesty International. All newspapers and TV are state-controlled, and the foreign press is often censored.

An intricate network of secret police, known as the mukhabarat in Arabic, controls the lives of most Syrians. Undercover agents from different intelligence branches keep constant watch over the populace. Syrians mention mukhabarat only in hushed conversation, an indication of their nearly obsessive fear.

A run-in with the mukhabarat is almost inevitable for the US citizens residing in Syria. Two American students traveling along the Syrian coast were stopped by the secret police on suspicion of carrying drugs. The area is a popular route for drug traffic between Turkey and Lebanon. Passports confiscated, the students were escorted to the local station. After consulting one another, the police decided they had picked up the wrong people. To compensate for his overzealous men, the captain asked the students if they were lost and invited them to a cup of rose tea before sending them on their way.

Other stories do not end so happily. During a cocktail party, an American oil man who had been drinking began loudly criticizing Syrian President Assad. The man was in the company of foreigners and Syrians. The next day Syrian authorities ordered him to leave the country.

Government control extends beyond the political realm into the economy. Syria is a socialist country with limited Western imports. For Americans, many of the comforts of home are simply not available. Any Western products that are available have most likely been smuggled from Lebanon. Whenever the Beirut road is closed to crack down on corruption, the diminished flow of ``tahrib,'' or contraband, becomes painfully evident.

Other distinctions enhance life in Syria. Due in part to traditional values and to the rigid authority of a police state, the incidents of violent crime and drug abuse is noticeably lower in Syria than the US. ``Living here is real nice for parents,'' explained Robin Bakdash, who is married to a Syrian and has lived in Damascus for 16 years. ``Kids have to work real hard to get into trouble. There are no drugs and little peer pressure. They grow up much more slowly than in the States.''

However, US culture has had some impact on Syria. Breakdancing and high-top sneakers are the rage with the upper middle class teens of Damascus. One of the larger hotels offers Syrian women aerobics classes, yet another US import.

The impact is visible on both sides. For Americans in Syria, the combination of battling with its hostilities and enjoying its hospitality permanently colors their perceptions. ``I think I've gained a perspective about life,'' said Teri Shughori, who is married to a Syrian engineer and has lived in Syria for 10 years. ``I've learned to look at the person, not where he comes from.''

Mona Yacoubian, who recently completed a Fulbright scholarship in Syria, is a volunteer at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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