Traveling home to a new Syria

For the past three years, I've avoided returning to my parent's homeland of Syria, afraid of being caught in the political turmoil there. Not only is Syria bordered by a volatile Iraq and a simmering Lebanon; it's also the target of an American-led campaign of international isolation to keep it from allegedly supporting terrorism abroad.

But I missed my relatives enough that this past July, I boarded a plane for Damascus, anyway. Upon my arrival, my uncle, a jolly man with a mischievous sense of humor, greeted me: "Welcome Back, America." I was called "America" throughout my trip. It was part of an endearing reception that meant getting to sit at the best spot at the dinner table and deciding whether we drank coffee or tea after the meal.

The unquestioned respect ended there, however. Like many Syrians, my family views the US as both friend and foe. They love America for pressuring Arab governments to reform, but they don't feel the war on Iraq is justified, nor do they feel that the war on terror is anything more than a global effort at ethnic and religious profiling.

"I hope this nondemocratic way of life that we have been living these past 35 years ends," a middle-aged civil engineer remarked to me. He lives in the neighborhood where I was staying, and we had struck up a conversation outside the apartment building. "If America finds any way to achieve democracy in our country, then God bless it, but not by using its armies."

His worries were reflected in the heightened rumors that US troops were lining the Syrian-Iraqi border ready to invade at a moment's notice. I didn't believe these tales, but I was reminded of the vacationing soldiers I'd seen at the Mediterranean seaside resort Latakia a week earlier. Donning swimming trunks and army dog tags, they exchanged war stories in American English while receiving special treatment by hotel staff.

I sat at the same beach, wearing my hijab, or head scarf, long sleeves, and linen pants. The same hotel staff told me my attire violated the beach's dress code. No hijabs allowed - they make foreign tourists uncomfortable. The religious faithful, like me, are allowed to enjoy the beach only from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Perhaps this new rule did signal an invasion of sorts - a cultural one.

But while the hotel's dress code reflects a growing willingness here to accept foreign cultures, values, and business practices, Syria must play catch-up with the rest of the world to achieve modernity. When first taking office, after the death of his father in 2000, President Bashar Al Assad promised reform at the political, social, and economic levels - yet signs of change have been slow and their extent limited. Internet service providers in Syria have popped up everywhere, although e-mails can be monitored by the government. The telecommunications industry has boomed, flooding the market with the latest cellphones. The government opened a stock exchange, partially privatized several banks, and allowed insurance companies to operate there. Import taxes have been significantly reduced, and foreign companies, like the American fast-food chain KFC, are beginning to open businesses in Syria.

But these reforms are mainly economic; little progress has been made on establishing civic institutions or protecting human, civil, and political rights - nor on freedom of speech and press. Debate and criticism of the government is only marginally tolerated. The secret police continues to carry out political arrests, such as the recent detention of leaders of an Arab nationalist group, the Jamal Al Atassi Forum, for reading a statement by the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization banned for violent opposition to the Syrian regime.

Nonetheless, the Syrian reign of fear which characterized the decades-long dictatorship of the elder Assad appears to have faded, and Mr. Assad retains popular support.

Take, for instance, a woman I chatted with briefly while dining at a restaurant in Damascus. She, a middle-aged Syrian-American, supports President Bush's Greater Middle East initiative for reform, but believes that Assad is good for the country. Similarly, Miriam Najjar, a young kindergarten teacher, agrees, but cites a need for patience. "We have many things wrong here. In order to change, it will take a lot of time."

The US and other Western nations are placing greater pressure on Syria to democratize. But will Syria be given room to reform in its own time? And will its efforts be enough for the West to end its campaign of isolation? Will a future of freedom and democracy be realized for Syrian citizens? To some degree, Assad answered these questions when he made a flippant, yet honest, remark to the Syrian parliament last spring, "Before they say it's not enough, we will tell them it's not enough."

Perhaps. But during my visit, I saw some signs of change taking place right before my eyes. I also felt the cautious optimism of many Syrians, who sensed in their hearts that something better awaits them on the horizon. And that is quite enough to satisfy me, for now.

Souheila al-Jadda is a freelance journalist and associate producer of a Peabody award-winning news program, Mosaic: World News from the Middle East, on Link TV.

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