I had just sat down to interview a commander of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo and we were exchanging the normal pre-meeting pleasantries as some distant gunfire cracked in the background. After 20 months of conflict here, most artillery and gunfire goes unnoticed unless people are close enough to be directly affected.
With this as the backdrop for our interview, I was taken off guard when he asked if my friends and family were all right after Superstorm Sandy.
As a Californian living abroad, I was aware of Sandy. I had seen a few pictures of the aftermath, but I hadn’t even followed the Sandy news close enough to know that it had been classified as a “superstorm,” as a opposed to a hurricane. Yet here was a man whose nation is being torn apart by a violent civil war that had claimed the lives of several friends and tens of thousands of Syrians, and he’d been following Sandy news.
I initially thought the comment was a one off, a lone hurricane watcher, perhaps he was a Syrian with an interest in meteorology. Yet it has happened again and again and everyone who asks knows that it was a superstorm, not a hurricane.
Working in the midst of a war like Syria, it’s easy to assume that for those involved the conflict, the situation is their entire life and there is little time for details, like a destructive storm thousands of miles away.But Superstorm Sandy is just one of the odd questions about America you might encounter in Syria as people try to take a mental break from the war.
One night, I found myself with a group of FSA fighters watching Jumanji on an Arabic movie station that gives Arabic subtitles. We got into a debate about whether the child actress in the film was a young Drew Barrymore or someone else. (It was a teenage Kirsten Dunst.)
A few days later, I sparked a heated discussion when I jokingly asked a Syrian activist wearing a glove on only one hand if it was a tribute to Michael Jackson. The person wearing the glove argued that while Michael’s music was impossible not to enjoy, it had been tainted by the scandals surrounding his personal life. His friend argued that art is not defined by the artist and Michael Jackson remains hands down one of the best singers ever, regardless of what happened off stage.
In all the conflicts I have ever covered, I find myself in these conversations. Everyone tries to hold on to a normal world of news and pop culture to take them beyond their current hardships.