October 17, 2004

Overheard At the Coffeeshop

Yesterday I went to a coffeeshop in my neighborhood to do a little homework in Totalitarian Studies. I’ve traveled to unfree countries before, but never to a full-bore totalitarian police state. And since I’ll be doing just that in five weeks I’m reading about the experiences of other writers in these kinds of places to get an idea of what I should expect and how I ought to behave.

I ordered my coffee and sat in a chair at a small row of outdoor tables. There were four of us sitting there, all strangers. An older black man sat next to me reading a book about the Buddha. Another guy, about my age with long hair and a goatee, stared at nothing in particular while chain-smoking Camels. A rumpled-looking third fellow, a few years younger than me, quietly read the paper.

I brought with me The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean by Paul Theroux, a travel book I’ve been reading on-and-off for a couple of months. I opened to the chapter on Syria. He’s at the Turkey/Syria border and chatting with a young Turk named Yusof who had been sitting next to him on the bus.
“Best thing, mister, is be very careful,” he said. And he pointed cautiously and became conspiratorial. “Over there is Syria. That is another country. You hear what I’m saying? Another country.”
The young man reading the paper decided to share the news. He mumbled something about the election. I ignored him because I was reading.
A small number of people jostled for attention at a desk, where a bored and rather indifferent soldier ignored them. I thrust my passport over their heads and, as though amused by my insolence, he snatched it and said, “American!” and laughed. I did not see my passport again for over an hour.
The chain-smoker piped up. Something about the Patriot Act. I kept reading.
In the meantime, I found Yusof lurking. He said he wanted to buy me a drink. We had coffee, while he held a chattering conversation with some Syrians. I noticed that there were large portraits of President Assad all over the frontier. He was a man with an odd profile – beaky nose, big chin, surmounted by the squarest head I had ever seen. His portrait at its most accurate was like a cartoon parody: misshapen and villainous, his combed-over hairdo varied from portrait to portrait. His suit was too tight, his neck too thin, his tie ridiculous, his smile insipid. As for his politics (to quote 1 Kings 11), “He was an adversary to Israel…and he abhorred Israel, and reigned over Syria.”
I took a sip of my coffee, which was beginning to cool down. So far this was the most interesting part of the book. I’ve already been to Spain, France, and Italy, so reading about those places is less educational. I won’t be going to Syria soon - at least not in the immediate future - but I’ll be going someplace a lot like it.
But there was another portrait – a younger man, with a slim stubbly face and sunglasses and army fatigues.

“Who’s that, Yusof?”

“No,” he said, meaning, Don’t ask. He paddled with one hand in a cautioning gesture.

The delay at the border today was caused by a group of Syrians smuggling shirts and pants in large suitcases. The absurdity of it was that while these smugglers opened their cases, revealing stacks of shirts in plastic bags, huge trucks rumbled past. They were German, and they were loaded with crates of German machinery, from a firm called Mannesmann. The crates were stamped For the Ministry of Technology, Baghdad, Iraq. Six of these vast flatbed trucks. They were headed toward Iraq, though Syria – and they were waved through by Syrian soldiers. It seemed to make little difference to anyone that Iraq was subject to U.N. sanctions and such a shipment of German machine parts was illegal. In the meantime the shirt smugglers were bullied and denounced.

Yusof took me aside. He put his hand over his mouth and muttered, “That is Assad’s son. He died. Don’t talk.”

We were summoned to the office and handed our passports. And then we were on our way. Those men wearing dark glasses and sipping tea, Yusof said. They were not travelers. They were members of the mukhabarat – Syria’s secret police. All this in a whisper, Yusof’s hand over his mouth.

“Here I like,” Yusof said. We were in a rocky landscape, with wide strips of green. “Aleppo is good. I drink. I eat. I disco. I fuck. But - ” He leaned over. “I don’t talk.”
“It’s a police state,” the young man with the newspaper said. He had my attention now. And he had the attention of others. “Ashcroft and Bush have turned it into a police state.”

“Man, this is a real scary time,” said the old Buddhist.

“Hey,” said the chain-smoker. (None of these guys seemed to know each other.) “Do you think America has too many freedoms? Think the government should take all our rights away? Then vote for George W. Bush!”

I sighed and considered telling them who I am voting for and what I am reading. Why not? I wouldn’t be intruding on a private conversation. This one was public, among strangers who assumed everyone in the neighborhood agreed with them. And why wouldn’t they? There are no Bush/Cheney lawn signs around. Right across the street was the local Impeach Bush headquarters. A poster hung in the window that showed a portrait of the president. Underneath his photo, in big blocky letters, the word “Terrorist.”

But I didn’t want to get into it. I would rather read about Syria than argue with people who know nothing of places like Syria, Libya, Iraq, and North Korea. They wouldn’t listen to me anyway.
I had been anxious about my trip to the coast until I walked to the railway station – a funny little Frenchified station with the usual Assad hagiography in any number of ridiculous murals – and saw that there were three trains a day to Latakia. At the station I engaged three young men – medical students – in a conversation about the murals. They immediately clammed up and made eye signals and hand gestures and all sorts of nonverbal suggestions to change the subject. This was what Albania had been like under “Friend” Hoxha. It was not fidgeting caution but real fear – of, I supposed, the mukhabarat.
“Criticize the government and you get silenced,” said the kid with the newspaper as he folded it in disgust. And he said it quite loudly. “It’s only gonna get worse.”

You guys are lucky, I thought. You’re so lucky this isn’t Syria. You’re lucky there is no Portland mukhabarat. Because I could be a member for all you would know.

I leave for Libya in five weeks. I doubt I’ll have this experience there.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at October 17, 2004 10:48 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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