Ibrihim left Syria 37 years ago for Canada, but returns most summers. This time he has brought 2 of his kids with him and plans to stay for 2 months. He left at 20 to avoid conscription to the army, but remains fiercely patriotic.
After being what he calls a ‘wage-slave’ in the West for 37 years he says he wants his Canadian born kids to live here in Syria. “This is freedom here”, he says, “My brother works when he wants and has a life, in the West we have money but no life, here you have a life, if only George Bush knew that!”
Although he earns big money in Canada – up to and more than 1000 dollars a day as a building contractor (as well as being an Arabic singer earning up to 5k on a weekend), he says (looking around him) that this is the life he really wants.
Ibrihim even had a period running 2 Arabic restaurants in Montreal, but now looks forward to retiring, on his $1400 a month pension he plans to live 6 months here and 6 months in Canada. His mother is still here, she had her first child at 14 and had 6 kids by the age of 19.
Ibrihim took me to meet his brother who is working in the same carpentry workshop his father did. We sat and chatted for an hour and a half about the great western ideas like ‘democracy’ and what we in the West call ‘dictatorships’, I sensed Ibrihim had spent a lifetime in the West trying to tell his people about the life in the East, now here I am with my camera on what seems a similar mission.
When I told someone I was going to Syria they asked “Are you scared?” another said, “Is it safe?” I gave the same answer I used to give when I was asked the same question when visiting Saddam’s Iraq, “I feel safer there at night than I do on the streets of London”. Here, like in Iraq, for me, it seems totally safe – thanks probably to a combination of strong Syrian moral values as well as the type of security system that always comes with a dictatorship.
Ibrihim gets angry when he talks about Bush. “He came to show us democracy but in Syria there is more freedom than anywhere in the world!” He shows me a courtyard in an old house the size of a school where 30 families live. Each night the families share food on the courtyard floor all eating from each other’s offerings. “This is the life” he says, “What does Bush know about this kind this life, what does he know about us at all? Nothing!”
Is there hope for better relations with Obama? I ask, Ibrihim shakes his head, “His hands are tied”. The more I meet people over here the more I feel that they have given up on any chance for peace in the Middle East, as Ibrihim says, “The Americans just don’t want it”.
We walk through a beautiful part of the old city filled with the abandoned homes that look more like mansions. “This is the Jewish quarter, but the Jews all left – now their houses are left to ruin”. Ibrihim tells me that rumour has it that Ronald Reagan did a deal with the former Syrian president to re-house them all in America, “They didn’t have a choice” he tells me, “They had to go, now many would like to return but cannot.” As relations soured in the 80’s it was thought that the Jews would be safer in America, “But they were our good neighbours here, we all lived as one”.
As we look at the mighty dilapidated houses with vast courtyards falling-apart Ibrihim pulls out his Syrian ID card, it doesn’t mention any religion he says proudly – just that we are all Syrian! I notice the remains of the Star of David over the entrance to one house. We walk past two members of the secret police that Ibrihim points out, “They are here to protect the houses from being illegally occupied”. Maybe Syria is preserving its Jewish heritage in the old city; and in a way almost inviting its rightful owners to come back home one day.
As we walk the old city streets memories flood back to Ibrihim of his childhood, fuelling his dream that one day his grown up kids will settle here. This is more than a romantic attachment to a city, it is in his blood, and has never left his blood despite the 37 years away in the West, he still lives and breathes the East and revels in it here today. Ibrihim doesn’t have any hostility towards the West but I sense from many people I speak to that the Iraq War changed many things as the country united behind it’s President to support its injured neighbour, Iraq, which they believed was suffering too much in the chaos of it’s new found ‘western democracy’.
Ibrihim sighs, “Where did this idea come from? Bush doesn’t know how we live. Most people I speak to in Canada say ‘Where is Syria?’ The majority of people in the West were against the war in Iraq yet even after big protests it still happened. What kind of democracy is that? Here we don’t have parks full of homeless people or a society riddled with crime. The President allows us enough freedom for people to still be safe at night.”