|Ayman S. | Consultant, Business Integration||United States|
The sirens of war sounded and our basement apartment filled with frantic neighbors from the apartments above. The war had officially started and these sirens erased from my mind all the meaningless comparatively mundane, memories that I have acquired in the previous nine years of my existence. The sirens kept on sounding for twenty days and each time they had the same effect. The children ran home from the streets where we would play and the neighbors came down to out tiny apartments until the all clear sirens sounded and then everyone went home and we went back to the streets to finish a game that was started a few sirens earlier.
These twenty days of the October War constitute what now seems to be the clearest memory of my childhood in Damascus. It was during those days that I finally met the two spinsters who lived with their brother in the top floor apartment. I learned that the brother never married so that he would not leave his sisters alone. It was during those same twenty days that I met and knew the names of all our neighbors and heard the stories of the paths their lives has taken; but in between the stories, there was always the discussion about how we were about to regain the Jolan. In my few years that was the first time I heard about the Jolan and, despite the fact that none of the neighbors was a Jolani, they all seemed to have a great deal of pride in the prospect of that mysterious piece of land returning to Syrian possession. It was not to be.
In those twenty days, Syria was a single person where everyone aided in the national effort and everyone seemed to care a great deal about all others. The gossip ceased completely and the usual observation about someone’s dress or how bad their cooking was simply did not materialize. I remember the two sisters, after six days of climbing up and down the five flights of stairs leading from their apartment to ours, decided that they would simply stay in our apartment and neither of my parents. Now we had ten people in the small apartment instead of the usual eight. A couple of days later, more of the neighbors decided to simply stay. The added people did not seem to matter. It is as if our little apartment, which normally felt crowded with just the eight of us, has now grown in size to comfortably accommodate the dozen or so people who were staying there.
One thing that was clear from those twenty days was that the Jolan was embedded into the consciousness of all the Syrians that I knew at the time. When they talked about the loss of the land, they talked as if they each lost a part of themselves and when the prospect of its return seemed bright, they all seemed to rejoice. The October war provided many Syrians, at the time, with the hope that we can, one day, reclaim the land that was lost six years earlier; that we can be whole again.
The following year, some gentlemen visited our house in the middle of the night and politely asked my father to accompany them on a trip that would last thirty months. At least that’s what mother told us the next day when we woke up. Over the next few years we learned the lessons that every Syrian school child learned in those times; do not say anything negative about the government lest someone hears you. Syrians no longer trusted each other and society became fragmented by fear.
By the time I made it to the United States many years later, I had become a reticent young man who trusted no one; especially other Syrians. I kept to myself and spent my time busy with the meaningless stuff of growing up. I went to school and got degrees and evolved as a person. All the while, slowly forgetting my Syrian heritage and spending no time worrying about the Jolan. I had decided that it was out of my hands. I could not do anything about it and therefore should not expend any energy thinking about it and for twenty years I was successful. I knew nothing about Syria with the exception of the biggest news. I knew there was a peace process that went nowhere and I knew that Hafez had died and was succeeded by his son. One day, after my parents had retired and went back to Syria, I decided to look up some news on Syria just to feel better about my parents being there. I found out that many changes have taken place and, in later conversations with relatives, I came to find out that I need not worry and that the old order was no longer in place. The new President was a modern and liberal individual who was liberalizing the country. My interest in Syria intensified and the question of the Jolan became central to my thinking again. I found out that I appreciated Hafez’s position that the Jolan must be returned in its entirety for there to be peace with Israel. I found myself evaluating the possibilities of what I might be willing to “give up” for peace and I came up with nothing. In order for any peace to be acceptable I must get back the entire Jolan with full sovereignty.
When Camille posed the question of what I would write to convince an Israeli that they should give back the Jolan, I had to think about it for sometime before deciding that I would not write such a letter. I should not have to explain to anyone why they should return what is my possession. To address the fears of an Israeli is to legitimize those fears and when the Israeli government says that Syrians cannot be trusted and I respond by attempting to convince anyone that I can is an admission that we cannot be trusted. The Syrian position is clear, full return of the Jolan for full peace with symmetric security arrangements that lets both sides sleep at ease. Any Israeli who cannot accept this tradeoff is someone who cannot accept any tradeoff. The Jolan was not returned to Syria under Hafez because of lack of political will and not a lack of trust.