Posted by Joshua on Saturday, August 29th, 2009
This post included two short essays written by Steven Barbar. I have edited them slightly. Here is the email note Mr. Barbar included with his stories.
Dr. Jishwa Landis
It was a pleasure talking to you over the phone the other day. In reference to our conversation, Pls find attached few of my writing, feelings and impressions after 40 years of absence from my home town Damascus. I stayed all that period in USA. Now, I am half American, half Syrian and lost between these two halves. My dream is to bridge the gap between the ordinary people both in America and Syria.
Merchant of Death
by Steven Barbar
Syria Comment, Saturday 29 August 2009
Abu Samer is a middle aged, well to do business man who trawls the lower depths of Damascus’ less fortunate neighborhoods. He looks for young men and women who are facing hard times. There is money to be made from misfortune.
Damascus, although it seems isolated from the neighboring turmoil, is not. Dark undercurrents connect it to the violence in Iraq and Lebanon. These undercurrents are veins of gold for Abu Samer, who mines them for a fast buck.
Everywhere you look, you see dark faces shrouded with pain. Often they conceal hearts that are aimless and confused. They belong to people in need, but who often do not know what they are looking for or that they may end up as chopped meat in a car bomb that explodes near a sidewalk café.
Two years ago I met one such unfortunate sole. His name was Mohammed, he made a fast five thousand USD, paid his family’s debt, and provided them airfare to Australia. He went to Iraq and blew himself up, killing several Americans along with himself. Now he is a martyr and lives in heaven with seventy virgins.
It all began in my neighborhood barber shop; Mohammed was the handyman and apprentice. He swept up the hair from under the chairs, carried tea, and did what he was told. Ahmed was cutting my hair. Abu Samer was in a very heavy conversation with Mohammed about job opportunities in Syria.
Mohammed was a newcomer to Damascus. He had come from southern Lebanon. It was only shortly following the showdown between Israel and Hezbollah, which had left his region in ruins. Everything he heard from Abu Samer sounded like sugar and spice to him.
At the end of their conversation, they shook hands. Abu Samer got up, pushed a bill into Mohammed’s hand after paying for his haircut, and left. Mohammed was on cloud nine. He told me that he would be working on the trucking line between Damascus and Baghdad; supplying humanitarian items to the many victims of the American invasion.
Abu Samer gave him the business card of a real estate office in the neighborhood; it was run by a man called Abu Shaker whom I knew very well. I asked him if I could come along, he said it was OK.
A few days later Abu Shaker came back from an out of town trip. We met at his office. It was a huge store front with big chairs lined up against the walls.
A young boy was serving tea. A couple of girls were talking to him and on the other side some young men were involved in a heavy conversation about how to run the aggressors out of Iraq.
Abu Shaker waved to us, “I will be a couple of minutes.” he said. Bidding goodbye to the girls, he gave them a small paper with an address and a word of recommendation. “Ask for Um Hassan. She will take good care of you,” He told them.
Later on, I found out she was the biggest madam in town.
I admit, sometimes I stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. For instance how do you explain the big foreign cars that park and double park in front of the office every day? Better yet his own car is an oversize, late model BMW, with a Saudi license plate. It is fit for a king.
Finally he joined us. Sipping tea, and smoking non-filter cigarettes, he flashed his brown teeth when he smiled.
“Abu Samer told me everything I need to know. I want you to meet a very good friend of mine. He owns a big trucking company. He will take good care of you. There is plenty of money so you won’t be poor again.” Abu Shaker told Mohammed, “You will be travelling to Beirut, Amman, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, you name it, so be ready for a life full of adventure.”
He turned to me asking if I needed to work. I made sure that he didn’t know about me being an American; it would have created a lot of problems for me, Mohammed and Ahmed the barber. I thanked Abu Shaker and told him that I would be back some time soon.
The following day Mohammed went to Amman, he became a porter and a handyman on a big rig. His family facing the hardship of the recent showdown with Israel decided to move away from it all, all the way to Australia.
A month later I went back home to the US. One day I received a letter from my nephew with a newspaper clipping in it that mourned the death of the martyr Mohammed who was blown up along with six American marines and their Humvee.
Seven distraught families will thank you Abu Samer and Abu Shaker.
It is common sense and supply and demand. When the decision was made that Saddam Hussein had to be removed to keep the world safe, Mr. Bush opened a can of worms.
While the Americans advanced on Baghdad, Saddam’s armies were running in the other direction with loads of arms and weapons. They all crossed the borders towards Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
They are now finding their way back to Iraq, igniting all kinds of ethnic strife. It provides a booming business for Abu Shaker and his ilk, who can fulfill the dreams of some and nightmares of others. There is money to be made from misfortune. The death of six marines paid for a new life for Mohammed’s family. Perhaps President Bush was correct when he insisted that the US military could drain the swamp of Middle Eastern misery?
A New York City morning is one of the darkest and coldest of all the world city mornings.
It was about seven. A lot of people were rushing to work; they were not completely awake.
I was scheduled to have an MRI test that morning to determine the advance of my lymphoma and to plan a treatment that could make it or break it.
The statue of Liberty stood on the other side of the Harbor greeting new comers. The state island is freely crossing the icy waters of the east river. A coffee vendor was brewing his potion to help people overcome the hardship of the day.
I was standing right there in the middle of it watching life all around me wondering what I will come of my own.
I was diagnosed with CNS Lymphoma (Central Nerves System) which could be quiet deadly. It looks like I got from my own mother. She died when I was only twelve with the same disease.
I was on the ninth floor in the Dazian building of New York Beth Israel Hospital. They call it “Death Pavilion” because it is assigned for the terminally ill cancer patients.
Nurse Jane showed up. She just started her shift.
“Good morning how was your night? I hope you feel better,” she said while tucking me in.
“Sorry, no coffee for you this morning because you have a big test and I have orders , no food or drink until all is over” .
I smiled at he but I was still disappointed. I really needed a good cup of coffee that morning.
She checked all my vital signs . She wrote some notes on my chart. She smiled “I will be back ” she said taping my cheeks gently .
A short while after, a team of doctors came in and asked me how I felt. They looked at my chart and wished me luck with the MRI.
One of them was a medical student from my home town , Damascus -Syria . He joked with me in Arabic in order to shock them. I laid back, frustrated, angry, and desperate. I really did not want to die
“Ready old man?” Nurse Jane proclaimed cheerfully as she walked in. “I have decided to wheel you in there myself” She said with a big assuring smile on her face.
The transport team plopped me into a wheelchair, and she pushed me down the hallway. She greeted everybody with her nice personality as we proceeded down the hallway, which I admired very much.
As a matter of a fact, I really had a crash on her. She was short and fat, but she was beautiful both on the inside and out. We Middle Eastern men are accustomed to look at American women as sex objects. But after being with them for a while, you come to realize that they just as human beings, as you are, trying to get by .
We went to the radiation section on the third floor. A team of doctors and technicians were waiting for me. I was undressed covered with sheets. I was put on a stretcher and pushed into the MIR room.
Everybody was very pleasant. They knew what to do which boosted my spirits in a way. One of the doctors was my Syrian Friend. He shook my hand and told me he was praying for me, I held his and thanked him for taking care of me and his concern.
Finally, it was time to fix me up for the test. They laid me outand took the necessary measurements to push in and out with light beams marking my body’s objects of interest. Then it was rock and roll.
Everybody left the room. lights were dimed. A big cylinder started to rotate on top of me. I was sliding in a tube that felt like being in a coffin. It was very noisy and loud. Suddenly there was a strong vibration and a termer that felt like explosions. Lights flashed from all directions accompanied with violent shakes. It was very hot and humid. I started to sweat , then , I was somewhere else back in time and place .
On a very early day of June some 40 years ago, I was stationed on top of a hill overlooking the Golan Heights and the occupied Palestine when we were caught with our pants down.
The Israeli forces surprised us. They went up in the air. They took over the skies and the rest was history. We lost that battle. It was part of a never ending story that goes on for millenniums.
As suddenly as it started, I came back to reality. Everything came to a sudden stop. I was wet, trembling, and terrified. They pulled me out and comforted me. “Are you Ok? They asked. “I am OK,” I reassured them. I just had a flash back of something from my past. I told them about how I had served in the Six Day War and that it sometimes had a psycho effect on me when I would have flashbacks. They listened in amazement.
They were all like clay statues. Then one of them stepped forward and said: “I am Dr. Bernstein, chief oncologist. Can you tell me exactly where you were during the war? I told him that I was on foot hills of Mount Harmon near a town called Banias.
He smiled and said:” Do you mean that you were on “Tal 63”. To my surprise, it was the secret military code name of my location. I asked what his unit was since he knew mine. I assumed that he was one of us.
“I was not there. But I was there.” He answered pointing his finger upward to the sky.
Suddenly it dawned on me that he was an Israeli.
I stood up hot, wet and naked in front of everyone and rammed my hand toward him,” you son of bitch. You were shooting at me,” I exclaimed.
“Obviously, I wasn’t aiming too well.” he answered.
In a state of shock, I opened my arms; we hugged for a long time.
Everybody around up clapped their hands with tears of relief in their eyes. Since then, we have become fast friends. What a strange world …