Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Conversation with A Syrian Muslim

Two days back I had to head to work at Jersey City and as per company policy I hired an executive cab. It was a crisis day at work. I normally strike up a conversation with the drivers, it is often interesting. This driver I learned was a Syrian Muslim and was very chatty. When we the talk veered to elections and eventually Bush he became animated. He let loose a tirade on the Bush years. Talking of 9/11 he repeated well known calumnies, a plot by CIA and Israel, US etc. He then curiously cited Michael Moore's documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" as offering proof. Moore, a veterate Bush hater, did not do that at all in the documentary. Then the cab driver went into full praise mode of Yasser Arafat. He seemed to be well read for a cabbie. I asked him about Arafat refusing to compromise on Jersusalem during Camp David talks. That was non-negotiable for a muslim he said. Arafat should not have negotiated peace with Rabin (both got a Nobel for that). Saddam had given security to his people compared to today's chaos. I asked him about women voting in elections in Iraq, a first in the entire Islamic middle east. He claimed the US had no right to impose Western style democracy.

This guy had emigrated from Syria in the 80's. It was during that time that Assad, President of Syria, obliterated an entire town of Sunni's killing 30,000 and torturing hundreds more. The tortures would make medieval European menthods appear quaint. Assad was of the Allawi sect. Those killed were Sunni's. The Sunni's, a minority in Iraq, returned the favor to Shia majority, under Saddam, a Sunni. The cabbie, living in US for 22 years, was proud of his business, he loves Bill Clinton, more importantly the prosperous years. Note that in the 90's when money was rolling in executive cabs like he has made a windfall ferrying not just executives but even mid level employees and consultants who stayed late after 8 PM. Remember those were the heady Y2K days when tech consultants laughed their way to the bank clocking devilish hours every day. It was never to be the same again after 9/11.

It is more than ironical that while enjoys the fruits of Western liberal democracy he does not like it being "imposed" elsewhere. Let the people make the choice he said. Kurds made that choice and learnt a bitter lesson in Halabja. By the way nobody tires of mentioning that US armed Saddam. Guess who armed theSyrians. It was Soviet T-62 tanks and MiG fighters that flattened Hama in Syria.

Now, for a moment I thought "well he is a Syrian Muslim, not surprisingly he thought thus". But I remembered books by white Americans, actor Martin Sheen, Professor Ward Churchill, an ex-colleague have all shared various views of this cabbie. His being a Muslim and emigrant lends itself to ready stereo typing but he is not alone.

I am reading Thomas Friedman's masterful "From Beirut to Jerusalem" and it provided some good backdrop of Syria, especially the massacre of the city of Hama by Assad. Many in India lionise Arafat, few know that Arafat was chased by one government after another of his own Muslim countries who saw him as trouble maker. The most famous chasing being from Jordan when the king cracked down on PLO. In fact many Palestinians settled in Jordan viewed him as upsetting a delicate balance and despised his faction ridden corrupt organisation. So much to share, let it wait for another day.

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