I have been haunted since early boyhood by an infatuation with Bilad al-Sham, or Greater Syria – the territories of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.
For me, this fascination started with recognizing the voices of singers like Syrian Sabah Fakhry (born 1933) belonging to the al-Sham region.
I conjured up these images and feelings as I was boarding a plane heading for the “land of beauty,” dreaming of soirées in Aleppo, touring Damascus’s old marketplaces and hanging around its cafés.
Such daydreams were flashing through my imagination until the “blessed” plane landed in Syria, when all dreams faded away within half an hour at Damascus Airport.
I was quickly singled out by a security officer, who checked my passport. He reviewed a list, and asked me to stand aside until he had dealt with a “routine problem” that would not take time. Ten minutes later, a grim-faced officer in plainclothes came and told me to follow him. When I asked if I should bring my luggage, he pointed to an office and said it was already there. It was a government office affiliated with a security department whose name was not disclosed to me.
Two or more hours now passed, with me sitting on a very bad seat inside a vault not much bigger than a jail cell. A third officer then presented himself. He hammered me with questions, starting with my “dubious” profession (journalism) and including my favorite brand of cigarettes, Marlboro Red.
I answered with composure and calmness, trying in vain to alleviate the sharp tone he was using. “Your case is under examination,” the officer said disgustedly, adding that he would let me know the result “shortly.”
An hour later, a fourth officer arrived, no less grimfaced than his
predecessors. Addressing the would-be “ambassador of the devil,” he told
me I was not welcome in Syria. It was “a sovereign decision,” according
to him, and he said he was not obliged to give any explanation.
So I had to carry my luggage (which had clearly been subject to a stormy search) back through the airport.
Now, on board a plane heading to Cairo, I recalled all the opinion
pieces and TV interviews in which I had been critical of the policies
and remarks of some senior Syrian officials. That was the reason for
what had happened! My expulsion from Syria took place almost 18 months
ago. I preferred at the time to turn a blind eye, as I believed it
wasn’t worth making an issue out of it, particularly with a regime ruled
by a man who had inherited his power. Yet I cannot help smiling in
bitterness whenever I listen to Syrian officials parroting the Ba’ath
Party’s famous slogan: “One Arab nation with a timeless message.” I have
now become totally aware of what that one nation and timeless message
I THOUGHT about visiting Beirut and attending a concert by Lebanon’s
iconic diva Fayrouz that was scheduled at the Al-Bayal hotel, and
actually began to prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime event.
I phoned a Lebanese friend and fellow journalist.
He was terrified by my daring thought, and taken by surprise by my
naivete – merely thinking about visiting Lebanon with my record of dire
assaults on Hizbullah (I had once dubbed the powerful Shi’ite group a
“war contractor” and a proxy for Iran’s regional aspirations).
I was even oblivious to the fact that Hizbullah men are in de facto
control of Beirut Airport – another source of amazement for my
colleague, who feared for my safety.
Although it was once a part of Egypt, I don’t even feel safe visiting
Sudan, due to my verbal attacks on the regime of Omar Bashir, who
insists on presiding over a collapsing state.
I am sure that Muammar Gaddafi’s Revolutionary Command Council will not deny me access to Libya.
Yet I am almost as certain I would never come out again, just like many others.
RCC “knights” would not be any more merciful to me than they were to my
late Libyan colleague, London- based journalist Daif al-Ghazal, whose
body was found off the coast of Benghazi on June 2, 2005, more than two
weeks after his disappearance. He had been tortured almost beyond
recognition, according to Reporters without Borders.
No one assumes to know what kind of suffering the 32-year was subject to
when he was taking his last breaths, the words he uttered when the
electric saw was cutting through his fingers or his screams upon being
burnt with mineral acids. Nobody knows.
Rather, nobody cared to know about his suffering, and Arab newspapers
didn’t highlight Ghazal’s case; the story was covered only by Western
papers, rights groups and some websites.
I remember that I published many reports and opinion pieces on the
incident, recalling notorious precedents by the Libyan regime. This is
not all; I also commented more than once on Gaddafi’s weird, comic
remarks, particularly during Arab summit conferences. That’s why I
couldn’t risk going even to Salloum, the Egyptian city bordering Libya.
Being one of those in the Middle East who refuses my assigned role as a
regime loyalist, I sometimes face charges of seeking normalization with
Israel, apostasy from Islam or designation as an American agent.
FAILING TO find a glimpse of hope across the greater Arab world, we must
concede that Israel has become the only “safe haven” where one can be
sure of his life and dignity. Yes, Israel, the state our demagogues
continue to call “the alleged entity.”
Just like the Palestinian Helles family who fled Hamas “jihadists” in
Gaza to Israel, I foresee a time when millions of Arabs might stand
humbly in front of IDF soldiers, begging for protection.
So, I urge you, dear fellow Arab, to visit Israel.The writer is an Egyptian journalist and political analyst.