Deir-Ez-Zur in the Syrian desert, near the Iraqi border, not so many years ago: a modern hotel filled with muscular, sunburned American men working in the oil fields. A few European businessmen were staying there, too. No other Americans, except us.
Each evening, shirt sleeves rolled up, the oil workers cooled off and relaxed at the small hotel bar before dinner. Hearty, friendly, somewhat lonely, they made the best of their situation: six months in the desert, collecting huge paychecks, then rotated out for another six months.
There wasn’t much else in the desert out there, except massive ruins thousands of years old, and Bedouins who traveled with their goat herds and their black goat hair tents. Sometimes, they came into the bazaar and souk that sprawled at the edge of town. The Bedouin women sold handicrafts, goat cheese, and blood-oozing goat meat. Chirping loudly, dark eyes like birds, brown hands gesturing, they competed for customers. Many of them wore meticulously drawn henna tattoos on their hands and faces, patterns that seemed to explode on their sun-weathered skin. Of course, the oil men stayed clear.
Western civilization began in this part of the world. Great empires came and went. It was the crossroads for trade from around the globe. The fabled Silk Road passed through here. Climates changed, the world changed, beliefs and attitudes changed, but Syria and the surrounding countries are still home to countless treasures that tell much of the human story.
Then it was discovered that vast reservoirs of oil lurked beneath the hills and deserts of the Middle East.
It’s no wonder that Delphine, in my novella of the same name, fell in love with this complex, majestic part of the world, but when you love someone or something there is always the risk that your heart will be broken. Today, the ancient cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and towns and villages throughout Syria are caught in civil war and near chaos. For two years, the people of this country rich in both history and pride, as well as oil, have struggled to gain control of their own destinies.
Thousands of people have died, tanks and planes have leveled buildings and neighborhoods, and massive graves with scores of bodies have been uncovered. Almost daily, the media are filled with images of anguish and pain. Fear sweeps across the desert and through the cities. No one can foresee where or when it will end.
Once, Syria was touted as a unique travel destination, with a cultural heritage as great or greater as any in the world. The people were friendly, the brochures said, the cuisine delicious, the sights beyond compare. Virtually every major civilization passed through here: Egyptians, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians, Sumerians, Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Saracens, and crusaders. Then came the Ottomans and the French. Left behind were crusader castles; the Basilica of St. Simeon, once the largest church in Christendom; the magnificent ruins of Queen Zenobia’s capital city of Palmyra; and much more. Fragments from these treasures were carted away to museums around the world.
The victorious European powers, flexing their muscles after World War I, carved up the oil-rich Middle East. France moved into the area that became Syria. The French mandate had a lasting impact, both good (the food) and bad. After World War II, the country began a tumultuous period of independence, including a military coup in the early 1960s. Hafez-al-Assad, who gained control in 1970, was “president” from 1971 until he died in 2000, when his son Bashar al-Assad took over.
For decades, the father’s gigantic face stared down from intersections and the sides of buildings, sternly warning the population against restlessness. Then his grim image was replaced by that of his son. The hoped-for reforms, however, turned out to be a major disappointment. Now, Syria has fallen into deadly civil war.
Damascus: the name conjures images of harems and sultans, of merchandise-laden camels from the Silk Road, and of European crusaders marching to “liberate” the holy land – and to pick up treasures for themselves. The city extends back in time to the dawning of civilization, but it also has moved forward into a world of high rise buildings, traffic jams, and air pollution. This great city was the original “melting pot” into which flowed goods and peoples from across the globe. Now, it's a city being torn apart by civil war.
Today, Syria and many of the countries of the Middle East are at war with themselves, as they struggle to deal with the lingering fallout from their mandated creation almost 100 years ago. The violence of the struggle in Syria is producing growing horrors. The other countries of the area watch nervously, as the conflict escalates and refugees flee across borders.
Many of my stories and other writings, including my new book, Delphine, have explored life in various parts of the world, including the Middle East. Maybe the most important lesson I’ve learned so far is that none of us can afford the luxury of historical amnesia. This is one more reason why we need leaders who know and understand history and how it affects the present and the future.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press. Available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Texas A & M Consortium.