coffee with houssam

I was holding my anti-war message on a sheet of watercolor paper when Claire came down from her office. She was blunt when it mattered.

“You need a bigger sign.”  

“I need to redo this one anyways, the conjugation is unfortunate.”

At first glance, the informal imperative of  “Stop” in Spanish left open that I might be For the War in Syria. I squirmed at the thought and kept the english side towards the cars for the time being. Protest is a becoming with, right?

I lingered in Ventura’s downtown intersection of California and Main for half an hour before moseying the block to City Hall. Anyone who has picketed curbside knows the blank stares, the anxieties over legibility and the joyful moments of honks, head nods and waves. Rarely will anyone stop and speak with you. Unless the driver is Syrian and you are telling the American people to stop dropping bombs on his home.

“Can I ask you a few questions?” he led in with a skeptical grin.

“Of course, please.”

“Are you Syrian or…what?”

In less than a minute we shared that I was just an American and only knew what I read of the region. Houssam was two years gone from his country, four years from his looted home, and had stopped simply to tell me:

“Thank you. This is more than from most Syrians I know.”

The 5 o’ clock bells on City Hall started their heavenly ringing, my face lit up and my actions were connected to reaction.

“When will you leave here?” he asked.

“When the sun goes down, maybe an hour.”

“An hour? I go and do some things, I come back, I take you to StarBucks and we will talk more. Don’t Leave.”

I laughed at the idea of leaving. What the hell was I protesting for if not to weave myself into the bigger picture?

On our walk to the coffee shop I realized I was going to have to cough up more than my peace and non-violence spiel. Houssam was looking for discussion. While faced with the chipper barista, he even interjected that I would take a medium over a small so we could talk longer. I was glad for it; Houssam was a goldmine for anyone looking for an intelligent account of the war in Syria. Interestingly, he was less judgemental in his grasp of the politics of the region than one might expect of a “refugee.” To be clear, Houssam never once used that label. He consciously left Syria two years ago when faced with the mandate to join the government’s army after finishing his dental studies. His scores were too low in standardized testing to make it to physician’s school, but with doctors as parents, dentistry was the next choice. He would have moved into private practice with his experience in maxillary reconstruction, but compulsory service loomed. As we sat down under the covered patio, I teased out a more articulate explanation of his choice to avoid the army.

“Who are they fighting for? The army is very dangerous. They say something like three hundred thousand killed or some other total number, but they are not telling all of it. They don’t count the ones who get shot [and wounded] or get missing. My family asked me, ‘why you go and fight for them?’ ”

To Houssam, it was no longer worth the danger to support an increasingly targeted regime, one he never really stood behind in the first place. Not that Houssam was anti-government.

“I’m not anti-government,” he whispered.

To him, the Syrian democratic bureaucracy of five years ago was not perfect. It favored Christians like himself and Shiite muslims, marginalized Sunnis and Kurds, demanded bribes at red tape, but, it did allow people to live in peace.

“Women had all of the rights,” He slid to the front of the chair, repeated louder,

“All of the rights!…and there were Jews. They owned their own houses and no one talked to them.”

In short, the region formerly roped off as Syria on the map was better before now. There were fewer deaths in the Shia vs. Sunni civil conflict and there was a functioning infrastructure. Furthermore, it was a sovereign state. Houssam shot out a hypothetical on this note. If left completely alone, the farmers in Syria could have fed the country with no imports for 4, maybe 5 years. His serious features cracked with pride at the thought. On recalling something of the drought in Syria, however, I was hesitant to believe this wholeheartedly.

As it were, Houssam got around to acknowledging the role of the drought in the difficulties for the farmers. But he was sure to paint the fundamental trouble in Syria for what it is: a war of benefits. On this topic he was clear as day, as if the facts were known to every child of Aleppo.  The United States, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are fighting a proxy war with Russia, Turkey and Iran.

“It’s all about benefits.” He repeated the phrase casually.

“Other countries have civil wars and Western Europe and the US could care less. Why they care now in Syria? He [Assad] didn’t want to give benefits to Western companies, so they [US military] gave weapons to the anti-government people.”

According to Houssam, the contest was initially between government supporters and rebels, with Shia and Sunni vying in the mix. Some Sunni however, took their rebellion to the extreme and joined international jihadist groups, aka ISIS.

“You know the difference between Shia and Sunni? I will tell you.”

“Mohammed, he started Islam. When he died, they didn’t know who should be leader. Some thought it should be his son-in-law, Ali. They are Shia. Others thought it should be Mohammed’s best friend; they are Sunni. 1400 years ago and they are still arguing.”

In Syria, this conflict had been contained under the authoritarian, though elected, Assad administration. But when the government began to crack after the Arab Spring, in no small part from Sunni rebellion, a full fledged civil war broke out.

That is where you and I get involved, or at least our tax dollars. I steered the conversation with Houssam towards US intervention in Syria. I pushed the war profiteering angle, upset that the Department of Defense gives billions to weapons contractors so that we can continue to drop bombs or supply weapons to fuel violence. But his agreement came so easily that this strategy seemed to bore him in its obviousness. Evidently, for there to be rebellion you need weapons and equipment. In the effort to depose a UN recognized leader, a foreign power’s money goes a long way. Houssam baited the hook for the topic that really interested him.

“Sure, the rebels go driving around in new jeeps, in Toyotas…the Americans give them these and the guns because they don’t like Assad.”

I bit, “Why isn’t Assad cooperating?”  

“He’s protecting Russia. The West’s companies want to build a gas pipeline from Qatar to Turkey, through Syria. Look it up. Then they won’t need Russia’s oil and gas. And Putin doesn’t want to miss out in Syria like he did in Libya.”

It didn’t take Houssam long to make the connection to US involvement. It came down to the benefit that he believes we all are enjoying.

“Look what has happened in the last 14 years. Iraq, Libya, Syria…They all produce oil. They are all destroyed. Why is gas so cheap right now?

I quickly recognized the strategy Houssam was describing, one that American progressives have been lamenting in the US since I was a preteen during the second Gulf War. A select few in the energy sector enjoy the benefits of US military intervention into fossil fuel rich nations. Not a new idea, but when you hear it from the citizenry of a nation we are supposedly protecting by bombing, it becomes more poignant.

He reached for my coffee cup,  “May I?”

I nodded yes in response, Houssam brought the cups to his side of the table.

“How is it that you destroy this source of oil, Iraq,” he said, laying his hand over the lid.

“And now this government in Syria…and the price of oil goes down? Is that what you expect? I destroy this cup of coffee. What happens to the price of this cup of coffee? Does it go down or Up?

“It should go up,” I said.

“But it doesn’t. Because someone is buying oil from Isis. And Isis is selling it cheaper than Saudi Arabia. The Saudis sell this cup of coffee for 5 dollars, “ He waved the paper cup in air. “And Isis sells it for 2 dollars. And the companies who buy it make even more money. They sell it to Turkey if you can believe it.”

At first, I couldn’t, and for good reason. Finding unbiased, up to date reporting on the impacts to oil supply is like finding a needle in a haystack. One has to sieve through investment blogs and US administration level sound bytes to find coherency regarding the current energy markets. Still, what if a fraction of what Houssam was saying was true. What kind of responsibility for the on going Syrian conflict does this place at the American consumer’s feet? Does any of the oil flowing from ISIS into Turkey make it into your gas tank? How can you know? Food for thought, especially in a country where consumption of gasoline drives…everything.

As the cups grew empty, Houssam and I began to wax a little more poetically on life as it was and is now.

“Do you like it here?” I asked, gesturing to the hip spaces and old buildings lining Main street.

“We had all of this in Syria, too. It was modern. Now there are whole cities on the ground. Ventura, all the buildings…on the ground.” He swiped his arm down quickly, mirroring what he was imagining.

He continued,

“You know, I had to pay the Army to get my belongings, what was left, from my own home after they looted it. In Syria, people have to think twice before they go out now. They have to plan where they go and when. They worry about bomb or getting shot by random bullet.”

The conversation had come full circle. It was reemphasized how much Syria had changed, that Syria had been destroyed by a chess game between players who didn’t belong there. And then…it was over. Houssam said he wanted to let me meet up with Claire on time. Maybe it was that we had come back to the same topics. Perhaps it was his polite unwillingness to start a new discussion of zionism which we were beginning to flirt with. Whatever it was, Houssam left me wheeling as I picked up my belongings and shook his hand.

“It is good to pay attention. In US, people are kept busy working and commuting. They come home and eat, watch the channels, sleep…They don’t have time for paying attention.”

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