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Postcard from Damascus

Webdiarist Sue Hoffman has worked with refugees and asylum seekers since June 2001. Her last piece for Webdiary was SIEV -X: an update, a report of the trial in Brisbane of an alleged people smuggler involved in the SIEV-X.

Delighted to be invited, Sue recently travelled to Syria with an Australian-based Iraqi friend visiting his family who like hundreds of thousands of Iraqis - estimates vary - are in Syria to escape the violence in their home country.

Sue Hoffman


I spent most of October 2005 living with a family of Shi'aa Muslims in the Iraqi quarter of Damascus, Syria. I've come back with war stories from Iraq, a better understanding of local politics and culture, beautiful scarves and an addiction to Nargileh (smoking fruit flavoured tobacco through a water pipe).

We lived near the local souq or market and ten minutes' walk to the heart of this area - an Iranian-built Shi'aa mosque whose beauty is more apparent after dark when the blue-tiled twin minarets and golden dome are illuminated against the backdrop of the night sky. We'd join the throngs of people, occasionally goats and sheep, vying with cars, trucks and motorbikes for space in the labyrinth of narrow streets that make up the souq. People, people everywhere, but I didn't see another westerner in that part of Damascus where over 99% of women cover their heads and most wear flowing black burkas. Dressed in modest tops, long skirts (not my usual style) and covering my head only in mosques and shrines, I stood out like the proverbial sore thumb.

At first, the men of my host family insisted on escorting me everywhere; I was their guest and under their protection. But after a few days, familiar now with local landmarks, I took immense pleasure from wandering around the souq for hours on my own. Safety-wise, my walks were uneventful bar occasional comments I didn't understand but could guess at, and once being followed a short distance by a man declaring his undying love for me. If I caught someone's eye, I'd smile and offer the greeting 'Salam Aleykum' which invariably drew a courteous response. 

Local traders used to seeing me around, often in the company of my Arab friends, became less guarded, practised their English on me. I met and visited the homes of people who had never before conversed with a westerner and certainly not a Jew. Initial wariness gave way to warmth and repeat invitations.

My host family informed me they worried about my safety, including the VERY low possibility of being kidnapped. Supporters of Saddam's regime and allied groups can be found in Syria and the risk though slight is not fanciful. In deference to my hosts' concerns, I cut down on my lone walks. 

Golden domed and blue tiled mosque

Most of the time was spent doing very ordinary stuff. We went shopping, sightseeing, prepared food, ate together, visited relatives, played with the kids. We cried together - we did lots of that, so much sadness and death - and laughed together, we did a lot of that too. In the safety of the home we talked politics, not wise to do so outside.

I was asked about anti-Muslim sentiments in the west and explained about talkback radio and the like, that there are Aussies who think that Muslims can't be believed because the Quran says it's OK to lie; that Muslims beat their women; that Islam is a religion of war not peace; that Muslims are out to convert the world to Islam; that Muslims support terrorists and suicide bombings.

My friends were perplexed as to why people in the West might believe this stuff which is far from the truth of how they live their lives. They'd heard extreme claims made about the values and behaviours of ALL Westerners and ALL Jews but whilst accepting a minority hold extreme views, have the sense to realise that not all westerners/Jews think the same way.

Posts to the Remembrance Day thread reminded me of Iraqis I met in Syria who have known nothing but war all their lives. I spoke with young men who fought in the running street battles of Baghdad, who've began each day for the last 2½ years not knowing if they'll survive till the next. Many bear physical as well as emotional and psychological scars. The bloodshed continues and their futures are uncertain. When you fight a war on foreign soil there's always the possibility of coming home. It's different when the fighting is in your country, your city.

'Habibi Iraq' meaning 'beloved Iraq' are words I picked up from a song. The accompanying video begins with stills from the 'shock and awe' campaign, of soldiers, of ordinary Iraqis, while the singer laments the destruction of his country. The pain in his voice as he sings of his 'Habibi Iraq' is palpable. Powerful stuff. I met families who'd come out of Iraq within the last fortnight. They have that look in their eyes, semi-dazed, deer-caught-in-the-headlights look I've come to recognise from people regardless of race, religion or ethnicity who've been caught up in war and violence.

Two of my host family took me to a nearby café - the yummiest kebab imaginable. They struck up a conversation with other diners and soon the whole café joined in except for me, my Arabic is, well…limited. Didn't take long to realise they were talking and sometimes laughing about/at me mostly in response to comments from a middle-aged Iraqi woman who moved her chair next to mine. A weird feeling, have an entire cafe laughing uproariously at you and not understanding what they are saying.

The woman took my hands which are white and smooth and soft. Hers were brown and rough and worn. She stroked my face, my body, wanting some of my luck, my good fortune in having lived the easy life I've had - no wars, no dead children, no relatives who've just 'disappeared', no starvation, no grinding poverty. She'd fled from Basra in Iraq where she'd lost everything and no longer cared what she said or did or what others thought of her.

I could write much more about what was for me a very special time, but here I've tried to pick up on themes that may be of interest to Webdiarists. A sad postscript was the Jordan hotel bombings. On the way back to Australia, I stopped over in Amman, wandered around for a few hours and walked past both the Radisson and Hyatt hotels with the intention of popping in to use their toilets but was put off by the security. I can picture them in my mind now.  Inconceivable at the time the carnage to be visited upon them a few days later. More deaths amidst so many.


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re: Postcard from Damascus

An interesting disagreement here between the people-centric and the testosterone powered.

re: Postcard from Damascus

An amusing little story but it would be better suited in The Green Left Weekly or Tony Kevin’s page. I question your wisdom in travelling to Syria for a story, I suppose if you had got kidnapped you would have wanted the Australian government to rescue you. I think you have the same IQ as the Bali Nine in stepping foot in Syria, still you have made Marilyn happy.
By the way did you see tonight’s news about the Syrian mass grave they have just found.

re: Postcard from Damascus

How touching.

It would perhaps be a little less touching for the survivors of the Hariri family after the former prime minister was murdered by Syrians. Similarly, all of those poor Israelis who have been murdered by Hezbollah sponsored by the Syrian government. And where is the free press in that country and the right to protest and dissent?

Syria is one of the countries in the world with the poorest record of human rights abuse. To romanticise it is disgusting. Of course you were safe there, it is isn't often that they will get a Jew doing Arab propaganda for them! Even the Syrian's know a gift horse when they see one.

It might be touchy feely emotional congruence Sue, but the fact remains that the Syrians and most Arab countries do believe that 9/11 was committed by Jews, they are still actively pushing the Protocols of Zion and dissenters against the regime disappear there.

You have stated that some Aussies, myself included, believe the Quran says it is ok to lie to a non Muslim as if that is incorrect. Can you advise if this is so? Or would you rather it not be so?

re: Postcard from Damascus

Thank you Sue. One of the most profoundly moving and unforgettable experiences of my life was holding Najah Soudany in my arms as she wept - a few days before the first anniversary of the sinking of SIEVX - and her mother's immeasurable pain and grief.

They had recognised my name from the memorial poster outside their classroom in the local Amnesty office you see and knew I was organising the day.

Never have I had the privilege to meet anyone so brave - I try to imagine the horror of surviving 22 hours in shark infested water, unable to swim, watching hundreds of others drown and determining to stay alive to bear witness.

Amal, Sondoa, Faris - all brave beyond bearing really.

Yet Australia treated them like mass murderers, denied them sanctuary, denied them an inquest into the 353 deaths, denied their families any peace and denied them the right to have a proper trial for the murderer Abu Quessay.

Thank you Sue.

re: Postcard from Damascus

I also had a wonderful, although brief sojourn in Syria in the mid 1970s. The hospitality of the ordinary people I met was quite humbling. Eventually I headed south to Jordan, crossed the Allenby Bridge and entered Israel.

I remember frequently being told by Israelis that travel to Syria would be impossible for me, that the people were barbaric, the place was dangerous - and that Israel was the only civilized country in the region.

Eventually I stopped explaining that I'd already been to Syria and that I'd met people there who were hospitable, kind and very well educated. It wasn't the message they wanted to hear. My account of a visit to the Damascus Jewish quarter wasn't popular either.

Mr Smith sadly confirms that Israelis - and their international cheer squad - still have shut ears when it comes to hearing what fine people their neighbours really are.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Sid I have not yet had the pleasure of a trip to the Middle East but what you write confirms what I have been told about Egypt and Lebanon as well, insofar as hospitality goes.

People from these countries do not abandon their pleasant customs either when they migrate. I have spent a lot of time in the homes of Muslim, Christian and Jewish migrants from the Middle East, and they could teach many Anglos the virtues of unstinting hospitality, tolerance and acceptance. A shame the Israelis you encountered did not match the virtues of their Jewish brethren here, though decades of paranoia from their governments has not helped.

FK I'd say the latter would be more-shall we say-Viagra-powered? Young men these days tend to be far more worldly and tolerant than many of their elders. The number of mixed-ethnicity couples anywhere you go here shows that intolerance, ignorance and bigotry is going to disappear despite the best efforts of those pathetic old men in Canberra to keep it alive.

Alan Curran an amusing little post but one which would be more suited to a neocon limp biscuit blog or Quadrant magazine.

I tend to question whether you have in fact ever left Australia...perhaps you fear the monsters to be found at the edges of your fondly imagined flat earth?

And the Bali Nine have never been to Syria so what is your point?

re: Postcard from Damascus

John Smith: "It might be touchy feely emotional congruence Sue, but the fact remains that the Syrians and most Arab countries do believe that 9/11 was committed by Jews, ............."

I refer to your statement and want to know when the survey was concucted (and by whom) about the understanding of 9/11 of 'the Syrians and most Arab countries'?

re: Postcard from Damascus

Sue Hoffman's story is a timely piece with so much hate directed towards the Middle East these days which is encouraged by various Western governments in covert ways.

I've had the opportunity to work for a short time in two Middle Eastern countries over the years. I have never encountered such a level of hospitality and warmth from people anywhere in the West. I've found it in some Asian and African countries.

It's an amazing thing. People who are oppressed or under political and financial "seige" for a variety of reasons can still openly accept strangers. We on the other hand are being taught to be suspicious of anyone different.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Sue Hoffman, thanks for an honest, fascinating and enlightening piece of personal travel writing on a country and culture we need to know more about.

Thanks to Alan Curran and John Smith. The nastiness of their posts prompted a pleasingly civilised post by Justin Wilshaw.

I've heard from others that Damscus is the best place in the world to buy the finest Persian carpets. If I ever win the lottery I'll be there in a flash.

re: Postcard from Damascus

What is wrong with some of you guys that you have to turn everything and every story into an ugly politicial us and them rant?

Sue went to Syria with some of the relatives of the dead on that terrible ship wreck and all you can do is poke fun at her and carry on about a mass bloody grave that is 12 years old. What the hell has the Lebanon/Syria stoush got to do with Sue's trip in 2005?

Stick to what she learnt, what she saw and felt - bloody hell you guys are such anal retentive bastards aren't you?

And I am not happy to have met Najah and held her while she cried with the grief of losing her baby boy and her brother - I was stricken with f...g pain and still am.

Those people had as much right to live and breathe and BE and you do as I do yet they died so stupidly and needlessly.

re: Postcard from Damascus

And a postcard it is.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Dee I thinks Alan's point relates to running drugs in Indonesia = dangerous, visiting Syria as a westerner = dangerous.

Sue, sounds like you had a inspiring trip. Whilst the Mid East is not on my top places to visit, the hospitality of the people is renowned, and the cuisine is just delightful. Never know, maybe one day. Ill keep frequenting Lakemba to get my foodie fix!

I hear what Alan and John have to say. I refuse to believe an entire people are bad. Normally is just a minority who spoil it for the rest. I mean imagine if peoples' only view of us was that of Bob Brown! arrrgh
Thanks for the insight.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Marilyn: "What is wrong with some of you guys that you have to turn everything and every story into an ugly politicial us and them rant?"

Your post of 2:56:58 pm: "Yet Australia treated them like mass murderers, denied them sanctuary, denied them an inquest into the 353 deaths, denied their families any peace and denied them the right to have a proper trial for the murderer Abu Quessay."

One needs to think before she posts?

re: Postcard from Damascus

Angela, I read somewhere the other day ( I can't recall where) a program to use sport to further cultural ties. Did you seen the crowd in the Soccer (Aust V Uraguay)?

Lebanese, Alglo's, Greeks, italians, Asian hugging each other and having a bloody good time. A blueprint for success?

re: Postcard from Damascus

Lovely article, Sue. I remember visiting Kashmir. Our local new friends told us how wicked and horrible the Hindu Indians were and even pointed them out with "look there is one, a spy", yet were themselves kind and ever so friendly and hospitable to us. Like you we had the same bizarre experience.

Imagine my surprise to find how kind and hospitable our new Hindu Indian friends were where ever we went on into India, even a real "Spy" who used to be a racing car driver was charming and oh so helpful when we needed it.

Lack of intimacy combined with manipulation easily creates distrust and hate. Easy to manipulate to war.

Earlier I posted here the Harvard study which supported that. Visual recognition, it showed, of threat of person or distrust of that person due to lack of intimacy with similar people was changed after getting to know such people. More likely to have a positive reaction the closer/intimate the interaction was.

Perhaps instead of segregating people of different religions or even permitting schools of different religious beliefs we and other countries should be investing in peace in the future by encouraging intelligent mingling between all groups with proper respectful guidelines and safeguards.

Primary school is a good place to start and sports teams and dramatic arts/music are other areas where ideas and learning can be shared and friendships built. Universities are sometimes the last chance for ethnically isolated people to meet outside their enclave and religious universities are the very worst thing that could happen. Still the ideologues push on, despite the negative effect to our community.

Perhaps the same could be said about private schools and public when the more privileged child and family can meet and mingle with those really struggling and realise they are still humans, still have high values and are worth knowing even if their car is so very old. Differences are dangerous if promoted in communities without understanding the commonalities.

It would be great if a more formalised youth exchange could be developed between countries of differing cultural views, rather than the usual EU, US/Disney and Israel youth exchanges on offer that we have been looking at. Such links developed may even prevent war one day, imagine!

Then again, Iraq has shown when enough money is spent and enough people bought it is hard to stop anything no matter how immoral.


re: Postcard from Damascus

Michael de Angelos: "Sue Hoffman's story is a timely piece with so much hate directed towards the Middle East these days which is encouraged by various Western governments in covert ways."

Compared with the benign, balanced commentaries of the official Middle Eastern media, I suppose.

"The culture that is exported today, through Hollywood, for example, is a culture of violence, a culture of films ending usually with the policeman bleeding and the robber hugging his lover and smoking a cigar. These images glorify cruelty, glorify force, glorify the man who is victorious because of his might and his weapons. This is the language that still controls these people's culture…" - Syrian Member of Parliament Dr. Muhammad Habash on Iran's Al-Alam TV, discussing the Nietzschean malevolence of western, particularly American, culture.

"In wartime, these two talents are expressed through the lies of the media and the credulity of public opinion, gradually giving rise to legends which are accepted as undeniable historical truths. The myth of Hitler's gas chambers and crematoria, called 'Holocaust,' is such an example." - Iranian Sahar TV Film on the 'persecution' of Holocaust Deniers.

I have scores of deeply anti-Semitic and anti-Western diatribes like this from official Arabic and Iranian media.

A lot of it ends up being recycled on Aryan-supremacist, neo-Nazi, Holocaust-denial and other "alternative" or "community" media sites, like IndyMedia Melbourne.

For those interested in this, the Middle East Media Research Instute web site is an instructive place to start.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Spot on Justin! Elite sport may not be good for one's individual health but perhaps as you say it is a social ice breaker for cultures, a common love.

Hi C Parsons, tell me you didn't really recomend MEMRI, selective Memri as some might call it, as a reliable source in anything to do with the Middle East? I was taken in by them initially until I read elsewhere where they come from.

Come on, you used to have good sources with respectable objectivity. Was it you or Jay who criticised me when I linked to WSW site?
Perhaps if we first say who supports and finances such sites their information can be assesed. So who does for MEMRI? And just to put it in perspective, wasn't it a MEMRI translation that was used against Hilaly? That he later claimed, rightly or wrongly, was incorrect?

What I see on MEMRI is usually anti-Arab/Anti-Muslim. No surprises there.

Maybe we should read more widely to gain a fuller picture. The Palestine Chronicle is an interesting counter to MEMRI.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Yes Justin Wilshaw, I saw it. And some of the interviews afterwards which included the mixed ethnicities you mention.

One can only hope such continues - particularly after the inevitable happens (WC defeat). I'm told the "A" League expands into SE Asia next year in some fashion? Perhaps that will provide some glue, though support will be back to a club level.

re: Postcard from Damascus

My congratulations!
You sum it all up;
any more comments seem futile
just let's hope your 'poem' is not growing and growing

Christian Wesely

re: Postcard from Damascus

John Smith, you say Hariri was murdered by Syrians!! Where is your evidence for this, old chap? Surely not the UN's Mehlis report, "REPORT OF THE INTERNATIONAL INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION COMMISSION ESTABLISHED PURSUANT TO SECURITY COUNCIL RESOLUTION 1595 (2005)," which says, "there is converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act." And, "The full picture of the assassination can only be reached through an extensive and credible investigation that would be conducted in an open and transparent manner to the full satisfaction of international scrutiny."

Now to the main Mehlis witness:

"Beirut, November 28: Many newspapers published in Beirut reported this morning that a key witness heavily relied upon by the international investigating commission, set up by the UN Security Council to look into the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, has recanted his testimony saying it was obtained under duress. The witness, Husam Husam, a Syrian resident of Metn in Lebanon accused Fares Khashan, whom he called “a consultant to Mr. Saad Hariri” of being his handler throughout the investigation. According to Husam, Khashan tutored him on what to say in his testimony before the commission."

Methinks you be treating rumour as facts. How about a retrial?

re: Postcard from Damascus

Sue Hoffman points out beautifully the stark difference between human-to-human contact and the official pronouncements from governments and quasi-governmental organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, or Kach.

She would have had a similar experience visiting an individual family in Israel (Jewish, Muslim, or Christian) or Yemen, or Turkey, or Jordan, or... or the USA, England, Australia, Canada, New Zealand...

Ms Hoffman's wonderful essay does not contain the word "Israel," yet commentary on this thread has quickly devolved into yet another pro-Israel/anti-Israel squabble.

The Arab media are indeed full of quite ugly invective against Israel specifically (its existence, not its policies) and Jews in general.

MEMRI has a pro-Israel position, but mainly it is simply publishing English translations of Arabic articles, editorials, speeches, etc, including the rarely-heard voices of reformers in the Arab world. According to MEMRI, its Reform section is "divided into four main categories: Social Reform, which will focus on women's rights, civil society, and educational systems. Political Reform, which includes debates on democracy and the rule of law, protection of the individual, and freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. Also, Religious Reform, which covers the debate on reform in Islam, as well as the misuse of religion. Finally, the Reform Project will cover Economic Reform, which examines issues of free market economy, globalization, and modernization."

Though I do not always agree with MEMRI's opinions, I have not seen the accuracy of their translations challenged or their substance refuted. Anyone?

re: Postcard from Damascus

How strange I find it that some feel the need to reduce a personal story of one woman's experience into a diatribe against the 'dreaded others'. How easy it is to dismiss millions of people on the basis of their government or some radical media outlets.

I don't think that anyone is trying to argue that the Syrian govt or others in the Middle East are egalitarian democracies, but I don't understand what that has to do with the majority of people who have to live under these regimes.

I was travelling through the Middle East when the planes hit the World Trade Centre. I didn't see any dancing in the streets or celebrations of any kind. The people I spoke to were just as shocked as me and offered their sympathies.

All the world over, the vast majority of people are just trying to live their lives the best they can. They do not condone violence and they do not try to force others to live as they do. I doubt whether anybody would wish to live in a dictatorship either, given the choice.

Please, object to the actions of the few, not the lives of the many.

ed Hamish: welcome to Webdiary Janette (apologies if you were ever on the old one). And thanks for the sanity.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Further to my previous post: for completeness' sake, I should have pointed out that MEMRI also translates the Hebrew and Farsi media into English.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Angela Ryan: "Hi C Parsons, tell me you didn't really recomend MEMRI, selective Memri as some might call it, as a reliable source in anything to do with the Middle East? I was taken in by them initially until I read elsewhere where they come from."

What a fascinating insight to your psychology, Angela, though not entirely surprising.

You don't actually express doubt that the two quotations cited are accurate - because you cannot - but you reject them anyway because you don't approve of the messenger!

O perhaps the messages are inconvenient?

Or are you alleging that Iran's Al-Alam TV and Sahar TV merely made them up? Or that MEMRI made them up?

Certainly Holocaust-denial and unrestrained anti-Semitic ranting is a staple of Iranian, and much other official Middle Eastern media besides. As are the most bizarre extremes of anti-Western hysteria.

But you now suddenly doubt this because we've received a lullaby from the axis of evil?


It was Iran's psychotic government which, after all, recently offered, in the United Nations, to wipe Israel off the map.

Don't you remember the convoluted linguistic gymnastics employed by the "peace activists" on this very blog to explain away that unfortunate development? Why bother to pretend?

re: Postcard from Damascus

I am also sick and tired of everything is reduced to “us Vs them”, such as:

* Left Vs Right
* Baby Boomers Vs Gen X, Gen Y
* Christian Vs Muslim.
* Labor Vs Liberal
* West Vs East
* Communism Vs Capitalism
* Black Vs White

Etc etc etc. As well as personal naming and abuse.

I always thought this is the forum where we learn, share, disseminate and broaden our knowledge. Even knowledge that we strongly disagree or dislike. Grow-up people!

Margo: Well done, PF!

re: Postcard from Damascus

I think C.Parsons pointing out Hollywood as an example of bias reminds one that they as much as anyone are responsible for the demonising of Arab culture with so many rediculous films that portray them always as terrorists or indeed, all terrorists as Arabs. I don't know much of the items you quote but certainly the Syrian Member of Parliament Dr. Muhammad Habash is spot-on with his analysis of the tripe from California. Perhaps he's seen one to many pro-war films from phony he-men like Bruce Willis.

Holocaust deniers are as reprehensible as the new breed of re-writers of Australian Aboriginal history who fabricate our ancestors treatment of them and would have as think they were happy little natives living in harmony with their beneficent white masters. Howard encouraged the likes of Keith Windshuttle with his "black armband" comments that signalled it's OK to begin the attack on yet another marginalised section of society.

Being the same age as the PM and having roughly the same schooling, I know the little creep is lying this time. He and I know we were never taught about Aboriginal people in school bar a few snaps of some black men holding a spear over a dead kangaroo. That was the extent of it.

It's just another of this PM's so-called "brilliant political leadership" which is similar to one man, the public, trying to hit back tennis balls lobbed by a machine set on high, from the other end of the court. He is so distracted he completely looses the idea that that is the point. Keep your opponent distracted at all times with an unfair advantage. Howard's machine is beginning to run out of balls and will soon be empty.

re: Postcard from Damascus

That's an odd conclusion, C.Parsons, that Windshuttle's denial of the Holocaust means he would be "darling of the left". I don't know anyone who denies the Holocaust from the left or right. You seem to give examples, as you did with the Syrian politician's statement and then ascribe his views to an entire nation in a sweeping fashion. I don't know what "lot" you refer to when you say "your lot" but the implication is that whoever they are, aren't entitled to opinions or that if those opinions don't co-incide with yours, they aren't worthy. I reckon your attack is just a trick to divert threads of comment away from a discussion.

Sue Hoffman has presented us with a personal story of travel that gives us a fresh view of events that are shaping the world we are in at present and you come in blazing away about irrelevant pieces that are not related. One should push their personal ignore button and save energy.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Marilyn - “a mass bloody grave that is 12 years old” - is this less important to you than SIEV-X. which happened 6 years ago.

I was just trying to help you understand what a peaceful people the Syrians can be. Just as you make out that our Defence Forces are “mass murderers”.

Margo: SIEV-X was 4 years ago, Alan, in October 2001 during the federal election campaign.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Michael de Angelos: "I don't know much of the items you quote but certainly the Syrian Member of Parliament, Dr Muhammad Habash is spot-on with his analysis of the tripe from California."

Well, ignorance of the facts has never got in the way of your "analyses" before, Michael, so there's no reason to stop now.

Michael de Angelos: "Howard encouraged the likes of Keith Windshuttle with his "black armband" comments that signalled it's OK to begin the attack on yet another marginalised section of society."

Actually, I knew Keith Windshuttle at the very high-point of his career as a Holocaust denier.

When I was a student at the University of Technology and Windshuttle was there, he more or less led the charge against the "Western media lies and slanders" against Comrade Pol Pot.

Windshuttle regularly defended Comrade Number One with ready reference to the opinions of Noam Chomksy, whose article 'At Fourth Hand' was cited widely as evidence that the Western media were merely denigrating the "achievements" of the new socialist agrarian utopia in Cambodia. Him, and Jim Cairns who sighed that at least "peace" had come to Cambodia.

Whatever you may now think of Keith Windshuttle, in those days his Holocaust denial made him the darling of the Left.

Unlike Chomksy though, he has never tried to hide his earlier enthusiasm for Pol Pot. But then he abandoned Marxism altogether, didn't he?

Still, old habits die hard I suppose amongst you lot.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Janette McPherson wrote "I was travelling through the Middle East when the planes hit the World Trade Centre. I didn't see any dancing in the streets or celebrations of any kind. The people I spoke to were just as shocked as me and offered their sympathies."

Janette, I agree it is reassuring and I'm glad that this was your experience. However, it is a known and recorded fact that in some places in the Middle East, people did dance in the streets, and cheer and hold placards of Osama Bin Laden after 9/11. Like you, I hope these were a minority, but the very fact that such distasteful events were capable of drawing cheering crowds is kind of worrying.

And as someone mentioned earlier, repeated polls by organisations like Zogby, etc show that many Arabs do believe that Mossad was behind 9/11. (Likewise, in Indonesia a large swathe of the population believes that the CIA was behind the Bali bombings.) It's pretty disturbing stuff.

The famous hoax "The Protocol of the Elders of Zion" had a TV drama based on its themes broadcast on state-TV in Jordan only two years ago. (And Jordan is considered one of the more friendly Arab states!)

I agree some of the earlier posts probably should not have made their comments so personal towards the author's article. But the warning about not "romanticising" these places is quite pertinent.

PS: And Angela, I don't know about Jay and a WSW site, but you might be thinking of me when I criticized you back in September for linking to an American white-supremacist website in order to support your argument that 9/11 was staged (but such topics are thankfully verboten so I shall say no more on that score).

re: Postcard from Damascus

I wish no comments had been allowed for this post: I wish it had just stood there as a reminder that there are possibilities of us getting on with each other, knocking along together, and living in some sort of amity even across wide cultural gaps.

Sadly, that hasn't happened: the post has been "captured" and appropriated by, roughly, two groups.

One group wants to see the article as supporting the proposition, roughly, that the Arabic side of the Middle East quagmire is morally superior, and that Australia under John Howard has reached unheard-off depths of moral squalor.

The other, roughly, wants to portray the author as at best a naive dupe of pro-Hezbollah terrorists.

Let us take the post, as lawyers say, "at its lowest": that is, let us apply a bit of a discount for subjectivity, for the likelihood that no doubt some of the people Sue met had an interest in putting the best face possible on Syria, and for the likelihood that there were, as always, some perils and risks of which Sue was simply not aware.

Having done that, it stands nonetheless as evidence that we can, sometimes, knock along together in a reasonable sort of way. Isn't the right reaction, then, to use that as a stepping stone, no matter how minute, to a bit more knocking along together? On that basis, the idea that we try to use things like sport as a means of getting some communication happening sounds like a good one.

Anecdote time: The morning after the Uruguay match I caught a taxi to Mascot airport from the north of Sydney. The cabby was a bloke who has carried me before; he has a long beard, a skullcap, and is a devout Muslim; so devout he gave away his TV. He asked me how I was, I told him good because Australia had won the soccer. His face lit up; his eyes shone. "We won? Wonderful! Tell me, how did Viduka go?" Note that "we won". We had a chat about soccer, about the need for values, and about the emptiness of much of modern life. At the airport, there was a sea of green and gold, and young blokes (mainly blokes) drinking beer, eating krispy kreme doughnuts, and generally celebrating according to Australian occer cultural traditions.

But for a minute, the beer drinkers and the devout had a window of commonality. Isn't that a good thing? Just like Sue's experiences?

re: Postcard from Damascus

C Parsons, I am at a loss to understand your biting, vitriolic, venomous description of Noam Chomsky as having enthusiasm for Pol Pot. At Fourth Hand surely just attempts to show inconsistencies in media coverage. Edward S Herman (co-author) states:

"As soon as Chomsky and I criticized media coverage of Cambodia, in 1977, we, and especially Chomsky, were accused of being apologists for Pol Pot. William Shawcross eventually (and ludicrously) blamed Chomsky for having paralyzed Western policy responses to genocide by his (and my) single review article in the Nation. Those who attack alleged "defenders of Pol Pot" can lie with impunity.

On June 23 Anthony Lewis jumped into the fray, boldly denouncing Pol Pot and urging his prosecution for war crimes. Lewis did mention the "bombing inflicted on the peasant society by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger," but only as an introduction to the fact that Pol Pot outdid our leaders. No suggestion of any causal relation between the bombing (etc) and the "one million Cambodians [who] lost their lives" in phase two. Lewis also does not discuss whether, even if Pol Pot was worse, the toll under Nixon and Kissinger wasn't high enough to be worthy of a war crimes trial.

Lewis then goes on: "A few Western intellectuals, notably Prof. Noam Chomsky, refused to believe what was going on in Cambodia. At first, at least, they put the reports of killing down to a conspiratorial effort by American politicians and press to destroy the Cambodian revolution."

This is a multiple lie:

- First, we did not disbelieve the reports in general and were very clear that "gruesome" atrocities were being carried out. We did contest some blatant lies, like those of Lacouture, and media gullibility, which in this case, where points were being scored against an enemy, reached remarkable levels.

-Second, we never believed or said that there was any conspiracy going on, and regularly cited State Department experts as sources of plausible information.

- Third, we weren't defending the "Cambodian revolution," and never believed that the propaganda campaign was designed to destroy it; in fact, we stressed that its spokespersons didn't do, or even propose doing, anything to help Cambodians. We saw the propaganda campaign as aimed at Americans, to help reconstruct an imperial ideology that had been badly damaged by the Vietnam War.

Lewis goes on to speak of "explaining away reports of rights violations as a Western way of interfering in other countries," ignoring the fact that a vast stream of human rights reports on El Salvador, Guatemala, Turkey, Colombia, Peru, etc., have involved human rights violators funded and protected by the United States.

In our writings on Cambodia, Chomsky and I often point out that the Indonesian invasion and genocidal actions in East Timor began in the same year that Pol Pot took power in Cambodia; and we stressed that in the case of East Timor, in contrast to Cambodia, the United States as the primary weapons supplier and with extensive economic relationships to Indonesia could have effectively protected human rights. But that genocide was carried out by an ally, was approved by U.S. officials, and silence prevailed in the U.S. media.

The sanctimonious Anthony Lewis does not address this anomaly. Lewis can lie and mouth his clichés about the need to bring his country's preferred war criminals to trial without fear of reply because his newspaper gives him impunity from criticism. A letter from Chomsky answering Lewis's lies, and several other letters doing the same, were refused publication in the New York Times.

re: Postcard from Damascus

C Parsons write: "These days, anyone can go to any IndyMedia site and you will frequently encounter people claiming to be "left" on this or that issue, and openly disputing the Holocaust. Try it."

C. These days, I occasionally visit Indymedia and notice folk openly disputing just about anything.

It's called debate.

Margo: As you all know, I've banned posts denying the holocaust. Get off this topic, all. Now.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Michael de Angelos: "That's an odd conclusion, C.Parsons, that Windshuttle's denial of the Holocaust means he would be "darling of the left". ..."

It was specifically the genocide in Cambodia he denied, as did Chomsky. He admits this. Nobody doubts it.

Windshuttle was very popular on the left in those days, as was his wife Elizabeth who was then a prominent feminist. He was frequently quoted in the media back then, as now, on a variety of issues, including unemployment and the impacts of the then emerging digital technology.

He, to his credit, acknowledges that he was wrong about Pol Pot and has the guts to accept responsibility for this. Unlike Chomsky.

Michael de Angelos: "I don't know anyone who denies the Holocaust from the left or right."

At the same time, and on the same UTS (NSWIT in those days) campus, academic Caroline Grahame openly disputed the historical facts of the Holocaust, including the scale of the killing involved. She was an ardent self confessed communist and outspoken supporter of the PLO, and in particular a close associate of the Australian Palestinian activist Adnan Khalil.

These days, anyone can go to any IndyMedia site and you will frequently encounter people claiming to be "left" on this or that issue, and openly disputing the Holocaust. Try it.

Go to IndyMedia Melboure and search anything with the names "brian" "bk(m)c" or "simon" for example dealing with the Holocaust.

Michael de Angelos: "You seem to give examples, as you did with the Syrian politician's statement and then ascribe his views to an entire nation in a sweeping fashion."


Please show wherever I did that. Thanks.

I appreciate that, as ever, and as you have admitted here, you "don't know much of the items you quote", but perhaps you could at least direct us to a quote? That would be nice.

Also, do you think your claim - false as it turns out - is ironic in view of your statement;

"I think C.Parsons pointing out Hollywood as an example of bias reminds one that they as much as anyone are responsible for the demonising of Arab culture with so many rediculous (sic) films that portray them always as terrorists or indeed, all terrorists as Arabs."

- Michael de Angelos | 05/12/2005 5:28:15 PM

I realise Hollywood is merely a suburb, but it nonetheless contains tens of thousands of people of varying opinion on all sorts of issue, after all. And the term itself being emblematic of the entire US film industry, you are probably "ascribing views" to hundreds of thousands of people "in a sweeping fashion".

Have you read much of Freud and his theory of transference as a form of personal denial? Even if you haven't, I am sure you will want to express an opinion on it.

re: Postcard from Damascus

R Tolkein quoting Edward S Herman: " We did contest some blatant lies, like those of Lacouture, and media gullibility, which in this case, where points were being scored against an enemy, reached remarkable levels."

Jean Lacouture, the "liar" being here castigated, was of course amongst the first to alert the world to the catastrophe underway in Pol Pot's communist dicatorship;

"When Jean Lacouture published a book review of Ponchaud's Cambodia: Year Zero in 1977, he touched off an intense debate with American academic cum activist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, who is a distinguished linguist, found erratas in both Lacouture's review and Ponchaud's book. In a series of polemical exchanges that were sometimes public, other times private, Chomsky referred to these mistakes as examples of deception and fraud that fueled anti-revolutionary propaganda against the Khmer Rouge by the media. Together with Edward S. Herman, Chomsky published an article in mid-1977 in the Nation, entitled "Distortions at Fourth Hand" that became the centerpiece of his argument against the media's frenzy over Pol Pot.[10] Two years later, after the Pol Pot-Ieng Sary regime was toppled by Vietnam, the Nation article was followed by a book that continued to express doubt about the truthfulness of "alleged" Khmer Rouge crimes."

- Undergraduate Political Science Honors Thesis, The Khmer Rouge Canon 1975-1979: The Standard Total Academic View on Cambodia, Sophal Ear, Department of Political Science,University of California, Berkeley and Ronald E. McNair, Scholar Academic Achievement Division.

Like I said, Windshuttle had the simple moral fortitude to admit that he was wrong and did not resort to calling those reporting Pol Pot's genocide "liars".

re: Postcard from Damascus

Margo, whilst Alan Curran's date lapses are regretable, he does have a point.

Let's keep this on track. Sue had a lovely trip to the Mid East. If you want to bitch and moan about lefties (as I normally do) or those on the right, then go to appropriate threads. Fair dinkum.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Thanks for the interesting and in some cases unexpected responses to what was a piece primarily about ordinary people, particularly Iraqis.

Regarding personal safety and the Middle East, I possibly view this differently to other Australians as my mum and sister have lived in Israel for more than twenty years. My UK-based family visit Israel regularly which is far more dangerous than Syria. Yesterday, five people were killed in by a suicide bomb in Netanya, the town where my sister lives. My Iraqi friend wouldn’t have invited me to Damascus if it put me at serious risk. I trust him and his family’s judgment in this matter.

Poster girl for Hezbollah? I don't think so. As for having the IQ of the Bali Nine, well that would give me an IQ of 900 plus. Cheers.

re: Postcard from Damascus

E.Burrows: "...it is a known and recorded fact that...people did dance in the streets and cheer"...etc.

It is, E. But it is also known and recorded that cheering and rejoicing broke out in some -many?- U.S. schools when the news that J.F.Kennedy had been assassinated reached them.

Let us not reach overwhelming conclusions because of such.

re: Postcard from Damascus

I think that the biggest error of reasoning from Sue is that of equating hospitality with civility. There were many charming, hospitable antisemites throughout history. As they said about the Germans, get one in a room and they are a nice bloke, get two and they start marching.

If F Kendall thinks that the Arab celebration was circumscribed, perhaps he could provide evidence for this. Kendall would also need to explain the numerous celebrations by Palestinians of the suicide bombers nasty effects. Do you recall the was in which the Sbaro pizza parlour massacre was satirised by Palestinians in a Palestinian university?

You would have to be completely blind, deaf and dumb to ignore the overwhelming evidence of the hatred that is endemic in the Arab world for Jews, America and the West in general.

re: Postcard from Damascus

R Tolkien, your post has me most confused about the issue. I cannot understand why the NY magazine would not publish the letter from a prominent public person as such improves readership.

Your post seems to say that Chomsky did not say what others say he did, but more questioned the assertions of others and the extent to which they were true. Is that it?

What is the reason for this hounding of Chomsky anyway? Can't people of prominence make mistakes or a faux pas? Was it known for sure what was happening when he made supporting statments of Pol Pot?

It is almost as if there are those awaiting the pounce, just like upon a political leader like Mr Brogden. Who would be a person of prominence when so many want to crush them for opposing their views?

We are all so human and fallible, I guess it is eventual we stuff up - ppppounce if you have your head above the other pooppiesss.

C Parsons, you seem to have a good grasp on the time (correct me as you wish if I make erroneous assumptions, this is a learning curve). Now in the 1970s we had Cambodia bombed dreadfully by the US - carpet bombed and defoliant and napalm wasn't it? And then came the fall of whatever was there and the rise of the Pol Pot regime - backed by China (?), which then wiped out the middle class and educated (not mutually exclusive) in an effort to do a redbook Maoist like revolution.

So far ok? Then why did communist (Russian backed??) Vietnam, fresh from a hugely devastating war, invade a fellow communist country, in 1979?

What was the US response to this at the time - thanks mate they needed to be kicked out or what?

I had the impression tha Gareth Evans etc did good work in trying to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice, but how did Prince S get back into the government favour? I thought it was about compromises people make for peace. What was the influence of the opium trade in all this?

Just as a matter of interest, when did the information about the massacres reach the west from Cambodia? When were they reliably ascertained?

People have been fooled before into supporting what they thought were the good guys replacing bad guys only to find their new heroes were doing just as bad things as the replaced regime - eg the present Iraq leadership and their torture murder chambers.

Can't stand Windshuttle but find it hard to believe even he would knowingly make statements to support a regime known to be doing mass killings at that time, nor would Chomsky I believe.

It must be so hard to find the truth in these matters from the past when even just to find the truth about Iraq is so hard and that just happened in front of all our eyes.

I was a bit hard before on you about MEMRI, and sorry if it riled - ouch boy it seemed to - but am sick of "information sites" not acknowledging their bias when dealing with sensitive information. 'Fraid there is nothing "facinating about that psychology" eh? Truth seeker and hate being tricked. You seemed to dislike Chomsky as you feel he tricked people about Khmer Rouge, is that right? Or the intelligent design tricks to wrangle our science education? For me it includes politics. I don't like to be tricked.

I like to look at all sites but use the background info from that site-funding, editorial, writers prob bias and previous articles, and a litmus test article - to judge for myself and others how to consider their information. I thought you would do that too, especially if you can quote Freud.

I am starting to think that ideal regimes are impossible as far as democracy go, even here. So why expect it in the Middle East which hasn't had the luxury of the peace, freedoms and educations that we have. There access to information is limited as to some extent is ours in the main press. It is through actually meeeting that misconceptions can be challenged and the people of the regions get on with peaceful coexistence. War mongering on all sides has been ramping up and it is little surprising that some Iranian minister makes some vitriolic comment in response to the nuclear war bombing plan that is allegedly being drawn up against it by the US/Israel military strategists. All are ratbags.

The people of all the countries would do best to pension off the lot of them, as Dee says, they seem determined to have a confrontation to remove a regime of threat and gain the southern oil fields of Iran. This is a huge risk to all the countries and peoples in the region, esp the smaller and seems to be madness. It has already destroyed Iraq for a generation. What is so hard to understand?

That is the trouble with immunity for the Iraq deceit, more of the same will come. Bring on accountability I say.

And really we all should be just playing football against each other and visiting as tourists. I wonder if we need a Pax Romana to have that.


PS E Burrows, did I link to a right wing site? Probably didn't have that great name that John Evans linked to a few times - Right Wing Death Beast or something, one can be naive about these things but learn, still time will tell.

We had to wait until now to know that Roosevelt allegedly knew about the Pearl Harbour attack from signals decoding. That is really hard to believe but apparently was in released documents and now a book is written - maybe soon a movie - bet NOT!

A cousin lost their only son in that Guess he wasn't on that new and valuable airaft carrier sent out to safety. If I had lost someone in that it-will-not-be-named event I would not be sitting still on my hands. Did you Ian Thorpe nearly got killed, was supposed to be in the towers a the time but went back for something - from the Women's Weekly so it must be true...

ANd he wanted to bomb Katar... madbadgeorge. The US President. Amazing.

re: Postcard from Damascus

E. Burrows, I suggest that we neither romanticise or demonise.

John Smith, as I didn't say or suggest that Arab celebration was circumscribed, I don't know what you're on about.

re: Postcard from Damascus

F Kendall wrote: "It is, E. But it is also known and recorded that cheering and rejoicing broke out in some -many?- U.S. schools when the news that J.F.Kennedy had been assassinated reached them. Let us not reach overwhelming conclusions because of such."

Teenagers, since the dawn of time, have behaved immaturely and stupidly. The behaviour of a some American schoolkids can hardly be compared to the behaviour of entire communities, adults and all, and their leaders.

If I had used an example of Aussie-Arab schoolkids in Sydney joking and cheering in class about 9/11 (and I have multiple school teachers in my immediate family and friends, and some witnessed this firsthand) then your analogy might be relevant.

But I deliberately did NOT use this example ('cos they were just silly-billy kids after all). (And they have nothing to do with the topic - Syria!)

I am not trying to blow up isolated, unusual incidents to draw some "overwhelming conclusion". Polling repeatedly shows these views are widespread in Syria and neighbouring locales.

My main point was simply not to romanticise these places. For example, if I suggested that you should all think John Howard and George W Bush (with that southern hospitality thang going on) are a pair of top blokes simply because they can carry on a polite conversation, you'd think I was barking mad (and rightly so).

re: Postcard from Damascus

Angela Ryan: "Can't stand Windshuttle but find it hard to believe even he would knowingly make statements to support a regime known to be doing mass killings at that time, nor would Chomsky I believe."

Well, they did. They just chose to ignore what they were being told. And what the whole world could by then plainly see.

And even later they continued to call such reports "lies" because it simply didn't suit their world view.

I have actually referred you, too, to a thesis documenting all this.

What is it about you people?

Also, don't get too excited about Vietnam having "liberated" Kampuchea. It immediately after installed two of Pol Pot's former henchmen, who had previously defected to Vietnam, as the heads of the new government, Heng Samrin and Hun Sen.

That, and Chinese membership of the Security Council, ensured the new regime wasn't recognised by the UN.

I'm sorry, Angela, if none of this was told to you in you political science tutorials or whatever. Have a guess why that may have been.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Why did my earlier post of 6-12-05 disappear? It was there for several days...

After witnessing all the love-in comments the last few days about how fair and balanced Webdiary is, and how wonderful it is, etc, and how it allows all viewpoints, etc, you go and do this! (And not for the first time either.)

Also, the post was eliminated with no note of explanation either. I thought tampering with the archives was againt the WD ethics! I guess the ethics only apply when you want them to,

- I have never written a post in bad faith.
- I do not use bad language or vitriol.

Yet still I get censored!

Why should people bother coming here when there are a zillion unmoderated forums out there? I only drop by Webdiary once every month or so. And yet again (as each time before), I depart shortly after bemused, exasperated and annoyed with it.

I am not optimistic that Webdiary's future will be rosy. This is Censorship City, and I strongly suspect it will prove your downfall. People will simply lose interest and move on.

Then again, I'm probably kidding myself to think you'll publish this either.

ed Hamish: I don't know why it was unpublished E Burrows. Perhaps someone felt it was too much like 'conspiracy theory'. I read it over and it's not. It's published.

re: Postcard from Damascus

Angela Ryan, you are touchingly naïve about Noam Chomsky. C Parsons has directed you to what is a fair, if somewhat polemic in style, summary of the controversy about Chomsky’s support for the Khmer Rouge.

The first thing to note is about Chomsky is that he was an apologist for the Khmer Rouge. He supported the 'liberating' socialist movements in Indochina, whatever their stripe, that took power after the US withdrawal. That support implicitly entailed accepting the Leninist/Maoist doctrine of the destruction of class enemies.

Therefore he supported and, as he has not recanted of his views, he still supports, mass murder in principle. It follows that his objection was not to mass murder taking place, provided that it was of people who were, in his view, the right people to be subject to mass murder, the class enemies of the Khmer Rouge. His objection was to refugee accounts which stated that under the Khmer Rouge massacres were taking place not only of the ‘right people’ but also among the ‘wrong’ people, the peasant base upon which he hoped that the Khmer Rouge would build their Workers’ Paradise.

Chomsky set out to discredit the refugee accounts coming in from those who had escaped from the Khmer Rouge into refugee camps in Thailand. He did so by casting doubt upon the refugees because of their ‘class’ backgrounds. He then attacked the motives those who took those accounts. He ran into a problem with Ponchaud, however, for Ponchaud had lived in Cambodia for ten years prior to the Khmer Rouge coming to power, was fluent in Khmer and intimately familiar with Khmer society at all levels.

Bizarrely, his criticism of Ponchaud’s book, which took accounts from Khmers with peasant or ‘worker” backgrounds, was that it relied on the evidence of those refugees and was therefore self-interested and not independently verifiable. Against this he gave preference to accounts of conditions in Cambodia, then a hermetically sealed State, which relied upon the statements of Khmer Rouge officials, which were equally self-interested and non-verifiable, but were, as was revealed after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, unlike the refugee accounts, wholly false.

In his critique of Ponchaud and others who brought the refugee accounts of the Khmer Rouge atrocities to light, Chomsky made no effort to independently verify or falsify those accounts by doing independent research by himself. He never spoke to a single refugee as any reputable scholar would if that scholar wanted to engage seriously in a debate over a matter so grave as genocide. Ben Kiernan, initially an apologist for the Khmer Rouge, did that basic research in Thailand in 1978 and 1979 and, realising that his naive beliefs about the Khmer Rouge were wrong, had the decency to recant them.

Chomsky has not recanted his views or revised them. He is pathologically incapable of ever admitting even in the smallest degree that anything he has ever written is wrong or that in the light of new evidence his views, statements or arguments should be subject to revision. This egotistical quality endears him to his acolytes, who see his sophistry as evidence of his great intelligence, thus revealing their own lack of any. It also means that he is not seen as credible by any of the serious writers in any of the fields of discourse into which he wanders.

Chomsky has, instead, spent quite some effort in jesuitical arguments justifying his writings on the Khmer Rouge regime, just as he always does whenever errors or falsehoods are exposed in any of his writings. R Tolkien's quotation from Chomsky's collaborator Herman, below, is a sample of the genre.

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