Sunday, 28 July 2013

Lunch with a Syrian refugee


Until a year or so ago I had never seen a  woman in Bucharest wearing a Muslim headscarf. The head-scarves Romanian peasant women wear are different. Now I see Muslim women and girls almost every day. I started a conversation with two recently and they said they were Syrian refugees staying with their uncle. I  suspect Bucharest is full of Syrians but I can find no  numbers on the internet.

It is a whole year exactly since I last met my Syrian Christian friend, though I had intended to see him much more often. He is a very nice man but I have a self-interested motive, to find out what is really going on in Syria from someone whom I trust and who is a Christian, meaning he is therefore neutral between Sunni, Shia and Alawi.

I invited him to lunch with me but he with characteristic Arab hospitality insisted on inviting me. We ate at Piccolo Mondo, the most famous of Bucharest's Arab restaurants. I of course pumped him.

He is a very discreet man who has a business in Syria and avoids commenting on what is happening there in public. This is why I am not giving his name. A year ago he told me he expected to be back in Damascus in a month, after the Government had been overthrown and peace restored. I knew he would be here for years but said nothing. A year before that, I remember him telling me that he and the other Christians would never leave their country but now I feel he is thinking of spending is life in Bucharest, at least for many years while his children are educated. Two million Syrians he says have left Syria. That's a lot out of twenty-two million and, naturally, they are disproportionately the well-educated and intelligent ones.

Last year he told me all the Christians and almost all the Sunnis wanted the regime to go and even half the Alawis agreed. This time, he talked about the horrors of the war and has even less liking for the regime which has perpetrated so many of them but, in the end, he said quietly that he prefers that the regime wins. The rebels are not organised and if they win or share power chaos will be the result. Rebels are beginning to fight each other and some are coming over to the government side. The best hope, he says, is that the regime remains but reforms itself and a peace is made. I cannot persuade him to say that Christians in general are now on the side of the regime. He is certain that he does not want the UK and France to intervene.

His judgement is, as it happens, exactly the same as the conclusion I had reached, but until I spoke to him I had kept my opinion to myself, waiting to hear what he thought. 

Why did the regime not fall last summer? Because Iran and Hezbollah intervened to support the government.

He also thinks it possible that the fighting in Syria may lead to a redrawing of national boundaries. It is not difficult to imagine the artificial boundaries imposed by Britain and France to create Iraq, Syria and Lebanon being torn up.

He says what he said last year that until the unrest started Shia, Sunni, Alawi and Christian had no problems. I hear many Bosnians tell me the same thing in 1996 immediately after the war ended and I believe him. He emphases now as he did when we first met in Syria long ago that he has very many close Muslim friends and most of the people in his class at school were Muslims. Nevertheless though he likes and admires Muslims, whom he think make good businessmen, he would not invite one into his house '
because their way of thinking is too different'.  Would his unveiled wife wearing lipstick be the reason? Syrian Muslims have told me that if I were invited to their houses their wives would be unveiled. That would only be a small part of the differences my friend says, without enumerating others.

If I were to say that I had many close Muslim or Jewish or black friends but would not let them in my house this would not sound very friendly of me, but in the Middle East, as in Romania, people do not often invite others to their house but entertain in restaurants instead. In addition, in the Middle East men socialise among themselves and Muslims never seem to take their wives out to restaurants.

As I am an imperialist it pleased me to hear him say, without any prompting, how much Syria owed to the French who created the country and ruled it for twenty-five years. His school was built by the French,  the educational system was created by them and they founded hospitals and did other fine things. When the regime complained about French colonial rule this stands in ironic contrast with the way the country was ruled after independence.

It occurs to me as I write this that Ba'athism, founded by a Syrian Christian, in its nationalism, socialism and secularism owes quite a lot to the French, though the former British mandate, Iraq, was also ruled by the Ba'ath. Iraq was ruled brutally and wickedly by Saddam and the Ba'ath, but in Iraq what succeeded the Ba'ath was much worse and so it would be, I think, in Syria.

The Balkans and the Christian Middle East belong to the same cultural space. Syrian Christians, someone in Athens told me recently, like emigrating to Greece more than any other countries, because there they feel most at home. Romania also has many things in common with Christian Syria, including the same Orthodox religion. It will probably also have a sizeable Muslim minority as a result of the refugees. I was told recently that in addition to Syrians there are sizeable numbers of Muslim immigrants entering Romania from other countries and some Romanians have converted to Islam. Until recently Romania had 20,000 Muslims, in the Dobrudgea, the only part of Romania where before 1878 they were allowed to settle, but this figure is out of date.

I believe my friend completely when he says he is not opposed to Muslims but he tells me with utter conviction that I should warn people about the danger of Muslim immigration into Europe. Europe he believes and fears will have a Muslim majority in the foreseeable future. 

Syrian Christians do not understand why European governments are so easy-going and laissez-faire with Muslims and fear that the Muslims will quickly out-breed their Christian hosts. Islam, so Syrian Christians think, is an inherently intolerant and aggressive religion. 

It all sounded like the Catholic Bishop of Zanzibar telling me last year that Westerners should see how Muslims behave where they are the majority.


  1. "Romania also has many things in common with Christian Syria, including the same Orthodox religion."

    What are the other many things we share with Syria?

  2. Orthodox religion, Ottoman rule though Wallalachia and Moldavia were autonomous like the Lebanon. Romania was not, unlike Syria, part of the Byzantine Empire but it was influenced by Byzantium. Strong Greek influence. The big difference is the absence of Muslims in Romania, apart from a few in the Dobrudgea, which distinguishes Romania from the rest of the Balkans. Absence of the Renaissance, reformation, enlightenment. Agricultural countries. French veneer (much more true of Romania than Syria). Socialist dictatorships. Probably there is much more but these will do.

  3. Romania was considered in the 19th century the Near East, like Greece or Serbia, not the Middle East, of course. A Romanian friend who lived in Paris in the 1980s said to me 'People should not compare us to France - people should compare us to Syria. If you compare us to Syria we are not doing badly.' This was ten or twelve years ago.


  4. Fascinating Paul. I heard the almost identical story recounted by a Coptic Christian w/ affairs in Egypt just prior to the collapse. The chapter by chapter tale unfolds at a burger joint on the beach outside of Los Angeles... I get a new snapshot every year when I visit him. But the details are identical... Including the fascination w/ European governments' collective failure to recognize the danger posed by Muslim immigration into Europe. 

  5. The ultimate target, Iran.

  6. published 11 july 2o13

  7. The newly elected president of Iran has made a gesture to the West. How do you think the West will respond? And the once again peace talks are going on between Palestine and Israel.
    Do you think there will be any positive outcome?