Flavin’s Corner

Syrian Bread

It has been rightly said, that every cultured man belongs to two nations: his own, and Syria. Damascus is as old as history itself and is known as the Most Ancient Inhabited City.
Propaganda from the Syroil website.

The recent Arab League "Accord and Agreement" summit in Amman, Jordan had all the drama of changing the oil in one’s car.  It was needed, got dirty, and the price of oil just keeps going up.  Representatives from 22 Arab nations showed up in robes, suits, and military uniforms for two days of rhetoric, fun, and sun.  Oh, some surprises occurred, most notably from Syria’s President Dr. Bashar al-Assad.  I’m unsure if it’s the consumption of the dietary staple of Syrian flatbread or the Swiss bank-accounts brimming with dollars and Euros generated by its lucrative oil business, but Syria still displays all the warmth and modern diplomacy of a medieval caliphate.  Pope John Paul II will visit Syria in May and I hope the 80 year old pontiff enjoys himself.  Syria remains important, problematic, and unpredictable.  Ah, leave it to the Pope to go where the action is!

Much of the rhetoric offered at the Arab League summit concerned the ongoing struggle between the Palestinians and Israelis.  Senior Iraqi boot-polisher, Izzat Ibrahim, read a statement from Saddam Hussein which pledged a billion bucks to the families of dead Palestinians and a million men to take out Israel.  In contrast, Libyan President Moammar Ghadafi raised eyebrows with a suggestion if Israel withdraws from disputed territories it could join the Arab League.  More significant and disturbing, I believe, was Assad’s comparison of Israelis and Nazis.  Apparently profanity or colorful curses were inadequate and Assad felt invoking Nazis was necessary.  The Pope should rebuke him with a slap up alongside of his head.

Against French protests, the United States and the Soviet Union recognized an independent Syria in 1944.  By early 1945 Syria had become a member of the U.N., declared war on the Axis Powers, but France was reluctant to let its colonial property go.  Only after Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill threatened to send troops to Damascus, did the French finally leave.  April 16, 1946 is celebrated as “Evacuation Day” and is a Syrian national holiday.  The next fifteen years or so saw Syria maneuvering with fellow members of the Arab League, such as the creation of the short-lived United Arab Republic, a union between Egypt and Syria.  With the rise of Hafiz al Assad in the early 1960s and a successful coup in November 1970, modern Syria emerged as a military and political conundrum: a young nation of culture and strong religious sensitivities, but with all the couth of a wild dog.  Things haven’t changed that much.

In the late 1980s I tried to contact Damascus concerning the Ugarit city of Ras Shamrah and its unique cuneiform alphabet, but failed because Syria was, at the time, on the US list of states who sponsor terrorism and direct telephone calls were forbidden.  After Syria’s reluctant assistance during Operation Desert Storm, relations were somewhat normalized.  In 1994 I was able to deal with Damascus and procure photographs and permissions, but not without a couple of government Men In Black showing up to inquire as to my business with Syria.  I suppose we should be suspicious of amateur alphabetologists.  One never knows what possible trouble they could get into.

Ugarit abecedary, click here for more.

A week before the Arab League summit, a conference was held at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad by archaeologists and other researchers interested in the history of writing. [Note: The Sunday, March 25, 2001 online and print editions of The Chicago Tribune contain different versions from the Nat. Geo. link above.]   For most attendees it marked the first time they’d been apprised of the state of Iraqi archaeological matters since the Gulf War in 1991.  The Iraqis were quick (and correct) to dispute claims for an Egyptian origin of writing which has flirted with western scholarship recently.  Some new discoveries were reported, but it seems much attention was directed at the destruction and post-Gulf War looting of many important Iraqi sites.  Sometimes, when it suits them, Iraq is proud of its pre-Islamic past, unlike those punk-boys and amputees of world politics, the Taliban in Afghanistan, who destroyed the giant Buddhas a couple of weeks ago.  Besides sharing Ba’ath Party secret handshakes, Syria also behaves like Iraq when it comes to its ancient history; when it suits them.

The Syrian Arab Republic has an obligation to embrace the ancient history of its land.  That the portions of its past they seem most proud of consist of periods of Canaanite prominence, such as at Ugarit and Mari, and the later development into the associated Phoenician and Hebrew cultures, is irony justly appropriate against the racist hatred of Assad (as well as the attitudinal father before him).  As cousins, the Syrian Arabs, Lebanonese Arabs, and Hebrews have deep psychological problems with being ethnically related, and act like histrionic historical hillbillies on a regular basis.  Well, Assad is scheduled to visit Bush soon and maybe they’ll discuss the finer points of a comparison of Israelis and Nazis.  Right.  Assad is interested in allowing privately-owned banks into Syria for the first time in nearly 40 years and I’m sure “fuzzy math” whiz, Pres. George W. Bush, will be only too happy to recommend some Republican and faith-based banks interested in baking Syrian bread. [Note: Though Assad’s visit to America is economically inspired by Bush’s open-door/open-walletpolicy, it should not follow that the subsequent visit of the Holy Father to Syria should be seen as the opening of any special account.  Pope John Paul II just wants to see the Tomb of St. John the Baptist at the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus.  It’s strictly a tourist thing.]

Syrian bread is leaven with restrictions and won’t appeal to all.  Many have bemoaned a stiff pita when a wrap was requested.  The sandwich tradition is an example of wish fulfillment, as breads, rolls, buns, or other baked flour items (all serving as edible plates and napkins), hope to be stuffed with something good.  I hope Syria gets its bread adequately stuffed.  And, I would also hope that many will begin to use profanity rather than invoke a dead political party.  Everyone understands a “son of a bitch” refers to a son of a bitch, but few are aware the word “Nazi” is a queer condensation of “National Socialist.”  At least hate in context, for Goethe’s sake!

Doing stir-fry for a change,

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