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Fruits from the Syrian basket

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More than three years in Syria may seem an overstated adventure posting, when viewed through the binoculars supplied by the international media.

By Amb Man Mohan Bhanot

More than three years in Syria may seem an overstated adventure posting, when viewed through the binoculars supplied by the international media. On 4 April 2017, frequent WhatsApp calls from my wife in India woke me up in the morning. It was her birthday but the reason for the call was different; her anxiety for my safety. The media had scared her with the tragedies in Syria consequent to the chemical attacks in Khan Shaykhun. The impression she had got was that Syria was immersed in the poisonous gases. She was comforted when assured of my well-being. It was a poisonous gas spread in a place far away from Damascus. Worth appreciating was the efficiency of the international media in gaining knowledge of the tragedies and relaying all over almost simultaneously to its occurrence!

On other occasions, there were those Israeli missile attacks around Damascus.  I could see from my house in West Mezze the whole night sky lighting-up when some of these missiles would be intercepted by the Syrian air-defense missiles. This may seem scary if we are not aware of the cutting-edge technology of such missiles. These missiles hit the targets with the accuracy of inches conscious of the coordinates for the safety of the civilians  and international diplomatic community living in Damascus. The hits would take place in the night when the workers had left the premises.

I found Syrians proud of their history like we are. They rightly believe their country as  the cradle of civilization. The Syrians claim that much of the delightful Turkish and Lebanese cuisine originally belonged to them. They have always been known for their innovative minds. Few people would know that Steve Jobs had his roots in Homs. The language, Jesus spoke is still spoken in Maaloula, a village not very far from Damascus. When civilizations survive over millennia, they learn to coexist, and develop the intellect of seeing synonymy in diversity. It is impolite in Syria to ask the faith one follows. They are a harmonized society of Arabs, Alawites, Druze, Ismailis, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, Jews  and so on. Other than Christians and Jews, they all follow Islam in different blends. Alawites and Druz believe in reincarnation as well. 

Aiysha, a 21 years old girl, had just been to India. Her parents invited me for dinner. Aiysha looked absolutely Indian in Salwar Kameez bought from India.  She had a twin brother Ali. The parents told me that the twins remembered their past lives as children. Aiysha  related her past to India and Ali to Greece. The parents narrated an interesting story of their birth. Aiysha’s mother was without babies or their possibility. Once she accompanied her artist husband to India and visited many Indian places including the religious ones. In front of a kids wear shop, she developed a sudden urge and unintendedly bought two newborn baby-wears; one each for a girl and a boy. As things would unfold on her return to Syria, these dresses were worn by Aiysha and Ali when born. It is common to find people among Alawites claiming to remember their past lives.

When I visited His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem-II, Patriarch of Antioch of Syriac Orthodox Church over a dinner invitation, our conversation quickly turned beyond the formal courtesies.  Majority following of the Syriac Church is from Kerala including his close associate affable Reverend Mathews. He narrated the wonderful experiences of his visit to India during the preceding year. HH looked at the Syrians based on their common roots rather than their existing faiths, “before we were Muslims, Christians or Jews we were all Syrians.” My attention was drawn to his special staff with the carving of two rising snakes on it. I asked him about the significance of the snakes. It was somewhat related to the “rod of Moses” symbolizing the interchanging of a rod and a snake on God’s doing. ‘But then, why two snakes on his staff and not one?’ I contemplated in my mind.  Maybe the two rising snakes symbolize the awakening of the kundalini, the state of balance of pingala and sushumna nadis!

The iconic Damascene sword in Umayyad Square is demonstrative of the Syrian pride in the excellence of their swords. These swords were made from the special steel brought from India. The unique combination of toughness and malleability of the steel made them exceptional. Many believe Saladin could not have defeated the European crusades but for these swords. A visit to old Damascus takes our imagination back into the past by millennia, when Indian manufacturers would walk over those streets to market their products. Spice is called Bharat, probably following the name of the supplier country in vogue then.  Since very ancient times, Syria had been an out-post for the Indian products across to the other parts of the world, the two sharing symbiotic relationship of the producer and the trader. Late nights in the restaurants and bars in the traditional environs of the old city full of people swinging to the live Arab music is mesmerizing. Seeing me there, they would sing Indian songs as well.  

When I made a farewell call on my friend Minister Salwa Abdullah, my attention was drawn to a mesmerizing small date-tree artifact placed on her office shelf, carved-out of the shining copper plates. I asked her if that had a special meaning for its being in copper carvings. She did not see any relation. A sudden flash of thought  seemed to reveal  me the ancient linkages of Syria to the Indian subcontinent,those copper carvings of the date-trees had hidden in them. ‘Tamar’ in Arabic stands for dates, and  therefore ‘tamar-hind’ in Arabic shall  mean ‘dates from India’, which it does not. Tamar-hind actually means tamarind.  Why should tamarind in Arabic be called as dates from India? What do they have in common? It is the brown colour of the copper shared by the dates and the tamarind.  Copper in Sanskrit is called “tamr” like  “tamr rupam”, the ancient Indian copper currency. Both tamar (dates) and tamar-hind (tamarind)  may therefore have their roots in the Sanskrit word ‘Tamr’

Hoora or hoors in Arabic means beautiful virgins of heaven. A local friend explained the  meaning of ‘hoora-ain” in the parental Aramaic language as eyes as beautiful grapes (blacks), thus implying beautiful women with dark black eyes. Surprisingly, Hara-hura in Sanskrit also means grapes. My next etymological inquisition refers to the famous Palmyra with its ancient name Tadmor, both meaning the land of the date trees. The name does not seem to qualify for its meaning based on the Semitic languages. In Sanskrit ‘Tad’ stands for any of the tall palm trees and maru for desert.  That defines ‘Tadmor’ as the ‘desert land of the date trees’. Its beautiful queen Zenobia is an icon of Syrian pride . The Roman name of her husband Odaenathus meaning lord of the east sounds like Udai Nath (lord of the east in Sanskrit) and her own name Zenobia sounds like Jhanavi!

His Grace the Grand Mufti of Syria had his office across the street to our Embassy building. His 22 years old son had unfortunately fallen victim to the ongoing crisis. HG would repeatedly narrate with fascination his experiences in India after his visit to the World Cultural Festival on invitation from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. I was fascinated by his exemplary open mindedness in believing in only that is unifying rather than dividing, and would often visit him for ‘shastrarth’ as and when mutually convenient.

It was yet another enthrallment to visit Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi monastery on a hill top which also happens to be the site of the last discovered Stonehenge. Syria holds tons of ancient treasure in its various historical sites. In most of these sites the original structure is mostly a temple of Bel/Baal, sometimes accompanied by moon-god on the left and sun-god on the right; the order identical to the yogic breaths- left moon and right sun. 

Young Kurdish PRO Zainab took me around to show the ancient exhibits in the rich Damascus National Museum. Many of the important ones had been hidden for fear of their safety given the Syrian turmoil. A restaurant in the garden premises had been offered on a compassionate basis to the son of Khaled al Assad, the archaeologist, protector and restorer of the ancient city of Palmyra.  He was beheaded when he had refused Daesh’s access to artifacts which he had safely concealed before their takeover of Palmyra.

My attention was captured by the depictions of the Indian humped cows in the wall paintings in Dura Europa synagogue. It is one of the oldest surviving synagogues which was transported to the Damascus museum from Dura Europa in the eastern Syria sometime in the 1930s. Dura Europas was an ancient city of transshipment of the Indian goods during Maurya-Selucus Nicator times. It was the age when the ‘un-polarized’ pluralism of faiths was being taken over with the ‘polarized’ monotheistic economic interests of the statecraft setting path for the realpolitik of today.

Past midnight on 15 July 2016, we were in a hotel on the beautiful Mediterranean coast of Tartous during my wife and daughter’s  short visit to me.  Late at night, we heard the cracking sounds of the bullet shots from all around. Such incidences then would mean a fight between the terrorists and the Syrian Forces, and the defeat of the latter would mean you being left at the mercy of the terrorists. My wife stopped me from going to the attached balcony to peep downstairs. Terrified, I called hotel reception to ascertain the possibility of safe evacuation. I was relieved when the manager told me to relax as these shots were being fired by the Syrian Soldiers, celebrating the trouble on the Turkish President Erdogan. “What trouble?”, I quickly asked. There was an attempted coup against him in Turkey.

We jumped to the TV for the news. But the TV was full of another news of a terrorist driven truck hitting the crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France. My wife reminded me that my brother and his family were on holiday there on that un-fateful day. All our efforts to immediately contact them had failed. It was always them worrying for me in Syria from the UK. Ironically, today we were worried for their safety! Syria seemed to be safer than Western Europe for a while! The next morning we could get  them on the phone. They were next to the incident when it had taken place and had a miraculous escape.

By the end of my tenure, my residence had turned into an ‘adda’ for the learned as well as not so learned scholars sans any protocol norms. On some evenings, they would reach my residence in advance of me. Raza, my efficient assistant, would quickly cook and serve them Greek and fattoush salads, pakaroas, samosas, bhelpuri etc. My vegetarianism was hardly a hindrance to the activities of mind. We would differ on various issues to finally reach common grounds. As my departure date neared, the activity of the adda accelerated to its highest to escape the anticipated nostalgia following our parting!

Many in Syria philosophize as to what turned the Arab spring into autumn when it reached Syria. The most common reasons attributed are the very reasons that led to the Syrian crisis; to its crucial geopolitical location on the silk route. No other place in the world has seen so much of the mercantile trade through its territories than Palmyra, Aleppo and Damascus. The rich Syrian trading community is embedded with this collective unconsciousness about the importance of their place, and for this reason, it always keeps them rooted to their lands.  So, when much of the Syrian territory had been taken over by the terrorists and rebels, the Syrian state institutions never failed in discharge of their responsibilities despite scarcity of funds and sanctions. Much of the trading community never abandoned the government. The government continued to offer qualitative education and medical services for free. A subsidized pack of the Arab chapattis, sufficient to feed one for two-three days, cost only fifty Syrian Pounds or seven Rupees, and it would still form part of every Syrian’s staple diet, irrespective of the distinctions of the rich or poor!

(Author is formerly Ambassador of India in Syria and India’s first Ambassador to Equatorial Guinea in Central Africa. His email: [email protected]

 The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and have no bearing on other things whatsoever.  They do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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