It was a misunderstanding of giant proportions.
I first heard of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad over lunch with my Norwegian friend, Even. They had been published in Denmark, and then republished in Norway. We hadn’t seen them, but they were said to be generating great anger across the Muslim world. Syria and Saudi Arabia had recalled their ambassadors to Denmark. Religious leaders called for a boycott of Danish products. Within days a painful cycle had begun in which every republication of the cartoons elicited more anger, which in turn made the story bigger and forced republication, if for no other reason than to explain what the fuss was about. Rights and, more importantly, the separation of press from government, unknown or hazy to most of the Muslim world, made the offence seem as if it came from the entire country rather than from a single newspaper, an individual cartoonist or editor.
Damascus that Friday morning was like a city under curfew.
There were hardly any cars in the street, the shops were closed and the busy road that ran parallel to mine was so empty it could be crossed at an absent-minded stroll. The rain, which began the day before, had stopped but dark, wandering clouds drifted over the city. Their deep colour and low, predatory movement over Mount Qassioun made the mountain seem bigger and paler than I had seen it before. The hoary, Biblical mountain, with its petticoat of shanties, seemed that morning to have regained some of the grit and thunder of old days.
Even had mentioned he wanted to come with me to Abu Nour so I stopped at his flat on the way. We walked there through a souk that was much emptier than normal. We arrived at the translation room to find it full, and as I had come regularly over the past few weeks, I now recognised many faces. We had come quite late and the sermon had begun. Kuftaro stood alone at the pulpit.
‘Believers, we are living in total darkness,’ I heard, as I put on my headphones. ‘The enemies of Islam have been conspiring against the Islamic nation. They are trying to suppress the values of our nation. With the beginning of this century, the enemies of Islam have occupied Iraq . . . and now we have the blasphemous drawings. It is war against all Muslim people! They want to destroy our nation and our faith with all the weapons they have.’ Even and I glanced nervously at each other. ‘Under the pretext of democracy and freedom, they are spreading such blasphemous drawings! Our Lord demands that we be strong, and our strength comes from our love for our faith and for Prophet Muhammad. We call for good speech, but when our sanctity is oppressed, we are all sacrificing our spirits for your sake, O Prophet. We will sacrifice our souls, spirits and bodies for you, O Prophet!’
When he had finished speaking, it almost seemed strange to pray, like trying to sleep after a heated argument. The mood in the translation room was charged. Kuftaro had made a call to arms. It was hard to believe that, after so fiery and shaming a sermon, the vast congregation of young men in the chamber below would do no more than go home and refuse to eat Danish cheese. Kuftaro would not have risked disturbing the peace without the express permission of the regime, and if he was making a sermon like this, other mosques were too. It was the mosque performing its role of infusing temporal power with divine sanction, and we sensed that some bigger response was brewing.
I went up to Brother Rafik when I saw him come in. I asked him if he ever minded the anti-Western and anti-American stance of the sermon. ‘No, because as a Muslim,’ he said, as if recalling a principle, ‘I am first a Muslim, then an American. Even before I came here I had stopped thinking of myself as American.’ Brother Rafik had not met Even before and I introduced them. When he learnt that Even was Norwegian, he became solemn and asked how everything was in Norway, in the way people do if there’s been a natural disaster.
‘It’s fine, but there’s not much understanding,’ Even said. ‘People haven’t quite figured out why everyone is so upset.’
‘You have to remember,’ Rafik said, becoming lively, ‘that this is offensive not just to Muslims but also to Christians and Jews who, if they went back to their books, would see that they are forbidden to make graven images.’ He seemed to enjoy those last words and spoke them with the power they held for him. ‘They are so removed from their books that they don’t know they are forbidden it. If you make or replicate creation, you are producing an idol and, inevitably, someone to knock it down. So it’s not just offensive to Muslims, it’s offensive to everyone.’
But it wasn’t offensive to everyone. Rafik meant that it ought to have been, and that it wasn’t, was a failing on the part of Christians and Jews. That week, Rafik, born and bred in America, along with others who had grown up in the West, was in a unique position in Syria. He could explain to many of the people around him, including some of the senior leaders of Abu Nour who were in the translation room at the time, something they genuinely didn’t grasp: that the offending cartoons did not come from the Danish government or from Danish companies and that they were powerless to stop their publication.
‘Do you feel the response is appropriate?’ I asked.
‘Well, they got their response, didn’t they?’ he said. ‘If it’s a response they wanted, they have it. There are men sitting outside their embassies with AK-47s. That’s the response. I’m not saying it’s a good one, but it is a response.’
‘Do you think it’s outside the parameters from which the offence came?’
Rafik understood my question to an extent most Syrians would have found hard. But he felt it was more important to educate Even and me about the sin of making graven images. ‘You see, for most people in this region,’ he said in a quieter voice, ‘the newspapers are the government so they can’t understand how the paper can print the cartoons without the government’s permission.’
I asked why he didn’t offer this analysis to the people around him.
‘We know that the West has technology and democracy, or whatever else turns your crank,’ he answered, ‘but they don’t have a lot of wisdom. There was no wisdom in publishing those offensive pictures just because you have the right. Well, who gave you that right except God Himself? In the West there is constant movement. You’re moving without even knowing why. There is no time for reflection.’
Black rainclouds slipped over the souk like a lid. Its narrow streets were packed with worshippers leaving the old Mamluk mosques. When, at last, rain and thunder broke over the souk, trenches of water formed in the tented entrances of shops. The filthy souk cats were drenched and the mud floor ran like weak dye through sloping streets to the city below. The commotion the rain caused was followed by marvel as fragments of exploding hail beat down. Even and I stopped trying to make our way back and gathered under a rain-filled awning.
The stall behind us served corn soup in white Styrofoam cups, which came with such speed that they were hardly optional. The men who gathered round us were mostly in their twenties. There was a smell of worn winter clothes and cigarettes about them. They were well-built, with prominent eyes and noses, and attentive to fashion. Their facial hair was carefully shaved, their jeans and sweatshirts close-fitting with haphazard masculine touches – a motorcycle, an eagle, bits of fake fur on the collars.
When the hail stopped, we made our way out of the souk. Even picked up some vegetables, saying he was cooking at home, and invited me to join him.
At his small, airy flat, the doors and windows were open and a moist breeze came through. He was on the top floor, and from his terrace it was possible to see cemented rooftops and fields of satellite dishes, like sunflowers, with poised, vacant expressions. Their presence, illegal, but tolerated by the regime, perhaps unavoidable, along with the numerous internet cafés in the city, always full of young people, stood out as the most obvious sign of dissent in a system that had depended on controlling information.
The lunch turned out to be a small feast of eggs, an aubergine and tomato stew, and beef with fennel and salad. We ate sitting on the floor.
We had finished, and a kettle was on the stove, when the response of which Rafik had warned rose up from the street. The cheer of lunch had made me forget the tension in the mosque, and as I had never seen the slightest disturbance in Damascus’s streets, the sudden loud chanting came as a surprise. It took the form of the Muslim declaration of faith: ‘There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet. La ilaha illAllah, Muhammad-ur-rasulAllah.’ That sentence, with its short, deafening music, audible to believer and non-believer alike, and amplified by the many voices from which it came, reached us like an echo. It came alone, again and again. The first time we heard it, our conversation stopped. The second time we listened from where we sat. The third time we ran on to Even’s balcony. From where we stood, it was possible to see the entire sweep of the inclined road.
At the bottom, a small but angry crowd was making its way towards us. Far behind them, the remains of the storm settled in a punctured heap of black clouds, bringing out the green and white colours of the biggest banner. They were a mixed group – fifty to a hundred people – of veiled women, children and young men, like those we’d been with moments before at the soup stall. Turbaned sheikhs, just out from Friday prayers at the city’s mosques, led the protest. They carried satiny Islamic and Syrian flags. We watched them pass Even’s building and stop no more than fifty metres ahead outside the French Embassy. Days before, France Soir had republished the cartoons and its editor had been sacked.
The crowd’s shouting grew louder, and Even and I ran down to the street. The demonstrators collected outside the steep, curved walls of the embassy. A few red police cars surrounded them and the officers, who stood at a distance, watched calmly.
Now that they had reached their destination, they seemed unsure of what to do next. Even and I stood still at the edge of the demonstration. There was a little scuffling at the front with the embassy guards, but the protestors lacked the momentum to storm the embassy. For a while, they yelled, ‘Get out, get out,’ in English, and someone threw a sweet wrapper and a milkshake at the embassy wall. Pink liquid dripped down from the point where the milkshake had hit the wall. There were no speeches, no signed declarations, nothing but anger and frustration. And the message was so simple that a young child in a pink sweatshirt led the slogan in a shrill voice: ‘La ilaha illAllah, Muhammad-ur-rasulAllah’ and ‘Allah hu Akbar’ again and again. There was no response from the embassy, just stony indifference to the angry mob. The street was still wet from the morning shower and a light breeze coming off the mountain threatened to blow away their fury.
Just then, a familiar face appeared from the crowd. It was Basil, a Syrian friend of Even, who had followed the demonstration from the Danish Embassy. He pushed his way through to us. He was in a merry, joking mood and was excited by the afternoon’s events. He gave Even a big hug and teased him about being Norwegian. He offered to take us deeper into the crowd. We followed him along the edge of the protest, closer to the front, but at that moment, the protestors pushed harder at the barricades outside the embassy. I felt the squeeze and stopped, but Even and Basil pressed ahead. Within a moment, I had lost them.
The commotion at the front had made me uneasy, but now separation from Even brought on a wave of panic. The mob was searching for a focus at which to direct its anger. I was scanning the crowd for Even when suddenly I heard Basil address the demonstrators in Arabic: ‘This is my friend,’ he said. ‘He is Norwegian and a good man.’ Then he raised Even on to his shoulders and said to him, ‘Speak for your country.’ Not a sound came from the crowd and the new silence chilled me. Now they have an object for their rage, I thought, feeling all my worst fears answered. Even, if he was scared, showed no sign of it. He took in the crowd, his natural repose undisturbed, and then addressed them in Arabic. ‘This is just an embassy,’ he began, his face still and serious, his hand raised slightly so that the index finger met the thumb in a gesture suggesting precision. ‘It is not actually the country. I think that this conflict is caused by lack of understanding. In Norway we don’t know much about Islam, and there are not many Muslims there. Norwegians need to learn about Islam, and through knowledge of Islam, we can learn to . . .’ He stopped and bent to ask Basil for the right word. The crowd listened in stunned silence. ‘. . . respect Islam, and live together peacefully. Inshallah, inshallah, in-sha-llah!’
At the time I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I tried later to imagine the impact of his words: the surprise of them from a foreigner, their clarity and volume, the classical Arabic in which they were spoken, and the simple, helpful message, the only one, so far, that had been more than a cry of hysteria. The words that came so easily to him, words of sympathy and diffidence, keen not to blame but comprehend, clichés in the West, resounded with freshness on the Arab street.
A roar of approval came from the crowd. Someone yelled, ‘He accepts Islam!’ A small, withheld smile formed on Even’s lips. Hands reached up from all sides to shake his; others took his picture with mobile phones; a TV crew squeezed to the front to interview him. His speech brought the demonstration to an end. I knew a great sense of relief; it could have gone so wrong. I thought that Basil had seriously endangered him, but Even didn’t see it that way: he felt it had been an act of trust on Basil’s part.
Back at the flat, Basil, in his white cap and over-excited manner, was saying that the Israelis were to blame. They had planted the cartoons to poison the close relationship between the Arabs and the Danes. He heard in the mosque that morning that Muslims themselves were to blame because they had failed to tell people in the West how great a man Muhammad was. He took me aside to tell me of the greatness of the Prophet, his flight to Medina, and how Islam was a religion for all people.
‘How do you feel?’ I asked Even.
‘I wish I could have said more,’ he replied, the adrenaline still strong in his voice, ‘but I didn’t have the words. What I really wanted to say was “We know you’re angry, but we still don’t know why.”’
On Saturday, we knew less. The cartoons had filtered through outraged governments and clerics to the people. And now the street was on the boil. For the first time since I’d arrived in Damascus, nearly a month ago, I felt unsafe. There was something especially unnerving in watching so controlling a state loosen the reins.
I had just had lunch with an American writer friend, Bartle Bull, and was recounting the events of the day before when cries from a new demonstration rang out. We were walking through a small park in a quiet residential neighbourhood when we heard them. Bartle, as if picking up a scent, led us in their direction, out of the park, down a main road and finally on to a wide avenue with palms in the centre. Traffic was diverted because thousands and thousands of demonstrators were marching down the avenue. The crowd here was of a type: angry, available young men, unshaven, sullen, with shiny faces and greased-back hair. This was a different, more orchestrated demonstration than the one the day before: young girls and older men marched too, but at its heart was a large group of the dissatisfied young men that all police states have at their disposal.
Unlike the day before, it was a clear, beautiful afternoon. Following the demonstration down the avenue was no more of a strain than taking an after-lunch stroll. The slogan from the day before, ‘There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet’, was shouted now and then, but, for its size, the demonstration was comparatively quiet, focused and on the move. We weren’t sure where it was headed, which European nation had published the cartoons now or, since a demonstration of this size clearly had the blessing of the regime, whether all this anger would be channelled in the direction of ‘the big Satan’, America. It was only when the leaders turned right into a smaller street that we found ourselves standing in front of the Danish Embassy. At first, it was not very crowded, but barricades had gone up on one side of the street and it was impossible to leave, except by the way we had come. That option was blocked by the waves of demonstrators arriving from the avenue. With every minute that passed, the small area in front of the embassy became more compact and the energy of the crowd, like riotous molecules over a Bunsen flame, surged. I became uneasy at the closeness of the mob, and the sudden ripples of mounting energy that travelled through it, drove Bartle and me to a quieter area.
From there we watched the mob turn their anger on the Danish Embassy’s dull beige façade. A few stray rocks began to fly. In places where the rocks hit their mark, a cement wound opened on the beige façade and a cry of satisfaction went up from the crowd. More rocks began to come. One hit the embassy’s red and gold crest and the crowd screamed with pleasure. A thin line of policemen in helmets, mostly young boys, stood perfectly still and expressionless with their backs to the embassy.
This was not yesterday’s demonstration: preparations had been made, and rocks from some mysterious source were now hitting the embassy in a steady barrage. The crowd danced with excitement and a Danish flag was unfurled, burnt, then stamped on many times. Homemade posters were held high: ‘We are those who are faster than fate. Vikings beware’ and ‘We sacrifice ourself, our mother, father and children for you, O Prophet!’ A new chant rang through the crowd, and to me, an Urdu speaker, many of the words were familiar: ‘Bi ruh, bi dem, rafiki-ya-rasul, With our souls, with our blood, for you O Prophet, O friend!’ It was another of those strange moments in which the crowd’s rage submerged the meaning of their slogan, in the same way that it was possible to say that Islam was a religion of peace and compassion, then raise a crowd to fury in its name.
A man ran up to Bartle and me. He would have picked us out of the crowd as foreigners or journalists, and this made me nervous. ‘Tell your people in Europe that the freedom of journalists is the freedom of madness. Here, here, write down my name, Muhammad Ghazali, forty-nine.’ He was a rotund, cheerful man, sick with exhilaration. ‘Look and see these ordinary people, not educated people!’ he panted. ‘And I am ready to die,’ he yelled, over the slogans and the cries of the crowd, ‘against those who are saying these bad things against our Prophet.’ He ran back towards the crowd and was swallowed up in seconds. He was of a piece with the rest: rage and violence on the surface; euphoria and release below.
It was a little after four and the embassy had been stoned for nearly twenty-five minutes without intervention from the authorities. The thin line of boy riot police stood exactly where they had been. I was observing their expressionless faces when a roar from the crowd made me look up. A young man in jeans had got into the embassy and now stood on one of its balconies. He gloried in the crowd’s approval for a moment, then reached over the railing and pulled the oval crest off the wall. It came away easily. He held it up like a trophy and threw it into the crowd. Then he took out a green flag with white writing that read, ‘There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet,’ and hung it from one of the embassy’s slanted flagpoles.
‘They’re gonna burn this place,’ Bartle said. ‘This is huge.’
It hadn’t occurred to me that they might; the demonstration had grown so quickly from a few stray rocks to a full-blown attack. The boy policemen continued to do nothing, and watching them, it became clear that the regime had forsaken the small, besieged embassy. More people broke into its compound and a murmur of anticipation went through the crowd.
The black smoke and fire that started appeared at first to come from the compound, not from the actual embassy. But slowly, the embassy building, rather than being consumed by the flames, seemed itself to breathe fire from its ground-floor windows and doors.
Bartle was on the phone to Sunday editors in London. I called Nedal, a Syrian friend who was helping me in Damascus; he said he’d be there in a few minutes. A pinkish dusk hour set in and the flames and smoke, now reaching out of the embassy, mixed with the fading light in a puzzling and primeval close of day. The crowd danced in jubilation. As if re-enacting some ancient rite, they passed round the Danish crest like a holy relic.
The silhouette of a fire engine appeared past the barricades at one end of the street. The other silhouette, its cross and tower framed against the haze of smoke and evening, was that of a next-door church, now threatened by the fire.
A few minutes later Nedal, short, smartly dressed, with a neatly trimmed beard and bright eyes, appeared from among the crowd and we began to make our way out of the crush. I asked him to help me talk to a few people, who were now also moving in the direction of the avenue.
One man shouted, ‘They started it. It will not just burn, but be blown to pieces.’
A young girl in a headscarf, called Heba, said, ‘This is nothing for us. They have insulted our Prophet. What is an embassy?’
A twenty-six-year-old, bespectacled student, called Muhammad, heard us talking and interrupted her, ‘This is wrong. We can protest, we can demonstrate, but we can’t do this. Our Prophet would not like it. It is our fault because we are not good Muslims. If we were good Muslims, no one would dare insult our Prophet and our faith. When we were good Muslims, the language of the world was Arabic, not English.’
When he had finished, Heba was silent and nodded. The pain the student expressed was not uncommon: many felt that the insult of the cartoons could only have been inflicted on a defeated people.
The street emptied quickly. The façade of the embassy was charred and soaked where the firemen had doused the flames. On the avenue, a woman with streaked hair and an elegant blue jacket walked past the embassy with her shopping. ‘Oh, good, good,’ she squealed in English. ‘They’ve burnt it.’
A forty-year-old man, calling himself Jihad, stopped me: ‘If you are aware of the Jewish conspiracy, you will see the stamp of Mossad all over this. This is a trick of the Jewish people because they know the Prophet is a symbol of all Muslims in the world.’
‘If you know it’s a trick, why did you fall for it?’
He wouldn’t answer, but wanted to list the wrongs Israel had done. Nedal was visibly upset. He was worried about how this would damage Syria’s place in the world and its relationship with the Scandinavian countries that, until now, had been allies and supportive of the Arab cause. He kept asking me how it was possible to have a right to insult the Prophet.
On the way home, I noticed that the violence was spreading from the embassies to the neighbourhood round my flat. Mobs of young men ran from street to street, kicking over dustbins and attacking anything they could find. Now real riot police, with faceless helmets, black uniforms and batons, roamed the streets; a water cannon was brought out. News came in that the Norwegian Embassy had also been burnt and it was at this point, with riots spreading through our part of the city, that I became worried about Even. In Damascus, most people knew their neighbours and could easily point out where the Norwegian who had addressed the demonstration the day before lived. Even didn’t have a mobile phone, but I finally got hold of him on Basil’s phone. He sounded frantic. He had been at the Danish Embassy and after that at his own. He said he was coming over to my flat.
He arrived twenty minutes later with Basil. Soon after, the police chased a small mob down the street at the end of ours. We saw them like a screeching flicker in the corner window. After a tense few seconds, an expression of relief passed over our faces. Even could hardly think beyond his nerves and excitement. He told me of his afternoon in broken sentences. Outside the Norwegian Embassy, a man had grabbed him and screamed, ‘Where are you from? Where are you from?’ He had answered, ‘Sweden,’ and some of the others there had pulled the man away. The demonstration was tear-gassed and Even went with the demonstrators to wash their eyes in a mosque, but the detail that impressed itself on him was that the call to prayer had sounded as the demonstration approached the embassy. The demonstrators had stopped, prayed in the street, then risen and charged the embassy. ‘I can’t believe they prayed first!’ he gasped.
That night the Norwegians in Damascus were meant to have had dinner in the old city, but as rioting continued into the night, it was cancelled. News of the burnings had already made its way from the street to the world beyond and Norway announced it was evacuating its citizens. By four a.m. the first planes were leaving.
On Sunday morning, drinking Nescafé on my slim balcony, I looked out on a city in bright sunshine. The neighbourhood was not just calm, it had been cleaned. No trace of the riots remained. There was traffic on the intersection, the shops were open and the baker, just past the traffic-lights, was churning out hot mincemeat pizzas. So much had happened in the last few days, a whole cycle of religious ecstasy, and the final hours of violence had felt almost ritualistic. The mood that morning in Damascus was like the day after a festival in India.
The passions spent, it felt strange to think of their cause: cartoons.
The offensive cartoons could not have been understood Islamically. The democratic rights and interlocking institutions that protected them were outside the faith’s compass. Nedal was right: I couldn’t explain to him how one could have the right to insult the Prophet unless I was to step outside the circle in which it was written that it was wrong to make graven images. Indeed, to explain to Nedal how one had the right to insult the Prophet, I would have to ask him to suspend his faith for a moment and believe in sanctities greater than that of his Prophet and his Book. But the reverse was not true. Europe had lived through an ugly history of religion intruding on the public sphere. It knew about religious injunctions, and also their dangers. It could be said that the systems that protected the cartoons now had been set up in part to protect public life from the excesses of religion. The cartoons came from places that considered it an achievement for religion to be able to take a joke. It had not always been that way.
In coming to Syria, I had hoped to see the rhetoric of Butt and Abdullah put into practice. I got more than I bargained for. Abdullah’s notion of Islamic completeness, a negative concept, possible only as opposition, was already being expressed at Abu Nour before the cartoons had came along. As it was, they provided the ideal grievance: here was an offence from the hostile, alien world, and the faith, for once, knew how to react. But if there hadn’t been cartoons, they would have had to invent them: all that preparation and frustration needed release.
What happened in Damascus can be explained in miniature by a story a Syrian friend told me. Its small domesticity hides the hysteria in the background. It is a story of a man who goes to his priest to ask if his wife is permitted to wear nail polish. Expecting the answer to be no, he is surprised when the priest says that of course she can: why shouldn’t she look beautiful? However, it is written that when she washes for prayer, the water must touch every part of her body, including her nails. ‘The company that invented the polish,’ the priest smiles, ‘also invented a nail-polish remover.’ So, yes, she can wear nail polish as long as she removes it every time she is at prayer: five times a day! And so, the faith deals with the nail polish in its own way but never confronts the real offence: the triumph of the other society, the ‘world system’, of which the appeal of its nail polish is so soft yet potent a symbol.
“Nail Polish,” from Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands.Copyright © 2009 by Aatish Taseer. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.