A war, in three dimensions—الحرب في ثلاثة أبعاد

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I decided to visit the Tishreen War Panorama in the morning of the day we were to leave Damascus. Tishreen Al-‘Awal is the Levantine name for the month of October, so this was a monument to the war begun on the 6th of October, 1973, commonly called the Yom Kippur War in countries allied with Israel. As in Egypt, which fought the war alongside Syria against Israel, where there are numerous roads, places and institutions named “6th October” or “10th Ramadan” (the date in the Islamic calendar), or simply “October”, Syria has done the same with “Tishreen”. One of the state newspapers, for instance, is called “Tishreen”. Unlike with al-Naksa (variously translated as “the setback” or “the debacle”) of 1967, the October War is cast as a monumental victory for Egypt and Syria, not so much due to actual territorial gains made (somewhat slight for Syria and in the negative for Egypt), but by challenging Israel’s claim to military invincibility. The same could be said of South Lebanon in 2006. With all the death and destruction on the Lebanese side, it is hard to conceive of it as anything but an ideological victory for Hizbullah, rupturing Israel’s perceived absolute military superiority while highlighting the senseless brutality of “the usurping entity” (a phrase I put in quotes only for an English-speaking audience, as it is commonplace and self-evident in the Arabic-speaking world). It is in the same way that Syria chose to pick the “recovery” of the town of Quneitra from Israel as the centerpiece of its propaganda. Quneitra is a town in the Golan Heights that Israel had occupied during “the setback”, and from which it withdrew after the ceasefire of 1973, in the process evacuating some 37,000 Arabs and dismantling every bit and piece of infrastructure that could have been used by Syrians or profited from by the Israeli contractors to whom it was sold.

But, before getting to this centerpiece, it was necessary to navigate through the outer layers of this monument to Arab military might. I rode the few kilometers to the panorama from our hotel along a major highway (appropriately named 6 Tishreen). The guards were welcoming enough and let me take my bike through the metal detector and park it next to their kiosk. They directed me to the waiting area, where some 50–75 soldiers were milling about in their dress uniforms, eating potato chips and drinking sodas, waiting for their group to be escorted through the panorama. I, the only non-soldier around, was to wait here for an English-language guide to show me around (free of charge, they were keen to point out). I was struck by how NOT obnoxious the soldiers were when at ease. I suppose this is one of the positive by-products of compulsory military service: you don’t get a soldiery comprised of gung-ho nutjobs who’ve had the idea drilled into their heads (not to suggest they weren’t sympathetic to it from the beginning) that they are the elite saving grace of “the free world”, which would flounder in anarchy (*GASP*) were it not for their well-honed ability to kill, maim and degrade all manner of “bad guys.” I don’t mean to say that compulsory military service doesn’t train people in the same sort of rank nationalist sentiment, just that it tends to be a tinge less elitist and exceptionalist and, at least from my observation, doesn’t encourage as a model of social comportment what might best be described as “douchebaggery”. If you want to read an interesting psychologizing of the behavior of a fascist soldiery, Wilhelm Reich’s “Listen Little Man” is a good one, if not particularly analytical.

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After some 10 minutes of waiting, my guide approached me and asked me to follow her while she told me about the panorama. Her English was descent, but, as with many tour guides, she likely learned her spiel from someone whose English was not so great, and at a time when neither was hers. As a result, whenever she stuck to the script, her English was a bit unclear and too fast. First, she directed me to the display to the left of captured Israeli war machinery, including a pile of metal I gather was once an aircraft. On the other side was the war materiel used on the Syrian side, mostly Soviet-made. In the middle was a grand statue of Hafez al-Assad, acting as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and giving the command to begin the attacks. Beyond was the panorama itself, built, as was the case with the Egyptian version, with the help of North Korea. The building was constructed in such a way as to suggest the form of an Islamic citadel, with rounded walls, archers’ slits and parapets for optimum defence. The main building, however, was flanked on either side by reliefs that showcased North Korea’s contribution, with Communist-realist representations of “The Correction,” a period of time during which Syria turned to import-substitution schemes and invested considerable resources in the building of public works, the panorama among them.

Inside, there was a circular hall with paintings representing great Syrian independence victories through history: the signing of an ancient treaty at Ebla, Zeinobia’s declaration of independence at Palmyra, Mu’awiyah’s founding of the Ummayad dynasty at Damascus, Salah ed-Din’s consolidation and, finally, the pinnacle: Hafez al-Assad preparing for the Tishreen War. This was similar to the Egyptian telelogy, which of course went back to the Pharoahs.

Our next stop was the diorama, where I was instructed, before all the soldiers arrived, that I should stand up at the beginning when the national anthem started. The soldiers streamed in, in a remarkably disorganized fashion, with their own tour guide behind. I thought it noteworthy that they picked young, attractive women not wearing the head-scarf to be tour guides for both visitors and Syrians. The diorama depicted the glorious capture of the Israeli observation post on a hill above Quneitra, one of the early key goals of the Tishreen War campaign. This was analogous to the initial surprise attack of the air forces, then led by Hosni Mubarak, represented in the Egyptian version. That latter display included a lot of lights and flashes that went off at odd intervals, with model airplanes bobbing and swinging about oddly on strings over the model landscape. The North Koreans apparently learned from their mistakes in Cairo and simply built a static diorama of the scene which remained dark, a film of the action in the background, until the climax, when the scene was lit up with strobe lights, conveying the heat of battle. After the end, my guide asked me how I liked it. “It was better than the Egyptian version,” I responded.

Finally came the big shebang, the panorama itself, which was introduced to me by enumerating the hours it took to complete and the number of stage lights used to illuminate it. My guide told me that, after seeing it, I could leave if I wanted, as there was no English version, and it would be disruptive for her to translate. Most foreign visitors, she said, become bored after a while, as they can’t understand the Arabic. But, oh no, there was no way I was going to miss the main attraction. Someone gave the order for some soldier to remove himself from a seat at the end so that I could have one, despite my protestations. We sat in the middle of the panorama, mostly all facing the same direction, while the platform slowly rotated around to give the audience a gradually changing scene of the battle at Quneitra. I did, indeed, become tired of the narration, but the panorama remained captivating. The exacting skill that went into the thing was impressive, with the scaled models below more-or-less seamlessly blending with the two-dimensional representation on the outer wall. There were blown-up tanks, cowering Israeli soldiers, variously triumphant and heroically martyred Syrian and Egyptian soldiers, a baby doll hung by its head on a swingset, presumably by those brutal Israelis. Meanwhile, the soldiers took turns scrambling over the chairs and trying to strike an appropriately somber pose while having their pictures taken by their comrades with the panorama in the background. When it was all over, my guide tried to summarize a bit, talking about the injustice and attrocity of the Jews—I mean Israelis (her slip, not mine).

The denoument consisted of a series of photographs and displays of paraphenalia tracing the life of Hafez al-Assad, from his beginnings as a student organizer fighting French occupation, to starting his own family, through his rise through the ranks of the military. The focus here was a Communist-realistic painting depicting the inauguration of some great public work (there were several of them in the background, so it was hard to tell), with the marble floor, stairs and red carpet of the ceremony blending into the 3D version at our feet. You can always trust North Korea to drive a point home with a sledge-hammer. At the opposite end of the hall, hanging over the exit was this lovely portrait of Hafez al-Assad and Kim il-Sung, who my guide assured me were great friends in real life.

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Outside, I had a refreshingly mundane conversation with a Kurdish guard. He seemed more interested in my bike than anything else, and asked to take it for a spin, to which I obliged. He rode it for about ten meters and exclaimed, “there’s something wrong with your bike! I can’t pedal backwards!” It took some effort to explain why I wanted it that way. He then asked what I was doing in this part of the world, “you just want to see what life is like here?” I responded, yes, basically. “But you’ve got television!”, a bit of a joke. He seemed a little perplexed when the subject of compulsory military service came up and I expressed that I was happy not to have to work in the service of one of the more blunt instruments of backward US foreign policy. From his expression, I got the sense he wasn’t terribly critical of that foreign policy.

Sufficiently schooled in the discrepancy between the propaganda unity of Syria and its more complicated, messy diversity, I rode back to the hotel to prepare for the bus to Amman.

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