November 1, 2007
The Pearl Fellow
Ramy was my first Syrian.
We didn't meet cute, as people do in the movies. We met awkward.
Ramy Mansour came to The Journal offices last week as a Daniel Pearl Fellow. As part of its effort to increase understanding between Islam and the West, the Foundation, named after the slain American journalist, brings Muslim reporters to work at major American newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal for up to six months. As part of their fellowship, the journalists agree to spend a few days or more at The Jewish Journal.
Over the past few years, we've hosted many of these journalists, from Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, even Yemen. For most of them, The Journal is their first exposure to Judaism and Jewish life outside media images in their home country.
For us, it's an opportunity to learn about a distant country without the media filter, as seen through the eyes of a native journalist -- someone who is both a participant and very often a critical observer of his society.
Then there was Ramy.
The other journalists showed up for the first day punctually, dressed in a coat and tie. I had to rouse Ramy from bed where he was staying. He came out in shirt and jeans, a cigarette in his hands. The other journalists had a jaundiced eye toward their governments and media, fully aware that news controlled by the state might not be entirely trustworthy. Ramy almost immediately began presenting the Syrian government view of the recent suspected Israeli bombing of a Syrian nuclear facility.
"It was nothing," he said. "I can assure you they missed."
"And Bashir Assad, do people like him?"
"Very much," said Ramy.
The other journalists could argue in fluent, Oxford-inflected English. Ramy's English was much better than my Arabic, which is no big compliment.
I figured I was in for a long week.
At first, our guest lived up to expectations. Ramy is the opinion page editor of a 30,000-circulation daily in Damascus, al-Watan. He said it was the first independent newspaper in Syria. I asked him if he believed it was truly independent.
"Absolutely," he said.
"Could you print an editorial saying something good about Israel?"
"No," he said.
"Well, why not?"
"Because," Ramy said, "There's nothing good to say about Israel."
All our political discussions ended that way: my question, his categorical answers, then he would rush downstairs and outside for a smoke. Ramy reminded me of someone, I just couldn't figure out whom.
"We have nothing against the Jewish," he would say firmly. "Our problem is with Israel. Even the Jewish in Syria hate Israel."
I only wished I was as certain of anything as Ramy was of everything.
The next day when I logged on to my e-mail, I saw a message: "Ramy Mansour added you as a friend on Facebook." That's when it clicked: I had been going about this all wrong. Ramy's Facebook page featured a dozen beautiful women, almost all Syrian, and many successful-looking and handsome men.
They were all young and chic and vital-looking. And here I was trying to pigeonhole him into long political arguments over cups of lukewarm office coffee.
So last Thursday after work, I took him to Luna Park for a beer. As the bar filled up with the young and chic, he told me about the bars and discos where he and his friends hang out at until 4 a.m. About the way they hate the religious fundamentalists -- and how much they like Assad for oppressing the Islamists. About their love lives and how they dance and drink and smoke.
About how they love watching "Oprah" and "Law and Order" and, until Israel Channel 2 TV stopped broadcasting it in Arabic, "Baywatch."
But, he said, what he and his Syrian friends most love to do is simple.
"Facebook," he said. "Facebook is huge."
It was reading Ramy's Facebook page that rocked my world. Because the truth is, if he came to us with prejudices and certainties, I also had more than my share. I figured Syria for a dark, oppressive society. In all the time I've spent in Israel, the truth is, I've never read or heard a positive thing about the people or the country. Every Israeli tour guide I've ever had has relished telling stories of how the Syrians treat captured Israeli soldiers the worst.
That's what I knew about Syria.
Ramy told me that, like all Syrian men, he spent two years in the army.
"Did you like it?" I asked.
"Does anyone like the army?"
Ramy told me he dreams of being a documentary filmmaker in Syria -- he was looking for an American university that offers an online course in the subject. The next day I took him to Beverly Hills to see the exhibition on Middle Eastern Media at the Paley Center for Media. The show interested him less than the huge houses and Ferrari-choked streets.
"This is the best," he said. "I like this."
He didn't even mind when I told him there was no smoking anywhere in Beverly Hills, and that the mayor is a Persian Jew.
"Really?" he said, then, despite the smoking ban, he lit up a cigarette, his dark eyes squinting as he took a welcome drag. And that's when it struck me.
"Ramy," I said, "All this time you've reminded me of someone, and I finally figured out who it is -- you remind me of almost every Israeli I know. They like to have fun, to stay out late, to convince you how right they are. And your name is Ramy, for God's sake. You could drop into Israel tomorrow and feel at home. Ramy, you're an Israeli."
On the way back to the office, in the car, Ramy was quiet.
"Do you think," he finally turned to me, "Israel really wants peace with Syria?"