National Geographic : 1946 Dec
Syria and Lebanon Taste Freedom BY MAYNARD OWEN WILLIAMS With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author STROLLING along a backwater of the Euphrates, I talked with a young Arab in Deir ez Zor, Syria. "I am interested," he said, "in comparative constitutions; in the documents through which human liberties are protected and preserved. And where better than in free America can I study such a subject?" "This is the Euphrates, not the Potomac," I had to remind myself. "Do you think I can live at an American college on $3,000 a year?" he pursued. "That's too much if you want to get the most out of it. Better make it fifteen hun dred." Beside us strolled Bedouins who probably never saw that much. Their sons, selling cot ton to Aleppo mills, may become rich. Today, Syria and the Lebanon, repeatedly under alien rule, enjoy full independence. "America" a Potent Word Here "America" is a potent word. Corre spondence between Syrians and Lebanese and their relatives in North and South America has been going on for generations, and Ameri can educators, missionaries, doctors, engineers, and scientists have left their indelible impress upon these ancient lands.* Syria, an agricultural and grazing country about the size of Iowa, is largely desert, though it includes vast areas which may be brought under the plow. When Damascus lacks rain, American farmers sell wheat to this onetime granary of Rome. Possibly two-thirds of Syria's three million inhabitants, including many free-roving Bedouins, are Moslems, tra ditionally more hospitable to guests than to innovations. In mountain-draped Lebanon, smaller than Connecticut and much more rocky, one is sel dom beyond the sound of church bells, for a majority of the one million-odd Lebanese are Christians, hospitable to Western thought and practices. As when the Phoenicians sailed from its ports, the Lebanon still faces overseas, serving as intermediary between the desert and the world beyond. Between V-E Day and V-J Day, as I rode along the Lebanon range, I was rediscovering a land where lone horsemen of an earlier generation, looming up in the dusk, had so often broken the ominous silence with that heart-warming salutation "Leiltak sa'ideh" (May thy night be happy!). But now, as elsewhere, a meeting on the road is a swish of motors and a cloud of dust. Syria and Lebanon in 1945 were in the throes of obtaining their independence from France. Disturbances had occurred in the capitals, Damascus and Beirut. Fire-black ened ruins, or signboards from which all but Arabic words had been blotted out, told of tension. As we followed the coastal road of ancient conquerors, free people cheered. On our GI-punished, Army-surplus truck waved the Stars and Stripes. Sniping was still going on, and it was an advantage to be known as an American. At the sight of our flag, small boys raised their fingers in a V for victory, and little girls blew kisses as we passed. Tiny Lebanon, though long familiar with Christian thought, speaks the eloquent lan guage of the Koran. But many of its inhabit ants understand French and English. Work men along the Beirut water front may meet the visitor more than halfway by Babelizing several languages, and even cultured folk pre fer forceful phrases from many tongues to prosy competence in one. Beirut, Between Mountain and Sea Lebanon's ancient ports of Tyre and Sidon have been largely supplanted by Beirut and Tripoli. Poised between mountain and sea, Beirut, the Lebanese capital, is a triumph of man over environment. Its natural port was inadequate. Sand dunes menaced the city from the south. Insignificant Beirut River aroused more fevered thirst through malaria than it ap peased. Trail and railway were pushed across the Lebanon. The artificial harbor was twice en larged. Red sand was spiked down with grow ing pines. Banana groves spread along the sea. Excellent water was piped in from Nahr el Kelb (Dog River). Along the walls of this narrow stream is a boastful gallery of "I-done-its." Here one can listen to the tramp of Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, French, and English history, illustrated by inscriptions carved in the mountainside. Beyond the matchless curve of Juniye Bay is the river of Adonis, whose water still runs red during the rains of spring. Geologists say * See page 764 and "American Alma Maters in the Near East," by Maynard Owen Williams, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, August, 1945.