When my friend Achim from Berlin got off a bus in San Francisco from Ashland, Oregon, where he was visiting friends on his great tour of the United States, he kept repeating, “Die Entfernungen! Die Entfernungen! – The distances! The distances!” He had, like many Europeans, not been exposed to the distances one travels in this country to get from one part to another. It’s one thing to read it’s 3500 miles from coast to coast. It’s another thing entirely to get on a Greyhound bus and feel the distances in your bones.
I was reminded of Achim’s bafflement that one could sit on a bus and travel for days, not hours, to get from Point A in America to Point B when I was trying to orient myself to the Middle East cities and towns in the news these days as Iraq falls apart and Syria falls apart and Cheney blames Obama for losing Iraq because he withdrew troops too soon and Israel is forced into bed with Iran, if you can imagine that, in order to fight ISIS.
As my eyes roamed over the map from Damascus, I noted right there, not far away at all, was the Sea of Galilee, maybe about two hours away on a good highway, if there were no borders to cross or dozens of opportunities to get shot along the way. Migdal, right there on the western side of the big lake. It was a ship-building town back in the day when one of the local boys named Jesus walked the land. It used to be called Magdala, and was the home of one of Jesus’s girlfriends, one of his disciples, you might say, although the patriarchal world of the day would not admit to female disciples. Mary (the) Magdalene, she was called and she lived as close to Damascus (or, for that matter to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, in the other direction) as I lived from New York as a kid. Less distance than from San Francisco to Monterey, which I used to drive back and forth every weekend, practically, all the years I lived there.
I love the internet. You can entertain yourself mightily like this, figuring out how Mary of Magdala might have run away to Damascus as a kid, as I did to New York one weekend, scaring the hell out of my parents, back when I was sixteen and in desperate need of breathing space.
You can go to Google Maps and type in Migdal, Israel and get directions to Jerusalem, and see that it’s two hours by car on the Yitzak Rabin Highway. Or four hours and a quarter, if you take the bus, which comes every two hours.
About the same distance to Damascus, if you take the road north, as Saul did when he was bopping up the lane (God knows why he would be going to Damascus!) and was struck with a vision and turned into Saint Paul. Only if you type in Migdal on Google Maps and then Damascus as a destination you’ll see it’s not two hours away, but forty-five hours, because they route you all the way to Aqaba in the South of Israel*, then over to Suez in Egypt, then south to Safaga, where you catch the ferry over to the port of Duba in Saudi Arabia. You then travel up Route 5 and all across the sands of Saudi Arabia, through Tabuk, Sakaka and Arar, where you cross into Iraq. You take Route 22 toward Karbala through hours and hours of wasteland, turn left onto Route 21, continue through more wasteland to Route 1, then turn left and go straight on into Damascus, a total of 3112 kilometers in all. I suppose you carry your own gas. And guns, of course. Not Saul’s road to Damascus.
You’ve got to be sure to turn left on Route 1, not right, or you’ll end up in Falluja, what’s left of it, which I understand is in the hands of ISIS. You don’t want to go there.
If Mary Magdalene were alive today and wanted for some reason to get to Damascus in her beat-up BMW, she'd run into serious trouble the minute she got off the ferry from Egypt and discovered women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. And where would she go in Israel to get a Saudi visa in the first place? In any case, if she did, she'd still need a boyfriend to drive her.
Then there's the crossing into ISIS controlled Iraq from Saudi Arabia. Good luck with that, MM. Once in ISIS territory, if they didn't steal your BMW and eat you for breakfast, you’d probably be OK crossing the Syrian border, since they consider that one big caliphate these days. But then crossing into Assad’s territory, which includes Damascus, would be another challenge to the imagination.
Fantasizing how Mary Magdalene might get to Damascus by car these days is no more insane or absurd than turning on the news and reading about how America, who once armed Iraq against Iran is now considering supporting Iran against Iraq, what’s left of it after we smashed it to pieces with our nation-building ways. Remember when our leaders told us the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms? When the war would be over in maybe three months? When it would all be paid for by Iraqi oil money?
Four million people have been displaced. That’s four million. And the lowest estimate anybody has come up with of deaths is 300,000. That’s about 100 people dying every day for eight years. The actual figure is likely to be more like 500,000.
One third of the population today lives in dire poverty. Unemployment is at 60%. Thousands of Americans lost their lives. Thousands more suffer from post-traumatic stress. We will spend countless millions, possibly billions of dollars on medical care for people missing arms and legs and eyes and jaws for years to come. The world used to think of the United States as a beacon of democracy. Today it knows us as the country who lied our way into war and then sent in private contractors who shot Iraqi civilians with impunity, because while we don’t have money for universal health care or universal college educations, and can’t justify sending more young people than we already do to die there, we can justify paying private contractors to do the dirty work. Nor are our own soldiers unaware of how low we sank as a people in the process. They're killing themselves at a rate of 18 a day. More die by their own hand than died in the war.
The bitterest part of the story is that we might have learned how war grinds up our young people from our time in Vietnam. We obviously didn’t. We acted like an Empire fighting the Soviet Empire in Afghanistan and generated the Taliban. We created a situation in Iraq which fostered a new and more fierce division between Shia and Sunni than they had before. Not that we are responsible for it all, but while we’re insisting we are not responsible for it all, we’re ignoring just how much we are responsible for.
Because we are an Empire, and because our people believe what the Emperor's boys tell them, we think reality is whatever we want it to be. That means we won the war. And our leaders are heros, not war criminals. But they are war criminals and they should be treated as such. Bush lied. Condoleeza Rice lied. Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld lied and at least half a million people have died, including thousands of our own would-have-been next generation. Don’t tell me there’s not a case for charging these people with war crimes.
Just checked the news. Maliki’s government has just suffered ten billion dollars in losses to ISIS, and this time around the money set aside to rebuild the country isn’t there. It has disappeared into Maliki government officials’ pockets.
What will America do? Allow Assad to stay in power and massacre all his enemies, like his father did? Most likely. So much for the Arab Spring coming to Syria. Will we now allow Iran to kill everybody in ISIS and then establish an independent Kurdistan and a Saudi protectorate of Sunnis and eliminate the nation of Iraq once and for all? Also quite possible, even likely.
More tragedy, this time for the Syrians who tried to stand up to the tyrant who governs them. They will have to become permanent refugees or die, most likely. Syria and Iraq have both travelled back in time and become fiefdoms. About the only thing all the big guys on the outside, Russia, China, the EU and the U.S., agree on is the oil has to keep flowing. So it’s going to be all about oil, as usual, and not about outside help for nation building, or nation saving.
There will be nation building, all the same. Kurdistan, for example. And that will cause trouble for Turkey, which likes to forget about how it wiped out the Armenians in the East because they didn’t want to be Turks and is now faced with increasingly restless “Mountain Turks” – their name for the Kurds who live in Turkey. You can only imagine the problems that lie in wait there.
From Damascus to Jerusalem it’s only 135 miles. That’s San Francisco to Yosemite, a drive we take at the drop of a hat when visitors drop in. From Damascus to Baghdad, or to Ankara is just under 500. About the same as from San Francisco to San Diego. Hard for Americans to recognize how folks living so close together can come to hate each other so much. When we get on each other’s nerves, we move across town. Across the state. Across the country. I moved 3500 miles within my own country to get established anew. (I then kept going, all the way across the Pacific, but that’s another story.)
Playing with maps and looking at distances is a useful pastime when you can’t see political solutions on the horizon. A total distraction. A way of treading water.
Beats staring too intently at facts which reveal just how badly the American Empire has messed things up in the last few decades of our broken democracy.
*correction (9:21 June 26): Aqaba is in Jordan, not Israel, as a friend just pointed out to me. I should have looked at the map more attentively. Google does not, in fact, send you into Jordan at this point, but to Eilat, and you continue down the coast on Route 90 and cross into the Sinai in Egypt at Taba. I stand appreciatively corrected.
Photo credits: Mary Magdalene; another day in Damascus