Maruan the Syrian

Erasmo Calzadilla

HT File photo by Caridad.

The wave of uproar being experienced across the Arab world has also touched Syria. The president of that Middle Eastern country, Bashar al-Assad, is the son of former president Hafez al-Assad, who along with Gadhafi worked to forge Arab unity in the face of the colonialist ambitions of the western powers.

This was a great aim, but it failed; and later the leaders of those socialist republics began passing out government positions to members of their own families as if these were their personal inheritances. It seems that “socialist” governments in Third World countries tend to degenerate into dynasties.

To hear about or see photos of that country always reminds me of a Syrian who I had the pleasure of knowing.

Maruan came to Cuba at the end of the 1980s. His objective: to study medicine. A little more than 20 years old, he was completely different from the average Cuban of his same age. Maruan fell in love, married my sister and became a loved member of our family. As for me, I had plenty of time on my hands for him to pass on his strange energy to me.

Back then I was in high school and was suffering amid a hostile environment like only a sweet and tender teenager can. In those days I thought that violence was normal between people and that who was wrong was me. I believed that I was the one who needed to change, and at any cost. Thank God Maruan showed up and transformed my way of looking at things.

How can I describe him? Maruan was person of his word, a guy who never lied, and not out of respect for God or his traditions, but for himself. His face reflected a moral tension that he truly experienced. It showed a seriousness very different from people in these parts.

Kindheartedly, he would always do whatever he could to help people out, a feature that made him organic and appealing. But he would also become belligerent, brash, exaggerated and jealous over those he loved. Be careful messing around with anyone in my family.

In comparison to him, my acquaintances began to seem like futile, frivolous and fickle cowards – cheerful people, but empty and cruel. I began to forcefully reject the common identity of the average Cuban based on that comparison with this young Arab.

Since this was in the 1980’s, there were also plenty of people in our country whose moral framework formed around what were called “revolutionary principles.” There were also people willing to die for the cause they believed in (some of them are still around, I know), but my psychological olfaction made me doubt them without understanding why. Like many of my generation, apathy was what the thought-crushing system here generated in me with its constant talk about heroes.

Poking around into the Syrian’s past, I was able to learn about his culture, just a little – but intensely. And I was fascinated. The stories that most impressed me and that still stick out in my mind were about his relationship with his friends.

He told me how in his town the youth of his generation were like his brothers and sisters. Of course they also got into arguments and fights with each other, but when that happened they would resolve them in an elegant and wise way (with the help of elders), therefore the fights would end up uniting them even more.

Something that seemed incredible

The friend-siblings of Maruan did something that to me was simply incredible: During their vacations they would work in the fields to help the poorest ones pay for their higher education. And it seems they did this out of genuine affection, not because someone ordered them to or simply out of tradition.

Another thing was that they were rabid anti-USA. In my high school the kids painted US flags on the walls and tables; they idolized the artists and athletes from that country, and they rigged up special antennas to bring in “Yuma” music. In contrast, I never saw anybody jump as high as that Syrian whenever he heard about a Yankee military defeat somewhere in the world.

Relatedly, most the young Cubans I knew tried to dodge military service on any grounds: breaking a bone, pretending to be gay or crazy, paying someone off… In short, whatever it took to stay out of the army.

However Maruan’s friends — with conviction and enthusiasm — enlisted voluntarily. Once in the service they carried out their military exercises diligently and with such effort that they would occasionally get hurt; one of his friends even died that way. Those and many other of his stories left me with my jaw hanging, confused.

Now grown, I can better understand my fascination back then. It was the characteristic reaction of an alienated teen who was growing up in the middle of a rootless culture, one that had been colonized and had its identity manipulated.

Being so young, I was suddenly dazzled and amazed by a millennial-old but still living tradition, where communal and family ties still hadn’t been destroyed by capitalist or pseudo-socialist totalitarian darts.

Today I know that I idealized Maruan a lot, as well as everything he represented. I would also like to thank him for the shift in the world that he gave to my life by our getting to know each other.

For around 20 years I haven’t heard anything from him. Wherever he is, I’m sending him this greeting with affection. Let’s hope his people can quickly solve the problems they’re suffering, and without the help of NATO.

One thought on “Maruan the Syrian

  • Under what circumstance did he leave? Where is your sister? Odd ???

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