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Sunday, January 15, 2006

my friend from syria

today i was suddenly reminded of an old friend who was in college with me. I was watching CNN and schwarzenegger was on screen soon after a story on israel. That reminded me of a cold night in a friends hostel room. " I dont like Schwarzenegger, I dont watch any of his movies." my friend had stated emphatically. This was rather curious, because Mohammed Yaqub Agha,usually was never moved to such emotion. He was a quiet man, devoted to preserving his peace of mind and body. He rarely bothered to rouse himself to be passionate about anything. Teachers tried in vain to evoke some response, his friends could never drag him to the playing fields and his parents no doubt tried in vain to get him to hurry up and finish his studies and come home.

He was from Syria, and looked like a syrian. A slightly overweight one, but unmistakably from west asia. "Why dont you like Schwarzenegger?", I asked mystified. "Because he is a jew" replied Agha. And then in vain did I try all lines of arguement. That Schwarzenegger wasnt a jew. That even if he was, how did it matter. And even if it mattered, why couldnt u watch his movies. At the end of it all, Agha was unmoved. He just didnt like Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger was jewish, the jews were israelis and he hated israelis. That was his position and that was what it stayed.

But now, thinking about it, I remember Agha and somehow feel he knew a great deal more than I did about this whole matter. After all he had grown up in Syria. Some of the issues were familiar to him. And now, when the voices will clamor for Syria to be bombed, I think, Schwarzenegger's voice will be there too. I guess, if that happens, Agha will be glad that he never watched a Schwarzenegger movie.

Agha was someone who was too clever for his own good. His scholarship enabled him to live a life of luxury in India. If he finished his studies fast, this comfortable period would end, and so Agha resolved to prolong his studies. The funny part about studies is, that you can prolong them by not doing them. Agha became very good at not studying. Generations of scholars graduated from our college having eaten dates in Agha's room. Agha stayed on and gradually the inertia took over. Having become such and expert in not studying, it was tough to shake off the habit. However, with curses and moan, squeals for help, manic scrambles for examination aids, he did manage and last heard is a big shot manager somewhere in Syria.

He had told me his versions of the stories I knew from my westernized education. He had told me about Palestine, Mecca, Jerusalem, Damascus, Riyadh, Dubai and Egypt. His versions were mostly like pamphlet literature. Very sure of themselves, very little scope for discussion, very definite in their opinions and facts. A take-it-or-leave-it version of history.

There was one question which I felt was at the heart of all this. Tell me, he asked once, how come the jews who were persecuted by the christians, and the christians who were persecuted by the jews, now get together to fight the muslims? Thinking of an answer to that one always made my head ache, and i would take the conversation off into different paths. Its a funny question, but I can understand the bewilderment the arabs must feel. The only answer that kind of fits the situation is that its all for the oil. Its so banal at the end of it all. Better to change the topic.

Agha would then tell me of the holy Quran. He would tell me stories from it. He told of the day of Armageddon and how its described in the holy book. The imagery is vivid. There is a great war..and after it, the fastest strongest eagle in the world would fly for seven days and seven nights and yet wouldnt be able to come to the end of the smouldering, decaying battlefield. He spoke of it as matter of fact. When I suggested it was just a story, he didnt agree. He said the Christians believed this too, and so did the Jews. The battle of Armageddon, he pronounced it Harmajdoon, was part of the beliefs of all these religions.

It is fascinating somehow. Three religions, all originating in that small piece of land. All with jerusalem as their holy city. All locked into a terrible struggle with each other. All believing in Harmajdoon. Whew.... that explains a lot. So much blood has flown in this terrible struggle. And my lazy friend's only protest against all this was that he wouldnt watch Schwarzenegger movies. May his tribe increase.

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