In Germany, the land of my ancestors, where my grandfather fought in World War I for the Germans – in 17 battles over three years, receiving an Iron Cross for bravery – I met Mahmoud from Syria in 2009.
Soon after my family narrowly escaped in 1938, Germany turned into a land filled with spilled blood and darkness. I have mixed emotions about the country.
There, I have encountered people from many places worldwide who have not learned that hatred should be abolished from the planet.
I was in Berlin working on a project with my father when we both met Mahmoud at a conference. He charmed me in our first conversation when he introduced himself, saying, “I am from Syria. It is a country in the Middle East next to Lebanon.”
I smiled while he spoke. Eventually, I giggled and said, “I know where Syria is. I have a master’s degree in international media and communications with a focus on the Middle East.” All the while I was thinking, “I am quite familiar with Syria – regarding Israel, regarding their blatant lack of human rights and freedoms, their sponsoring of terrorism.” A myriad of thoughts went through my head, but I never said a word.
Mahmoud was impressed. “Wow so many people have no idea where Syria is. They have never heard of the country.”
Although I have travelled the world and studied international policy, Mahmoud is the first Syrian I’d ever had a meaningful conversation with.
The more we spoke, the more he enchanted me. Mahmoud is devastatingly handsome, intelligent, charming, thoughtful and the kind of person everyone would want to have in his or her family.
Over the course of the next few days, we spoke about the Middle East, with him sharing views that seemed moderate and logical to me. I listened mostly and did not share my Jewish-Israeli heritage with him on purpose.
The last day of the conference, he said to me, “You really must come to Syria and meet my family. You would love the people, food and culture.”
I thanked him and said, “I can’t. I have an Israeli stamp in my passport.”
“So get another passport,” he responded, smiling.
“I’m half-Israeli and Jewish. I think I would be a little nervous.”
Suddenly the energy changed and the look on his face went cold, and suddenly the conversation changed to the Palestinians and bombing Israel.
I became the face of Israel to Mahmoud. Our conversation grew heated, and I finally said, “Look at me. Do you like me? Because if you are killing Israelis, what are you saying? You want to kill me and my family? Is that what you want?”
He shook his head, saying, of course, he did not want anything bad to happen to me.
Over the course of the conference, we became fast friends, but because of my background and profession we could never become Facebook friends or e-mail each other, as it would compromise his security and the safety of his family.
Over the past three years, we have met at this conference in Berlin. My father wanted to work on a project with him, but due to American sanctions against Syria, they could never work together.
Economics builds bridges and fosters understandings between peoples, but sanctions are a tool to press leaders into acting in accordance with the wishes of the international community. It made me wonder, whom does it really hurt, and what does it accomplish if we always refuse to talk to one another?
Suddenly, the face of international relations had changed for Mahmoud and me.
We were always happy to catch up at our yearly reunion, discussing life, love and work. I always asked Mahmoud why he did not become a politician in Syria, as he was the face the world should see from his country. He has a good head on his shoulders, and he understands the world in a comprehensive forward-thinking way.
Always, his response was that he wants to stay alive and not walk around in fear for himself and his family.
This year, I asked my dad if he thought we would see Mahmoud at the conference. He shook his head and said he didn’t know.
Watching the news worried me, and knowing that contacting Mahmoud could cause problems for him, I waited and hoped to see him.
Mahmoud did show up, and my face lit up when I saw him. “We were so worried about you. I’m so happy to see you.”
“Really, you were so concerned?”
“Of course, friends worry about friends.”
The media stories about the Syrian government’s brutality in attempting to quell the uprising there don’t originate in the area where Mahmoud lives, but he still worries about the people who work for him. He said he interacts with security guards from the government on a weekly basis and is always fearful. He never knows what they want and what they will do.
“The regime will fall. It’s just a matter of time, but it needs to happen already.” He added, “We all just want to get on with our lives.”
During the conference, a group of people from Morocco came to chat with my dad. My French was not as technical as it needed to be, so I found Mahmoud and asked me if he would help.
“Of course,” he said, and he walked over and started to translate from Arabic into English.
I marvelled at the situation, and thought if only world leaders could watch the interchange, a Syrian helping Jewish Americans with German roots chat with Moroccans. The conversation left all of us in laughter. Mahmoud even turned to me and started talking in Arabic, forgetting I’m not Syrian and don’t speak the language. My dad was having such fun with the Moroccans, he was invited to visit Morocco and stay in one of their mansions. Needless to say, the conversation was filled with smiles.
My father later said to me, “If governments could see how well people can work together, maybe they would stop all the nonsense we see on a daily basis.”
Our conference wrapped up the next day, and my dad said goodbye to Mahmoud.
A few hours later, I also went to say goodbye to my friend, and his eyes grew moist. I was surprised. He hugged me and said, “Please thank your father again for what he said to me. I really appreciate it. You have no idea how much it meant to me.”
I said goodbye and asked him to please stay safe.
Later, I asked my father what he had said to Mahmoud that caused him to be so emotional.
My dad responded, “I told him if he needed assistance in any way, for himself or his family to get out of Syria, to let me know – and I would help him in any capacity he needed to keep out of harm’s way.”
I shook my head at the irony of the world. Here was a Jewish man whose family had fled Nazi Germany, who’d married an Israeli woman and had family members who had been shelled by Syrian forces in northern Israel offering to help a Syrian Muslim man in any way he could to keep himself and his family safe.
My father did not see nationality or religion. He saw Mahmoud, he saw humanity, and recognized a friend in need.
After breaking down the barriers to friendship, we found there was more that united us than divided us.
Neither my father nor I are politicians, just people with perspective. The story and situation gave me hope. Maybe the world can change, one relationship at a time.