Within the depths of the Philips Autograph Library, under the arched ceilings of the historic room, Dr. Lawrence Davidson and his wife, Dr. Janet Amighi, presented an eyewitness account of their travels through Iran and Syria.The doctors traveled to the Middle Eastern countries with eleven other academics and peace activists under the auspices of Conscience International, an organization run by James Jennings and based in Atlanta, Georgia. The group’s chief function is to provide medical assistance to third world countries. However, on this two week journey, it’s goal was to inform the people of Iran and Syria that not everyone in the United States believes in war and that the Bush administration does not represent all Americans.
Dr. Amighi spoke and presented information and photographs from the nine days the group spent in Iran. She mapped out the route the activists took from the capital city of Tehran to the southern metropolis of Shiraz. Along the 400-plus mile drive between the cities, the group visited towns, villages, and universities.
Dr. Amighi reported that 90 percent of the Iranians that they interviewed were against a revolution, and that only 10 percent did not want democratic reform. She reported that most Iranians have a negative view of the clergy and most complained about the economy.
She also gave a first-hand account of a woman who was the only female in her village to earn a high school diploma.
The woman moved out of her village to Tehran, the most populous city in Iran, and could not find a job. This poor economy and lack of employment opportunities has resulted in an evergrowing boom of poor, destitute Iranians. Many men and women have to work three jobs just so their families can survive. Alms boxes for the middle and upper classes to give money to the poor are placed throughout Tehran and other large cities in Iran.
When asked about the leadership of their country, Iranians responded in two particularly varying fashions. When asked what they think about Mahmoud Ahmadi-nejad, the President of Iran, several Iranians said they had never heard of him and asked how he got elected. Most however, asked how he could be unknown and vouched for his good deeds.
Following Dr. Amighi’s report on Iran, Dr. Davidson took the floor and spoke about the five days the group spent in Syria. He recalled the protocol, consisting of six Mercedes-Benzs that were waiting for his group outside of the airport. The protocol took the guests to the Meridian Hotel in Damascus Syria’s capital city where they would be staying.
In his “A Letter from Syria,” Dr. Davidson recalls, “From the eighth floor…the view is dominated by two objects: minarets and satellite dishes. The satellite dishes are ubiquitous a veritable sea of receivers.”
He went on to explain that the satellite dishes were, in a sense, more important than the minarets, because the dishes were how the Syrians learned about the United States. Through the dishes into the homes, shops and offices of the Syrian people comes information carried by the media that are Western television networks such as CNN and BBC. Dr. Davidson explained that most educated Syrians can understand some English, and thus know much more about us than we do about them.The group of advocates appeared on a government television station to bring their message to the people. Dr. Davidson recalled how he felt as if he were bringing the voice of the American people to the Syrians for the first time in years.While at the University of Damascus, the group spoke with several professors about their views on America and our foreign policy. “We like the American people. We just don’t like the government,” one professor told Dr. Davidson.
The academics also spoke out against American embargoes that hurt the Syrian economy, directly naming one that allows the Syrian government to purchase computers from the US, but does not allow the sale of replacement computer parts. The Syrian professors agreed that exchange programs could benefit both the Syrian and American governments.
While at the Syrian Presidential Palace of Bashar Al-Assad, Dr. Davidson was able to speak to the Syrian President as well as his wife, Asmaa al-Assad. He asked First Lady al-Assad why she didn’t allow any pictures to be taken at her wedding. She explained that she wanted to remain anonymous to the Syrian people so she could work with development programs in rural Syria.
Out on the streets of Syria, people asked the American professors, “Is your government going to attack us?” Syria has a 20 percent unemployment rate (2002), which amounts to over 640,000 people. The Syrians do not blame us, however; they cannot fault us for not hearing their point of view.
Dr. Lawrence Davidson and his wife Janet presented the information used in this article on Tuesday, Oct. 18 in Philips Autograph Library. Dr. Davidson’s account of the trip, “A Letter From Syria,” will be published in the National Catholic Reporter this week.