In the field, on the streets of Damascus or Aleppo in Syria, Deborah Amos takes two microphones, a hand-held recording device, pen, pad. She wears a flak jacket underneath her garb, an abayyah (“The famous disappearing cloak …. I’m going to look like the rest of them”). Thus armed, she seeks the narratives that illustrate the human condition in the fiery war zone.
Back here at home, the 62-year-old sometimes Woodstock resident, will be taking only a few weeks to perform duties as the twelfth James H. Ottaway Sr. Professor of Journalism at SUNY New Paltz. She’ll look in on classes, conduct workshops, and be a guest speaker on broadcast and multimedia journalism and international reporting.
The freshly minted Peabody Award winner for her Middle East radio coverage for National Public Radio will be introduced for this year’s Ottaway seat at 6 p.m. next Tuesday, April 9 at the Honors Center on the campus. She’ll moderate a question-and-answer session after a speech by U.S. special ambassador Dennis Ross at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16 at Lecture Center 100. At 7 p.m. Thursday, April 18, she’ll give a talk at the Coykendall Science Building auditorium entitled “A Passport to the Middle East: A Career of Revolution, Upheaval and Hope.”
And then she’ll leave her husband, Rick Davis, former NBC Middle East correspondent, back in Woodstock and head again for the world’s most explosive region. “I’m going back to Syria. That’s what I do. Going back to Jordan,” she said. “Surprisingly, it’s a very attractive culture to be in. People who don’t know it wonder why you go there, but Damascus is a tremendously sophisticated city.”
She fills in a portrait of the situation in the region.
“I’m more and more convinced that what is going to turn the tide in Syria is the human wave,” Amos says. “The fourth largest city in [neighboring] Jordan is a refugee camp. There will be a million in Lebanon in a short time, in a country with no infrastructure, in a country with no water. You have to put up a tent in Lebanon. In Jordan, the U.N. is there, in a camp with 100,000. There are 17 camps in Jordan …. There are 8000 people a day crossing the borders …. But you can raise more relief money for Haiti than you can for Syria. Afghanistan gave $400,000 for Katrina. They give more for a storm in the U.S., the richest country, than for Syria.”
Refugees are always unintended consequences, Amos continued. “Citizens get pissed off about government resources [being spent] on those coming from the war next door. It’s predicted that if there is a battle for Damascus this summer, the number of refugees will go from 8000 to 30,000 a day.”
We know that the battle for Syria is the most charged manifestation yet of the so-called Arab Spring that burst forth in 2011, and that the dictator, Bashar Assad, son of former dictator Haffez Assad, is engaged in a death struggle with fragmented groups of rebels, some of whom are hard-core Islamists, others not. Who are the good guys there?
“The good guys are a generation,” says Amos, who has also won a 2013 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award for her role in NPR’s coverage of the conflict in Syria. “This is a part of the world where 60 to 70 percent of the population is under 30. They studied in Egypt, Tunisia, certainly in Syria. They’ve said, We’re done. In the places where the revolutions have been, they learn from them, like Egypt.
Change will take a long time. “The generation that started it, we don’t know what they want,” Amos said. “The best thing is that they’re well read, better educated … but they don’t know political organization.”
Syria is a revolt of class, the poor versus the rich. Do the religious zealots have a chance? “I don’t know yet. Syria is a place where churches and mosques are next to each other. It’s a mosaic, it’s no joke.” She ticks off the different branches of Christianity, the different sects of Muslim — Shia, Sunni, etc — Kurds …. “Did they have tension before? Yeah, they did. I watched as radicalism came to Syria. Private funders in the Gulf have an agenda. Some fund Al Quaeda, Taliban … and the West left a vacuum. You know how they say that there are no atheists in foxholes? That’s true if you’re 25 years old and your friends are getting killed. You want to be right with God. I see why they’re moving that way. Will they shift back? Has there been so much propaganda from outside that they won’t be able to become Syrians again?”