The ghosts of Maysaloun
Sami Moubayed
Over 1,500 Syrians were collectively killed-in one single morning-on July 24, 1920. They were fighting the invading French Army, led the by the infamous one-handed French General Henri Gouraud, at the Battle of Maysaloun. The only Syrian officer to fall in battle was the 37-year old Minister of War, General Yusuf al-Azma. In his memoirs, General Gouraud commented, "…and the battle ended at around 11:00 am with the defeat of the Syrian Army, leaving behind 15 cannons, 40 rifles, and a general who not-so-long ago had graduated from the military academy in Germany, named Yusuf Bey al-Azma. He died a courageous soldier's death in battle!"

One woman was at the battlefront on July 24, named Naziq al-Abid. She had volunteered to fight for Syria and paraded through the streets of Damascus, with a rifle on her shoulder, ripping off her veil for curious newspaper photographers who were watching what seemed to be a Hollywood Western. She tried to save the life of General Azma, with no luck. Impressed, the invading French troops called her the Syrian Joan of Arc. The Syrians drew parallels between her and Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra. The Syrian Government honored her with the rank of General in the Syrian Army.

A few hours later, 9,000 French troops marched towards Damascus at 5:30 pm. The Arab government of King Faysal I had fled and the Syrians were busy burying their dead at Mayaloun.

Naziq al-Abid-only 22-years old-rushed back home in tears, horrified by what she had seen at Maysaloun; the army of a superpower crushing the amateur army of the world's youngest-and weakest-nation.

There were no cheering crowds in Damascus, no smiles on the face of the locals; just blank expressions of a peoples who could not really comprehend what had hit them. Overnight they lost a new and catchy term called 'independence,' gained after 400 years of Ottoman rule, and many were still trying to figure out a reason why the international community had treated them in such a manner. The dusty streets of Damascus were empty, the narrow alleys echoed the sound of marching men. Gouraud had threatened to annihilate Damascus if he did not receive a warm hero's welcome-claiming that he was in Syria to tutor not to conquer! Three miserable young Damascenes cheered for him as he paraded through town, then carried his chariot on their backs, thinking that they were doing Damascus a favor. They cheered, , "Vive La France! Vive Gouraud!"

The 1,500 people who had died at Maysaloun looked the other way. They did not want to hear what some Syrians were saying.

Twenty-six years later, Syrian and Arab dignitaries, headed by Syrian presidents Shukri al-Quwatli and Hashem al-Atasi, visited the gravesite of the 1,500 Syrians who died at Maysaloun on April 17, 1946. They wanted them finally, to rest in peace, knowing that their blood had not been in vain.

After all these Syrians had gone to Maysaloun knowing that they would die, but not wanting history to say that Syria got occupied by the French, with no resistance from the Syrians. Ammunition was very scarce for the Syrians at Maysaloun; only 270 shots per rifle. Many of the guns being used (leftovers from World War I) had rusted. Some did not fire on the battlefront.

Had this entire dramatic scene taken place in 2008, the George W. Bush administration would probably have called the Syrians at Maysaloun "nothing but terrorists." They were an angry people who found an outlet for their frustration in war-and death! What else would have let them venture into a jungle like Maysaloun-with amateur weapons, to combat the unexpected, not knowing whether they would ever return? Many of them did not, they died in Maysaloun! Are they martyrs, or did they commit suicide?

I would say martyrs-transformed into ghosts watching over Syria for the last 88-years, in a combination of worry, fear, and pride at being Syrian.