My Reflections on Meeting Jimmy Carter in Syria

In October 2010, President Jimmy Carter visited Damascus with a senior delegation from The Elders, an international NGO of senior citizens and peacemakers brought together by President Nelson Mandela.

The delegation that came to Damascus included UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland. Carter knew Damascus well, being a frequent guest since leaving the Oval Office in 1981. During one of his tours of the Old City, President Carter was taken aback by the splendour of al-Shaghour, a magnificent neighborhood within the high walls of Damascus, once home to its moneyed elite and part of the Jewish Quarter.

The picturesque scene was painted almost completely in grey, with an arched street, protruding balconies and an old cobbled alley, with a Damascene tailor painted in yellow standing on the left hand corner.

Carter probably took a mental photo of al-Shaghour, returned home and painted the scene on large canvas. Little do people know that in addition to his many hats, the 39th president of the United States is also an accomplished artist who sells his paintings at auction to fund the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. This painting of al-Shaghour, however, was not for sale. The President kept it at his office, where it hangs until today. It reminds him of Damascus.

During President Carter's last visit to Damascus, I was cordially invited to join him for dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel, along with three Syrian friends. "Welcome back to Damascus, Mr. President" I said, having first met President Carter at this very same hotel in December 2008. I was the first and only Syrian writer to have ever interviewed a U.S. president, I said to him proudly, and he replied with a paternal pat-on-the back, "Well, lucky you!" The interview was published in Forward, Syria's leading English monthly at the time. He presented me with a signed copy of his post-1981 memoir Beyond the White House.

During his next visit to Damascus, President Carter was generous enough to receive me yet again, this time with my students from the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Kalamoon. President Carter spoke about the indirect Syrian-Israeli peace talks and about justice denied to the Palestinians. He said plenty about the Camp David Accords and about his personal relationship with Anwar al-Sadat and Menachem Begin. He advised the students to watch and learn from China in years to come. It was one of the most influential moments of their entire lives--President Carter touched their lives and changed them, without really doing anything but being himself.

During out last meeting in October 2010, I was seated on President Carter's right in an elegant bottle-green dining room at the Damascus Four Seasons. We spoke about my upcoming book on Syrian-U.S. relations from Woodrow Wilson to Dwight Eisenhower. He showed meticulous interest, saying that I should have written it 25 years ago, as it would have come into handy in his talks with President Hafez al-Assad.

As dinner was coming to a close, President Carter looked at the set menu, and seemed to not like the sweet sugar-soaked cheese pastry, a famed Levantine desert known as "kenafeh." He asked the waiter to replace it with a more reliable bowl of traditional ice cream, and a huge one of colourful scoops showed up on the table. The President couldn't possibly eat them all of them so he began handing out scoops, left and right. He turned to me with a giant pink strawberry scoop, asking with his signature southern accept if I would like to have "...some of his ice-cream!" Foolishly, and without really thinking how both impolite and inappropriate my answer would be, I replied, "No, thank you Mr. President!" What was I thinking? I didn't want to mix strawberry with kenafeh! He insisted, and one of his aides noticed our small chat from afar. She interrupted saying: "Mr. President, can I have some of your ice cream please? It looks so delicious!"

A great fighter
This was the last time I saw President Carter. I was extremely saddened by his brief three-sentence statement this week, bravely telling the world that he had cancer and that it had spread to multiple parts of his body.

The President has maintained an active lifestyle for years, which might have contributed to his health problems. He literarily lived on an airplane, monitoring elections in Palestine, engaging in conflict-resolution, vaccinating babies in African jungles, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, and teaching Sunday school at the Georgia Baptist Church until today.

I wondered what it was about this great 90-year-old man that made him so special in my heart and in that of millions around the world. Syrians in general like President Carter, seeing him as a tough and immutable leader with talent and character. Death, however, has gripped us by the throat for five years now and we have drowned either in our own blood or in the waters of the Mediterranean.

Friends have died and loved ones have disappeared; the flowers of Syrian society have been torn to pieces. In all of that horror, actually, there is an answer to why we love President Carter. He lived a lifetime trying to prevent the occurrence of such widespread human misery as the one we have in Syria today. In many countries across the world, he actually succeeded. If there were more Carters in this world--or if there was another Jimmy Carter at the White House today--we probably wouldn't have had a war in Syria, or at least, he wouldn't have let it drag on for this long.

Like the people of Syria, Jimmy Carter is a fighter. He learned that during his Navy years, and in his 1982 memoir Keeping Faith, President Carter wrote: "I have always believed that it is a sign of weakness to show emotion, giving in publicly to despair, frustration, or disappointment." Carter adds: "I try to hide my own feelings to re-assure others by emphasizing the positive aspects of the situation and to pray for strength and wisdom."

We will both wage our battles against cancer, each in our special way.