Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Return to the Anglosphere and the Blogsphere

I’ve had a three-month break from this blog. I left Syria – travelled to Jordan and the country which must not be named and then went to Barcelona to spend time with my girlfriend. I don’t know why but I didn’t feel like updating the blog. There was no lack of material – there was a lot of interesting politics between Catalonia, which has a fiercely strong ‘national’ identity, and the Spanish government. But Spain was more of a backdrop to my time there, which was all about my relationship. By contrast I went to Syria for me, to work and learn, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Somehow I slightly took against Barca, maybe I took against being there, some latent resentment seeping in about giving up work possibilities that I had built up in Syria perhaps. In BCN I did one article and a vox pop for an English-language paper out there called Catalonia Today (they didn’t pay). I made money by teaching English. I lived in my girlfriend’s room for a month, then I found a room of my own in a flat. I leaned a lot of Spanish. By the end I had came to like BCN. But I had fought so much with my girlfriend that in the end we both got tired. Now I’m back in the UK. Oddly enough I discovered that a kid from my road has been living in BCN as an artist and was there all the time I was. Even more oddly, I found this out from his dad, who spent 20 years in the Middle East as an engineer, lived in Beirut during the civil war, worked for the US government on trying to reconstitute the Lebanes army and had met all the big names – Jean Aoun for example, or the beautiful Palestinian terrorist Leila Khalil.

Conversions on the road to Damascus

In late Spring/early Summer 2005 I did a series of interviews with Westerners who had converted to Islam and taken themselves off to Damascus to learn about Islam and its way of life. I thought it would make a good piece because at the time Syria was in the news for being the most popular stop-off point for young European Muslims who wanted to join the insurgency in Iraq.

In the end I managed six interviews. I wrote up one, with a Scottish woman, into a lengthy feature and the Daily Record in Scotland wanted to buy it but then the woman – Jannah – torpedoed it. She had been horrified by the paper's tabloidy website and was also adamant that their request for a wedding photo from her pre-Muslim life was unquestionably haram – forbidden. I was annoyed by the rigid way she ran her life - she seemed to me a stereotypically overzealous convert, but I suppose her happiness is more important than my making a few quid.

Two of the converts refused to be photographed – James, an English student and a friend of my housemate who also refused to give his surname, and Rafiq, a former US Marine. James had converted out of an adolescent identity crisis and was now settling into the mantle with determination shot through with flashes of insecurity. Rafiq was more thoughtful and said he had become a radio man because he didn’t like lenses.

French student Francois was also worried about how potential exposure of how he had in the past wanted to go to Chechnya and fight the Russians would affect his new plans for a diplomatic career in France. I can see that and I’ve changed his name.

There was also an American Sufi couple, who both had extraordinary stories – he was a coke-sniffing New York pop video producer while she found her mystical new religion was the only way she could go back and confront a horrible and brutal attack she suffered when a young child.

But the seventh and failed interview was the most extraordinary. It was with a Spanish convert, about 50 years old, a ‘sheikh’ called Abu Bakr. I visited him in his neat house in a good suburb on the mountainside with a guy from an Islamic college. He was bald and bearded and was with another man who looked like him and his son, also Muslim. We attacked each other from the outset and it descended into a three-hour shouting match during which he told me that Europeans were not humans because of the crimes they had committed – colonialisation etc. He said everyone in the West (me included) was responsible for the Iraq war and the consequent deaths because they lived in the system that had led to it, Muslims included. He echoed George Bush in saying you had to take a stand one way or the other – there was no middle way – “Take part,” he kept saying, “be a man.” So how exactly was he fighting the Iraq war, I asked? “I’m killing American and British soldiers in Iraq,” he said with a smile. Naturally he wouldn’t elaborate on what his alleged activities were. His best line was: “If I had a gun I would shoot you first – the soldiers in Iraq are honest – they are just doing their job – but you are the worst kind with your words. You do not have an open mind. You don’t believe in the existence of truth but we are strong, we have the strength to stand up and say: This Is The Truth. You talk about Muslims killing but it is nothing compared to the murders from the West. And anyway it is not proved that any Muslims were involved in 9/11” According to him anything is justified as long as you are ‘in your house’. “Alhamdulilah [praise be to God] that Zarqawi is killing hostages,” he said, to my contact’s horror, “The Muslims are in their house and they must do what they have to to get the crusaders out. The Christians want to exterminate Muslims – you can see it from Chechnya to Afghanistan to Palestine to Iraq.” I told him he was crazy and I thought he would punch me: “Be careful what you say”... Incredibly, before converting to Islam he had spent 14 years as a Buddhist. Bizarrely, with the kind of paradox I love about life around people who believe in a code of behaviour, his son, who agreed with his father and thus believed I was less than scum and should be killed, kept getting me water and courteously gave me his flip flops and showed me to the bathroom. (I remember doorstepping Cat Stevens after the US refused him a visa on spurious grounds he sponsored Palestinian terrorists. On the third day I was alone and bored, the rest of the press having put my agency on order, when out came Cat’s son Mohammed with a steaming mug of coffee and some ravioli. He sat with me, the besieger, while I ate, offered me a couple of cigs and we had a chat. The gesture was so awesome I just couldn’t bring myself to ask about his Dad.)

Eventually Abu Bakr told me to get out. Rudely. I was too scared he would attack me to be rude back. My mind was reeling as I left – ‘Take part, take a stand, be a man, look at me – I’ve really lived everything to the hilt,’ his horrible cracked bald head leering at me. There was a core of truth in his militancy, however much of a nutter he appeared. Annoyingly, he had already done my idea of interviewing converts – his little book of seven interviews in Arabic and English was selling well in religious bookshops. I later discovered he earned money by working in the Cervantes Institute in Damascus. Fucking hypocrite. The Cervantes Institute is the cultural organisation of the Spanish government abroad, spreading the word of the civilisation he professed to loathe so much.

Anyway, here they are:

Converts: From Dundee to Damascus

Pic - "Islam is my home": Jannah with her two youngest children in their Damascus flat

(Almost sold to the Scottish Daily Record - but not quite...)

It's a long way from Dundee to Damascus - but that's the journey 43-year-old Jannah Bouz-Aljaidy, nee Jennifer Reid, has made in the search for a way of life that suits her.

It's a journey that has ended in Islam. And Jannah claims that wearing the Hijab - the Islamic veil and for many Western women a symbol of sexist oppression - in fact gives her more freedom because she is liberated from the tyranny of having to go out looking happy and successful all the time.

She sits in her small flat in a building in Ruken A-Din, one of the Syrian capital's most conservative areas, hugging the steep slopes of Qassioun Mountain to the north of the city centre.

Her Hijab hides long blond hair. She wears a modest cardigan and a long skirt - wearing trousers is risky, she believes, because it might arouse men's animal instincts. Her two blond boys by her third marriage, to a Muslim Syrian man who is studying for a Phd at Essex University in Colchester, play noisily around her as the Teletubbies wobble about on BBC Prime.

"It was on Easter Sunday 1999 as I was giving out the Eucharist in the Catholic Church that it dawned on me I had become a Muslim," she says.

"All my life I have been looking for God. But I was anything but Miss Prim and Proper - I was pretty promiscuous. I've dated virtually every race on earth - black, Chinese, Indian. I've spent six months being the mistress of a millionaire. So why does someone like me choose to change their lifestyle in this way? I feel freer. When you are trying to find a man you have to make the effort to look nice, stay young, attract men, go out and sleep around, get up early to do your hair and make-up. You have to put an act on - you can't go out unhappy. You can't even perhaps be successful in business. Rarely do successful businesswomen have strong social lives.

"Now I'm free of all this. I don 't have to attract people for friendships - I get friendship among people who feel the same way about Allah that I do. I am freer as a Muslim than I ever was as a semi-practising Christian. When I look back I hate the person I used to be. It's all forgotten by Allah but you can't forget it and I find it difficult to forgive myself for how I lived my life."

Jannah is now a strictly observant Sunni Muslim - so much so that she will not be alone in the same room as a man, which means she cannot take on all the Syrian language students she would like.

She is among a growing number of Westerners who are converting to Islam, many of whom are university educated, she claims. And although Damascus is in the news for being on the Jihadist route for European Muslims who want to fight in Iraq, it is also home to a community of Western Muslim converts, who have come to study Islam and the Arabic language.

Like most Muslims, she condemns utterly the 7/7 bombings in London: "It's horrific and it's not Islam," she says, echoing the words of her mosque's Imam.

"There's a verse in the Quran that if you kill one person you kill the whole human race. That's my belief. The bombers had no justification for what they did and they are not Muslims for me."

Jannah first encountered Muslims while working in an Iraqi dental practice in Marble Arch in London, near the Edgware Road - the centre of London's rich Arab community.

And it was their kindness that got her through the trauma of separating from her second husband, a British man, while Christian friends and the Protestant Church failed her completely, she says.

"One of my patients was a Palestinian refugee, a psychologist. In those months I split up from my British husband and became a single mother. That's when I saw Islam in action. I would phone a Christian friend and get five minutes of sympathy and then the phone would go down. If I phoned the Palestinian he would have someone on my doorstep in 30 minutes - him or one of his friends. That's pretty good in London. I had kept in touch with friends in Egypt, who were not particularly practising Muslims, and went to visit them at Christmas. That year Ramadan and Christmas coincided and I really saw how the Islamic family came together."

Jannah had always been religious - but if she was promiscuous with men, so she was with diffferent branches of Christianity, always casting around for the right framework for her faith. Her search for emotional support first drove her from the Protestant to the Catholic Church before a relationship with a Shia Muslim led her to examine aspects of her faith that she had hitherto accepted unquestioningly but which did not sit easily alongside her rational mind.

"I was brought up a Scottish Presbytarian, I dabbled with the Girls' Crusader Union summer camps, the Brethren evangelical church. In England I tried the United Reform and Methodist churches before settling on the Church of Scotland in Knightsbridge. During my emotional crisis the female Minister said she would have someone give me a ring - it never happened. I went to the Catholic church, spoke to a priest for four hours, converted to Catholicism and became an ordained Reader and Eucharistic Minister. My son went to Catholic school.

"Meanwhile, for six months I went out with a Shia Muslim who kept marrying me in six-week temporary marriages, which in the Sunni religion is illegal. It was just for sex. We used to argue about things - and I kept losing. Things like Christians believe all babies are born with sin, Muslims don't. Christians believe sin is passed down the female line, Muslims believe Adam and Eve sinned equally. The Trinity - three in one - as a Catholic you accept it dogmatically. It's difficult for someone who is educated and has a brain to keep losing arguments. I started reading up about Islam on the internet. The statistics in the UK show that the people who are converting now tend to be graduates - people with a brain. When you have intelligence you question how to behave."

It became clear to Jannah that she wanted to convert to Islam. What she didn't realise was that taking the Shahada - the Islamic declaration of faith - meant she could no longer quaff single malt Scotch whisky or Italian red wine or munch a bacon sandwich on the way to work.

"Three weeks after my revelation in the church I took the Shahada. I didn't even realise alcohol was banned because so many of my Muslim friends drank. I decided I wouldn't give it up immediately but it only took a couple of months. Now I have absolutely no wish for alcohol whatsoever and I can't understand why I used to like it. I poured myself a Laphroaig whisky - I used to like my Isley malts with their peaty malt. Anyway that went down the sink. My favourite marks and Spencer Monserrat Italian red - two mouthfuls and I thought it was horrible. Down it went. I had 500 pounds worth of alcohol in my cupboard - I gave it all away. I did miss avocado sandwiches with bacon pieces but I got around that with bacon-flavoured soya or simply using prawns. It hasn't been a struggle."

She also gradually began to start wearing the Hijab. There is debate within Islam about whether women are religiously obliged to wear it - in Syria for example many Muslim women do not, although the proportion of those wearing the tight white Sunni veil has risen steadily over the last decade, Syrians say. In Europe, secular France recently banned Muslim schoolgirls from wearing the Hijab in state-run schools as part of an overall ban on obvious religious symbols. But not only did Jannah begin wearing the Hijab, she then moved onto the Nikab - the full veil revealing only the eyes.

"Initially I didn't realise the extent of the Hijab so for the first four months I didn't wear it. It was a gradual transition - I started wearing long trousers and coats on top of my trousers, then I told the dental practice manager I no longer felt comfortable wearing trousers so I started wearing long skirts. I started wearing the Nikab - the veil that covers your face beneath your eyes. The idea is to hide yourself and make yourself less obvious.

"I believe it is stated that the Hijab is for our own protection and it gives us more freedom, although I know you probably find that hard to understand. I don't feel as though I am living by rules - I see the benefits. We are here on this earth to worship God not to look nice. If you cover yourself and blend in you get less attention. You are actually more cool because you reflect the sun - if you go bare you end up getting hot. And you can wear what you like in the house - I can wear perfume and make-up here, paint my nails."

But in parts of the UK, the Nikab attracted attention rather than deflecting it - and much of that attention was unwelcome, particularly after 9/11.

"I got looked at, sworn at and spat at, a lot of two-fingered salutes, people made comments - they assume you don't speak English. I heard things like 'Another bloody asylum seeker' or 'Where did you steal those kids from - they are blond'. After 9/11 I was spat at in Colchester, where I lived with my Syrian husband, who is doing a Phd at Essex University. I've been scared to go out and my husband considered smoking the car windows so people wouldn't see I was a Muslim. I'm glad not to be in the UK now after the London bombings.

"London was a good place to be a Muslim. In London I used to feel more protected as a Muslim than as a non-Muslim. How many Muslim women do you hear about getting raped? Before in the Tube I would occasionally be rubbed up against by men but when I was in Islamic dress I was given my space.

"However in Syria I've stopped wearing the Nikab because I wore it in the foreign style so people could see immediately I was a foreigner. Once after prayers a man came up to me and asked if he could talk to me. He kept repeating 'I have my own flat' - the meaning was clear. I said 'Excuse me I am a practising Muslim' and he walked off. Since I have stopped the Nikab I have had less attention."

And Jannah is at pains to emphasise the rights women have in Islam.

"As a Muslim woman you are heavily protected but you are not under men's thumbs. In some countries they can be under the thumb but that's cultural, not because of the religion. If you have a properly practising Muslim husband women are spoilt. I work here as an English teacher because my husband is a student but I could put my foot down and say I'm used to having a maid in the house. As a man you have to bring all the food into the house - even bring it in cooked - and you have to bring in all the money - I don't have to pay a penny.

"We also have the automatic right to protect ourselves - we can't say a man cannot take a second wife because it's in the Quran but we can say that in that case we want the right to a divorce. We can also demand the right to work. It's not just women who have rules about how to dress - men are also ordered not to show the areas between their knees and belly button. Go to a swimming pool here and you will see all the men wear long shorts. Muslim women also had the right to an inheritance and the vote before British women did. When I married this time my husband gave me a gift of 1000 pounds and 5000 pounds in the event of divorce or death."

After two failed marriages, Jannah no longer trusted union based on 'love and lust' and she met her Syrian husband Bashar, also 43, through an Islamic marriage agency - despite the fact that she was legally still married to her second husband under British law. And she insisted any prospective husband have a beard and be a non-smoker.

"I married Bashar, my Muslim husband, in 2000 - I was legally still married to my second husband but I had never been married to a Muslim so religiously speaking I had never been married. I had married for love and lust twice before and both failed. This time it was arranged through an Islamic marriage agency. Muslim women have to marry a Muslim husband, Muslim men can marry anyone who believes in one God. Often these days Muslim women will have a religious wedding without sleeping with the guy - then they can go out and get to know him. Then you can decide to have a civil wedding. It's cultural and I believe it's wrong - you should sleep with your husband if you are married.

"So we were matched up - we were both graduates. I insisted on a beard - it's Sunni and theoretically it should be long enough to grab with your hand. I also insisted he be a non-smoker - it's slow suicide and that's Haram. Now I look at him and think he could be more religious - a lot of it is cultural Syrian. We met in Holland Park and spent two or three hours talking. He took my son for a week and I took his kids for a week. We were more concerned our kids would get on than we ourselves."

After the marriage the pair moved in together in Colchester - Jannah paid for her house there outright and in cash - most British mortgages cannot be taken under Islamic rules because the earning of interest is Haram (not permitted). But this summer Jannah, her 11-year-old son by her first marriage Talal and her two children by Bashar - Ridwaan, 3, and Hashem, 2 - moved to Damascus to live. Bashar is still in Colchester finishing off his Phd in Linguistics and is also working on converting their house there into a six-bed home with a view to selling it.

"I have been coming to Syria for three years for summer holidays - this summer I came with the intention of moving. The kids are now in Arabic schools here. My son Talal, 11, converted about six months after I did - he was five. He was at a Catholic school and I was hauled in by the headmistress who complained he was telling the other kids the bible isn't the right book, the Quran is.

"Bashar has two sons by his first wife, a Syrian who has claimed asylum in the UK. Bashar wanted one of his boys to come and live with us in Damascus but he refused. There was a court battle, I was labelled a fundamentalist by an anti-Islamic judge and my husband can now only communicate with his boys by letter.

"I don't find it a cultural shock here. I got used to people being late all the time. I miss Bisto because I like to make a decent shepherds or cottage pie. I can get Marmite here. I don't miss the UK. I get Casualty and Holby City two years behind the UK on BBC Prime. I also get Eastenders which my husband says might not be Halal [permitted in Islam] because it's set in a pub. It's just escapism really. Any TV is Haram because women do not wear the Hijab.

"So I'm still a single mother for the moment. But living in an Islamic country is relaxing - people aren't going to talk about you, you have the freedom to practise religion. All my life I've been looking for God - I'm not looking any more. I'm home."

Converts: Francois's ambition moves from Mujahid to diplomat

Pic - Slightly-built Francois tried to become a Mujahid fighter in Chechnya but was talked out of it by his brother. Now he wants to work in diplomacy

Three years ago Francois (not his real name), 22, from Paris was 'on the point' of going to Chechnya to fight the Russians in a conflict he felt close to because his great-grandfather was a Sufi Muslim from neighbouring Dagestan. He had became a Sufi Muslim aged 17 and now wants to work in the French diplomatic service.

"Chechnya touched me a lot. My great-grandfather was a Sufi in Dagestan, near Chechnya. I felt close to it and three years ago I was on the point of going - I was very serious. I got some contacts and they told me that over the next 6 months we would have to chat and then we would see.

I wanted to go because there is so much inequality and the world doesn't care. I'm not violent and I hate war. Al Qaeda and 9/11 is terrorism and I don't support that. But Hamas in Palestine are not terrorists for me. Neither are the Chechnyans. They don't attack and colonise people - the fighting is on their land. In Palestine there is all the TV but in Chechnya there is silence.

It's easy to find contacts - I knew them in the mosque in Paris. After a year you know who is who. It's not the Imam - they would never support this - although that mosque is closed now because the Imam was saying terrible things about Christians and Jews. I didn't understand Arabic at that time. But I saw these people every day and I told them I wanted to go and fight. They were people who knew who you could talk to to get to Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and then Chechnya - they didn't want to attack in France.

But I chatted with my brother a lot at this time and his friend who had written a thesis on the English poet Byron. When Byron was a romantic he wanted to go to Greece to fight the Turks but it wasn't what he expected. My brother's friend said to me that if I go to Chechnya and kill 20 Russians, cut their heads off, they will still say you aren't Chechnyan. They will say you have to kill - it's not romantic to do that. I thought about it a lot and I met a girl at the same time - we spent two very rich years together. Afterwards I no longer thought about going to Chechnya. I just want to forget about that period of my life.

I have prayed ever since I remember. I was a religious Christian. When I was 16 at private school in Switzerland. I met an Algerian Sunni Muslim there - we were about the only people in the school who believed in God. We chatted a lot. I read some books on Islam and I wasn't convinced. I read the Quran in French - it was very boring. Then I read a book by Sheikh Ibn Toumes - he said the only relation is between you and God. It's very mystical. Nobody tells you what to do - I can feel God and be with him.

I became a Muslim when I first prayed and I really wanted to pray. It was difficult for me to convert - seventeen-and-a-half is very early. I needed to pray like the Muslims - just you and God. I left Christianity because I do not believe in passing by the son of God. But Islam is just one way - if you feel good in it then fine, if not then do something else.

My family and friends are not religious and I was very strange for them. My mother said I have to clean my room. I said yes now I will clean it every day. She asked why and I said because I will pray in it - I feel I am a Muslim now. She said in six months you will be Jewish. We had a lot of discussions and now she wants to pay for my Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) - she understands it's part of my life.

I stopped drinking and eating pork, but I can't stop going with women. I try my best but it is difficult. I want to get married soon and have lots of kids - it's the only way. When I'm drunk I am ridiculous so I miss nothing by not drinking. I do smoke a bit of hashish, sometimes I pray with it like a Sufi in Pakistan. I know it's not good but I like new experiences and I'm young.

I don't show my religion - I don't want people to know it. I am a Muslim and I pray but it doesn't change who I am. It's difficult when you are white to go to a mosque, you are like a phenomenon both in France and in Syria. I have had bad experiences - in Aleppo they were not friendly, they asked me why I have come to the mosque, if I changed my name and so on. In Damascus the Imam turned off the lights while I was still praying - that would never happen in France. You could stay praying all night there if you wanted.

Nowadays Islam is cool and people want to convert. I don't want to judge but maybe these people have a problem with themselves or their own identities. Most of them become Wahhabis. I don't like Wahhabis - they have no philosophy. They worship Islam not God. In France there are converts but they come from the ghetto, all their friends are Arabs and they in fact become Arabs, change their name and so on. I don't want to change my name to Abdullah or something. I don't want to wear the same clothes as the prophet - he was a man of the 6th century.

The new Islam will be born in Europe and it will be peaceful, not like Islam in the Middle East. It will be a part of Europe like Christianity. In France there are a lot of Sufis from North Africa - they think about God not politics, they are republicans. The Wahhabis have a lot of influence in the ghettos but overall the Muslim community is getting richer and richer, more integrated into society and people are learning to love one another. I do not believe in this clash of civilisations. In Europe we will show we can live together and be an example to the Muslim world."

Converts: "A very English Muslim"

Student James, 22, converted to Islam aged 16 in response to a teenage identity crisis. Now he describes himself as a 'very English Muslim', plays the Durham Cathedral organ and wants to develop Halal finance packages for Muslims. A chunky young man with short ginger hair, James refused to give his family name or be photographed.

"I'm a very English Muslim - it means you can sing in the church choir and play the church organ. I like Christmas with my family and countryside walks to quaint villages. If it's possible to talk about an English mentality, which it isn't, I would say it's rather level-headed and moderate - we've never really gone for extremes. I would say there's a similarity between that and the essence of Islam.

I converted at 16 and at the start it was more of an identity thing. I had a very kind and soft childhood. My mother had an interest in Alexander the Great and I read a lot about different Arabic countries - looking at life in Yemen is much more exciting than old England. I didn't feel at home in England although it was part of me. I was different at school - at lunch I would always go to the library to read about Arab lands. The one thing they had in common was Islam and it attracted me, particularly the clear relationship between science and Islam.

In the beginning I was more enthusiastic about the clothes than the actual belief. At school I was a curiosity and I wonder if that's not what I wanted. As I grew up the need for an identity became less important as I discovered more about my culture, my childhood, what I like.

I play the church organ in my town and I practice on Durham Cathedral organ - I must be their first Muslim organist. I don't see any contradiction there - Islam, Christianity and Judaism are all from the same root. I see beauty in all of them, the structure of Islam is just the most coherent for me.

That isn't to say I practice to a tee - I don't pray five times a day. If I am told something irrational or illogical then I won't just believe it - for me Islam stresses logic and scientific discovery.

But I like going to the mosque on a Friday - it's a social function, it gets me out of the house, there's a value in standing next to each other and feeling you are all part of the same thing - it's like a power, like yoga, combining physical and spiritual movements.

The first mosque I went to was a traditonal Pakistani mosque where I was the only white, culturally an outsider. They were very hospitable and paid me a lot of attention. I was always invited round to old men's houses for nice cups of milky tea - they took a shine to me. The UK is among the best countries to be Muslim because I have my personal freedom and as long as I don't interfere with others they don't interfere with me.

My parents are happy for me because I have found some kind of contentment even if I am regarded as a contradiction as an English Muslim. They were not surprised - they had been buying me books for Christmas on Afghanistan and Pakistan, on the travels of Freya Stark.

But I don't really tell people I'm a Muslim now - it's not the most important thing I need to say when I meet someone - so I'm not really treated differently any more. I don't call myself Mohammed, my Muslim name. I've found people like putting other people into boxes too much. I'm just a normal person and I want to be judged as a human being.

I don't eat pork now - I never liked it that much, I find it quite fatty. It was a very sensible measure when hygiene was not great but it's a load of rubbish that pigs are unclean. I don't really drink - I've never liked the taste of beer.

I feel best placed to help other Muslims by getting an education in economics and Arabic. In the Middle East I've met a lot of very clever people who are thwarted by a lack of money and nobody wants to invest in them. It's difficult to break out and a big part of this is the lack of a finance culture. I want to research Islamic economics and develop finance packages for the many Muslims who can't invest because in Islam getting interest is haram. Existing Halal [permitted under Islamic law] mortgages for example aren't very competitive because how do they make money? Banks need an incentive and I think I can streamline what is out there."

Converts: ex-US Marine Rafiq

Former US Marine Rafiq Mujahid, 40, from Fort Myers in Florida, is a heavyset, bespectacled and softly-spoken black man wearing a white beret with stripes in the pan-African colours of red yellow and green. His interest in Islam was triggered when he joined the Marines and heard officers who had returned from the Middle East disparage Arabs. Rafiq was also led towards Islam by the politicised rap of Public Enemy and KRS-1. He refused to be photographed.

"It started for me when I was in the Marines in about 1985. I had been kicked out of school for getting very bad grades and my father said I had to join up. At the time there was a lot of stuff happening between the US and the Arab world. The troops had just come out of Beirut and they were scared - just like they are in Iraq now - they didn't know who they were fighting. Gaddafi was a problem child - all these different issues relating to Islam and the US. There was no love for Islam in the US military. It was all 'We're going in to get those camel jockeys and ragheads' - that type of comment. Islam was seen as the enemy.

I knew nothing about Islam at that time and I was in basic training so there was nothing I could say.

The military is a whole other philosophy. I don't regret the training or the discipline. But your function is to go out and at some point kill someone. It wasn't so much that I had a problem joining an organisation like that - I just wanted to know why. That was never really answered for me. Muhammad Ali didn't go to Vietnam because he didn't have anything against the Vietcong - I didn't know anything about the Muslims so why would I go and fight them?

At the same time there was an increase in black militant rap like Public Enemy and KRS-1 who were saying 'Learn your culture and history'. I was like - I'm from Africa. Where in Africa? Don't know. Maybe West Africa. Look, there are Muslims there. There was Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, which was more of a nationalistic organisation that used Islam to help people help themselves. I felt I had to know more about Islam. And I was about 20, beginning to ask big questions about the meaning of life.

A few years later I had a friend - he was a bartender and an atheist. He took me to a Chinese restaurant and gave me a paperback copy of the Quran in English. A disbeliever was giving someone the Quran as a way to help them - it was a turning point. I also met the woman I married - she had an interest in Islam from her own background. She was raised a Christian. We didn't know we both had this interest until later in our relationship and we accepted Islam together.

There was no negative reaction from my family. In the US people basically do what they want in terms of belief. It's like a cafe - religion a la carte - and you take what you want. My family believed in God and went to church once in a while but it wasn't fervent. By that time I was meeting new people and had left most of my old friends. It was 1993 and I was just trying to practise Islam as best I could in the US.

It might be difficult during Ramadan for example when you smell McDonalds and the other hamburger joints still burning with food. But that's probably what makes you stronger - the food is there but I'm supposed to fast. Maybe it's easier in Syria because all the restaurants are closed so there's no temptation.

I came to Damascus on September 4, 2001. A week later it [9/11] happened. People here were stunned - I didn't see anyone dancing in the streets. I was in touch with people from the Masjid [mosque] in Florida - they said it was really difficult, especially for those who were Arabs. It was a learning experience for Muslims in general, particularly in the US - they were finally awakened to this possibility of being hated.

For many Muslims who were African-American that experience was like - so what's new? As people we are used to it - people throwing things, words, spitting at you, hating you. In 20 or 30 years things have changed in the US but in the mentality of many it's still the same - fear of what you don't know, a fear which says 'What is going to happen to me if all these people come here?'

People who have accepted Islam do not fear men, they fear Allah and understand that he controls everything. If you walk around fearing men and not God then who are you worshipping?

The fear of Muslims is the same fear of the unknown. Some people ask me 'How did you come to Islam?' I have no problem discussing it. Some ask 'How could you come to Islam?' - what about my family and so on. They understand why but there's a fear factor and it has probably prevented more people accepting Islam. And some ask 'How dare I come to Islam?' They are the ones I have a problem with - they are ok until they have to face something that may not accord with what they want. They say 'You are here so you should behave just like us'.

In the Quran it says Allah created man in order to worship him. Part of that worship is your everyday life. Islam is the Windows operating system for the human being. You are given this operating manual - the Quran - and an example of how it works - the prophet Mohammed. It's very complete. I believe it is the best way of life for the whole of humanity. But if people read the Quran and become a better Jew or Christian then that's ok for me. In a sense they become a Muslim.

All these questions from the West such as what about the Hijab were answered 1400 years ago - the idea of protecting yourself from the glances of others, a denial of natural human tendencies. Having come from Florida I am used to seeing women walking down the street in their bathing costumes. I understand the problems that arise as a result. There's a story about a man who went to the butcher and bought some meat. He carried it out of the shop and soon it was covered with flies. People said 'Why don't you cover it up?' He said 'You cover up these women and I will cover up this meat'. You say women are not pieces of meat but on another level they are - we all are.

In Western society, which is supposedly very scientifically-based, when it comes to issues of religion people don't want to view things rationally. But if you look at religion through a cultural lens maybe you are looking at it backward. That's what my search for Islam was about - to make 2+2+2=6. You realise it can't all be crazy - over a billion people practise it.

I'm a Muslim and I can't wear what I want, I can't go where I want, I can't eat and drink what I what I want but I'm comfortable in life. Others who can - they are wrecks, uncomfortable. How do you explain that? Once you answer questions like 'Who am I and what am I supposed to do?' then life becomes very simple. That's it for me. It has helped me look at life more practically and rationally and I can't see any other way for me at this time.

Today there are big Muslim communities - Arabs in Michigan, Texas, New York and Iranians in Los Angeles. There is a level of cooperation between them but they often keep to themselves along lines of cultural and linguistic background. I would like to see more cooperation, not so much as Muslims in America but as Muslims in a global community. The possibility is there.

I want to get back into radio and produce some Islamic programming. The media does have responsibility. Programming does have to be entertaining but in a way that uplifts the listener rather than degrading him like all this reality TV. People have been MTV-ised. But they want to know what's happening to make proper decisions. Islam calls for us to be productive and take responsibility in our daily lives. We can only do this through knowledge and for this we need information.

Here in Syria there isn't much radio - it's strange in a country where there is a tradition of oral storytelling. But now it's all satellite TV - they are going from the camel to the Cadillac. The Quran tells us we are in different tribes that we might know each other. But satellite TV is trying to make everybody the same based on who is the most powerful at the time.

We worship for the hereafter. But globalisation is promoting the view that this life is the end and everything has to be done now. How do we manage this? Islam tells us we can be rich but that we shouldn't think that's it. How are we getting our money? Are we helping people or are we selling cocaine? On the Day of Judgement we will definitely be shown what we have done - in Dolby surround sound with everybody watching. We think we've seen reality TV - we haven't seen anything yet."

Converts: Omar (James) and Fatima (Suzanne) from the US

Pic - American couple Omar and Fatima McConnell in their Damascus home. They converted to Islam before they met each other after suffering massive personal traumas

Omar McConnell, formerly James, 46, from Ridgeville, Connecticut. Now lives in Damascus with his wife Fatima, formerly Suzanne, from Stillwater, Oklahoma. He converted to Islam in 1994 in New York but says he did not truly become a Muslim until four years ago, when he met Sufi Sheikh Nazim Naqshbandi in Cyprus.

"It was 1992 and I was working in music video production in New York, accelerating rapidly through the ranks, becoming successful. We were shooting Michael Jackson and all the major new videos that were running on MTV, which at the time was a brand new phenomenon. But the place started getting crazy - people were embezzling money from the budget, snorting lots of cocaine. So the company closed the NY office. The pool of directors disbanded and started their own production companies. I quickly had a big freelance list of people who wanted to hire me.

I moved into an apartment on the Upper East Side with my Jewish girlfriend who worked for another music video company - we became roomates and soulmates. But that apartment was slowly poisoning me to death - heavy metal poisoning. There were 32 toxic metals in the building's crude oil burner. The rumour was the mafia was being paid to take industrial toxic waste and put it in fuel oil that they would then sell to residents. I was freelancing so would be in the house for two weeks at a time between shoots, calling to drum up work. I got sicker and sicker - it drove us apart. She finally moved out and I became so sick I couldn't go out of the apartment and buy food.

But I couldn't get a doctor to do a proper evaluation on me because I had no health insurance. And my family didn't want anything to do with me. As a Protestant if you don't have health insurance it's your own damned fault - it's an amazing way to be.

Each day people from the Egyptian deli delivered me food to keep me alive and I became friends with them. I was very anti-religion - I thought it was a crock of nonsense. I thought I was invincible and never going to die - why would I think otherwise when I had cocaine. I tried to get laid every Friday night. I laugh about it now because it makes me realise what it's like not to be a Muslim. But they would give me lectures on why I shouldn't live as I did. They told me 20 per cent of the world was Muslim. I couldn't believe I had gone through years of education and I didn't know that. It annoyed me - I had worked in advertising and from a business standpoint 20 per cent is a huge chunk of the market. They told me there was a book that had never been changed from the time of its inception. I informed them that was absolutely impossible because anything man touches he corrupts. I challenged them - I said I want to see this book and I will prove to you you are wrong.

This was while Allah was still breaking me down over two years, slowly and mechanically, towards my devastation. One day I had a particularly bad flash of pain - it paralysed the right side of my body. I didn't think about suicide - instinctively I knew it was wrong. I was on my knees crying my eyes out, begging God for help. The deal was that if God showed me a source of obvious truth that I really understood then I would follow it. I figured that was a way to get out of it because I didn't believe in truth. The suffering was unbelievable, testing my physical self to weaken my spiritual self.

The next day one of the Egyptians gave me the Quran. He told me that every time I read it I should take a shower beforehand, then read the opening verse, then a thirtieth of the rest. I read with the intention of disproving it - I would come up with five unanswerable questions each time I sat down to read. The next day when I opened up the next thirtieth every single one would be answered. It was starting to get freaky. The truth was jumping out at me and I knew in my heart of hearts I had found what I was looking for.

There was no doubt that my prayer had been answered. I discovered the dog having a twitching fit and had an environmental engineer come in. He found there was 200x the safe level of Cadmium as well as Mercury and other chemicals that were causing all these problems.

I can't say everyone who picks up the Quran will have this experience. It was the sincerity of that prayer and that challenge to Allah to share the truth that caused this understanding to come. It doesn't open up to people who aren't sincere.

Then the struggle to perfect that understanding began. I went up to take my formal Shahada at a Kuwaiti mosque on 1st Avenue, although I didn't actually become a Muslim until I met Sheikh Nazim Naqshbandi four years ago. You struggle through listening to Muslims who are operating in the realm of the brain, not the heart. You find people bickering and acting worse than animals in these mosques, Imams ranting about disbelievers with this ugly harsh face that makes you cringe and wonder why you are involved in this religion which was created by man, no different from Judaism or Christianity or politicians who use the threat of terrorism to make you fall in line like good little sheep.

Eighty per cent of the mosques in the US are not mosques - they are country clubs, just like church. Everyone has their own role in them. But religion is the absence of identity. I was searching for spirituality rather than for packaged religion.

Sufism seemed to be what I was interested in. I found someone born in Damascus who studied under the Grand Mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro. I spent seven years by his side trying to find out about Islam.

It was while I was him that I met my wife - over the internet. I went online for a good laugh to see some of the ridiculous - I'm looking for a modern Muslim who has two BMWs, an income of $150,000 and doesn't mind if I wear push-up bras with my Hijab. But she jumped out at me because she was so different - this was someone truly interested in pursuing Islam. We got married on the telephone. She lived in quite a poor Oklahoma community and I couldn't afford a hotel so we got married so I could stay on her couch without there being any wrongdoing because we were still interested in following all these strict rules we had heard about.

After a while I felt I needed to go to the source. So I got a place on a summer programme here in Damascus. I never went back. The first two years were a bit of a struggle to acclimatise. But there are so many great things about being in Damascus - crime is almost non-existent - you can't buy that in the US.

I met Sheikh Nazim Naqshbandi four years ago and I don't feel like I was a Muslim until I met him. He just destroys you. A Sheikh's job is the most difficult there is - it's easier to slay 10 dragons than to slay your ego, and that's what your physical self is. You go to his place is Cyprus and the devils are everywhere - he doesn't kick them out. He teaches you about seeing with the heart, not with the senses. You can fly, sit on the sun and not get burned. I don't speak from experience - I am just beginning. But I have had just a taste to show me what is possible."

Fatima McConnell, nee Suzanne Tattal from Stillwater, Oklahoma, 43, was attacked and left for dead aged 10 and spent the rest of her life repressing the memory. Only 40 days in seclusion with a Sufi Sheikh could help her confront her past.

"People who become Muslim are usually people who have had a pretty hard time, to whom something earth-shattering has happened. It makes them search and for that I'm grateful for the difficulties I've had.

I was attacked and left for dead when I was 10 years old. I don't want to say more about that except that I ended up in hospital near death.

It was the worst experience with the best experience. While I was close to death I spent some time in a place that I now know was a piece of heaven, a beautiful spiritual experience. My whole life since has been spent trying to get that back. I didn't understand that was what I was looking for until I met Sufi Sheikh Nazim Naqshbandi four years ago but I did accept Islam before then.

I was married to an Arab who was not a practising Muslim but he had many friends who were. In 1989 we lived in a college town in Oklahoma where a third of the students were Muslim. I was a nurse and I visited the local mosque.

I got involved with the local Muslim community because I was helping raise money for one family who had a member suffering from cancer.

When I was 27 I took the Shahada but I didn't practise. I converted because my husband was a Muslim and we were planning to travel to Dubai in the Middle East. For another four years I didn't practise Islam but I read about the Quran and agreed with what I read. I didn't wear the hijab much - it was off and on. I wore it in Dubai.

I got a divorce because my husband wasn't behaving well. I was more interested in Islam and that seemed to push him further away from me because he wasn't.

So I went back to the US. I had a decision to make - was I or a Muslim or not? I had made a commitment to God in my heart to raise my child as a Muslim. He was six at that time and I was 31.

I was living in a cowboy town called Shawnee - there were really no Muslims at all there. People there didn't know I was a Muslim. As a Muslim my son was obliged to go to mosque, which was an hour's drive away. I told the school it was part of a custody agreement so they would let me take him without any trouble. He used to put on a Kufi hat - I didn't want him to lose his Arab heritage just because I had divorced.

In 1995 I read the Quran in English and decided I wanted to be Muslim for myself. I put an advertisement on the internet looking for a Muslim husband to help me learn Islam. I wanted to be married and I wanted my son to have a father figure in his life because his Dad was in Dubai and not a good example.

Omar answered my ad. I had 50 responses but only two that were worth calling. One was from an African-American man who took second place on that basis. This one was white and that one black. I wasn't being racist, just practical. I had already done the multicultural thing and didn't want to do it again.

We talked for a month and got married over the phone. We came to Damascus six years ago on one-way tickets and without enough money to get back home. We got ourselves stuck here in a way because it's hard to decide to move to another country. We've been happy.

When we went to Cyprus and met Sheikh Naqshbandi I knew in my heart I had met him before but I didn't understand it at that time. I had no memory of what had happened to me. About two years ago he put me in seclusion for 40 days in the mountains between Syria and Lebanon. No talking, no telephone, no contact with anyone. I would just do Zikur - meditating by repeating the name of Allah - and pray. I was to take aa bath twice a day.

The first 30 days were nothing special - I just did the exercises. I didn't realise it but I was being prepared to remember things I had not remembered in years. These 30 days were an appreciation of myself - looking in the mirror and saying I'm ok. I hadn't done that in 30 years - I had got to the point of not having any mirrors in the house because I didn't want to remember. Eyes tell a story so seeing your eyes is difficult.

One night I had a horrible dream. I woke up really angry. I always knew something had happened to me but I always left it on the back burner. I didn't want to spend my life in therapy. I used to say things are repressed for a reason.

But Sheikh Naqshbandi dropped sandbags in front of me and said 'That is what you are going to deal with'. We have since been working on it together and I have done a little flight. I don't think my body ever physically went anywhere - your inner being goes.

That first night I was lying there and I felt like Sheikh Naqshbandi said 'Ok now it's time'. I felt my body go up. I looked down and saw we were on a prayer carpet but I felt like I had been put into a stretcher and securely fastened in, like those stretchers on the sides of helicopters. I saw the Sheikh big and huge there - he was the conductor of the trip. We shot out through a wormhole in the wall - face first and very very fast. I could feel the G-force on my face.

We went to many different places on the earth - places from my past. The two places I remember were heavenly places. I felt us stop so I opened my eyes.

It was a white pearl and turquiose room. I had the most absolutely wonderful feeling of peace. There was a lot of light in the room. There was a symbol which I understood had something to do with women - it was kind of fallopian-shaped. I had been there before. This was a station for women and martyred souls - not people who are dead but whose souls have been damaged. I opened my hands to make Dua - Islamic prayer - but I felt the Sheikh put his hands on mine - a softness I had felt before - and I understood I wasn't allowed to make Dua at that time.

We went to another room, very small with two doors on either side. I didn't go through them so I didn't know its significance. They were both the same colours - white, pearl and turquoise.

We came back. I didn't want to - I wanted to go somewhere else. I was saying 'Again again'. I heard voices say 'She's sleeping don't disturb her'. I was saying 'Leave me alone'. I heard the sound of a blanket being spread and thought they had covered me up.

Sheikh Naqshbandi asked me 'What do you want to know?' I said out loud and with a lot of power 'I want to see Rossoul Allah [The Prophet Mohammed]' with the voice of a child. Because I had seen him as a child, because I wanted to get back to him. My eyes opened, I was awake. The trip was finished."

Gaza pullout - Palestinian refugee reaction

Picture - "Earth from around the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem" on display in a shop window in Yarmouk, a Palestinian area of Damascus, Syria. It was smuggled in by a German tourist

In August hoovered up some reaction in a Palestinian part of Damascus to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Needless to say no-one was very impressed by the scenes of wailing and grief as the mind-bogglingly blinkered settlers were hauled from the homes they had been living in. The piece didn’t sell – the UN’s IRIN website didn’t do reaction pieces – but it got me an interview with the Reuters guy in Damascus about possible work.

Mohammed Jindawi felt no emotion at the tears shed by departing Israeli settlers as they left the last Jewish settlement in the Gaza strip (22/08/05) - he remembers when as a 15-year-old in 1948 he was forced to flee his Palestinian home under more violent circumstances.

"Should I feel pain for them? What we see on TV is acting. I admire that they can cry - they know the land is not theirs," he says.

"Only we experienced the real suffering. They came and kicked us out. They killed our women and raped our land. We cried the real tears - tears of blood."

Mr Jindawi and his family fled to Damascus, Syria, and have lived in the Yarmouk refugee camp there ever since.

More than 100,000 refugees live in Yarmouk according to the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), making it the largest Palestine refugee community in Syria, which is home to about 400,000 Palestinians. Yarmouk has become a vibrant urban quarter with better living conditions than other Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, according to the UNRWA website.

Two main streets divide at the northern apex of the triangular-shaped camp and run south, lined with shops and choked by traffic.

Since the withdrawal began, printed Hamas banners have hung across the roads declaring: 'The resistance alone freed Gaza'. Hamas posters plastered onto walls show a black-clad figure with a submachine gun looming above streams of walking Israeli soldiers say: 'Today Gaza, tomorrow Jerusalem'. A hand-painted banner differs only slightly in its version of events - tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem the day after.
Many of the refugees there are doctors, engineers and civil servants, others are casual labourers and street vendors. And many are from the nearest part of what is now Israel - the north, hundreds of kilometers from Gaza.

Mr Jindawi's bitterness at the idea of sympathising with the evicted settlers is echoed by two more refugees who remember 1948 - 67-year-old Lutfia Koussa and 82-year-old Abdelkarim Sayed.

"No way can I understand how they feel,' says Mrs Koussa. "They stole our land and I ask God to take revenge on them."

"I feel nothing for them," said Mr Sayed.

They welcome the withdrawal from Gaza as a first step - but only that. After all, says Mr Sayed, "Nobody is going back to Gaza. It's so crowded there's no land for anyone else to live in".

But he and Mr Jindawi accept that they may never return to the actual houses they left - they want the Israelis to create a border between Palestine and Israel along the border of 1967, which means their villages would be on the Israeli side.

"If they give us two countries then never mind. It's impossible to have one country for Arabs and Jews," says Mr Sayed.

The mood is harder out on the street. No-one who was asked said they would support a two-state solution - Israel had to go. The shebab - the young men - were the most militant. They supported Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, they said, and did not believe politics had brought about the withdrawal.

Osama Suleiman, 20, a nursing student surfing the internet in the VIP internet cafe said: "The withdrawal is because of the resistance, with Hamas at the forefront. The political negotiations are all bullshit. Today I have strong hope I will go home.

"There can be only one country - Palestine. We can make camps for the Israelis in Europe, like the ones we live in now. Everyone I know from school and university feels the same."

Wael Majdelawi, 20, a translation student working in a student supplies shop, said: "Israel has further purposes behind the withdrawal - to absorb some of the pressure of the Palestinian resistance and to steal land in another place.

"But I do have more hope - if there is even 10cm2 of independent land this is a new hope for our return.

"Politics has done nothing for us in 57 years and for sure it was the resistance that got us this withdrawal. I support Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and anyone fighting. One Palestine only - the land is ours and we do not trust to live together with the Jews."

The prize exhibit in the window of Ayman Tazim's Palestinian memorabilia shop on Yarmouk Street is a small plate of grey earth and dust.

It is earth taken from beside the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by a female German tourist and smuggled to Syria. Almost everything inside Mr Tazim's shop is in the form of the shard-like shape of Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Mr Tazim, 32, said: "A lot of people come in and ask me if they can just have one small gram because it's more valuable than gold to them.

"The withdrawal could be good but we don't know what is behind it. Anyway I don't support the two-state solution because I'm a refugee from 1948 and I have the right to go back to my land, which includes what is Israel now. The Jews can live with us like normal human beings but not as occupiers. I support the resistance."

Cigarette vendor Ammar Ibrahim, 34, was more negative.

He said: "Has Palestine come back to us? No - it's just a withdrawal from Gaza and it's doesn't bring me any closer to my home. There were very few Jewish people in Gaza.

"They think they can give us Gaza only for us to build our state on. We want Jerusalem and the whole land."

Saida Abbas, 28, an attractive social worker in a Hijab and a colourful shirt, said: "The withdrawal gives us a good feeling but the whole of Israel must go. It is Palestinian land"

Mother-of-five Farden al-Arshaq, 40, said: "We are so thankful to all who collaborated in the withdrawal. I feel much closer to returning to Palestine but it can only be one state for Palestinians.

"The Jews can find another place much more easily than we could in 1948. They killed us - that's the difference between now and then."

Lawyer Mahmoud Sayed - Abdelkarim Sayed's nephew - dismisses the street refusal of a two-state solution as the talk of 'uneducated people'.

A follower of Yassir Arafat's Fatah movement, he counts among his friends from his village child fighters who went aged 14 and 16 to Lebanon to fight the Israelis in Beirut in 1982. Such fighters gave Yarmouk its nickname of 'The Man Factory' and the camp has a special cemetery for them.

But these fighters have swapped their rocket propelled grenade launchers for snooker cues - they are passionate players. They believe the time has come for the peaceful negotiation of a two-state solution as envisaged by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority.

"We and the Israelis are all human beings and we all have the right to live," said Ziad Saleh, 39, who aged 16 journeyed repeatedly to Beirut to fight.

"We are not against Jews - there are Jews here in Syria - we are against the Zionist movement which is a political movement.

"The withdrawal is the first step. Now I am a refugee but at least I know I have a state, a president, and a government and I want to go and lead my life in that country. I have the right of return and nobody can take it away from me."

Salah Khalil, 37, was just 14 when he and his friends were captured by Israeli troops in southern Lebanon in 1982. He had been shot twice in the leg and spent a total of 50 days in Israeli custody before an Israeli human rights lawyer won a court ruling that the boys should be released. He subsequently spent six years as a political prisoner in Syria.

"The withdrawal is good because it gives us a small piece of land we can be citizens of. After everything, I can still love. But the settlers' tears are just an attempt to make the international community think they are the victims. Where was this emotion in 1948?" he said.

Summing up the mood among Palestinian refugees in Syria, Ali Mustafa - Director General of the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees, which works with the Syrian government - said: "In Syria the refugees want the right of return and have that right. Everyone is very happy the Israelis have withdrawn from Gaza, but we want withdrawal from all of Gaza, including the airport. And Gaza is small - it's not enough."

Back in his ground-floor living room, Mr Sayed cradled in his shaking hands a black-and-white photograph of him, his young wife and five of his 11 children taken before 1948 on a trip to hot springs near the real Yarmouk - the river which runs along the Syrian-Jordanian border and into the Jordan river in Israel-Palestine. Time for him is running out.

"I just want to finish this trouble between Arabs and Jews," he said. "And I want to go back to Palestine and die there."