We stayed in Syria, travelling between Damascus and the port city of Latakia, doing some sight-seeing, shopping. Pic/Getty Images
We stayed in Syria, travelling between Damascus and the port city of Latakia, doing some sight-seeing, shopping. Pic/Getty Images

In December 2010, I took a trip to Syria and Gaza. I was part of the first Asia to Gaza Solidarity Caravan, which united citizens and activists from 13 Asian countries in a solidarity caravan travelling from New Delhi, that planned to cross the Wagah Border into Pakistan, and then journey onto Iran, Turkey, Syria, Egypt and finally to Gaza, Palestine, by bus. We were supposed to be carrying medical aid and money that we had collected from our respective countries, and were to deposit these into the hands of the governing Hamas (yes, you read correctly, HAMAS) in Gaza.

The delegation was an amazing collection of people. At 60, Indians formed the majority, followed by 35 Iranians and then, Malaysians. There were about five Pakistanis, but only two were active — the rest were 'wife and children'. There were a constantly changing number of Jordanians, a couple of Iraqis, a few Turks, some from Bahrain, two enthusiastic Japanese delegates, and an ever-smiling gentleman from Azerbaijan.

Crossing the Turkish border into Syria, we were supposed to move onto Lebanon but the Lebanese authorities refused visas to all the Iranian members of the group. So, while the organisers ironed out these diplomatic obstacles, we stayed in Syria travelling between Damascus and the port city of Latakia, doing some sight-seeing, shopping and having a LOT of discussions on international issues.

The dynamics of the group were interesting, especially in relation to the flags of the respective countries. The two Pakistanis suspected that the Indians had stolen one of the two Pakistani flags they were carrying. One Kashmiri (note not Indian, but a separatist kind of Kashmiri) tried to lay his hands on the Indian flag and do funny (read disrespectful) things with it. A gentleman from Benaras almost came to blows with the Kashmiri when I got our flag out of their warring hands, and hoisted it safely. The Malaysians were a hyper over-enthusiastic bunch who were sweet — except they cracked the same joke all day!

The Kashmiri and one Pakistani kept taunting each other, while the Bahraini turned out to be a kleptomaniac, stealing small items and snatching jewellery! The Indian delegation
comprised two polar opposite sub-sects — one consisted of faithful, practicing Muslims belonging to groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the other, a motley group of Left-leaning trade unionists, students and a couple of liberal arty-farty types like yours truly.

We kept up the stereotype of 'The Argumentative Indian': I mean the tradition of factionalism, back-biting, sectarian politics and general panchayati by successfully having bitter feuds on moral policing, imbibing of alcohol in countries where it was legal and everything else. Meanwhile, some young 'liberal' Indians were caught making out , but they were consenting adults, so not much could be done by the organisers. So, while there was a lot of solidarity for Gaza and Palestine, daily, more mundane affairs continued to divide the delegation deeply.What finally united us was an Iranian song which went, "Belaaley yeh darr khoon khoftey, shaheedey dast us jaan shostey.."

The liberal, left, non-Muslim Indian group picked up the song first from the Iranians and began singing it with gusto. Soon, the Malaysians learnt it too, though they had terrible pronunciation. And then, each nationality learnt this song. Every time an argument would be brewing, someone would begin to sing it and soon the whole 180-member delegation was clapping, whistling and hooting while singing a song pretty much no one understood.

After spending a week in Gaza, everyone headed home. When I got back to India and free internet access, I googled our song-of-unity, and realised with irony that we had been singing a popular song called 'Be-Pish' from the Iranian Islamic Revolution 1979. Laughingly, I thought, indeed, music has no borders. Sometimes, it doesn't even have and need a context.

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