Syrian president welcomes 70-year-old photograph from C.R.

Lebanon and Syria 2004

By Mark Bowden

June 10, 2009

Call it snapshot diplomacy. A 70-year-old photograph has brought America's Midwest a little closer to Asia's Middle East.

The 1934 photo of a gathering of Syrian immigrant families in Cedar Rapids was warmly received last week when I presented it to Syrian President Bashar Assad at the Al-Shaab Presidential Palace on a hill overlooking Damascus.

The exchange came at the end of a 90-minute meeting of a group of American journalists and the 39-year-old president.

``I did not know of the Syrians in America's heartland,'' Assad said, scanning the 12-by-50-inch framed photograph. ``Give my appreciation and greetings to these people.''

The Syrian leader, trained as an ophthalmologist in Britain, spoke in English, although his first language is Arabic.

As he looked at the photograph, Assad grinned and chatted with Imad Moustapha, Syrian ambassador to the United States, and others who had accompanied the journalists to the palace.

The photograph may have been a bright spot for the dictator last week. Two days earlier, President Bush imposed economic sanctions against Syria, contending the Arab country was supporting terrorism and undermining U.S. efforts in neighboring Iraq.

Presentation of the photograph was the idea of Bill Aossey of Cedar Rapids, president of Midamar Corp., whose father immigrated to the United States from Syria in 1907. I told Aossey about my pending trip to Syria when I was selected for the fellowship earlier this spring.

``It was a timely gesture,'' said Aossey, who wears his Syrian heritage on his sleeve. ``This historic picture demonstrates how small the world has become.''

The photograph was taken at a Fourth of July picnic at Ellis Park in northwest Cedar Rapids. It was a gathering of Muslims and Christians who shared a common homeland.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, there was an influx of immigrants from Syria and surrounding regions to the United States. Many of these new Americans came to Iowa because of their farming background.

The photograph presented to Assad included a brief greeting in Arabic from Aossey explaining that the gift was on behalf of the Syrian immigrant families in Cedar Rapids.

Syrian officials said the photograph would be placed in the national archives in Damascus.

Covered with bubble-wrap and packed in a thick cardboard box, the framed photograph survived the 6,280-mile journey from Cedar Rapids to Syria, but it was lost for a while.

The parcel was separated from my luggage when I flew from Cedar Rapids to Washington, D.C., and it ended up for a short time in Memphis, Tenn. Fortunately, it was located and forwarded to Washington in time for my departing flight to the Middle East.