This guest post by ALIA ALLANA is a despatch for Kafila from Damascus, the Syrian capital. All photos by Alia Allana
“You don’t think I’m afraid?” asked Bouthaina Shaaban, advisor to Syrian President, Bashar al Assad.
We were sitting in the Ministry of Protocol in Damascus and she tugged on her black pearl necklace and fidgeted with her black and white tweed jacket. She had more reason to be afraid, she said – not just because she was a woman but also because she is a supporter of the current regime.
Shaaban was responding to a question I had asked: Syria can be likened to a police state, Orwellian in nature, hermit-like and hard-handed on dissidents. How could people come out and speak when those who did, like Ali Ferzat, a political cartoonist, were brutally silenced.Less than a month ago, Ali Ferzat sketched a cartoon of Bashar al Assad hitching a ride with Moammar Qaddafi. He paid a heavy price: both his hands have been broken. He is unable to stretch his fingers out; his fingers look like claws.
Unsurprisingly, people are scared. I sat in the back seat of a yellow Damascene taxi. My destination was Rawda Café. The driver looked back, he arched his eyebrow and asked if that was the final decision, whether it was a wise decision. He pumped up the volume on the stereo, Fairouz, the popular Arab songstress’ voice filtered out on to the street. He leaned closer. “People will be listening to conversations there, speak softly,” he said. He then switched the stereo off, floored the pedal and zoomed to the (in)famous café.
From the outside, Rawda Café looks like one of the hundreds of cafes in Damascus. People sip Turkish coffee or black tea, the smell of apple, grape and pear shisha permeates the air and creates a heady cocktail of scents. The tables are non-fussy, beige and brown. The wicker on the chairs is broken and hasn’t been replaced for years. But people continue to visit this joint, for since the time of Hafez al Assad, the man who can be held accountable for creating the Bismarck-ian, super-controlled Syrian state, Rawda Café has opened its doors and played host to intellectuals, artistes and dissidents.
“I’ll speak to you when I can look into your eyes,” she says. She won’t be hard to miss, she explains. She’s blonde.
Lamia, an activist, walks into Rawda Café. Her hair is big and blonde and despite it, she tries to blend in. People hunched over their tables, playing backgammon, look up. The roll of dice on the backgammon board is sometimes louder than the conversation. For her these are uncertain times to say the least; these are also the most painful times.
The crisis in Syria started in March with 12 children scribbling graffiti on the walls in Dera’a.
The people want the fall of the regime, they wrote in red.
Since then President Bashar has played both good cop and bad cop: he has sent the army out on the streets, and deaths have mounted. But he has also repealed the draconian Emergency Law in place for 31 years. Many are afraid of talking in the open, terrified of the consequences. The government is enacting a program of reforms but years of policing have left a dirty smudge on the people’s minds.
She lifts her hands to her ears and covers them, then her hands move to her eyes, then to her mouth.
See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil, because someone is always watching, reporting and listening.
For many youths, political participation is the thorniest issue. Despite the changes enacted by Bashar. Civil society is too afraid to gather, too afraid to come together to engage in political discourse. The opposition continues to operate in exile, fearful of the consequences of returning back to Syria.
“Imagine, this is one of the only public places we talk in. It is like the dissident headquarters,” says a young man in tight blue jeans and a tight blue shirt at Rawda Café. He’s sat at the table with a huge stack of papers and pens in various colours. He’s a film director but worries his movie will never be aired. His script lies waiting for approval at the Ministry of Information’s office – it has been six months. “It’s never a good time to make a movie in Syria. It’s never a good time to make a movie on change in Damascus,” says Fadi.
The Ministry of Information, a black and white complex with reflective windows and a large screen playing the day’s scripted and approved news, begs comparisons to the system Orwell conjured up in 1984. It’s a staid building, lifeless and monochrome. The only splash of colour on the wall is a framed picture of Bashar. The Minister of Information maintains that there is no revolution; rather there is a conspiracy to overthrow the government in order to shift the balance of power in the Middle East. He too looks towards Israel – the room we met him in has a large poster of Israel and the Golan Heights. All Damascene I spoke to were united over the state’s Israel policy and the occupied territories.
When I asked the Minister of Information whether this could be about more than just regional game play and politics, whether the Syrian uprising had anything to do with the Arab Spring, he waved me off.
The Tunisian and Egyptian case do not apply here, he said confidently. People are happy he said, Damascus is peaceful.
Challenges to the current system have come suddenly. Change, if not an overthrow of the government but a complete overhaul of the political system may be round the corner.
“No one saw this coming,” says a diplomat who requested his name be withheld.
Damascus was until recently considered to be one of the safest Middle Eastern cities. In fact, a popularity poll held in February, a month before the Arab Spring came knocking on Syria’s door, placed Bashar at 70 per cent because for this very reason. He was also viewed as a reformer, a progressive Western educated liberal under the control of the regime’s old guard.
The regime, says the diplomat, is shaken; the security apparatus is confused but Damascus is not what the international media is portraying it out to be, he says over a potent drink of Arak. “It’s bad but there is no war, the international media is playing up the entire situation,” he says.
Maybe Bashar can ride this one through.
On the road to Mezze, a popular upscale neighborhood in Damascus two posters hang side by side. One of them has Bashar peering at you – middle-browed and stern – and the other has a picture of a girl smiling, holding her mobile to her ear, an ad for Syrian mobile company, SyriaCom.
It’s ironic that the Bashar regime faces a challenge because of the reforms the Eye Doctor (Bashar was meant to practice in London) enacted when he came to power in 2000. It is Bashar who broke away from his fathers’ policy of barring the internet and mobile phones but this very technological progress has helped further the current calls for change. The regime now employs greater propaganda than seen before.
George, a Damascene by birth, has seen Bashar’s pictures increase over the past seven months. “He’s liked but this borders on comical,” said George as we passed four enormous posters. A cult of personality is being harnessed but according to George, the President isn’t going anywhere despite certain ill-fated decisions such as the heavy hand used to quell the uprising in the early stages.
Life in Syria is not like a dinner party despite the seemingly calm nature of Damascus. The streets are busy, the restaurants open but business is not as usual.
The middle class, they who have traditionally stood behind Bashar have taken a severe economic beating because of international sanctions that slap everyday people. Money is a scare commodity in Damascus (sanctions have also meant that the Syrian Pound can no longer be printed in Europe). Credit Cards – American Express to Visa – don’t work and the country teeters towards becoming a barter economy.
Many Syrians that I spoke with view the current crisis though the Iraq experience where civil war and chaos are always a possibility. Economics do factor in but for a country made of Sunni, Shi’a, Alawi, Christians, Druze and Armenians, national and sectarian unity is most important.
They reject foreign intervention at any cost. In a particularly telling conversation the reason for the current Syria witch-hunt was outlined:
Maher: Look at what they did to Iraq.
Me: But Iraq has oil. What do you have?
Maher: We have Israel.
Bouthaina Shaaban expanded on this view. “The idea is to divide the Middle East, to create mini-states and the result will be one hegemon in the region. That hegemon will be Israel.”
Meanwhile life in Damascus carries on. The souks are open, the Umayyad Mosque bustles but an air of uncertainty lingers in the air. The people I spoke with want to break away from the past and walk towards a new future. A journalist at the state newspaper worried about his children and the coming generation. He likened present day Damascus to the paranoid 80s; this because of the mukhabarat.
As the crisis continues to play out in Homs, Dera’a and Hama, the mukhabarat, informers are back on the streets. These traditional minders were Hafez al Assad’s watchdogs. But to the average Damascene these are remnants of an archaic political system. It is they who makes them look over their shoulders.
“With or without Bashar, more freedom needs to be given. This chaos needs to end,” he said.
This when we were sat smoking a grape shisha, playing pretend, as if nothing abnormal was in the air.
(Alia Allana is our lady of the Arab Spring. This is the second in a series; the first, posted yesterday, was a despatch from Homs.)
- The New York Times: Death of Qaddafi Revives Opposition, and Hope, in Syria
- Global Voices Online: Citizen Voices from Syria