A Personal Absolution from Dictatorship

(Nota bene – some or all of this might have been written with the assistance of pain-killers)

I am done with talking about Syria.  With the release of the Assad e-mails, the world is finally went mad.  After a year of the Syrian uprising gradually deviating from the narratives obligingly set out from it, from the unswift nature of the conflict to the protestors’ stubborn decision not to be CIA agents, the release of the e-mails is an attempt by the forces of liberal Orientalism (here represented by the Guardian) to cow Assad’s image towards proper tyranny and make him look as bonkers as Idi Amin or Türkmenbashi.  For the Guardian, the revelations about Esma’s spending habits actually took precedence on Saturday and Sunday over the bombings in Damascus and Aleppo, events which normally should have been headlines.

Personally, I doubt that the e-mails are real.  Nothing I’ve seen from the Guardian satisfies me that they weren’t at least partly falsified.  Anyway, what kind of imbecile writes e-mails to government ministers about policies that he’s denied? And as for “If we’re strong we’ll get through this together.  I love you.” or whatever Esma is supposed to have e-mailed Bashar… who E-MAILS their spouse with declarations of support? They live together! He works from home! The only thing which makes me believe they could be genuine is that they’re too boring to have been invented.

The e-mails, and the ensuing flurry of interest from the Guardian and Aljazeera English, proved conclusively that the important thing, as far as those organs are concerned, is the removal of Assad, and not Syria’s prosperous future.  Of course, those two things are by no means separate from each other.  But nearly everything now is framed around the question “How can we remove Bashar?” and not “How can we guarantee a secure and prosperous Syria in the future?” Even people in the US who want a pro-US regime in Syria and are willing to invade for it probably think they would be doing so because it would be in the best interest of Syrians too; very few people – but the Saudi royal family may be among them – actually wish for a destabilised and violent Syria.  But the two questions are not equal: there are many ways of removing Bashar which will not lead to a prosperous Syria.

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But as I said, I am done with talking about Syria.  And here might be why:

I was looking through my drawer of decorations a few days ago when I came across my old Syrian flag, bought for me as a present by my housemates when I lived in Damascus, and I realised that within the year I will probably have to destroy it.

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A lot of what I am about to say is, on one level, deeply selfish, like the tourists in the Old City of Damascus who used to oppose bringing in up-to-date water and electricity lines because it wouldn’t look as picturesque, and never mind the benefit to the residents.  Some of what I have to say here relates to aspects of Syria to which I will eventually have to adapt, and of course a popularly-elected Syrian government is worth that.  But much of it also reflects aspects of the way that a proportion of Syrians viewed, and still view, their own government, and the nostalgia for stability which might hint at why the population at large remains fiercely divided.

I am not trying to speak for Syrians here.  I just feel that so many of the West’s expectations about the course of events in Syria over the last year have been frustrated because we do not understand the psychology of living under a one-party state in revolt.  We are aware of traits like the nostalgia for stability, we’re familiar with them, but we don’t really understand them.  Partly, then, this is an attempt to convey that, in a diluted form, to people who have no experience of it; the Syrians themselves could naturally do it better, but they have rather larger issues to hand.  But it is also a reflection on how vastly Syrian society has changed over the last year, now that parts of this description no longer apply to vast swathes of the population.

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A friend of mine, now a journalist at the BBC, told me that when she visited Jordan with her parents after our year abroad was over, they visited an area near the Israeli border which had been marshland, but which was now dried up.  Apparently, her first thought was “The Zionists!” Reason kicked in shortly afterwards.

When we went back to England and left the Ba’thist bubble we remembered that life wasn’t always so; Syria was supposed to be the enemy.  It’s difficult to explain our behaviour to outsiders, harder still to justify it.  If you travel to an autocratic state for a short amount of time (such as when I went to China) your method of coping is to distance yourself from what’s going on, a kind of self-imposed Verfremdungseffekt.  This is often easier if you’re there briefly because you’re less likely to be familiar with the language – I’m unlikely to chant Maoist slogans as I can neither pronounce nor understand them.  Not only that, but it’s widely accepted that there is a lot of internal opposition to the Chinese government, so keeping it at a distance seems like “the right thing to do”.

But in Damascus, 2010, not only could we understand the slogans, but there was no-one around to stop us.  Opposition to the government seemed like a purely external matter.  You can’t sigh or shudder whenever you see a poster of the President or a Ba’thist banner if you live there for a year and see him 20 times a day.  Your personal distancing breaks down and turns into mocking appropriation.  It hadn’t even been two months until we were sufficiently desensitised to request to have our picture taken on Jbal Qasioun next to a poster of Bashar, not to identity with the Ba’th Party, but as a way of proving that we were in Syria, in the same spirit that people pretend to prop up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Then, gradually, the mockery quietly becomes less and less ironic, until you find yourself in a street in Mezze shouting “With our soul, with our blood, we’ll defend you, Bashar”, even though you don’t mean it.

I went to the Panorama of the ’73 War in Damascus.  I loved it.  I loved it although I recognised even then that it was a way of diverting people’s attention towardsIsrael, to make them cry for the Palestinians even while life in Syria was hardly perfect. (Who could forget the thousands upon thousands of black-and-blood-coloured Gaza posters that covered the walls of Damascus in December 2009, or the Israeli flags that covered the floors?) Although it’s petty, I worry for the fate of those beautiful paintings of great scenes from Syrian history that hang (hung?) in the entrance hall.  What will happen to them when the government eventually falls? In the end, I would give them up for a democratic Syria, even a jealous and unstable one.  I hate the thought of some North Korean artist’s depiction of Zenobia burning up around the ruins of Israeli tanks and jets.  But that day will come.

Perhaps what will bother me the most, long term, is that when I say Damascus 2010, it will have the same overtones as Baghdad, 2002 or Beirut, 1974.  At least in Iraq and Lebanon, people were aware something was on its way.  This caught us off guard.  But I will no longer be able to control how the people I’m talking to view Syria.  Already I can’t mention that I was there without receiving a look of wonderment, as if I’d said I had spent a year in Pyongyang.  People now have a framework for understanding Syria, even if – or, given the sudden global buzz about Joseph Kony, especially if – that framework is simplified and somewhat selective with its facts.  It is through that lens that my time there will be seen.  I will have to edit the fun out of it.  My year abroad, like my Syrian flag, will have been destroyed by what others see in it.

I miss Damascus.  I want it back.  If I had known on my last trip along the Airport Highway (almost two years ago now, in a taxi filled with Feirouz and cigarettes) that before I returned again I would have to hear of battles and deaths on that same road, I would never have been able to leave.

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