Do sit down with this enlightening, thoughtful, of course heartbreaking essay by a former English teacher -- and Arabic student -- in Damascus. It brought back memories of my own extraordinary tutor in Cairo, a similarly cultured and impassioned and generous man who know a language class could be so much more.
It was the surreal highlight of a happy day. Looking back, the whole day seems like a scaled-down model of the three years to come: a charmed wandering across the surface of Syrian life, nourished by great food and chance encounters, tutored by countless small embarrassments, cushioned by the privilege of a British passport and an expat salary. The signs of a dictatorship—the presidential portraits, the leather-jacketed security men, the off-limits areas of conversation—were impossible to ignore. But my Syrian friends seemed bright, open-minded, and irreverent. None of them resembled cowed, brainwashed subjects of a totalitarian state. “The regime can be cruel,” a Syrian colleague once told me, “but as long as people stay out of politics, they are left to get on with their lives.” Most days this line was not difficult to believe.
Watching the referendum debke, though, was one of the moments when I realized how little I understood. I could comprehend people voting “Yes,” grudgingly or even wholeheartedly: the president was, on the face of it, widely admired. But this dance of gratitude seemed so undignified. Not even the most devoted supporter could have been in any doubt that the referendum was a farce: the maniacal repetition of the theme song, the ridiculous slogans, the conspicuous absence of a “No” campaign. What led intelligent men and women to dance debke in honor of a president who forced such absurdities on his people?
A video from the Radd Fa'al Crew in Yarmouk camp