Syria dispatch: The road to Qardaha

Hafez al-Assad's tomb at Qardaha

A British reader of this website who until recently lived in Syria sent in this dispatch, about his last few weeks in Damascus. 

The broad-shouldered middle-aged figure walked into the internet café and sat down in front of the manager. The black leather jacket and olive trousers – de rigueur in those circles – marked him out as a member of the Mukhabarat, Syria’s feared “secret” police. He wanted to know if anybody had been looking at opposition websites critical of the government.

“Not at all”, my friend said in Arabic, “we always look out for that kind of behaviour; in fact, on my screen here I can see everybody else’s computer so know straight away if they are doing something illicit,” at the same time closing the incriminating websites on his desktop. The policemen nodded approvingly and picked up the list – held by all Syrian internet cafes - that records the name, identity number and entry time of customers.

Before he left however, the operative had just one more question: he wanted to know how it was that young Syrians were able to find these websites in the first place? My friend began to apprise him of Google and its use as a search engine, this was clearly the first time he’d heard of this wondrous new programme, but already his mind was working, “We’re going to have to shut down this Google thing”.

“What? Close Google?” my friend said. “Yep,” came the reply.

I witnessed this exchange in early May 2011, two months on from the outbreak of protests and nearly two years on from when I had first arrived in the country with the aim of improving my spoken Arabic. As the protests grew in size and intensity the frequency with which my friends and I would encounter the state’s security apparatus increased as the country’s Alawite leadership struggled to maintain control over the country.

Panic

I watched as the predominantly Christian neighbourhood in which I lived retreated inside itself. Whipped up into a mass of hysteria as the Mukhabarat sent memos to shopkeepers warning of imminent attacks on their churches by Salafists (members of an extreme sect of Islam) - supposedly sponsored by the Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan – barricades were erected and manned throughout the night whilst underemployed youths patrolled the narrow lanes with sticks and axes waiting for this imagined threat.

To be clear, despite the tolerance and the pluralistic attitude to religion espoused by Assad’s government – its greatest selling point – the sectarian divisions have always run deep. Whether it were warnings by young Christian men that the manner in which I greeted others was redolent of local Muslims and as such should be avoided, or the concern with which fathers greeted news of their daughters mixing with Muslim men, the divisions were evident and in existence long before anyone had heard of a fruit seller in Tunisia.

It is this sectarianism and minority fear that account for the support the government is receiving from the Christian quarter as they identify with the government’s own minority status. Shocked by the killings being carried out by the Syrian security forces the vast majority of Christians I spoke to (nearly always in Arabic) want to see reforms, but within the framework of the current government. They fear that the fall of the regime would see the ascendency of a conservative Sunni dominated government in which their rights as a religious minority would be subordinate to those of this threatened Islamic state. As one Christian owner of a successful fast food chain pointed out to me, “in Egypt the Copts cannot build new churches or extensions on their existing ones, here (Syria) we never have that problem.”

Divisions

It would however be a gross simplification to suggest that the divisions that now exist within Syrian society reflect religious beliefs only. Within a few months of the outbreak of protests battle lines had been drawn in workplaces. A friend of mine, a journalist for a popular lifestyle magazine in Syria, told me how her office had been split down the middle, with those supporting the incumbent working on one side and those known to be favouring change (obvious in their lack of vocal support for the President) along the other. Friends were lost and managers antagonised as Facebook pages revealed a person’s true allegiances. This same friend told how her manager, upon seeing that she belonged to an opposition Facebook group, sent her a threatening email asking that she consider very carefully her position at the company.

And therein lays one of the truths revealed by current events: the present regime has created a system in which a few prosper at the expense of the many. It is senior managers and the businessman close to the regime that have most to lose from any upheaval.

It was interesting to hear a British friend recount to me how the views of students in the English language class (from the Central Bank) he teaches were split along seniority lines. Although the students were too frightened to make their opinions explicit, they would express their grievances with the regime by vocalising in class — in front of their bosses — their displeasure with their salaries, all the while disguised as English language practice. The managers were always content.

Riches

It was a common refrain from local friends that Syria no longer has a middle class, “ya fauk, ya taht” (“you are either at the top or at the bottom”). Taxi drivers were often at a loss to explain to me why both cars and mobile phone units were more expensive in Syria than in the UK. Their reticence not a sign of ignorance, but an acknowledgement of the fact that a group of powerful families close to the government run what is essentially a monopoly in both industries, the criticism of whom would not be tolerated.

In 2003, Riyad Saif, a member of parliament and vocal opponent of the government, dared to question whether a deal made by SyriaTel (the state telecom provider, owned by the President’s cousin Rami Maklouf) was in the interest of Syria. He received five years in prison.

Aside from the knowledge that the government has presided over a period of widening income inequality in an already poor country, without making any serious effort to reform, people are upset by the prevalence of “wasta”. With no real equivalent in the English language, it is almost a cross between nepotism, power and bribery, with the difference being that it is something one possesses. The need for “wasta” permeates every level of society; it is not simply a case of a few people using their contacts to gain an advantage in a particular circumstance. Instead it is the ability to have a government document processed quickly, avoid military service, or simply the power to circumvent the ubiquitous payment of bribes that plague the public sector. Jokingly refereed to as “Vitamin W”, in reference to the economic pickup it provides its owners, “wasta” was used in coded criticism of the elite as a substitute for the word few would dare utter; “fassad” – corruption.

Protest

On a Friday afternoon in mid-March I was strolling through the cobbled lanes of the old-city with my girlfriend and her mother. As we ascended the steps leading to that ancient seat of power and learning, the Omayyad Mosque, we began to hear a commotion. Hastening through the alleyway towards the sound we turned the corner into the main square, our ears suddenly assaulted by the cacophony of noise as pro-democracy protestors chanted slogans in competition with those backing the regime. “Allah, Suriya, hurriya” – “God, Syria, freedom” the rhyme heightening the sense of defiance in their voices.

“Allah, Suriya, Bashar wa bass” – “God, Syria, and Bashar, only” retorted a choir of paid informants and Mukhabarat; the sheer volume overwhelming the democracy activists, but the incongruities of sounds and lack of harmony were almost a signpost to the hollowness of the regime they were propping up.

Making our way through the crowds in front of the mosque we eventually passed into a side street lined with buses. In the innocence of those early days the buses had not yet come to take on the symbolism that they later would, oblivious to what was happening we pressed on. We heard the shouts before we saw the man; he was being dragged from behind us, the three men - all clad in black leather jackets, one carrying an asp – pulled the stricken man past us, up to the entrance of one of the buses and deposited him inside. The bus shook as the figures inside it moved about, but we were not to know the reason, for the curtains had been drawn.

The next few weeks witnessed a gradual escalation in the size of protests and the demands of the activists, with each Friday like a set-piece in a game of football between the regime and its opponents.

Speeches

Syrian friends living in Damascus who had been concerned by the president’s reticence in the face of the growing unrest were relieved to hear news of a first speech that they fully expected would culminate in the ending of the much reviled emergency law. As middle-class Damascenes with relatively well-paid jobs they cherished the seeming stability that this regime had provided, one only had to look to neighbouring countries to see what could happen.

In years to come, when historians analyse the events of 2011 they will no doubt look back on Assad’s first speech as a turning point. Returning to my girlfriend’s flat that evening I found her and her friend discussing the speech. I was shocked. In the past her friend had always been one of the president’s most ardent supporters, but her stance had now changed dramatically. She felt that the president had completely misunderstood the seriousness of the situation. In her mind it was a grave misjudgment to have allowed expectations over the scrapping of the emergency law to rise only for the speech to offer nothing new.

That same evening I went to my favourite internet café, ostensibly to check my email, but really I wanted to gauge the reaction of the owner (with whom I had become good friends) to the speech. He was as dismissive of the situation as ever. A middle-aged Christian who had fought in the 1973 war against Israel, he was used to life in a police-state and was confident in the regime’s ability to suppress any dissent, in fact he welcomed the regime’s actions. Speaking in Arabic he told me how he valued the stability that he thought Assad offered, the people carrying out the attacks against the government were not Syrians, but Lebanese seeking to stir up trouble, they should be dealt with severely.

Later that night, after the owner had left I sat alone with the manager of the café (another friend). A closet-atheist, raised in a Christian household he sympathised with the protestors plight and recognised their demands, but was concerned with what might happen if the regime did actually fall. Would the ensuing anarchy, bloodletting and loss of protection for religious minorities that he predicted be any better? Yes, the regime had serious faults, but the alternative being touted by the pro-democracy activists was not an improvement. And anyway he pointed out, why should he join the protestors when so many of their chants were underpinned by religious convictions (“Allahu Akbar”) rather than those of freedom and humanity?

Set-pieces

A few weeks later I was sat with some friends in a café in the Damascus suburb of Saruja watching Barcelona play Real Madrid in the Champions League. The atmosphere was already tense as earlier that evening a man had been taken away by the Mukhabarat for shouting a pro-democracy slogan in a café opposite. Sipping at my coke I did my best to enjoy the game trying to forget the ominous presence of the two characters clad in black leather jackets sitting in the corner.

Suddenly a goal was scored and the room erupted into a scene of celebration. Within an instant the owner had turned the television off. I sat in astonished silence as he explained that there were to be no boisterous post-goal scenes in his café, gently alluding to the figures in the corner. Another slight, another small encroachment of the state into the private sphere. At once tamed and humbled the all-male crowd returned quietly to their seats, the television switched back on, the humiliation complete.

Although at that time living in Damascus, my girlfriend was originally from Homs and travelled back to visit her family every other week. I would pick her up from the Pullman bus depot in the east of Damascus on Saturday evenings making the usual enquires into how she had spent the weekend. As the protests wore on I began to notice that she was often tired upon her return to the capital, a matter I attributed to the stress she must be suffering as a result of the turmoil the country was experiencing. I was correct about the stress, but wrong about the tiredness.

Her restless nights were caused by the constant din reverberating around Homs as its residents repeatedly called out the first words of the the call to prayer throughout the night. “Allahu Akbar” they would shout from their balconies, windows and rooftops, the familiar call an act of defiance, a challenge to the regime. The irony was lost on nobody. The same words that had challenged the Shah over 30 years ago when it was heard above the rooftops of Shi’a Tehran, leading to the most pro-Syrian theocracy in the history of the 20th Century, had now been appropriated by Syrian Sunnis calling for the end of a regime that saw itself as a Shi’a sect.

The truth is that despite the language of the Enlightenment that the more media savvy western-orientated Syrians couch their calls for reform in, there is still a strong religious dimension driving many of the protestors.

Posters

It is not without reason that one of the most popular car posters among regime enthusiasts is a picture of the late President Hafez al Assad with his hands cupped about his ears in a position of prayer. The President’s Islamic credentials need to be flaunted in this manner to deflect the assertions made by Syria’s more conservative Sunnis that the Assad’s are not Muslims, much less Shi’a.

In the 1970s, pronouncements by Iranian clerics that the Alawite sect was in fact an offshoot of Shi’a Islam bolstered the regime’s religious credentials, but many remain unconvinced, seeing the present leadership as an anomaly in the country’s Sunni dominated history.

Driving back from a restaurant one night I sat listening as my Syrian friend –a conservative Sunni - denounced the President as a non-believer: “He prays in the Omayyad [mosque] as a way to get closer to the people, it’s all for show.” Later that night, passing by the headquarters of the Alawite-dominated state security he pointed at the guards, “do you think any of these men attend a mosque?” I had heard similar things before: Sunnis criticising the President for his lack of religious credentials. A stark reminder that this was not solely a domestic issue, but rather part of the centuries long confrontation between Shi’a and Sunni that had found its most recent expression in the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Resentment towards the Alawite nature of the regime was not confined to believers only, it was to be found amongst the secular also. Older members of Syrian society recalled the days when the people from the coastal region of Latakia – the traditional Alawite base - were known as hired help, employed as gardeners or cleaners, a designer accessory for wealthy Syrians much like the Filipinos working in Damascus today. Alawites were seen as rural types, unaccustomed to the gentrified manners and pretensions of city life, an image that they have found difficulty in shedding.

Sitting in an expensive restaurant with a group of Syrian friends I noticed that the two women next to me were whispering to one another. Enquiring as to their discussion they told me that they were amused by the appearance of the women at the opposite table. Accoarding to my friends the brash clothes, heavy make-up and blonde highlights marked the women out as Alawites; a Syrian nouveau-riche whose wealth, power and status coincided with the spectacular rise in fortune of their poster-boy, the former President Hafez al-Assad. The sentiments were not new, I had heard variations on those words many times before.

Goodbye

As I prepared to finally depart Damascus for a translation job in Beirut I spent a final few hours in my favourite internet café. The owner was there as always, but this time he was in the company of a man I had never seen before. In his early twenties the man stood up as the owner introduced me to him.

From the full enunciation of the Arabic letter “qaf” I could tell he was from Latakia, now here in Damascus to study law he told me. Asking after my time in Syria he wanted to know if I had learnt anything about the place. Did I know the capital of Syria? Inwardly groaning at his weak attempt to make me welcome (did he really think foreigners were so ignorant of the places they visited?) I told him Damascus. “No”, came the answer. I looked up from my computer screen, now paying him full attention. “No, you’re wrong, it’s not Damascus”, he continued. Piqued by his silly game, I asked him where it was. “Qardaha” he replied.

I had seen or heard this place before somewhere, but could not at that moment place it. My face must have revealed my puzzlement for he was openly grinning now. And then I realised, if I had heard it once before, then I had certainly walked past the poster of its most famous export hundreds of times.

Crossing the border into Lebanon that night I saw his picture one last time, in full military regalia Hafez al Assad stared down at me, he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.