The Assad Regime and the Chaos of Freedom

Yesser Afghani

15 May 2014

A Surrealistic Introduction

Almost nothing has changed since I last left the place. Sitting there next to the yellow jasmine tree at my mum’s house while sipping my cup of coffee has still got the very same effect on the soul. I sat there, waiting to wake up from a dream that kept recurring a lot during my recent expatriate years of immigration. I was sure something in the dream will definitely take me back to my comfortable bed under that inclined European ceiling. When awake, man can usually distinguish between reality and fantasy, yet for sure, in our expatriate life we did learn how to differentiate between those two extremes even when we’re dreaming.

I woke up of course. I slowly walked into the bathroom; and I shall skip some of the details of what happened with me there! I looked for my glasses, made myself a cup of coffee and went out to the balcony… I sat near the yellow jasmine tree. The sun was shining… Damascus’s sun… Damascus’s air… Damascus’s traffic and voices speaking my same language… Even the microbus flashing by like an arrow, causing unbearable noise, and releasing enough carbon dioxide to pollute half of Europe.
Then, when that big black car drove by with red flags flapping out, chanting loud music that glorifies the leader in celebration of his upcoming re-election, I realized that my ability to separate between reality and dream began to crack. I was indeed sitting with my cup of coffee near the yellow jasmine tree at my mother’s house, but the driver of that black car managed, in one moment, to spoil every meaning of my existence in this place.

Moscow

There’s no doubt I was expecting something like that, especially when the rituals of exalting the “leader of the world” start from a place far beyond the limits of his influence control. My plane landed in Moscow at 6 o’clock in the evening. I went into the airport where I will be transiting for three hours as if I were entering the barracks of an army division. Blonde ladies in miniskirts and very tight blouses speaking a language that I don’t understand but which sounds like Saddam Hussein’s accent…They start giving you orders in Russian language as if they are trainers in the [notorious] fourth division of the Syrian Arab Army [headed by Maher, the brother of Bashar al-Assad].
Hay Mister, give me your passport. Wait there… over there! Here you go Mister. Where do you live Mister? Where are you travelling to Mister? Take your passport Mister.
This way Mister. What do you have in your luggage? A can of Coca-Cola?

It’s not permitted Mister. This way Mister.

Beirut

The next stop was in Beirut where the rituals of glorification [of the leader] have a distinct form. For Lebanon is a country divided between supporters and opponents of the Syrian president. In there, they cheer for the departure of Syrian troops out of Lebanon and to the elimination of the Syrian file from the Lebanese life…. At the same time, there is not a single conversation in Lebanon which is not centered on Syria, the Syrian president, and the “crisis” in Syria. In Lebanon there is everything: ladies talking to their children in French, men struggling to earn their bread, youth meeting in deafening bars at night. In Lebanon there are security roadblocks for no reason and narrow streets where cars drive at crazy speeds, and two traffic lights for each direction, neither of which serve any real purpose. In Lebanon there is the sea, mountain and sun, there are friends, delicious local pastries [fata’eer], sad memories, social classes and a strange form of freedom.

Damascus

Meanwhile in Damascus, photos of Mr. President occupied every single space, whether they fit within or not. On shop fronts there lay larger- than-actual size pictures of Bashar al-Assad. On street billboards there are photos of Bashar al-Assad. On car windows, are photos of Bashar al-Assad. On “No Entry” traffic signs. On the cement blocks of security barricades. On the sleeves of military suites of army members are photos of Bashar al-Assad. On the berets of the “lejan sha’abeya” [‘Popular Committees = paramilitaries, militias] there are photos of Bashar al-Assad. For every occasion and for nothing there are photos of Bashar al-Assad. For a cause and for none. For a purpose or not there are photos of Bashar al-Assad.
The photos of Bashar al-Assad are as boring as these repetitive words about Bashar al-Assad. They might even chase you in your dreams.

From the very moment you set feet on Syrian land your brain automatically starts working in a different manner, it’s like Bashar al-Assad’s photos, spreading over every ten centimeters, suddenly no longer annoy you! It’s like waving flags and blaring music have always been part of your life, in fact, the sole part of your entire life!
In a moment you get used to the new roads, parts of which are restricted for military usage. You become forced to comprehend those ambiguous signals from a handheld torch instructing you to turn off your car’s lights before that tired soldier manning the roadblocks fires at you. You also get used to the sight of a big rifle aiming directly at your chest, held by a sniper standing on an iron tower right under the sun at the “Qasr al-Deyafa [Hospitality Palace] in Abo-Roumaneh [a luxury suburb in Damascus]. “Desensitization” is the correct word that describes what is happening to people in al-Assad’ Syria.
Syrians living in their homeland evolve an attribute that protects them from the wrath of the [State] Security Forces and avoids them getting involved in trouble of ominous consequences.

On a road that is just about to explode from traffic, cars spontaneously clear way for another car that has a mounted machine gun and pictures of Bashar al-Assad just as it approaches from the wrong direction releasing an irritating horn noise along with great deal of filthy insults bursting out from the mouth of the driver to make the public, the scum of earth, move from his way; more correctly their way. Few meters before the roadblock of a checkpoint they disembark from their transport vehicle and pass through on foot to avoid being questioned about their ID… Me too; I did the same thing… I did it with the natural instinct of the Syrian citizen…I did it before my first 24 hours of being in Syria have passed.
Here, Syrian citizens lower their voices when discussing anything serious… They give a charming smile at the checkpoints as to not deprive the soldier searching the vehicle from his pleasure in humiliating them. They raise flags, which they almost puke in disgust at their sight, to avoid the evil of “Shabeeha” [pro-regime thugs] who toy with Syrians as if they were some chicken in a coop. They praise the leader when necessary.
They walk fast. Heads down. If needed, they chant slogans and overdo the “Shabeeha” in their praise to the leader of the world, their blue-eyed idol. And after all that, there remains no doubt that they are capable of going to the polling stations and vote for their idol, for a third time, for a lifetime.

The Boot

The Assad regime tries to impose some sort of terror in the citizens to force them to choose between the ‘Assad regime’ and the ‘chaos’ of freedom.
It’s a new sort of chaos that spreads everywhere in the streets of Damascus: security roadblocks without reason, militias terrorizing the citizens and gazing suspiciously and questioningly at pedestrians… Street hawkers, some of them are just poor fellows where others are secret agents. But what is interesting amongst this chaos; which was originally orchestrated to make Syrians despise the word ‘freedom’, is that this very chaos shall help the Syrians build their new society without al-Assad.
And this sounds like a complex idea but I saw it crystallize before my own eyes.

For around fifty years, both Assads, the late father and then his successor, have forced their regime on the people. Everything that appeared to be in order during that period was nothing but the effects of Assad regime’s suppression of the citizens. It was an order enforced by the ‘boot’. Syrians did not need to play a role in running their country and handling their own affairs. All they needed was imposed upon them from top by dictation and force; in other words: “enforced by the boot”. And when Assad’s regime decided to let the Syrians select between its rule and the chaos of their freedom, it simply lifted the “boot” off them. But the people who underwent years of that “boot” rule, suddenly found themselves facing a new situation they never thought of or even felt they had to think of: and that is the sense of responsibility.
And as far as daily life in Syria’s streets appears to be chaotic, intertwined and tiresome, as much as that helps the Syrians to realize their problems and manage their lives in a manner they never imagined they were capable of under the rule of Assad’s ”boot”.
In this moment, the Syrians will start building their own personal systems in a way that better suits them than what was imposed upon them by the “boot”.

In the Department of Immigration and Passports (DI&P), at the window designated for receiving their passports, gathers a number of Syrians large enough to liberate Jerusalem! While the experience of paperwork and at the DI&P remains unique, I still don’t want to write about it in a couple of lines because it deserves a full separate post and a dedicated article space.
What’s more important is that Syrians who had to stand and wait until they hear their names to receive their passports have developed a number of new techniques for organizing themselves. The nature of these techniques remains unimportant; what is rather crucial is that the Syrians managed to develop them on their own without the “boot” of their Assad. And since I had to wait three times in line over there days because of the crowds, I was able to recognize three different methods Syrians were using to manage their own queues.
If you had to wait like them, you will realize that a time would come where Syrians will no longer require the Assad’s “boot” to organize their lives. Just like they managed to develop methods for organizing their long waiting queues, they will be able to develop their own governance system without Assad’s “boot”. And time will come where the Assad regime shall regret leaving the Syrians to their own devices and to building their lives without him, but then would be too late for him to reposition the ‘boot’ over their heads and he will eventually find himself left alone with his boot.

The double life of Syrians being divided between glorifying their idol and feeling despise towards him is not something new for them. For all our lives we used to secretly curse the regime and still vote for it every seven years. This state of schizophrenia has only become clearer now, however we still raise his photos to avoid the malice of the State Security and we still swear at him and his father in secrecy. Nothing has changed except for more photos raised and double the number of curses sworn! “Elections” are at the doorstep, and 99.99% of the Syrians will “elect” Bashar al-Assad for another seven years to come and fourteen years to have passed. After two years of not entering Syria, I was expecting the regime of Bashar al-Assad to have had more control over the lives of Syrians and their minds and thoughts. However, the Assad regime before the revolution is the same Assad regime after the revolution, and in this regards nothing has changed since I left the place last time.

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