Bashar al-Assad, sometime doctor, now autocratic ruler of Syria, has killed at least 50 people during the past week, and probably far more. In their hearts, I think the Syrian people knew that they would pay a heavy price for freedom. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons it has taken so long for protests to take off there, even though Syria is high on the list of the most repressive governments in the world. Emergency laws, in place for the past fifty years, allow the government to censor, arrest, torture, intimidate, and suspend most constitutional rights. And Syria has a lingering nightmare always in the back of its mind. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad, father of the current dictator, presided over a massacre in the city of Hama that left tens of thousands of people dead. Just how many nobody knows for certain. Word didn’t leak out to the international community for weeks, and by then the dead had been interred in mass graves, and a blanket of enforced secrecy had fallen over the incident. In Syria, even mentioning the events in Hama is strictly forbidden. However, a full description of the massacre (not for the faint of heart) has been compiled by the Syrian Human Rights Committee.
It is against this backdrop that the Syrians are exhibiting extraordinary courage as they defy a government that until now has so effectively controlled them by fear and force. I have a special feeling for Syria, and have been waiting anxiously for this moment. In January of 2001, when I arrived in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad and George W. Bush were both new presidents. I hoped for the best from both of them. It was a time of cautious optimism in Syria. With his English education and decidedly unpolitical original career choice, the newly “elected” Bashar seemed less formidable than his father. The mild-mannered, unimposing figure he cut belied the family name, which in Arabic means “lion.” It was possible, just faintly possible for the optimistic, that under his leadership Syria might peacefully transition to a more free and open society.
But all the trappings of dictatorship remained, and I was to become intimately acquainted with many of them during my stay in Damascus. First, there were the pictures of the president. Everywhere. And often they weren’t just pictures, they were adoring collages of the president and his father and his deceased elder brother, all framed by such a profusion of sentimental flowers that it would be amusing if you could forget the circumstances. The regime also actively promotes hatred of Israel as a tool for domestic political support and stability, so Bashar could be found dressed in fatigues with a machine gun, or with his arm extended, Hitler-style, over cheering crowds and rows of troops. I still have posters and pamphlets and my Bashar keychain packed away somewhere as memorabilia. If I had them here with me, perhaps I would ceremonially burn them in solidarity.
But there were other more sinister signs. Such as the day, a week or so after I arrived, when I met the student president of the campus Ba’ath party at the University of Damascus. I was with my Arabic study buddy, and she deferentially introduced me. He smiled down at me and asked if I knew what my name meant. All innocence, I replied that Sarah means “princess” in Hebrew (justifiably proud of myself for being able to conduct the conversation entirely in Arabic). There was a cold silence, and then he informed me that Sarah was the wife of Abraham. My smile faded at the expression on his face. I was utterly bewildered. After he stalked away, my study buddy informed me, shivering, that I should never mention Israel or Hebrew again, and that the student Ba’ath organization reports directly to the government. It was shortly after that incident that I began to notice creepy people following us around campus, and even sometimes trying to engage me in conversation. I was never threatened, but I never had any unguarded conversations with anyone. I wasn’t worried about myself, but I didn’t want my Syrian friends to face intimidation, detention, or worse on my account.
We were told to assume that our living quarters were bugged by the mukhabarat, the infamous secret police of Syria. So my fellow American students and I would often joke about the mukhabarat in our ceiling fan. Maybe they were there, and maybe they weren’t. But on one memorable day, I remember finally breaking down and spending an hour or so ranting to the ceiling fan mukhabarat about just what I thought of them. Ill-advised, I know. But living under a repressive dictatorship, even if it’s not your own, really does strange things to a person. If you have never tried to conduct a normal existence in the real-life equivalent of 1984, it’s just hard to explain.
However, the incident I really need to get off my chest happened on Mother’s Day of 2001. As part of our cultural outreach activities, members of my study group were spread throughout the city of Damascus participating in ongoing service projects. The project I picked was teaching songs to the children at a special ed school in preparation for a Mother’s Day performance. I went every week with a couple of other American students to teach twenty or so sweet, adorable down syndrome children how to sing a few songs, both in English and in Arabic. The songs we chose were simple ones expressing love for their mothers. It took a long time to teach them, but it didn’t matter. I loved visiting those children. They were so kind to each other and loving to us. And they didn’t care at all that my Arabic was rudimentary. They would always greet us with smiles and hugs, and we usually stayed after music time to play with them at recess.
However, an odd thing began to happen after a few weeks. The teachers at the school apologetically informed us that the songs we were to teach the children had changed. In fact, they changed several times over the next few weeks. We had one cold and formal interview with a school administrator, in which we feebly suggested that our songs had been more appropriate for Mother’s Day than the increasingly politically-toned songs they were insisting that we replace them with. In the end though, rather than our sentimental mother-I-love-you songs, we had to settle for teaching the children songs about the glory of the Syrian Republic, and standing for Bashar al-Assad “with heart, with blood,” etc.
I still held out the hope, though, that even though the songs were decidedly not to do with mothers at all, at least the program would be a nice tribute to the mothers, who would think their children adorable no matter what songs they sang. When we arrived at the room where the Mother’s Day performance was to be held, I was impressed with the grandeur of the setting. A stage festooned with flowers was crowned by a gigantic projection screen. The audience was full of parents and grandparents, and children from a dozen or more schools were dressed in various costumes (including a group of very blonde Russian girls dressed up with their hair braided in ribbons to do a traditional Russian dance, reminding me that Russia’s cold war ties with Syria remain warm).
But as we settled back to enjoy the program, my warm and fuzzy Mother’s Day thoughts about my own mother in faraway America were intruded upon by my dawning realization that Mother’s Day in autocratic Syria is more about glorifying Bashar and the Regime than it is about honoring mothers. Most of the performances had overtly political themes. To me, there was just something obscene about twisting a celebration of children honoring the maternal bond into a blatant glorification of political repression and violence. The worst was a large group of identically-dressed children who couldn’t have been older than five or six, singing their hearts out with lyrics about being ready to fight to the death and bleed for the fatherland. As they sang, the screen behind them played video of graphic scenes of fire and bloodshed from various wars with Israel. By the time I got up on stage with my sweet, innocent charges to lead them through a political rallying cry for President Bashar (yes, complete with the Hitler-salute), I was feeling sick with anger and betrayal.
How was it that the tender family moment I had planned to share with these children had been perverted by a self-serving government into just another showy display of the “grassroots support” enjoyed by the regime? I felt used. I felt violated. I felt guilty for having been caught up in something I would never have done had I understood what it was from the beginning. My efforts to bridge cultural gaps and forge friendships between my country and Syria had, in this case, backfired on me in a way I never expected. It had all happened so gradually, and with such smooth and understated but iron-clad control that before I knew it, I was on Syrian national television (yes, the whole thing was filmed and broadcast) leading the most innocent of the innocent in saluting President Bashar like a dyed-in-the-wool Ba’ath partisan.
And now, as I watch Syrians being gunned down by that very same government as they demonstrate for basic human rights, I cringe again. Of course I wouldn’t obey Bashar if he told me to go out and shoot protesters. But I joined the faceless masses, however unwillingly, in singing his praises. All I can say is, I’m sorry. With all my heart, I support the Syrians in their cause, and wish them success and Godspeed as they begin their perilous journey toward freedom.