On the Third Night - Syria, a Country Where You Didn't Talk Politics - Part II
Updated: Apr 14
Every Picture Tells a Story (Don't it?) 21
Photo: A Bookshop in Damascus - no Thoughts of President Hafez al-Assad in here
Continued from the post of April 6th - a private home in a Syrian city
Mohammed had put me in a very difficult situation. I wanted to believe he and his friends were genuine, and had invited me over on three successive nights out of an honest desire for friendship. In which case, I wanted to answer truthfully.
I couldn't pretend: I'd just come from Turkey, which was then under martial law, but here was a thousand times grimmer (unless you happened to be a communist activist or Kurdish separatist). In Syria, it wasn't just the politics – the poverty was shocking, as I'd seen first hand at the flea market in Aleppo on my first day.
To make out it was California with kebabs would be an insult. It would also be stupid. This was Syria, a country where the Mukhābarāt – the secret police – had infamously penetrated all aspects of society and where President Hafez al-Assad had, equally infamously, quelled protests in the city of Hama just two years earlier by destroying the old city, along with the people in it, with tanks and bulldozers.
Were these guys – or just one of them - Mukhābarāt agents – any answer whitewashing the regime wouldn't match my profile and would surely be very suspicious.
Trying to think fast, I replied: “Well, I must admit I was swayed by reports, which describe the country as politically repressive, and I imagined that the people would be unpleasant. This was silly of me, because I should have known from travelling in Muslim countries that ordinary people are very friendly and hospitable.”
This, so far, was all true – although Syrians were decidedly more wary of getting into conversation with strangers than, say, Turks.
But I had to say something critical, so I related an experience when I had gone out one evening in a town to buy a notebook.
“I found plenty of shops with sweets – huge cream cake-like concoctions – there were lots of jewelry outlets, shops with cameras, all from East Germany and Russia. But when I found a bookshop, all I could see in the windows were Holy Korans and volumes that looked like the Thoughts of President Assad.”
Then I added, being about as negative as I dared: “I think that's a shame.”
I could feel all six eyes of my hosts were intently upon me.
“That's not a shame,” Mohammed said, “That's a disaster.”
If I hadn't realised already, this conversation was fast getting into dangerous waters.
“You must understand they, the government, control everything here. Everything. Yes, they let us have sweets and make babies, sure, we do that alright. We're good at getting our women pregnant. But we can't see films starring Jews,” he said, referring back to Chariots of Fire.
From memory, Mohammed was doing most of the questioning, but the others chipped in.
“Every night, on our TV, they show films of British miners fighting the police in your country,” one said – let's call him Hassan - referring to the long, often violent miners' strike then underway in the UK.
“Why do you think they show that in our news, here, in Syria?”
Once again, I was on the spot.
“Well, let's face it, Syria is allied to the Soviet Union and the ruling party here [I feigned ignorance of the Ba'athist name] I suppose believes the west is evil and doomed, so they show these reports as seeming proof of this,” I said.
“That's right,” came the reply, “and do you know what we think?”
I shook my head.
“We think, if your government allows your miners to fight the police day after day, week afer week, then you must live in a democracy. Because if it happened just once here, the next day the army would be called in and they would bomb that village! And they've done it!”
Hassan almost spat the last words out.
Mohammed once again took the lead.
“The police station is not far away from here. Do you know what would happen to us if they got to know we were talking to you like this?” he asked.
I let him continue.
“We'd be killed.”
“You really think you'd be killed for this?” I replied in semi-disbelief.
“No, we don't think. We know. We'd be taken out in the desert to Palmyra prison: and three months later it would be announced we'd committed suicide.”
Mohammed said this in a matter-of-fact way, as if, in Syria at least, it would be understood as normal.
Photo: A Syrian schoolboy - at least, I think he was a schoolboy, although the uniform seems decidedly military. If I remember correctly, this was in Al Tabqah, northern Syria.
I forget how the evening broke up. Somwhere along the way Mohammed, while certainly not expressing any liking of Israel, declared that Hafez al-Assad's professed support of the Palestinian cause was merely part of his ploy to keep his domestic population under control.
He also had no love for the Islamic Brotherhood, who controlled the largest anti-Assad grouping in the country, and had been behind the uprising in Hama.
Photo: Palymyra, Famous among Foreigners for its Greco-Roman Ruins:
Infamous among Syrians for its Prison
I walked back to my hotel, mind racing. I believed, and believe to this day that they were genuine. (Of course, trained agents look genuine. And that doesn't rule out one or more was an informer.)
But the three had waited three nights before deciding to speak to me like this, surely discussing between themselves if and when they should open up. While I shared this story a few times among friends, for many years I would not name where it took place, just in case. Today, after the destruction of so much of Syria during the civil war, including the city where these evening conversations took place, I expect all three will be dead, unless they left before the fighting began. The would certainly be prime subjects for interrogation should the Mukhābarāt get hold of them. This was the one and only time during my 15 days in Syria when anyone dared raise the subject of domestic politics - indeed, any politics - with me.
To be continued.
Here is a link to a report on the Hama massacre on NPR.
AlHakam Shaar, originally from Aleppo, wrote this to me as comment:
Quick comments as I read.
- very true what your host said about reports on TV of protests against governments in the west, etc. I wasn't born yet, but in the 90s and 00s, Syrian TV would even have shows highlighting reports from newspapers. I first learned of "al-Guardian" and "al-Daily Mirror" from Syrian TV.
But showing news of dissent, turbulence, corruption, imperialism from the West, whether that was the choice of the regime or the media specialists in Syrian TV, certainly backfired. It showed you that politics was possible in the west, that protest was possible, that governments could lose the vote, that standing up to your government/state because of its foreign policy is not something that will necessarily land you in prison. We are talking here about a country where all newspapers and virtually all magazines were state issued.
EDITORIAL NOTE - In the first hour after publishing this post, I included a link to an interview by al-Jazeera with 'famed' journalist Robert Fisk about Hama. I have since deleted this. Sadly, Mr Fisk now has the shameful reputation of falsifying stories.
- Robert Fisk was an interesting man, but he's widely accused by Syrians and others of being a regime-apologist. You could see that in his comments in the link you shared from al-Jazeera where blame for the Hama massacre is diluted and distributed among Carter (fair point though!), the Muslim Brotherhood, the people of Hama themselves, Rifaat, and Hafez. More recently, his reporting of the conflict in Syria bordered on fraudulent. I invite you to read this article by my friend Idrees Ahmad, who has been looking closely at media coverage of the Syrian conflict: https://pulsemedia.org/2016/12/03/robert-fisks-crimes-against-journalism/
- yes, that was a schoolboy, specifically in his 7th grade (small chance it's 10th grade). This military-like, khaki uniform was worn grades 7 to 12. In grades 7, 8, 9, the shoulder insignias bore 1, 2, or 3 yellow stripes respectively. In grades 10, 11, 12, the 1, 2, or 3 stripes were red. In this picture the stripes seem yellow, so I'm guessing 7th.
So, from al-Tabqa. God knows where he ended up. Statistically he's more likely to have been displaced or killed than survived.
- Note that while the Syrian regime was nominally a national-socialist one, they brutally oppressed unions (e.g. the lawyers bar and engineers syndicate in Aleppo) as well as most communist factions that refused to come under wing - all before, during, and after the early 1980s uprising.
The renowned Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh is one of them - a communist who was jailed for some 16 years from the early 80s. He now lives in Berlin and I had the honour of inviting him as the keynote speaker in the 5th Lemkin Reunion, which we organized at CEU in 2019.
Researcher, The Aleppo Project
Thank you for your valuable comments, Hakam - Kester