Inside dissident Syria

The more Syrian people were punished the more determined they were to stay the course, writes Cooke.

Like the Tunisians and the Egyptians, they hoped that their first mass exodus into the streets would be enough to "convince the ghoul to change his ghoulish ways" [EPA]

I am teaching in Turkey this fall. In late September, my husband Bruce and I travelled to Mardin, a Kurdish region in the southeast close to the Syrian border. Refugees were beginning to make their way across the border, and some had come to Mor Gabriel, an early Christian monastery that had opened its doors to Syrians fleeing from their government. 

“They’ll stay here till Istanbul is ready to process them and send them somewhere in Europe,” a monk told us. Walking past the bedrooms with their doors wide open, we could see entire families stretched out on beds in total exhaustion. 

A week later, we were dining on the Marmara seashore when four young men, one of them on crutches, walked by. They were wearing green stoles with some Arabic writing that I could not make out. When I asked to see the message, they stopped at our table. It read: “Death rather than humiliation”. 

Soldiers in the Free Syrian Army, they had come to Istanbul for medical treatment. One of them showed me an x-ray of his leg; it was filled with shrapnel. A year ago, the four friends had defected from Bashar al-Assad’s army to join the popular uprising. As soon as they were done with the hospital, they were going back to Deir ez-Zor. 

Were these men brave and committed to justice? Or, were they hotheads who had climbed on the bandwagon of popular anger and resistance without regard for the terrible price the people would have to pay for their saying No to the dictator? How can we assess the moral responsibility of a people who have been crushed by decades of brutal repression, then finally find the right moment to stand up to the bully? 

Voice of dissident intellectuals

From Hafiz Assad’s accession to the Syrian leadership in 1970 till his death in 2000 and his son’s assumption of the mantle of power, most of the Syrian people have not known any way to act except with docile compliance: even when did not believe the slogans, they had to pretend to love the great leader.

A few daring intellectuals had ventured critique of the system. Caught between the Scylla of draconian punishment and the Charybdis of official cooptation, writers and filmmakers persisted in their Opposition. They wrapped their dissent in allegories and symbols so thick that those without a key could scarcely break the code. For whom did they write or make films?

Even if it was for themselves and for their select group of friends and associates that they wrote and shot films, they were convinced that to make a difference they had to stay in their country and hope that their words and images might make a difference. 

But what kind of difference could their works make? Saadallah Wannous, Syria’s most important playwright, once wrote that while the daring words and images produced by dissident intellectuals released pressure, the consequent sense of shared relief experienced by readers and audience was in fact a bad thing. It may have reduced individuals’ feelings of isolation, atomisation and anger.

To know that others were as depressed and as helpless as they were in the shadow of the monster, and then to go home breathing a little better knowing they were not alone in their despair may have released pressure and allowed them to keep going, but at what price? It also allowed the system to keep going. It never ended or reduced or deflected the cruel everyday totalitarianism that was Assad’s Syria. 

Poet and playwright Mamduh Adwan countered that his friend and compatriot missed the real point: whatever the outcome of dissident writing and filming, whether it was punished or rewarded, whether it made people feel better or spurred them to action, it bound committed intellectuals to one another and to their common cause. They could not, they would not, give up on their Opposition. 

The first time I heard the word Opposition I was shocked. I was having tea with the short story writer, Ibrahim Samuel, and we had as usual tiptoed around sensitive subjects. Then, suddenly, he started to talk about his time “Inside”, his commitment to helping boys who had been incarcerated as young and as innocently as he had been, and his determination to support the Opposition.

I was too surprised to ask who or what the Opposition was, but I knew then that there was such a thing. Back in the mid-90s, to even imagine an Opposition in Assad’s Syria it seemed such a utopian, helpless enterprise. I did not take the reference seriously: how could this become a real force that the government might have to contend with? 

Ruthlessness of the regime

Over 15 years later, in the spring of 2011, however, the unexpected – what I and others had deemed the impossible – happened. A utopian project took off in Syria. Inspired by the Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and Yemenis who also had tyrants for rulers and who had thrown caution to the winds and stood up to them, the Syrians burst out of their protective carapace. They had no more reason than their fellow Arabs in North Africa and Southern Arabia to expect that they were in for the long haul.

Atomised by years of intelligence reports, they were not organised and far from united. Just how fragmented was the Opposition becomes clear in Hasiba Abd al-Rahman’s Al-Sharnaqa (The Cocoon) published in 1999. A vivid depiction of life in a women’s prison, it decries government brutality while also criticising the chaos among the dissidents.

For three months after publication, Abd al-Rahman writes, the Syrian authorities summoned her repeatedly. They demanded that she explain “the symbols and references and what this or that thought meant and why I had written it this way and not another. What really surprised me was the harsh and negative reaction of the Opposition. They accused me of washing dirty laundry in public. I was amazed that their violent reaction was no different from that of the authorities except that the latter could summon me and they could not. They wanted a story about heroes when in fact it was a story of intellectual and military defeats.”    

“Before the information revolution, the Syrian regime had kept a lid on the Opposition by preventing their literature from leaving the country.”

The Opposition may have been split, but in March 2011 that did not seem to matter. The other uprisings were also disorganised, and in Tunisia and Egypt the people had won without arms. The Syrians were optimistic that they, too, could shake off the ghoul, the word dissident intellectuals had long used to describe the Assads. Like the Tunisians and the Egyptians, they hoped that their first mass exodus into the streets would be enough to convince the ghoul to change his ghoulish ways. 

They did not, however, reckon with the ruthlessness of the regime. Younger than the other toppled tyrants and probably encouraged by memories of his father’s grisly crushing of the Muslim Brother Opposition in Hama in 1982, Bashar was undeterred: he was transfixed by his own role as the head of a totalitarian regime with brutish surveillance and arms capability. In fact, in some ways life in Syria continues as before.

Rebel and be punished, except this time it is not only the individual who pays the price it is whole neighbourhoods. The cost in human life does not matter. Any and all, young and old, are deemed to be “terrorists”. They are besieged and bombed; people labelled “terrorist” are pursued into the darkest corners to be slaughtered.

Where the punishment had before acted as a deterrent, it no longer does. Almost everyone now has lost one or more persons dear to them and they must have vengeance. How can they stop now when they know that all that lies ahead is horror and more horror? 

Sacrifices and resistance

There is a lesson here, stark but real. We have learned from prisoners’ writings that the more Syrian people were punished the more determined they were to stay the course. Those who survived the cell realised that the sense of suffocation and imprisonment they experienced there was much like life on the outside, except that prison produced a political subjectivity otherwise forbidden.

In fact, to be in the cell was safer than to fear it. Over the past 18 months, in addition to being personally hurt, Syrians now see more and more of those whom they love being maimed and massacred, and their determination daily increases.

Speaking to the writer, Samar Yazbek, a Free Syrian Army soldier said, “We know they have bigger and more powerful weapons but we have our courage and our conviction in our revolution. We won’t let them humiliate us. We’re ready to defend our homes to the death.” They hoped, and still hope, against all odds, that the world will not let the ghoul devour his people. 

But perhaps they have miscalculated. They had watched the US in 2003 destroy Saddam Hussein, the butcher of Baghdad, in order to release the people from his brutality. They had witnessed the world powers attack Libya’s Gaddafi and then seen his people maul him to death. They knew that their cause was no less worthy. Wasn’t Assad as criminal as Saddam, more tyrannical than Gaddafi? Was he not therefore an obvious target for the global moral police? 

All the Opposition had to do was to make sure that their resistance was known. Before the information revolution, the Syrian regime had kept a lid on the Opposition by preventing their literature from leaving the country. A frequent complaint in the mid-1990s was that poetry, films and fiction had no passports. But the internet stopped the censorship. Now, it was merely a matter of making sure that evidence of government crushing of the uprising was diffused. And diffused it was!

Since late spring 2011, YouTube has almost daily broadcast around the world the most terrible video clips. We have watched the deliberate targeting of children, their torture and their last breath. So many records of mangled children’s death rattles that the unimaginable has become ordinary, to be deleted sans voir, without looking. 

“Doesn’t America have satellites?” a Free Syrian Army commander asked a New York Times reporter this month, “can’t it see what is happening?” He warned that the “Syrian people are being radicalised by a combination of a grinding conflict and their belief that they have been abandoned by a watching world.” 

It may well be that the world does nothing. The UN will not be successful. NATO will not intervene. The sacrifices will continue, but so will the resistance. But now instead of writers and filmmakers, it may attract supporters with dubious motivations.

In 2006 Hasiba Abd al-Rahman had urged Syrians to make the state accountable for its discourse about democracy and freedom of expression and a noble, free life; “but we have to remember that states do not give freedoms for free. There must be great sacrifices to seize these legal rights”. Her challenge to intellectuals to speak truth to power has been taken up by the people who are sacrificing all to seize their rights.

Miriam Cooke is Braxton Craven Professor of Arab Cultures at Duke University and Director of the Duke University Middle East Studies Centre. She has been a visiting professor in Tunisia, Romania, Indonesia, Qatar, and is currently teaching at the Alliance of Civilizations Institute of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet University in Istanbul. She is the author of Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official published in 2007.