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A Ground-Level Look at Syria Right Before the Tipping Point

by Margaret Robinson Sep 12, 2013
This story was originally published just over two years ago, a portrait of the country at the crux.

AL-JAZEERA STREAMED excited Arabic into the smoky haze of the common room. We, ten of the seventeen American students in the dorm, gathered in a semicircle around the television set, leaning forward as if a few more inches would suddenly answer all of our questions. Was Syria next? Was it still safe for us to stay here? Freedom … enough! … the people … I only picked up every fifth word, but the images were unmistakable. The Egyptian people were demanding the downfall of the Mubarak regime.

From behind me, Aula let out a loud, exaggerated sigh of boredom. She began to fuss with her cell phone until it relented and started to emit Fairuz’s plaintive wails from its tinny speakers. The Lebanese singer is morning music only, something as integral to Arab households as morning coffee. As always when I hear her voice, I pictured Fairuz batting her dark lined eyes lethargically, smoothing her glossy brown hair, mouthing the words, “I loved you in the summer.”

Annoyed by the distraction, I looked back at her, my rambunctious Alawite hall mate in her purple velvet tracksuit. A cigarette in one hand and a dainty tea glass in the other, she lounged like a Turkish Sultana. Meanwhile, the image on the screen flipped to an interview with a woman protestor in Tahrir Square, her face flushed and her voice high-pitched with excitement. Scrutinizing her nails, Aula cracked a joke in her shrill, throaty screech. My other hallmates, Nour, Iyaad, and Hamada, sitting near her on the other low couches that lined the common room walls, erupted into laughter. I upped the TV volume.

* * *
Later that week in early 2011, I found myself alone in the common room with Nour, live footage of Tahrir Square still playing out on the TV screen. Nour, a Syrian Engineering student on the boys’ half of my hall whose round face and glittering eyes give him the air of a mischievous elf, was more often than not singing the Syrian national anthem or relating to his friends detailed accounts of seemingly mundane aspects of President Bashar Al-Assad’s life.

Nour was best friends with Hamada, a mathematics student who made it no secret that he occupied a special position of power. Awkwardly gangly, with eyes so large and protruding that I had trouble maintaining eye contact with him for long, Hamada, as my Syrian language partner told me my first week, was a member of Syria’s secret police force, the Muhabarat. He had been placed on our hall to watch us.

Between his propensity to jump out into the hallway to hiss at me (this behavior always confused me, but it may have been an attempt at flirtation) and to shut down any discussions about the President’s decisions with menacing finality, I cannot think of a person who has made me as intensely uncomfortable. Although I knew Nour shared Hamada’s allegiances to the Assad regime, it was clear that Nour was a follower, someone easily duped and manipulated, someone more pathetic than threatening.

When I tried to prod Nour about Egypt, the most trenchant comment he could muster was, “Ohhhhhh. Very bad.” I think he viewed Mubarak as a bad man and the uprising against him as valiant and natural, but it seemed he instinctively pitied the Egyptians, poor and adrift. Syria was strong, unified, and too developed for all this nonsense.

Everyone I trusted was sure that Syria was sturdy, including my international relations Professor, Elias Samo. Professor Samo is a dual citizen of the United States and Syria, a man of incredible wisdom and honesty, who once served as a Syrian negotiator to Arab-Israeli peace talks.

“The people love our President,” he said after we talked about Egypt, “Nobody wants him gone.” I pushed him. That was a generalization. Who are the Syrian people? There are Kurds, Christians, Alawites, Druze, the Muslim Brotherhood – these aren’t groups that think as one on anything, let alone the issue of a leader from a minority Islamic sect, the Alawi. He nodded, smiling. “Come on! Overthrow Assad? Who would be there to take his place? Nobody wants civil war.”

* * *
At first, I was shocked by how determined my Syrian friends seemed to remain oblivious of the events around them. The pattern of images on T.V. and the Internet – from Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya – seemed so clear to me. Surely Syrians my age would see parallels to their own country – iron-fisted despotism, widespread poverty, limited freedom – and at least be interested, at least have an opinion.

During this time, in the thick of the uprisings that came to be known as “Arab Spring,” I spoke to a class on nationalism in the Middle East at my home institution over Skype. They asked me how it felt to be in the Middle East, what people were talking about, how change in Egypt influenced Syrians’ view themselves. I kept shaking my head, trying to communicate how profoundly disinterested in the world my Syrian friends seemed. I talked about how we might call Williams College the “purple bubble” because of its physical isolation out in the rolling, purple Berkshire mountains and the mental separation we feel from the real world, but the Syrian bubble was far more impermeable. As I said goodbye to the class, I made an offhand remark.

“To be frank, I think Syrians are much more concerned about how much sugar they put in their tea than what happens to Egypt.” That did not feel like an exaggeration.

* * *
A Pepsi salesman in his late 20s, Shadi lives in a one-bedroom apartment high up in a large, unfinished, and semi-deserted concrete complex with his father and brother. The apartment, in Jaramaneh, a poor Damascan suburb, is officially illegal housing. It has the appearance of a kind of permanent refugee camp.

Shadi, I’ve learned, puts all standard forms of hospitality to shame. Meet him once, and he’ll protect you like family forever.

We were introduced through my American friend Nathaniel, who studies at the University of Aleppo with me but lived in Damascus on a previous occasion, when he originally got to know Shadi. When a group of us from the Aleppo program stumbled off the late bus for a weekend in the capital, I vaguely expected that we might turn in for the night. But Nathaniel insisted that we visit Shadi straight away. Not to do so would be rude. What, I wondered, could this mysterious man want from us at 11 PM that couldn’t wait until the next morning?

Our ragtag band of American college students, Williams and Pomona insignia on our sweatshirts, followed Nathaniel down a dark, narrow alley between two apartment complexes, and clambered up three sets of cement stairs, bags in tow. The building was only partially finished, with no signs of life. As we neared the third floor landing, we were greeted by the howls of dogs from an open doorway opposite Shadi’s front stoop. I leaned forward to peek into the room, and was just able to discern stacks of cages lining the walls before Nathaniel stopped me.

“Shadi’s pets. Nobody who’s even thought the words “animal rights” should go into that room.” Nathaniel pounded on an unlabeled door, and we waited in silence until the door swung open and Shadi’s father, a retired French teacher, beamed up at us in his pajamas. Shadi appeared behind him in a tank top, his dark, heavy eyebrows emphasizing black eyes that disappear into slits when he laughs hard.

Showing up at someone’s door at 11 PM with a group of strangers in tow would generally be considered rude where I come from. But for Shadi, that’s when long nights of visitors, conversations, and kebab takeout just get started. Other unique aspects of Shadi’s company include his limited English vocabulary, accumulated through his many friendships with foreign (mostly male) college students. Within ten minutes of meeting him, I was referred to, perfectly good-naturedly, as a “bitch” rather than a woman and asked if I wanted a pillow for my “ass.”

It was 2 AM and conversation was going strong over bitter Arabic coffee and a T.V. tuned to a reality belly-dancing show. Three middle-aged contestants, positioned at opposite points on a gaudy, flashing circular stage, gyrated aggressively to the confused dissonance of drums and tambourines. Shadi, his brother and father, his best friend Alfred, and my group of five reclined back against the room’s couches, cradling our protruding stomachs protectively.

Shadi’s life perplexes me. He works three jobs and still struggles to keep his head above water financially. Because the government has for various political reasons refused to recognize the rights of numerous new, poor communities, he cannot even secure any legal right to his home. The government would technically be in its right to throw him out on the street at any moment. He has been wrongly imprisoned twice and tortured once by the police, who suspected him of stealing from the jewelry shop he worked at.

And yet for some reason, he will fiercely defend the Syrian President. In fact, to Shadi, anything but full, effusive allegiance to the government would be unpatriotic. Even including Aula, Nour, and Hamada, I’ve never known someone to be so in love with a system that has served him so poorly. I can’t figure out exactly what makes him tick. But I can say that if I were him, a poor Christian in a Muslim land prone to ethnic and religious tension, I too may have had less room for idealism when balancing safety and freedom. His very home and family livelihood rely upon the government’s good favor.

It’s not just Shadi, though. There is a picture of the Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, posted on every street corner, in every school classroom and restaurant, and on about 80% of my Syrian friends’ Facebook profiles. There is even a fraying Bashar sticker stuck on the back of my dorm room door, watching me as I write this.

“You are Syria,” one common one proclaims. “All of us are with you.” The most difficult part of living in Syria was embracing the reality that the most glaring, difficult issues in the country – ethnic tension, religious sectarianism, and poverty, to name several – are off limits for discussion, as is any criticism of the President.

“In Syria, nobody cares what you think.” Shadi’s friend Alfred finally uttered what I’d been thinking. As I nodded in sympathy, brow furrowed, he paused to consider this statement, then went on, “And you are happy.”

* * *
“A ‘Day of RAGE’?!” I blinked at the British Independent page open on my computer. It was late, I was propped up against the pillows on my dorm room bed, and Syria felt like the last place in the world where anything “enraged” could happen. After a few weeks there, I’d settled into a very happy, very sleepy routine: go to class, do my homework, wander the miles of crowded soap and spice-scented souks, scramble over deserted ruins, and chat with friends in coffee shops. It seemed more likely that my tired brain, overburdened with Arabic vocabulary, was beginning to hallucinate.

But there it was. A rally in Damascus being organized via Facebook from Jordan. The site was officially banned in Syria until several weeks later, but almost everyone accessed it via proxy sites. It was February 4, 2011, right after Friday prayers: the time that, in the coming weeks, I would soon come to anticipate anxiously. A rally? An ANGRY rally? How do rallies work in a country where a joke about the President’s (goofy) mustache will get you imprisoned? I didn’t know what else to say except, “SHYAH! That’s gonna happen!”

And it didn’t. It was, however, an introduction to the might of the Syrian rumor mills, which fill in the gaps for an extremely restricted foreign media and a ludicrously biased domestic one, which defaults to blaming “Israeli saboteurs” when perplexed. Maybe people didn’t show up, maybe a few did and they were beaten, imprisoned, and their families threatened. I don’t know. But it was clear that the regime had ended it decisively. So Nour was right. Syria would not be changing anytime soon. I forgot about it and returned to my easy, falafel-eating existence.

Then, one day, my friend Laila swept into the common room, the corner of her black hijaab fluttering elegantly from the pin at her temple, her face flushed.

Laila is an Arabic Language masters student at the University of Aleppo. When she recites lines of poetry in classical Arabic – the formal, almost Shakespeare-sounding language understood in all Arab countries regardless of the local dialect – she closes her eyes, opening them only at the end to make sure I’ve been as moved by it as she has. The first time I met her, I was uneasy. How do you address a woman who wears the full black jil-bab, the coat-dress meant to preserve female modesty? Did this mean she was extremely conservative? That she would not approve of me? What couldn’t I say to her? We were at a program meet-and-greet and, fascinated by the prospect of Americans who might love Arabic too, she’d tagged along with her friend, one of our language partners.

Laila marched straight up to me. She spoke in a loud, confident voice, teasing me for my “bathroom shoes,” the Birkenstock sandals I wear essentially year-round.

“You look nervous,” she said. “I will be your friend.” She described how, when she traveled to America, she had been afraid that Americans would treat her differently because she wore the hijab. Since then, her energy for life, her ambition, and her open-mindedness have made her the Syrian friend that I most respect and trust.

But that day Laila was harried, unable to sit still.

“Have you read the news, my friend?” She opened her laptop, where a YouTube video was already downloaded and opened. She tapped the space bar to start it, and the din of hundreds of excited people welled out of the speakers. It was recorded on some sort of cheap video camera or mobile phone and narrated in a deep mumble from somewhere behind the camera.

“I am an Alawite. You are a Sunni. We are all Syrians.”

I recognized the Souq al-Hamadiyya in Damascus immediately on the screen. The ancient market way cuts straight from the outer wall of the old city to the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus at its center, a distance of perhaps a quarter of a mile. It is built atop the Roman road to the Temple of Zeus, whose foundation the Mosque is built upon. The Souq was packed with people, but rather than the normal disordered mayhem, the crowd was moving with a purpose, with direction.

The arched tin ceiling – perhaps forty feet high – keeps the inside cool and dark, save for thin light beams from thousands of pebble-sized holes in the tin, distinct as lasers in the dusty air. Syria’s future would be lit by light from those bullet holes, constant reminders of when the French fighter planes tried to keep the country from independence.

The stream of people emerged from the end of the Souq, under the Roman pillared archway in front of the Mosque’s entrance. Flooded with white light, the camera cut off. We stared at the screen in silence for a moment.

“What do they want?” I asked Laila, finally.

“They want peaceful reforms from the government. More freedoms. The end of the Emergency Law. It’s been in place for forty-eight years, and the people have had enough.” I hadn’t ever heard anyone say something like that before. She didn’t even look over her shoulder.

“Are you scared?” I asked Laila, still unsure of how I was supposed to feel.

“No,” she said. “This is between us and our government. If we ask them for change, they will change. What we are scared of is foreigners getting involved.” She winked at me playfully, and reached out to tuck a wisp of hair back behind my ear.

* * *
Allah, Suriyya, Bashar oo Bas! Allah, Syria, Bashar, and that’s it! The yells were calling for Syrians to remain loyal to Bashar Al-Assad. They echoed towards us up the now empty, cavernous interior of the Souq al-Hamadiyya, where the streetlamps glow an eerie orange I will forever associate with Damascus nights.

Licking chocolate ice cream cones rolled in slivered pistachios, Andy – my boyfriend, who’d had the bad luck to come visit at precisely this time – and I strolled nervously towards the noise outside the entrance to the souk. The once-packed street was now completely deserted, its stalls of bright scarves and Oriental rugs packed away behind metal slide down doors. Now the loud clicking of our footsteps in the silence made me feel like an awkward intruder. We stepped out into the cool late-March night and the screams and honks engulfed us.

Men, women, and children hung over the sides of cars and taxis, waving flags with all their might. Pickup trucks careened around roundabouts at full speed, the jubilant parties in their bays whooping wildly. Young women perched on rolled-down car windows shook their fists in the air, their pink and blue sequined hijabs fluttering as the air whipped by. Men with slicked-back hair and blue jeans scrambled on top of stopped vans, tore their tee-shirts off, and screamed Bashar’s might to the heavens. A young, clean-shaven man in a tank top, standing up through the sunroof of an expensive looking car, grinned at me as he sped by, his arms stretched out to both sides in jubilation.


These counter-protests had emerged in reaction to several isolated, largely nonviolent, anti-government rallies and marches, which many Syrians I knew (Hamada foremost amongst them) claimed had been warped and exaggerated by a malevolent Western media bent on bringing down the Assad regime. The small town of Daraa near the Jordanian border had given birth to the uprising. Anti-government graffiti there sparked the first organized anti-government protests. The government responded with violence – surrounding the town with tanks, cutting off communication to it, posting snipers – and Daraa quickly became a rallying point for government opposition.

As this was starting to unfold, the regime tried issuing a few shallow, noncommittal statements. They wouldn’t shoot any more protesters and would form a committee to consider removing Emergency Law, the long-standing dictum that made the government’s powers essentially limitless.

In reaction, rallies congratulating the government, disorienting in their size and scope, cropped up around the country, encouraged, publicized, and probably facilitated by the regime.

These were the only rallies that I ever witnessed firsthand.

I kept feeling like I should understand more than I did. Andy and I were planning to visit the coastal port of Latakia from Damascus, but clashes broke out there a few days before we could leave. I found out about all of this through the New York Times and Al-Jazeera, organizations whose foreign correspondents are not even allowed into the country. My family and friends expected me to have special insights or information from being in Syria, but all I had were mixed messages.

I was fairly certain that “Israeli saboteurs” were not to blame, so the Syrian government-sponsored media was not of much use. And getting a definitive sense of how “the Syrian people” felt about what was happening was impossible. Hamada blamed it all on a small group of Israeli-backed traitors bent on bringing Syria to its knees. When I talked to Laila, it seemed like Syrians were oppressed and terrified.

Spring Break came and went, but Aleppo and my routine there still felt eerily normal. I still did my morning run, still bought yogurt from the “24” corner store, went to Arabic class and did my homework. I woke up several mornings to the chants of marchers walking by beneath my open window, and competed with my American friends to see who could find the most extreme pro-Bashar poster. One of my program-mates found the winner: Bashar surveying the world sternly, his head glowing slightly from a halo. “Tunisians self-immolated to bring down their leader,” the poster read in angry, red script, “we would self-immolate to keep you, oh lion of Syria.”

* * *

My grandmother only braves emailing at the various junctures of my life where a bad decision is imminent.

I wrote her back that I felt good about my decision to stay despite the two new travel warnings. In truth, I’d read everything she’d read on The New York Times, the BBC, and Al-Jazeera and talked to all of my Syrian professors and friends, but I still had the unpleasant feeling that I was missing nuance. I didn’t feel the clear, tangible threat my grandmother did because it seemed like all of my sources disagreed on some key aspect of what was happening in Syria.

The Western news seemed confident: just like in Egypt, and just like in Libya, a revolution was beginning in Syria, suppressed by the iron rule of the government. My grandmother had heard nothing about the millions of people who had been out in the streets to express their love for their government, the creepy min-heb-ik Bashar (we love you Bashar) chants on every radio and loudspeaker, and the posters of the president that had appeared on every spare inch of every vehicle, covering up to three-quarters of each windshield.

Foreign journalists were banned from Syria, and the majority of the articles were written from Cairo or Beirut, and qualified with “some sources have claimed that…” or “it is said that…” Suddenly, my Syrian friends began to voice frustrations with the greediness of the international press for the juicy story of another Arab uprising. I started hearing phrases like “the media war between the American press and the Syrian people” on the radio, and I realized that I was a little frightened. Frightened because the line is a thin one between the American press and the American people, especially for people who feel victimized.

Professor Samo had made it clear there were legitimate reasons why Syrians – besides Baath Party officials and people like Hamada of course – would want to keep Bashar around. Brutal he may be, but under his reign Syria’s status as the most tolerant country in the region is safe. If he were to fall, the Kurds, the Alawites, the Druze, and the Christians like Shadi would not be able to sleep so soundly. So, were all of the Bashar celebrations real and heartfelt, or was it just the safer option for a father of five to slap a Bashar poster on his car than to risk everything on an unsure bet?

When I think of the confusion and fear I noticed during those days in my Syrian friends, I always think of Laila. Laila, who understood people, understood how to reach, motivate, and lead them. I see her reaching her hand into her purse and drawing out a deflated, red balloon, cupping it protectively in her palm. Sitting on the bed in my pint-sized dormitory room, she talked in a hushed voice out of the corner of her mouth, the way she does when she has a secret she can’t wait to tell.

She described stealing around the city, inflating the huge balloons, penning the name of the besieged town in the South, “Daraa,” on them in dark sharpie, and releasing them upwards. She hoped people who were afraid would see them or find them later and know that someone else felt how they felt. I can’t imagine that the balloons affected much of anything, but Laila wasn’t someone who coped quietly with subjugation. I don’t think she was capable of doing nothing. I often wonder who saw those balloons as they soared up, half prayer and half signal, until, spent, they tumbled from the sky.

“Just be careful, Laila. Please.” I told her. She wrinkled her forehead and softly clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, feigning her disappointment in me.

* * *
“From now on, the cheer must be ‘Allah, Suriya, the People and that’s it!’” The President’s voice was low and firm over the crackly T.V. speakers. It was strange hearing his voice after three months of feeling like he was always watching silently.

We were back in our packed common room, Americans and Syrians, all watching Bashar as he spoke before the one-party Syrian Parliament. Aula was back on the sofa, legs crossed, fanning herself against the afternoon heat and picking at her nails. But she was listening. Her eyes flicked up now and again to the screen, then quickly back to inspecting the red polish, the shade of which is known in Syria as “slave’s blood.”

At the end of the speech I looked around at my Syrian friends. Some looked satisfied, relieved even. They cheered along with the Parliament members on the screen, and, led by Nour, ran up and down the hallways waving flags. But others looked concerned. It was an empty speech with one chilling threat just under the surface. No more sabotage, as the regime likes to refer to citizens expressing a desire for change, would be tolerated. If it came to it, the Syrian regime would go to any lengths to defend itself to the end.

* * *
The apology I gave Laila felt hollow.

The DC office had finally pulled the plug on our program and its seventeen students had been offered evacuation for the next morning. It all seemed very very wrong. Syrians like Laila – and nobody at that point knew quite how many of them there were – were risking everything. We were fleeing.

I was embarrassed to look at her tear-streaked face and determined glare. What was there to tell her? My language partner had told me that I needed to leave now, that anti-American sentiment would run rampant if law ever broke down in Aleppo. That was an excuse for leaving for my parents, my boyfriend, all the people at home who wanted me safe no matter what. But before Laila I knew I was a coward. I couldn’t say those things to her any more than I could tell her that I expected a higher level of safety for myself than I did for her.

She shook her head slowly, and pulled me in, her hands cupping my elbows. She cried silently, her forehead touching mine, her eyes closed. She whispered, “If only I could keep my life, and my freedom.”

The day before, a peaceful anti-government protest had broken out in the Literature College of Aleppo University. “With soul, with blood, we will redeem Dar’aa”, the students chanted. Within minutes, the Muhabaraat had broken up the protest, wielding knives. But the silence in Aleppo, the second largest city in the country, had broken. Laila had been there, videoed the riot on her phone and leaked it to Al-Jazeera. The world knew of it in seconds.

“This is my country, Margot.” She looked me straight in the eyes. She was the bravest person I knew.

Gripping the blue silk scarf she’d given me until my fingers turned red, I watched from the steps of my dormitory as she left. The calf-deep slit in her jil-bab allowed the fabric to rustle in time to her brisk gait. Even beneath the shapeless coat it was clear that she was thin, too thin perhaps. I smiled at a brief memory of her mischievous face, when she talks out of the side of her mouth, as if communicating a hysterical secret. I half expected to see it one more time before she disappeared into the night, but Laila did not look back at me.

There was no room for looking back. [Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador. To read about the editorial process behind this story, check out Perfecting an Ending.]

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