Syria: Open Sesame

Michael Teague

A spate of recent articles in The New York Times popularized the notion that Syria is “opening up” and that an effort is being made to somehow “liberalize” society.

Considering the long and brutal track record of the Assad regimes, especially the Machiavellian tactics to which both father and son have resorted in order to retain power, there is ample reason to question the sincerity of such reports. It behooves us to take a closer look at the premises of these articles, and ask whether they offer solid evidence that this new “opening up” is genuine, and to what extent, if at all, it is taking place.

Kareem Fahim wrote recently about how the Syrian regime, while still offering support to Islamist groups in Lebanon and Palestine, is no longer being so tolerant of its domestic Islamic groups. Fahim notes that past tolerance on the part of the government for the Islamists finds its reasoning in the 1982 Hama bloodbath. Winning that battle came at a high price, and the government was not eager for any repeats, and so, in the aftermath, Islamists were allowed a certain amount of leeway. The fact of the matter is that the regime’s hypocrisy is embedded in this particular version of the narrative: Hafez al-Assad was publicizing the threat to his “secular” regime while simultaneously allowing fundamentalist elements to enjoy a certain measure of freedom in society. A 2008 car bomb in Damascus that killed 17 people, as well as other security incidents that have been blamed on Islamists (though the culprits have yet to be identified), is one of the purported reasons for this most recent reversal. Intellectuals and academics are now even being encouraged to publicly speak out against the Islamists. However, all this fanfare about the renewed commitment to secularism is more likely a cosmetic attempt to make some overtures to a Washington administration that is ready to play a little nicer, and maybe even make some deals. It is perhaps no coincidence that Syria is no longer being fingered for the Rafik Harriri (Lebanon’s former Prime Minister) assassination. Faheem makes this connection in his piece, though without putting too much emphasis on the hypocritical nature of the regime.

Fahim and Nawra Mahfoud also made much of a poetry reading group that has been meeting in Damascus. The article, titled “Evenings of Poetry Provide a Space for New Voices,” tells of how Lukman Derky, a veteran of the Syrian artistic class, has been hosting this weekly gathering for two years now, in full view of the authorities. Young poets gather, drink arak and beer, and read their own work as well as that of others. They are not afraid to take an occasional jab at the authorities, and they even recite the work of controversial exiled and imprisoned poets. But there are a few elements embedded in this story that also deserve scrutiny. The writers claim that for all this risky behavior, the evenings are not motivated by insubordination – indeed, Derky is quoted as saying, “We don’t do things because they are forbidden,” which he follows up right away with “the night is about freedom.” Aside from this contradiction, there is something almost irritating about how the article fails to mention the great number of Syrian artists and intellectuals who have been imprisoned and tortured by the regime under ridiculous pretexts over the years (most recently, the journalist Michel Kilo received a three-year prison sentence for simply signing his name on a petition; Kilo completed his sentence and was released). In addition, the descriptions of the bar in which these readings take place make it seem like any trendy hipster spot in a big U.S. city: pictures of Malcom X, Ghandi, and Charlie Parker adorn the walls, and the place is apparently frequented by large groups of Americans on poetry night.

A similar dynamic is at work in another article, in which Fahim finds hints of “opening” in the fact that the regime is now encouraging and even funding the creation of certain civil society groups. The example central to this story is Chavia Ali, a wheelchair-bound 29 year old Kurdish woman, who over the last five years has been trying to start a civic organization that would advocate for the rights of the disabled. Until a group led by Asma al-Assad, wife of President Bashar al-Assad, agreed to cover one third of the group’s costs last year, Ali’s efforts were beset by rather pernicious forms of opposition from the regime. Now, however, Ali is all over the place, doing television interviews, speaking at ministry conferences and being photographed alongside the first lady. Though the article is titled “Doors Start to Open to Activists in Syria,” the only concrete example it provides of such an opening is Chavia Ali’s group. It also states that those activists who are demanding substantial political reforms, such as an end to arbitrary imprisonment, are being shut out as much as ever. Ms. Ali herself refuses to elaborate on the circumstances surrounding her sister’s arrest in a raid on her Kurdish village not long ago. It might be fair to deduce from this that her silence is at least in part due to the fact that her “civil society” organization is actually dependent on the good graces of the regime, and as such is not much of a civil organization after all. Fahim does not shy away from these contradictions, and this makes the optimistic titles sitting atop his articles look all the more dissonant.

The final piece in this optimistic series was penned by Robert F. Worth (with contribution by Nawra Mahfoud), and is by far the most grotesque. Worth’s article “Syrian Actress Tests Boundaries Again” is based on an interview he did with the famous and controversial screen sex symbol, actress Igraa, who is best remembered by Syrians for almost getting naked in the 1970 film “The Leopard.” Worth claims that Igraa “embodied the openness and liberalism that reigned in the Arab world during the 1960s and ‘70s”, assuming somehow that these two decades constituted a particularly “liberal” time period in the history of the secular regime. He forgets that this cinematic near-disrobing actually occurred during a time when Syria was awash in all manner of radical ideas – socialist, Marxist, and nationalist as well as Islamist, certainly not just “liberal” ones – and thus was tolerated to some extent like all the rest. This misrepresentation is exacerbated by the fact that Worth seems to interpret Igraa’s renewed fame as a sign that Syrian society must be gearing to “open up.” Furthermore, the source of Igraa’s renewed fame is itself not totally evident. Apparently an upcoming movie about Igraa’s life has something to do with it, as well the fact that ”she has returned as a ferocious critic of the Islamist wave sweeping the Middle-East,” after a 15-year self-imposed seclusion. Aside from Worth’s interview with her, no specific example of any such “ferocious criticism” is given. Now, this is not to detract from Igraa’s courage in denouncing the chauvinism and backwardness of fundamentalists, which is surely real and sincere, but rather to question Worth’s assumptions. But unverifiable claims are not enough, because unlike the previously discussed articles, there is also a tasteless element at work here, something bizarrely designed to appeal to American readers perhaps, when the actress is described in her current cougar-like state: “she now lives mostly nocturnally, rising in mid-afternoon…In her late 60s, she still dresses like the precocious teenager she once was, with tight jeans, pancake makeup and a spectacularly bouffant wig hiding her gray hair. She married only eight years ago, to a man decades her junior, and has never had children.”

Each of these reports is trying to give examples of the myriad different ways that civil, and by extension liberal, society in Syria is gaining momentum – is perhaps even thriving. But on many occasions, it seems that merely making the statement that such is the case substitutes for concrete evidence. The political reality, sadly, remains the same. Syria is run by a dictatorship that has never had any intention of loosening its grip on society any more than it has to in order to survive, and that, furthermore, has a history of using its artists to beautify itself when facing West.

This article appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 62 (2010)

Copyright (c) 2010, 2018 by Al Jadid

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