In the early 1990s, I was in a taxi heading from Lebanon to Damascus with several other passengers. The trips were always educational. This prime mode of transport between the two countries allowed one to meet people from various backgrounds and walks of life.
Listening to the coded way in which Syrians spoke was quite revealing. Nuggets of truth lay under layers of innuendo and seemingly apolitical language, decipherable only by the trained ear.
On that particular trip, we had an estaz on board, the generic description for an intellectual – usually a university professor or teacher. This particular estaz sported an audacious comb-over, which bestowed an added sense of respectability to his appearance.
In those days imports to Syria were still highly restricted and travellers took the opportunity of being in Lebanon to purchase products that were not available in Syria. Lebanese bread was particularly sought after, as well as fruits and other foods.
Before we were about to depart, the driver asked the estaz if he wanted to buy some bananas. The estaz declined. Bananas weren’t in shortage in Syria any longer, he said.
Then he added, “God protect the president. [At the time, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father.] He knows what the Syrian people want. He saw that the Syrian people wanted bananas, so he provided them with bananas.”
The pronouncement hung in the air for a while, before dissipating among the sea of mundane chatter that one was used to hearing in those days.
As it happened, that was the most profound political thought the estaz would make for the rest of the trip. To thank the ruler for his magnanimity in allowing the Syrian people access to bananas.
The words had come out un-self-consciously, like the recitation of a familiar prayer. But for a learned man in particular, they must have been accompanied by a sense of shame at having to engage in this daily ritual of submission.
Those who don’t understand why Syria revolted two years ago are entirely oblivious to this deep sense of shame that its people lived with for decades.
It wasn’t the deprivation or lack of consumer goods. Rather, it was the incessant demand to submit to an all-knowing authority, one that cannot be questioned.
It was the lack of possibility, the closed doors of the future. It was the bureaucratic machine that reduced every citizen to a robot and then treated him or her accordingly.
In the 1980s, I remember going with a relative to an ice cream shop in one of Syria’s northeastern cities. I naively inquired about the flavors when the vendor was about to fill my scoop.
“Flavors? They’re all the same flavor, they’re just a different colour,” he said.
It was a perfect metaphor for the officially-sanctioned parties, available in various political shades but all subsumed by the ruling Ba’ath.
The illusion was elaborately constructed to remind you that you didn’t really have any choice.
Damascus in the 1960s was a thriving cultural center that had hundreds of media publications. By the ‘80s, just a handful were left. The two party-sponsored newspapers were completely interchangeable with little variation from day to day.
They provided sterile, mass-produced ‘opinions’ that were the journalistic equivalent of the estaz’s polyester suit. They belonged to a pacified intellectual class.
But they carried their shame with them. Everybody knew about the thousands in the regime’s prisons, those who refused to submit. Poets, writers, activists and workers who spent decades facing incarceration and torture but refused to sign a piece of paper denouncing their political aspirations.
Those on the outside felt that shame but thought they were helpless to do anything about it. They publicly sang the praises of the regime and the heroic role it played.
Syria’s rich and long history only increased the sense of shame. The feeling of being marginalized from the world’s consciousness was exacerbated by the ancient monuments that mocked your impotence.
What purpose does dwelling on past achievements serve other than to remind you of your helplessness and the squandered legacy you have not lived up to?
As Syria gradually opened to the Western world in the 1990s, the regime thought that it could pacify people by turning a blind eye to the satellite dishes that were sprouting like mushrooms on buildings, and later by allowing the internet.
But the feelings of inadequacy only increased. People could now compare between their lives and what was happening in the rest of the world. They had access to the internet, shopping malls and lots of bananas.
But they still had only one choice in presidential “elections.”
The sudden openness violently confronted Syrians with their helpless self-image. When the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded in removing aging dictators, the response in Syria, more than any other Arab country, was visceral.
Organized attempts at staging demonstrations never materialized. When the eruption came, it was brought about by the regime’s heavy-handedness and the instinctive reaction to it. The time for living with the shame was over.
Syria’s was the least well-articulated or organised of all the Arab uprisings. It was raw and abrasive.
The people who had the responsibility to lead the uprising failed it. Perhaps this was unavoidable, the accumulation of anger and shame got in the way of cold thinking and the decades of oppression meant that Syrians were starting from scratch.
What we’re seeing today isn’t what Syrians wanted. The situation got out of control, but the regime bears the main responsibility for that. What is clear is that there will be no return to the old ways. After all the sacrifices, the people of Syria won’t go back to living with their shame.