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Lou YK

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Syria: Before It All Began

Posted: 03/18/2012 2:23 pm

I remember quite clearly the day the uprising began. From my perspective, it was when a group of brave young men and women gathered in the Bab Touma district of Damascus on February 2nd to hold a candlelight vigil for those who died in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian uprising. This silent demonstration of solidarity with the people in Egypt was quickly met with the batons and clubs of men in plain clothes also know as the 'shabiha.' Several from the vigil were detained that night. While subsequent, larger demonstrations gathered world attention on March 15th, the candlelight vigil marked the point where the barrier of fear had started to crumble.

This silent yet powerful gesture from a small group of people sparked the flame of revolution and the struggle for self-determination in one of the world's most brutal police states that was dominated by fear. Seen from the outside world, this event might have seemed like just a minor act of defiance. But for someone who spent most of their childhood and adolescence in a Syria that was reminiscent of a 1984 Orwellian society, even a silent vigil was an act of unthinkable consequences.

For most Syrians, the Assad family was immortal. Slogans of 'Hafez ila el-abad' or 'Hafez forever' were scrawled outside the walls of many public builds. Assads did not die. Questioning or even uttering the name of the ruling families name was almost sacrilegious.
As a child, during our summer visits to Damascus, the photos of Assad that plastered the city for decades puzzled me. Who was this celebrity? I reasoned that he must have committed a good deed. The people who pinned his face to their clothing and put up his pictures over their shops and in the rear windows of their cars must have held him in high esteem. On one occasion, I remember pointing questionably to one of the many photos of Hafez Al-Assad that draped in banners over the souks in the older quarters of Damascus. I was with my mother and she quickly slapped down my hand and scolded me "never point at the man in the photos!" I was taken aback by her reaction and could not understand the secrecy that surrounded the man who guarded every corner of Damascus through his posters. I later learned that citizens needed to be careful not to draw the attention of the 'moukhabarat,' or the secret police, while roaming the city and the man watching over us was not a famous philanthropist or peacemaker, but the totalitarian dictator of Syria.

Syria was a closed society, shut out from the west. Apart from the buildings left behind from the French mandate years, most buildings in Damascus were fashioned in medium height, soviet bloc style architecture. Since many of the buildings in Damascus were designed to look exactly the same, I remained confused for years whenever I tried to map out where I was in the city. As a result of Syria being a state-controlled economy, closed to foreign investors, products not made in Syria had been difficult to come by. Syrians crossed the border into Lebanon to smuggle back items as simple as bananas, peanut butter, bubble gum and other imports considered luxuries at the time. Searches on cars entering Syria from Lebanon were conducted by the border patrol to identify any imported items, which were considered illegal at the time. These items would either be confiscated by the security on the border or allowed to pass for a bribe. I remember the story of one of my uncles who refused to give up a crate of bananas he had purchased in Shatoura, the Lebanese border town many Syrians flocked to on Friday afternoons. Instead, he determinedly ate the entire crate of bananas in front of the border to patrol officer before entering Syria. He was taken to the hospital upon his arrival in Damascus that night. This was perhaps the extent of defiance Syrians were allowed.
Later on, I lived in fear of the government officials or 'masouleen' (Arabic for 'in control') that sped hazardously through the streets of Abu Rumaneh, one of the affluent neighborhoods of Damascus. Their cars were S-class Mercedes Benz, at times had no license plates and were called 'shabah's' or 'ghosts.' There were many stories about some of the uncontrollable teenage boys of the 'masouleen.' In one incident, several of them drove their motorcycles into the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus. Another time they shot a videocassette in a store because the owner did not have the movie they requested. Syria was theirs. And no law could tell them how to enjoy it.

This was the Syria of my childhood. It was the Syria I came to love and fear but still call home. Within the last year, Syria has changed, while the regime remains unchanged. No longer do the people of Syria need to fear the posters and statues of the dictator and his deceased father since in many places across the country, citizens have torn them down. This is the Syria of my adulthood.