Bashar al-Assad snores, his head twitching on a large white pillow. Suddenly, he wakes up. “The people want to overthrow me!” he screams, the pompom on his nightcap bouncing.
A military officer approaches, pats him on the head and whispers gently, as if comforting a toddler: “Don’t worry, my dear Mr. President, nobody wants to bring you down. Go back to sleep.”
“But I dreamed that the people don’t love me anymore!”
“We all love you, Mr. President”, says the officer, “but you have to rest. Tomorrow is Friday and we have a lot of work to do!”
Bashar lies back on his pillow and dozes off.
“Sleep…sleep…let nothing disturb your dreams”, the officer croons: “You will see how we deal with terrorists, Salafis and conspirators. We’ll get rid of them for you…”
But Bashar’s nightmare becomes reality. From beneath the wooden stage two actors emerge, their faces swathed in keffiyas. With gleaming eyes, they swing hand puppets from side to side. “How beautiful is freedom!” they chant to the beat of a drum.
There were only a few of us in the audience. Sworn to secrecy, we squatted on the floor of a dark stage at the back of a Beirut theatre on a cold November evening.
Since the Syrian uprising began, Beirut has seen Syrian dissident artists flock to the city in search of refuge, taking over the few alternative pubs where food and drinks are affordable. Listening in on their gatherings, it was fascinating to notice that their heated conversations, instead of being only gloomy as one would expect, were peppered with political jokes and punch lines from the satirical slogans, songs, and videos circulating all over Syria and on the Internet.
After my initial encounters, I decided to seek out some of the creative minds contributing to the uprising – in Lebanon as well as Syria – and asked some of my new Syrian friends to introduce me to this world. It is a world that came into being more than a year ago but which receives scant attention from the international media because it is mainly expressed in Arabic.
One day I received a phone call, and was invited to witness the making of the play.
The actors decided to hide their identities during performances, after being detained during the March of Intellectuals and Artists that was held in Damascus on 13 July 2011. Grotesque wooden puppets, created by a famed Syrian artist, have taken their place. Jamil (not his real name), the play’s director, had smuggled them into Lebanon, garbed in wigs and big moustaches. The performance was not going to be put on live, but rather recorded and uploaded onto the Internet.
“Even outside of Syria, we’re not safe from regime thugs,” the actors said, then pointed at the puppets now scattered lifelessly on the floor: “We’re terrorists and trouble-makers. Don’t you see our weapons?”
A young woman from Damascus continued to work on the décor, pinning a golden frame to a picture of Hafez al-Assad. Once an almost sacred icon, now ripe for ridicule.
Only a few weeks after it was posted on YouTube, the play – Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator – had received tens of thousands of views. It is just one of a wealth of satirical dramas, jokes, chants, graffiti slogans, videos, songs, and dances that have proliferated since Syrians began to rise up against the rule of the Assads.
Ill-fated attempts by the international community to chart a way out of the current impasse and a rising death toll have led to growing despair, pushing the essentially civil uprising over the brink and into the abyss of armed conflict. This conflict has overshadowed how the revolutionary spirit has nurtured the satire and wit for which the country is famous, and imbued daily life with an unprecedented outburst of creative expression.
For decades, Syrians would do no more than whisper. “Even walls have ears,” was a popular saying. Political jokes were kept within trusted circles and people were forced to bow to the iconography of their leader, a cult celebrated in schools, public spaces, cultural productions and the media. As the uprising evolved, the state media, sticking with the delusional narrative that all protesters are armed terrorists, has lost its grip on most of the public. A powerful counter-culture unlocked minds, drawing on popular tradition and skilfully exploiting the tools of modern communications technology.
I set out for Damascus from Lebanon in April 2012. On the Syrian side of the border, we passed Zabadani, a resort town nestled into idyllic green hills, where fierce fighting was taking place. It was here that the simplest and most sardonic slogan of the revolution was dreamt up, eventually spreading to songs and walls across the country. “We don’t love you!” might sound harmless to outsiders, but it strikes a lethal blow to the cult of the leader built on the idea that the Syrian people are children who adore their fatherly leader. Minhibbak (We love you) was a line that Syrians had to repeat over and over again: an order to love. Today, supporters of the uprising are making fun of it, calling groups loyal to the regime the minhibbakjiyeh: the ‘We-Love-Yous’. Challenging the cult of the leader has always been a highly subversive act and Syrians often chose to do it with humour.
One day in the mid-nineties, while living with my aunt in Damascus for a year, I accompanied a cousin to a school march. The pupils were chanting, “Hafiz al-Assad, the eternal leader!” when suddenly a group of older pupils started bleating, “Ha-a-a-fiz al-A-a-a-ssad, the e-e-e-ternal le-e-e-ader,” then dissolved in giggles. My cousin froze in horror, and when I saw her face I realized the seriousness of what they had done. The young men were lucky. Their little performance went unnoticed, and for a few minutes they had successfully ridiculed both the leader and themselves.
It was schoolchildren in Deraa, probably the same age as the bleating, cackling kids I saw twenty years earlier, who were tortured for spraying subversive graffiti on walls, and whose enraged families unleashed the uprising when they took to the streets in protest.
“It is the unthinkable that people now think, say and do”, writer Hassan Abbas told me. If one seeks to learn about Syria, it is always good to talk to him first, as he is the country’s walking encyclopedia.
Abbas was surprised by how forcefully Syrians emerged as a people: “It is not the elite artists or intellectuals who form the avant-garde, but the ordinary people.” He compared them to Aladdin, who was trapped, tiny and insignificant, in the magic lamp, only to swell into a giant after being released. For the first time Syrians are getting to know their own geography, he remarked. Maps of Syria used to be prohibited for security reasons and libraries would import maps from Jordan or Lebanon, instead. “I consider myself an expert on Syria”, he said, “But suddenly places are springing up out of nowhere and we’re hearing dialects that we never knew about. Now it’s the simple people in the country, whom everyone considered illiterates, who are giving us an education. Look at Kfar Nibl.”
Kfar Nibl, a village in northern Syria near Idlib, was entirely unknown until sarcasm and wit put it on the map. Kfar Nibl has become a trademark for the best and funniest slogans, shared and disseminated by activists and fans. When the Arab League monitors arrived in Damascus and took up residence at the Sheraton Hotel, a picture was passed around showing a group of villagers holding a banner that read: The people of Kfar Nibl demand the building of 5-star hotels, so that we can attract the Arab monitors to visit us!
Such high-spirited defiance did not go unpunished, however. Security forces invaded the village several times, but the slogans continue.
Crushing non-violent resistance was a deliberate move, Abbas argued, it was an attempt to force people into taking up arms against a military Goliath: “Why was it the peaceful activists who were detained and tortured?” He believes that the regime’s worst enemy is people gathering peacefully in public space.
Day by day, protests move closer from the suburbs to the centre of Damascus, but the protesters have not yet managed to occupy the capital’s major squares. In April 2011, protesters at Abbasiyeen Square were received with heavy gunfire. Protesters at the central squares in Homs and Hama met the same fate.
“Because this public space was destroyed early on, it was transmuted from the physical to the cultural and spiritual sphere and dispersed all over Syria like droplets of water”, explained Abbas, naming formerly sleepy villages where protests on the streets and squares continued to spring up. “We don’t have a collective space, but at least we have our collective dance.”
The brio with which Syrians revived traditional music and dance is not only a thorn in the side of the authorities. Ultra-radical Sunni cleric Adnan al-Arour, who fled his hometown Hama in the 1980s to exile in Saudi Arabia, uses religious satellite channels to incite against Shia and Alawites. But he is also determined to prevent protesters from chanting and dancing on the grounds that such activities are haram, or religiously prohibited. He called upon Abdel-Baset Sarrout to stop singing and mingling with women in public.
Sarrout, called the ‘nightingale of the revolution’ by his fans and a ‘Salafist emir’ by the regime, is actually the goalkeeper for a Homs soccer team. His rise to fame began when he led demonstrating crowds in Homs, singing from the shoulders of protesters at the front of the crowd. The documentary Waer (Rough) shot by Syrian filmmaker Samira (not her real name) is a compelling account of his story.
Samira met me in the street. “Let’s just walk,” she said. “I’ve never enjoyed it so much.” Detained for months by the security services, she has found it hard to recover. When al-Arabiyya broadcast her film in November and she was confined to a cell, entire streets in Homs were deserted as people headed home to their TV sets. One of her earliest decisions was to film in Homs, sensing somehow that the city with its sectarian divisions would become a contested battleground. People had this strong desire to identify with someone, Samira said, and from the most complex of all places emerged this voice, expressing what they felt.
«Being of Bedouin origin Sarrout has natural self-confidence, and he spends quite some time in front of the mirror,» Samira laughed, «Women adore him like Brad Pitt and men strive to be like him.»
Sarrout, targeted several times by regime forces, is now in hiding and makes occasional appearances to lend his support to the protests. In an early December broadcast on a programme featuring al-Arour, on a channel also owned by him, Sarrout phoned in. Arguing that song was the weapon of the unarmed, he proceeded to sing live on the show, ignoring the cleric. He also teamed up with prominent Alawite actress Fadia Suleiman until she was forced to flee the country.
Syrians have been gagged for so long, Samira explained, that popular culture is subversive on every level: «It breaks with the Stalinist culture that the Baath Party imposed on the country, and ridicules the elite culture on show at the Damascus Opera, so removed from people’s lives. Lastly, when people shout ‘God is great’ while dancing and singing, they also defy Islamism and Salafism, because none of this is allowed in strict religious interpretation.»
In Damascus, home of the political and security establishment, dissenters are forced into hiding. I visited Sami (name changed) and a group of activists in an apartment lit with neon lamps and thick with cigarette smoke. We sat on mattresses and sipped tea. Sami calls himself a «freelancer for the revolution.» The reason he gives for joining the uprising is simple and precise: «We don’t want to be bullshitted anymore.» He stubbed out his cigarette, lit another and apologized that he couldn’t open the window to let in fresh air. «We don’t want the neighbours to overhear our conversation, right?»
«Uninspired, reactionary, and without vision» is how Sami described the regime’s propaganda machine: «They don’t have anything meaningful to say, this is why they are imitating the revolution.» He laughed, remembering how once, the shabiha, while they emulated the revolutionary slogan «Freedom forever, even against your will Bashar!’ shouted «Shabiha forever, even against your will Bashar!»
Internet-savvy, long haired, familiar with Western subculture and casually mentioning his girlfriend, he embodies the prototype of the handsome, modern and secular Arab revolutionary that adorned the covers of Western magazines last year, before elections in Tunisia and Egypt brought Islamic beards back to the front pages. Islamists don’t particularly scare him.
«What’s the difference?» he asked, «When people are forced to kiss Bashar al-Assad’s picture and recite La illaha illa Bashar (There’s no God but Bashar) isn’t that a religious cult just like the Islamists’ unquestioned worship of God?»
In Sami’s opinion the leader’s cult has become so ingrained that the authorities don’t know how to deal with the fact that the uprising is largely a popular one: «They always need to nail down dark personalities that stir people from abroad. This is how figures like al-Arour gain significance in the first place.»
The group wants to stir up central Damascus, where life continues at an almost normal pace. They mobilized for several strikes, often in vain. Sami was the one who disabled bank machines in Damascus’ upmarket neighbourhoods when residents ignored a general strike called for by the protesters. He produced plain plastic cards resembling credit cards, coated them with superglue and stuck them into the machines’ slots. Amused, he recalled how bank clerks with red faces desperately tried to pull them out of the machines, cursing the cards with the crudest insults.
I walked into a quiet neighbourhood tucked behind the busy Baghdad Street, where I paid a visit to the atelier of Youssef Abdelke. He welcomed me through a small wooden door, which like so many of the city’s tiny entrances, conceals a spacious and beautiful Ottoman courtyard house covered in black and white tiles. Abdelke is one of the country’s most prominent painters and a co-founder of the Art and Freedom Facebook page.
Hibiscus tea was boiling on the stove and he offered me some, doves cooing in the courtyard. His hair pulled back into a ponytail had turned snow-white. After being detained for leftist political activities under Hafez al-Assad, he spent twenty-four years living in exile in Paris. Since his return to Syria in 2008, authorities have prevented him from travelling, not by imposing the formal travel ban that is wielded against many from the political opposition, but by the equally common and effective method of stalling the renewal of his passport. In order to get it, he would have to visit the internal security to settle «old issues.»
«Are you crazy?» he shouted, when I asked if it might not be worth it, then burst out laughing: «At my age I’m not going to audition at state security as if I was the criminal and they were the patriots.» He seems at peace. To find freedom in exile is an illusion, he believes: «It’s more of a political statement to be silent in Syria than to speak out abroad.» He is far from silent himself, however. His group invites artists to submit works that give expression to the uprising. He also took the initiative to found an independent union of artists. Any artistic production has to be submitted for clearance to national cultural institutions that operate under the culture ministry and are staffed with personnel close to the circles of power. While painters often managed to evade censorship in the past, as they were not gathered under a specialised body comparable to the powerful cinema and theatre institutions, the culture ministry has resumed pre-censoring exhibitions since the uprising began: We have returned to the spirit of the 1980s, when exhibitions were prohibited after the Hama massacre. Abdelke didn’t expect to be showing his work in Damascus anytime soon. Instead, it is touring Paris, Beirut and Cairo, while the artist remains behind.
Unlike Abdelke, Firas (name changed) is a man leading a double life. I met him on Jabal Qasioun, the mountain that looms over Damascus and offers spectacular views of the city. Where families used to escape the sweltering heat of the city, most of the former picnic huts have been torn down. The only venue spared was a fancy restaurant at the summit, the property of business tycoon and regime crony Mohammad al-Khouly. We roamed along the row of dimly lit cafés that replaced the huts and which used to cater to Gulf visitors coming to pick up Iraqi women thrown into prostitution by war and poverty. Now they are almost empty. We finally settled on a tiger skin sofa. Surrounded by plastic palm trees illuminated in pink, a huge TV screen blared Lebanese pop songs above our heads.
«Yes, here nobody will recognize me.» Satisfied, Firas nodded and ordered strawberry milkshakes. One of the few popular television stars who made the decision to side with the uprising, he has come to harbour a distaste for the official cultural productions that made his name and which continue to be churned out despite the unrest.
In recent years, Syria became known for its lavish drama series; part-funded by Gulf monarchies, they were so successful that they managed to supplant Egyptian productions, which had dominated television screens across the region for decades. Syrian television actors rose to stardom and attracted huge numbers of adoring fans. Since the uprising began, many of them have chosen to remain silent, if not to defend the regime. «After some actors signed a petition against the assault on Deraa, they were threatened. Most are now scared shitless,» said Firas.
Syrian drama started out relatively low budget and was therefore shot on location, not in studios. Authenticity has become its trademark, but now most locations are inaccessible, and some Gulf countries refuse to buy Syrian productions. Even so, said Firas, «they still try to project an image that all is fine.» Firas first quit all his television projects, but recently picked up work again to avoid the security radar: «If you say no too many times you raise suspicion.» I inquired why he didn’t out himself to the public as a supporter of the uprising. «And then what?» he countered, «Being in the spotlight and losing the chance to contribute anything meaningful?»
Instead, he chose to shoot clandestine documentaries that are broadcast on Arab satellite channels. «If our society is ever to heal, we need proper documentation of better quality than shaky videos on YouTube.» The wind blew, and down below the white and green lights of Damascus flickered. He took a deep breath: «It’s good to look down from above. The city has become an Orwellian nightmare.»
Protesters in Orwellian Damascus have had to resort to a creative use of the Internet. Where it was too risky to take to the streets, home videos emerged as a medium to replace demonstrations. An inspiring precedent was created by women in Damascus in May 2011, when they started to upload «home sit-ins,» wearing black sunglasses and holding scarves in front of their faces as they chanted for a civil state and democracy.
In a gathering of artists, I talked to Loay (name changed), a playwright who had filmed such sit-ins. The guests suddenly began arguing about armament. Contradictions arose and voices grew louder. Loay paused, peeking out from the terrace on the street to check whether passersby might be listening. «We should safeguard the civic soul of this revolution,» he remarked, «and I believe that women will be the leaders in that.»
He pointed out that it was young women who recently took their protest to the heart of political and business establishments. On April 10, 2012, the day that the ceasefire negotiated through Kofi Annan’s initiative was supposed to come into effect, 34-year-old Rima Dali poured white paint on her red dress in front of the parliament, holding up a sign that read: Stop the killing. We want a homeland for all Syrians. A few days later, four young women sprawled like corpses on the floor of Damascino Mall while upper-class shoppers tripped around them.
«What they are doing is very smart,» explained Loay. «Since the regime depicts protesters as murderous terrorists, it is difficult to punish people for demanding an end to violence and a nation for all.»
Hardly out of prison, Rima Dali busied herself again organizing a whole campaign. «We have to do everything we can to show that the Syrian people want a political solution,» she told me on Skype. «The revolution is being hijacked by so many different actors who have an interest in fuelling conflict. If the initiative has given us anything, it is a bit of space to revive non-violent activism. We cannot let this opportunity pass, too.»
Back in Beirut, close to the bus station where the cabs and buses from Syria pull in, I joined Mustafa Haid in a backdoor café: a favourite hangout for Syrian activists. A human rights researcher who had been banned from travelling for several years, he now spends any spare time he has surfing the Internet for new creative output and recording it in his notebook: «If we don’t archive all these expressions, they will be forgotten.» Cycling through clips he demonstrates how the credibility of the official narrative has been slowly eroded, with almost every piece of state propaganda meeting immediate ridicule in home video format. When the first massive protest emerged in Midan, state television reported seriously that people took to the street in order to thank God for the rainfall. Haid shows me a weather forecast video that appeared on the Internet a few days later, showing rainclouds over Damascus, with the headline: Important news. The people of Midan thank God for the rain, while Al-Jazeera insists on describing them as pro-democracy protesters!
With home videos, citizens have also defied official propaganda depicting protesters as armed gangs and terrorists. Haid made a note of the first, very simple home video of the uprising, which appeared in March 2011. It shows a small boy, standing blindfolded and handcuffed on a sofa in his living room while a voice intones: “We captured the armed gangs.” The camera pans from the child to an assortment of weapons spread out at his feet: plastic guns and 25 lira coins.
Another early video, this one from Homs, shows three men with the common requisites of an armed terrorist group: keffeyas, Kalashnikovs, and beards. A voice orders them to reveal their weapons: one thrusts a zucchini towards the camera, the second an eggplant, while the third reveals an ammunition belt filled with okra strapped around his waist.
Admitting with a grin that Syrians are obsessed with food, Haid shows me one of his favourites. It is an early video, a response to an official television broadcast in which an alleged eye-witness described how terrorists were stuffing 500 lira notes and drugs into kebab sandwiches and using them as bribes to make people protest. Two young men from Hama promptly uploaded a fake cooking show called, Eat and Protest! Speaking into a cucumber instead of a microphone, the chef announces the dish of the day: «the 500 lira kebab.» He runs through the ingredients: «First we slice open the bread and stuff it with kebab (low-fat, of course, so it doesn’t soak the money). Today, we’ll be using the dynamite-flavoured pills, which are especially suitable for suicide attacks. We crush them up, so the protesters can’t taste them. Then we carefully sprinkle the powder on the kebab so it can’t be seen. Wrap the money tightly around the sandwich. Bon appetit. If you want to know how delicious and effective this sandwich is, you can ask the 500,000 people who took to the streets in Hama just to get hold of one.»
For Haid, what is underway is more than a mere uprising: «Dictatorships play on fear, and create almost sacred taboos. This is why these forms of expression are truly revolutionary: they desecrate the symbols of power,» he said.
As biting dissent has stripped the regime of whatever legitimacy it once enjoyed, he bitterly admits, it is now naked violence and the higher stakes of international politics that keep it standing. He finds wisdom in an entry on a Facebook page: The regime is gone, but how do we get rid of it?