Syria is waking up
Only weeks ago Syria was at peace in relative obscurity. Now, protestors are demanding political reform and clashing with government security forces in the street.
Syria was in our headlines after the Hama massacre of 1982, but now people on the outside will again peek in, receiving only blunt reports that overlook the character of individual Syrians.
The visitor finds many surprises in Syria, not least that political power is held by a small, minority-ethnic elite. But the greatest surprise is that news of Syrians’ kindness and curiosity does not travel.
An outsider’s ignorance of Syrian politics is frustrating to some Syrians, but most of them wouldn’t say so. They are too drawn into the social problems it causes – as seen most sharply in the port city Latakia, the hometown of the ruling president, Bashar al-Assad.
While most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, a small minority are Alawite, a thin branch of Shia Islam. In Latakia, these proportions appear to be reversed. Culturally, the city feels more Alawite: it is what Westerners would describe as ‘relatively liberal’. The hijab is out and skinny jeans are in.
“Sunnis are denied jobs here,” says Mohammed, who runs a hotel in the town centre. He reports that the situation is doubly frustrating to Sunnis, “because for twenty years between independence and the coup by Hafez al-Assad, late father of the current president, the Sunnis ruled and gave jobs to Alawites”. With a shake of his head, Mohammed regrets that this was “stupid” of the Sunnis. The fortune of the Alawite community, thanks to the success of the al-Assad dynasty, has left Latakia a peculiar place. Government officials in well-paid jobs stretch out in modern apartment buildings. Amid their dumpsters, less fortunate people scavenge.
It is never so surprising to see the poor and the rich living side by side in a nation’s capital. And this is indeed the case in Damascus, where all Syrians coalesce in the Old City.
Syrians are proud of their Old City, one of the world’s most exhilarating metropolises. But they have never patched up the holes in the roof, punched by French bombs in 1926 during a local uprising against the colonial mandate.
A certain kind of pride would have fixed the roof; another kind of pride has saved the scars.
On the other side of the country, close to Syria’s border with Iraq, sits a speck in the desert known as Deir ez-Zor.
The curious and often flippant, cheeky nature of Deir locals is on show on Fridays around one handsome object: the suspension bridge that soars over the Euphrates River.
After Friday prayers, families collect here. Teenagers giggle and confer. Parents encourage their toddlers to marvel at their extraordinary bridge as if for the first time.
Sturdy, pastel pink towers grasp together the taut steel cables that hold up a walkway, wide enough only for two camels – or bicycles, today’s vehicle of choice for the playful children that hang around.
The town of Hama also has a river at its heart: the Orontes courses gently through it, turning delicate waterwheels, or norias. These are so famous that people come from all over Syria to see them.
And in the era of camera phones, visitors do not have to settle only for having seen the slow turn of the norias: every Syrian who comes here is captured in pixels posing beside them.
Families who climb up the hill where Hama’s citadel once perched are rewarded with striking views. No castle remains; the area is now a landscaped mound where families cook supper.
Here, Hama residents are on top of the world, making use of the municipal barbecue grills and family-size picnic benches, and looking down on their town, where dreadful history is nevertheless all too recent.
In 1982, Sunnis in Hama rose against President Hafez al-Assad, who ordered the rebellion quashed. Up to 40,000 people died. Some people fear that the same is likely to happen again.
Tragedy in Syria is not inevitable, but political awakening apparently is. That might be understood, if only the rest of the world knew about the people here.