My friend Jonathan is still in Syria. He has an update on his blog that I’m reposting here to decrease the traffic to his URL:
I don’t want to start today on a negative note, (or with a blog title that ends in a preposition) but I’ve been in Syria long enough that I’ve earned the right to complain about my surroundings. However, lest you imagine that I don’t love this country and its people, I’ll give you a short list of things I’m not sick of: Arab hospitality, my Syrian friends, the Arabic language, the food, pretty women, and interesting politics.
Now for today’s rant. Welcome to complaint hour with Jonathan Panter. Let the countdown of Things I’m Sick Of begin:
6. Corny Slogans
In Syria, there are as many government billboards as private ones advertising a product. The problem is, that I’m more likely to believe your company offers “the softest toilet paper” than anything the Interior Ministry proclaims. Some classic slogans:
“We are all with you”: Addressed to the president, this is often superimposed on a fist painted the colors of the Syrian flag.
“We love you”: Also addressed to the president, with his face in the background, this one claims to speak for everyone. Well isn’t that generous.
“NO to sectarian conflict”: According to the government, the protestors calling for greater freedoms secretly want a bloody, internal religious conflict.
“If someone asks me my sect, I say, ‘My sect is Syria'”: Really? It’s not even catchy in Arabic.
“Young and Old, we are with the law”: Because if the law says you have no rights, well then, I guess you should respect that.
“The conspiracy failed”: Anti-government protests are part of a foreign plot. This is echoed ad nauseam in the Syrian state media.
“Together let us build Syria with united patriotism”: Patriotism means everyone must think the same way?
5. Questions and Comments about Israel
Oh, you’re an Arab who hates Israel? Well isn’t that new. Just ’cause I’m an American doesn’t mean you need to spout off your monotonous, brainwashed version of Middle Eastern history to my oh-so-welcoming ears. Let’s go through the niceties of “where are you from in America” and “do you miss home” first, before I give you my standard response to the question “Why do Americans ignore Israeli war crimes?”
“Standard response?” Yeah, believe it or not, I’ve heard your question before, from every TV-educated intellectual who imagines that it’s witty to compare Netanyahu to Saddam. I’m not a US government spokesman, so ask me about my favorite food instead of my implied love affair with Israel, because I’m going to hide my real opinion anyway.
Today I walked out the gate of Aleppo University into a seeming convention of Mukhabarat (secret police, see previous posts) and their sidekicks, the “Shabbiha.” The University was, a few days ago, the site of an anti-government protest that was violently crushed, so the regime apparently decided that they would head off further dangerous acts of peaceful self-expression by planting a private army in the vicinity. The Shabbiha are the government’s solution to not having enough secret police to keep the public quiet: paid thugs whose sole job is suppression of dissent. It’s a brutal kid’s dream internship, and it pays too! Today they sat in a hired, air-conditioned bus, smoking cigarettes and listening to music, as if being parked in the middle of a street all day were a normal activity.
Let me make this clear: the Syrian government hires private citizens to beat up people who voice their grievances. If that doesn’t make you physically sick, it should.
3. Soft, Pre-pubescent Mustaches
Look, I know that facial hair is in vogue with the country’s youth, and this is probably the first hair you have that’s not on your head. But honestly, kid, you’re 12. It just looks gross. Go shave and wait your turn like I did.
2. Syrian TV and Radio “News”
Somewhere between comedy and farce, the Syrian “news” is informative as long as you believe the opposite of whatever the newscaster claims; it beggars the imagination that anyone trusts it. Granted, storeowners and cabdrivers are de facto required to play the state media, lest someone be watching.
The greatest offender is Al-Dounnia, a government-run TV station. Particularly un-enlightening is the regularly aired program “Conversations with Citizens” in which the anchorman casually strolls down the street and solicits opinions from “the people.” Every segment of the population is represented: men and women, religious and secular, children and adults, and lo and behold – they all agree that Bashar al-Assad alone stands between Syria and foreign-imposed anarchy and subjugation.
But the most agonizing TV segments are the Bashar Al-Assad music videos; these air between “news” broadcasts and sometimes even interrupt programming like a commercial might. Imagine the epic choir background music in a Hollywood movie preview, except the lyrics are “Syria, Syria, Syria!,” behind a montage of the president and cheering crowds. It’s enough to make Bashar himself ill; I don’t know how he permits it.
1. PHOTOS AND PORTRAITS OF BASHAR
Bashar in sunglasses. Bashar in military regalia. Bashar in a suit. Bashar waving. Bashar with rays of light emanating from his head (don’t laugh, I’ve seen it). Bashar in one of those corny camouflage military caps that looks straight out of a 1970s Central American dictatorship. All restaurants, barber shops, schools, government offices, street stands, taxicabs, bookstores, and other venues, public and private, are plastered with the president’s likeness, and I’ve had enough. At this point, I can draw every crease on the guy’s gullet from memory.
Give me a break, Bashar. Do you think any of this works?