In summer 2009, I spent two months in the city of Hums. The same city that has been shelled for the last three weeks by the government forces and where you would find most of the civilian casualties now estimated to have grown over 5 000. I often wonder how many of those faces that are now covered with fabrics of white sacks - because there's not enough coffins to accomodate all the bodies - I saw while riding the streets of Hums on my bicycle.
I came to Hums to study Arabic but left with much more than that. In Hums, I found the most hospitable and warm people I've met in my life and a second family. Every shell that is fired at Hums explodes on the streets and also in my heart. With every new day of shelling added I am ever more afraid to ask my friends from Syria if everybody from their families and everybody I know back there is OK and safe. Because I know that they may as well be dead.
"With every new day of shelling I am ever more afraid to ask if everybody is OK. Because I know they may be dead."
The situation is horrifying. You can find a lot of videos like the two that I am posting here that would give you an idea of what's going on in Homs these days. Warning - the second video is very graphic. I would like to talk about something different today, though. About the days when the Syrian government was not yet killing its people - at least not on a massive scale - and everyone seemed to love their president Bashar al-Assad.
We love Bashar
Of course you always had these running stories about a guy who said a joke about the president followed by his kidnapping into a big black van and after that nobody has seen him ever again. People were very well aware of the role of مخابرات - the secret police. Personally, I was intimidated by them only once when I was lying on the lawn in a public park in the middle of the night. I am pretty sure, though, I was being spied on the whole time I was in Syria. A friend of mine, an American girl, told me once that she saw the same guy in couple different cites as she was traveling through Syria.
Generally, though, people were doing fine and only the slightest minority would call Bashar son-of-a-bitches and wished his death. Of course, Syrians were relatively poor, they couldn't travel anywhere except to Lebanon (and even that was not always the option), but life was good. Middle Eastern people have the incredible ability to enjoy the good things in life like spending time with their families, smoking Narghille, drinking tea (or Matte in case of Syria), or playing backgammon, chess and cards.
These are magnets that were (and maybe still are) sold all across Syria as souvenirs. The arabic writing on the bottom one says "we love you". Above it, is probably Bashar's fingerprint in the motive of the Syrian flag. I bought these two and put them on my fridge so that I'd be constantly reminded of this weirdest phenomenon: Everybody in Syria seemed to like Bashar al-Assad.
"I put these magnets on my fridge so that I'd be constantly reminded of this weirdest phenomenon: Everybody in Syria seemed to like Bashar al-Assad."
Just look at all those pictures at the very end of this article. Bashar used to be everywhere in Syria. You would not walk the street, enter a grocery store, read a newspaper, or pay somebody a visit without seeing his picture at least once, but more likely in countless iterations. The elderly couple I was renting a room at had his picture on the entrance door to their apartment. My friend's family had his picture framed and put on their living room wall. Everybody wanted to show that they liked Bashar. Everybody had his picture and nobody would say one bad word about him.
Four reasons to like Bashar
Now, we have two possibilities. Either it was only a pretended liking or it was a genuine one. So was it merely a sign of compliance with the regime in pretty much the same manner as in my country Czechoslovakia during the Communist regime - which you may call either hypocrisy or a will to survive in conditions where disloyalty is severely punished?
You might be inclined to think so. But wait a minute, I talked to these people. I shared their homes, ate their bread and knew a lot of their personal secrets. And I gotta tell you, in the most part, they liked Bashar genuinely. Why?
Well, for couple of reasons. First of all, Syria is fragile and sectarianly divided country. By repressing some of the freedoms of Syrians citizens, Bashar (and his father Hafez before him) managed to repress the radical parts of different sects and maintained the country in one piece without much violence. And a lot of people gave him credit for that. A number of people told me in one-on-one conversations they were willing to give up some of their freedoms in exchange of relative safety. The more in the wake of tremendous insurgency just across the border in Iraq.
Second, people valued Bashar's western-style manners and the fact that he got his degree in London and as a matter of fact his whole life story. His public image of a young father and statesman who had had no interest in politics but took on the duty of presidency after his older brother had died in a car accident was very well carved out and polished.
A friend of mine even had the most unique opportunity to take his parents and dine with Bashar and his wife. After that dinner, he described the president to me as being very nice, intelligent and caring. Bashar totally impressed upon him.
Third, people of Syria believed that he had been working on their well-being and they had the feeling that the living standard was slowly rising.
"The bombardment of Hama was often given to me as an example of something Bashar would never do."
Most importantly, everybody told me that he was different. Different than his father. The 80's were long gone and Bashar would never mount on a brutal action against his people. The bombardment of the city of Hama ordered by his father Hafez in 1982 that led to a well-known massacre (even known by everybody in Syria where there's no freedom of press) was often given to me as an example of something that Bashar would never do.
The people of Hums are now not only shelled each day but had undergone the biggest disillusion in their lives. Do they still love Bashar?