This weekend I traveled to Syria, where I expected the oppression and lack of democracy would be as palpable as the heavy summer air. Yet despite my conditioning by an American administration and media who seem to portray Syria as the Axis of Evil’s nephew, I was surprised to discover how ‘normal’ everything and everyone seemed. Sure, there were more covered women and Muslim men wearing the traditional village red and white checkered headscarves than in Beirut, but the women, children in tow, went about there shopping and the men enjoyed their nargilehs. Except for a few moments of lucidity, I didn’t feel what I had expected I would- I’m not sure if I expected to feel fear or oppression, but in any case it felt like just another jaunt to a foreign country.
Toni and I visited the 800 year old citadel of Aleppo, climbing over the ruins of centuries upon centuries of defenders of this most important city in Syria. Toward the front of the citadel in a cavernous hall were two portraits, one of Bashar Assad and the other of Hafez Assad, father and son, presidents of Syria, watching over the ornate wooden ballroom where so many rulers of Syria had reigned. I pointed to the one on the left and asked Toni which one he was. It was then that that I got the first glimpse of the other side of being Syrian.
“Don’t point,” he hissed at me, eyes wide as he furtively glanced at the guard at the other end of the hall. “What are you doing? Don’t point!” In my naivete I tried to ask why, what could be wrong with pointing, especially since I was clearly interested in learning more about the country. But he couldn’t explain. “Don’t ask questions. This isn’t a democratic country,” he told me by way of explanation. For the rest of the day I tried to understand what he feared would happen- would we get arrested? Interrogated? My hand chopped off?- but all I managed to get from him was that you cannot point at a picture of the president in Syria because you don’t know what will happen and you don’t want to find out. When we got back to Beirut last night Toni told our flat mate Walid, also Syrian, what had happened and he gasped, covering his head with his hands, and offered the same advice as Toni- don’t point.
Posted By Courtney Radsch (Lebanon)
Posted Apr 9th, 2007