I was very young when the events that form my earliest memory of Syria took place, somewhere between 4 – 5 years of age, but definitely no older than 6. We were visiting my paternal grandmother in the Damascus home that she continued to take up residence in for some years after my grandfather’s death. She occupied a small apartment in one of the souqs surrounding the city centre on one side of al-thawra street, a small neighbourhood just outside the walls of the old city (or ‘sham’ as it is known among Damascenes) once referred to as ‘little Istanbul’; this unassuming, slightly labyrinthine district surrounds areas that in ancient times were reserved for the burials of nobles. It is a bustling, active area with narrow alleyways, backpacker hostels and many cafes.
She lived in this house for the entire duration of my childhood, eventually vacating it by the time I was on the cusp of adolescence. I spent a great deal of time here during my Syria visits; as such, it formed the backdrop to many vivid recollections. I find it impossible to forget the large stately portrait of my grandfather displayed high on the wall in the salon area, the original proof of several miniature photographs that dotted the mantelpieces in our house back in England. I remember the door-less kitchen entrance, and the reggae-style beads that loosely dangled from the top frame. I recall distinctly the sensation of getting up early so many times and experiencing the unmistakeably Damascus combination of the traffic’s proximity, the sounds of merchants, cyclists, an workmen setting about noisily, and the medium of constantly hot open air that swirled it all up within ear-shot of my youthful self.
I also remember many giddy moments in a local playground near some food stands, and specifically, a large swing-set helmed by a large man who pushed the couch-sized seat and lead the occupying kids in a series of chants. The adult cried a set of slogans in a spirit of defiance, followed by a collective squeal in response by enthusiastic children about twice my age. Heaving the couch forward, each of his chants punctuated the beginning of a frenzied crescendo, completed seamlessly in a perfectly solidified counter of rising voices by the children, unvaryingly memorised yet heatedly impassioned. I could not remember the words, but the vibe of this scene stood out for me like a sore thumb, and in later years I came to associate it as uniquely Arab – or Syrian, the music of playground solidarity across generational lines in celebrating a participatory, even defensive, love of life. Being so young, there was nothing rational or remotely intellectual in this understanding; it was a primal feeling of kinship absorbed and registered at the most cellular level. There would never be any analogue for this type of experience during my British upbringing.
Fast track to a very nearby place in February 2011, the 17th to be precise, a mere 6 days after the toppling of Mubarak in Egypt – just across al-thawra street in the main Hamidiyye shopping district, a merchant area is stirred from the daily chug of activity when a policeman savagely beats a shopkeeper over a parking dispute. His screams alerted all the other proprietors of shops in the vicinity, who gathered together along with some bystanders and overwhelmed the policeman in a spontaneous demonstration, chanting ‘The Syrian people will not be humiliated’. The protest escalated in number as word spreads until upwards of a thousand people were demonstrating for dignity and reform and the Interior Minister came out in a darkly ironic attempt to promise justice for the public humiliation, but not before condescendingly admonishing passer-bys for having had the temerity to amass in the first place. Watching this footage a couple of days after it was posted on YouTube, a chill literally crept up my spine. I instantly recognised the same Syrian spirit from my youth manifesting itself in very familiar environs – with no reason, planning, or pre-meditated agenda. I saw only a cross-section of Damascenes from a variety of occupational and class backgrounds congregating together in a bond of intrinsic solidarity to overcome their institutionalised silence and proudly vaunt their true selves.
This illustrative event would serve as a mere taster for the spark that set off seismic, indelible torrents of resistance in the forms of demonstrations, strikes, and attempted occupations of public spaces in early March of that same year. Way down in south of Syria, the reaction of Deraa residents to the torture of a group of children arrested for scrawling ‘The people want the fall of the regime’ lead to waves of vociferous protests. They laid the groundwork for the revolution in earnest, in a part of the country where the policies of over 40 years of brutal dictatorship left their mark on the poor inhabitants in a much more overt manner.
What happened next could not have been more tragic. The Syrian government echoed (and far exceeded) the repressive tactics of Israel against the Palestinians as they reacted to peaceful demonstrators wielding olive branches, flowers, and cups of water for patrolling soldiers by mobilising waves of armed security forces backed by their military machine to violently quash the peaceful uprising. Inevitably, this only inspired people to come out in larger numbers, and when their family members continued to be detained, tortured, and killed, two main things started to happen: the citizens took up arms to defend themselves, and soldiers from the Syrian army started defecting, thereby forming an armed opposition.
As the two year anniversary of the Syrian revolution is upon us, the refugee tragedy surpasses the 1 million mark and the death toll mounts to ungodly proportions, the urgency to cut through misleading portrayals of the Syrian situation becomes more imperative than ever.
Assad’s crackdown and campaign of systematic massacre, savage torture, wholesale destruction of homes and villages, and other blood-drenched terrors has dramatically escalated during this period. It is also true that where the armed opposition is concerned, the once clear system of army defectors and armed civilians defending demonstrations, cities, and towns from the regime onslaught has partially transformed into a morally grey area as hard-line fundamentalist groups from other countries joined and started to play out their own agendas in a perceptible – albeit limited – capacity. Though minor in comparison to the shockingly genocidal violence of this barbaric regime, certain opposition groups representing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and others have committed their own serious crimes. If Syria is to ever emerge as a truly citizen-led nation where justice is the hallmark and in which people are free to determine every course of their lives, these crimes – just like those of the regime – must be fully accounted for in a post-Assad Syria.
However, it bears remembering that the armed opposition, while undoubtedly an important faction in determining the outcome of the conflict, constitutes only a small percentage of the Syrian pro-freedom resistance forces in the country. This is still a predominantly peaceful revolution, but one would not know this simply by digesting Syria news from the western press. The fact remains that to this day anywhere the violence subsides, be it Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, Deraa or elsewhere in the country, huge protests start coming out in force. An entirely grassroots network of activists formed the decentralised Local Co-ordination Committees (warning: graphic content), which have been actively documenting protests and human rights violations from the revolution’s nascent stages through to the present. Moreover, the resistance in Syria is every bit as cultural as it is social and political. With the regaining of the human voice comes an outpouring of creative expression in the form of graffiti art, theatre, music, web-series, and much more.
Due to the constantly evolving nature of the balance of power and governance in Syria as the conflict presses on, it will be military solutions that determine the form a post-Assad government takes, but only in the short term. Ideology or devotion to group-sanctioned doctrine aside, whoever ends up ruling in a post-Assad Syria will have to contend with the vast array of revolutionary forces that have been unleashed after Syrians of all stripes, factions, and class backgrounds crossed the barrier of fear and seized the opportunity to use their voices in myriad creative ways. They are making their presence felt and are constantly reshaping the identity of a nation that, for over 40 years, has had its sense of character swept under the carpet and almost stifled. From graffiti cliques, to theatre performers, to artists, musicians, and citizen journalists, as well as amateur film-makers and civil disobedience practitioners, they collectively bear Syria’s torch and are proving impossible to ignore.
With all this has come a seemingly endless torrent of hope and promise. Although with over 70,000 dead and more falling daily there is also the inevitable price that a Pyrrhic victory yields. Syria has finally found its voice; may it recoup the constantly mounting costs of having done so.