Politics in Syria

Hospitality or Hatred?

The Arab Republic of Syria is a mixed bag. On one hand, the people – even young children – say, “Welcome in Syria. Welcome in Syria.” Abdul-Hamid’s generosity and hospitality were unmatched. The tailor on the street fixed my skirt free of charge. The physical therapist at the mosque gave me a consultation and treatment free of charge. Every patient and every doctor at each clinic and hospital put me at the front of the line. All of this because I was a foreigner in their country.

But it seems to be a double-faced hospitality. For most Syrians, that hospitality extends only to those who come from the “right” country. Or those that are the “right” race or religion. Not a single day went by that I didn’t hear someone say, “I hate Jews. I hate America.” The people, as a rule, don’t say, “I hate the violence in Palestine and Israel.” They say, “I hate all Jews.” They don’t say, “I hate the US government.” Or “I hate the war in Iraq.” They say, “I hate America.” And they do. When you try to explain the difference between a government and its people, the majority of Syrians either do not understand or do not want to understand. Many of them insist on how all Arabs are the same, are brothers, no matter what country they come from. Some of them even admit that both the governments in Iraq and in Saudi Arabia are bad, but they don’t say that all Arabs are bad. Then they insist that the government in America is bad, and that necessarily means that all Americans are “bad.” The reasoning is inconsistent.

Then you hear people say things that are downright lies. Like, for example, that no Jews died in the 9/11 attacks on the WTC. They hear things like that from their newspaper and television media. But guess who owns the newspapers in this country? The government. Many people don’t even know that, and when you tell them, they don’t even see a connection between the government’s political agenda and the news that they receive. There is a lot of propaganda and half-truths being told.

I didn’t spend a single day in Aleppo (during 2 1/2 weeks) where a political discussion wasn’t started, almost always with the words, “I hate America.” or “America is bad.” Trying to have discussions with people who hate is not very easy. When (or if) people would find out that I’m American, they’d unfailingly have a moment of hesitation, as if deciding how they should act or what they should think, and then they would without fail tell me that I shouldn’t tell anyone that I’m American because people would hate me. And then, if a discussion about the evil nature of America or Israel hadn’t already been started, it would invariably start at that point.

Syrians talk about Israel and how Jews are evil and are killing their “Arab brothers.” And when you try to explain that it works both ways, that they are killing each other, people will look at you with a straight face and tell you that no Arabs are killing Jews. It’s only the Jews that kill the Arab Muslims.
That’s why I’m glad to be American. At home, I have Jewish and Arab friends, Christian and Muslim, black and white. We can all sit down at the same dinner table together or party together, without thinking anything of it. As a rule, no one condemns you for being the wrong race or religion or nationality. No one hates you because you’re Jewish or Arab. If people don’t like a certain government, they talk about the government being bad, not all of its people. Here, it’s different. A smile is the first thing to greet you, but that can quickly fade if you’re from the “wrong” side. I’ve heard the word “hate” more times in two weeks in Aleppo than I have during the past five years.

Someone told me that in Syria all people live together peacefully. He mentioned the Muslims and Christians, the Arabs and Armenians. But one group that was noticeably absent was the Jews. They haven’t had it so easy. In fact, it was bad enough that when the government finally issued them passports in the 90’s, all but a handful fled the country, mostly immigrating to the United States. A lot of old buildings where the Jews once lived stand deserted in Aleppo, decaying because the government is supposed to wait 100 years before touching anyone’s unsold property.

So along with a certain hospitality (the Arabs are known for their hospitality), I’ve also seen a lot of hatred and bigotry. Perhaps it comes mostly from the media and propaganda. Whatever the cause, I don’t like it. Hence, my feeling that Syria is a mixed bag. After a time, I was very ready to leave.

Restricted Freedoms:

Voting is done by a referendum. There is no choice of candidates, only the question, “Do you want Mr. al-Assad as your president? Yes or No.” They have ways of checking to see if you voted, so unless you’re hospitalized, you better turn out to vote. There are no voting booths, per say. Only a very public room with a lot of people, two huge men standing at the door to watch the operations, more men watching you to see if you mark off the correct box. The president is “elected” for a period of five years. The current president – the only surviving son of the deceased al-Assad – was elected with a 99.9% majority.

Many people say that the current president is better than his father, but a lot of freedoms are still restricted. There is still no “real” democratic process, and freedom of speech and of the press is limited. Ali’s case is a case in point. Ali is a friend of Abdul-Hamid and has been evading the police for the last five years. His crime: to have spoken out publicly against the last government. Ever since, he’s had to change residences every six months in order to put the police off the trail. He’s had several shoot-outs with them, but being a world-class cyclist and athlete, he’s always been able to outrun them. He even had to flee the country at one point. He’s still on the blacklist, even after the change in government at the end of 2000.

The president’s face is everywhere: on the back of almost every taxi and truck, in most of the shops, in all public places – and always the exact same photo. His face is the equivalent of the flag in other countries. We met several families whose only wall decoration was a photo of the president!

A good example about the restricted speech and freedom is to take the case of the tourist police. Abdul-Hamid would come to our hotel every day to pick us up after he finished work. After the third day, the men working at the hotel warned Abdul not to come anymore because the police come every day at different times and hang out at the hotel posing as tourists, watching and listening to conversations. If they see a Syrian person talking to a tourist, they can arrest him, upon charges of telling bad things about the government to tourists. It happened to a man two weeks before we arrived at the hotel, and he spent two weeks in prison.

After a few days, the hotel workers warned Abdul that I might be an American spy looking for information about the Syrian government! First, I was the one to be careful of. Then, the men thought it fishy that Abdul came every day to see us. They suggested that it could be thought that he was helping to give us information. We worried it would cause too much trouble for Abdul, but he insisted on coming anyway, even though we suggested we could meet him at his workplace. We had to usher him out of the hotel several times when the police showed up (we got a tip-off from one of the men that worked at the hotel).

We had to worry about the police again when Ali took us to visit St. Simon’s Basilica on his three-wheeled motorcycle. We had to enter and exit at separate times, and during our visit, one of the men that worked there spoke to Abdul and Ali in very unpleasant tones, grilling them about why they were with us, where we met, what they were talking to us about, if they were talking about the government, etc. They weren’t supposed to be with us, and it seemed entirely impossible to the man that they were showing us around out of friendship.

Freedoms are so restricted and people are sometimes so worried about being caught saying the “wrong thing” that when we were in the city, always our Syrian friend would have to lower his voice when someone approached or change the conversation quickly or look over his shoulder. I personally think it’s a shame to have to always look over your shoulder or guard every word you say.