Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the tag “Ba’ath Party”

Of Syrian Sheep and Goats

Sheep 1

Sheep in their flock

In December 2017 London’s Royal Court hosted a new play called Goats’ by Syrian Liwaa Yazji. The Times Literary Supplement asked me to review it. This is what I wrote, published in print and online on 13 December 2017:


The Royal Court describes itself as “the writers’ theatre,” staging “restless, alert, provocative theatre about now”.  This unusual play certainly fits that bill, its Agitprop style echoing Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage’, one of the greatest anti-war plays ever written. Like Brecht, Yazji uses Verfremdungeffekt to create a deliberate distance between the audience and the actors, seeking to make them focus on the issues rather than empathise with the characters. Brecht was frustrated by the critics’ response to ‘Mother Courage.’ The audience sympathised with her suffering, the loss of her children, one by one, to the war, but what Brecht said he intended was to show how misguided she was to believe she could earn her livelihood from the war. Yazji must be feeling very similar, for the interval chatter made it clear that the audience connected primarily with the live on-stage goats.

The play is surreal on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. The setting is 2016, a snapshot of a typical regime-held village in southern Syria five years into the current conflict. It is not, and never has been, on the frontline of the fighting, but the play opens with a neat row of coffins laid out on stage, each decorated with the photo of its occupant, a young soldier in uniform, killed fighting ‘terrorists’ somewhere else in the country. It is the weekly mass funeral, an event that has now become routine, but which has to be televised for the nation, to ‘honour the martyrs’, using a vetted script read out by the chairman of the local Ba’ath Party branch office. Suited security personnel are in attendance to make sure everything goes to plan, while a hard-as-nails female TV presenter, all hair and teeth, interviews the relatives, also to a fixed script.

Throughout the play there are three TV screens on stage simultaneously playing footage of these and other funerals, interspersed with programmes about villages being liberated, an ‘Everything is fine’ strap-line and occasional white-noise explosions. Such techniques are reminiscent of Brecht’s use of placards, as is the unflinchingly bright stage-lighting irrespective of whether it is night or day, adding to the sense of the surreal. Sometimes the stage is littered with looted fridges, war booty stolen from opposition homes.

The Ba’ath Party, sensing the rising unease of the villagers, has the brainwave of compensating the martyrs’ families with a goat, a token of the state’s esteem and respect for their loss. This is beyond surreal, especially because during the Arab Spring, artists have often used the goat, with its naturally curious and independent character, to represent the rebels, the protesters, as opposed to the compliant sheep who do as they are told and flock together.

aliferzatfake sheep with freedom banners following dictator, sheeping with Freedom banners added by pro-regime activists, original guy genuine
Cartoon by Syrian Ali Ferzat, showing sheep carrying placards with “Freedom” in Arabic, as they follow a heavily weaponised thug.

The young men of the village relieve their tensions by fornicating with the goats, and question what the point is in going to school if they are soon going to be sent off into the army anyway. ‘Won’t it be over by then?’ asks one. ‘Like hell it will,’ replies another. “There might be another ten years of this,” says a third.

The key protagonist is Abu Firas, the local schoolteacher, whose son is supposedly inside one of the coffins. He insists on seeing his son’s body so he can be sure he is dead – he is finally departing from the state-controlled script. “Enough of this madness!” he shouts, in the middle of the ceremony. “You’re scared of me. Why?” he yells at the Ba’ath Party official, “Because now I have nothing left to lose. In a country like this, that is the most dangerous thing!” He starts to question: “Why don’t any of our boys come back wounded, why only dead?” and jokes bitterly “Thank goodness our sons don’t realise they’re only worth a goat.”

As his defiance grows, the realisation dawns that his son was brainwashed into the ‘martyrdom mentality’ and the leitmotif of the play becomes clear – overcome with regret for not speaking up against the regime’s tactics all these years, he howls: “I missed my chance!” One of the young boys agrees, reproaching him: “You’re the originator – you and your whole fucking generation!” A mother grieving for her elder son refuses to speak. “This is not the time to stay silent,” Abu Firas reproaches her, “Do you think your silence will change anything?” Her younger son, who has run away from the army on her instructions, also reproaches her: “When I turn into a goat, will we be able to talk to each other?”

This very real generational divide within the war is rarely focussed on, in literature or in the media, but it is certainly the case that many of the old blame themselves for staying silent too long, while the young blame the old for landing them in this mess, for acquiescing in the regime’s methods all their lives rather than challenging the system. “Did I kill Firas?” the father wonders by the end. In despair he hangs himself, a schoolteacher who has failed in his duty to educate the young.

Most surreal of all is the audience’s reaction to the play. “We open our doors to the unheard voices and free thinkers that, through their writing, change our way of seeing,” states the Royal Court Theatre blurb. The audience looked but appeared not to see.  “The goats are the real heroes” laughed some, while others declared that the goats stole the show, and were better than the actors. Yazji lays bare with chilling accuracy the horrific realities of the Syrian war, how it has brutalized families and a once-cohesive Syrian society. But an ongoing war of these proportions, where over half the population has been displaced, disabled or killed, is so far removed from a London audience’s comfort zone, that it can’t relate to the message – only to the goats. Yazji, like Brecht, may have to wait a few generations before the enormity of the Syrian war – and her play’s attempt to bring this home – will be better understood.

Goat 1

Syrian ‘World of Interiors’

My Damascus House (photo credit copyright Fiona Dunlop)

My Damascus House (photo credit copyright Fiona Dunlop)

In peaceful times World of Interiors might easily have been the sub-title for My House in Damascus. The Arabic concept of the baatin meaning the internal aspect that can only be sensed, as opposed to the zaahir  signifying the outward visible surface, is one of the leitmotivs of the book, re-awakened from my distant undergraduate days studying medieval Arabic literature at Oxford. From the outside the historic house I bought nine years ago in Old Damascus presented nothing but a plain facade, but on the inside it was a secret world. Even after a lifetime’s specialisation as an Arabist, I had never dreamt of buying property in the Arab world. But a chance encounter with an antiquities architect whilst researching a guidebook to Syria led me in an unexpected direction and together we spent four unforgettable years of restoration and discovery.

Inside that sanctuary I have experienced, more than anywhere else, a powerful sense of unity with nature and with my surroundings. The way the light stroked the ancient stones, the way the vibrant bougainvillea fell in a magenta trail, the way the palm doves swooped from their nests in the heavy foliage to peck at invisible delicacies, the way the tortoise meandered silently in and out of the shadows. The music of the call to prayer from the myriad mosques echoed round the walls and on Sundays the church bells chimed in melodiously.  Overwhelmed by the palimpsest of Syria’s complex past and present embodied in the multi-layered heritage of the house, I felt embraced as if by some archetypal womb.

To reach that point was hard. The path was strewn with near-impassable obstacles, blocked with bureaucratic nightmares beyond imagining.  But Syrian friends patiently helped me through the labyrinth. Only after painstaking deconstruction did I get there, a process which came to be symbolic of Syria’s own years of deconstruction, still alas ongoing.

First the breezeblock wall dividing the courtyard two-thirds one-third had to be pulled down to reunite the space as one, a move I identified as the reunification of Syria’s population, broadly two-thirds Sunni Muslim, and one third minorities like Kurds, Alawis, Christians and Druze. Next the uniform white-painted cladding had to be stripped off the walls revealing the centuries-old stonework of contrasting soft limestone and black basalt. This was a particularly lengthy stage, as we chipped away carefully with hand tools, struggling not to damage what lay beneath. The uniform cladding of the Ba’ath Party system and the tentacles of its omnipresent security system have been suffocating Syria’s identity for the last 50 years. Concrete is tough stuff.

Even so, the day will surely come when Syria too has its rotten infrastructure, its faulty wiring and its dodgy plumbing ripped out. Like the house, it will gradually emerge from the wreckage, as kaleidoscope colours begins to blend subtly with mellow shades from across the ages. The human quest for the perfect space – what I found in my magical courtyard – will never die.  Once ‘tasted’, as Islam’s greatest philosopher Al-Ghazali  wrote, the memory cannot be taken away. Today’s tragedy inside Syria leaves many wondering  how and when it will all end. How can a nation and its people endure such suffering?

Yet what I have learnt from my Damascus courtyard, is that despite the extremism and corruption currently ravaging the country, Syria’s core identity, firmly-rooted in centuries of moderation and tolerance, will survive. Its  zaahir looks hideously damaged, but its  baatin, its ‘World of Interior’ will remain intact.

The 'secret ceiling', an accidental discovery, that comes to represent the multi-coloured complexity of Syrian society [DD, 2013]

The ‘secret ceiling’, an accidental discovery, that comes to represent the multi-coloured complexity of Syrian society [DD, 2013]

As published in World of Interiors, August 2014, under Journal of an Arabist:

In renovating the house she bought in Damascus in 2005, Diana Darke has chipped away at the modern layers to find the harmonious structure beneath. A similar deconstruction is needed to recover the tolerant, pluralistic  Syria hidden by war.

‘My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution’ is published by Haus, Amazon price match paperback and ebook£10.49:


My House in Damascus



As the #Syrian uprising enters its 4th year, some reflections

Damascus' Great Umayyad Mosque with its Jesus Minaret

Damascus’ Great Umayyad Mosque with its Jesus Minaret [DD]

In a recent clear-out of my study I came across a Syria Today magazine with the cover feature “Unlocking Civil Society”, 15 pages of in-depth coverage of how civil society inside Syria could move forward. It was dated March 2010. Re-reading the feature now, after three years of devastating conflict, is especially poignant.

I was in Damascus during March 2011 when the first peaceful demonstrations took place. On 15 March I even tried to find them, but they were over so quickly I could not get there in time. The atmosphere inside the city was tense and the regime was very edgy, all too aware of what had just happened in Tunisia and in Egypt. Police and security officials were under instruction be to nicer to members of the public, not to do anything that might provoke a reaction. For a brief and wonderful interlude, drivers were waved on at red traffic lights, and government offices became places of politeness,  joviality even.

Three days later, the instruction was broken. The over-zealous governor of Dera’a ordered troops to fire on a crowd of protesters whose children had been arrested for drawing graffiti, resulting in the first deaths of the revolution. The die was cast, and as protests quickly escalated all over the country in the following weeks, the government response switched to its default setting – violence.

The scale of what has happened since defies credulity – at least 140,000 dead, untold thousands injured, missing or imprisoned, 6.5 million internally displaced and 2.5 million forced to flee as refugees to neighbouring countries. Where is it all heading?

Every Syrian I have ever spoken to about what they want for the future of the country has always said the same thing, namely, that top levels in government, the police, the armed forces and the security services should leave the country, that the rest should stay, and that a transitional temporary government should be put in place till new elections. Thereafter the priority would have to be reconciliation. Those without blood on their hands would have to be forgiven and re-assimilated. Most Syrian people are proud of the diversity of their society and want to preserve it. Its loss makes them value it all the more and they want it restored as soon as possible. Syrians have a very distinctive character, even the poorest ones. They have a natural sense of dignity and identity, a strong sense of self. It must somehow be the legacy of their deep and rich Syrian history, absorbing  the complexities of many cultures that have ruled the region over the centuries.

The timing of the country’s descent into war was particularly ironic in Damascus: the new EU-funded Modernisation of Administration Management (MAM) project had just come to fruition with a series of themed walks round historic Damascus; the new basalt paving in all the neighbourhoods of the Old City around Straight Street had just been completed; and Al-Jaza’iri’s famous 19th century house on the Barada River just north of the Old City had just been restored and was serving as a museum and regional centre for sustainable development.

The last time I was inside Syria in April 2012, Christian and Muslim friends alike agreed that the Ba’ath Party had destroyed the country. For over 40 years they destroyed the education system, with a kind of brainwashing of the young in state schools, a Bashar cult, making all children worship, obey and love him.  Both Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar settled their fellow Alawis in the mountainous parts of Damascus like Mezzeh 86 close to the Presidential Palace. After the 2006 war in Lebanon between Israel and Hizbullah, Bashar was very influenced by and impressed by Hassan Nasrallah because of their success in bloodying Israel’s nose. He became closer to Iran and the Shi’a at that time. Lots of Sunnis were actually paid to become Shi’a, given salaries.

The last voting farce inside Syria was the February 2012 ‘referendum on the constitution’. Syrian friends living in the city told me no one went out to vote except those who had their IDs taken away at checkpoints and were therefore forced to go and vote in order to get them back again. Government employees were obliged to vote of course, but most ordinary people stayed at home and were very angry at the way the Syrian state TV then showed people queuing at voting booths, presenting it so misleadingly, as if 86% of people really went out. It made even the doubters realise what this regime would do to stay in power. In Damascus the streets in the Old City and elsewhere were full of banners for candidates, men in their 30s, 40s and 50s, with slogans below reading  something like: ‘Your independent candidate for Damascus’. It was ridiculous and fooled no one. Not one of the men was ‘independent’ All were regime-sanctioned.

A similar farce awaits the country with the upcoming presidential elections in June. On 13 March 2014 the Syrian parliament unanimously approved a new election law permitting other candidates to run against Bashar al-Assad for the first time. Theoretically this is wonderful – in practice it will be the same as the constitution vote, entirely controlled from behind the scenes, with approved candidates notionally standing against the president. The constitution states that:

  1.  A candidate must be Muslim
  2. A candidate must have the support of 35 members of the parliament
  3. A candidate must be 40 years old or more
  4. A candidate must have lived in Syria for 10 years before the election
  5. A candidate must be Syrian by birth, of parents who are Syrians by birth
  6. A candidate must not be married to a non-Syrian spouse

By these rules all external opposition figures are rendered  ineligible.

Given that the ‘international community’  cannot agree on anything about Syria except that the statistics are terrible, Syrians are on their own. No one is coming to their rescue. The rich have mainly left to start new lives abroad. Those that are left behind will need to work overtime if Syrian civil society is ever to free itself from the 43-year stranglehold of Assad rule. Syria deserves to be rescued and needs all the help it can get. It will be a long struggle but I am certain it will eventually succeed.

Young and old arm in arm in Damascus {DD}

Young and old arm in arm in Damascus {DD}

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: