Assad or the Naked Lion
Translation of ‘Assad ou le lion nu‘, the op-ed by the Syrian writer and poet Omar Kaddour, on the barbarism of the Assad regime (Assad means ‘lion’ in Arabic). Originally published in Le Monde – 11/05/2018.
Born in 1966, Omar Kaddour is a Syrian poet, novelist and journalist. He has published two collections of poems in the 1990s and four novels between 2002 and 2013, none of which have been translated. In 2014, he left Damascus for Lebanon and has lived in France since 2015.
Translation by Joey Ayoub. Republications allowed as long as you credit author and translator.
Towards mid March 2018, the regime-affiliated television station Al-Ikhbariya showed brief interviews with the inhabitants leaving Eastern Ghouta following the long military campaigns against the rebel enclave. The journalist, whose face did not appear on screen, was speaking to one of the evacuated in an accusatory manner: “People are saying that the inhabitants [of Eastern Ghouta] supported the armed factions” to which an elderly man responded “we are a poor and defenseless people”.
At the same time, a young man takes the initiative to tell his young girl to say that she is “Habiba, the ‘daughter’ of Bashar al-Assad”. But instead, the girl yelled out of anger, in a conclusive tone, to say that no, she is not the daughter of Bashar! Syrians would understand here that the man would only ask such a thing of his daughter to beg for aman (mercy) as he is of fighting age. We know that men his age, after leaving the besieged areas, are either arrested and tortured, or forced to join Assad’s forces to fight opposition groups. Syrians would also understand that for this public blunder the father, and perhaps even the girl, could pay the price.
The little Habiba reminds us of the famous tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes (known in Syria under the title of ‘the naked emperor’) by Hans Andersen because she has yet to become aware of fear and of the caution it demands. Except that in her case, we can imagine that this goes even further than for the child who yelled ‘the king is naked!’. After all, this girl has lived her whole life under the siege, barrel bombs, shells, and even chemical weapons. It is not unlikely that one of her friends or one of her relatives was killed by these weapons of mass destruction. In this context of death and famine, Habiba heard that the one responsible for their ordeal was Bashar al-Assad. Then came the day where her father asks her to declare that she is the daughter of Bashar. This is how the return to Assad’s supremacy works: accepting him despite all that he has made people endure and all that he will continue to make them endure.
In an Orwell novel
The case of Habiba, as with many others, elucidates this great paradox: portraits of Bashar excessively hanged over the ruins of the zones he has reconquered. In politics, we are supposed to avoid psychological interpretations – such as speaking of necrophiliacs. However, if we observe the discourse of the Assad regimes – both of the father and the son – we find this drunken language of destruction. I was a teenager when Hafez Al-Assad crushed the Muslim Brotherhood uprising. His troops had just committed a massacre in Hama, killing over 30,000 people, not to mention the destruction inflicted on the city.
At that moment, portraits of Assad senior invaded all of Syria’s roads. I also remember a banner that we’d see everywhere accompanied by a saying of the president which read: “There is no life in this country other than for progress and socialism”. For a long time, I thought of this banner covered in portraits of Hafez Al-Assad over the lifeless rubble. Before that, we would read another saying written by his men on walls or on banners: “I am the Baath [party in power in Syria since 1963], death to its enemies!” Here and there, the goal was to threaten adversaries with death, in the name of the party in one case, in the name of progress and socialism in another.
As it happens, I entered university in 1984, when the world was re-reading George Orwell’s 1984. I read the novel – Assad’s censorship allows the book to circulate while it banned its movie version, because it knew that readers were far fewer than viewers. Regardless, for people like me who read 1984 in Syria, the novel brought nothing new. We lived in a reality similar to what it was imagining, with Big Brother seeing everything, with his intelligence services interfering in every aspect of our existence.
That year, Hafez Al-Assad had finished destroying the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, he was busying himself imprisoning communists, including those who abandoned any opposition to support him in his war against the Brotherhood. Between 1984 and 1987, many of my leftwing friends were arrested and condemned to harsh sentences in front of special courts which didn’t allow them to defend themselves. Nevertheless, they were luckier than those who claimed to be with the Muslim Brotherhood because those were judged by “campaign” tribunals which generally chose the death penalty.
A distant relative connects me to two brothers who were arrested for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. No one in their family had heard of them since. They had children who grew up without knowing them. Their mother became hopeless for knowing nothing about them. And if there was a glimmer of hope, it was no doubt extinguished when ISIS/Daesh took control of Palmyra prison without anyone knowing what happened to its archives.
Like an Occupation Force.
Outside of prison, where we lived like the characters in Orwell’s novel, people abstained from doing anything that would remotely look political. If someone denounced you, even if out of personal vengeance, it could lead to your disappearance. All that was needed was for a simple quidam to accuse you of having insulted ‘the commanding father’ for your destiny to sink into a dark unknown. There is a word for that: “Al-istibaha” (the act of declaring the violation of human rights legal). In other words, the whole of society was at the mercy of a powerful elite and no one had dignity. There are no laws forbidding that group from degrading people, or killing them, or stealing their possessions. It’s an expression inherited from past wars, when conquerors allowed their soldiers to do whatever they wanted to do to the inhabitants of the cities they occupied.
Concretely, the power of Assad senior soon resembled an occupation force allowing itself to trample upon a whole population. The concept of istibaha implies that those who find themselves outside the circle of power have no rights. And if that circle abandons any responsibility in terms of public services, it considers it a form of generosity. This is how school students had to study about the ‘generosity’ of the ‘commanding father’: The fact that he brought electricity in certain villages, for example, as though it didn’t exists in homes in countries poorer than Syria. Also, when they increased the salaries of public officials, they announced it like it was a generous act by the president, as if he were paying for it from his own pocket, even though it was also accompanied by a higher rate of inflation which affected these employees salaries.
“Kneel or Starve”
When the 2011 revolution was launched, the Assad regime had entered a new phase: It no longer hid itself behind the mask of socialism. There was no longer a need for these banners promising death to opponents under the slogan of progress and socialism, or in the name of the Baath Party. Instead, Assad’s henchmen declared a slogan summarising the dynastic essence of the regime: “Assad or we burn the country”. Here, there were no pretenses of some ideal or any form of morality. It is naked despotism, openly showing its true face. At the checkpoints set up by pro-regime militias encircling zones fleeing Assad’s supremacy, we can read another slogan: “Kneel or Starve”, a way of telling the besieged ‘either you die of hunger under the bombs or you accept the humiliation of submission.”
As the regime applies its scorched earth policy and starves the population to bring it to heel, it insists on showing that in the regions it controls, life follows its natural course. It’s not only an image sent abroad to prove the regime’s resilience. It’s only a way of bringing Syrians to accept the idea that there is nothing abnormal happening in their lives while thousands of others are crammed into internment camps and that, every day, security services tell new families of the death of a detained son with no explanation and without returning his corpse.
The standard for Assad is for its repressive machine to kill Syrians wherever it finds them. The world was made aware of the reports by ‘Caesar’ on the systemic usage of torture for the purpose of murder. It was also made aware, a year ago, of a report by the US state department of the existence of a crematorium next to Saydnaya prison. But all of that was just the tip of the iceberg compared to everything we know now and to what the Assad regime will continue to do. The regime isn’t seeking a one-off victory, but a permanent one, a victory that guarantees that no revolution will ever be able to exist. And this means a perpetual war against Syrian society.
We have a president whose legitimacy is still recognised by the world. And yet, in a speech given on the 20th of August, 2017, he said: “Yes, we lost our best youth and infrastructure which cost us a lot of money, we lost whole generations, but in return we gained a society that is sane and homogeneous.” Assad declared that losing thousands of combatants and millions of exiled creates a better society. His concept of homogeneity is inspired by the worst Nazi literature, where he also got his idea of a holocaust.
However, Assad’s victory doesn’t only consist of committing unimaginable crimes, but to make sure they become something banal even to the outside world. The more Syrians he kills, the less the international community is interested in their tragedy. This is the criteria for his success. Indeed, in the foreign press, these killings do not make the headlines anymore, regardless of how much we talk about them. As for international efforts in favor of a democratic transition, they have practically stopped. Certain world powers which demanded Assad’s departure when he had made only a few thousand victims are now declaring their willingness to see him maintain power now that he has hundreds of thousands of victims.
Documented and filmed atrocities
Even the notion of going after Assad for his use of chemical weapons is a victory to him, as it is a humiliation to Syrians, because it implies that their lives are despised to promote a convention on the interdiction of chemical weapons. What more could we have hoped for? We have powers responsible for peace in the world, as permanent members of the Security Council, invoking the Russian veto when the life and the future of Syrians are at risk. And yet, these same powers act on their own, regardless of that veto, when Assad violates the accord on chemical weapons!
Assad also wins when his Mufti threatens Europe with suicide bombers ready for action and that these threats are realised, only for people to then say that Assad ‘only’ kills his people while ISIS is a threat to the planet! Assad also wins in becoming the first to commit so many documented and filmed atrocities in plain sight for the whole world to see, with no strong international reaction demanding that he be brought to justice.
But his biggest victory is that people now see us as characters in a terrifying tale, and that they may even be sincerely shocked by what is happening to us just as we are shocked when we read a horrible story or watch a tragic film – except that this stays within the realm of imaginary characters. If our story stopped with the little Habiba refusing to be Bashar’s daughter, we might see an optimistic end. Alas, Syrian children like Habiba will grow up, and the first leson that they will learn is that the wolf from the Little Red Riding Hood will eat them with the assistance of the gamekeeper. And it’s not impossible that in the Syrian version of the tale, the gamekeeper trains the children to call the wolf “daddy” before he devours them.
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