Students from an Intermediate English Speaking class, British Council, Damascus, 2005. The student on the left is a psychologist and was the wife of the director of the UNICEF office in Syria; she had invited us to lunch. Four of the students are Syrians (two were English Literature students, one was a medical student, and the other was a single mum and career woman), another was an Iraqi dentist, and the student with the tie was a Palestinian plastic surgeon. The author is in the front row on the right.
In an interview on France 24 in January 2012, the Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo observed that everyone in Syria was ‘guilty’. Can such a thought encourage us to broaden our understanding of Syria in order to support the work of peace and reconciliation?
In one of my classes at the British Council in Damascus in 2003, a student explained how a relative had been framed by his new boss. The employer had fabricated stories, and the man was forced to pay him off to avoid what could have led to dire trouble with the secret police. It’s a simple story, but for me it illustrated two important things. Firstly, the general public, not just officials or security services, could contribute to injustices that prevailed in Syria. The guilt was spread. Corruption has a broad network made up of invisible threads, both loose and taut. Next, I realized that it was possible for Syrians to speak out about injustices in public – in some circumstances, at least. Most often, there was a general amiability and a sense of trust and respect in the classrooms at the British Council which encouraged openness. Nevertheless students would have known the limits to free speech and kept within them.
However, since 2003, I’ve observed the ill-defined boundaries of free speech being pushed further and further out. For example in 2004 after a ‘terror’ attack in Damascus which killed a policeman and a passer-by, a local colleague made a cynical comment about the ‘regime’ that caught me by surprise. This was well before the Arab Spring. One month into Syria’s “Arab Spring”, I sat in a Damascus café with a friend, and though worried about events taking place in various parts of the country – the killings of soldiers, police and civilians – she was excited about the political conversations going on all around us in that café: people had come out; we were surrounded by groups passionately talking politics.
What concerned my students 10 years ago was not so much national politics as office politics. For example, an engineer explained how he had attended an overseas conference and returned enthused about modern work practices only to be frustrated by an aging manager who felt threatened by new approaches.
An experience with the son of my landlady provided other lessons for me. The young man who lived in the apartment below ours rang me one night to complain about noise he claimed was coming from our apartment. I explained that we were all in bed (at that time friends from Australia were visiting). The next morning he approached me in the street, still upset and accusatory. Again I explained we had been in bed. My husband came to support me, and this caused the young man to get edgy and to make a threatening statement: “Do you know who my uncle is ……..?” We didn’t know, but he gave us his uncle’s name: he was the head of the Syrian internal intelligence services. A shopkeeper standing nearby overheard the conversation and later told my husband if we wanted to make a complaint he would support us. And shopkeepers in the nearby grocery store explained that my landlady’s son had a mental problem of some sort, that he had caused trouble before.
The lessons I learnt from the young man’s outbursts? First, there was a law he had broken by threatening us as he did. Second, there was a witness who didn’t fear giving evidence against the nephew of the head of the secret services. Finally, I lived in a supportive community.
However, our Aussie friend who observed the altercation and learnt of the threat but who wasn’t privy to the follow-up has since presented the story as a neat anecdote to illustrate the abuse of power in “totalitarian” Syria.
Too often now, Syria is being packaged and presented by outsiders who don’t speak Arabic and who have never been absorbed into its complex humanity.
Official responses to complaints I have submitted in regard to biased reporting on Syria inevitably refer to the report’s ‘balance’. It is as if ‘balance’ magically captures ‘truth’ and ensures ‘fairness’. However, ‘balance’ often means reports present the war in Syria like a football game: it’s the Assad regime versus activists and rebels. It is simple, stupid. Investigative journalists who probe are not required. The views of my highly educated students are not required. Balance is achieved through presenting one claim of the ‘regime’ and an inordinate number of claims of supporters of the militarized opposition.
In May this year, I visited Damascus and interviewed dissidents who supported neither the armed opposition nor the government: a balanced approach. However, they did support the army, believing that only it could save Syria: a complex approach.
When I first arrived in Damascus, I could walk out alone at night, fearless. Young children would happily go on errands to the local shops alone. In 2009, I noticed unmarried couples had started holding hands in public. They were uninhibited. (But note, this did shock and disturb some Syrians.) In the years preceding the “Arab Spring”, new restaurants were opening; more and more tourists were walking the cobbled lanes of the old city. There was a buzz in the air. Syria was on the move.
Knowing what is at stake in Syria; acknowledging that the war is not a game of football; and admitting that we all bear some guilt for it seems a balanced approach to me. It can take us to the path of reconciliation and peace.
National Coordinator of “Australians for Mussalaha (Reconciliation) In Syria” (AMRIS)
23 June 2013
Original image taken by Monica Sorrenson when teaching at the British Council, Damascus. (Family in Bab Touma, old city)