Saturday, December 03, 2005

"we are with international legality but we refuse international mess"

This is the first time I've lived in a foreign country -- i.e. the first time I've not been a tourist somewhere. I like things much better this way. Among other things, it's an opportunity to witness change over the long-term. The tourist only ever sees a snapshot. There have been seasonal changes aplenty that I've been lucky enough to witness so far: Ramadan, `Eid, and of course the weather getting colder. One dramatic change in the city over the past few weeks has been an amazing explosion of patriotism.

The phrase in the title of this post is printed on a big banner above Baghdad St., along with a big Syrian flag and the Arabic equivalent. I didn't have time to write down or translate that Arabic bit, but I'm sure it sounds at least a little more natural than the awesomely awkward English version. More importantly: Sharia Baghdad is not an exception; the whole city has been pasted with flags and patriotic slogans painted onto banners.

As far as I can keep track, this big burst of showing your patriotism began in full force after the speech of the president early in November. In a move that nobody expected (none of the Western commentators, at least), he talked tough, saying that the behavior of the US and the UN investigation was nothing less than a kind of war against Syria. Although he called for cooperation with the UN investigation, the tone was one of national unity and defiance against the so-called "international mess".

Let's keep in mind that, for as long as I've been here, Damascus (and beyond, of course) has been pretty well coated with the faces of the president, his father, and sometimes his brother too. On any government building or office you're sure to find at least a few of them. (Regarding presidential faces on buildings, try this witty comment of another visitor to Damascus.) Many shops have a framed photo of the father or the son, and many cars have a bashar-in-sunglasses windshield sticker. About 3 weeks after my arrival, I wrote in my journal that the role of their faces (in terms of where people put them) seemed similar to how flags appear in the states -- while noting the significant difference of meaning between a single human being's face and a set of symbols. I've got two favorite types of pictures: one has the president up front, with his father and brother ("martyred" in a car accident) behind, each one floating above a shoulder, as if advising him from the beyond. The other one is with Bashar laughing -- not only is it nice to see his lighter side, but in that picture he's also sporting a riotous double chin.

In this new burst of patriotism, however, the majority of signs and slogans are (very wisely, I think) focused on the flag and Syria, rather than the ruling family. While before this happened I had only a vague sense of what the syrian flag looked like, now it has been indelibly printed onto my memory. Billboards all over the city are covered with them, and at at least two of the city's major traffic circles, (besides being covered with flags and slogans), there are tents set up for patriotism organization. Many of these billboards have little comments at the bottom such as, "May God take care of Syria." Letter-sized versions of these billboards now appear everywhere, in car and store windows. There are also lots of painted banners, proclaiming that "we all love Syria and will defend her" and the like. Mention of the president is of course not absent from all this new effort, but it seems to me to take a back seat.

And so what do I think, is it all manufactured by the state or a is it a true outpouring of patriotism from the people? I would say it's certainly a mix of the two, as it would be in any country in such a situation. Of course the big displays in the big squares and on the billboards are engineered, but that can't explain the newly-hung flag outside the miniscule snack-shop next door to my apartment -- our street is just inches wider than a car, so who would have interest to "place" a flag there? The way that flags and slogans are appearing in car windows reminds me of the situation of patriotism after 9/11 in the states. A country is threatened, and both its government and people feel the need to emphasize their national unity.

I must come clean: I dislike this kind of crazy, flag-wild patriotism, wherever it may be found. Not only does it encourage malicious "who's more patriotic than who"-type intimidation, but it also ... well, my good Syrian friend `Abdullah put it best: "All this flag-waving is silly. A person's true feeling about their country is found on the inside, not in how they show it." That pretty much says it all.

Nevertheless, it can't be denied that people reacted positively to the president's speech. One Syrian wondered why the US is behaving as it is, because they have only strengthened the popularity and power of the president. "People who were against him earlier now support him, because he has stood up against the US and its aims in the region." One American friend made the delightfully absurd hypothesis that maybe maybe the Syrian government hired the US to threaten it -- a 21st century "Mouse that Roared".

I don't want to make it seem, however, that his popularity is brand new. Although I don't talk about this topic with my friends a lot, I've gotten the sense that Bashar's popularity is, in fact, rather long-standing and widespread. One friend portrayed him as an island of honor and goodness in a corrupt government that (according to him) needs to be changed. A good illustration, I think, that most people are not either 100% for or against their government.

Despite the rumors of Americans now being turned down for visa renewals, the situation has not changed how people treat me when I first tell them my nationality. Ahlan wa Sahlan (welcome), they say, and, as usual, most seem to really mean it, though with some it's harder to tell. I can never know for sure, since welcoming guests is such a big part of people's pride here -- to not say Ahlayn (another form of the "welcome" phrase) would be unfathomably rude, no matter what you think. I hope in the future to write more about the richness of Arabic polite expressions, insha'Allah.

And, as always, the little bits of life continue without a second thought: The souqs open and close, people are buying long-underwear and replacement chimney-pipes for their heaters, and as I write I can hear a little girl counting to 40 outside my window -- they're playing hide-and-seek, I suppose? This whole Mehlis-etc. business has, at least for the current moment, made itself visible mostly as some TV news specials, increased discussion, and the flags that have flooded the city. Nevertheless, as we go about our lives, many of us here are watching very carefully as the drama of this "international mess" unfolds.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your international commentary is vital to understanding this great world we live in. I am thoroughly enjoying reading your posts and I appreciate your insights. With this one, I like the parallels you're drawing between the US and Syrian patriotism...and how contrived it can be. Important reminders of how nationalism works.

Anonymous 1

4:42 AM  
Anonymous annie said...

I love your blog and hope you will be writing more.
I am including your link on my blog (in French)

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