Wednesday, March 09, 2005

We're all with you, Mr. President

All the recent happenings in Lebanon have been reported widely in the Western media, and obviously Syria couldn’t help but get dragged into it, too. Even as suspicion focused on Syria as Rafik Hariri’s assassin, and international pressure mounted on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, I noticed very little change in our day-to-day life here. Everything stayed the same. Syrians have continued to go about their business as usual.

Until yesterday, I had only noticed one change in Damascus related to the heightened tension in the region. While walking to work last Saturday, I noticed that there were more policemen on the streets. I had hardly thought this was possible, since on any given day there are policemen stationed on every block anyway.

Then, last night, we returned from a short vacation in Latakia. At first, Damascus looked much the same as it always does. It was dark, and as the service van slowly made its circuitous route towards our home, I entertained myself, as I always do, by trying to decipher the Arabic on billboards we passed. Some new ones had been put up since we left, giving me plenty of fresh material to work with.

At a particularly long pause at a stoplight, I focused my attention on one billboard that featured a stylized painting of the Syrian flag. As I worked my way through the Arabic words at the bottom, I realized that I could understand the whole sentence. It said, “We are all with you, Bashar Al-Assad” (Bashar is the president). I turned to Jeremy to point it out to him, but before I could explain, I noticed yet another billboard on the other side of the street, this one featuring a picture of the president with his arm raised, fist clenched. Under a quote from his speech given to parliament last Saturday (the same speech that was called “evasive” and a “non-response” by Western leaders) was almost the same phrase: “We are all with you, our sovereign president.” By the time we reached our home, I had seen dozens of billboards sporting at least six different variations of the same theme. If we can get pictures of them, I’ll post them here.

Also last night, we received an email from the embassy warden informing us of a patriotic rally in support of the president taking place at the Jelatt Stadium at 2pm on Wednesday (today). This stadium is just a kilometer up the road from us. At about 10.30 at night, a car with a loudspeaker on top drove up and down the main street outside our house, advertising this same rally. We heard announcement again at about 8 o’clock this morning.

Now as I sit here writing this, at 2.30pm, I can hear drums beating and people chanting in the streets. A few minutes ago, as crowds were making their way up our street to the rally, I snuck outside to take some video footage. I crossed the street to a relatively inconspicuous vantage point and managed to record a few seconds of people holding flags marching up the street. I also saw cars with giant pictures of Bashar pasted on the hood. A lot of cars have smaller pictures of him in their rear windows anyway, but these were special edition photos just for this occasion. There were Suzuki vans driving by with young men waving flags packed in the back. As I walked back inside, I noticed some neighborhood children observing the scene from their balcony. They were mimicking the crowd, chanting along with them.

It’s fascinating to be living here and see the patriotic backlash this Syria-Lebanon issue has inspired in this country, or at least appeared to inspire. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

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