Arts and culture from Syria`s uprising

An update on what`s new on arts and culture coming out from Syria these days, despite the ongoing bloodshed and the brutal armed conflict.

Several Syrian artists are gathering at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris for the art exhibition Syrie: Cris-Action (22 May- 22 June 2014).

Among them, filmaker and visual artist Khaled Abdulwahed, author of the amazing short movie Tuji; visual artist Dino Ahmed Ali, whom I have been knowing since my Damascus days and have recently met in Paris, where he now lives and works on very cool stuff;   and visual artist Hamid Suleiman, who does amazing illustrations and visual art (we had the pleasure of hosting him in Italy for an art exhibit two years ago).

Another Syrian artist who is around these days with exhibits and talks is Tammam Azzam -whom I was happy to host last year in Milan with Festival del Cinema Africano for “Creative Syria”-. Tammam, who became internationally known for his series Syrian Museum, is now exhibiting in Dakar, Budapest, and in New York where he will be part of an event focused on Syria and Iran.

On the filmaking side, probably the biggest event is happening next week at Cannes Film Festival where acclaimed Syrian director Osama Mohammad is is premiering his new documentary, Silvered Water Syria self-portrait, entirely filmed with a mobile phone by a female filmaker based in Homs, Wiam Berdixan.

Also several Syrian TV-drama makers are filming short-movies and TV drama (musalsalat) dealing with the current situation in Syria. Abdelhakim al Qutfan, a very well known Syrian actor who also starred in “Wilada min-al-Khasira” part three (the TV series broadcast last Ramadan whose plot revolved  around the Syrian uprising and how it turned into an armed conflict), is presenting today in Amman “The night of the fall”.


The short movie, directed by Nawras Abu Saleh, tries to imagine the night before the fall of Assad`s regime; a hope that several Syrians, including artists and drama makers, still cultivate, despite the dire situation in the country.




Media and power relations in Syria

Posting here below an interview which came out on Jadaliyya few days ago where I discuss the topic of media and power relations under Bashar al-Asad (the topic of my PHD research which I hope to soon turn into a fully-fledged book).

The Whisper Strategy (Drama and Power Relations in Syria):

An Interview with Donatella Della Ratta

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We have heard a lot about the spring of Syrian drama, which flourished in the decade that preceded the 2011 uprising and perhaps even before. Some argue that the regime indirectly worked with directors and actors to serve a political goal, while others think that Syrian directors, actors, and scriptwriters were able to offer some challenging artistic works despite censorship and the limitations within which they were allowed to work. Why did the regime support the production of these TV series? Why did directors and actors pin their hopes on the young president? And why did they adopt a political vision that reflects the president’s set of reforms or what is called as the tanwiri trend? In this interview, Donatella Della Ratta tries to shed light on these issues through her experience as a field researcher who studied this topic and work on her soon-to-be-published book on the subject.

Osama Esber (OE): Power relations governed the production of the Syrian drama before the uprising; why did the regime in Syria decide to invest in drama production, to create a cultural network of advisers and collaborators in this respect?

Donatella Della Ratta  (DDR): First of all, I have to clarify that the Syrian regime (or, better said, that part of the regime that is described by the word “dawla,” state, and its media apparatus, i.e. state-owned channels) has never directly invested in Syrian drama. Traditionally speaking, Syrian state-owned media have invested very little in musalsalat production, producing an average of two musalsalat per year. Syrian state media had found a very good formula to get local drama produced yet not to pay for it. In the seventies, they used to allow some talented employees of state media to keep their public jobs at Syrian TV while producing TV drama as de facto private investors, although at the time there was no such a thing as a private sector in Syria’s drama production. There was an unwritten deal with these directors and producers that they could produce their own drama works using the facilities of Syrian state TV; in return, they would give a copy of the final product to be aired in Syria free-of-rights while they could sell it to other Arab countries and make a profit out of it. It is thanks to this very peculiar production model that state TV managed to build a library of Syrian drama productions without investing any cash in it, and leaving the commercial side of the business to Gulf buyers who were already at the time eager to get TV drama to fill their schedules, particularly during Ramadan. In 1991, the Syrian government passed an investment law to “liberalize” some sectors of the economy, including TV production. That was the first time that Syrian private production companies were allowed to open a business inside the country and operate in the audiovisual sector. This was not a liberalization per se, but rather the institutionalization of a private sector which had already existed in Syria for two decades. Yet, there was indeed something novel that occurred during those years: the 1991 law paved the way to a series of private investments, mostly in real estate, banking and other sectors of the economy, more crucial at the time than TV drama. Many of the entrepreneurs who made a fortune out of this investment law by investing in these above mentioned sectors would also start a TV business, whether for prestige, or to exercise influence, or even for money laundry purposes. All of them were tied to the regime (nidham), but not necessarily to the state (dawla), and to its intelligence apparatus (mukhabarat); in many cases they were also hooked up to regional powers, namely big Gulf investment companies, royal families and the like, especially in the Gulf. It is indeed this class of people, very hooked up with the powers that be, which has invested in TV drama and made a business out of it. It is a sort of neoliberal marriage between political powers and the market, between domestic and regional politics. Instead of being at odds as it might have seemed at  first glance, they actually shared mutual interests and concerns, and were often related one to another by family or business ties

OE: Directors and scriptwriters of the drama serials in Syria have claimed that they serve enlightenment goals, and think they work to save the Syrian people from backwardness, while at the same time they have adopted the president’s agenda and worked as producers of a drama demanded by the Gulf financers. How can they be critical of power structures and the other maladies of Arab societies, while, at the same time, they are using drama to serve power and reproduce traditional culture required by it, under the mask of enlightenment claims?

DDR: There is something very peculiar about Syrian TV drama makers, at least those who self describe their mission as being “tanwiri” (having a goal to “enlighten”). These drama makers mostly produce what is described as being a very realistic sort of TV drama, shot in real places and not in studios, and mostly dealing with social issues, sometimes quite controversial such as corruption, abuse of power, gender issues, extremism, relationships between different religious faiths, and honor crime. These drama makers do indeed believe to have a tanwiri mission and do think that their TV work should be driven by an aspiration to guide society toward progress and education. Both in public contexts (such as several meetings with the Syrian president which took place since Bashar al Asad came to power)  and in private interviews that I have conducted with many of them over several years,  Syrian drama makers have described Syrian society as a “backward society” (mujtama’ mutakhallif) and in need of a guidance in order to progress. They believe that this guidance can be provided only by an enlightened minority, which is the elite of cultural producers. This belief is not at odds with Bashar al-Asad’s political thinking—that a minority (the ‘Alawis ) should rule over the (Sunni) majority in order to protect the other minorities (the Druzes, the Christians, etc.) and preserve the multicultural and multireligious complexity of the Syrian mosaic. In this respect, there is an elective affinity which binds Syrian cultural producers, namely the TV drama makers, and the seemingly reformist political elite which surrounds Bashar al-Asad and embraces his theory of gradual reformism. The Syrian drama makers’ tanwiri project is, in their view, not at odds with the fact that there are mostly selling their so-called progressive musalsalat to Gulf buyers. They believe that this still serves their reformist agenda, as their main target (politically and culturally speaking) is Syria, whereas their main commercial (and profit-making) target is the Gulf. They do not see any contradiction in this. Yet, according to the several interviews that I have conducted from 2009 to 2011 with executives from the pan-Arab TV channels that mostly buy musalsalat during the Ramadan season (such as Dubai TV, MBC, Abu Dhabi and Qatar TV) there is a paradox, which is that Gulf buyers buy Syrian drama because they think it is conservative (muhafiza) for the way it portrays women, for example, as opposed to Egyptian drama. The irony is that what Syrian tanwiri drama makers consider to be edgy and progressive TV drama is often read by their Gulf counterparts as conservative and very traditional.

OE: The cultural producers had a simple vision of power relations in Syria, singling out always the president as enlightened, educated, and different from other power structures that make the regime. Why do you think this happened? What made them look at the young president as a possible savior of the country?

DDR: As I said above, there is a sort of elective affinity binding the Syrian president and his reformist circle to the drama makers. They seem to share the same vision of Syrian society and the same mission of reforming it through their guidance. This is something very new in the history of Syria. The previous generation of cultural producers, described by Cooke (2007) and Wedeen (1999), had a much more complex relationship with the Syrian regime and especially with former president Hafiz al-Asad. There was the desire to push the boundaries of censorship and the necessity to comply with the conditions put forward by the regime in order to work in the country. There was a certain amount of criticism allowed, and a strategy of venting (tanfis) through arts and culture. But the relationship between these cultural producers and the powers that be was confrontational and there was an opposition of a sort. This is not the case of the TV drama makers under Bashar al-Asad (at least prior to the uprising): they seem to be complacent and comfortable with the powers that be. They never speak of censorship, and, when they do that, they always like to refer to social censorship coming from a conservative and, again, in their words “backward” society, rather than from an enlightened president. Even when censorship was exercised by blocking some tanwiri musalsalat a few days or hours before they were scheduled to air, Syrian drama makers have always blamed either state media itself or the control that some mukhabarat agencies exercise on the latter. Yet, the president remains untouched by these critical stances; he is in fact the one who “saves” the progressive TV drama–and the tanwiri project behind it–at the last minute, through direct and personal interventions. This has happened many times under Bashar al-Asad’s rule, from the early 2000s–when the president intervened on state media to let the edgy satirical musalsal Spotlight (Buq‘at Daw’) be aired on Syrian TV–until late 2010, when his direct intervention made sure that the very controversial Whatever Your Right Hands Possess (Ma malakat aymanukum) was broadcast, despite the fierce opposition from many other sides of the regime (religious authorities, powerful businessmen, and some mukhabarat branches). However, the situation has dramatically changed after the uprising and there are a few cases in Ramadan 2011, just few months after the uprising started, where the president was not able–or did not want–to intervene in favor of seemingly progressive TV drama.

The Syrian president and his political persona seem to have completely bewitched Syrian TV drama makers, at least until the uprising started. It was as if Syrian TV drama was the media side of his political project, the mirror of his seemingly political reformism. Syrian drama makers have put their faith in it and have come to believe that, despite a cruel and corrupted regime, the president’s reformist intentions were genuine and well grounded, and that they would have been implemented sooner or later. This is why edgy Syrian TV drama often criticizes corruption and abuse of power coming from different powers (sultat) within the regime, especially the mukhabarat, but it never touches the leader who stays as the only one morally and politically entitled to fight the diseases of his own regime from within.

OE: Do not you think that the cultural producers were part of the games of power that aimed at hiding the real problems of the Syrian society?

DDR: I do not think that there was such a thing as a “power game” orchestrated from the above, and I do not think that the cultural producers were puppets being manipulated by stronger powers, if this is what you mean. As I said, I think there was a genuine sort of attraction and fascination vis-à-vis the president, and a sort of elective affinity that has bound the president and his reformist circle to these tanwiri drama makers. These political and cultural elites were firmly convinced that majorities should be ruled by enlightened minorities, and this is what was manifested, both in TV products and in politics. We can take an example from the drama production: It’s Not A Mirage (Laysa Saraban), a tanwiri drama which has dealt with the controversial issue of relationships between different religious faiths in contemporary Syria. The message that the musalsal clearly sends to the audience is: yes we do live together, Christians and Muslims, and we live in harmony and respect each other. But, when it comes to mixing together–as the two protagonists, a Muslim and a Christian who love each other and want eventually to get married–the issue becomes much more complicated. Syrian society is not ready yet to accept a real mix–in fact, the man commits suicide since his love dream will never come true–between religious faiths, and this is not at odds with Bashar al-Asad’s vision of a society that needs to be ruled by an enlightened minority in order to protect other minorities and lead them gradually toward mutual understanding and acceptance.

OE: In her recently published book, The Politics of Love, Sexuality, Gender, and Marriage in Syrian Drama, Rebecca Joubin says that you are linking the majority of current drama to components of the regime and that this grossly generalizes and removes agency from those intellectuals. “In her effort to discredit the government, Della Ratta turns drama creators into passive participants rather than savvy creators who navigate through the perils of censorship, state repression, and co-optation in order to create truly subversive work,” Joubin says. What is your comment on this?

DDR: I do not think we can state that the “whisper strategy”–the way I have described in the chapter “The Whisper Strategy: How Syrian Drama Makers Shape Television Fiction in the Context of Authoritarianism and Commodification” from the upcoming book (Leif Stenberg and Christa Salamandra (eds.), Syria Under Bashar Al-Asad: Culture, Religion and Society (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, forthcoming)) which Joubin refers to–removes agency from Syrian drama makers.

First of all, what I call the whisper strategy is the mechanism through which some components of the Syrian regime, namely President Bashar al-Asad and his seemingly reform-minded collaborators at the palace (al-qasr), communicate with the drama makers.

My argument is that these parties are engaged in an ongoing dialogue through which they agree upon issues deemed worthy and suitable to be put forward for public discussion using media outlets, particularly musalsalat.

I have used the metaphor of the whisper because I wanted to convey the idea of a soft, gentle, non-coercive way of suggesting issues and circulating thoughts. The nature of the conversation happening between Asad and the drama makers is, in my view, very well described by the softness of the “whisper;” in fact, topics brought up by one side are not imposed or ordered by the other. This happens because the two parties share a common ground, a ground built upon consent and mutual benefit rather than dissent or struggle. There is even more, a sort of fascination à la Goethe’s “elective affinities,” which could describe this ground between the president and the drama makers.

I am surprised that Joubin sees no agency here. What I am saying is that both parties are contributing to the making of a communication strategy which is grounded on a firm, common belief—meaning that Syrian society is “backward” and should be reformed gradually and only under the guidance of enlightened minorities. When I use the word “backward” (mutakhallif) it is because this is an expression which is often repeated by drama makers in public and in private (in all the interviews that I have conducted, Syrian drama makers, especially the tanwiri type that I have described in our previous question, always use this word when speaking about their reformist mission and their commitment to help Syrian society to free itself from its own taboos and progress). The president himself has used this word during several meetings that he hosted with the drama makers in the past decade: “he believed that Syrian drama is the best tool to healing the backwardness of the society,” as several directors who attended a presidential hearing in 2004 told me in our interviews.

What is fascinating about this common ground binding the president and the drama makers is that there is no coercion at all. Drama makers are not, as Joubin argues when she reads my argument, “passive participants.” They are indeed “savvy creators” as she states, and I would never disagree with this statement. Yet, contrary to Joubin, I do not think that these drama makers “navigate through the perils of censorship, state repression, and co-optation in order to create truly subversive work.”

First of all, I argue that there is no such thing as “censorship” in TV drama, at least since Bashar al-Asad seized power. Syrian drama makers themselves like to talk about “artistic evaluation” (taqyim fanni) instead of censorship; they stress on the fact that sometimes the censorship exercised by society is harsher than the political censorship from the government’s side. Again, they see themselves in tune with Bashar al-Asad’s reformist project because they believe it is a tanwiri project, a project in the interest of society–or, at least, of what they believe is in the interest of society. That is why their drama works propose topics–honor crime, gender issues, inter-religious relationships, terrorism, Islamism etc.–that can be read, at a first glance, as “subversive work,” like Joubin does.

Yet, in my view, these musalsalat have nothing to do with what Joubin defines as “sharp critique and bold plots that hammered away at official political discourse.” On the contrary, they are aligned along the lines of official political discourse, particularly that of the president, (i.e., a seemingly reformist, secular, progressive discourse).

In Ramadan 2008, Laysa Saraban (It’s not a Mirage) a seemingly taboo-breaking musalsal dealing with the relations between Christians and Muslims in contemporary Syria was aired. Its young and talented director, Muthanna al-Subh declared at the time, talking about censorship vis-à-vis such a sensitive topic: “honestly we did not face any problem. That was both surprising and pleasing to me. I actually respect the fact that they allowed us to deal with such sensitive issues.”[1]

Yet a work like Laysa Saraban would be unlikely to be censored or rejected, as it perfectly matches with the president’s official rhetoric concerning the religious minorities’ issue. The musalsal seems to suggest that Syria’s religious and ethnic groups, especially Muslims and Christians, can live together but are not ready to merge in a multicultural society.

This message is not at odds with the main argument of Asad (i.e., an enlightened minority should rule to protect minorities in the country and make sure the state remains superficially secular and the population stays as controlled as possible, in order to avoid chaos, social disorder, and religious extremism. This very argument is embraced by the drama makers too, not because of coercion or because of orders coming from above.  My argument is that they both share the same view, the same vision concerning society. So they are active participants in making and remaking the tanwiri ideology, to which they add their own touch and creativity.

I do not see how Joubin could claim that there is a lack of agency here: I made it very clear that this is a bilateral strategy, to the making of which both sides actively contribute. I have also borrowed from Foucault’s “strategy without strategist” in order to underline that the subject of the strategy cannot be identified, yet the strategic necessities that converge from both sides and form the objective of the strategy can be analysed and discussed.

I argue that these strategic necessities, in the case of the regime, are identified in its need to preserve a reformist facade–which is embodied by the president and his reform-minded collaborators at the palace–in front of the Syrian public. When the president in person intervenes to “save” a tanwiri drama–as he did in 2001 with Laith Hajjo’s Spotlight or in 2010 with Najdat Anzour’s Ma malakat aymanukum–it is precisely for this reason, i.e. to preserve a reformist facade in front of the Syrian public, to show the Syrian drama makers that he is personally committed to the tanwiri project, and, in general, to convey the message that, until his political persona is preserved, reformism will live long in Syria.

What Joubin calls “the perils of censorship” are, in my view, just the materialization of internal fights involving different powers (sulutat) within the regime, something that reflects the very nature of power in Syria, made up of loosely interconnected sulutat that can communicate, miscommunicate, or even ignore or reject communication coming from another sulta within the regime. TV drama is one of the many battlegrounds where we can observe the clashes and fights between different powers within the regime (powerful business networks, the government, state media, intelligence agencies, religious authorities, and the president himself). Each of these powers tries to use media to push forward a different agenda; it might also carry several messages at the time, and even contradictory to one another.

So when a controversial musalsal like Ma Malakat Aymanukum–which was reportedly opposed by different sultat, namely powerful business networks, religious authorities, and so on–is finally broadcast because of the president’s personal intervention, I will not call it a victory of progressive, edgy drama, and political reformism, over some obscure, security-minded forces within the regime. This is exactly what the regime needs to do in order to survive: i.e. to perpetrate the promise of reformism embodied in the enlightened, educated, and progressive president. Yet, as I have discussed elsewhere, other examples—such as the Ramadan 2011 tanwiri drama Fawq al-Saqf (Above the Ceiling), clearly show that this power balance within the Syrian regime might shift at any moment, and that the tanwiri project backed by the president in 2010 might succumb to the security project pushed by the security-minded sides of that very regime. Or, rather, the tanwiri project may be put on hold by Bashar al-Asad and his reform-minded circle at the Palace in order to help the other sultat implementing the security project, judged as a priority in a period of unrest, especially when their political survival is also at stake.

On their side, the drama makers are not passive observers. They genuinely believe in the tanwiri project and probably believe that Bashar al-Asad is the right person to implement it. They had put all their trust and hope in this president, and it is pretty evident reading all the media reports in the past decades that they liked each other, they were hanging out together. Joubin herself, in her book, quotes several artists who have openly spoken about this mutual fascination (many of them, like actor Jamal Suleiman, are now in exile and officially opposing the regime).

Arguing that there is a relationship based on comfort and pleasure and mutual fascination between the two sides is not, as Joubin says, removing agency; it is just acknowledging that agency and power structures, in this case, go in the same direction.

I should probably talk a bit more about the methodology and fieldwork that have brought me to thinking about Syrian drama and Syrian drama producers in this way. In 2009, I officially started doing my fieldwork in Syria as a part of my PhD research on the politics of Syrian TV drama at Copenhagen University. During this period, I had attended the filming (taswir) of several Syrian musalsalat of different genres, from historical blockbusters such as Bab al-Hara 5 (The Gate of the Neighbourhood, 2010) to contemporary social drama such as Ma Malakat Aymanukum (2010) or Sarab (Mirage, 2010).

I spent weeks and months “embedded” with Syrian drama makers and conducted formal, open-ended interviews with both the artistic cast and the technical crew, exclusively in Arabic, mostly using Syrian colloquial. Yet, these formal interviews have been integrated with chats, meetings, and interviews obtained in less formal contexts, such as discussions over lunch or teatime, or during a car drive to the location. In addition, I enjoyed the privilege of being invited to join dinners, musalsalat launch parties in Damascus, Beirut, and Dubai, social gatherings involving actors, writers, directors, and producers of Syrian TV drama.

Furthermore, having worked on the topics of musalsalat for several years prior to my PhD research, mostly as a journalist and a cultural curator of several TV-related festivals and happenings in Europe, I had the privilege to invite many of these drama makers to showcase their works in festivals and conferences in Barcelona, Rome, Milan, Brussels, and Copenhagen, where we also had the opportunity to chat over meals, discuss after the screenings, and interact with various types of audiences. I have followed Syrian drama makers in “global” locations, such as marketplaces (e.g., Cannes and Dubai), award ceremonies, and celebrity gatherings (Dubai, Beirut, and Damascus), and I have also interviewed many of those who purchase Syrian drama, the pan-Arab channel executives sitting in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha.

I am confident that this is a quite comprehensive piece of ethnographic work that has been conducted exclusively in the Arabic language and through several years of field work in different locations and working contexts between Europe and the Arab world and not the result of few months of formal interviews.

After so many years spent doing ethnography on Syrian drama makers, my take is that they indeed face “cultural challenges.” Yet, in my view, these are very different challenges from those that Joubin points out. In my view, Syrian drama makers are deeply entrenched in the complex nexus of sets, places, situations, and, above all, connections, that make up our neoliberal era. They do see their works as a commodity, too; they package and sell them for market consumption, and are active participants in market dynamics.

It would be naïve, I think, to read all the complex dynamics described above only in light of a resistance-to-power narrative, and portray Syrian drama makers only in a context where they have to face Syria’s authoritarian powers, whether passively submitting to the latter or ending up being actively complacent with them.

OE: Ramadan is the month of drama showing; after eating, the citizen moves to watching the musalsalat that are produced to suit her/his environment and talk to his/her mind. Do you think that drama played a role in preserving the traditional structures of power in the Arab world, and enhancing the culture of consumption?

DDR: Well, even in the Western world TV serials are quintessentially the realm of consumption. You have an idea of what I mean if you think that the “soap opera” TV genre has been developed around the idea of airing commercials in order to sell soaps! So the relationship between serial TV fiction and consumption is not something new to the media industry, nor anything peculiar to the Arab world. What it really unprecedented in the case of the Arab world is the fact that the biggest chunk of musalsalat is actually produced and aired during the holy month of Ramadan, which has become not only the season of consumption par excellence, but also the season of musalsalat. Many broadcasters are trying to break this pattern by producing TV drama out of Ramadan (MBC has done a number of experiments in this respect, many of them have involved Syrian directors and producers). But, still, Ramadan is the season where all the advertisers will place sometimes even the seventy percent of their budget, leaving a very limited margin to invest in TV productions during the rest of the year.

OE: The fact that Syrian youths resort to the internet to produce an alternative drama or culture reflects that they are aware of the regimes’ use of cultural producers to serve a certain agenda. What do you think about this?

DDR: I think that the internet was the only place where the Syrian youth could possibly go to manifest their dissent and express their creativity. It was the only relatively free, uncensored space and one where cultural production was not monopolized by the elites, as the means of production and distribution were easily accessible to everybody and cost effective too. The internet, particularly Facebook, has become the real platform where the dissent and the creativity–or, better, the creative dissent–of Syrians is manifested. Since the beginning of the uprising, Syrian creativity, in many different formats such as visual art, comics, songs, webseries and so on, has been blossoming on the Internet, and it has never stopped, not even now, after almost three years of an uprising which has turned into a bloody armed conflict. This user-generated, often viral and anonymous creativity is, in my view, a clear signal that Syrian civil society is alive and engaging in a debate which concerns not only cultural production and reproduction–which cannot be entirely monopolized and managed by the elites anymore–but, at a broader level, political participation and civic engagement. This enormous amount of creativity scattered in the virtual alleyways of the internet should be read (and judged) not only as an aesthetic act of cultural creation and a challenge to industrially-produced cultural artifacts, but mostly as a signal of an active citizenship that expresses its dissent in novel and, often, unexpected ways.

OE: You use the concept of “strategy of whispering,” while talking about the relation between drama makers and the president and his entourage. How does this work, and how have the drama makers accepted to adopt the regime’s version about what are the real problems of the Syrian state?

DDR: I have used the expression “whisper strategy” to describe the communication mechanism which links Syrian drama makers and the president because I wanted to convey the idea that, in my view, there are no orders or coercions coming from Bashar al-Asad about what should be produced, or which topics should be discussed in TV drama. Because of this special bond binding the cultural producers to the seemingly reformist face of the Syrian regime, namely the president and his inner circle of reformers, and because of these elective affinities that I have described above, there is no need from the president’s side to impose anything on the drama makers. I have described the “whisper strategy” as a public, oral, and multilateral dynamic. Since he came to power, Bashar al-Asad has held periodic meetings with the drama makers in order to discuss common concerns about how to “heal Syrian society from its backwardness” (this is a recurrent expression in these meetings) by using media and particularly TV serials. These meetings are the quasi-public venues where the “whisper” and the process of fine-tuning between the two sides finally happen. Nothing is hidden or secret; on the contrary, the media report about these meetings, emphasizing how the cultural and political elites in the country are in an agreement about how to move society forward. Syrian drama makers often use the expression “jaw al-’amm” (public mood) to describe the way they pick up topics to be dealt with in their social drama. It is not the regime’s version or the regime’s idea of what should be dealt with in the public space of media. It is much more a matter of these elective affinities binding the cultural producers to the president (and not to the entire regime: the cultural producers always make a clear distinction between the latter, which is corrupted and violent, and the president, who is an enlightened reformist) that generate a soft circulation of suggestions and pieces of advice of what would be appropriate to become a topic for a TV drama, and what would better serve the seemingly reformist project of making Syrian society progress and saving it from its own “backwardness” through progressive and edgy musalsalat.

OE: Why do you think drama actors or directors were used to convince the demonstrators to go back to their homes? Why did they accept this role?

DDR: As I said, there are these elective affinities between the president and the drama makers. I think that the drama makers perceived themselves as being an important part of Bashar al-Asad’s reformist project, therefore they felt entitled to go to places like Duma or Daraa and try to negotiate a political solution (hal siyasi) with the protesters. I think that they thought this was their duty, as being committed to the tanwiri ideal, that they should talk to the masses and make them understand that a compromise should be reached. They were strongly opposed to a security solution (hal amni) which was pushed forward by other sides of the regime, and they probably thought they would achieve some sort of results by initiating a dialogue with the protesters. I do not think the president or any other side of the regime ordered them to go and negotiate at the beginning of the crisis. It was mostly their own initiative, seen as a part of their tanwiri commitment. But, as a Syrian producer once told me, you cannot possibly hope that actors and directors would achieve any result, as they do not really have a negotiation power or influence. They are the media face of the regime; they help maintaining the reformist facade, but, concretely, very little can be achieved through media reforms if they are not matched with institutional reforms. In this institutional void, actors and directors became a sort of substitute of state institutions but this eventually did not work out, because this time protesters were asking for real reforms, and not for cosmetic, media-backed ones.

OE: The production of drama continued after the uprising, and we noticed that the drama is used also to justify or defend without being convincing. One musalsal expressed nostalgia for pre-uprising times, while another one tried to exonerate some sides in the regime, other works portrayed the destruction and used it as a setting, but all this indicates that the uprising did not deeply influence the Syrians, did not reshape, especially in these works, their vision of reality and the nature of power and the necessity of change. Do you agree with this? And why do you think drama chose these perspectives to depict the Syrian uprising?

DDR: It seems to me that the uprising has not had an impact on mainstream cultural production, particularly TV drama making, in Syria, neither in form nor in content. As we have discussed before, seemingly controversial musalsalat were produced in Syria even before the uprising: Syrians were probably ahead even of the Egyptians when producing TV works that dealt directly with contemporary events or current affairs issues.. As an example, take Najdat Anzour’s works such as al-Hurr al-‘Ayn (The Beautiful Maidens) which dealt with terrorist attacks on a compound in Saudi Arabia, or Saqf al-‘Alam (The Ceiling of the World) which talked about the publication of the cartoon lampooning the Prophet Mohamed in Denmark. So the fact that many of the musalsalat aired during Ramadan 2013 had as a main topic or as a background the Syrian uprising does not really surprise me. Syrians are not new to these seemingly controversial issues. The content could seem new but, in reality, it is not. Also the way they deal with such controversial content, the uprising which is ongoing in their own country, is not really new. At the end of the day, even a musalsal such as Wilada Min al-Khasira (Birth from the Waist) which depicts in a quasi-realistic way all the events that have lead to the current bloody situation in Syria (including the abuse of power from mukhabarat, or the character of Atef Najeeb who first decides to use the iron fist with the protesters even at the very beginning of the street demonstrations), carries a message that is not far away from all sort of messages developed and sent out in the public space by TV drama under Bashar al-Asad: that the regime is broken and corrupt, and can be very violent toward citizens. Yet, the president is there to carry on a mission of reformism and to oppose this security-oriented vision put forward by other sides of the regime. A musalsal like Wilada, which for thirty episodes portrays all sorts of violence and abuse perpetrated by the intelligence services, fails to mention the president. Throughout the musalsal, we can see Bashar al Asad’s picture everywhere–in public offices, in the streets with people showing support to him during a “masira“–but we never hear anybody talking about him directly. The only episode where the president as a public figure is mentioned is when he decides to concede amnesty (‘afu) to the prisoners. His figure is therefore connected immediately to an idea of piety, of understanding, and to the will of negotiating and adopting a political solution to the crisis. Even if the orders given by the president to release the prisoners are not respected by some elements of the regime itself (especially by the character who, in the fictional narrative, stands for Atef Najeeb, the intelligence official on duty in Daraa who was reported to be responsible for the first bloody repression of the uprising), the president remains clean and his moral authority is sort of preserved. He gave instructions to his officials to give amnesty to the prisoners; if this did not happen, it is not the leader’s responsibility but some elements of the regime are to blame.

In this message, I do not see anything different from the previous messages sent, prior to the uprising, by the tanwiri drama. Thus, in this respect there is nothing really new in these 2013 musalsalat dealing directly with the events in Syria. The visual language, too, is not particularly new and it seems to me to perpetrate the same type of aesthetics which we were used to before the uprising.

In this respect, the real novelty in terms of aesthetics and creativity is rather all the incredible amount of user-generated creativity that has been produced, mostly on the web, since the outbreak of the uprising. It is here that new forms and contents have to be looked for, and not in the musalsalat industry, at least for now, it seems to me…

OE: You wrote about Al Jazeera’s role in the Arab region, how do you evaluate its role in covering events in Syria?

DDR: Al Jazeera’s coverage of Syria since the beginning of the uprising has been schizophrenic, to say the least. The peaceful uprising of the very beginning was ignored or poorly covered, at least for a month since its inception. After this initial, very “shy,” cautious coverage of the events, the pan-Arab news channel seemed to have shifted its editorial policy vis-à-vis Syria, turning the “story” into one of its main news events at the time (2011). Little by little it became clear that Al Jazeera (AJA) was mostly focusing on one specific aspect of the conflict, namely its growing sectarian side and its increasingly armed nature. By following many of the talk shows and current affairs segments aired by the channel you get the clear impression that AJA has embraced a sectarian stance, being sort of biased towards the Sunni majority of the Syrian population. As an example, AJA has given very little coverage to the protests which were initiated in areas where minorities live (as for example in the Isma‘ili areas, or even in many Christian villages); also, the coverage of the civil society movements and peaceful movements who are critical both of the regime and of the armed opposition has not gained a prominent position in terms of airtime  (just to be clear here we are discussing Al Jazeera in Arabic; the English channel has a completely different editorial policy and agenda).

As many other media outlets, it might be that AJA prefers to cover “spectacular” events, such as violence, bombing, gunfire, and victims, instead of giving airtime to civil disobedience and other less “spectacular” manifestations of defiance and dissent. This is true for the majority of private and commercial oriented broadcasters in the world. Yet, giving the peculiar nature of Al Jazeera–a private, commercial-oriented station on paper, but still financed through government’s money and whose chairman is a member of the Al Thani family, the rulers of Qatar–the situation is much more ambivalent. Despite the fact that AJ has been always proud of its independence from the Qatari government (which was the case in many situations prior to the Arab uprisings), the coverage of the Syrian uprising does indeed reflect a position of this media outlet which is closer to Qatar’s foreign policy, much more than it has been in the past and in other circumstances. Prior to the uprising, the Qatari government had lots of interests in Syria: from commercial interests (both the Emir and the Qatari government had a number of investment projects in Syria) to personal and business ties to Bashar al-Asad (the Qatari royal family was reported to be very close to the president and especially to his wife Asma al-Asad). But, after the official breakup between the two governments, Al Jazeera has clearly embraced an anti-Asad (and, sometimes, with a sort of a sectarian nuance) position, meanwhile becoming the target number one of the media propaganda of the Syrian regime, through Syrian state TV but also through private (owned by businessmen close to the regime) outlets, such as Dunya TV. The media war in ongoing in Syria, and Al Jazeera is, at the same time, a target of it and one of its most prominent actors.


[1] Muthanna al-Subh, interview with Forward Magazine, October 2008 (

Protests are back in Syria (have they ever disappeared?)

Two days ago, I was delighted to read this article published on prominent New York Times blog “The Lede” under the title of “Syrians protest Assad and Islamist militants”.

The infatigable Kafranbel people — a small village in North Syria which has become famous for its witty satirical anti Assad posters and slogans- made this gorgeous poster about the Syrian President and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) being two faces of the same coin.




But many other activists from different parts of Syria joined the protests against the new tyranny that ISIS is trying to impose in the so-called “liberated” areas.


(Tasqut Da3ysh means: “ISIS should fall”)

A great collection of pictures and videos from the anti-ISIS protests of 3 January 2014 can be found here.

In the last couple of days there has been a media hype about an alleged renewed vitality of the civil society movements in Syria (or at least of those who are not connected to Islamists and Islamic groups), as if they had disappeared from the country long time ago.

Well, the news is that they had never disappeared from the ground (although they had a very difficult time especially in the past year, many of its activists having been jailed or forced to leave the country); they had just disappeared from media coverage. There are very few media outlets in the English language which do constantly report about these civil society movements, such as Syria Untold - there is a weekly newsletter you can subscribe here if you wanna be updated on the latest news).

For many Syrians (I would say: the majority), the fact that extremist groups such as ISIS are the product of a well planned strategy by the Syrian regime is pretty well known.


Yesterday Michel Kilo, a Syrian Christian and prominent member of the opposition, wrote on the London-based newspaper Asharq Al Awsat that

“None of the Syrian regime’s achievements matches its fabrication of the fundamentalist-terrorist groups that it pretends to fight and protect the Syrians from”.

To have a better understanding of this, I suggest you to read this article by Dr Mohammed Habash, a religious scholar and a former member of the Syrian parliament. The title speaks for itself: “Radicals are Assad`s best friends“.

Habash evokes the ties between Assad and Islamic movements long before the Syrian uprising: and everything goes back to Iraq 2003.
Reading this article, my memory goes back to when I moved to Damascus, in early 2007. At the time, it was common knowledge that Assad was sending fighters to Iraq. Everybody would talk about this quite openly, even at the bakery: this was sort of a legitimate action, since it was done “against US imperialism”. No mistery that Syrian regime was in touch with extremist groups and was using them for its own sake.
Even Syrian musalsalat are openly talking about this. I hope to be writing more about this topic in the future. Anyway, even mainstream TV entertainment is dealing with it. It looks like the only ones who did not know anything and now look surprised are Western media outlets, and I wonder if this is just a matter of not understanding Arabic or, rather, not wanting to understand and properly analyze the situation…



Con la rivoluzione, nonostante tutto..

Voglio ripubblicare qui il testo di Elias Khoury, apparso su Al Quds, tradotto splendidamente in italiano da Caterina Pinto e apparso su SiriaLibano: “Con la rivoluzione nonostante tutto”.

Non e` solo un testo poeticamente bellissimo. E` un testo politicamente chiaro. Ci ricorda che la rivoluzione siriana e` dei siriani, e` figlia del loro diritto ad autodeterminarsi, a credere nella dignita` e nella giustizia, e a non sottomettersi a un regime mafioso.

A chi giustifica Assad con la scusa del laicismo, della stabilita`, della “pace”; a chi lo ammira per il suo pugno di ferro, per la sua abilita` a stare in sella dopo quasi due anni di rivolta; a chi oscilla ed esita a prendere una posizione chiara proprio perche rapito dalla sua capacita` di non cadere, di mantenere il potere; Khoury ricorda che e` la violenza, la brutalita` che questo regime comprende, non la politica.

A chi insiste con la narrativa della cospirazione, due anni di cospirazione in cui il popolo siriano sarebbe stato unito con il suo leader contro le fabbricazioni occidentali e del Golfo, Khoury ricorda di chi e` sceso in piazza, di chi ha pagato con il sangue la voglia di liberta`..Gente come Ghiyat Matar, che distribuiva rose e acqua durante le manifestazioni (e il suo compagno fraterno Yahya Shurbaji e` ancora in galera, dall`Ottobre del 2011..dopo tante amnistie e scambi di prigionieri, gli attivisti pacifisti non vengono liberati, e c`e` da chiedersi perche` questo, se il regime veramente gode dell`appoggio incondizionato del suo popolo..).

Credo che i semplici, ma puntuali argomenti di Khoury (e anche le sue giuste critiche all`opposizione), servano a ricordarci tante cose che, dopo quasi due anni dall`inizio delle proteste in Siria e troppo lavaggio del cervello mediatico, ci siamo purtroppo dimenticati.




di Elias Khoury, traduzione di Caterina Pinto

Nonostante la frustrazione, nonostante la confusione politica in cui versa l’opposizione, nonostante l’assenza di coordinamento tra le unità dell’Esercito libero, nonostante la presenza della Jabhat al Nusra. Nonostante gli errori, le falle e le posizioni ambigue. Nonostante il rifiuto del mondo di sostenere il popolo siriano, nonostante il ritardo della risoluzione militare e lo scompiglio politico. Nonostante il fastidio delle dichiarazioni televisive. Nonostante tutto, sono con la rivoluzione siriana.

Speravo che il regime tirannico di Asad cadesse a Daraa, dinnanzi alla sacralità del sacrificio di Hamza al Khatib.
Speravo che i fiori di Ghiyath Matar e le bottiglie d’acqua che distribuiva ai soldati trionfassero e il regime cadesse senza perdite.
Speravo che il grido di Homs e le canzoni di Qashush e le decine di migliaia che hanno occupato le strade con le gole e le mani levate in segno di sfida pacifica bastassero.
Speravo che le armi non si sollevassero di fronte alle armi, e che la volontà popolare riuscisse a risvegliare le coscienze di coloro che non hanno coscienza e paralizzasse le loro mani prima che potessero fare fuoco.

Speravo, e spero ancora.

Ma il regime brutale, mafioso, piovresco che Asad padre ha costruito e che lasciato in eredità a suo figlio, ha deciso di affrontare il popolo fino alla fine.
“Asad o nessun altro”, “Asad o bruciamo il Paese”, “Asad per sempre”: sono questi gli slogan del regime tirannico che si è abituato a comportarsi come se la Siria fosse un regno beatificato nel suo nome. Gli aerei sono ovunque e l’omicidio è ovunque.

Il regime non ha altro obiettivo se non la sopravvivenza, il cui presupposto è l’umiliazione del popolo. Non è vero che l’obiettivo della repressione portata avanti dal regime a partire dallo scoppio della rivoluzione è abbrutire il popolo siriano e distruggere il tessuto sociale.

L’abbrutimento è iniziato nel momento in cui il potere è diventato un mostro senza senso, che si è separato con tutto il suo apparato repressivo dalla società e si è comportato come una forza di occupazione brutale e senza ritegno.
Quello cui assistiamo oggi è la generalizzazione di questo abbrutimento e il suo mutamento nell’unico mezzo per interagire con la società, affogando il popolo nel sangue e trasformando la costruzione in distruzione.

I discorsi su una soluzione politica della situazione siriana sono polvere e perdita di tempo. Perché questo regime non capisce la politica, se non come un gioco sul ciglio del baratro della morte. Elimina i suoi avversari politici, uccide i simboli della società, poi permette a chi rimane in vita di trarre la lezione, ovvero abituarsi a inchinarsi, a tacere e a obbedire.

In compenso, però, rivela grande professionalità a livello della politica estera, regionale e internazionale: si inchina, mercanteggia, vende e compra per tutelare la sua sopravvivenza. Abbatte un aereo turco, ma si piega di fronte all’aereo israeliano. Sostiene Hezbollah, ma non trasgredisce le intese sui confini sicuri tra Siria e Israele, si comporta da pecora o da tigre a seconda degli equilibri di forza. Ma la sua capacità di manovra regionale e internazionale dipende dalla misura in cui riesce a tirar completamente fuori la società siriana dall’equilibrio politico.

Quando i siriani hanno infranto il muro della paura e sono usciti dall’ampolla della repressione, il regime si è rivelato nella sua forma di mafia che parla soltanto la lingua del crimine. Perciò è evidente che qualsiasi discorso su una soluzione politica con il regime è una mera illusione e un appello alla fiacchezza e all’inazione. Perché esso non comprende la politica interna, se non nella sua forma di non politica, ovvero distaccando le persone dalla politica e riportandole alle catene della loro schiavitù.

La situazione in Siria è tragica e il dolore dei siriani ha superato la soglia di quanto è sopportabile, ma il presupposto per mettere fine alla tragedia è la caduta del regime. Qualunque altro discorso è mera illusione. Ècomprare un miraggio. Fino a quando la famiglia Asad rimarrà al potere, continuerà a fare il leone[1] con il popolo. Il presupposto del suo potere è l’annientamento della volontà della gente e non accetterà di dividerlo con nessuno. La mafia potrebbe arrivare a una soluzione in cui condivide l’autorità con un’altra mafia, ma non può fare un accordo con la legge e il diritto.

Il presupposto per mettere fine alla tragedia e alleviare la sofferenza è la caduta del regime, ma questo non vuol dire affatto che la rivoluzione non si impegni in politica, ovvero non faccia manovre, accumuli vittorie, e parli con un linguaggio logico che limita il regime degli assassini.

Questo non è un appello a negoziare con Asad: l’unico luogo per dialogare con il carnefice è il tribunale, dove il figlio e il signore del regime deve riconoscere i suoi crimini.
Ma è un appello a costruire una strategia di azione politica che limiti gli alleati del regime, e in particolare, il suo alleato russo che si è adoperato così intensamente a occultare i crimini, da esserne diventato complice.

E questo richiede all’opposizione di guarire da tre malattie.

La prima è la malattia del dubbio nei confronti di tutti. È una malattia che è venuta dall’epoca della tirannia, quando il regime è riuscito a far dubitare anche del proprio fratello. Questa malattia è mortale, perché reca la possibilità che l’opposizione diventi l’altra faccia del regime tirannico.

La seconda è la malattia del predominio. Il predominio, non il potere, perché la lotta è per l’illusione. Smettete di lottare per il predominio, per poter vincere la lotta per il potere con il regime.

La terza è la correzione del concetto di leadership, perché i leader non possono semplicemente vivere in Siria e partecipare alle preoccupazioni del popolo, ma devono anche essere capaci di assumere posizioni, condannare gli errori e correggere il tiro del fucile qualora si trasformi in uno strumento per azioni da shabbihae intimidazioni.

Nonostante tutto, tutti i siriani e tutti coloro che credono nel diritto del popolo siriano alla libertà devono essere uniti riguardo alla rivoluzione.

Non aspettate una soluzione dall’esterno, né il petrolio del Golfo, né le promesse dell’America, perché la rivoluzione siriana è più grande di chi la guarda come se mendicasse la vittoria e di chi non ha creduto un giorno nel diritto degli arabi a una vita dignitosa.

Il popolo siriano vincerà perché se lo è meritato con sacrifici enormi. E quando la Siria tornerà alle siriane e ai siriani, il Levante arabo intraprenderà il cammino per recuperare la sua voce e la sua presenza.

[1] Gioco di parole con Asad che vuol dire “leone” [N.d.T].

On Manaf Tlass, Syrian regime and the opposition..

Manaf Tlass` defection has resulted in a big buzz. But it is only few weeks after leaving Syria that the former commander of elite unites in the Republican Guard has finally spoken. “Spoken” with words, as in this interview aired by Al Arabiya, where Manaf states his support for the revolution which will give Syria back to its citizens.

He has also spoken with “images”, as soon as this picture here below went viral over the Internet yesterday. It portrays Manaf`s trip to Mecca for `umra (lesser pilgrimage), something that gives him enough “grades” to be accepted by the Kingdom as the right successor to Assad.


On the Manaf Tlass` case I think everybody should read this article by American Syrian scholar Bassam Haddad, an expert of Syria`s “neo-liberal” economy and editor of the precious Jadaliyya review.

My 50 Minutes with Manaf

by Bassam Haddad | published July 25, 2012 – 12:54pm

Tala was a friend of a friend. I met her in the early 2000s. Shortly afterward, she disappeared from the office. It turns out she got married.

Some years later, during one of my regular visits to Syria, I was with a group of friends at one of the bustling new restaurant-bars that dotted Damascus’ old city, around Bab Touma. Some places were more popular than others, frequented by internationals and a particular stratum of Damascene society that included some people who were pro-regime and others who were opposed. By the mid-2000s, one’s opinion of the regime did not matter much, in and of itself. What brought these Damascenes together was their common benefit from President Bashar al-Asad’s “economic reform” policies and the social stratification they had produced. In these circles, criticism of the regime was no longer taboo — so long as it was presented in a pleasant and “reasonable” manner. No names, no mention of sect, nothing “subversive.” Anyway, why would these people want to subvert the status quo?

That night, I was introduced to Tala’s husband, Manaf Tlass, as a “Syria researcher” working on the “Syrian economy.” At the time, Manaf was one of the regime’s top strongmen, working side by side with Mahir al-Asad (the president’s younger brother) as a commander of elite units in the Republican Guard. It was too dark to make out his features. Most of what I saw was the big round flame at the tip of the cigar that seemed surgically attached to his fingers, if not his lips. He asked a few questions. I answered politely. I knew who he was, and thought it was odd that he mingled so freely.

That was it.

On a subsequent trip, at a birthday party in another of those restaurants, I met Manaf again. This time, he asked someone to ask me to come to his table. Usually, that is not a good thing. I obliged, and he took me aside, asking more questions about regional politics and, then, Syria. I found myself discussing post-colonial development with Manaf and his cigar as Stardust’s remix of “Music Sounds Better with You” played in the background. We talked for a few minutes before I excused myself. Later, as he said his goodbyes to his fellow diners, Manaf approached me and asked me to come to his home office in Mazzeh. I was not asked for my cell phone number but was given an office number to confirm the visit.

I was in a tricky position. My research on Syrian political economy examined state-business networks and traced the deepening relationships between state officials and businessmen.

Manaf Tlass was no businessman, having gone the route of his father, Mustafa, the former defense minister who was a close confidante of Hafiz al-Asad for decades. But his brother, Firas, was. Many offspring of the Syrian leadership had gone the entrepreneurial route, and by the late 1980s they had become big businessmen, often with the aid of connections to consummate insiders like Manaf. Firas Tlass is said not to have exploited his connections as much as others, but the fact is that policymakers and policy takers in Syria were increasingly bound together. And there was another model that proved even more efficient at generating profits: The state official himself was a businessman in his capacity as a private citizen, creating what I called “fusion” between the public and private sectors.

For about ten years, I had been trying to study the development of capitalism in Syria, how it sustained authoritarianism and the attendant social machinations. I was not interested in exposing this or that character, as the “fusion” formula is not unique to Syria, and the Syrian regime was in no need of further unmasking. I purposely avoided talking to government and regime figures because the returns from such interviews are usually meager, and there is always the risk of raising suspicions about one’s research. The last systematic fieldwork by a Western scholar on Syria’s political economy had been carried out by Volker Perthes a half-decade earlier, producing the staple bookThe Political Economy of Syria Under Asad (1995). It was not a walk in the park for Volker, and nor was it for me. Though Firas Tlass, the fast-growing tycoon, was quite accessible, I elected not to speak with him, relying instead on an interview Joseph Samaha, one of the best journalists of our time, had conducted for al-Hayat in 1999. But now Firas’ brother, on the other side of the state-business equation, wanted to speak with me. It was not easy to say yes or no.

Manaf was quite candid and seemed more interested in conversation than surveillance. Still, I hesitated for some time before friends advised me not to skip out on the meeting.

At the time, Manaf was a rising star, quite close to the Asad family. Regime strongmen had regained their swagger after several years of “consolidation” that took place after the succession of Bashar to the presidency. It was a day to begin making Syria anew, with a younger and more contemplative, though less seasoned, leadership. The theme was less “reform” than “modernization,” less “change” than “continuity.” There was an atmosphere of cautious openness.

I walked into Manaf’s office and was politely asked to sit. I politely turned down the offer of a cigar. After some back-and-forth about my heritage (my mother is Syrian), Manaf asked me to share with him my frank thoughts about the Syrian regime, without stammering or self-censorship. It was surreal.

I was not unafraid. But I spoke forthrightly because it was the only thing I could do, and, honestly, because Manaf’s bearing was anything but intimidating or reminiscent of the stereotypical interrogator.

Taking care to be respectful, I shared my views on the limits of authoritarianism in time and space, and the limits of Syria’s regional role in the absence of more inclusive power-sharing formulas inside the country. When Manaf asked about corruption, I made sure to repeat, almost verbatim, the words of ‘Arif Dalila, an independent Marxist economics professor at the University of Damascus who was incarcerated in 2001 for his anti-regime views, during the post-“Damascus spring” round of arrests. ‘Arif was one of the most courageous people around — a mentor and, later, a friend. In 1998-1999, under Asad senior, mind you, when mosquitoes shuddered at the thought of landing on a regime member’s nose, he would walk down the aisle of the packed auditorium at the Tuesday Economic Forum. He would take the stage and dismantle the state’s rhetoric regarding the causes of Syria’s economic decline after the mid-1990s. He would say to rooms crawling with informants (and worse), and I quote from my notes:

Corruption is not a moral or ethical problem at heart, and it does not start at the moment when a policeman or border officer asks for a bribe. It is a systemic practice with a social, economic and political material base intended to sustain the entire political formula in this country…. We should not blame the poor officer who cannot make ends meet on his salary, but instead we should demand accountability at the highest level possible in this regime.

Talk about goose bumps. It was scary just to witness those words uttered. The room would fall silent, as though everyone had literally died, but everyone was actually feeling hyper-alive as ‘Arif would yifish al-ghill (redeem) the listeners in the most visceral way. Almost immediately after he spoke, over half of the audience would leave. It was one of the reasons why the Forum’s general secretary, Farouq al-Tammam, would beg ‘Arif to postpone his intervention until the end, knowing that everyone would stay to hear him. ‘Arif was not just a political economist or regime critic. He was a visionary, versed in the intricacies of global politics, and someone who would tear up when discussing the loss of Palestine by Arab regimes, including Syria’s.

Manaf listened without interrupting, and without letting go of his cigar. He then responded for 20 minutes, challenging me mildly on the feasibility of genuine reform in Syria and giving his views on democracy, the United States and regional politics. He was also forthright. His ideas, however, were underdeveloped or, more precisely, developed in a mind accustomed to wielding excessive power.

On reform, he asserted the importance of gradualism, a Hafiz al-Asad mantra, one that suits the reformers’ timetable, not that of the purported beneficiaries. But he was also unabashed in asserting the need for top-down control, which to him transcended questions of right and wrong, or democracy and authoritarianism. The regime had to guide the reform process based on a holistic view, one that takes into account local and regional variables. I interjected that this approach is the norm for regimes like Syria’s because reform is not the goal. He did not correct me, and reasserted the need for control.

Earlier, I had said to him that, even by the Syrian regime’s logic, it was always possible to open up the system more, to take more calculated risks in order to reduce the constant pressure, to utilize better Syria’s resources, human and material, instead of having fewer and fewer Syrians set an entire people’s destiny. He seemed to think I was being idealistic, that “political rule” requires other considerations, then dove into stock ruminations about whether or not Syria was ready for democracy. I was taken aback to hear some of the culturalist arguments that many of us educators have spent years trying to debunk in American (or other) classrooms.

Manaf seemed to be thinking big. He spoke of the United States as an equal, and was interested to identify balances of power of which Syria could take advantage. He oscillated between great wariness of the West and openness to new forms of engagement. After a while, it seemed I had caught him (and his cohort?) at a time when he was simply brainstorming. Certainly, the regime had abandoned any meaningful notion of socialism or even social justice. Manaf was not overly sensitive about such matters. His friends and relatives, the Asads, the Makhloufs and others of his generation were divorced from the struggles that their fathers had gone through in the 1960s. The generational divide was wide, separating two entirely different worldviews, one held by men who saw themselves as underdogs championing the cause of the have-nots against great odds, and one born into a world of plenty, privilege and power.

It is not that Manaf’s bunch was not “nationalistic” or critical of Israel. It is that their views had come at little cost, and so were often more malleable. Yet it seemed that Manaf was embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, as though beginning to feel he was bigger than the regime. His style of jumping from one point to another did not in fact yield a holistic analysis; it was difficult to locate the center of gravity. He spoke as if luxury and plenty had turned policy imperatives into modular choices that could be exchanged in an exegetical manner. It was as if he was talking about a household, not a country.

The privatization of the Syrian state is a reality in the making and remaking. Something had to give as the regime widened the gaps between itself and the majority, between the haves and the have-nots, between the city and the countryside, between manufacturing and trade. When most Syrians are disenfranchised as a few gobble up the available capital, it signals the beginning of the end.

Syrians were ready for democracy when I spoke to Manaf, and long before then. It might have been the kind of democracy that involves no external pressure. Alas, it was not outside intervention that Syrian regime strongmen were most concerned about. They sought merely to forestall a marginal loss of authority and opulence. The luxury of plenty intoxicated them, even blinded them to their long-term self-interest.

Just a few years later, the unsavory actors of the world are amassed around Syria, calling for a “democracy” that will be obedient and not resistant on the regional stage, one that acquiesces in using the victimization of Syrians to perpetuate the victimization of others across the region. It did not have to be this way. And the only party that could have brought about a different kind of change is the party that had near total power. But that party failed to avert Syria’s present catastrophe, and brought so much more than itself crashing down — all because it would not risk one iota of privilege. By sharing just a little power, the regime might have avoided issuing an invitation to those who were waiting to destroy what Syria might have stood for in the region, as they did with Iraq. Now the true friends of Syria are in an impossible position: If we identify with the plight of Syrians under dictatorship, we are branded as imperialists. If we caution against uncritical support of the uprising for the reasons above, we are called regime apologists. We are all wrong, no matter what we say.

Manaf thanked me for the visit, and I left about 50 minutes after entering his office.

On July 24, after leaving Syria some 12 days prior, Manaf Tlass for the first time announced his opposition to the regime that he embodied, as though its transgressions had begun in March 2011. And the external “opposition” benevolently embraced him, as did the Saudis, who admitted Manaf to their kingdom for the ‘umra (lesser pilgrimage). As Louis Armstrong sang, “What a Wonderful World!”


Syria: some little things out of macro-analysis

When opening my Twitter timeline earlier today I ran into a tweet by Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for the joint Arab League-United Nations special envoy, Kofi Annan. Fawzi tweeted the following

#Syria’s Propaganda Cloud: How the West Is Falling for Misinformation via @thedailybeast

Usually when people retweet something is because they have found it interesting or worth discussing. In Fawzi`s case, it was unclear why he did that, since he didnt add any personal comment when retweeting the article nor did he engage with the discussion he had generated online when folks where asking: why the hell did he retweet that article?

Usually when famous people or public personalities  retweet stuff on Twitter they do carry an alert under their Twitter name: “RT does not mean endorsement”.

Well, Mr Fawzi does not have this, so the issue stays ambiguous and we`ll never be sure of the reasons behind his retweet.

Anyway, let`s assume Mr Fawzi had found the article`s perspective on Syria somehow interesting and decided to share it with the broader online community.

This is where I have a problem.

First of all, I personally dont trust articles that begin with  the phrase: “Having just returned from Syria a few days ago..”.

This kind of articles contains the unverified and usually very pretentious “truth” that having been recently in a place means knowing that place better. This is even more “true” in the Syrian case, where the government has carefully turned an entry visa in a precious exchange commodity that can be shown when truth is needed.

I don`t know the author of the article and I don`t want to criticize him for the sake of being critical, but I`d love to understand what was in his mind when he wrote “ the government remains in control over most of the country—including the economy—despite the best efforts of propagandists to say otherwise”.

What I can see is exactly the contrary, and not only on a macro-level. There are small indicators in the daily lives of people that signal that the regime is everything but in control of the internal situation, let alone at a business level. The most relevant of these indicators is that businessmen operating in different fields that were very close to the regime are now being touched by an intensive arrest and interrogation campaign.

When members of a prominent family like Joud -loyal to the Syrian regime since the time of Hama in 1982- are being held and interrogated by security services this means that the regime is freaking out. This is just one case among many others reported these days in business circles in Damascus. Nobody seems to be untouchable anymore, not even the old allies, not even those who once secured financial stability to the country and helped it to prevent  from descending into chaos. Arresting and interrogating members of prominent business families seems to signal that Syrian regime is not really in tight control of the situation: or, maybe better, that one part of the regime -the security minded side- is leading the game, regardless of what the (once) reform-minded side wants or aims at.

A security project is driving everything in Syria these days, despite  reformists` claims to be still in control of the game.

Not only the treatment of once untouchable businessmen signals this. Also, the way security forces are dealing with the middle class is not promising and it is scaring out people more and more.

I have a friend who used to live in the Inshaat neighborhood in Homs. This is a middle class area: engineers, doctors, professionals do live there. But Inshaat is close to Baba Amro, a slum made up of informal settlements that became a stronghold of rebels and was brought back to “normalcy” after days and days of military siege by the Syrian army. Inshaat has nothing to do with Baba Amro, at least socio-demographically speaking. And we could think of it as an area where lots of Assad`s supporters could eventually live, i.e. people who have a good life and in search of stability. But these people were becoming maybe too sympathetic with their poor neighbors; or maybe the military required a strategic position from where to launch the attack to Baba Amro; or maybe it suddenly just became too attractive to enter these middle class` houses and occupy them. Whatever the reason was, the result is that, little by little, the Inshaat people were pushed to leave  their houses for lack of security. They left without anything and their houses were taken, together with all their belongings. In my friend`s house they even took the bidet. It is told there are informal souks (markets) where these belongings taken from Inshaat and from other area in Homs are sold.

Video from Inshaat, Homs, posted by @javierespinosa2 on Twitter

This is how the Syrian economy is solid at the moment.

If , just for a while, you think at that middle class once leaving in places like Inshaat, which is now displaced elsewhere in Syria or abroad, yes indeed they have the financial means to do that, but how will they react to what happened to their properties?

The Syrian regime justification is, of course, that displacing people in Homs is nothing when it`s Syria`s fate at stake. But the middle class gets angry when stability lacks and when those who are supposed to provide it fail to meet their promises. And there is not just the Homs middle class. Middle class is everywhere, and we should watch out to what is happening to the Damascus` middle class and where this is heading.Also, there is not only one slum in Syria, but many others rather that Baba Amro, including in the Syrian capital. Theoretically speaking, this means that the same strategy used with Inshaat and Baba Amro can be adopted for other places in the country.

At the end of the day, there are so many stories to be told concerning the Syria situation, but so few get international media`s attention. And these are always macro-analysis, think-thank style overviews that get noticed by international observers, policy makers, international journalists. Whereas the micro-analysis gets buried into Facebook, the goldmine of Syrian daily lives and chats. Yet, too difficult to penetrate for those in search of  relevance, I`m afraid.

Syria: The virtue of civil disobedience

I`d like to re-publish here the article on civil disobedience in Syria which I posted some days ago on Al Jazeera English`s opinions page.

Thanks to those who have commented, criticized, shared, discussed this piece.

I owe also a big thank you to the Free Syrian Translators who have translated it into Arabic.


Something is happening in Syria, away from the media spotlight. Last March 27, when Damascus woke up, the independence flag – symbol of the Syrian revolution –  was raised in different districts, from Berzeh to Mezzeh, from school walls to bridges. Civil disobedience groups had successfully managed to coordinate the biggest anti-regime protests conducted simultaneously in different parts of the Syrian capital.

When you make Mutasem Abou AlShamat notice that raising the independence flag is nothing more than just a symbolic action – although beautiful – this Damascene in his 20s, smiles and calmly explains: “You have to look at what lies behind the action, not at its immediate content. Doing this simultaneously means that different non-violent groups are finally getting together and organising common actions. Achieving this degree of coordination should not be taken for granted in Damascus, where security control is tight, communications are either tracked or lacking and moving from one area to another is extremely difficult.”

“This is a step further to coordinate a much bigger operation that is in the pipeline,” he says, mysteriously.

Mutasem is a member of the Syrian non-violent movement. Together with many other groups, mostly based in Damascus and Aleppo, he has joined “Ayyam al hurryia” (Freedom days), a consortium of individuals and loose organisations which share a common goal: “To topple the regime through peaceful resistance and civil disobedience”.

Signalling rebellion

Back in December 2011, they organised the general strike “Idrab al karama”. When asked about the results of the initiative, Mutasem admits that “mistakes have been made and we have brainstormed a lot in order to not make them happen next time. But there is indeed a great achievement in having shown the people that a third way is possible: something that each of us can do, rather than join the demonstrations or just stay home [due to] fear.”

Placing radio speakers in Damascus’ central squares and playing revolutionary songs; painting the city’s fountain water red to remind the martyrs’ blood; distributing anti-regime leaflets that looked like Syrian currency notes – “everybody would stop to collect 1,000 Syrian Pounds on the floor!” – are some of the nuanced acts taken in defiance of regime.

Mutasem is an enthusiastic supporter of civil disobedience tactics. According to him, this is the only way to mobilise people in big cities like Damascus and Aleppo that are deemed to be regime’s strongholds.

“We have to hurt the regime at its very heart, if we want to topple it. Civil disobedience sends a message to the people of Damascus and Aleppo who watch the violence on YouTube and are told by the official propaganda that there is nothing going on in the country,” the young activist says. “Our message is: The revolution is here, we are here, come and join us in any possible way you can.”

According to him, many people – who at the beginning would stay at home – are now helping the non-violent activists, providing logistical support, coordination, even actively joining the civil disobedience. Incidents of burning tyres blocking traffic in the middle of roads have been mushrooming in the past months, especially in Damascus.

“You know that something is successful when people adopt and repeat it. Most of the road blockings happening now are not organised by us, they are initiated by people we don’t even know,” he emphasises.

Mutasem thinks civil disobedience is the only way to mobilise people in the Syrian capital. He is convinced that an armed response from the revolutionaries will not succeed, as the regime is much stronger on the military front. He also thinks that the latter’s violence has increased since the formation of the Free Syrian Army.

Because of this, he embraces the model of civil resistance provided by Daraya, the cradle of Syrian peaceful resistance in Damascus where activists like Ghiyath Matar and Yahya Shurbaji were trying to win the soldiers’ hearts and minds through non-violent and symbolic actions like talking to them during the demonstrations and distributing flowers and water. Recalling these scenes sounds like “longing for the bygone days”, as Matar was brutally killed and Shurbaji is believed to be still in jail.

Videos on non-violent struggle

But, while YouTube clips – allegedly recorded a week ago in Aleppo – are running on the screen, the young Syrian activist makes me notice that these protesters are still chanting “You are our brothers!” to the army, despite the fact that all media attention is catalysed either by the armed clashes between Assad’s soldiers and the defected Free Syrian Army, or by the sectarian conflict allegedly going on between Syria’s Alawi minority and Sunni majority.

Nevertheless, each week Ayyam al hurryia produces and posts videos, explaining the meaning of the non-violent struggle, its tactics and the patience to achieve results through peaceful resistance. Some videos address the pro-regime supporters too – the “mnhibbakjia” (“we love you”) crowd – dealing with the national unity issue and the necessity of reconciliation among Syrian people.

These videos are all made by Syrians inside and outside Syria, working as volunteers with Ayyam al hurryia. “It’s not a crowd of well-known artists and media makers. It’s Syria’s new generation willing to build a civil state,” Mutasem says. A savvy youth made up of professionals who were never given a chance to emerge in their diversity, as Syria’s cultural production – even in its most advanced forms of criticism and dissent – was managed by an elite group of producers closely supervised by the regime.

The workforce behind Ayyam al hurryia’s initiatives – whether those organising civil disobedience actions on the ground or those filming and editing the coloured educational videos on its YouTube channel – is nurtured by a Syrian grassroots movement and comes from within the country.

Mutasem smiles when I quote Gene Sharp and his 1993 handbook From Dictatorship to Democracy as an inspiration for their non-violent struggle. According to some conspiracy theories, the American scholar would have worked closely with US intelligence to help toppling regimes worldwide and would have supported anti-regime movements like Serbia’s Otpor in their political fight.

These theories enjoy a certain credit, especially when it comes to Syria, where everything happening on the ground would have to be engineered by foreigners, including civil resistance. Mutasem’s smile now turns into laughter.

Syrians’ non-violent struggle is indeed inspired by a Syrian scholar, Jawdat Said, who has been incarcerated many times for his writings on resisting oppression through non-violence. In 2001, he wrote: “We live in a world in which four fifths of its population live in frustration while the other fifth lives in fear.”

Jawadat Said, born in 1931, lives in the Syrian Golan Heights and works as a farmer. I wonder what he thinks of these youth, engaged in their civilised struggle against Goliath, far away from media spotlight, maybe closer to their people.

Satirical web series lampoons Hafez and Bashar al Assad

The first episode of 3anzehWalo6aret  عنزة ولو طارت (something that we can loosely translate “It`s a goat even if flies”) appeared last August 2011. Till now, this episode has been viewed by more than 330.000 people on YouTube.

The show consists in a news-bulletin kind of set, with a masked anchorwoman who deals with the events happening in Syria in an extremely sarcastic way. It`s the dark humor Syrians have been labelled with, especially since a certain amount of parodies, sketches and web series blossomed on the Internet after the beginning of Syrian uprising.

3anzehWalo6aret is dark comedy at its best, although you could tell that the dark component has been increasing in the sketches with the time, maybe as a result of the increased violence happening on the ground.

The last episode, released on YouTube few days ago, is dedicated to “Hafez the beast”, as they call him. The masked women ironizes on the fact that living under the Assads is like living in pre-Islamic times. Their pictures, their statues are everywhere, “he is with you in every place” and everything is named under Assad, from the library  to the stadium to the streets. “After the regime is toppled, I want to save this tradition, just with a little difference: we will give the name of Assad to a cabaret or to a public bath”, the masked anchorwoman says.

Then she reminds the viewer that, since the Assads seized power, 18.000 have been imprisoned for issues related to their freedom and right to express themselves.

Then she starts joking again: “Let`s talk about Hazef al Assad from the humanitarian point of view”. And she reminds about the former president`s nice present to 700 prisoners in Tadmour (Palmira), killed all together in cold blood as a revenge for an attempt to overthrown the regime.

“But we have not to forget Hazef al Assad`s best achievements in the art field, like the renewal of Hama`s decor..At the time, there was a foreign conspiracy like there is now, so the president thought to put the city under siege, the result being the death of 40.000 people, and the destruction of 84 mosques and 4 churches.. “During the French occupation in Syria none of them dared to destroy mosques”, she adds.

Hafez al Assad`s brother Rafat (now in exile in London) commented: “one day the historians will say: once upon a time, there was a city called Hama”.

“Soon history will say: once upon a time, there was a regime in Syria called Assad “, the masked woman replies.

“Let`s talk about the anti-corruption campaigns which Hafez al Assad backed. The “mn7hibbaje” (pro-regime supporters) always say that we cannot blame on him for corruption in the country and  how could he control everybody in his regime..” . “But how did he not know that his family, Jamil and Rafat al Assad were corrupted?” .

“Bashar is different, the pro-regime say. If so, how is it possible not to be aware of the fact that Rami Makhlouf, his cousin, owns 60% of Syrian economy?”.

A very funny scene is added at this point, showing the birth of “Leo”(Kimba), the son of the Lion King, a character in Japanese mangas. The father gives power to the son, who takes it, despite a constitutional change has to be made for he is too young to become president.

The masked woman now pokes fun at Bashar and when the key question comes — who do we have better than him to rule our country?– she calls Zonga on the phone, “our expert in Homs”. Zonga –who comes from the hilarious Homs-based Facebook page “at-thawra as-siniya” (the Chinese revolution) answers:

” there are 23 millions Syrians, do you think we can`t find another one?!”.

“After all this, do you still want us to call our country Syria al Assad”, the masked woman says. “We don`t want any Syria al Assad, we want a free Syria and that`s all!”.




Siria: nessuna delle due parti ha i mezzi per annientare l`altra..

Un`intervista davvero significativa sulla situazione attuale in Siria, da Padre Paolo Dall`Oglio, italiano che vive nel paese da oltre trent`anni e lo ama come se vi fosse nato..



Intervista esclusiva a P. Paolo Dall’Oglio, a cura di Maria Laura Conte e Martino Diez

Dal monastero di San Mosè l’Abissino, 100 km a nord di Damasco, uno sguardo a tutto campo sulla situazione siriana.

Dai confini della Siria trapelano notizie frammentarie e confuse. Come può descrivere l’attuale situazione del Paese in cui vive da trent’anni? A che punto è lo scontro?

Premetto che, accettando di rilasciare un’intervista, mi assumo una qualche responsabilità rispetto all’impegno di non agire politicamente per evitare la mia espulsione. La rinuncia a questo silenzio è dovuta alla gravità della situazione che obbliga a fare il possibile per la pacificazione, nella giustizia, del Paese. Ogni calcolo d’opportunità personale sarebbe fuori luogo. D’altronde, nelle ultime settimane, lo Stato ha scelto di lasciare uno spazio più grande alla libertà d’informazione e dunque ritengo questo mio intervento come una risposta positiva all’apertura governativa. Spero che questo gesto sia capito nella sua intenzione patriottica e solidale e come tale apprezzato nel quadro della crescita del Paese, attraverso una maggiore libertà di opinione.

La situazione resta tesa e carica di violenza. Il territorio appare diviso a macchia di leopardo tra zone in cui predomina il movimento di opposizione, tanto pacifico che più o meno violento, e quelle nelle quali lo Stato mantiene intero il controllo e addirittura è chiaramente appoggiato dalle popolazioni. Ci sono due grandi isole, Damasco e Aleppo, che restano saldamente in mano al governo centrale, ma la loro estensione si va riducendo di giorno in giorno e l’insicurezza le tocca anch’esse in profondità.

La regione montagnosa tra il mare e il fiume Oronte, che scorre dalla Beqaa libanese fino ad Antiochia, è quasi interamente sotto il controllo governativo. Infatti tale regione è abitata principalmente da minoranze (relativamente all’insieme del Paese) musulmane, alawita e ismaelita, e cristiane, bizantina, sia ortodossa che cattolica, e maronita. I sunniti, maggioranza nel Paese, sono minoranza in questa regione. Furono quest’ultimi tra i primi a sollevarsi, probabilmente sperando in una rapida insurrezione generale. Qui la repressione ha ottenuto sostanziale successo. Di conseguenza, l’eventualità, prevista da molti, d’una divisione del Paese, è in questa zona davvero concreta. Questo disegnerebbe una Siria costiera nell’orbita iraniana, assieme al Sud del Libano di Hezbollah, che si contrapporrebbe a una Siria interna sunnita collegata all’Iraq centrale a Est e alla Beirut di Hariri a Ovest.

Questo disastroso panorama non corrisponde ancora alla realtà complessiva del Paese. L’equilibrio delle forze è bilanciato. Pur con difficoltà, l’essenziale dei servizi statali funziona. Una gran parte della popolazione resta incapace di prendere posizione e rimane di fatto neutrale. D’altro canto, a prescindere dalle appartenenze religiose, è ancora massiccia, anche se scossa, l’adesione popolare al potere costituito, anche a causa del forte attaccamento dei siriani all’unità nazionale e al rifiuto di tanti di lasciarsi ridurre all’unico riferimento identitario confessionale. Ciononostante, alcune aree sono ormai in mano all’ “esercito libero”, anche se non mi azzarderei a dire stabilmente. In generale il clima politico è confuso, la sicurezza carente. Si registrano episodi di furto, teppismo, sabotaggio, attentati, rapimenti, rese di conti, vendette e uccisioni. La violenza non fa che aumentare. Approfittano della situazione anche puri e semplici delinquenti. Noi troppo spesso partecipiamo a funerali di persone rimaste uccise in scontri violenti o attentati.
Molti vogliono continuare a sperare che la promessa riforma costituzionale sia presto una realtà e che la presidenza Bashar el-Assad superi la crisi e ottenga un’elezione plebiscitaria per un nuovo mandato.

A proposito di possibili soluzioni, nell’estate 2011 Lei auspicava la nascita di una forma di democrazia consensuale, che sapesse tener conto della pluralità di identità presenti nel Paese. Le cose però da allora sembrano essere andate in un’altra direzione e la situazione si è incancrenita. Ritiene quella proposta ancora praticabile?

Paradossalmente, ci credo ancora di più oggi, perché la sensazione, nei due campi, è che si sia raggiunto lo stallo, anche dal punto di vista dell’equilibrio delle forze. In questi mesi, e per volontà in un certo senso “reciproca”, la situazione è stata spinta decisamente verso la militarizzazione del conflitto. Tuttavia emerge ora, con crescente chiarezza, che nessuna delle due parti ha i mezzi per annientare l’altra, per tanti motivi locali, nazionali e internazionali.

Lei parla di conflitto. Intende la parola in senso metaforico o concreto?

In senso molto concreto. È di questi giorni la notizia d’un cessate il fuoco tra l’esercito siriano regolare e le forze antigovernative, concordato nella città di Zabadani, vicino al Libano. È uno scenario da guerra civile.

Questa situazione non Le ricorda pericolosamente l’Iraq? A parte il fatto che il movimento non è iniziato con un’invasione militare straniera, non ci sono molti tratti in comune?

Vi sono certamente dei tratti in comune e altrettante differenze. Il fenomeno dei rapimenti ad esempio è estremamente preoccupante. Se si continua così, per la gente comune è finita. La sensazione, per quanto riguarda il grosso della popolazione cristiana, è duplice: da una parte è quella d’essere stritolati in un conflitto che è in definitiva tra musulmani, e d’altra parte sono molti coloro che si sentono interamente solidali con la Siria degli Assad. Essa aveva assicurato un livello di laicità dello Stato percepito come un’occasione di promozione da parte della minoranza cristiana; ciò nel momento in cui la maggioranza sunnita lo percepiva come il potere d’un’alleanza di minoranze. Sul terreno, un importante numero di cristiani si schiera col governo. Molti sono funzionari e impiegati dello Stato e altri partecipano al conflitto in quanto membri dell’esercito, la polizia e i servizi di sicurezza. Non pochi giovani sono andati volontari nelle truppe impegnate nella repressione del “terrorismo”. Va anche rilevata una presenza di cristiani nei movimenti d’opposizione, e naturalmente scelgono i partiti meno caratterizzati sul piano religioso. Tuttavia, come per l’Iraq, il sentimento dominante è che una guerra civile generalizzata sarebbe infinitamente deleteria proprio per i cristiani che probabilmente emigrerebbero in massa.

Si registrano diverse posizioni tra i cristiani?

C’è uno schierarsi molto esplicito per il governo di gran parte delle diverse autorità ecclesiastiche. Questa posizione tende però a lasciare il passo a una più pronunciata neutralità. Si comprendono bene, come abbiamo detto, le ragioni di chi paventa la nascita d’una repubblica islamica sunnita. Altri però insistono piuttosto sulla possibilità che la rivoluzione apra spazi alla democrazia. Comunque, è del tutto fuorviante dividere il campo semplicemente tra democratici e anti-democratici, come anche tra filo-regime e anti-regime. La realtà è più complessa. Ci sono tanti giovani, sia cristiani che musulmani, che si spendono con tutta la loro persona per favorire la nascita d’una democrazia degna di questo nome in Siria. Alcuni ritengono che quest’obiettivo possa essere raggiunto meglio e più sicuramente attraverso l’evoluzione del regime attuale. Altri invece, ugualmente impegnati per la democrazia, puntano al cambiamento subito, contro l’attuale establishment. Che le posizioni siano molto articolate l’ho percepito chiaramente quando c’è stata la questione della mia espulsione. 6600 giovani hanno aderito alla pagina Face-book «No all’espulsione di Padre Paolo». L’opposizione aderente ai Comitati di coordinazione ha promosso una “Domenica di Padre Paolo” nella quale in diverse manifestazioni in tutto il Paese si è espressa solidarietà nei miei confronti … anche da parte di gruppi di donne musulmane velate! A prescindere dall’uso politico della vicenda, è significativo che tra i giovani, che hanno preso le mie difese, tutti impegnati per la democrazia, si contavano sia filo-governativi che filo-rivoluzionari, ed erano tanto musulmani che cristiani.

E a proposito del decreto d’espulsione, com’è la Sua situazione?

Si tratta d’una vecchia storia nella quale interagiscono questioni interne alla Chiesa locale, con ricadute politiche, e questioni direttamente collegabili con i vent’anni di lavoro culturale per l’emergenza della società civile, il dialogo interreligioso e la maturazione democratica che hanno caratterizzato la nostra azione in loco. Già nel febbraio del 2010 il Parco naturale del Monastero fu soppresso e tutte le attività sospese compresi i convegni di dialogo interreligioso. Nel marzo 2011, come si è saputo a livello internazionale e, in modo indipendente dal movimento di opposizione in Siria, fu bloccato il mio permesso di soggiorno. In pratica, se avessi lasciato la Siria, non sarei più potuto tornare. Poi in novembre è arrivato il decreto d’espulsione, che però non è stato applicato ed è attualmente congelato, anche per effetto d’una vasta e multiforme mobilitazione, soprattutto di giovani, in mia difesa. A prescindere dal mio caso personale, questa storia manifesta la qualità della società siriana che ha reagito in difesa d’un simbolo di armonia interreligiosa e di riconciliazione civile.
Sento il dovere di proporre un intervento non violento di pacificazione, arabo e internazionale, con partecipazione di volontari locali. Non capisco infatti perché Gandhi non possa essere d’ispirazione per risolvere il conflitto siriano in corso. Chiedo che si formi un corpo di 50.000 “accompagnatori” non violenti, disarmati, provenienti da tutto il mondo. Dico “accompagnatori” e non osservatori perché questi ultimi sono percepiti da molti in Siria come le avanguardie delle invasioni armate e come dei censori mossi da inimicizia. Anche la parola “internazionale” puzza in Siria di complotto e provoca reazioni negative. Dovrebbero essere invitati dalla Siria stessa, su proposta ONU, degli accompagnatori esponenti della Croce e Mezzaluna Rosse, degli scout, di Sant’Egidio, della Non Violente Peace Force, insomma di esponenti della società civile planetaria, al fine d’aiutare la maturazione democratica della Siria. Non c’è bisogno di forze armate internazionali che si percepiscono qui come forze d’occupazione golpiste, mosse da interesse economico e strategico. La violenza criminale può e dev’essere contrastata dalla polizia dello Stato in cooperazione con la popolazione locale e con il controllo della stampa libera e degli “accompagnatori”.
Purtroppo la parte centrale della compagine civile, in grado di negoziare la maturazione democratica, sembra sempre più assorbita dalla polarizzazione e militarizzazione del conflitto in corso.
Non è la prima volta che faccio proposte del genere. Nel 2001 avevo suggerito di creare un canale d’uscita dei combattenti arabi dall’Afghanistan, gente che per decenni era stata ingaggiata, anche dagli Stati Uniti, per andare a liberare Kabul e che di colpo si scopriva essere ostile e terrorista. Bene, oggi, 2011, si parla di negoziato con i talebani, dopo 10 anni di guerra feroce, tanti morti e infinite sofferenze! Nel 2003, per l’Iraq, durante un digiuno pubblico, avevamo dichiarato che non si poteva tacere perché il regime di Saddam Hussein era intollerabile, ma non si poteva nemmeno fare la scelta della guerra. E si sa quel che è successo dopo.

Lei caldeggia dunque la via dei negoziati. Eppure in un documento che avete diramato per la Pasqua 2011 si legge che «i danni inferti alla società siriana sono già irreparabili». Oggi non è decisamente troppo tardi per negoziare?

Il passo che Lei cita si riferisce alla situazione della Siria nella primavera scorsa, quando si ventilava ancora la possibilità d’un cammino riformista di lungo respiro condotto dal presidente Bashar al-Assad. Questo, a causa della violenza – dicevamo – non era più facilmente realizzabile, e ancora meno lo è oggi, a causa della radicalizzazione del confronto. Si è creata ormai una cristallizzazione delle parti in conflitto. La democratizzazione del Paese implica oggi un negoziato tra i protagonisti del conflitto armato e quindi necessita di efficaci mediazioni, specie se si tiene conto che le difficoltà interne alla Siria non sono separabili dalle tensioni regionali. La responsabilità e il compito della presidenza restano grandi, perché è chiamata a creare le condizioni per un graduale trasferimento di poteri dal vecchio sistema a partito unico a quello compiutamente democratico che la nazione sceglierà.

Tuttavia non sarebbe la prima volta che la Siria vive un’esperienza di pluralismo. È già successo negli anni Cinquanta ed è stato un periodo molto instabile, che si è chiuso solo con l’avvento al potere del partito Ba’ath.
Non credo che si possa tracciare un parallelo con quel periodo. All’epoca la Siria non sapeva bene in che campo collocarsi e oscillava tra le democrazie occidentali e l’Urss, finché ha optato per un regime a partito unico. Inoltre, al tempo, i Fratelli musulmani non avevano elaborato culturalmente una prospettiva democratica, mentre oggi è diverso.

Prima rilevava che nessuna delle due parti ha oggi gli strumenti per prevalere sull’altra. Quindi non resta che aspettare che una si esaurisca?

Le due parti non si esauriranno, perché la Siria è oggi il teatro d’un vasto conflitto regionale. Qui si gioca la tensione tra Stati Uniti e Russia, Turchia e Iran, sunniti e sciiti, concezione laica dello stato e visione religiosa della società, e, a livello interno, si assiste all’emergere di specificità geografiche che finora non avevano trovato adeguata espressione … Tutto questo significa che le possibilità d’alimentare il conflitto sono pressoché infinite. Ma la novità non è qui. È nel desiderio d’emancipazione dei giovani, che è un immenso fatto nuovo, un elemento di squilibrio negli equilibri conflittuali tradizionali.

Al vostro monastero che cosa fate?

In continuazione, lungo i difficili mesi trascorsi, ci siamo chiesti quale fosse il nostro dovere. La nostra condizione monastica ci tende come la corda d’un arco tra la prospettiva escatologica che consiglierebbe di pregare di più e parlare di meno, impegnandoci per la crescita spirituale delle persone, e l’incarnazione nella storia che richiede il coraggio, anche assumendo la relatività delle nostre posizioni, d’indicare delle prospettive di “liberazione” nel contesto concreto. Abbiamo elaborato dei documenti diffondendoli in rete in diverse lingue; abbiamo fatto otto giorni di digiuno per la riconciliazione che hanno avuto un impatto non indifferente negli ambienti giovanili più avanzati; continuiamo a ricevere persone che desiderano confrontarsi e trovare nel monastero il luogo del dialogo e della maturazione spirituale in relazione a questo tempo tragico. Avviamo anche la produzione d’un formaggio di buona qualità per essere meno dipendenti dalla carità internazionale … Soprattutto viviamo giorno per giorno l’angoscia di questo Paese cercando di trasformarla in solidarietà e speranza.

Vorrei sottolineare un segno positivo: qualche giorno fa, come ho accennato nella premessa, il governo ha iniziato a permettere un accesso più largo e pluralista ai giornalisti stranieri. È un fatto cruciale, che cambia anche la nostra situazione. La libertà di stampa rappresenta una precondizione per la riconciliazione attraverso il negoziato. La scelta dello Stato, se confermata, potrebbe evitare un prolungarsi drammatico della guerra. La libertà d’informazione riduce il numero degli uccisi.

Al-Jazeera è presa da molti in Occidente come una fonte informata sui fatti siriani. Lei come la considera?

È un canale televisivo di partito. La sua azione ha concorso allo scatenarsi dei movimenti rivoluzionari dello scorso anno, e questo va riconosciuto senz’altro. È stata un elemento straordinario di rottura del monopolio dell’informazione da parte dei governi totalitari e un fattore di cambiamento. Tuttavia, riguardo alla Siria, ha scelto l’opzione militare; milita contro il regime in modo partigiano e quindi ne soffre l’obiettività dell’informazione. Assistiamo a una guerra civile televisiva prima ancora che sul campo. Vediamo sotto i nostri occhi una rissa tra i canali TV che oppone realtà come al-Jazeera ai media controllati dall’establishment, anch’essi abili nel difendere la loro causa. Sono convinto che assicurare una libertà di stampa generalizzata favorirebbe un ascolto delle buone ragioni e di conseguenza aiuterebbe la pacificazione.

Lei fa riferimento a questo diffuso desiderio di democrazia e di partecipazione della società civile, ma dove lo percepisce? Come si esprime?

Appunto, non nei media, dove circolano le teorie complottiste più disparate. Si parla d’una grande intesa, tra Stati Uniti, Israele, al-Qaeda, salafiti, Fratelli musulmani, e Lega araba, che mirerebbe ad abbattere l’ultimo Stato arabo che ancora non abbia capitolato di fronte al progetto sionista e non abbia rinunciato a combattere l’imperialismo … È evidente che a questo livello discutere è difficile. Vedo tuttavia l’emergere della società civile nella vita di tutti i giorni, la vedo nell’amore di patria di tutti coloro che sono disposti a pagare di persona. Noto una straordinaria maturazione civile e morale nei giovani che si impegnano per il cambiamento.

La grave difficoltà è che pure settori colti e socialmente avanzati della società, anche degli ambienti ecclesiali, si lasciano andare ad una logica estremista e radicale che si esprime in frasi come: “tutto, ma mai consegnare lo Stato ai Fratelli musulmani!”. Addirittura alcuni cedono a logiche genocidarie, per cui se, per salvare il Paese, bisogna uccidere milioni di persone, pazienza. La radicalizzazione del linguaggio crea una spirale di violenza senza uscita. Non mi faccio illusioni e non mi dispero. I violenti di oggi e i loro figli sono chiamati a diventare i cittadini di domani. Certo è un dovere di tutti, globale, quindi a maggior ragione mediterraneo e italiano, quello di operare immediatamente per evitare il peggio.

Quanto importante è stato il ruolo dei nuovi media?

Direi che è stato fondamentale. Senza i nuovi media la logica della repressione avrebbe potuto operare senza difficoltà. Non ci sarebbe stata la Primavera araba, o almeno avrebbe preso forme molto diverse, “più classiche”: concentrazione degli insorti in una regione e sua progressiva estensione, come, per il passato, in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Kurdistan iracheno ecc. Senza il controllo internazionale, permesso dai new media, ci sarebbero stati massacri più gravi ancora. La repressione capillare diventa relativamente impotente, a causa della pressione internazionale costruita sull’uso dei nuovi media, della maturazione civile, specie giovanile, favorita dai network e anche della nuova militanza religiosa che si organizza in rete.

Quante armi ci sono in giro in Siria, oggi?

Bisognerebbe sapere quante ce n’erano già prima. In previsione di tempi bui, ognuno tende a prepararsi i suoi arsenali domestici. Detto questo, la frontiera libanese è un colabrodo, l’Iraq altrettanto (durante la guerra contro gli alleati occidentali il confine siro-iracheno era spesso oltrepassato da combattenti islamisti sunniti …), il contrabbando con la Turchia è fiorente, i deserti sono difficili da pattugliare. Coloro che vogliono sostenere dall’esterno i gruppi armati non sono pochi e sono già efficaci.

Scusi se insistiamo, ma non trova che sia purtroppo più facile armare i contendenti piuttosto che far emergere uno spazio di dialogo?

Francamente, se scoppia la guerra contro l’Iran, qui le cose si possono muovere molto, molto rapidamente ma anche molto tragicamente. Penso che occorra avviare un negoziato serio con l’Iran, che consenta al Paese di accedere allo status di potenza nucleare, a certe condizioni, per creare un equilibrio di deterrenze nella logica della guerra fredda, ma in modo molto più concordato e limitato. India, Pakistan e Israele sono già nucleari. In ogni caso solo un disarmo nucleare generalizzato e planetario, garantito da una vera autorità mondiale, renderebbe ingiustificate le aspirazioni iraniane. Andiamo allora a dialogare con l’Iran e impegniamoci per fare della Siria un luogo d’incontro e di accordo tra sunniti e sciiti. Questo aspro confronto inter-comunitario si sviluppa in tutta la regione: in Bahrein, in Yemen, in Arabia Saudita, in Libano, ecc. Cerchiamo dunque di esprimere una grammatica alternativa a quella del tanto peggio tanto meglio.

Qual è il punto sorgivo di queste rivoluzioni? Perché proprio nel 2011?

Per i tre paesi nord-africani, Egitto, Libia e Tunisia, l’insopportabilità del passaggio generazionale del potere di padre in figlio sembra aver segnato il destino di quelle dittature. I popoli non sopportano più l’idea d’esser trattati come proprietà privata e oggetto di eredità. L’opposizione era già molto forte. Poi all’insopportabilità del presente si è aggiunta la crisi economica e direi anche una vera e propria maturazione giovanile, al cui sviluppo – tra l’altro – l’Europa ha concorso e per lungo tempo, attraverso istituzioni come la Fondazione euro-mediterranea Anna Lindh e le varie forme di cooperazione internazionale allo sviluppo. Si è così arrivati al punto di rottura dopo che per anni gli egiziani hanno gridato per le strade “kifâya”, lo slogan della pre-rivoluzione: Basta!

Padre Paolo, quale ruolo può giocare l’Italia?

Roma, nel dopo Berlusconi, può di nuovo aspirare a giocare un ruolo significativo e quindi conviene che si muova per proporre immediatamente un tavolo negoziale tra i belligeranti sul campo e anche tra i belligeranti residenti fuori dalla Siria. Spero che il ministro Riccardi, che ama questo Paese, possa fare delle proposte efficaci. Allo stesso tempo, anche la Chiesa italiana può dire una parola nel senso della risoluzione non violenta dei conflitti regionali, può favorire la creazione d’uno spazio negoziale e promuovere la mediazione internazionale. Mi aspetto anche dalla Chiesa italiana che si impegni per la creazione di corpi volontari non violenti e interreligiosi di “accompagnatori” della pace.

Il negoziato è perseguibile all’infinito?

Bisogna cominciare subito, perché il tempo a disposizione è poco!

Chi è P. Paolo Dall’Oglio

* Una versione parziale di quest’intervista è stata pubblicata sul quotidiano Repubblica del 25 gennaio 2012, p. 16.

How they fooled us: why (Western) leftists and capitalists were so attracted by Bashar al-Assad`s regime

Hundreds of emails flooded from some 78 inboxes of Syrian presidential palace`s aides and media advisors last Monday, after an attack led by Anonymous – apparently the accounts` passwords just lacked security (and imagination) as their protection was simply“12345”--.

The most controversial leaked email was sent by a press attache at the Syrian mission to the United Nation, Sheherazad Jaafari –who happens to be the the daughter of the current Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari— The email is addressed to Luna Chebel, former host of the Al Jazeera Arabic show “Lil-nisa`faqat” (For women only), who left the Doha-based channel on May 2010 over a dress-code dispute with its management and went to work as al-Assad`s media aide at the Palace.

Jaafari advised the Palace`s aide on how to handle the interview between Bashar al-Assad and ABC`s American journalist Barbara Walters. This is the interview where we saw on screen the Syrian president declaring: “We don’t kill our people… no government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person”. While, at the time, many thought that Assad was in a clear state of denial concerning the bloody crackdown, he was actually just following Jaafari`s advice to win over an “American Psyche (that) can be easily manipulated”.

 “Every ‘brute reaction’ was by an individual, not by an institution, that’s what you have to know,” the Syrian President told Walters in the ABC interview. Here, his emphasis on the difference “between having a policy to crackdown and having some mistakes committed by some officials” echoes his media aides` suggestion to stress on “mistakes” that “have been done in the beginning of the crisis because we did not have a well-organized “police force”. Americans can be convinced if they here that “there are ‘mistakes’ done” but these are going to be fixed, suggests the planning email.

Jaafari also reminds the president`s aide to have him stressing that Facebook and YouTube were not censored during the crisis –in fact they have been banned for years and their legal use was restored only in February 2011, just one month before the beginning of the Syrian uprising — and that both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya had offices in Damascus at the time when the unrest started –in fact they were operating under the Ministry of Information`s strict surveillance and independent filming was never permitted, even long time before 15th March—.

While this interview planning email can draw a clear picture of what (some) Syrians think about (some) Americans, indeed this is not the most interesting part of the Anonymous` leaks. Much more comes out when looking at the emails  written and received by Bashar al- Assad`s media and political advisor Butheina Shaaban, a prominent member of the seemingly reform-minded Syrian president`s inner circle. Going through her correspondence helps exploring the symbolic and material appeal that Assad`s regime`s was exercising over journalists, university professors, entrepreneurs, leftists activists and even an eccentric millionaire, Bobby Sager.

Sager –who served as an inspiration for NBC`s show The Philanthropist– has spent a significant amount of time “traveling the world” and “he`s pals with Sting, hobnobs with Lady Gaga”. But his friendship with these top music industry folks has probably not moved him as much as the time spent with Syrian English-speaking elites and President al-Assad himself. These days together have apparently secured him an unprecedented insight on Syria and a “first hand perspective” thanks to his visits to the “Ummayyad mosque, the souk, the coffee shops and even the hammam”.

The uncontested beauty of places which would strike a foreign student or a tourist in his first day visit to Damascus has actually helped Bobby to uncover details of the country that “the distorting filters of the media or the haze of distance” had kept secret before.

 But it`s not only this updated nuance of Orientalism that shapes the comfortable relationship binding Western (especially US-based) elites to Syrian regime officials. There are, of course, material privileges coming out from such a link: a bill of 150.000 USD per month, for example, would be the price to “improve the US-Syrian relationship at a crucial time before the next administration comes into office, to improve the image of Syria and President Bashar in the United States, and help with other forms of cooperation..”. Surprisingly enough, this email does not come from a PR firm, but from a University Professor who probably does act as an intermediary in this sort of transactions. David W, Lesch, from the Department of History at Trinity University in Sant`Antonio US, far from being an ordinary scholar with a prominent interest in Syrian issues, is somebody who “has also met on a regular basis since 2004 with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and consulted with Bush and Obama administration officials on an on-going basis in high-level attempts to improve US-Syrian relations”. His official biography adds that “Dr. Lesch was also president of Middle East International Business Associates, Inc., a consulting company that facilitated business opportunities in the Middle East for American companies–among his clients were a number of Fortune 500 corporations”. 


(part one-to be continued)