The Syrian capital of Damascus is a frenetic, cacophonous city. The call to prayer rises periodically above blaring taxi horns, while merchants noisily hawk everything from digital Qur’ans to women’s underwear. The dissonant sounds provide an apt soundtrack for the conflicts of daily life in modern Syria. It is a country at once eager to return from geopolitical exile, but also reluctant to abandon bad habits—neither the pariah we imagine in the Western media, nor the liberal democracy we would seek to nurture in the Middle East. While there are more reasons to be hopeful about Syria than most Americans expect, civil society in this “Axis of Evil” nation faces many challenges both overt and subtle.
Many Syrians are acutely aware of the tensions that exist in their country. Talk to a Damascene merchant for ten minutes and the conversation invariably veers to a favorite subject: Syria’s tarnished image abroad. “When the West looks at Syria, they see terrorism and Islam,” says Khalid, a grocer. “But you come here and you see how Syria is different. The people are not terrorists. We are open.”
If there’s one place in Damascus that bucks the stereotype of a culturally monolithic Middle East, it’s Bab Touma, the ancient Christian quarter where Saint Paul himself once preached. Nationally, Christians constitute around ten percent of the population. They are disappearing in many Middle Eastern countries in the face of mounting persecution, but not in Syria—a point many residents of Bab Touma are eager to make. “I am Syrian,” says Marie, a Christian shopkeeper, “My neighbor is Muslim, my family is Christian, but we are all Syrians.” The feeling of inclusion among religious minorities is often attributed to Syria’s ruling family, the Assads. They belong to the Alawi sect of Shi’a Islam, which for centuries existed on the margins of this majority-Sunni society. With an Alawi-led secular government, Syria is among the most hospitable places in the region for minority groups.
Those expecting an Arab Pyongyang will be deeply disappointed when they arrive in Damascus, a city as cosmopolitan as it is diverse. For millennia, it has been a crossroads of intellectual and commercial exchange with the West. Its bazaars still brim with goods from around the world; it boasts a fine opera house and lively music scene, and its streets hum with conversation in Arabic, English, French, and Farsi. Wander around certain neighborhoods of Damascus late at night, and you’ll see restaurants packed with people casually smoking water pipes and children playing in the streets. As Layla, a former journalist, remarks, “In some ways Damascus has always felt like a part of Europe to me; we live in a Mediterranean world that’s closer to Rome than to Saudi Arabia or Egypt.”
Though the capital bucks the all-too pervasive image of Syria as a closed, autocratic society, the country defies easy categorization. For its many bright spots, Damascus is still a place encumbered by restriction and silence.
In the streets, it’s hard to avoid the image of President Bashar al-Assad. It hangs prominently in shop windows, on billboards, and in family homes. Yet frank discussion of politics in Syria is highly circumscribed. Part of the problem is Syria’s security force, the Mukhabarat, whose plainclothes officers far outnumber their uniformed counterparts. On a walk through Bab Touma Square, a Syrian friend points discreetly toward two men husking corn into a large wicker bowl. “Police,” he says, “They’re watching everything.” Thanks to the Mukhabarat, anyone who squawks too loudly in public about President Assad or Israel may find himself under surveillance or abducted into custody. But their influence is also more subtle: The perception of an omnipresent “Big Brother” creates a culture of self-censorship in Syria that, in a sense, polices itself.
Whatever restrictions they encounter on the streets, Syrians are eager to talk politics in private—especially the American presidential election. Like most countries in the Middle East, Syria polled “deep blue” in the period leading up to the election. The Iraq war is hugely unpopular, and Sen. Obama was enthusiastically greeted as a change-agent. President Assad even issued a note of congratulations to the president-elect, expressing “hope that dialogue would prevail to overcome the difficulties that have hindered real progress toward peace, stability and prosperity in the Middle East.” John McCain had his fans as well—if for less principled reasons. As Hassan, a young Arabic-language instructor told me before the election, “Obama will end the war; without war in the Middle East, Americans and Europeans lose interest in the language, and I lose my customers!”
Despite the “Axis” label America has given their nation, many Syrians have great admiration for America. The huge line for visas at the door of the American embassy and the wildly popular Oprah Winfrey Show reveal a society open and at ease with Western culture. The only foreign power that arouses truly unequivocal complaints is Israel. The state-controlled media is filled with reports slamming Israel for aggression and human rights abuses. It’s an adversarial relationship that colors the views of even the most apolitical Syrians.
Take Iman, a 23-year old education student at the University of Damascus. A Sunday school teacher at her local Catholic church and an ardent devotee of Queen Latifah, she embodies the refreshing blend of old and new ascendant in modern Syria. Yet when Israel comes up in conversation, she stiffens. She speaks passionately about Israeli attacks on Palestinian women and children, and the widespread deprivations in the West Bank. When discussion veers toward Israel’s nemesis, Hassan Nasrallah, the fiery head of Hezbollah (considered a terrorist group by the U.S.), her mood lightens. “His words are like poetry,” she gushes, “he speaks only the truth, truth to power. He is a freedom fighter.” Her support for Hezbollah is typical here; the group’s yellow flag is easy to spot throughout Damascus. It’s been flying ever since the 2006 summer war with Israel, which was widely seen as a victory for Hezbollah, and by extension, its main allies, Syria and Iran.
For all the chatter about Israel, Syria’s media is quiet about another thorny issue: human rights. Human Rights Watch reports that Syrian jails confine hundreds and possibly thousands of political prisoners, ranging from pro-democracy activists to members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Kangaroo courts try government critics for seditious behavior every year, and Syrians live under an indefinite state of “emergency rule,” instated when the Ba’ath party seized power in 1963.
In spite of this, the government commands huge support. (President Assad was reelected last year with 97 percent of the vote.) Even young people, typically sources of dissent, are not shy in their enthusiasm. Iman is again a case in point. When I asked her about Syria’s political problems, she didn’t seem to grasp what I meant. After explaining, she became visibly upset. “So many Westerners criticize our government for these things [censorship, human rights abuses, etc.]. We have freedom here, we can speak openly about our politics. The police make us safe.”
The response reminded me of how many Chinese reacted to the surge of human-rights coverage during August’s Olympics. In Syria, as in China, information about the government is tightly controlled. Thus, from Iman’s point of view, my questions were as irrelevant as they were misguided. After all, the Mukhabarat are mostly believed to protect rights, not restrict them. The Assad government is largely viewed as a source of stability, not a hegemony, and jailed activists generally seen as troublemakers, not peaceful dissenters.
It’s hard to say what creates these attitudes; some blend of misinformation, alternative conceptions of what makes for a healthy civil society, and a degree of ambivalence toward Syria’s underlying problems seems like a likely explanation. As a new administration in Washington begins engaging with old enemies, we should acknowledge that Syria—both culturally and intellectually—defies our perceptions about life inside the “Axis of Evil.” We must seek and promote the good that exists in Syria, but at the same time, soberly acknowledge that true openness and real freedom remain far off.