Monday, July 16, 2007

منحبك يا بشار


Last Friday, I made something of an impulsive decision to go to Damascus. You can do it quite easily here, as it's only 3 hours away. I woke up early and after brief negotiations with a white-bearded driver, I was on my way to the Sham, as they say, in an aging piece of Detroit muscle (Japanese cars just aren't strong enough, my driver explained).

For me, Damascus represented a respite from the newness of Amman, a trip to a city fabled due to its history, alluring due to its rather stringent visa requirements, and apparently dangerous given it's status as a John Bolton (who, unbeknownst to most of the world, received a shout out in Kanye West's Diamonds from Sierra Leone - I'll give you a hint: it rhymed with "international masshole") characterized rogue state (though right now it's probably the safest place one could go in the Middle East).

Plus, as the legions of loyal THT readers are well aware, I'm interested in public representations of autocratic leaders. In the wake of the recent election (more information available from Maryam here and from Joshua Landis here), ubiquitous posters of Bashar al-Assad provided numerous opportunities for visual analysis and poking fun. I was so enthralled with the possibilities (or perhaps just bored at the border) that I took this picture of Bashar al Assad and his father, Hafez.

When I explained my obsession to the Syrians with whom I shared the car, they laughed, both because they thought that I was another mildly insane American (not to be confused with Dr. Evil-ish insane Brits) and because they knew that if I were excited by such a small example of nationalist shirk, I might briefly lose consciousness given the persistence of Bashar's face throughout Damascus.

Indeed, Bashar seemed to follow me everywhere in Damascus, a constant reminder of significant differences between the Jordanian and Syrian political climate.
For example, at this fast food stand, in addition to high cholestorol you get a taste of resistance. From left, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who, by the way, has an occasionally updated blog), Syrian president al-Assad, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It is interesting to note that though you might find some pictures of Ahmadinejad or Nasrallah if you looked very hard in Amman, you will never ever ever see King Abdullah in the same picture. Before we see Ahmadinejad and Abdullah smiling arm and arm above the local falafel stand, I'd expect a subpar major league baseball owner to become president of the United States - no, that happened. Ah, here it is - I would expect to see Abdullah renounce his love for Star Trek before I'd expect to see him sharing a picture with Nasrallah.

And this isn't just about using every possible opportunity to publicize Abdullah's love for Star Trek. It's reflective of the larger regional political dynamics, part of what Vali Nasr calls the Shia Revival, what King Abdullah himself called the Shia Crescent, the emerging Shia power bloc extending through Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

The religious appellation is perhaps misleading. As an outspoken Arab many of us know and love pointed out to me, the placement of Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah (both Shia) with Bashar al-Assad (who is Alawite, a Shia minority group) is more a political phenomenon than a religious one. Though their faiths correspond, it is more about placing Bashar al-Assad on the "resisting Western hegemony and aggression" plane than anything else. The long standing secularism of Bashar's Ba'ath party - founded by a Christian and a Sunni Muslim in Damascus - further underscores this point.

Nevertheless, as the respective resistance of Western hegemony has increased the popularity of men like Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad in the region, the separation has corresponded to religious fault lines, worrying secular Sunni autocrats like Jordan's King Abdullah, like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Witness their initial reluctance to condemn the hostilities in the Lebanon War last summer, witness American acquiescence over Egyptian efforts to develop nuclear technology.

Indeed, the icons on this fast food stall reveal a widening philosophical gap among regional leaders. To collaborate with Western governments (while being careful to avoid alienating the populace) or resist them (at least rhetorically)?

And, more importantly, behind the rhetoric, behind the summits, behind the furious editorials, what of the people? If the election posters told the whole story, Syrians are pretty content.

This poster says "N'am," yes. Actually, it says "n'am, n'am, n'am...." You get the point. All in the form of the Syrian flag. Though if it were to be completely accurate to the Syrian elections it would include two or three no's in there.
All those yeses, however, surely can't compete with the poster below, which reads "Thalath fee qaloobna: Allah, Soorea, wa Al-Assad," Three in our hearts: God, Syria, and Al-Assad.
And here, perhaps, is the greatest honor Al-Assad can achieve. Again, we see old friend Nasrallah and Daddy Hafez to the right, but this time Egyptian pop sensation Tamer Hosny and international icon David Beckham join him on the left. Given the success of Mr. Hosny's latest single and his recently released film, I think Mr. Al-Assad is the lucky one here.
Despite these apparent displays of affection, I'm not going to lie, I'm a little disappointed with Bashar. Granted, not everyone can have the dress-up wardrobe of King Abdullah, but give me some personality, ya Bashar! All I can gather from most of these is that you like double windsor knots, conservative suits, and stern expressions. At least Nasrallah smiles!
To be fair, he has a tough act to follow. His father, who ruled Syrian from 1970 to 2000 still finds ways to remind Syrians of his rule. Isn't this everyone's dream valentine?
But Bashar does find ways to innovate. In the image below, we see Bashar going post-modern on us. The image of Bashar is superimposed on an image that contains posters of Bashar within it. Very mimetic. Interestingly, the background image - of Damascus University - features a Syrian flag next to a Palestinian flag, a flourish of symbolism that you would never see in Amman. After all, since Palestinians constitute a much larger percentage of the populace in Jordan, they also constitute a larger threat to the creation of a single, inclusive national identity, making the co-opting of Palestinian symbols into the larger Jordanian narrative that much more necessary for the Hashemite regime.
Below, we see Bashar's ray-banned silhouette on a car windshield in the Old City. It would be cool on its own, not the least because it looks very similar to a Borat shirt that I have. Nice. But what makes it ten times cooler is the Batman sign right above it. Seriously, check it out. Naturally, this raised some real possibilities in my head - can we get some sort of Bashar-signal working for when he's really needed, putting the image of Bashar into the night skies whenever justice is threatened, wherever foes need vanquishing, or, at least, when they run out of guava juice at the neighborhood smoothie stand? It could even be called the Baath signal.
For all of this symbolism, pageantry, and nation creation, it is misleading to suggest that Syria is Bashar and Bashar is Syria (which the phrase above Bashar's silhouette - Syria of al-Assad - promotes). Most people I spoke with displayed the images not so much out of devotion as what seemed to be fatalism, resigned to the sometimes absurdist nature of life.

Indeed, the heritage of Damascus boasts a vibrancy and richness that predates the Assad family's rise to prominence. The Umayyad Mosque, where I spent an afternoon lazing about, was the centerpiece of the early 8th century caliphate, whose domain extended from Spain in the West to Afghanistan in the East.
Indeed, for much of history, what is now Syria existed as part of entirely different socio-polities, with trade items from China and India passing through Roman and Greek administered centers of commerce. Borders, national identity, and Bashar al-Assad were entirely foreign concepts.

The boxes of identity that exist now - Muslim, Arab, Syrian, rogue state - either didn't exist or were a little more fluid back then. And they still are - at least more than we give them credit for. For example, the Umayyad Mosque contains a shrine with the head of John the Baptist, venerated in Christianity and Islam. The remains of the great warrior Saladin - who, as a Kurd, would probably be persecuted in Syria today - rest outside.

The evidence of these alternative forms of identity and existence are displayed extensively at the sprawling Syrian National Museum, alongside, well, more modern inventions.
As I sat in an alcove inside, I gazed at a map of various archaeological sites and cities of antiquity. The modern borders of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq had been superimposed. Sort of like the posters of Bashar are super-imposed onto the lives of regular people. And the absolute novelty of this idea of nation-states struck me.

Far away from these nationalist posters and maps, hospitality filled kitchens and friendly conversations underscored for me the reality of cultural flows and intersections, transcending the simplification and constructed-ness of national identities.

Any Jordanian will tell you that mansaf - a meal of meat, yogurt, and rice eaten with one's hands - is the Jordanian national dish. I even spoke with a virulent Jordanian nationalist at one point who claimed that it was one of the foundational elements of true Jordanian-ness. I couldn't help but laugh as I ate a very similar, very delicious dish in a Damascus apartment.

Even the trappings of nationalism that I so adore - which are often the basis for divisiveness - evince a certain degree of similarity. Several weeks ago I noted the picture of King Abdullah on the Ministry of Agriculture. In full military regalia, he dutifully waters a sapling.
As I wandered around Damascus University at one point, I noticed an eerily similar image at the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture, featuring Bashar, hoe in hand, participating in the national agricultural effort. He's even got his sleeves rolled up.
The Arabic reads "All of us are with you." And in this case, it rings true, not in the sense that we should all grab our farm implements. Moreso that for better or worse, we are all living in a world of nationalism, nation-states, and their inherent absurdities.


Taylor said...

sam, you've got the makings of an awesome thesis on icons of nationalism in the middle east. just in case you were wanting ideas.

Marium said...

u need to come to pakistan and check out mushis that man has style :p

Lauren Jill Hatshepsut said...

Sam, great post. What can I say: content, humor, good writing. And I also sure enjoyed the annotated photo galleries of King Abdullah.

Mike Winters said...

Sam Shepard is my favorite "international masshole" these days. I really enjoy reading this, Dolbs. My little brother is a big fan, too.

outspokenarab said...

now i just want to make this clear, was the dish you ate in 'someone's' apartment better than mansaf?

just kidding.

loved your post. happy i was used as a reference.

writing from Qatar airport

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