Last week, I was the guest blogger on Octavianasr.com. For that purpose, I have re-written in English my article Big Brother and The Cities. In it, i analyze the relationship between Tyrants and cities. in general and Bashar al-Assad and Damascus in particular.
life is defined by cities. Those we belong to and love stir deep emotions in us such as pride, home, inspiration and nostalgia. Dictators also love their cities, but theirs is a story of obsession and control. An abusive relationship that can last for decades and can only be broken by force or revolution!
Historically, names of tyrants have been associated with cities. Think of Nero and Rome, Hitler and Stalingrad, Holako and Baghdad, just to name a few.
Tyrants usually have a possessive relationship with their iconic cities, they always attempt to dominate them, even make them an extension of themselves. When they don’t succeed, they proceed to destroy the cities instead, then control them. Domination is essential in this case because cities represent the public space where people mingle. To control the public space, the tyrant must first abolish the established characteristics of the place and draw its brand new imprint, to his image.
For this purpose, big posters of the leader are spread around the city: They adorn walls, sit atop towers and fill public squares. In the posters, the dictator appears as a hero with supreme ruling powers. This dramatic display turns him into an “Icon” that no one can think about challenging, let alone defeating. In addition to posters everywhere, his quotations are plastered on walls, reminding everyone that he’s a thinker and a great keeper of the precious nation. With that, he seems to be ruling the country forever. As time passes, more people fall under his spell and they become persuaded of his ultimate, “unchallenged” rule and that he is the only one who can manage their life and security. By now they are convinced that without him, they can’t survive. Thus, the traditional public spaces disappear, and he becomes the public space.
He’s a real Big Brother: Watching you during the day and staying awake at night to “protect” you from “others” and from “yourself” because sometimes you can hurt yourself. Why all that? Because Big Brother loves you.
It might not be surprising to see nationals believe the propaganda, but the fact that the outside world buys into this illusion is striking. In Libya, Moamar Gaddafi succeeded in removing the notion of Libyans as people from the international community’s mind. For four decades, most of the world thought of Libya as a huge desert with only oil. The revolution in 2011 brought forth a different reality featuring real Libyans who struggled and sacrificed for their freedom and earned it — despite my reservations about the controversial NATO intervention that made the Libyan victory possible. The same applies to North Korea. Except for the few who have defected over the years, we have never seen a North Korean. We think of an entire population as an expression of their tyrant. Cold faces that don’t smile, humans who harbor ill feelings towards South Korea and the West.
It is no surprise then that during uprisings and revolutions, the people’s first rebellious act is to take down pictures and statues of the tyrant, stomping them or burning them, as a symbolic reflection of their revolt against him. Exactly as erecting a tyrant’s statue at a city square marks a new era of loyalty to dictatorship, bringing his statue down ushers in a new era of resistance to his oppression.
If you ever visited Damascus you would have surely experienced the distinct feeling that someone is watching you every second of the day. A familiar feeling to visitors of post civil war Lebanon when it was under full control of the Baath regime for about fifteen years.
At the entrance of Damascus, Big Brother Hafez al Assad has stood for years welcoming visitors with his serious demeanor and distinct frown. The regime later added a picture of his son Bashar. To highlight the tyrant’s wisdom and stature, selections of his quotes are displayed next to gigantic picture boards in many strategic spots around the city.
Although Damascus is an overcrowded city with bustling streets and markets, one still gets the sense it is a silent city, its true identity buried under four decades of oppression.
Damascus has made several attempts to fuel the uprising in the past year. In fact, the first spontaneous anti-Assad protest was waged there. Students at Damascus University have staged weekly protests and sit-ins. But, to this day, none proved strong enough to change things.
Unsurprisingly, while Assad’s forces blockaded cities such as Daraa, Idlib, Hama, and Homs, life in Damascus went on as normal, unaffected by the fierce battles being waged against civilians elsewhere. All this gives the “tiny tyrant” enough fake sense of legitimacy to continue ruling the country.
The Damascene scene is a perfect example of the well calculated, controlling relationship waged by a Big Brother. Despite the fact that the Assad regime has lost control of many major cities and villages around Syria, Damascus’ participation in the uprising remains modest.
The Assad regime is well aware that its survival depends on keeping tight control over Damascus. That’s why all efforts are now exerted towards keeping the capital as a bastion of the Baath party. This means an indiscriminate crackdown on all forms of anti Assad dissent. Damascus today is a central city that continues to be completely submissive to the Big Brother and Assad’s pictures continue their watchful practice there. In other words, the tyrant still rules the entire public space by being able to control Damascus.
As the world marks the first anniversary of Syria’s brave uprising, Damascus becomes the symbol for all of Syria and readies to play its appropriate part in the popular momentum. We have seen a shift lately where more people are braving intimidation and taking to the streets demanding that Assad steps down. It is a visible and loud public display of dissent in the capital that will likely lead to more confrontations with Assad forces. A necessary outcome that will escalate the situation further and might prove costlier than anyone before it.
Despite all odds, the Syrian uprising has succeeded in rallying international support and winning the battle against the regime symbolically. The people there with limited resources and a great desire for freedom continue to fight and die for their dignity and independence from tyranny.
The sparkle in their eyes as they destroy statues of their tyrant and burn his pictures has a new dimension. During moments of high emotions, Syrians seem to be convinced now more than ever that they are entering a new era and writing their country’s history with their own hands: An era with no tyrant!