This One’s From Damascus With Dignity
Occasionally I catch a whiff of a stranger’s jasmine scented perfume on the commuter train, or as I am weaving my way through a crowded street and I am brought back to my humble district of Damascus, Midan. I am able to recall with a fierce vividness the jasmine vines that push their way through the crumbling facades, just as I am able to recall the texture of the walls of my grandmother’s building as I trace my fingers along them making my way to her door. That simple scent can send me into a whirlwind of memories. Memories, that I cling to so dearly for they serve as artifacts establishing a previous experience as a truth.
It has been only a couple of months since I returned from Damascus to my suburban home in New York, yet I already feel these artifacts slipping away; the layers of my mind becoming increasingly hard to excavate. The inability to bridge my current life to the one I have returned from has given my memories a fuzzy quality. I try and conjure up the intensity and passion that I felt while in Damascus, but no amount of al-Jazeera reports can allow me to relive the experience of watching a revolution unfold.
There is a tangible presence to oppression. It is felt in the air, a sort of thickness similar to that of a humid summer day. It is a discomfort visible on the faces of strangers on the street. A common tension, acting as a force binding the lay people together. Yet oppression was not alone in imposing its suffocating presence on the streets of Damascus. Hand-in-hand with oppression came a boiling frustration. I was asked time and time again upon my return whether I was afraid to have been in Syria during such a brutal period. The truth is, fear becomes an irrelevant emotion in the face of oppression, swept aside to allow frustration and anger to take precedence.
While oppression is far from foreign to the people of Damascus, civil disobedience and the possibility of change remained, until recently, an unchartered territory. For decades Syrians have been subjected to a ruling regime built on terror, fake smiles, and empty promises. I have visited Damascus numerous times, and each trip has been marked by a different form of political and social injustice ranging from Internet restrictions to a relative thrown into jail. Despite, the never-ending complaints and struggles discussed behind closed doors, rarely did anyone dare to speak out against the regime. The threat of the dreaded “mukhabarat” that lurk at every corner was far too great. However, on this trip I witnessed the breaking point. No longer are those with a shard of consciousness willing to stand by silently in the face of injustice.
It seems that everyone from international leaders to political analysts are obsessed with pinning down this very “breaking point”; the point that triggered the phenomena now known as the “Arab Spring.” While this uprising can be attributed to devastating economic conditions, oppressive regimes, and the lack of the most basic human rights, the roots of this movement sink straight to the core of human nature. When traced to it’s most basic cause I believe it is the very denial of self-dignity that pushed Arab activists, young and old, to finally join together to send the message loud and clear: “khalas – enough is enough.” The need for self-dignity is more basic than most other human needs and to deny it to a people is to dehumanize them in the process.
When a group of children from a small town named Deraa were captured and tortured for writing a popular Tunisian revolutionary slogan in a public space, the people of Deraa were effectively denied their self-dignity. When their requests for swift action and justice were not only ignored, but also were mocked, they were further dehumanized. In the process of disregarding the people of Deraa, the Assad regime created an aura of despair so strong that they no longer felt they had anything to lose. Heads inflated with rage and feet restless for freedom they were lured out into the unprotected streets and sparked a fire that spread rapidly with the coming weeks throughout Syria. The necessary change became the moment and the excitement of the unknown could not be quelled.
I arrived in Damascus just as the fire of the revolution was starting to spread. I spent the summer listening in on secret meetings, peaking behind draperies to watch innocent men beaten with electric rods, and laughing to the absurd propaganda dished out by the government. I listened to the sound of teargas bombs ignite over lunchtime meals and obliged when I was demanded to show personal identification at randomly placed checkpoints. I saw what they saw, heard what they heard, and felt what they felt. I agonized with their troubles, cursed the government, and worried when a family member got placed behind bars. I got into heated debates with supporters of the Assad regime and became increasingly sad with the division they were causing within Damascus. For two months I was a full-fledged Syrian.
Yet it is only now, months after my brief dance with the Arab Spring, that I am able to reflect upon the severity of the conditions I experienced. A conception of “normal life” was birthed in my time there that made it not only possible to function, but to hold on to the hope of a changed future. I discovered the resilience of humanity and its capability to perceive despite the harshest of conditions. To date over 3,500 Syrian civilians have been murder in this crusade for freedom and justice and hundreds more have been imprisoned and tortured. Despite this, Syrian activists continue to push for the return of their right to dignity. It is a simple right so inherent that we in the Western World tend to overlook it or take it for granted. It is high time that the democratized world reflects on their fragmented and contorted perception of justice and freedom. To stand idly and watch history unfold is a crime in itself, both to ourselves and humanity as a whole.