Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
After a marathon morning at the Friends of Syria meeting, held in Istanbul on April 1, I decided to take a midday break. Finding an empty sofa, I closed my eyes, hoping a 20-minute nap would refresh me completely.
As I was dozing, I overheard someone telling a story from Syria’s forgotten history. Journalistic curiosity soon prevailed over the desire for rest. I opened my eyes to see a man talking about a former Syrian leader, Adib Shishakli, and recounting his last speech when he discovered that opposition against him was rising in 1954.
“To avoid bloodshed among the people I love, among the military for which I would sacrifice everything, and among the Arab nation which I have tried to serve faithfully, I resign from the Syrian presidency,” the narrator quoted Shishakli as saying. “I thank the Syrian people for electing me to the highest office in pursuit of their dreams. I pray that God will protect them from all evils, unite them, and lead them to glory.”
I could not believe I was hearing such things about a man whom my teachers back in Syria had described as the worst dictator in the country’s modern history. Shishakli was certainly not an elected leader, but he left office rather than drag his country into a bitter civil war.
We face a very different situation now.
In Syria, there is only one acceptable version of history – the official one. The rest is all “propaganda”. One family’s “glory” dominates as Syria’s real history has been systematically erased from the minds of at least three generations.
Only now are we learning about the real dictators, the thugs and criminals who usurped our rights and wealth.
Hearing this narrative of my country’s not-so-distant past, I felt ashamed of how far backwards we have gone under the Baathist flag.
I belong to that unfortunate generation which has never known any ruler outside the Assad family, and which does not know Syria’s history well enough. People from our age-group found the national history books as dogmatic and boring as the newspapers, so they were never inspired to read them.
I was not much surprised to know that the learned narrator of this tale was the grandson of Shishakli, who bears his grandfather’s first name. He left the country 20 years ago to join dissidents in their struggle for a real, broad-based democratic government.
The outside world seems to think we are incapable of achieving unity as we attempt to determine our future destiny. But I felt differently as I scanned the faces of the other Syrian opposition leaders and activists gathered in the Istanbul Congress Centre. They had come there from literally all over the world, for they could not so much as breathe in airtight, Baathist-controlled Syria.
My generation has only heard one narrative of our past. But the future looks more diverse, even though it is one united by a common desire for freedom.
The Syrian opposition members at the event were not similar to one another. They loved the same country but spoke many languages, differed in thought, and exhibited a range of behaviours. Some wore traditional dress, others preferred formal western outfits.
Breaking the myth of the sectarian nature of the revolution, almost all religious trends, ethnic groups and regions were visible in the hall.
Women were no exception, and they too expressed their personalities through their attire.
There was Bahia Mardini, head of the Arab Council for the Protection of Journalists, who had fled Syria with her husband and travelled in many countries; Farah Atassi, director of the Arab Information and Resource Centre in Washington DC; and Suhair Atassi, director of the Jamal Atassi Forum. Their presence shored up my belief that Syrian women are not marginalised in this movement for democracy.
A journalist asked Mardini whether she supported arming the Free Syrian Army.
“Do we have a choice now? Assad won’t listen to anything except the language he is using,” she said categorically. Syrians nearby nodded in agreement.
Notwithstanding their belief in change and their commitment to Syria, the opposition figures at the meeting looked exhausted. From their comments, they were not all happy to be living in plush and clean Paris or vibrant and hospitable Istanbul.
The more mature among them, who had stood against the tyranny of Hafiz al-Assad, looked like travellers struggling to reach their destination before they run out of breath. Neckties, aftershave and fashionable attire set the foreign-educated male dissidents apart. But I was amazed by the uniformity of views and the resilience shared by these two apparently different shades of pro-democracy activism.
They belied the criticism coming from the media and from cynics. I found them all working together, and all equally optimistic. They were trying hard to listen to and understand each other’s points of view, while smiling and showing mutual respect.
Looking at their faces, I tried to guess who among them would represent me after the current regime was ousted, and how the real Syrian leaders would tailor their expatriate experiences to the realities of their homeland.
Maybe I was thinking too far ahead, and overlooking the challenges on the ground. But I walked out of the Istanbul congress hall content that the Syrian opposition was united and ready for change, both inside and outside the country.
Yet even though I shook hands with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and had my picture taken with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, I am not convinced that the world is either ready for or united in wishing for a Syrian spring.
Maryam Hasan is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor from Syria.
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