‘Welcome to Assad’s Syria,’ the signpost at the Lebanese-Syrian border still says, letting the visitor know who owns the country. The ceasefire had just been announced, but few Syrians I knew held out much hope that three hundred UN observers could keep an eye on the whole army. The journey from Beirut to Damascus by shared taxi takes less than three hours. For years I’ve come this way to visit the Syrian side of my family. It was clear that things had changed. Political talk among the passengers used to be limited to hushed complaints about the border police. The taxi drivers would stick a packet of Marlboros and a banknote into the pocket of the customs officers to speed things up. Occasionally they’d mumble an Arab proverb: ‘If you want the grapes, don’t upset the gardener.’
Once across the border, you used to hold your tongue, especially around people you didn’t know – ‘dictatorship mode’. This time a passenger joked loudly that Tefal was now making chairs for Arab presidents, to stop their arses from getting stuck. Both sides of the highway bristled with banners showing Bashar al-Assad waving to a sea of followers or raising his hands, under slogans like ‘We Say Yes to Syria.’
‘How could anyone be stupid enough to think he’d just leave like Ben-Ali or Mubarak?’ the driver asked, waving his hand dismissively. ‘The Assads’ arses are stuck to their chairs with superglue.’
When protesters began playing around with the family name, they were striking at the symbolic pillars of ‘Assad’s Syria’. Al-Assad – ‘the lion’ in Arabic – served as a symbol of strength for four decades, and monuments to father and son were surrounded with stone statues of lions. Not long after the Guardian published leaked emails in which Hadeel al-Ali, Bashar’s media consultant, affectionately wrote ‘I missed you, batta,’ to her boss, fly-posters began to appear featuring his new nickname (batta = ‘duck’). A photo of a school blackboard with a question scrawled on it circulated online: ‘Has Darwin’s theory of evolution been reversed? See the magical transformation of Bashar-the-Lion to Bashar-the-Scaredy-Cat to Bashar-the-Duck.’ A picture uploaded alongside it showed a yellow plastic duck with an innocent plastic smile and a sign round its neck that read: ‘But Bashar doesn’t represent me either!’
In a hit YouTube show called Top Goon, wooden puppets act out the parts of Bashar and his father. The director relocated his operation to Lebanon after a march last July led to the detention of many of his friends. In August, the political cartoonist Ali Farzat was kidnapped and dumped by a roadside, his hand broken, after he published a cartoon depicting Bashar hitching a ride out of town. Dissent is met with brute force, no matter what form it takes, and masks and puppets are a reasonable precaution. In the final episode of Top Goon the puppeteers show (part of) their faces. His eyes just visible behind a Syrian flag, one of them pops up from behind the stage to tell the Bashar puppet his time is up. Bashar won’t go down easily: ‘I’m president of this republic! I’ll annihilate you! Infiltrator! Scum! Al-Qaida!’ The puppeteer isn’t bothered. ‘Do you know,’ he says, ‘I can make you do whatever I want. I can make you dance.’ He makes the president do a few pirouettes. Then he unscrews his head.
In downtown Damascus I passed the usual bustling alleys filled with shops and cafés, busy as ever. The window of a loyalist restaurant displayed a cartoon. A big devil, carrying a hat emblazoned with the UN flag, was blowing a horn labelled SECTARIAN SCHISM. Little devils sliced chunks out of a map of Syria, their knives marked with the corporate logos of al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and the BBC.
I got into a cab. When the driver asked why I’d come to Syria I said I was writing about Syrian culture – I was careful not to say ‘revolutionary’ culture. He gave me a look in the mirror that seemed to say he thought I’d come from outer space. I asked him to drop me off by the central bank, where a huge portrait of Bashar, eyes tinted ice-blue, covered the monumental façade.
‘You want culture?’ the driver asked and pointed at a stage being set up in the square in front of the bank, in preparation for a visit by Kofi Annan’s international observers. Giggling teenagers in scout uniform were taking up position. Kiosks were draped with Syrian flags and posters of the ruling family surrounded the stage. ‘That’s our culture. Setting up a theatre to show the world that millions support our president.’
I went to the Firdous Hotel, once a run-down establishment that hosted a poets’ group in its shabby cellar. A fancy refurbishment had been completed just before the uprising began but the lobby café was empty. No tourists. There, I met Hassan Abbas, a writer who knows everyone. Over the past decade he’s had articles censored, a cinema club closed down, a programme of debates banned. Now he thinks things may be looking up. He believes that what the regime most fears is a Tahrir Square, the idea of a public forum, an agora. ‘The Arab revolutions,’ he said, ‘were about men and women reclaiming public space in the heart of their capital cities.’ But what was possible in Cairo was met here with lethal repression. Last year, after hundreds of protesters were shot in the main square in Homs, the site of the city’s clock tower, protesters inside and outside Syria, even as far away as Canada, carried with them a wooden replica of the clock tower, a symbol of the space they intended to reclaim. The authorities claimed the suspiciously similar footage proved that all the demonstrations were being staged at al-Jazeera’s studios in Qatar. In response, protesters in Homs set up a huge traffic sign pointing the way to Doha.
The Homs neighbourhood of Baba Amro became known to the world as one of the movement’s strongholds when Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik were killed alongside hundreds of Syrians in the course of a bombardment that lasted 28 days. The ‘Homsi’ used to be the butt of Syrian jokes: now people look up to them for their irrepressibly inventive responses to their situation. When gas and heating oil started to get scarce in December, protesters in the equally rebellious neighbourhood of Khalidiya held a celebration. They set a gas bottle and an oil can on stools, one dressed in a wedding gown, the other in jacket and tie, and gave them a traditional wedding procession, along with singing and dancing. ‘Millions of Syrians chanting the same song,’ Abbas said. ‘That is our public forum.’
Since the uprising began, every village has come up with its own dabke, a traditional dance in which the dancers, their hands locked together, move in a circle and stamp their feet to the beat of a drum. Every funeral is turned into a protest procession. Among the most common funeral chants is a song written by Ibrahim Qashoush, a singer from Hama, called ‘Yallah irhal ya Bashar!’ (‘Get out, Bashar!’). When Qashoush was found last summer with his throat slit and vocal cords ripped out, the song became the movement’s soundtrack. It even made its way to Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis, where crowds sang it on the anniversary of their own revolution. It became such a phenomenon that the authorities pirated it. Schoolchildren were given it to sing, but with the lyrics altered: ‘Nahna rijalak ya Bashar!’ (‘We are your people, Bashar!’). Abbas said it was because they are afraid of the song: ‘They use it like a voodoo puppet. They think that if they appropriate the symbols of the revolution, they can tame its spell.’
In what Syrians call the ‘symbol war’ the regime and its paramilitary enforcers, the Shabiha, have begun to strike back. On 18 March, a group calling itself the Tartous Boys uploaded a song onto YouTube called ‘Fuck Freedom’. It attacks the radical Sunni cleric Adnan al-Arour, in exile in Saudi Arabia, who uses satellite channels to incite against the Alawites. To the sound of a gently strumming guitar, the lyrics run: ‘Terrorists, put your guns away. We swear by God to clip your wings and turn your joy to woe. Listen to this song. We are adherents of the Lion, heads held high, stamping on freedom. Al-Arour, we will tear you to pieces with our own hands, you beast, you wild dog … Fuck freedom!’ I watched it with some activists who had gathered in a neon-lit flat on the outskirts of Damascus to avoid eavesdroppers. ‘What do they think this is?’ one of them asked. ‘Syria’s Got Talent?’
The activists put me in touch with Freedom Days, a group that carries out satirical acts of disobedience to break the power of official propaganda. They rose to fame in September for dyeing the Barada river red, turning Damascus’s only waterway into a symbolic river of blood. They did the same with fountains across the city. In Sabaa Bahrat Square, it took thirty workmen with eight water tanks an hour to wash all the dye out of the fountain. Bystanders laughed as police ordered the workers to chant: ‘Allah, Bashar and Syria! This is the blood of our martyred soldiers!’ The group has hidden sound systems in ministries and municipal buildings to play Ibrahim Qashoush’s anthem. At the Ministry of Finance they installed the speaker behind a statue of Hafez al-Assad, causing security officers to scuttle round frantically to find the source of the disturbance. During a demonstration in Homs, they suspended a wooden figure of Bashar from a rope strung over a bridge. When snipers opened fire on the protesters below, they found that they’d also peppered the president with bullets. But the best thing they did was to point a red laser beam, from several kilometres away, at the futuristic presidential palace on a hill overlooking Damascus. ‘It was massive,’ someone reminisced. ‘People thought a nuclear attack was underway.’
‘We’ve been brainwashed for years,’ one of the activists said. ‘It isn’t only the regime that’s oppressive. The regime has become part of all of us.’ Satire is important for ‘mental detoxification’, because it isn’t always clear what’s real and what isn’t. A video recently uploaded to YouTube is a case in point. Disguised as a particularly crude piece of state propaganda, it carries the logo of the regime’s mouthpiece, Dunya TV. The presenter explains that an al-Jazeera broadcast of a football match between Barcelona and Real Madrid is ‘in reality’ a coded description of an arms deal. The game morphs, becoming a map of Syria that reveals weapons being smuggled to locations across the country with every pass of the ball. The video got thousands of comments. Anti-regime viewers called it a typical piece of Dunya TV propaganda; regime supporters called it a scoop. A few days later another piece of ‘Dunya TV reportage’ was uploaded, in which Lionel Messi, in Arabic voiceover, shamefacedly admits to having accepted a pair of sneakers and a pile of cash from al-Jazeera for taking part in the ‘conspiracy’. His head lowered, Messi says: ‘If I had been aware of the sharp investigative skills of Dunya TV’s journalists, I would never have given in to temptation. I hereby announce my withdrawal from terrorist activity.’
Among the most famous sloganeers of the uprising have been the inhabitants of Kfar Nibil, a previously unremarked village in northern Syria. A doctor and sign-painter teamed up to provide a running commentary on the news. Their cartoons were circulated all over the web and on Facebook, and on 12 February security forces invaded the village. They arrested every male between the ages of fifteen and sixty; the doctor and sign-painter were killed in a raid. But Kfar Nibil continues to send out its messages. A new one shows a sign reading: ‘The cities are withdrawing from the areas of the army.’ Beside it is a drawing of a man with a pushcart, displacing a whole city, with its people, streets, houses, mosques and churches.