Friday, March 15, 2013

Big Brother and The City – The Case of Damascus Then and Now

By Guest Blogger Hanibaael Naim

Editor's Note:

Syria enters the third year of its uprising in devastation to the people and land. Satellite imagery gives a grim picture of what has become of the land while the horror of a rising death toll now at more than 70,000 according to the UN and more than a million refugees scattered around the world facing a dangerous and uncertain future.

In observance of this anniversary, we chose to post an updated version of last year's 'Big Brother and The City: The Case of Damascus' by guest blogger Hanibaael Naim. In his in-depth analysis of the relationship between a dictator and the city he controls, Naim describes Damascus as Bashar Assad's last stronghold. Two years after the peaceful uprising, Naim describes how the face of dissent changed with time and why he believes that the "decisive battles are near" through this analysis and its conclusion.

I'm always grateful for guest bloggers for carving time out of their busy schedules to share their insights with the octavianasr.com audience. I hope that you find those additions helpful and enriching. Your feedback is always appreciated.

Our 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!

Once considered routine in the Middle East, this bizarre relationship between tyrants and cities has become a pressing issue in light of the Arab Spring. In Syria today, Bashar al-Assad is a dictator hanging by the capital city of Damascus, refusing to relinquish power even if the entire country is destroyed one city at a time, and every message of dissent killed along with its messenger.

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.

The scene in Damascus

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.

As the Syrian uprising enters its third year, it has clearly veered from its original path. As a result, an Islamic fundamentalist face has emerged and overshadowed the original peaceful activism. Despite the fact that violence is spreading and taking a bloodier and more destructive turn by the day, the civil voices have not subsided. They are now under tremendous pressure, from harassment to bullying and assassination. However, they continue to stand tall in the face of a grim and uncertain fate.

During the first two years of the uprising, the Syrian capital had witnessed significant civilian activities that had their clear impact on the course of events and the current scene there. Today, as battles continue to rage across the country, the fighting has reached the capital Damascus, the lion’s den and Assad’s last stronghold.

It has now become obvious that the capital is no longer immune from clashes and ad-hoc bombings targeting all aspects of life there. While forces loyal to the Assad Regime have secured Damascus with reinforcement of heavy artillery atop Mount Qassioun, the revolutionary and opposition forces are confidently infiltrating across Damascus’ suburbs and clashing directly with the loyalists. This scene suggests the decisive battles are near.

It appears that the scenario of the indiscriminate killing and senseless destruction will carry on under the watchful eye of Assad who continues to impose his reign over the country weighing heavily on Syria’s heart and its people.

Guest Blogger Biography:

Hanibaael Naim is the Author of 'Graffiti of Uprisings' -- a thorough analysis at the graffiti movement as it accompanied the Arab uprisings from Tunisia to Syria. Naim is a journalist, photographer and blogger. He is a full time consultant in the field of branded content. More of his writing can be found on his website www.hanibaael.com his book can be purchased (I highly recommend it) through the Goodreads link below.

Recommended Reading:

The Destruction of a Nation: Syria’s War Revealed in Satellite Imagery - TIME

Syrian Civil Uprising: Between Life and Death (Arabic)

Graffiti of Uprisings (Arabic) on Good Reads

Graffiti of Uprisings - Facebook page



Keep the conversation going...

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.