A Necessary Introduction
This article of mine springs from very real feelings of bitterness. After ten months have passed, the Syrian regime’s savage machinery of repression continues to chew up those who have risen up against it. Syrian blood lies thick upon the ground and it continues to flow. The regime’s inexcusable determination to pursue a security strategy to deal with the popular movement pushes the country ever deeper into a black hole of violence and hatred. Confronted with all of this the vast majority of demonstrators continue to offer peaceful resistance, devising new strategies on a daily basis to help them fight off the tyrannical and immoral authorities.
It is a bitterness exacerbated by my awareness that this astonishing civil resistance does not receive the attention or support it deserves outside Syria.
This article shall be a record of what I experienced during my travels in Europe and Egypt, experiences that led me to the conclusion that the lack of proper interest in, and support for, the non-violent struggle in Syria can be explained, at least in part, by the absence of any symbolic image comparable to Egypt’s Tahrir Square, which has become the dominant reference point for those following the ‘Arab Spring’. The image of Tahrir Square - itself an inspiration to the Syrians - has become a burden, the price that the Syrian revolutionaries must pay if they are to receive the attention enjoyed by their Egyptian comrades. This insistence on a comparison between the two countries works to the detriment of Syria, blithely ignoring the obstacles that, to date at least, have hindered the reproduction of a Syrian counterpart to Tahrir Square.
The Magic of Tahrir Square
I reached Cairo on a work trip on November 17, an arrival that coincided with the mass rally held in Tahrir Square the following day and called the Friday of Handing Over Power. Like every visitor to post-revolutionary Egypt I was obsessed with Tahrir and the first thing I wanted to do was head down there.
At about nine o’clock that Thursday evening I reached the square in the company of a friend. The crowds filled every corner of the open space. People were busy erecting podiums for the following day. In the middle of the square was a grassy circle where the demonstrators’ tents stood. These individuals had no intention of abandoning their sit-in until the revolution was complete.
Happy as a child I wandered about, from the Egyptian museum on one side to the Omar Makram mosque on the other. The place was packed with discussion circles and it was the easiest thing in the world to join in. Room would be made for you, for sure; there were no barriers here. I would join a circle, listen for a while then go off to another. It was hugely enjoyable: an experience quite without precedent. No sooner did I open my mouth to speak than everyone turned towards me:
“You’re from Syria?”
Then the comments poured out:
“How’s it going over there?”
“Never give up!”
“With God’s help, you’ll do it!”
The people there lavished me with genuine sympathy and I withdrew, flustered, amid prayers of support. Wandering over to the vendors selling snacks, I hopped up onto the grassy circle in the middle of the square, and decided to take a closer look at the tents. Most of these long-term demonstrators were young, but I was surprised to see children accompanied by their relatives. I didn’t want to leave Tahrir that night. I had been seduced.
The following day, Friday, November 18, Tahrir thronged with demonstrators. Myself and a group of non-Egyptian friends were watching the awe-inspiring scene from the bridge that overlooked the square. It wasn’t an ideal spot but it was good enough to get a glimpse of the Syrian flag being waved by the demonstrators. When night came we descended to the square. Thousands were still roaming about, in addition to the sit-in crowd who still stuck to their tents in the centre. We walked about a bit. Truth be told, we were tourists. My friends were snapping pictures here and there. One of them, a woman, stopped to photograph one of the carts selling tirmis beans. The young man pulling it looked delighted. Another young man nearby shouted in irritation,
“What do think you’re doing photographing that? Go and take a picture over there…”
He gestured to the heart of the square where the crowds huddled around people giving speeches. A little taken aback I asked her and the rest of my friends to leave, but they wanted to stay on.
“It’s wonderful here!” one shouted.
The Dominance of the Image and the Revolution as Model
For reasons connected with my job I have been able to make several trips to Europe since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. I have been to Stockholm, Paris, Edinburgh, London, Brussels and Berlin. I need scarcely mention that the situation in Syria constituted the greater part of any conversation I had there.
We have to admit that if the same question is repeated so often, this means that it is a valid one. The rather generic inquiry, “What’s really going on in Syria?” seems to result from a dearth of images - of data - from Syria. It is a question about details, about the specifics of a situation, rather than wondering “Why is the revolution happening in the first place?” In the latter sense, the question acknowledges the general context: a totalitarian, dictatorial regime that has stifled the country and its inhabitants for decades. It is a question, therefore, that seeks data: instances of the systematic oppression being practiced by the regime; the proportion of demonstrators versus regime-loyalists; the extent of the revolutionary movement’s non-violence and its ideology, and so on.
This need for information, acutely felt by non-expert observers of the region’s political scene, has one overriding cause: the absolute media blackout imposed by the regime. It is important to reflect that in these European countries you have a population accustomed to receiving extensive and in-depth television and press coverage of world events, two things that the Syrian revolution conspicuously lacks. Of course I am referring here to the coverage of events, to the incidents that take place on the ground on a daily basis, and not just political analysis and interpretation.
But these endless questions reveal another factor behind this lopsided curiosity. While a lot of the questions were a direct result of the regime’s media blackout I also noticed that many of those whom I met abroad were trying to evaluate the Syrian revolution using the Egyptian revolution as a point of comparison, or to be more precise, Tahrir itself. I could accept a certain amount of confusion and inaccuracy when it came to events on the ground in Syria - Syrians suffer from it themselves at times - but I found myself unable to accept this lack of admiration for the civil, non-violent resistance of my fellow countrymen, and the consequent absence of effective solidarity on the part of non-Syrian activists and otherwise socially aware individuals living abroad.
Friends in Paris informed me that the drawn-out nature of the revolution and the confusion of regional and international actors over who would take political responsibility for Syria had gravely damaged support in Europe. But the debates I had in Europe, the last of which were with a group of playwrights in Brussels and then some academic acquaintances of mine in London, left me with the following conviction: Syrians are being asked to reproduce another Tahrir in order to attract a greater share of media attention for the civil resistance.
Jon Rich gave precise expression to this point when he wrote: "From the outset of the crisis in Syria, political analysts waited for a demonstration of millions in Damascus so they could begin to anticipate the collapse of the bloody regime. Images of a million demonstrators is itself enough to change the logic of politics in the world, for it is irrefutable evidence that ‘the people want a change of the regime."
The image of Tahrir truly is a seductive one. More importantly still, it is inspiring and motivating. Nor can there be any doubt that this very image was hugely influential in encouraging Syrians to liberate themselves from the loathsome tyranny under which they lived. So it is an irony, and an unjust one, that the degree of solidarity they receive is dependent on their ability to reproduce the scenes from a Square that for eighteen days had so entranced the world.
This is not to belittle the value of the protest in Tahrir as an example to be followed. Quite the opposite. The occupation of public squares is an act of resistance with a number of motivating factors, most notably the intense desire to reclaim public space, thereby reclaiming rights both practical (the right to free movement and assembly) and symbolic (the liberation of the public arena from the images, statues and names of the ‘one leader’ and senior regime figures). Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh has written the following on just this issue: “Unarmed, popular revolutions facing regimes who base their power on the total appropriation of public space, cannot establish themselves without appearing in this public space and cannot win liberating and restoring it to the common weal.”
It is painful to state, but the revolutionaries in Syria have tried to produce facsimiles of Tahrir on more than one occasion. Early last April, demonstrators arriving from the countryside around Damascus tried to occupy Abbassiyeen Square in the city but were met with heavy gunfire before they could reach their goal. On April 18, revolutionaries managed to take over the main square in Homs and began turning it into another Tahrir, setting up tents and large sings. Then the square was surrounded by security forces, who opened fire. The true extent of this massacre remains unknown to this day, thanks, once again, to the regime imposing a media blackout and severing all lines of communication with the city. Yassin al-Haj Saleh reports that activists from Homs insist that more than two hundred people were killed. Despite the high price they have paid, the revolutionaries attempt to repeat the experiment whenever they get a chance. After thousands had gathered in Hama’s Aasi Square, and before the city was subjected to a military assault, the main squares in regional centers up and down the country, from Douma and Zabadani in the Damascene hinterland, to Sanmein in Deraa, were filled with rallying demonstrators. But these demonstrations did not turn into the open-ended sit-ins we saw in Tahrir because those involved knew that the price would be too great to bear.
Any careful evaluation of the situation in Syria will inevitably lead to the conclusion that recreating Tahrir is not a viable option, at least at present. Syrians have experimented and shown this to be the case. Foreign observers would do well to note the true scale of the sacrifice the Syrian people have made for the sake of their non-violent resistance and stop obsessing over mass rallies and the occupation of city centers. To do so, in my view, would lead to a greater appreciation of what they have achieved, and their inventive creation of non-violent strategies of resistance in the face of brutal and systematic state repression.
This brings us to the role played by the media. The importance of the Tahrir image is well established, but I cannot help wondering how events in Cairo’s main square would have played out in the absence of such extensive coverage and the ceaseless flow of live images from Tahrir itself. It would not have diminished the glorious sacrifices made by the Egyptian demonstrators, but what effect would it have had on popular and political responses to the revolution?
In addition to all the other burdens they have to bear, I fear that Syrians are paying a heavy price for the free circulation of images from Tahrir. Frankly, Tahrir became spectacle: you could sit at home, idly flick on the TV and there you were in the square, confronted with the demonstrators’ courage and good humor as they confronted a grim and ruthless regime. In Syria there are no men and women sitting in their tents day and night and battling with thugs on camelback, no young people putting on concerts or protecting museums. In Syria it is harder to glimpse these forms of civil resistance, though I assure you that they are happening. Our demonstrators, their souls held in one palm, their chanted slogans in the other, take snatched and distorted videos that shake as they run.
We see the blood, hear the bullets and screams, but it is up to us to assemble the full picture. They are images that inaugurate a new aesthetic, according to Syrian film director Ossama Mohammed. Jon Rich went even further when he said that these filmmaker-revolutionaries, while documenting the possibility of their own deaths every time they take to the streets, they are creating a profound change in our understanding of the image. I believe both Ossama Mohammed and Jon Rich to be absolutely correct in their analysis, but I still regard their reading as being limited to the structure of the image and its aesthetics, as treating no more than the visual characteristics of this new form of image. I’m afraid that the image coming from Syria lacks immediacy and abundance, the very qualities it requires to inform the world of what is taking place “here and now”. This rule, which theatre is all about, is disregarded.
A friend told me that people outside Syria needed to see more of the reality of daily life in Syria, more of the quotidian aspects of the non-violent resistance. This was important, she claimed, because it would generate support away from the polarizing effect of political discourse. “There are lots of people who aren’t with the regime,” she said, “but are yet to take a position. The complexity of the country’s political future and the murky picture coming out of Syria confuses them.”
A sensible point: it’s again a question of information and images . But what can be done given the regime’s media blackout and its untrammeled brutality? Are activists being lazy when it comes to documenting their struggle and providing images? I personally confirm that they are not. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the pictures and videos that are leaked, not only come sometime after the event and are of poor quality, but are very few in number and do not accurately reflect the true scale of the horrors to which Syrians are being subjected, nor the true extent of their resistance.
“We have no Tahrir Square,” I told my friend.
I wanted to add, “Maybe other people could make more of an effort to appreciate the extent of our resistance and find out more for themselves, instead of waiting for us to hand them another Tahrir.” But I said nothing.
Over in London another friend said: “Frankly, your regime’s media blackout has done the job. People here don’t make the effort you’d like. We always hope they will, but it never happens.”
Heroic action surely deserves solidarity, but the one that receives live, continuous and blanket coverage will always get more admiration. This is something we have to concede.
Egypt, Syria and the Different Pain Thresholds
In Cairo I received an invitation from Roger Anis, a young press photographer and friend of mine, to attend a photography exhibition put on by a group of Egyptian photographers who had documented events in Tahrir during the revolution6. It was extremely affecting. Apart from the documentary value of the pictures, the aesthetics was stunning. I might have been the only person there who felt annoyed. I couldn’t forget the uncomfortable fact that none of this was available to us in Syria. I thought of a Lebanese-American friend of mine, another professional photographer who I had bumped into once in Beirut. She had told me about the trip she had made to Cairo with a group of friends just as the situation in Tahrir was beginning to escalate. They weren’t going to miss it for the world, she said. Once again it was the power of the image, the irresistible magic of the square. Would my friend and her colleagues be able to travel to Syria to take pictures there?
Therein lies the difference.
The inability to transmit stable images and video footage out of the country does not just deprive Syrians of solidarity from abroad and affect the awareness of the nature of their resistance, it also raise the frightening possibility that if we are unable to properly document all this anguish it will stay buried in our memories and souls, prompting further suffering and creating more long-term divisions and misery in our society. I believe that the image can help exorcise some of this pain and bring it into the public arena where it can be transmuted into a more easily digested narrative. In this sense the image attains a degree of independence over time that helps us to examine old wounds and recollect with a greater sense of calm and balance.
On November 19, Tahrir erupted again after the security forces used excessive force during an unexpected operation to remove the sit-in demonstrators, which led to the death of a young man. Things began to escalate. The revolutionaries wanted to stay the course: no more tricks; the revolution was only half-finished. In the days that followed Tahrir Square returned to the international headlines, though perhaps a little less prominent than before, while images of the massed crowds and angry young men attacking the Ministry of Interior dominated reports.
I was due to leave Cairo on November 21. It was a hot day, down in Tahrir. I made my way through the centre of the square and approached Mohammad Mahmoud Street, the road that led from Tahrir to the Interior Ministry. Groups of brave young men milled about, playing cat and mouse with security troops, who were massed by the ministry itself. The square was packed with people, but street vendors and children were still about, along with photographers, of course. From my vantage point, I could see television crews on the balconies overlooking the square, but was unable to make out the names of any of the channels. I was with a couple of Swedish friends, just two of the many foreigners present in the square. My companions were sending out minute-by-minute updates on Twitter and Facebook: their big adventure. I had many friends in Europe who were thousands of miles away from Tahrir, yet still passed on images of the square. I was so lucky, I thought to myself, to be here in the heart of the action. I could walk around and chat to people as much as I liked. Only the stench of tear-gas drifting from the direction of the ministry disturbed my unruffled mood.
The smell brought back memories of our few attempts to hold protests in Damascus, where demonstrators received the tear gas canisters like bouquets of roses, grateful that they weren’t bullets or electric prods. In the last demonstration that I attended, back on October 15, more than ten thousand people gathered in the neighborhood of Al-Midan (anyone familiar with events in the capital will realize just how big a number that is). The tragedy of it was that an eleven year-old boy had to die before they took to the streets. Ibrahim Shibani had been killed by a bullet as he left the mosque with his father the day before.
No sooner had we laid his slender, precious body to rest, before the tears could spring to our eyes, than the bullets poured down on demonstrators outside the cemetery. People scattered and sprinted in all directions. The smell of live ammunition would soon cover that of the tear gas. Another young man fell dead, a young man who had come to bury the first martyr. That’s quite normal in Syria: martyrs burying martyrs. Others were wounded by the gunfire. One of them was standing next to me. A round hit him in the foot and his friends carried him away, screaming:
“It’s nothing! Put me down!”
There were no cameras, other than those on our mobile phones (our puny weapons); no television crews; no foreign friends cluttering up Twitter and Facebook with pictures of the funeral procession. But we were fortunate: we got to bury Ibrahim. On other occasions, it would take days before the martyrs could be put on the ground.
In Revolutions Terminologies, like Dreams, are Shared
I was making special preparations for my trip to Egypt. After my time in Europe and Lebanon I was getting ready to face my Egyptian friends and any questions they might have, no matter how harsh. They had just pulled off a great revolution, given the world the example of Tahrir, and the ripples they had created had travelled across the planet, from Wall Street to Rome.
But of all the cities I visited, it was Cairo alone that saved me the trouble to explain the reason for our suffering, to show me that Syrians, deprived of everything except their faith in freedom, had created a miracle with their revolution. I met with the editor of the distinguished literary journal, Akhbar al-Adab. I talked to taxi drivers, to a nurse, to the young men and women I bumped into in Tahrir. Every single one demonstrated a solidarity and understanding that I found quite astonishing. They did not complain about a lack of information from Syria, or the poor quality of the videos. A totalitarian, corrupt regime passed here, too, and this saves a lot of discussion.
Egyptians were certainly caught up in their own incredible achievements, but not one of them ever suggested that their revolution was a model that we should follow. The youth in Tahrir were following events in Syria but they never suggested we needed another Tahrir there. They could see the villages and narrow alleys in which Syrians held their protests.
“Mubarak was a proper gentleman compared to your guy,” they’d say. “God be with you.”
“God be with you,” might seem to be small comfort, suggestion that nothing short of divine intervention was needed, but such things need to be understood in their cultural context. All of us, Egyptians and Syrians alike, are fond of laying the responsibility on God, but we still understand our role in things. Nevertheless, I was powerless to stop the feelings of exhaustion that would sweep over me from time to time. Syrians were all alone in their confrontation against this most brutal of despotic regimes.
Never mind. We’ll keep going to the end, and when we get there the only debt we will owe is to our martyrs and suffering prisoners.
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger.
Mohammad Al Attar is a Syrian playwright and drama practitioner. He graduated in Applied Drama from Goldsmiths, University of London. His play “Withdrawal” was performed in London, New York, New Delhi, Berlin, Tunis and Beirut. His play “Online” was premiered at Royal Court Theatre in London. His most recent play “Look at the Camera” was premiered in Brussels and Berlin. Al Attar has published numerous texts for performances and critical contributions published in several Arab newspapers and magazines.