Remembering Anthony Shadid: In Assad’s Syria, there is no imagination

On November 8, 2011, Anthony Shadid wrote: The House of Assad evokes an imperial sense of power, or at least its trappings, with iconography that one scholar described as infused with “laudatory slogans and sempiternal images.”

But my first impression of Rami Makhlouf, President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and one-time confidante, was of his unassuming quality. Here was a tycoon, a figure as rich as he was loathed, who eschewed formalities and ceremony. I had seen it before, in men like Saad Hariri, a former prime minister in Lebanon, lavished with so much privilege and so much wealth that pretensions become unnecessary. Even his most brazen threats seemed more pleading than menacing, as if I should understand the logic behind them. Don’t the Israelis know that they will suffer if we do; don’t the Europeans; don’t the Americans realize that we are the bulwark before forces that they can’t imagine — Islamists, chaos, wars roiling an already combustible region?

By the end of several hours interviewing Makhlouf in May, it was not pomp, not imagery and not detachment that denoted the imperium. It was the pronouns. The way he used them said much about how power has been exercised in the Arab world and why it has finally begun to crumble.

“We believe there is no continuity without unity,” he told me. “As a person, each one of us knows we cannot continue without staying united together.”

He echoed an Arabic proverb – alaya wa ala aadai’i ya rab.

Translated loosely, it means that we won’t go down alone.

“We will not go out, leave on our boat, go gambling, you know,” he told me at his plush, wood-paneled headquarters in Damascus. “We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end.” He added later: “They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”

What Makhlouf, a businessman with no title, no official capacity save his membership in the president’s family, suggested was that Syria belonged to them: its property and people, their aspirations and fate, their history and their future. In essence, consciously or not, he gave voice to the sign that has long marked the crossing for visitors across the rocky wadis dividing Lebanon and Syria.

“Assad’s Syria,” it reads. [Continue reading…]

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