Syria diary

Layla Al-Zubaidi writes: ‘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!’ [Continue reading…]

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