I moved from Damascus to Beirut a year ago, but I visit Damascus when I can. I’ve spent many weekends there watching with joy, and in many cases sadness, the changes that have happened so quickly, they would exhaust anyone who does not live there.
I remember the first slogan chanted by a group of traders and young workers in the Harika area of central Damascus in February 2011; they were protesting a policeman who had insulted a shop owner there. “The Syrian people cannot be humiliated,” they chanted.
This was the first phrase uttered by Syrians in protest against their status. They were standing up as citizens with rights, not as obedient, suppressed sheep. That chanting echoed through the walls of the antique shops, the neighborhood’s minarets and the Damascene sidewalks. Its rhythm seemed confused, croaky, worried. It rose one moment and faded the next. There was reluctance and fear among the crowd about whether it was okay to raise their voices, perhaps for the first time.
The interior minister arrived at the protest. He came out of his luxurious car and stood on the door frame to assert his authority from above. The minister blurted out: “Shame on you. This is a demonstration!” He had no idea that demonstration would become a revolution.
That day, before Syrians’ battle was against their leaders, it was against fear. Day by day, the wall of fear, which had been unbreakable for more than four decades, began to fall. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime, fighting fiercely for its survival, did not pay enough attention to the crumbling of the fear barrier. The regime believed that its exalted image was untouchable.
Before the revolution, the people did not know anything about their president other than his picture. While the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad always portrayed himself as the sole ruler, the pictures of Bashar al-Assad included his whole family — himself, his wife and their three children.
If the Syrian people ever glimpsed their president in a restaurant, in the street or during a brief visit to a hospital or a government department, awe would fill their eyes, as if they were in a dream and didn’t want to wake up. How did their president separate himself from his regal image — which appeared everywhere: in the streets, on cars and taxis, in restaurants, and even in homes — to reveal that he was just like them, a normal person who laughs, talks, walks and frowns?
When Syrians tore pictures of the president in many of the governorates, they also ripped through their fear of death. The horrific scenes on Arab TV stations of mutilated corpses and severed and swollen limbs have not scared Syrians, nor blunted their determination. Death and life have become intertwined. One person’s death gives others hope of a better life. The increasing number of martyrs is evidence that this is the beginning of the end of repression.