From the Editors
After four months of waking up early every Friday, with hope and dread to watch the Syrian uprising, being here on a Friday named Irhal, “Leave!” was a highlight of my trip. Since the “Aleppo Volcano” failed to erupt the day before, I did not dare expect a local protest, so I watched, with pride, the largest demonstration to date, over 300,000 peaceful protesters in al-Sa’a Square (now nicknamed Tahrir Square) in Hama. It was an honor just to be in the same time zone as these heroes.
Back in the bubble called Aleppo, I got stuck twice in pro-regime demonstrations across the city. A couple hundred people occupied a fraction of my beloved Sa’ad Allah al-Jabri Square, and chanted their loyalty in front of the Siyahi Hotel directly to an eager cameraman from Syrian TV who recorded the scene from a balcony. Traffic came to a halt on the main highway, the muhalleq, that loops around the city – an unofficial “recreational” area for the impoverished families of Aleppo, who spend Thursdays and Fridays picnicking along the side of the beltway to escape the suffocating heat of their claustrophobic neighborhoods – as a sea of flags waved and loud chants mixed with smell of charcoal and argileh smoke. Men and children danced in the street, all pledging declarations of love to Bashar. I watched them through the car window, fascinated by the over-dramatized scene. The difference between the situations in Hama and Aleppo was profound, it was the difference between the truth and a lie, between being real and fake. And I wondered, how could the people not see the difference as well?
Pro-regime loyalists in Aleppo insist that the city will not respond outside pressure, that there is an inherent stubbornness in the people here that encourages a contrarian reaction to the rest of the country. The more non-Aleppians continue to question the courage and patriotism of the locals, the more they become confident and proud of their opposition to the opposition. But this weak and silly argument of spite disregards the middle class majority who are still silenced by fear, social pressure, and financial concerns.
Loyalists defend themselves by accusing the protesters for the fawda, chaos in the city. My friend points to a car bypassing us illegally from our right, another complains about the garbage piling on the ground, and the drivers who no longer respect traffic laws, running red lights and openly-defying tired policemen who shake their heads slowly in despair. They blame the decline of society on the mundasseen, the infiltrators, the wildly popular term from the president’s speech to describe the supposed outside “armed” forces (in his last speech they were upgraded to jaratheem, germs, but thankfully this term didn’t catch on).
The “stubborn” elites in their elitist way believe the majority of Syrians must be governed with forceful brutality to keep the national order intact. They point from inside their German cars or the upscale restaurants at the “commoners” on the street who cannot “handle,” and are not “ready,” for freedom or democracy. But the opposite is evident in Hama, where the army and security forces have deserted the city, the mayor has been sacked, and the city was left to rule itself. Despite the historically high price that Hama paid for its dissidence, (tens of thousands were murdered in February 1982 by Hafiz al-Assad, and hundreds have been killed in clashes this spring) the people are proving they are no longer afraid, ready for freedom, and responsible for their destiny, as they organize daily (and nightly), large-scale and peaceful demonstrations; as they sweep the streets in front of their homes and shops; and obey the traffic rules even though there is no one watching with menacing faces and threatening batons.
Although Aleppo appears to be bound to an ideology of ignorance, civil unrest is slowly rising. An unprecedented, peaceful sit-in of 300 lawyers last week at Qasr al-Adli, the House of Justice, protesting the arrest of two lawyers who took part in a demonstration. A fellow lawyer, later discovered as a shabbiha, an unofficial member of the secret police (basically a governmental thug), delivered them to authorities. The sit-in continued for several nights even after the lawyers were released as they demanded that the shabbih be kicked out of the union for breaking the code of honor. In another incident, two university girls were taken into custody after chanting in solidarity with the rest of Syria from their dorm room windows on Wednesday night. A large number of fellow students rushed to protest in front of the Shahba’ Police Station for the girls’ immediate release. They were released a few hours later; apparently the higher powers of Damascus were threatened by an angry mob forming in the heart of the affluent neighborhood.
While some watch for important splits and defections in the army, I find myself searching for cracks in the wall of support that at first, seemed to represent a monolithic majority that favored stability over freedom. But if you watch closely, subtleties appear, a snide comment about an undecided or “gray” friend who is suddenly left off invitation lists, or the slightly rolling eyes while someone is obnoxiously defending the regime. Each day of broken promises and unimplemented reforms, causes more Aleppans to waver and flip, chipping away at the myth of unquestionable loyalty. But chipping away is no longer enough.
On a Friday, a small number of protesters gather in Seif al-Dawleh, less than three miles away from my home. Middle-aged men run away from armed security forces, while the people of Hama stand in a unified mass, while the people of the muhalleq dance, while we watch on our screens, through our windows and gates.
On a Monday, Aleppo’s streets are crowded with soldiers – extra security as the city prepares to welcome the longest Syrian flag (1700 metres) for the largest pro-regime rally on Wednesday – while Hama, brave and heartbreaking Hama, is being punished for its peaceful protest. The city is surrounded by tanks, and its people face gunshots and mass arrests. Through the looking glass, in a country of contradictions, one city is attacked while one city celebrates its attackers. We exist in the same time zone, but our infinite distance and silence has made Aleppo the worst kind of neighbor, the unforgivable kind.
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