[This is the fifth installment of Amal Hanano`s diary of her trip back to Aleppo. You can read previous installments here]
For two hours on Wednesday, I was in the safest place in Syria: at “The Longest Syrian Flag in the World,” pro-regime rally in Aleppo. The security protected, 1700 m flag, is touring “sympathetic” cities like Damascus, Suwaida, and now Aleppo, covering the muhalleq, beltway from al-Bassel Circle to al-Layramoon Circle. I figured since everyone constantly calls me a mundesseh, infiltrator, I might as well live up to the name and andass, infiltrate the event to get a closer look at the mysteriously brainwashed masses who still insist on chanting for a ruthless dictator. As I approached the crowds lined along on both sides of the highway, I expected to feel like a hypocrite, as I openly took pictures and videos of the smiling, happy people, with no fear of being shot by a sniper for holding up a camera, or for throwing a rock or an eggplant “grenade,” like the people in Hama and Homs. I expected to feel outraged or at least annoyed, but instead I felt a cold, anthropological detachment from the sights and sounds of everything around me, except the flag.
[Loyalist demonstration in Aleppo. All images by Amal Hanano]
It is both moving and strange to watch the country re-embracing the flag as a meaningful national symbol, because the Syrian flag was never cool. Growing up, fashion trends tended to elevate Stars and Stripes or Union Jacks to express “hip” and worldly patriotism; and every four years during the World Cup, flags from around the world appear on balconies, cars, and t-shirts in support of a favorite soccer team. But the Syrian flag was treated as an “official” symbol, destined to be accompanied by the Ba’ath Party flag (now out of sight, out of mind). Both were over-shadowed by the symbols, images of our eternal father, Hafiz al-Assad and his sons, Basil and Bashar, in the form of posters plastered onto walls and massive statues bearing down on us from pedestals and mountaintops. Our poor flag was the dowdy stepsister to these flashy public portraits and faced double humiliation: it was considered useless by the government and meaningless by the people who were exhausted with “official” symbols.
One year ago, no respectable person would display or wear a flag. Now, everyone owns one or more, with shabbiha manned sidewalk carts popping up to sell popular flag paraphernalia (and to listen for whispers of dissidence on the street). But during the first weeks of the uprising, a few protesters from the opposition began carrying another flag, one that marked Syria’s independence from France on April 17, 1946: three horizontal stripes of green, white, and black with three red stars. Resurrecting a past flag is a staple of Syrian history. In fact, the flag has officially changed nine times since the formation of the sovereign state after it gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1918.
The current Syrian flag was originally the flag of the Wahdeh (unity), representing the popular but short-lived, United Arab Republic (UAR), that joined Syria with Egypt in 1958 under Egyptian president Jamal Abd al-Nasser, beloved leader of the Pan-Arab movement. The turbulent political environment – between the Infisal (separation from Egypt) in 1961 to the beginning of the Assad dynasty in 1970 – witnessed multiple military coups and the Ba’ath Party takeover on March 8, 1963 (the birthday seared onto every Syrian brain). The Ba’ath Party modified the Wahdeh flag by adding a third green star to represent the three Ba’athist countries: Iraq, Syria, and Libya. It seems the region’s devastating political present was woven into the flags of our past. If you want to know the future of an Arab country: just read between the flags.
In 1972, when Syria, Libya, and Egypt formed the Federation of Arab Republics (FAR), the green stars were replaced with the “Golden Hawk of Quraish,” an Islamic symbol used to appease the rising threat of fundamentalist groups disillusioned with the ruling secular, socialist regimes. But in 1980, during Assad’s historic bloodbath years, he changed the flag one last time by removing the hawk and placing two green stars instead, emphasizing secular Arab nationalism over Islamic loyalties. (All these flags can be seen here). Hafiz al-Assad perfected the art of recreating Syria’s collective memory by taking advantage of historic revisionism. Resurrecting the Wahdeh flag, embedded with hope and optimism, in his most threatened moment, was a calculated move. He essentially sealed the national narrative, by creating a seamless history of Syria since 1958, “as if” we were still living in pre-Ba’ath, idealist 1958, “as if” nothing had happened since. But instead, in 1980, Syrians were living in unparalleled fear and oppression. The tired cloth alone could not perform such a miracle. On the contrary, by stealing the symbol of Wahdeh just before the Hama massacre of 1982, Assad forever poisoned the national memory of our flag. Until now.
[A Syrian holding a poster of Bashar in Aleppo]
Symbols are undeniably powerful, especially when it comes to forming national identity. When the opposition adopted the Istiklal, “Independence” flag as a symbol of resistance, it was a major tactical mistake (although well-intentioned). By giving up our flag, we gave loyalists exactly what they needed, a powerful symbol, untainted by images of the Assad clan, and an argument against the opposition’s patriotism. Each pro-regime rally is a sea of flags, fluttering with gold trim, on hats and t-shirts, painted onto faces and bodies, covering cars, and starring in the latest craze: patriotic bling. A gold flag bracelet is the hottest “it” accessory of the season (really, what better way to show your loyalty to the regime than wearing a diamond-studded Syrian map with the flag and a large “I heart Syria”?). The opposition realized the loss too late, and so they use both flags at their protests. In Deir al-Zour, they carried a long, confusing half-and-half version.
Each group should stick to the symbols they already have to clearly express their position. Dear Loyalists: This flag is our flag, Syria’s flag. If you want to show your love for the regime, please wave a Ba’athist flag. Dear Brave Syrian Opposition: Carry with pride our Syrian flag, the flag of unity.
[Bashar`s image on the Syrian flag]
Under the hot sun, I stood at the exact center of the flag, facing the portrait of Bashar. His image was covered with plastic to avoid being defaced, so the effect was a scary, faceless ghost in a suit. The volunteers crossed the flag in socked feet out of respect, but when an over-enthusiastic guy accidentally stepped on the president’s shoulder while taking a picture, the crowd booed, “You stepped on the president!” He looked alarmed for one second but then jumped back, kneeled down and kissed the image. Suddenly, people started bringing their children to the plastic president to kneel and kiss his image as well. A large, military helicopter circled in the sky, and every time it passed, people would wave and chant. Someone whispered to me that the president was in it, wearing a gray suit, watching over us. The feared and admired gaze never leaves us. And so the thousands chanted and sang, pledged their souls and blood to Abu-Hafiz, with the hope that their outburst of love will be reciprocated by the invisible presence.
[Under the red flag]
I waited until the blinded thousands lifted the flag and stepped under the billowing fabric of red, white, and black. I turned my back to “his” image and faced the remaining kilometer of beautiful stripes. I was told long ago that the black represents the dark, oppressed past; the white, a promising future; and the red, the blood that is sacrificed in order to move from black to white. I stood under the red stripe, where we are now in our county’s history. Everyone was bathed in the glow of blood and liberty. I imagined this flag under another sky, on another ground, over another people who chanted for freedom, instead of cheaply pretending they already had it. I thought of the people of Daraa, Homs, Hama, Banyas, Jisr al-Shughur; I thought of the refugees, the prisoners, the tortured, the people in political exile; a world of Syrians, who dream of doing what we were doing, the simple act of raising their flag in dignity. I thanked them for shifting us from black to red as they risk their lives to chant what this flag really represents: Suriyya wa bass!