The day Hazfez al Assad died, I was having lunch with a friend. We were eating pasta at a family owned Italian restaurant in Ras Beirut when the news was announced. With everyone else, we stared at the small television. The owner kept changing the channel, and each time the news was confirmed.
I don`t remember if we finished lunch. But I do remember that when we went outside the streets seemed deserted. Beirut is not a quiet city, but that day it seemed as if sound had retreated from picture. My father called and demanded that I come home. Less than five minutes later my friend received the same call from her mother. No one knew what would happen next. The questions, I suppose, were obvious: Would a power struggle erupt in Syria? Would it erupt in Lebanon? Would “the war” return? What would Israel do?
Three days of public mourning unfolded. Three days of having these conversations and asking these questions. I placed bets with friends about the longevity of Bashar al-Assad`s rule. In person, of course. Never on the phone. I argued with family members about what Hafez al-Assad`s legacy would be. I spoke to people who did not live or grow up in West Beirut, and was again struck by the multiple and sometimes diverging histories that saturate this small country.
When a dictator or an authoritarian leader dies, his image soon follows his body into memory. I grew up with images of Hafez al-Assad on walls, cars, and checkpoints. As a child I listened to adults argue about what “he would do now,” and how this or that decision would affect us in Beirut in the 1980s. Officially, he was largely credited with the end of the Lebanese civil war, as well as for the fact that it did not flare up again throughout the 1990s. The fact that he was also responsible for the longevity of the the civil war was made forgettable, just as later the fact that he was just as responsible as his partner Rafik al Hariri for the so-called post war “boom” in Lebanon was also made forgettable. After his death was announced, there was a final orgiastic papering of his image to every available space in Beirut, and then he began to be replaced with images of his son Bashar—who had long been the “spare” to the real “heir,” Basil. For a while there were pictures of both of them together, father and son. A photographic transition period. A final seal of mediated approval. An urge, and a warning, to accept.
When Hafez al-Assad died, I thought an uprising in Syria was immanent. I looked for it in the newspapers, scrutinizing reports and op-eds for signs of censorship. I watched international news broadcasts for what I was sure was not being shown on Lebanese television. I was naïve. I was naïve again last January, when I confidently told a friend that the regime in Syria was different. We were playing the game of “who`s next?” and I argued that because it operated within a different geopolitical space and currency than the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, the Ba`ath regime in Syria would weather what we were prematurely celebrating as the “Arab Spring.” I lost another bet last summer, when I thought that the regime had less than six months of life left. In fact, since Hafez al-Assad died, I have lost countless wagers concerning Syria. I am sure that many people have.
Here is what we know: Today the regime continues to brutally stamp out the flames of uprising. It tries, anyway. But fire spreads with contact. The uprising is being re-scripted by exiles in waiting, international politicking and deal making, and by an Iran-Saudi Arabia not so cold war. The regime cannot stay, but the character, politics, alliances and tactics of the organized opposition renders this future at best bittersweet. Still, this future—because it is uncertain, vulnerable and exposed to change—must be struggled for. We now know that we do not have to choose between authoritarianism and US-Israeli interests, that we can be both pro-democracy and pro-Palestine, both pro-revolution and anti-Zionist. The days when Arab leaders bequeath their states and the people within them to their sons on their deathbed are over. People—and politicians—will not forget this year`s lessons.
This year`s lessons include the fact that the uprisings of 2011 did not materialize magically. People from all corners of the political spectrum have been resisting the Ba`ath regime in Syria for decades and at great cost. They have been jailed, tortured, killed, and officially forgotten. But unofficially, their stories and their struggles have been smuggled out and shared across the region, joining stories from Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and so many other countries. Braided together, these narrative threads become a noose.
Time—like scar tissue and like memory—does not stop. It accumulates. It coagulates. It thickens. Like desperation. Like mourning. Like rage.