I got a surprise yesterday at lunch at the restaurant round the corner from my office, where I’d agreed to do a book talk for half a dozen of the city’s journalists from Spain. The surprise was not so much that each of them graciously bought a copy of Dining with al-Qaeda. (This makes Spain my country of the week!) Rather, the shock was caused by what suddenly was not on the menu, in one of the touristic hubs of Istanbul.
“Beer?” asked a Spanish TV correspondent, newly arrived in Turkey from China.
“Maalesef (sorry),” said the waiter.
“Can’t do it.”
“But here …”
“It’s the new law.”
So the axe has fallen at last. Or has it? I could see the Spanish reporter looking at the menu in puzzlement, not yet used to the way that in Turkey, what you see is not always what you get. I think I’m accustomed to that after 25 years in Istanbul. When I read in the papers that parliament in Ankara is talking about new laws, for instance, I assume it will make little difference to my daily life, or at least not anytime soon. A new law that alcohol can’t be sold within 100 meters of a mosque or educational building passed earlier this month. I thought there had been an ordinance like that since Ottoman times, and that it was clearly unenforceable.
This latest edict has got the bar and restaurant crowd running scared, however.
“I paced the distance myself,” said the owner’s son. “We’re 70 meters from a mosque that way, and less than 100 meters on the other side.”
“Did you get a written order to stop serving drinks?”
“No, we saw it on TV. We’re trying to work out what to do … This will mean quite a loss.”
Indeed, it’s not just this restaurant under the Galata Tower that may suffer losses from the new law winding its way through the legislative process (see Today’s Zaman on its acceptance by parliament on 24 May, here). It looks like being in Istanbul may (officially at least) really get a bit more bracing and clear-headed for everyone.
Pro-government newspapers disingenuously present the change as the adoption of a 100-yard law that New York apparently has too (see Sabah, here). But just because the late leader Turgut Özal gave Istanbul a 212 dialing code two decades ago doesn’t make the two places the same. New York is a place designed on entirely different scale to the jumbled maze of inner Istanbul. Perhaps some spots in the historic central mahalles are more than 100 meters from a school, mosque, church or synagogue, but these look like pretty obscure dead angles on a map speedily drawn up by Turkey pundit Dov Friedman here.
I hardly ever drink anything at lunch, and I don’t want to be defined by alcohol consumption. But I’d certainly like to have the right to order a beer if I wanted in this multinational heart of Istanbul. (Postscript: I should add that many parts of Turkey today don’t have the European culture of drinking alcohol in public places, and most people in the country don’t drink it anyway!) I also wondered too whether the new law was also the reason that my local supermarket recently ran down its stocks of wine, which new taxes and exploitative wineries have been making steadily more expensive in recent years.
“We’ll fix the problem”, the owner’s son said, in that vague tone of “it’ll all be fine” fatalism that plagues so many projects in the country. After all, the law’s regulations will probably exempt tourism areas. Turkey may be a religious-minded place, but there are limits to how much damage any government can do to business. Also, at a next-door-neighbour restaurant – still serving alcohol, but worried about the effects of the new ban – the head waiter thought that in fact my usual restaurant had never had a full alcohol licence, hence its owners’ extreme caution now.
Whatever the exact truth of this particular case, the anti-alcohol drive is unquestionably gathering momentum. I accepted a serving of my delicious foamy yoghurt-and-water ayran, the age-old Turkish refreshment that the prime minister recently announced is now Turkey’s national drink. This new title was a clear swipe at the heady old aniseed liquor, rakı, the lions’ milk beloved of republican founder Kemal Ataturk and the national drink for many other secular-minded Turks.
Devout Muslims, of course, believe alcohol is banned by the Qoran. But one of the endearing characteristics of the Turks is that many would take offense if someone said that occasional indulgence in it made them any less Muslim than the rigorously abstinent. Indeed, I told the group from Spain that when I wrote Dining with al-Qaeda I tried to minimize using the word “Islam”, preferring the more individual “Muslim”, since interpretations of what Islam means vary so much between persons and countries. But the arrival of the anti-alcohol campaign on our street corner may mean that a decade after the Justice and Development Party came to power, I may at last have to start conceding that the government does sometimes have an Islamic religious agenda.
As my new Spanish book club and I philosophized over fine lentil soups, spicy kebabs and soft Turkish pide pizzas, however, I wondered again. Maybe this anti-alcohol gambit is just a clever political smoke screen to hide new Byzantine intrigues. Presidential elections are in the offing, a daring constitutional change is in the air, and the government’s Syria policy has provoked much unease. The opposition is gaining a little traction. At similar junctures in recent years, the prime minister has briefly distracted the national agenda and made gestures to his core constituency with “Islamic” initiatives about divorce, abortion, headscarves and the like.
A couple of years ago, after all, the government banned outdoor tables from the pavements of Beyoğlu, despite scuffles with angry restaurant owners. Now, as if nothing had happened, the tables that don’t get in pedestrians’ way are back on the street, including outside my local restaurant. It’s democracy, Turkish style: the government shoves, the people push back and the state re-adjusts — but only so much. With small steps those at the top can keep advancing a cause, and ten years in power, after all, is a long time.
The opening scene in Dining with al-Qaeda is in a brothel in Aleppo, where my first Middle East mentor, the late Jean-Pierre Thieck, took me in March/April 1980 as an undergraduate to introduce me to life in Syria. Appropriately, the very next morning, the Syrian army invested the town for three days of shooting, strike-busting and carting citizens off to torture/detention cities on the outskirts of town in open trucks in pyjamas. Plus ça change. And far from meeting any Syrian madames, even though I would have welcomed that, as Jean-Pierre’s side-kick I was in fact introduced to his parallel life of gay adventure. So I was fascinated to read the experiences of of a gay couple whose very different voyage to the east is described in Jack Scott’s book Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam Move to Turkey. As I point out in this review I did for Istanbul’s Hürriyet Daily News, Jean-Pierre’s many “Turkish and Syrian counterparts would rarely have viewed themselves as homosexual, and, paradoxically, I was always astonished at how normal and even socially acceptable Jean-Pierre’s extraordinary behavior was considered. As in Europe, Middle Eastern societies have much more trouble with the idea of a stable, loving, explicitly homosexual marriage.”
Book by gay couple provides new view on
same-sex marriage in Turkey.
By Hugh Pope
Turkey is stuck between East and West, which is why I like living in Istanbul. It’s also why I get frustrated each time I see the headline “Where is Turkey going?” as if the country was about to run off somewhere. So it was fun to read a book that included both a fundamental challenge to Turkey’s status quo and accepted the country as it is. More surprisingly, “Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam move to Turkey” is also the story of one of the first overtly gay married couples to set up house and home here.
Moving to Bodrum
To be precise, Jack Scott and his spouse moved to the Bodrum peninsula, a hedonistic enclave on the Aegean coast that some Turks barely think of as really being Turkey, or at least where some Turks go in order to escape from the rest of Turkey. It’s hard to imagine their openly homosexual household lasting long in many other places in the country. But they managed, for a year or two anyway. Their experience makes for a compelling and enjoyable read, if you’re broad-minded enough for some in-your-face emotion and choppy BBC sitcom dialogue. Scott is always empathetic, respectful to the country and people that became his host and pretty acute about Turkey’s politics, society and foibles.
It was nice to see someone else agree, for instance, that “there are more parallels between Britain and Turkey than many realize … anchored to the edge of Europe but chained to it economically.” Living in the Turkish provinces opens his eyes to something those trapped in the bubbles of Istanbul high life or Ankara government rarely see: “How could Turkey ever hope to become an industrial powerhouse if they couldn’t keep the bloody lights on?”
Despite limited Turkish, his insights are sharp: “Turkish arguments are different: loud, passionate, sometimes physical and ultimately pointless. No one gives in, no one wins and no one loses.” And he has a great answer to that most difficult question: what’s Turkey like? “Amazing. Educational. Terrible. Surreal. All four.”
Scott is amusingly merciless in his dissection of British expatriates – one category is the VOMITs, well-off, middle-aged nymphs who become “Victims Of Men In Turkey,” including a VOMIT subgroup of MADs, those who have persuaded themselves that “My Ahmet is Different.” But such diversions were not enough to keep the couple interested in staying for long. Any frictions over their open gayness seem not to have been the main reason for leaving Turkey, but a bigger, less-defined disorientation and missing of home, a realization that without family, language and roots, “our life in Turkey wasn’t real. Not really. We were drifting around in an extraordinary expat bubble with people we didn’t know or really care about.”
The gay angle on Turkey was of particular interest to me. My first visit to Turkey was with a fellow student at Oxford, the remarkable, warm, generous French polyglot Pierre Thieck, who died of AIDS in 1990. This brilliant Arabist also introduced me to his Middle East of addictive homosexual encounters, often several times a day. But his Turkish and Syrian counterparts would rarely have viewed themselves as homosexual, and, paradoxically, I was always astonished at how normal and even socially acceptable Jean-Pierre’s extraordinary behavior was considered. As in Europe, Middle Eastern societies have much more trouble with the idea of a stable, loving, explicitly homosexual marriage.
Model was ‘making a real difference’
Scott and his spouse bravely hoped that their pioneering model was “making a real difference.” It was difficult for them, especially when one of their Turkish homosexual friends in Bodrum was murdered. Scott points out how hard it was to understand repressed, contradictory attitudes in a country “where sexual ambiguity is an art form … my gaydar [gay radar] malfunctioned as soon as I entered Turkish airspace … I was left in a continuous state of disarray, thrown by the intensive penetrating stares and contradictory playful signals from the swarthy men around me. I never played the game because I never got the rules.” In his epilogue, Scott suggests that “a respect for difference won’t destroy” the many old-fashioned qualities of Turkey, and a parting message: “It’s okay to be queer. It won’t bring down the house, though it might bring in a little more style.”
Hugh Pope is the author of “Dining with al-Qaeda,” “Sons of the Conquerors” and “Turkey Unveiled.” After 25 years in Turkey, Scott would probably define himself as part “emiköy” (the village type of expatriate with chickens) and part “vetpat.”
The French edition of Dining with al-Qaeda, Rendez-vous avec al-Qaida, has won its first plaudit in French media! The review in Le Monde diplomatique’s February 2013 edition is by none less than Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and a globally published author on jihadi/al-Qaeda matters. I’ve attempted a translation below, but first I checked with a French friend what to think. Initially, Prof. Filiu’s judgments looked to me as though they might be pretty ambivalent. My friend reassured me that in fact “the review was extremely laudatory. you should know that us french don’t indulge in hyperboles or even positive language generally. when asked how he is doing, a frenchman says ‘pas mal’ or ‘on fait aller’. you just got a ‘pas mal du tout’ which is quite something”. For what it’s worth, the book’s page on amazon.fr soon announced that only one copy was left. Hooray!
Hugh Pope a couvert le Proche-Orient pendant une trentaine d’années, essentiellement pour le Wall Street Journal. C’est cette expérience qu’il livre — sous un titre inutilement réducteur —, entraînant le lecteur du Caire à Islamabad, d’Istanbul à Djedda, au fil des crises et des reportages. Pope assume ses contradictions avec un humour faussement candide. Britannique et pro-palestinien, opposé à l’invasion de l’Irak en 2003, ayant refusé de rejoindre ses confrères « embarqués » dans les unités américaines, il mesure tout ce que représente le Wall Street Journal dans cette partie du monde. Il souligne les limites du volontarisme du général David Petraeus, devenu commandant de la région de Mossoul, et n’est pas plus tendre pour la « liberté artistique » prise avec la réalité factuelle par le célèbre reporter Robert Fisk. Sa propre conception de la profession est à la fois plus sobre et plus exigeante : il recherche les angles morts de la curiosité occidentale, chez les Yézidis du Kurdistan, dans la ville sud-soudanaise de Wau, ou à Kaboul à l’heure des talibans.
And here is my translation – any suggested improvements welcomed!
Hugh Pope covered the Middle East for three decades, mainly for the Wall Street Journal. It’s this experience that he describes – under an unnecessarily simplistic title – as he takes the reader from Cairo to Islamabad, from Istanbul to Jeddah, on the trail of crises and reporting trips. Pope tempers its contradictions with a humour that is deceptively innocent. British, pro-Palestinian, opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and refusing to join his fellow reporters “embedded” in American units, he takes the measure of everything that The Wall Street Journal represents in this part of the world. He underlines the limits of the get-up-and-go of General David Petraeus, the commander of the Mosul region, and is no more merciful about the “artistic license” taken with factual reality by the celebrated reporter Robert Fisk. His own understanding of the profession is both more sober and more demanding: he seeks out the blind spots of Western curiosity, with the Yezidis of Kurdistan, in the south Sudanese town of Wau, or in Kabul in the days of the Taliban.
The one thing I couldn’t persuade the publishers of Dining with al-Qaeda to change as we edited the text was their leading phrase in the jacket-sleeve blurb, which referred to the author as “Following in the footsteps of Sir Richard Burton and Lawrence of Arabia …”
In January, for the magazine The Majalla, I finally got to write down the full reason why I felt a reference to Lawrence wasn’t appropriate for a book like mine, which is in large part about how difficult it is to set facts straight about the Middle East. I’ve complained about modern journalists who claim to be strictly reporting what happened and yet do not always stick to the non-fiction high road (more here). “Faction” is of course not uncommon – some books of Ryszard Kapuściński were so light-footed they were dubbed “magical journalism” (more here). To be sure, both Kapuściński and Lawrence appear to have told their friends that they were not trying to recount plodding facts. But the problem for me remains that most people don’t realise that, and most publishers are not in a rush to tell them.
Lawrence of Legend
The lost critic and the legend of Lawrence of ArabiaHugh Pope’s discovery of a long forgotten book; Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry by Richard Aldington unravels the hype and fabrication behind the Lawrence story.
The Majalla, 28 January 2013
When I was spending summer afternoons copying Arabic lettering off the blackboard at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, I would often catch myself staring out of the dull, aluminum-framed windows. Where were the sweeping skylines pricked with minarets, the romantic deserts, the bustling bazaars of my imagined Middle East? Where were the clash and drama of newspaper coverage of wars and revolutions? Much of the Arabic syllabus seemed to peter out around the time of the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and their takeover of the Arab World soon thereafter. Strangely, it seemed to me, even Britain’s extraordinary twentieth century moment in the Middle East was almost never discussed in my university classes.
In those days, soon after the publication of Edward Saïd’s Orientalism, our teachers were also determined to avoid the Orientalist label. Sweeping vistas were out. The fashion was for minute, detailed study of manageably small events and narrow themes—and, for me, those impossible-looking curves and dots scratched in chalk on the blackboard. One result was that I began to nurse a secret love of the breezy memoirs and letters of the British who passed through the history of the East and could write well about it: Lady Wortley Montague, dragomans and ambassadors; or officials like John Bagot Glubb (dubbed “Glubb Pasha”), Sir Mark Sykes and Sir Harry Luke, even a glossy vision of Iraq that leaped from the pages of the 1955 yearbook of the London-based Iraqi Petroleum Company, a treasure I discovered on an upper floor of Baghdad’s old book market.
The most glamorous of them all, of course, was T. E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—and his voluptuous literary feast, theSeven Pillars of Wisdom. This promised and delivered “the sweep of the open spaces, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight and the hopes.” Before going up to Oxford I had bought a copy of this account of the 1916–1918 Arab Revolt. I thrilled to his desert guerrilla raiding as a semi-amateur British army officer, his seamless acceptance into a different world to which I aspired to belong. I admired his promotion of the oppressed Arabs’ cause, and the selfless sacrifice of his status when London betrayed their promises of Arab independence. This work seemed to be considered almost pornographic by the Oriental Institute dons, but since we never studied the period or discussed the book in any depth, I never learned why.
Then one recent day in Edinburgh, I came across the plain black cover of the first edition of Richard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, a book I had never heard of. Here, in the folds of what I judged was measured prose, was concealed a jeweled dagger of a polemic. It led me into a whole world of debate about the Lawrence story—the great film, the (lack of) sex, his genius, his psychology—of which I am no scholar. But Aldington’s arguments did ring startlingly true as he portrayed Lawrence as one of my bugbears, a writer who exploits the confusion and magical reputation of the Middle East to play fast and loose with the facts.
Aldington was ambitious, seeking to deconstruct “the legend of Lawrence,” and to prove that key parts of his work were “heightened, exaggerated, faked, boastful and sometimes entirely without foundation,” making the British hero “at least half a fraud.” Even Lawrence’s trade-mark blowing up of Hejaz Railway trains, he said, was just “a wartime intensification of a constant peacetime nuisance,” and what other British and French officers equally proficient in such guerrilla actions lacked “was literary skill to write up their achievements.”
Aldington acknowledges that Lawrence’s lyrical description of the march to capture the Red Sea anchorage of Al-Wajh is “one of the admired set pieces of Seven Pillars,” with much singing, bouncing camels and barbaric splendor. But he then notes that Lawrence brought his men up two days late for the fight, during which British navy ships and men did the real fighting while the Bedouins hung back or looted. As for the ramshackle capture of the Red Sea harbor town of Aqaba—“another Gallipoli,” according to Seven Pillars—it had been done twice before in the war.
Later, the final British race through Palestine to Syria in 1918 was won thanks to old-fashioned bludgeoning by General Edmund Allenby’s main army columns, with Lawrence and his light raiders at most slightly distracting the Ottoman-German command with skirmishing on the desert flanks. It is sickening to read Aldington’s indictment of the massacres of retreating Ottoman and German troops by Lawrence and his Bedouin irregulars, even if Lawrence admitted the slaughter. As for the great price on his head that Lawrence suggested was offered by his enemies, Aldington can find no evidence for it—nor indeed any mention of Lawrence in any of several accounts published by German or Ottoman officers who served in the Arabian peninsula.
Aldington also challenges a central pillar of the Lawrence legend. Lawrence told one of his biographers, Basil Liddell Hart, that “since about sixteen years of age [he had been] filled with the idea of freeing people and had chosen the Arabs as the only suitable ones left.” Later, Lawrence said he resigned from government service because Britain betrayed promises forwarded by him to the leaders of the Arab revolt, or as he puts it in Seven Pillars, “an Arab war waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim in Arabia.”
Perhaps Lawrence was torn between a pro-Arab commitment and official instructions, but Aldington finds no proof that any authority ordered him to make any promises. Surprisingly, he even finds evidence that Lawrence’s Arabic was far from fluent. While Lawrence and the British faction to which he belonged may have had sincere sympathy for the Arab cause, Aldington believes “these causes were in the main British camouflage for . . . excluding the French.” As Lawrence put it in one letter, British policy should be to “biff the French out of all hope of Syria . . . won’t the French be mad if we win through?”
Aldington shows too the extraordinary degree to which Lawrence—not known to public opinion during the First World War itself—was catapulted to fame due to a delayed-action trick of US wartime propaganda. An American team out to boost morale, reporter Lowell Thomas and photographer Harry Chase, had tried the Western front but there, as Aldington puts it, “the drab butchery . . . did not lend itself either to thrilling photography or to eloquent narrative.” The pair then hit upon the idea of the Arabian front, where they found a ready and photogenic Lawrence.
The resulting show, eventually entitled With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, was only ready in 1919, after the war was over. After a modest beginning in New York, the lecture tour became a sensation in the English-speaking world, with two thousand performances over four years. It was a true feast for the Orientalist imagination. In London, the promoters borrowed a “Moonlight on the Nile” scene from an opera set, a Dance of the Seven Veils was performed, and an Irish tenor off-stage sang a musical version of the Muslim call to prayer. Aldington says this was irresistible to a British public still in shock from the war:
What was now wanted was a success story, and who could give it better than an American, for whom success is a national duty? The technique was hardly understood at all in England, where advertising seldom rose above a flat monotony of uninventive mendacity—‘Ponsonby’s Picklesare the Best’ . . . Anyone who has seen a Japanese judo expert throwing hundredweights of London policemen about a stage will realize what Lowell Thomas did mentally and emotionally with those naïve British audiences.
The spectacle’s focus on Lawrence went so far as to include an inaccurate film subtitle stating that Lawrence dynamited the Hejaz Railway while other British officers remained at base. Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom followed, published in various public editions from 1926 onwards. In the introduction, Lawrence strikes a modest pose:
My proper share was a minor one, but because of a fluent pen, a free speech, and a certain adroitness of brain, I took upon myself, as I describe it, a mock primacy. In reality I never had any office among the Arabs: was never in charge of the British mission with them.
But for all Lawrence’s later denials, Aldington painstakingly shows he was deeply involved in helping Thomas create the show that put him front and center. As Lawrence told Thomas, “History isn’t made up of truth anyway, so why worry?”
Aldington says he began his commission with no particular feelings about Lawrence. Aldington was a minor poet of the 1910s imagist school, dedicated to replacing romantic abstractions with exact observed detail and apt metaphors, and one of sixteen First World War poets commemorated in London’s Westminster Abbey. He had also edited a literary magazine, written a successful novel based on his grueling years in the trenches of the Western Front, and published a prize-winning biography of the Duke of Wellington.
Yet publication of his unexpected findings about Lawrence gravely damaged Aldington’s reputation, book sales, and health. Britain was not ready to see its only hero to emerge from the morass of the war toppled, and many disapproved of his revelation of Lawrence’s probably “humiliating and painful” feelings about his illegitimate birth. When Aldington died in July 1962, seven years after publishing his Lawrence book, his obituary in The Times said he was “an angry young man of the generation before they became fashionable; he remained something of an angry old man to the end.” It called his attacks on British middle class values “shrill” and suggested that his Lawrence of Arabia book would be “better forgotten.”
And forgotten it was, a mere footnote now in the Lawrence legend industry. For a few—Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia: A Cautionary Tale, by Fred Crawford—it proves how hard it is to attack a national idol. More usually—as in John Mack’s Prince of our Disorder, which won a Pulitzer in 1976—Lawrence remains “a great man and an important historical figure . . . [who] strongly influenced the [war’s] military outcome and the political aftermath.” Mack allows that Lawrence was at times “less than completely accurate” and “had some tendency to exaggerate his role and importance.” But Aldington’s work, he says, was a “flagrant example of the use of psychology . . . for denigrating purposes.”
Michael Korda, author of the most recent biography Hero, says Aldington was “obviously” wrong to dispute Lawrence’s claim that he was offered the prestigious top British job in Egypt after the war. But the proof of this is missing—indeed he implies Aldington was right in a way, saying any such offer was not serious—and Korda exaggerates in saying that Aldington’s “whole case” rests on this “idée fixe.” Nevertheless, Korda dismisses Aldington’s findings as “minor stuff” and a “sad object lesson in the perils of obsessive self-righteousness.”
Still, even Korda allows that “somebody was bound to come along and correct the balance” after the previous biographical “panegyrics . . . without any serious effort at independent research.” And Aldington does not accuse Lawrence of treachery, as one of Lawrence’s loyal fellow officers has suggested. He just draws attention to grandiose misrepresentation of Lawrence’s role, partly due to Lawrence’s own efforts, partly because everyone wanted to believe it.
Some writers on the Middle East have always doped up narratives, shaped up stories for audiences, or appropriated others’ work as their own. Such self-serving sensationalism is hard to expose, since normal people want to trust colleagues, newspapers and government figures—especially those heroically caught up in great events. Fact-checking is also difficult in this tumultuous region, and few in the Western audience can compare what they read with personal experience. It is precisely these generations of repeated inaccuracies that have widened the gulf of understanding between the region and Western public opinion.
Aldington was bravely ready to show that reality counts, and paid a great price for showing that a fabulous legend was an extraordinary but hyped-up story. No wonder those Oxford academics preferred digging up matters that are buried in a deep and less sensitive past.
The French edition of Dining with al-Qaida is now out, available from bookshops, amazon.fr (here) or direct from the publisher, Presses de l’Université Laval!
I guess I have to resign myself once again to the book being symbolised as a lonely man in Arabian costume, perched on a mountain ridge, and contemplating the naked but empty nobility of his desert homeland. Of course, this French-language version does echo the cover of the U.S. edition. The other pictures chosen for the back cover here better make the point of Middle Eastern diversity that I hope the book brings to the reader – a lovely glimpse of the Ummayad mosque in Damascus from upstairs in a carpet seller’s shop in the Souq al-Hamidiyeh, a piece of ‘revenge!’ wall graffiti of a bus bomb sprayed onto a wall in Gaza by Hamas, and some very risque sculpture on the Jeddah Corniche. Even more fortunately, with the help of translator Benoit Léger, there was nothing in the publishers’ blurb this time about my “following in the steps of Lawrence of Arabia”…
Outside my window overlooking Istanbul’s main pedestrian Istiklal St. rowdy recent demonstrations have given vocal testimony to the fragmentation of Turkey’s self-image between the West and the Middle East: secularists condemning America, Islamists condemning Russia, others decrying Syria, Israel, Kurdish insurgents, the ruling government in Ankara (and lots more besides, see right). At the same time, Istanbul is also acting as an incredible magnet for a new generation of young adventurers from Europe, America and beyond.
This new diversity of Istanbul has a digital dimension too. The term “expat” makes my orientalist toes curl, but it took breakthrough expatriate website Istanbul Eats to catch the spirit of Turkish street food , and a new launch, Yabangee (from the Turkish for ‘foreigner’, yabancı), seems to me to be the first English-language publication ever to be written entirely by and for the city’s English-speaking residents. (A true mirror to the narcissism of Turkey’s political culture, Turkey’s English-language newspapers are mostly translated from Turkish source material, and, remarkably, most of their readers are actually Turks seeking to improve their English). Anyway I hope their enterprise fares well and here’s my interview with one of Yabangee’s up-and-coming editors:
“People are always asking ‘Where’s Turkey headed?’”. Author and journalist Hugh Pope and I are sitting in one of Beyoğlu’s packed bars, and he’s shouting so that I can hear him above the almost deafening combination of music and chatter. “But I’ve stopped worrying,” he continues. “Turkey is Turkey – and it will just carry on being itself.”
Pope certainly is an authority on the subject of Turkish politics. He’s lived in Istanbul for 25 years and speaks fluent Turkish, in addition to the Arabic and Persian he picked up while at Oxford University. He first came to Istanbul to work as a journalist in 1987, but had visited Turkey a few times before, first as a student in 1980 and on breaks from Middle Eastern conflicts. “After so long, do you become Turkish?,” I half-jokingly ask. “No, you become a sort of semi-Levantine!,” he replies.
A British national but born in South Africa, Pope never really felt at home in England after moving there aged nine. “When I left university in 1982 there was a deep recession, and it was difficult finding a job,” he explains. Yet I suspect he’s making excuses; he probably would have been eager to leave even if the economy had been stronger. “I was offered a job working as a journalist at the Tehran Times, but I couldn’t get a visa”. Rather than return to London, Pope booked a one-way ticket to Syria, aged 22.
He covered the region working as a freelance journalist until, in 1987, Reuters offered him a position based in Istanbul. “They put me in this amazing flat in Arnavutköy, overlooking the Bosphorus.” But it wasn’t all positive. The traffic at the time was terrible – worse than it is today, he tells me – and the brown coal pollution in winter was so bad that sometimes you couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of you. “It was like the London smog of the 19th century,” Pope explains.
Leaving Reuters in 1990, Pope returned to freelance work. “During that time I worked for a range of media; the Independent [a British newspaper], the BBC, the LA Times, and the Wall Street Journal.” But it was with the Independent that Pope felt he could write stories as he wanted, and he leapt at the chance when the paper retained him as a nearly full-time Istanbul correspondent in 1992.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there was a lot of coverage on human rights and other ‘bad news’ stories, so Pope would look for more positive stories to try to break up any negative stereotypes. And life as a foreign correspondent was certainly busy, especially since, before live TV news, seeing things mattered. “Once I went to Ankara twice in one day,” he tells me. “That was when Turkish Airlines gave journalists flights for $30. I went out to do a story in the capital, then there was a bomb in Istanbul, which I raced back to cover, before heading back out to Ankara”.
I ask him whether he ever thought of leaving Istanbul. He not only thought about it, but did leave; it was 1995, and he left Turkey to return to South Africa as the Independent’s correspondent. But the move didn’t bring what he was looking for, and so he returned to Istanbul three months later.
“I came back with a contract to write a book about modern Turkey, which I did with my ex-wife Nicole. I loved the chance to research for that book, reading for a year.” The result was Turkey Unveiled, which was recently released in its fourth edition, is an account of Turkey’s politics from Atatürk up to the present day. What was it like to have co-authored a book? “We shared the same views on Turkey so it was no problem. And we had a great editor; the text flows even though there were two authors.”
Turkey Unveiled was first published in 1997, following which Pope started an eight-year stint working full time for the Wall Street Journal. The thoroughness of their editing came as a shock. “Americans are much harder working than Brits,” he says. “And they’re obsessed with getting every factual detail. But the editing process did sometimes remove nuance, ‘flattening’ the articles.”
But it was a positive experience, and Istanbul was his base for covering, at one point, 30 countries in the region; at least, up until the Iraq War in 2003. Pope says he lost heart covering the story, and that the Journal’s editorial pages went ‘war mad’. “I became disillusioned,” he explains. By 2005, he had become fed up with traveling to the Middle East to write stories in which the American audience expected a viewpoint that Pope found it increasingly difficult to deliver.
Pope took an unpaid year off, and got out of Istanbul. With his wife Jessica Lutz, a Dutch novelist, he built a house in the mountains above Olympos, in south-western Turkey, expecting to have the option of returning to work at the end of the year. However the Journal had other ideas. Following a downsize, the job was no longer there and he was demobbed with a half year’s pay.
But as the saying goes, it’s darkest before dawn. The negative stereotypes of the Middle East that had formed since 9/11 gave Pope the inspiration for his next book, Dining with Al Qaeda [published 2010]. This memoir brought to life his Middle Eastern adventures; in one instance, Pope had to ‘argue’ for his life with a Saudi cleric who had tutored several of the 15 suicide bombers of 9/11. That Pope is still alive today is surely testament to his Arabic skills. But the fact that he then made friends with the cleric and took him out for a Chinese meal in Riyadh makes me think there’s more to Pope than meets the eye.
Nowadays Pope seems content with life here in Istanbul. But the pace hasn’t slowed. Since 2007 he’s been the Turkey / Cyprus project director for the International Crisis Group, which seeks to prevent worldwide conflicts. Does have he have any thoughts of England? Pope, “the semi-Levantine”, threatens to visit his brother in the South-West of England, where he went to school. “I love the countryside there and I keep promising I’ll visit soon. I have to take up a voucher for a free lesson at Sherborne’s croquet club”. But I can see he’s in no hurry.
Now that talks of a kind are beginning again between Iran and the West on the Iranian nuclear program, anyone wanting the back story behind Tehran’s thinking should dip into with Scott Peterson’s excellent book “Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran – a journey behind the headlines” (Simon and Schuster, 2010). Reading it is to join the best moments of 30 trips to Iran in the company of an ace reporter – Peterson is Middle East correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor – with no need for endless visa forms, corrupting negotiations with the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, or the frustration of having to fight tooth and nail for every interview.
After setting the post-1979 revolutionary scene, including a great first chapter on the all-dominating U.S.-Iran relationship, Peterson’s experiences start with the false spring of liberal Iranian hopes that accompanied the late 1990s rise of President Khatami and his “democratic Islam”. False, because “an organized minority [of hardliners] have more power than a disorganized majority”, and Khatami’s downfall follows. A conservative newspaper editor points out to Peterson that his hardline faction won when it realized that the demonstrating moderates lacked the ruthlessness for a final push. As he puts it, “a loaded weapon scares one person, but an unloaded one scares two.”
(That could just as well be a metaphor for the current nuclear talks, since Iran most likely does not have any real weapon pointed at the U.S., and is doubtless as scared as the Americans think they are themselves. Which may be why the Iranians are now signaling they might give a tiny bit of ground.)
Some of Peterson’s most original and memorable sections detail the populist, messianic Shiite cult of the Mahdi. Its adherents notably include President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who apparently leaves an empty seat at his meal table just in case the Mahdi suddenly returns. As for the grim realities of Ahmadinejad’s rule outside his dining room, there are few more shocking accounts than Peterson’s of the suffocating clampdown “in the name of democracy”. The freedom seekers of the 2009 Green Movement were considered a grave threat in the mold of other east European “color” revolutions of that decade. Peterson spares no detail about exactly how this ruthless regime set its thugs onto crushing middle class dreams with beatings, psychological warfare to sadistic sexual abuse.
Along the way, Peterson has a remarkable array of Iranians speak about themselves and their country. They tell how the regime’s Islamist obsessions have made ordinary Iranians “fed up with religion”, in the words of the late Ayatollah Montazeri. Remarkably, even Iran’s grand ayatollahs voted three-to-one against the Islamist regime stalwarts who stole the 2009 elections. The new hardline cabal of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard are indeed shown to be “heedless of the damage they inflict on the lives of individuals and families. They assume everyone else is as indifferent to basic human decency as they”, as jailed scholar Haleh Esfandiari tells Peterson. And one wonders how long it will be before Iran’s rulers wake up to the fact that, in the words of analyst Saeed Laylaz, “Iran cannot make up for its lack of economic might with nuclear technology, missiles and proxy threats in Lebanon and Palestine”.
Peterson’s enthusiasm for the subject can lead to some gushing moments, especially in the introduction, with Iran presented “as a paradise for journalists, where the tree of knowledge is ripe with counter-intuitive succulence”, in which the author finds glimpses of the “fundamental seedbeds of the Islamic Republic” in his role as “a seeker of revelatory experience.” Such bouquets are doubtless partly aimed at persuading the publisher to launch all 733 pages of this volume into the crowded sea of Middle East books. It was worth it, and this feast of reportage is sober, original and meticulous. He is also all-embracing, citing not just his own reporting on the past 15 years, but notable journalism by others too. (Not to mention some of his own fine photos, including a crafty extra two hidden in the cover art).
There are, however, no easy assessments of what it all means or illusory answers to over-simplified issues (e.g. “Is Iran building a nuclear bomb?”) that hurried policy-makers so often want. The merit of the book lies in its assiduous collection of all the paradoxes that make up Iran. And as always, the answer an outsider will get depends on how he asks the question.
Peterson does offer plenty of insights into the U.S.-Iran relationship, in which he sees Iranians as “prideful fighters” who don’t want to be the first to give up. Anti-Americanism is the “critical glue that helped hold together Iran’s Islamic regime” and Iranians are convinced that they must never deal with the U.S. from a position of weakness, but Peterson also foresaw Iran’s empathy for the U.S. after 9/11, a rare thing in the Middle East. He sees many similarities between the two nations, including a national arrogance, a need for an enemy, and a belief in its own exceptionalism. Whether that makes them “natural allies”, as Peterson believes, seems to me debatable. The test will come if and when the U.S. decides to ditch the old blood feud, since, as Peterson quotes Ayatollah Khomeini, “on that day when the United States of America will praise us, we will mourn.”
Such an enlightened U.S. reversal of its Iran policy is, anyway, unlikely. Peterson shows well how Israel seized upon America’s Iran fetish from the 1990s onward in order to bolster its own diminishing importance after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, one Iranian tells Peterson that Tehran, Tel Aviv and Washington are all ‘hezbollahi’ regimes, loving and needing each other as essential enemies. Peterson also wisely points out that most Iranian policies are not ideological products of the “Islamist” bogeyman that the U.S. and Israel love to fear, but aim at regime survival.
Iran thinks it has the right to dominate its region, an Iranian newspaperman tells Peterson, but if that is the case, Tehran perhaps needs to consider earning that right first. In a new version of the tale of the hare and the tortoise, the oil-fueled Iranian economy was double the size of neighboring Turkey at the time of the Islamic Revolution, but has long been overtaken and is now half the size of its more plodding rival. Seizing the U.S. Embassy in 1979 was hardly an “achievement” or worthwhile “second revolution”, as Iran portrays it, and is now quite long ago. As the humanity of Iranians bursts through every page of Peterson’s book – from regretful basijis to north Tehran heavy metal bands – the reader keeps wanting to say: come on, Iran. It’s time to move on.
Benoit Léger, qui traduit Rendez-vous avec al-Qaeda (Dining with al-Qaeda) en français, m’a envoyé cet extrait de son travail en cours. Benoit a déjà traduit de manière spectaculaire mon livre Fils de conquérants : Le monde türk et son essor qui a apparu l’an dernier (cliquez ici pour le voir sur amazon.fr, ou ici pour la maison d’edition, Presses de l’Universite Laval).
Républiques royales et monarques démocrates
extrait traduit par Benoit Léger (en cours, avril 2012)
Je retournai en Syrie un an plus tard, en 2001, dans l’espoir de donner aux lecteurs du Journal des nouvelles du printemps de Damas. Le docteur Bachar avait fait fermer une tristement célèbre prison du désert et libéré six cents prisonniers politiques; il avait aussi autorisé l’ouverture d’une première école privée. Le parlement avait voté de nouvelles lois qui légalisaient les banques privées et protégeaient le secret bancaire. Des mesures étaient prises pour libéraliser les règlements douaniers et celles portant sur les devises étrangères qui étouffaient le commerce depuis si longtemps. Les antennes paraboliques envahissaient également le paysage urbain de Damas.
L’un des symboles de cette période était un hebdomadaire rempli de caricatures du nom de Al-Doumari (« L’Allumeur de réverbères »). À son apparition en 2001, il se vendait en une heure à plus d’exemplaires que les trois indigestes journaux d’État réunis. Les Syriens n’avaient rien vu de tel depuis l’interdiction de la presse privée, trente-huit ans auparavant.
Je m’adressai à un vendeur de journaux en regardant prudemment derrière moi :
— Vous n’avez pas peur de vendre ça?
— Les gens n’ont plus peur. Nous voulons entendre des critiques et avoir finalement quelque chose de bien. J’en ai commandé cent exemplaires cette semaine, mais j’en ai demandé cinq cents pour la semaine prochaine.
Même si, dans les pages de ce pittoresque magazine, la satire n’était pas des plus féroces et s’en prenait essentiellement à la corruption la plus évidente, l’idée même d’une publication échappant complètement à l’autorité de l’État était inconcevable. Je trouvai les bureaux d’Al-Doumari dans un quartier riche habité par la classe moyenne. Ali Farzat était à la fois le propriétaire, l’éditeur et le rédacteur en chef. Vêtu d’un jean soigneusement repassé, il arborait une épaisse barbe et affectionnait les gros cigares cubains. Farzat affirma que c’était Bachar Al-Assad lui-même qui l’avait encouragé à créer son hebdomadaire sept ans auparavant, mais, même si Bachar était alors le fils du président et était désormais chef d’État depuis un an, les lois concernant la presse n’avaient changé que tout récemment.
— Quand le premier numéro est sorti, j’ai appelé le docteur Bachar, raconta-t-il. Il était très heureux de la nouvelle; il aime ce genre de choses.
— Mais le gouvernement tient encore le pays par la peur! insistai-je.
Farzat s’enfonça dans son fauteuil et mit les bras au-dessus de sa tête comme pour se protéger des coups qu’on pourrait lui donner, puis il éclata de rire.
— Nous vivons dans une nouvelle ère. Bachar aime les initiatives, il les respecte. Il aime les arts et les sciences. C’est un homme jeune. Il a un plan en tête et il le met en place, étape par étape. Les réformes finissent par s’imposer d’elles-mêmes, c’est comme avoir besoin de respirer.
Trois mois après que Bachar eut pris le pouvoir en juin 2000, quatre-vingt-dix-neuf personnalités influentes lui avaient écrit pour demander plus de libertés publiques. En janvier 2001, ce furent mille politiciens et réformateurs qui allèrent encore plus loin en exigeant que l’état d’urgence en place depuis quarante ans soit levé. Pendant cette période, affirmaient-ils, « la société a été profanée, ses richesses ont été pillées et son destin, mis entre les mains de tyrans et de gens corrompus ». Il semblait que quelque chose était bel et bien en train de se passer en Syrie, mais plus je creusais, plus je découvrais que les choses n’avaient guère changé.
Le régime avait étouffé dans l’œuf le mouvement des forums formés d’intellectuels de tendance gauchisante. Le docteur Bachar, qui avait donné le feu vert à la tenue de ces forums de dialogue national, les avait soudainement dénoncés comme étant des « exercices intellectuels stériles » en expliquant à un quotidien arabe qu’il fallait que les Syriens « évitent de donner l’occasion à ceux qui cherchent à devenir des leaders d’exploiter ces forums » et que « la stabilité et l’efficacité sont plus importantes pour le développement du pays que la vitesse ». Une dame de la bonne société avait été prise à faire circuler un courriel représentant le chef de l’État dans une union inconvenante avec le président libanais et avait été incarcérée.
Dans le premier numéro de l’Allumeur de réverbères, Farzat avait évoqué la possibilité d’un remaniement ministériel, ce qui, en Syrie, constitue une manière détournée de se débarrasser d’anciens ministres corrompus. En privé, il me confia que ces gens-là « profitent de la peur, comme des pillards après un tremblement de terre. » Pourtant, la une du numéro suivant avait fait preuve de plus de réserve en publiant un article sur l’éducation mixte dans une lointaine province située au bord de l’Euphrate. « Est-ce que cela constitue de l’autocensure? » demandai-je.
Devant nous, le dernier numéro montrait le dessin d’un homme qui marche dans la rue en regardant nerveusement derrière lui et qui se rend compte avec inquiétude que l’agent des services secrets armé qui le suit n’est que sa propre ombre.
— Nos articles n’ont jamais été interdits, mais il y a des règles à respecter. Nous ne pouvons pas nous en prendre à l’armée, ni nous lancer dans attaques personnelles. Comme partout, il y a des limites à ne pas franchir. Les secrets d’État, par exemple.
À ce moment-là, un Libanais en uniforme arborant une épaisse barbe noire passa la tête dans la porte. Je remarquai qu’il portait un pistolet à la ceinture. Il embrassa Farzat sur les deux joues; les deux hommes causèrent comme de vieux amis, puis il s’avéra que le Libanais cherchait en fait quelqu’un dans le bureau voisin.
— Qui était-ce?
— Aucune idée! fit Farzat en riant. Mais c’est exactement ce que notre magazine signifie. Nous représentons la rue, la rue syrienne. Nous nous en prenons à des aspects des traditions de notre société, par exemple quand un invité s’installe et reste trois jours et qu’on ne demande pas d’explication et qu’on ne sait pas pourquoi. On ne peut pas vivre de cette manière en permanence. C’est dans notre propre société que se trouve la cause de notre oppression, pas dans le gouvernement.
C’était pourtant de l’oppression du téléphone que Farzat souffrait (à l’instar de nombreux bureaux syriens, le sien n’avait pas de secrétaire), tout comme son frère qui venait de l’appeler de l’imprimerie appartenant à l’État. Tout avait été payé d’avance, mais les ouvriers avaient stoppé les presses. Farzat négocia, tenta de les amadouer en promettant un gros pourboire et les presses redémarrèrent.
Il y eut un autre visiteur : un jeune collaborateur de l’hebdomadaire qui avait fait des heures d’autocar pour venir toucher son salaire de quinze dollars. L’homme accepta de me parler, mais dans la rue et tout en marchant. Nous parcourûmes donc le quartier qui embaumait le jasmin et dont les fières demeures aux angles arrondis remontaient aux toutes premières années, après que le pays eut obtenu son indépendance de la France, en 1944.
— Notre pays est en train de s’éveiller en matière de culture, mais nous avons encore peur, m’expliqua-t-il en s’assurant qu’il n’était pas suivi par un policier. Pour les intellectuels, l’Allumeur de réverbères est aussi léger qu’une bulle de savon. C’est un symbole qui montre que le gouvernement parle beaucoup, mais ne fait rien.
Les censeurs du Ministère de l’Information ne semblaient pourtant pas des plus menaçants. Leurs bureaux se trouvaient au haut d’un immeuble vieillissant connu sous le nom de « Palais du Baas ». La façade était en travaux depuis des années et, à l’intérieur, les rénovations progressaient de manière irrégulière. Les fils nus pendaient dans les couloirs et le faux plafond avait perdu certains de ses panneaux. Sur les armoires, les piles de dossiers poussiéreux étaient maintenues ensemble par de la ficelle. Les bureaux des censeurs étaient recouverts de montagnes de journaux et de magazines. « Du thé? » fit l’un d’eux.
Ils avaient tous étudié dans une région ou l’autre de l’ancien bloc soviétique et se réjouissaient d’avoir l’occasion de bavarder et de partager leur conviction quant au complot américano-israélo-sioniste qui empêchait la Syrie d’avancer. Deux des censeurs venaient de familles qui avaient perdu leur maison dans la Guerre des Six Jours, lorsqu’Israël s’était emparé du plateau du Golan, soit une importante portion du pays que l’État hébreu occupait encore, au sud-ouest de Damas. L’un d’eux avait participé à la plus récente manifestation devant l’ambassade des États-Unis.
— Le seul problème, c’est que n’avons pas trouvé de pierres à lancer, fit-il avant d’ajouter pourtant : J’espère que L’allumeur de réverbères va prendre des forces et devenir quelque chose d’important, mais pour l’instant il a l’air un peu démuni.
Les censeurs n’étaient pas sans savoir que le magazine, tout comme les entreprises syriennes, ne jouissait d’aucun droit. Farzat n’avait que gagné une faveur individuelle et provisoire auprès du chef de l’État. Tout le monde semblait connaître sa place dans le pays. Les rares partis politiques autorisés, pris dans un « front » contre le Baas depuis des décennies, avaient été autorisés à publier leurs propres journaux, mais leurs combats semblaient n’avoir pas changé depuis qu’ils avaient été tous fermés en 1963. Dans le nouvel organe du parti communiste, l’éditorial se résumait à un exposé à valeur didactique portant sur la lutte des classes et qui s’étalait sous le slogan simpliste de « Travailleurs du monde entier, unissez-vous ». La renaissance du journal The Unionist, relique de l’éphémère union de la Syrie avec l’Égypte dans les années 1960, était encore plus incroyable : il faisait sa une d’une photographie de Gamal Abdel Nasser, le légendaire président égyptien mort depuis 1970.
Il était donc normal que les censeurs s’en soucient peu. Les vrais opposants, eux, s’en tiraient beaucoup moins bien. C’était le cas de Riad Seif, le politicien syrien le plus critique envers le régime. En ce printemps de 2001, nous pûmes encore nous voir dans son bureau moderne. Les yeux de ce franc-tireur brillaient; il avait tout récemment tenté de briser le monopole que la famille Assad exerçait sur le très lucratif secteur de la téléphonie cellulaire.
— C’est dangereux! Ils m’ont mis en faillite, raconta-t-il.
— Qui ça, « ils »?
— Les baasistes! Il n’y a pas de concurrence, pas de vitalité; ils n’ont pas d’idéologie avec laquelle se défendre. Dans les années 1950, les membres du Baas étaient tous des idéalistes, maintenant ce ne sont que des opportunistes. Leur cerveau s’est encroûté au point qu’ils croient leurs propres mensonges.
— Comme quoi?
— La sécheresse dure depuis deux ans; les fermiers n’arrivent pas à rembourser leurs prêts, il n’y a pas de travail dans les provinces et le chômage est un problème très grave. Contre tout cela, l’Allumeur de réverbères ne vaut pas mieux qu’une aspirine. Il n’y a toujours pas de base politique en mesure de s’attaquer aux véritables causes de la corruption; il n’y a pas d’organisations populaires, pas de véritables syndicats, pas de partis d’opposition. La séparation des pouvoirs n’existe pas, ni la liberté de presse.
— Qu’est-ce qu’ils vous ont fait pour avoir parlé ainsi?
— Ils nous mettent le couteau sous la gorge et le laissent là. Les gens qui me soutiennent sont très discrets; personne ne veut courir de risques. Certains de mes amis ne m’appellent même plus. Je suis devenu isolé, mais ça ne veut pas dire que je n’ai pas de soutien. Les intellectuels sont bien décidés à continuer. Ces quelques mois où nous avons joui de certaines libertés, où nous avons pu nous exprimer en nous débarrassant de certains tabous, nous avons vraiment aimé cela. C’est difficile de réapprendre à être discret. Nous ne sommes plus en 1980 : il y a Internet, la télévision satellite. Les Syriens ne font que semblant d’être des moutons.
Sauf que Seif se trompait en prédisant que les Syriens allaient sérieusement se révolter. Ils avaient peut-être raison d’être prudents, compte tenu des quatre décennies où le pays n’a pas connu de véritable vie politique. L’exemple de l’Irak allait plus tard montrer les périls qui attendent un pays lorsqu’une dictature est renversée, mais que la population n’a aucune idée de la manière de profiter de sa liberté. De toute façon, le régime syrien n’avait manifestement pas l’intention de procéder à des changements autres que cosmétiques. Après avoir discuté de ma semaine passée dans le pays, Bill Spindle et moi-même en arrivâmes à la conclusion que rien n’avait assez sérieusement changé en Syrie pour justifier un article dans le Wall Street Journal.
En 2002, deux ans après la prise du pouvoir par Bachar, Damas avait meilleure allure : les magasins semblaient mieux approvisionnés en produits importés, les restaurants étaient mieux éclairés, les gens étaient mieux informés et même les vieilles colonnes et les rues du souk Al-Hamidiyeh, le plus important de ville, faisaient l’objet de délicates restaurations. Les autorités répétaient que, si tout le monde faisait preuve de patience, les choses allaient vraiment changer. En janvier de la même année, dans son discours sur l’état de l’union, le président Bush avait classé la Syrie parmi les pays de « l’axe du mal »; j’étais convaincu qu’il avait tort. Je retournai voir Ali Farzat dans ses bureaux pour voir comment la lente lutte de son magazine pouvait symboliser un possible réveil du pays.
Je m’assis en compagnie de Farzat qui agita une feuille de papier : le gouvernement avait décidé que l’Allumeur de réverbères ne pouvait plus vendre que 14 420 exemplaires, et il lui fallait désormais passer par le réseau de distribution de l’État. Il s’emporta :
— Je dois vendre trente-cinq milles exemplaires pour rentrer dans mes frais! Il devrait y avoir des règles pour nous permettre de fonctionner comme une maison d’édition privée. Ils nous envoient ça sans prévenir, sans discuter. Ils se contentent de dire que la distribution doit passer par eux et ils exigent quarante pour cent des profits. Comme si le secteur privé travaillait pour l’État! Et en plus ils forcent toute la publicité à passer par l’Organisation de la publicité arabe qui appartient au gouvernement et qui prend vingt-sept pour cent des bénéfices! Ces gens-là ne font absolument rien et le gouvernement ne m’achète pas de publicité non plus.
— Vous ne pouvez pas vous plaindre? Vous adresser au docteur Bachar?
— Même le ministre de l’Information refuse de me parler au téléphone.
— Je connais ce genre de problème…
— Je ne sais plus quoi vous dire. Ce que nous publions a une influence sur les gens et nous visons les responsables, alors les gens qui craignent d’y perdre trouvent des moyens de lutter contre la nouveauté. Nous devons trouver de nouveaux moyens de faire avancer notre culture. Ce journal n’est pas que notre réussite, c’est celle du pays; c’est un symbole de développement. Il n’aurait pas dû s’arrêter si tôt…
Je poursuivis ma tournée, hésitant que j’étais à renoncer. J’appris ailleurs que, six mois plus tôt, Riad Seif, le courageux politicien de l’opposition, avait organisé une rencontre réunissant quelques centaines de militants prodémocratie. Il avait été ensuite jeté en prison et allait y rester plus de quatre ans. Un diplomate américain expliqua que le régime n’était plus mené par « l’homme fort », mais plutôt par le « grand mensonge » : de l’extérieur, le pays semblait l’endroit le plus stable de la planète, mais à l’intérieur, le régime se débattait chaque jour pour se maintenir.
Bien sûr, à l’instar de toutes les dictatures du Proche-Orient qui carburent à l’or noir, la Syrie ne changeait pas vraiment, entre autres parce que le pétrole représentait soixante-dix pour cent de ses revenus d’exportation. Il en allait de même en Iran : tant que le régime aura les moyens d’acheter le soutien de sa base politique, il pourra se maintenir en place. Les chefs d’État toléraient la corruption, car, en l’absence de toute légitimité populaire, ils pouvaient se fier à la loyauté des ministres corrompus. Tout comme en Union soviétique, qui fonctionnait grâce à une économie de ressources semblable, la dissidence était tolérée tant qu’elle ne représentait pas une menace directe. Inversement, un pays tel que la Turquie qui dispose de peu de ressources naturelles, n’a d’autre choix que d’être plus pluraliste, plus ouvert et plus démocratique puisqu’il lui faut chaque semaine emprunter sur les marchés national et international.
Je rendis visite à Haïtham Maleh, un vieil avocat qui, de son appartement remontant à l’époque coloniale dans le centre de Damas, s’obstinait à demander des comptes au régime. L’une des caractéristiques de la dictature syrienne était le fait que peu de jeunes songeaient même à lutter pour les droits de la personne. Sans plate-forme à l’échelle nationale, Maleh menait son combat en rencontrant des diplomates ainsi que les correspondants venus des pays arabes ou d’ailleurs. Il faisait parvenir à Bachar des missives soulignant les contradictions entre ce qu’affirmait la constitution et l’application des lois d’urgence. Il me montra la copie d’une ordonnance secrète selon laquelle les fonctionnaires n’étaient redevables que si leurs supérieurs l’autorisaient. Maleh était assis sous la tapisserie élaborée qu’il avait tissée en prison. L’idée que les États-Unis pourraient un jour réellement aider quelqu’un comme lui à faire avancer la démocratie en Syrie (ou ailleurs au Proche-Orient) le fit rire :
— Tous nos dictateurs sont des produits des États-Unis. C’est parce que les Américains ont intérêt à n’avoir qu’un seul interlocuteur pour régler leurs affaires. Dans notre cas, ils nous ont fabriqué un puissant dictateur fasciste, alors qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire?
Effectivement, au cours des mois qui avaient suivi le 11 septembre, la rhétorique américaine à l’égard de la Syrie était redevenue menaçante. Je passai devant une boutique qui proposait le damas si élégamment tissé; j’y allais souvent à l’époque où j’étais étudiant et c’est là que j’avais acheté la soie turquoise et scintillante dont ma femme avait fait sa robe de mariée. Je me souvins des balles et des rouleaux de tissus qui s’empilaient dans les années 1980 et formaient de véritables cascades d’or, d’argent et de vermeil, mais il n’en restait plus que quelques pièces. Le propriétaire, un Kurde, se plaignit que son commerce était moribond puisque les agences de voyage réduisaient au minium leurs arrêts dans ce pays réputé difficile et corrompu et que les touristes n’avaient plus le temps de faire les boutiques.
Sept ans plus tard, en 2009, l’importun Riad Seif ne serait toujours pas autorisé à sortir du pays pour faire traiter son cancer de la prostate. En fait, il avait été renvoyé en prison. L’état d’urgence décrété en 1963 était toujours en vigueur et des centaines de prisonniers politiques croupissaient en prison, dont plusieurs de ceux qui s’étaient fait connaître au cours du printemps mort-né de Damas. L’Allumeur de réverbères avait lutté pour sa survie pendant trois ans avant de finalement disparaître en 2003; l’histoire aurait pu donner lieu à un papier dans un autre quotidien que le Wall Street Journal qui ne croyait pas que les Américains souhaitaient entendre parler d’un autre échec. Les rédacteurs en chef préféraient les histoires optimistes. Après avoir fait le tour en ma compagnie d’une autre semaine perdue à faire des entrevues, Bill Spindle trancha : « On laisse tomber la Syrie, Hugh. Ça ne marchera pas. Ce n’est pas ta faute, mais le pays n’a pas changé alors il n’y a pas d’article à écrire. »
En février 2003, trois ans après le grand changement qui n’avait jamais été, je traversai une fois de plus la Syrie sur le chemin de l’Irak. Il me fallait me présenter au bureau de contrôle des frontières des moukhabat, les services secrets de « l’Intelligence » syrienne, oxymore qui fait les délices des mauvaises langues dans l’ensemble du Proche-Orient. Mon chauffeur me déposa au bout d’une longue file de barricades qui menait à un complexe entouré protégé par de hautes murailles de béton. Il était impossible de savoir quels services secrets syriens, de tous ceux dont le pays dispose, étaient logés à cet endroit. À la guérite, j’expliquai ma mission à un agent en civil, kalachnikov à l’épaule. À l’époque où j’étais étudiant à Damas, on voyait de tels gardiens devant les demeures des membres de l’élite et, le soir, une arme se pointait parfois vers moi avec méfiance quand je passais trop près.
— Vous connaissez le chemin? demanda le gardien.
Il aspira une autre gorgée de maté grâce à la paille de cuivre. Cette boisson est devenue particulièrement populaire auprès de minorités telles que les Druzes et les Alaouites depuis que certains de leurs membres ont immigré en Amérique du Sud pour fuir la pauvreté et les persécutions de la part de la majorité sunnite. Boire du maté est désormais un signe d’émancipation.
— Bien sûr que non, rétorquai-je.
Il m’indiqua le chemin d’un ton péremptoire et me lâcha dans le complexe des services de sécurité. Je cherchai mon chemin dans les rues envahies par la verdure de ce qui, à l’époque coloniale française, avait dû être un charmant alignement de villas. Elles étaient désormais plus ou moins laissées à l’abandon et la végétation était en voie de reprendre ses droits. La maison banale que l’on m’avait indiquée n’avait qu’un étage et semblait dans le même état de délabrement. À l’avant, l’eau s’écoulait du bassin d’une fontaine à la céramique verte et sale. Les ailes de la villa semblaient sur le point de s’écrouler et les carreaux de plusieurs fenêtres étaient brisés, mais, en arrivant dans la cour, je vis les signes d’une restauration en cours. Trois camions militaires russes se trouvaient là, ainsi qu’une camionnette dont un essieu était cassé. J’eus l’impression d’arriver chez le commandant d’une unité rebelle qui venait tout juste de s’emparer d’un poste avancé au fin fond d’un pays du tiers monde et non d’une branche de l’exécutif d’un gouvernement en état de marche. L’idée qu’un pays aussi délabré puisse préoccuper les stratèges américains me parut tout à coup complètement absurde.
Du haut des marches, quelqu’un cherchait à attirer mon attention. À l’intérieur, deux salles avaient été aménagées pour l’homme que j’étais venu rencontrer : le colonel Suleyman, à l’éclatante veste bleue à carreaux et à la molle poignée de main. Dans un coin, deux adolescents assis sur un canapé (l’un d’eux était le fils du colonel) jouaient avec un téléphone cellulaire Samsung dont ils tiraient de temps à autre une musique exaspérante qui résonnait dans la salle. Le colonel leur jetait alors un regard indulgent. Il fit servir du café, puis nous nous attelâmes à remplir les papiers. Il se fit une joie de m’expliquer que je me trouvais dans sur une base des services de renseignement militaire. Il s’empressa également à m’annoncer qu’il était un chrétien appartenant à l’Église syriaque. Je connaissais bien le cœur de cette ancienne religion qui se trouve en Turquie et je fus frappé du paradoxe : la Syrie était l’ennemie de Washington, essentiellement à cause des coups bas qu’elle avait portés à Israël et à l’Occident et à cause de sa dictature; la Turquie, elle, était l’alliée des Américains, et ce, pour différentes raisons, dont son caractère démocratique et ses liens avec Israël. Pourtant, en Turquie, un chrétien comme le colonel n’aurait jamais pu parvenir à un tel poste d’autorité. En fait, grâce aux efforts déployés par Ankara depuis près d’un siècle pour arriver à la pureté ethnique et religieuse, il ne reste pour ainsi dire plus de syriaques en Turquie. Le colonel chrétien illustra encore mieux le paradoxe : selon lui, c’était à l’idéologie arabe, nationaliste et laïque du Baas qu’il devait sa réussite, alors qu’elle était tant vilipendée par les États-Unis. La Syrie, avec sa mosaïque de groupes ethniques, était selon lui la société du Proche-Orient qui était restée le plus fidèle aux usages d’autrefois dans la région. Il est vrai que la première fois où j’ai vécu à Alep, je passais régulièrement devant la boutique d’un Arménien d’âge moyen qui pressait encore dans ses lourds moules de métal cet antique symbole de l’époque ottomane : le fez rouge et sans bord, orné d’un gland.
Puisque je me rendais en Irak, pays dirigé par un autre parti Baas et que les États-Unis s’apprêtaient à envahir, je demandai au colonel Suleyman de m’expliquer la différence entre un baasiste syrien et son cousin irakien.
— Oh, il y a une énorme différence, rétorqua-t-il comme s’il s’agissait de comparer le Nigéria et la Suisse; ils sont de droite, nous sommes de gauche. Nous sommes plus ouverts d’esprit. Et notre chef est Bachar Al-Assad!
Il me fit remplir d’autres formulaires. Le paradoxe du prénom apparemment masculin de ma mère fit encore une fois nos délices; l’éducation de son fils nous donna du souci. Le colonel prit également le temps de répondre à un appel, se contentant de décrocher, d’écouter, puis de raccrocher. J’attendais poliment d’être relaxé. Le temps s’était arrêté.
Mes yeux tombèrent sur le téléviseur posé sur un meuble ornementé, devant une bibliothèque dépourvue de livres. La télévision syrienne diffusait en direct depuis le parlement où Bachar s’adressait aux députés et à la population. Nous le vîmes se lancer dans la série de commentaires spontanés caractéristiques du style « proche du peuple » qui lui donnaient l’allure d’un patriote radical, ou potentiellement d’un populiste.
Normalement, les affiches syriennes montrent cet ophtalmologiste formé en Angleterre dans la pose d’un Hamlet considérant l’état du monde d’un regard attristé, courroucé par les injustices et, peut-être (et seulement peut-être) fourbissant ses armes. Le colonel avait plutôt opté pour un portrait inhabituel de Bachar dans la pose d’un cruel tyran : complet noir, lunettes sombres et visage de marbre. Ailleurs, ceux qui n’étaient pas convaincus par l’ambigüité du président oscillant entre être et ne pas être, lui joignaient un portrait de son père, Hafez, qui, bien que mort, n’en affichait pas moins un air dur et résolu. Ou encore un portrait militaire du dauphin présumé de Hafez, Bassel, mort lui aussi, mais décédé bien avant son père, dans un accident de voiture alors qu’il roulait à tombeau ouvert afin de prendre l’avion. Grâce à ce sinistre triumvirat formé du père de la Syrie, du fils et de l’esprit, le régime cherchait à donner l’illusion que le pays était mené par les durs à cuire de cette région du monde. Il s’agissait ainsi de mettre en garde quiconque aurait l’idée de comploter contre la tribu Al-Assad ou contre son pays. Suleyman montra l’écran du doigt : « Regardez le docteur Bachar, fit-il avec admiration. Il parle sans même un discours écrit d’avance. On voit qu’il est intelligent. »
Je songeai que Bachar était lui aussi un prisonnier, un peu comme tout le monde en Syrie, mais me tins coi. Les Syriens, y compris le colonel qui me congédiait gaiement d’un geste, voulaient encore croire que le passage d’un Assad à un autre signifiait que les choses allaient s’améliorer dans leur vie politique si mise à mal. Mais il était indéniable qu’il faudrait du temps.
Syria was the first country in the Middle East I got to know well more than three decades ago. I loved much about it. But my experiences – retold in the first chapter of Dining with al-Qaeda – seem fully part of the continuum being acted out today.
For instance, on my first visit in March-April 1980, I was trapped in the northern city of Aleppo when Syrian troops ringed the town and started searching for regime opponents quarter by quarter, house by house. For three days gunfire echoed through the night and in the mornings truckloads of frightened citizens, sometimes still wearing their pyjamas, could be seen crowded helplessly in open trucks on their way to impromptu interrogation and torture centres in half-finished buildings on the outskirts of town (Dining with al-Qaeda, pp 1-10).
Then followed the Assad crushing of the Hama in 1982 with some 10,000 dead; Lebanon’s problems from the Syrian occupation of part of that country; and finally the controversy over Syrian links to the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Given the impunity Syria mostly enjoyed, I’m not surprised that the Assad family thinks it hasn’t used up its nine lives yet, even if I remain amazed at how Syria has for so long seemed to live all its many lives simultaneously.
The way time stands chaotically still in Syrian matters reminds me of the early 2000s, when I was a reporter who kept trying to find a story that would illustrate the idea (then thought possible) that Syria might be turning the corner towards a more open, pluralistic society. One possible subject for the story was Ali Farzat, a notable caricaturist in Damascus. The story didn’t work out – nothing much was going forwards in Syria. But ten years later, I was shocked see that this same turbulent stasis had sucked in Farzat, when thugs beat him for perceived disrespect for President Bashar al-Assad. Luckily he mostly recovered, as CNN tells here.
Here’s how the Syrian world of Ali Farzat appeared to me – by turns tragi-comic, brutal and charming – in some excerpts from Dining with al-Qaeda’s Chapter 13: REGAL REPUBLIC, DEMOCRATIC KINGS: Syria, Jordan and the dimensions of dictatorship. (pp 202-210).
I was back in Syria a year later, in 2001, keen to update Journal readers on the fate of the Damascus Spring. Dr. Bashar had closed a notorious desert jail and released six hundred political prisoners. He had allowed a first private school to open. Parliament had passed new laws to introduce private banks and to protect banking secrecy. Steps were being taken to liberalize the currency and customs regulations that had choked Syrian business for so long. Satellite television dishes spread thickly across the Damascus skyline.
One symbol of this era was a caricature-filled weekly magazine called al-Dumari, the Lamplighter. When it appeared in 2001, it outsold the entire print run of the three turgid state-run daily newspapers in an hour. Syrians had seen nothing like it since thirty-eight years before, when private newspapers were banned.
“Aren’t you scared to be stocking this?” I asked at a newsstand, looking over my shoulder.
“There’s no fear anymore. We want to see criticism, something good at last,” the newspaper seller said. “I ordered one hundred copies this week, but I’ve asked for five hundred for next week!”
Even though the colorful Lamplighter’s satire was light, and mainly directed against obvious corruption, the idea of a publication entirely outside state control seemed unbelievable. I tracked down the magazine’s offices to a well-off middle-class neighborhood. The owner, publisher, and chief editor, Ali Farzat, had a full beard, neatly pressed jeans, and a taste for big Cuban cigars.
Farzat said he’d been encouraged to found the weekly by Dr. Bashar seven years before, but even though Dr. Bashar was then the president’s son and had now been president for a year, the press laws had only just changed.
“I rang up Dr. Bashar after the first edition hit the streets. He was very happy,” Farzat said. “He loves this kind of thing.”
“But Syria is still ruled by fear!” I insisted.
Farzat hunkered down in his chair with his head under his arms as if protecting himself from being beaten, then laughed.
“There is a new period that has started. Bashar loves initiative, he respects it. He loves arts and sciences. He is young. He has a map in his head and he’s implementing it step by step. Reform is something that imposes itself, like the need for oxygen.”
Three months after Dr. Bashar took power in June 2000, ninety-nine opinion leaders wrote to him asking for more civil liberties. The following January, one thousand politicians and reformists went farther and demanded an end to four decades of martial law during which they said “society was desecrated, its wealth plundered, and its destiny commandeered by tyrants and corrupt people.” It seemed like something was on the move in Syria. But the more I looked into what had re- ally changed, the less I found.
The state nipped in the bud a movement of left-leaning intellectual home discussion groups. Dr. Bashar, who had given a green light for these National Dialogue Forums, now suddenly criticized them as “futile intellectual exercises,” telling an Arab newspaper that Syrians should “avoid the possibility that the process of advancement is exploited by seekers of leadership. It is more important for development to be stable and effective than to be rapid.” When a society lady was caught distributing by e-mail a caricature of the Syrian leader in unseemly union with the president of Lebanon, she was detained. In the first issue of Lamplighter, Farzat suggested that there might be a cabinet reshuffle, which, in Syria, is discreet code for getting rid of corrupt old guard ministers. In private, Farzat told me these people were “profiting from the state of fear, like thieves after an earthquake.” Still, his next issue’s front page was more careful: an article on coeducation in a distant province on the Euphrates River.
“Does that count as self-censorship?” I asked.
On the cover of the latest issue in front of us was his drawing of a man walking down a darkened street, looking nervously over his shoulder and worriedly realizing that the armed secret service agent on his tail was his own shadow.
“None of our stories have been stopped. But there are conditions for the newspaper. There can be no opposition to the army, no personal attacks. Like everywhere, there are red lines, like state secrets,” he said.
Just then, a Lebanese man in uniform with a thick black beard put his head around the door. I registered that he had a pistol tucked into his belt. He kissed Farzat on both cheeks and they chatted like old friends until it turned out he was looking for someone next door.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“No idea!” Farzat laughed. “But this is exactly the kind of thing the magazine is about. What we are representing is the street, the Syrian street. We criticize things about the traditions of our society. Like when you get a guest who stays for three days and you don’t ask why, and you don’t know why. You can’t spend your time that way. The oppression we suffer is within our society itself, not the government.”
Farzat was constantly being oppressed by the telephone—as in many Syrian offices, there was no secretary—as was his brother, who was on the line to the state printing house. Although everything had been paid up front, the printers had stopped the presses. He wheedled and negotiated. A big tip was promised. The presses started rolling again.
Another guest was one of his young contributors who had traveled for hours by bus just to pick up a pay packet of $15. The man would talk to me only while out- side and on the move. So we strolled through a jasmine-scented district whose confident curved houses dated back to the first flush of Syria’s 1944 independence from France.
“Syria is waking up culturally. But we are still frightened,” the contributor said, looking around to see if his shadow was a policeman. “For intellectuals, the Lamp-lighter is as light as a soap bubble. It’s a symbol of how the government is talking a lot but doing nothing.”
For sure, the censors at the Ministry of Information didn’t feel much of a threat. Their office was on a high floor of an aging office block known as the Palace of the Baath. Work on a new façade had been proceeding for years, and renovations were in fitful progress inside. Wires dangled loose in the corridors and the false ceiling was missing slats. Metal filing cabinet doors hung open. Stacks of dusty files on top of cupboards were tied together with string.
“Some tea?” one censor asked me from behind one of half a dozen desks piled high with papers and magazines.
Everyone in the room had studied somewhere in the former Soviet bloc, and all welcomed a chance to chat and communicate their convictions about the Zionist-Israeli-American plot to hold Syria back. The families of two of them lost homes in the Six-Day War when Israel captured the Golan Heights, a significant chunk of Syria that Israel still occupies southwest of Damascus. One had taken part in the latest demonstration outside the U.S. embassy.
“The only problem was that we couldn’t find any stones to throw!” he said, but confided, “I hope the Lamplighter strengthens into something special. But right now, it looks a bit weak.”
The censors knew that the magazine, just like Syrian business franchises, was not exercising any right. Farzat had merely won an individual and temporary favor granted by their ruler. Everyone seemed to know his or her place. Syria’s few legal political parties, locked in a “front” with the Baath Party for decades, had been allowed to start publishing their newspapers too. But they seemed to be fighting the same battles as before they were all closed down in 1963. An editorial in the new organ of the Communist Party was a didactic exposé of class war under the Rip Van Winkle–esqe motto “Workers of the World Unite.” Even more amazing was the reappearance of the Unionist—a relic of Syria’s short-lived political union with Egypt in the early 1960s—featuring a front-page news photograph of legendary Egyptian leader Jamal Abd al-Nasser. He died in 1970.
No wonder they gave censors little trouble. Real opponents fared much worse, men like Riad Seif, Syria’s most outspoken opposition politician. That spring of 2001, we could still meet in his modern office. He was bright eyed then, a maverick who had just dared to challenge the Assad family’s control of lucrative cell phone licenses.
“It’s dangerous. They bankrupted me!” he said. “Who’s they?” “The Baathists! There’s no competition, no vitality, no ideology with which to defend themselves. The Baathists in the 1950s were all idealists. Now they are opportunists. Their brains have calcified. They believe their own lies.”
“There’s been a drought for two years, farmers cannot pay back their loans, there are no jobs in the provinces, and unemployment is a huge problem. Against all that, the Lamplighter is just an aspirin,” Seif told me. “There is still no basis for fighting the roots of corruption, there are no popular organizations, no real unions, no opposition parties, no separation of powers, no free press.”
“What’s happened to you for speaking like this?”
“They put the knife on the neck and leave it there. My supporters are very silent people. Nobody likes to take a risk. Some friends don’t phone me anymore. I became isolated. It doesn’t mean I’m not supported. The intellectuals are determined to go on. These months of breathing some freedoms, expressing ourselves by getting rid of some taboos—we enjoyed it. It’s difficult to go back to being humble. It’s not 1980. There’s the Internet, satellite TV stations. The Syrians are just playing at being sheep.”
But Seif was wrong that the Syrians would rise up in any significant way. Perhaps they were wise to act cautiously, given the country’s forty-year absence of political experience. The subsequent example of Iraq showed the danger of knocking out a dictatorship when a population had no idea how to exercise freedom. In any event, it was clear that the Syrian regime had no intention of anything more than minimal change. Bill Spindle and I discussed my week’s reporting and decided that there was too little change to justify publishing anything in the Journal.
Back in Syria in the spring of 2002, two years after Dr. Bashar’s takeover, Damascus felt better. Shops seemed fuller of imported goods, restaurants were more brightly lit, people were better informed, and even the ancient columns and street of the main Souk al-Hamidiyeh were undergoing a sensitive restoration. Government officials insisted that if everyone would only be patient, change was now really on its way. In his State of the Union address in January 2002, President Bush had categorized Syria as part of an “axis of evil.” I felt this was wrong. I went back to Ali Farzat’s office to see whether his magazine’s slow struggle might now epitomize a possible reawakening in Syria.
When I sat down with Farzat, however, he waved a piece of paper in front of me. It informed him that the government had decided that the Lamplighter could sell no more then 14,420 copies. And all had to go through the government distribution system.
“To cover our expenses I have to sell thirty-five thousand copies! There should be rules to allow us to work as a private press. They issued this with no warning, no discussion. They just say: We have to distribute it. And they want to take a forty percent cut. It’s as if we, the private sector, are producing for the state. Then they have ordered all ads to go through the government’s Arab Advertising Organization, which takes a twenty-seven percent cut. They do absolutely nothing, and the state gives me no advertising at all!”
“Can’t you complain? What about Dr. Bashar?”
“Even the minister of information refuses to see me or to talk on the phone.”
“I know how that feels.”
“What can I tell you? Our research affects people, hits those responsible. People who fear their interests will be damaged find ways to fight innovation. We need to find a new way to push our civilization forward. The newspaper isn’t a success just for us, but for the country itself. It is a symbol of development. It should have gone farther.”
I continued on my rounds, reluctant to give up. I learned that six months before, Riad Seif, the brave opposition politician, had organized a meeting of a few hundred democracy activists. He was thrown into jail, where he would remain for more than four years. An American diplomat told me the regime was no longer about the Big Man, but the Big Lie: Outwardly the most stable place in the world, inwardly scrambling to save itself every day.
Of course, like all the oil-fueled dictatorships of the Middle East, one reason for the lack of change was that oil supplied 70 percent of Syria’s export income. The situation was similar in Iran: As long as the regime had enough money to bankroll its support base, it could survive. Leaders tolerated corruption because, in the absence of popular legitimacy, corrupt ministers could be relied on to be loyal. As in the Soviet Union, which had a similar resource-based source of funds for the regime, dissidents could be tolerated as long as they mounted no direct challenge. On the other hand, a country like Turkey, with few natural resources, is forced to be more pluralistic, open, and democratic, since it has to borrow money every week from domestic and international markets.
I paid a call on Haitham Maleh, an elderly lawyer who still insisted on holding the regime to account from an old colonial-era apartment building in the heart of Damascus. It was a feature of Syria’s dictatorship that few young people bothered fighting for human rights. In the absence of domestic publicity, Maleh pursued his cause meeting with diplomats and Arab and international correspondents. He sent Dr. Bashar letters pointing out the contradictions between Syria’s constitution and its emergency laws. He waved a copy of a secret ordinance showing that civil servants could be brought to account only if their superiors permitted it. Sitting under a piece of elaborate embroidery he had done in jail, Maleh laughed at the idea that the United States would ever really help someone like him promote democracy in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East.
“All our Arab dictators are made in the USA. It’s because the U.S. just wants one person to talk to, to get their business done. Here they’ve made us a very strong, fascist dictator. What can we do about it?” he asked.
Indeed, in the months after September 11, the rhetoric from the United States toward Syria had grown threatening once again. I passed by a shop that sold elaborately woven Damascus fabrics, which I used to visit often as a student, and from which I bought the sparkling turquoise silk that my wife used to make her wedding gown. I remembered in 1980 how the bolts of cloth formed a rippling wall of golds, silvers, and scarlets. Now just a few rolls remained, and the Kurdish owner complained that his business was nearly dead. Tour agencies minimized their stays in difficult, corrupt Syria and the tourists no longer had time to shop.
By 2009, the opposition gadfly Riad Seif was still not being allowed out of the country to have his prostate cancer treated. Instead, he was sent back to jail. The 1963 state of emergency was still in force and hundreds of political prisoners remained confined, including many who came to prominence in the stillborn Damascus Spring. The three years of difficulties of the Lamplighter, which collapsed under all the pressure in 2003, might have made a story in another newspaper. But the Journal did not think that Americans wanted to dwell on failure as usual. The editors preferred upbeat narratives.
“Let’s just drop the Syria story, Hugh. It’s not happening. It’s not your fault,” Bill Spindle said after we’d talked through another wasted week of interviews. “Syria hasn’t changed, so we just won’t write a story about it.”
In February 2003, three years after the great change that never was, I was once again passing through Syria. I was going to Iraq and had to report to the border base of the mukhabarat, Syrian Intelligence, that apparent oxymoron that wagging tongues savor all over the Middle East. My driver dropped me at the end of a long series of barricades leading to a compound sealed off by high concrete walls. I had no idea which of Syria’s many secret services this actually housed. At the guard hut, I explained my mission to a Syrian plainclothes agent with a Kalashnikov rifle on his shoulder. When I was a student in Damascus, such guards stood outside the houses of the elite, and at night sometimes suspiciously trained the barrel of the gun on me as I walked by.
“Do you know the way?” he asked me, taking another sip on a brass straw of South American maté, beloved of Syrian minorities like Alawis and Druze. Their communities had picked up the taste after migrations there to escape from past poverty and persecution by the Sunni Muslim majority and now consumed it as a badge of empowerment.
“Of course not!” I said.
He gave some peremptory directions and sent me off alone into the intelligence compound. I wandered through overgrown streets of what in French colonial days must have been a delightful row of villas. The buildings were in various stages of collapse, and vegetation was running riot. The nondescript one-story house pointed out to me had the same tumbledown appearance. In front, water overflowed from the bowl of a fountain with dirty green tiles. The outside wings of the villa were falling down and had many missing windows, but toward the center of the building I saw signs of renovation.
Next to where I stood were three Russian military trucks alongside a white van that had collapsed with a broken axle. I felt that I was visiting the commander of a rebel unit that had just captured some far-flung third-world outpost, not the executive arm of a working government. The idea that such a tumbledown country should ever trouble the strategic vision of the United States seemed absurd.
Somebody was trying to attract my attention from the top of the steps. Inside, two rooms had been fixed up for the man I had to see, Colonel Suleyman. He sported a loud blue-checked jacket and a very soft handshake. Two teenage boys sat on a sofa to one side, one of them his son, playing annoyingly with a Samsung mobile phone that produced irregular, loud bursts of reverberant music. The colonel looked on indulgently. He called for coffee as we began to go through the paperwork. He happily volunteered that I was in a Military Intelligence base.
He also made clear that he was a Christian, a Syriac Orthodox. I knew the ancient center of this faith in nearby Turkey well, and I was struck by a paradox. Syria was Washington’s enemy, mainly because of its below-the-belt kicks at Israel and the West, and partly because of its dictatorship. Turkey was America’s friend, for all kinds of reasons including its democracy and its cooperation with Israel. But it struck me suddenly that no Christian, like this man in Syria, would ever be allowed into a position of authority in Turkey. In fact, there were hardly any Syriacs left in the country thanks to Ankara’s century-long drive for ethnoreligious purity. Taking the paradox one step farther, the Christian colonel believed he owed his luck to the secular Arab nationalist ideology of Syria’s ruling Baath Party, the target of so much U.S. criticism. Syria and its surviving ethnic mosaic could seem the society that had remained truest to the old ways of the Middle East. Indeed, when I first lived in Aleppo, I used to pass by the shop of a middle-aged Armenian who still made that symbol of Ottoman times, the red and tasseled fez, a brimless hat pressed in heavy metal molds.
Since I was going to Iraq, which was ruled by another Baath Party and which the United States was about to invade, I asked Colonel Suleyman what the difference was between a Syrian and an Iraqi Baathist.
“Oh, very different!” he said, as if we were talking about Nigeria and Switzerland. “They’re rightist. We’re leftist. We’re more open-minded. And our leader is Dr. Bashar!’
We filled in more papers. We savored the paradox of my mother’s apparently male name. We worried about his son’s education. He took time off for a phone call in which he only picked up the receiver, listened, and replaced it. I waited deferentially to be released from my penance. Time stood still.
My eyes drifted back to the television on the ornamental display case in front of a bookshelf with no books in it. Syrian state TV had gone live to parliament, where Dr. Bashar was addressing the deputies and the people. We all watched him launch into a series of off-the-cuff remarks, his trademark I’m-one-of-the-people style that seems to show him to be a radical patriot, or potential populist.
Normally, Syrian posters of the British-trained eye doctor showed him striking the Hamlet-like pose of a man deeply pained by the state of the world, angry at the injustice of it, and possibly, or just as possibly not, gearing up to take revenge. On his wall, Colonel Suleyman preferred an unusual picture of Dr. Bashar in a cruel tyrant pose: black suit, dark glasses, unflinching expression. Elsewhere, people who were unsatisfied by Bashar’s to-be-or-not-to-be ambivalence added a picture of his father Hafez al-Assad, who looked undeniably tough and decisive, even if dead, or a militaristic pose struck by Hafez’s first heir apparent, his son Basil, also dead, killed long before in a car accident while speeding to the airport to catch a plane. With this spooky triumvirate, Syria’s father, son, and holy ghost, the regime wanted to maintain the illusion of being led by the toughest thugs on the block, a warning to any who might plot to take on their tribe or their country.
“Look at Dr. Bashar,” said Colonel Suleyman, admiringly pointing at the TV. “He’s speaking without a written speech. That shows he’s really got brains.”
I thought that Dr. Bashar was a prisoner, a bit like everyone in Syria, but politely said nothing. The Syrians, even Colonel Suleyman as he cheerily waved me off, still wanted to believe that the change from the old Assad to the new Assad meant that something better was on the way in their politically blighted lives. But it was surely going to take a terribly long time.
P.S. The maté straw plays an enigmatic role here in this spoof video example of black, deadpan Syrian humor, mocking the failure of Arab monitors to spot the tanks whose shelling was part of the awful violence in Homs. When activists hacked into Dr. Bashar’s email account, they found that the Syrian president had forwarded the skit to an aide.