A Syrian child is dismayed at the dreary state of the gray, patched school walls. The child wakes in the middle of the night, visits the school armed with a flashlight and marker and begins to draw. Soon other children join in with their flashlights and brushes. Together, they paint a colorful mural to cover the patches.
A Syrian man sits with his family in a room lit by a candle. Their only window is blocked by a massive wall covered with political slogans. He decides he’s had enough. He faces the towering wall outside with a hammer and stepladder and begins to chip away at the concrete. Crowds join him with bigger ladders and better tools. Together, they topple the wall and let the sunlight pour into the dark rooms.
The metaphorical scenarios are not stories inspired by the Syrian revolution, but rather scenes from Bashar al-Assad’s official 2014 election campaign videos. The campaign’s theme is Sawa or “Together.” (Assad’s last referendum in 2007 revolved around the much more egocentric slogan: “We love you.”) The campaign slogans play on the concept of unity across all sectors: “Together, we are stronger,” “Together, we will rebuild,” “Together, we will resist,” “Together, we will make Syria beautiful again,” “Together, the Syrian Pound becomes stronger,” “Together, security returns,” and of course, “Together, against terrorism.”
According to Assad, the elections — scheduled for June 3 — are the first elections in Syria’s modern history. This year the people have a choice between Assad and a slew of barely-known candidates vetted and approved by the regime to “run” against the president who inherited power in 2000 from his father Hafez who ruled Syria since 1971.
In midst of the raging violence, continuous aerial bombardment by the regime on Syrian cities, and with almost half of the country’s 24 million population now displaced, the concept of having a “choice” or even holding elections is nothing but a crude mockery of the blood-soaked landscape of real loss.
The president’s image is absent in the videos except in a disembodied signature endorsement that appears at the endings. Instead, a photogenic collective acts on behalf of the leader. In creating a savvy political message based on the people instead of the dictator, the professionally-produced campaign videos subversively steal the narrative of the very uprising that the regime crushed: children writing on school walls in the middle of the night and citizens literally breaking down walls of fear. Actions that led to mass torture, detainment, and death.
The videos also ignore the present reality to focus on an idealized future without a visible political platform or plan. What’s beneath the patches of gray paint on the school wall? Why is there a towering concrete barrier that must be broken? Why is it such an act of defiance to raise a Syrian flag inside Syria? Why does Syria need to be rebuilt? Like the absence of Assad’s face in the campaign, there’s a disturbing sense of willful amnesia that does not acknowledge the current disastrous climate nor the devastating death toll, displacement, or destruction.
Over the last three years I’ve met and read harrowing stories of Syrian ex-political prisoners. Among their many brutal experiences in Assad’s prisons is the requirement to always wear a blindfold while inside the crowded cells. Even while asleep. The prisoners are conditioned to not see. One of the reasons they were thrown in prison in the first place is because they saw too much. Seeing too much and worse, protesting about it, is a crime in Assad’s Syria.
Today, Syria is split between people who can’t unsee the horrors they have seen over the last three years and those who are more than willing to tighten the blindfold onto their eyes.
The regime insists on manufacturing insulting revisions of history even as the barrel bombs fall from Syrian planes onto residential neighborhoods. It insinuates that the blood of tortured Syrian children can be simply painted over and forgotten. It declares that all we need is to work together and rebuild a new Syria under the old regime.
The Sawa campaign’s vision is a Syria that’s not for all Syrians. It advocates the opposite of being “together.” It’s a Syria reserved for those who are willing to leave the blindfolds on and their mouths shut: This is the future that awaits as long as you continue to play the roles that you are given; to draw what is allowed to be drawn; to chant the words that you are dictated; and to raise the flag that is authorized for you to raise. These Syrians will be safe and secure.
On June 3, 2014 there will be no choice for most Syrians. Just as there was no choice in 1971, 1978, 1985, 1992, 2000, and 2007.
A Leaderless Movement
A leaderless movement, moved only by the will of the people; the courage of children rising in the night to draw on the walls of their schools; the bravery of crowds who chisel away at a wall to let the light in; the masses who climb up the steps of their historic monuments to raise a rippling defiant flag over a land called Syria. It seems the president of Syria is calling for a revolution. But that revolution already happened. That revolution was killed.
Despite the uprising’s fatal miscalculations, the political opposition’s immature fumbling, the armed rebels’ crimes, despite the heavy cost paid by the Syrian people, the revolution’s calls for freedom and dignity are still valid and just. Wrong cannot be produced and consumed as right no matter how slick the propaganda.
If the regime and its supporters had just looked outside their windows during those fateful spring and summer months of 2011, they would have seen real scenes of unity and bravery instead of callous reproductions. Crowds of determined young Syrian visionaries ripping down walls of oppression with their voices and flags. They would have seen activists, citizen journalists, and medics fighting with their pens, cameras, and scalpels to preserve the truth and the memory those who sacrificed their lives to tell it. They would still see them even now.
If they had only recognized the scenes unfolding outside their isolated walls, perhaps there would be over 160,000 Syrians still alive and 9 million Syrians still living in their homes. Perhaps, there would be historic and legitimate elections on June 3rd for Syria.
Instead, we are forced to watch the propaganda charades as desperate Syrians are sold false choices and dreams of an impossible future. The real message is written by the invisible hand of a confident tyrant who reminds Syria and the world: brutal oppression rules, unlimited force wins, and fear conquers.
On June 3, half of Syria will vote with their blindfolds on and the other half will watch with eyes wide open. And we all witness the slow death of our country. Together.