Tag: democracy

Protest at ‘Change Square’

Walking through the streets of Sanaa on our way to ‘Change Square’ we pass tanks and troops with their batons and guns at the ready.

“Welcome” people shout to me, one man stops me to say “We are free here”, “This is our democracy and we are not leaving until the president resigns”. People wander freely around the tents, tents erected by people from many different religious and political persuasions; Communists and Islamists, Sunni and Shia Muslims, united with one goal, they are called ‘the opposition’, and for the moment they are, but the future, is one thing that no-one can possibly predict in Yemen.

That this remains a peaceful protest against the reign of President Ali Abdullah Saleh – who has ruled with an iron fist and survived for 33 years – is amazing, because, after America, this is the second most heavily armed country in the world where troops have killed over 20 protesters already. I am told it has taken careful negotiation keep the tribes from coming armed to Change Square to defend the protesters and to take on the military.

And last night in ‘Change Square’ saw the death of a wonderful 21 year student who was killed when troops tried to enter and remove the protesters tents – my guide said he couldn’t sleep after trying to save the man’s life. The hospital was overrun with casualties so the local mosque took them in, I met a man who’d been electrocuted with an electric baton, I heard other stories of men in hospital whose bodies were frozen from the gas thrown at them, it was called ‘tear gas’ in the press but these people’s nervous system seemed to have been affected; creating rumours that illegal nerve gas was used.

Yet still the area has a joyful feel, like a festival, on the stage people perform comedy, mimicking the president, but one can’t help wondering why a dictatorship would allow such a community to grow, and unless the presidents walks away, which he has shown no sign of doing, more bloodshed seems inevitable.

No Democracy Please

The park was busier than usual with people enjoying a drink in the summer night heat. The public consumption of alcohol is a rare sight in Islamic countries but this a “modern” Muslim state. Many of the people in the park are international students, here to learn the mighty Arabic language, some come on the one month programmes whilst others are here for a year as part of their degree. Such an influx has cultural effects on places like Syria and has certainly helped the Christian quarter in the old city blossom by night.

I join Ahmed a guy from the Golan and his friends drinking beer, he introduces me to his friend also called Ahmed, I tell them of being witness to a near fight the previous night and how impressed I was at how quickly the police responded. A drunken teenage American student had made the mistake of saying “I’m an American” in an arrogant way so as to belittle a local he was arguing with, it was then things turned nasty, or would have done if the police hadn’t arrived.

Of course the police sided with the American; such is the protection we westerners can take for granted in this tightly controlled society, no-one should offend a foreigner let alone hit one – even if they deserve it!

“We have no problem with Americans as long as they come here respectfully”. Ahmed comes from a seaside town called Tartus but now lives in Damascus because the job prospects are better. After graduating in engineering he now has a supervisor job at a DVD factory. “Really” he says, “I was so surprised that a country like Syria could have the technology to make DVDs”, me too I reply, adding that “I thought all this stuff was imported from china”… Is Syria so cheap that it can compete with the Chinese workforce?

I ask why the traffic police are so corrupt. Ahmed is quick to point out that their salary is only 200 dollars a month, and that taking bribes for minor road traffic offences can double or triple their salary. But if corruption starts at police level where or when does it end?

My questions seem to irritate Ahmed. He tells me Syrian society cannot be judged like a developed western democracy. “And by the way” he is quick to add, “We are not interested in having your democracy here either. We don’t see your democracy as real. It is a lie. Your government does what it wants or as it is told by those in the big financial corporations pulling the strings. Do you think you are anymore free then me?” He asks. “You protest against an illegal war in Iraq and your government still takes you into it. Is that democracy?”

“Before the war I had a naïve notion that I wanted to be free. I was drinking alcohol with my friends and looking to the West for answers wanting to be a democracy, but since the Iraq invasion we have one and half million Iraqi refugees fleeing this new democracy in Iraq for safety here in Syria – what you call a ‘dictatorship’.”

“Our president isn’t brutal like Saddam he is loved by the people here. Since he took power from his father 8 years ago he has given a number of freedoms. Talking openly with foreigners could never happen 10 years ago. And remember this is an Islamic society and I am a Muslim who no longer drinks but I don’t stop you drinking with me in this park. I can sit with you and treat you as my guest. What freedom do you want? Here we cannot scream ‘fuck the leader’ in the streets. So what? But here you can walk the streets at 3 am safely. Can you do that in London? Here we don’t have homeless roaming the streets helpless. What kind of freedom is that?”

“Before the war with Iraq many people believed in this democracy idea but when we see the chaos there now we are happy with what we have. Our leader has never had so much support from his people. He is genuinely loved by them.”

Around us I watch as Syrians drinking openly in the park and nearby bars. At 5am the call for prayer from the mosques will hail a new day in this peculiar modern Islamic state.

Democracy v Dictatorship

Ibrihim left Syria 37 years ago for Canada, but returns most summers. This time he has brought 2 of his kids with him and plans to stay for 2 months. He left at 20 to avoid conscription to the army, but remains fiercely patriotic.

After being what he calls a ‘wage-slave’ in the West for 37 years he says he wants his Canadian born kids to live here in Syria. “This is freedom here”, he says, “My brother works when he wants and has a life, in the West we have money but no life, here you have a life, if only George Bush knew that!”

Although he earns big money in Canada – up to and more than 1000 dollars a day as a building contractor (as well as being an Arabic singer earning up to 5k on a weekend), he says (looking around him) that this is the life he really wants.

Ibrihim even had a period running 2 Arabic restaurants in Montreal, but now looks forward to retiring, on his $1400 a month pension he plans to live 6 months here and 6 months in Canada. His mother is still here, she had her first child at 14 and had 6 kids by the age of 19.

Ibrihim took me to meet his brother who is working in the same carpentry workshop his father did. We sat and chatted for an hour and a half about the great western ideas like ‘democracy’ and what we in the West call ‘dictatorships’, I sensed Ibrihim had spent a lifetime in the West trying to tell his people about the life in the East, now here I am with my camera on what seems a similar mission.

When I told someone I was going to Syria they asked “Are you scared?” another said, “Is it safe?” I gave the same answer I used to give when I was asked the same question when visiting Saddam’s Iraq, “I feel safer there at night than I do on the streets of London”. Here, like in Iraq, for me, it seems totally safe – thanks probably to a combination of strong Syrian moral values as well as the type of security system that always comes with a dictatorship.

Ibrihim gets angry when he talks about Bush. “He came to show us democracy but in Syria there is more freedom than anywhere in the world!” He shows me a courtyard in an old house the size of a school where 30 families live. Each night the families share food on the courtyard floor all eating from each other’s offerings. “This is the life” he says, “What does Bush know about this kind this life, what does he know about us at all? Nothing!”

Is there hope for better relations with Obama? I ask, Ibrihim shakes his head, “His hands are tied”. The more I meet people over here the more I feel that they have given up on any chance for peace in the Middle East, as Ibrihim says, “The Americans just don’t want it”.

We walk through a beautiful part of the old city filled with the abandoned homes that look more like mansions. “This is the Jewish quarter, but the Jews all left – now their houses are left to ruin”. Ibrihim tells me that rumour has it that Ronald Reagan did a deal with the former Syrian president to re-house them all in America, “They didn’t have a choice” he tells me, “They had to go, now many would like to return but cannot.” As relations soured in the 80’s it was thought that the Jews would be safer in America, “But they were our good neighbours here, we all lived as one”.

As we look at the mighty dilapidated houses with vast courtyards falling-apart Ibrihim pulls out his Syrian ID card, it doesn’t mention any religion he says proudly – just that we are all Syrian! I notice the remains of the Star of David over the entrance to one house. We walk past two members of the secret police that Ibrihim points out, “They are here to protect the houses from being illegally occupied”. Maybe Syria is preserving its Jewish heritage in the old city; and in a way almost inviting its rightful owners to come back home one day.

As we walk the old city streets memories flood back to Ibrihim of his childhood, fuelling his dream that one day his grown up kids will settle here. This is more than a romantic attachment to a city, it is in his blood, and has never left his blood despite the 37 years away in the West, he still lives and breathes the East and revels in it here today. Ibrihim doesn’t have any hostility towards the West but I sense from many people I speak to that the Iraq War changed many things as the country united behind it’s President to support its injured neighbour, Iraq, which they believed was suffering too much in the chaos of it’s new found ‘western democracy’.

Ibrihim sighs, “Where did this idea come from? Bush doesn’t know how we live. Most people I speak to in Canada say ‘Where is Syria?’ The majority of people in the West were against the war in Iraq yet even after big protests it still happened. What kind of democracy is that? Here we don’t have parks full of homeless people or a society riddled with crime. The President allows us enough freedom for people to still be safe at night.”