FROM THE BACK OF THE BOOK FEBRUARY 7, 2012
Before 2013 begins, catch up on the best of 2012. From now until the New Year, we will be re-posting some of The New Republic’s most thought-provoking pieces of the year. Enjoy.
Last November a protester on the outskirts of Damascus held up to the cameras a placard that mocked the people of Aleppo: “URGENT! ALEPPO REBELS—IN 2050!” It was hardly heroic, the caution of Aleppo, particularly against the background of a rebellion that had scorched Deraa and Hama and Homs and Banias and so many unheralded Syrian towns. Aleppo was known for its practicality and its dourness and its prudence: as an old expression had it, halabi chalabi, the Aleppine is a gentleman. Another adage was at once a rebuke and a boast: the Damascene and the Cairene are impetuous, but the Aleppine acts only after consulting his mother.
Aleppo has a special identity among Syria’s cities and towns. The most populous city in the country, it has a history of rivalry with Damascus. In the Ottoman centuries, the two cities were the seats of provinces that answered directly to Istanbul. They had entirely different mental geographies: Damascus, the gathering point of the annual pilgrimage to the holy cities, looked eastward to the Hijaz and westward to Beirut as its port, but Aleppo’s world was oriented northward toward Anatolia, and to southwest Iraq. Its port was Alexandretta, which would be lost to the Turkish state in 1939. If political and religious primacy belonged to Damascus, the edge in commerce belonged to Aleppo.
In the early years of the last century, Damascus carried the banner of Arab nationalism, and Aleppo was slow to stir to the movement. The urban cultures differed: Damascus was sure of itself and its political and religious mission, whereas the Aleppines were more flexible and supple—the Anatolian world was near, the hinterland was Kurdish, and the city was favored by Western consuls and merchants. Only grudgingly did the Aleppines, in the course of the struggle for independence, and the development of the Syrian state in the aftermath of World War II, come to accept the primacy of Damascus. There remained in them the pride of memory, and the stubborn conviction that they had been shortchanged by the rise of Damascus. Politics trumped economics and trade in Syria’s turbulent history, and there settled upon the Aleppines a subdued sentiment that this new political world was unkind to their beloved home.
With his brilliant flamboyance, T.E. Lawrence thought that he divined the ways of Aleppo:
Aleppo was a great city in Syria, but not of it, nor of Anatolia, nor of Mesopotamia. There the races, creeds, and tongues of the Ottoman Empire met and knew one another in a spirit of compromise. The clash of characteristics, which made its streets a kaleidoscope, imbued the Aleppine with a lewd thoughtfulness which corrected in him what was blatant in the Damascene. Aleppo had shared in all the civilizations which turned about it: the result seemed to be a lack of zest in its people’s belief.
And another traveler, Robin Fedden, a generation later, in his book Syria: An Historical Appreciation, saw Aleppo as “a stage; though a large, permanent, and important one upon a road somewhere else: a useful junction, rather than the home and term of imagination and ambition.” Fedden was bewitched instead by Damascus: “Thus while Damascus is the town of the Arab, Aleppo is the town of the merchant. Merchants are serious men and have perpetually urgent matters to consider. Aleppo therefore lacks the heady irresponsible effervescence of Damascus. It has less politics and less fanaticism; it has also undoubtedly less gaiety.”
We know now that these chroniclers erred. For several terrible years, sobriety and practical reason would quit Aleppo, as its souks became warrens of rebellion, and its people prayed for the rains of deliverance that never came. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Aleppo became the battleground for a grim struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime of Hafez al-Assad. The refined old world of Aleppo came face to face with the brutal new rulers who had seized power and intended never to relinquish it.
During that bitter struggle, Damascus let Aleppo twist in the wind. Khaled Khalifa, an immensely talented writer who was born in Aleppo in 1964, has recalled that grim Aleppine time. In an interview with Robert F. Worth of The New York Times in 2008, he recollected that “for me, Aleppo was the main struggle, because the violence there happened over a long time, not overnight, like in Hama.” Khalifa came of age during that cruel era, and the violence that he witnessed nourished his writing.
Khalifa has now produced a genuinely important novel, even a great novel, the kind of novel that makes us see in patient and exacting detail what the world is really like. Madih al-Karahiyah, or In Praise of Hatred, was published in Beirut in 2008. (A French translation, Eloge de la Haine, rendered by Rania Samara, appeared in Paris last year. A portion of the book has been skillfully translated into English by Marlin Dick at the University of Iowa’s writing program.) Aleppo was Khalifa’s universe. He was in his early teens when a political hell descended on his city. A war was fought there, but it was Hama—in his words, al-madina al-saghira, the small city—that had become the bearer of that war’s sorrow and its memory. In Praise of Hatred complicates that picture of Syria’s recent torments, and enriches it, and darkens it. I will tell its story in some detail, because it sheds considerable light on the present-day excruciations of Syria.
THE NARRATOR of Khalifa’s tale—she is not named in the novel—is a young woman of ease and manners who lives in a sprawling house, her maternal grandfather’s manse, in an old Aleppo neighborhood. This is the bourgeois Sunni world before the storm. Khalifa’s heroine is young, and in secondary school, and lives with her aunts. She is bound by the discipline of the traditional world: strict hours for meals, trips to the hammam every Thursday evening, and an obligatory Friday evening in the company of the older women. Her grandfather, a rug merchant, now deceased, had known adventure in distant lands, as far as Samarkand and beyond. His business was now divided among his three sons, and the big house was given to his daughters. It is a cocoon, this world, and Khalifa’s beautiful portrayal of it is but a preparation for the storm about to tear it apart.
The Aleppine schoolgirls are given to daydreaming, and a dance by an Egyptian actress in a popular film has hypnotized them. But already there is trouble: they are consumed by hatred for the “report writers,” or informers, who are noisy in their expression of loyalty to the ruling party. A classmate named Nada is the mistress of an officer from the “battalions of death,” the dreaded Defense Battalions headed by the ruler’s brother, so she is free to come and go in school as she wishes. No one dares to question Nada’s liberties, because all remember the teacher who flunked the daughter of a man who worked for military intelligence: she was dragged into the streets in front of her neighbors, and her clothes were torn up by the mukhabarat as her children watched and wept. There is also Ghada, another student, who is picked up daily from school by a man in his fifties in a Mercedes Benz, feared and saluted by the battalions of death. Bakr, the youngest of the narrator’s uncles, who is religiously devout, orders her to stay away from those girls, no matter what.
The Aleppine world, in Khalifa’s telling, was changing. The rug business had slowed down—Persian and Kashmiri rugs were no longer coveted as they once were; and the old families were now coming into partnerships with the intelligence barons and the army officers. Those officers, now regulars in the posh restaurants, had become smugglers of electronics and foreign cigarettes. Sometimes they would feud among themselves over the distribution of the spoils, and gunshots would be heard, and then the presidential palace would intervene, and issue its binding commands. Peace would be restored, and the officers would return to the mistresses and the restaurants, marveling at the authority they had acquired. People trembled in their presence. “Thus did the city that was once a twin of Vienna become a desolate place, peopled by frightened ghosts. The sons of the old families had lost their influence and now grieved for the old world. They were forced to become in-laws of the sons of the countryside, joining them at backgammon, overlooking their crude ways.”
Intimations of the political loyalties of the narrator’s family come early in Khalifa’s story. A gathering is held in their home: there is a well-known religious preacher, and big merchants and industrialists, and a political man who had been a player in the post-independence governments, and men known for their membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, and an army officer, a Saudi, and a Yemeni in his mid-forties who sits in the middle of this gathering. The Yemeni is there for political reasons, but he is also a suitor of one of the aunts, whom he wants for his second wife, and finally he secures her hand in marriage. The Yemeni is a bottomless source of knowledge about Islamic parties, and about the martyrs who died in prisons or on the battlefield. The young narrator is hooked on his tales. She has real gifts for the sciences and was destined for medical school, but now this ruinous interest in politics and religion tugs at her. The Yemeni had been one of the leaders of the Marxists in Aden, but he had broken with his colleagues and taken to the road, and found a whole new political faith in Islam. This was the calling that had brought him to Bakr, the narrator’s devout uncle.
The Yemeni, it turns out, was bringing money to Bakr and his companions in the Muslim Brotherhood. And the narrator herself, this fine young woman, is drawn into the dark web. A girl her age with “cold eyes” is the leader of a cell that takes her in, and speaks to her of the moral corruption that has descended on the women in the city. Meanwhile, in front of the Umayyad Mosque, young men gather and head out to the forest close to the sea, as though on a picnic, to train in weapons and the martial arts. The narrator’s brother is one of these militants. In the textbooks that he passed on to her, she saw his obsessions: sketches of pistols and bombs. She ponders what he has scribbled in the margins: “spying on his dreams.” What he dreamed of was the day of retribution for the unbelievers. On the narrator’s seventeenth birthday, she thinks aloud to herself: “We need hatred to give meaning to our lives.”
Hatred is being drummed into her by the group of militants to which she belongs. One day her brother comes home with his shirt stained with blood. An air force officer with “green eyes,” a neighbor, had been killed, and her brother had committed the deed. The mukhabarat searches the neighborhood, her family home included. She contemplates her brother, once a silent boy, good at mathematics, now quietly putting his gun away and burning his bloodstained shirt. A wave of assassinations is taking place in the city, and so the commanders of the battalions of death are more careful in their movements. The narrator’s hatred momentarily lets go of her, but she is rebuked by the other girls, and reminded of the transgressions committed by the officers and their sect, who had turned the country into a big plantation of their own. And so she coldly shakes off the pity that she had felt for the murdered man and his family. Her uncle Bakr had made a fateful choice: he was the leader of a team responsible for assassinating men of the regime. He had “friends and allies in neighboring countries” who understood his cause, and wished to return the country to its “normal course,” and to punish the infidels and the ruling party who had thrown Syria into the camp of the communist powers.
The horrors multiply. One day a military man who had been a guest of her family performs the morning prayer in the mosque, reads from the Koran, quietly selects seventeen cadets in the military academy, lines them up against a wall, and executes them. (The cadets are obviously Alawis.) He slips away with his partners into the outskirts of Aleppo, where he is given a heroic welcome for bringing grief to the “other sect.” “No one knows why these men who had come down from the mountains so full of ambition and drive had died.” Sixty armed men, soldiers and men of the mukhabarat, storm the house, looking for Bakr and for the narrator’s brother. They break the locks, and shatter pictures and souvenirs. A blind servant rebukes the soldiers, reminding them of the standing of the deceased merchant, telling them that this house is inhabited by women. “He is pushed aside,” our young narrator relates, “by a soldier who curses my grandfather and his ancestors, says that this is a house of whores now. I nearly wished that Bakr had remained a rug merchant, outdoing other families with his wealth, making a life out of the trivialities of daily happenings.” But this was a passing thought: after all, there was the war with the “other sect” and the ruling party. She dreamed of punishing the unveiled girls of Aleppo without mercy, making them pay for their liberties. Righteous men were going willingly to the gallows of the mukhabarat, and “we envied them because they were getting to paradise before us.”
Death stalks the city. Aleppo becomes a city of lamentations and funerals, a place under siege. Forty thousand soldiers enforced a dusk-to-dawn curfew. When Aleppo’s troubles reach the presidential palace in the capital, the president of the republic appears on television, summoning his party and his military units into the fight. And Hama, at some remove, “al-madina al-saghira, the small city, [becomes] a war zone, its people dreaming of the restoration to leadership of our sect.” This is 1982, and “the Hamawis [are] counting their dead.” Hajja Souad, a militant old woman who had recruited the narrator into the cause, is terrified by the news from Hama. The battle seems to be nearing its end, as some families flee into the countryside and corpses are dumped in the streets, with no one claiming them. Then the call comes for a final showdown, and the rebels in Hama bring out weapons that had been hidden in the wells of their homes. The narrow streets are soon surrounded by tanks that—in Khalifa’s unforgettable image—block the flight of birds. “It was left to future generations to tell that all this was madness that could have been avoided so as to give life to children who loved to jump into the Orontes river from waterwheels whose sound was the one true expression of yearning for the past. The bereaved mothers would don black garments that they swore they would never take off. Many mothers went out into the streets, half-naked, lamenting the city in poetry that would make the stones weep.”
Khadija, one militant in this cell, telling the Hama story in Aleppo, swears that she is done with the narrator’s group of radicals, packs up her things in a bundle, and disappears like a “piece of salt dumped into a parched river.” Bakr also abandons the cause: he flees to Jordan on a fake passport, and from there to London. He arrives at night to its fog, and walks slowly along the banks of the Thames, “a man determined not to look back lest he remember the hundreds of young boys who swore on the Koran and went out in search of a road to paradise and to a certain death.” He writes home from the safety of his distance; and to assuage his guilt, he accuses the leaders of the Brotherhood of leaving Hama to its fate.
BUT BACK IN Aleppo the madness descends further upon the miserable city. A young militant named Samir is caught in a shoot-out with security officers, and when he runs out of ammunition he jumps in despair into the oven of the neighborhood bakery. The soldiers are stunned, and keep firing at the burned corpse. The baker, who cannot believe what he has seen, abandons the city for his village. It was the narrator’s brother Hussam, a year older, who had changed Samir from a boy who loved to flirt with the girls into a fierce fighter, and Samir’s mother now vows eternal hatred—more hatred!—for the narrator’s family, and for the battalions of death. Banned from leaving her home, Samir’s mother would open the windows every morning cursing all the protagonists of the tragedy, until her sudden death from a heart attack.
Death, now all around, mocks all the taboos. The security forces no longer bother to deliver the dead to their families: they just cast the corpses aside, or bury them in shallow graves. “Death re-covered its real attributes, a sudden absence, a complete harmony with the elements of nature. The living were too busy staying alive, they had no time to mourn and praise the dead in a city known for its excessive respect for the dead.” One day, the azan, the call to morning prayer, was not made. Soldiers stormed the neighborhood homes, “spat in the faces of the men, made them kneel for several hours, no one dared move or object. Most of the city residents began to say that this battle was no affair of theirs. After noon prayers, the battalions of death left the neighborhood, to everyone’s relief.” A soldier distributes free of charge the local paper, the front page of which shows pictures of twelve swollen faces, a charred corpse, and soldiers flashing victory signs, dancing around the corpses and the weapons.
AN AZHAR EDUCATED cleric named Sheikh Jamil now makes his appearance in this minefield. His father had been a revered man of the guild, ascetic and disinterested in worldly belongings, and all of Aleppo bade him farewell when he died. But the son was different: he pined for wealth and power. He had spent some years in Saudi Arabia, where he had gone to make his fortune. He had written a book on the Wahhabis, defending them against their detractors, and made a gift of it to the Saudi monarch, stressing the need for obedience to the monarch and praising the services the royal family had rendered to the two holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. Sheikh Jamil waited and waited for a royal audience, but was instead given a sum of $10,000, well below his expectations. Finally he wearied of waiting for crumbs in the courts of princes and went back to Aleppo.
The men of the mukhabarat took to him, this man of the clergy who was willing to do their bidding, who would issue fatwas exonerating the men of the regime of whatever deeds they committed. It did not take Sheikh Jamil long to see the hopelessness of his situation: the Brothers now regarded him as a traitor to the faith. He did his best to mediate between the two sides, quoting scripture, and the tradition of the Prophet, and historical precedent, but it was all to no avail: the mukhabarat had a thick file on him, six hundred pages long, and his sons were notoriously corrupted by power. The Brothers were in need of a victory, and Sheikh Jamil was their target. Four masked men entered his home one morning as he was readying himself for prayer. They slit his throat, and left him by the corner where he took his evening coffee. The narrator is fixed on the sheikh’s story—the son of a pious scholar becoming “a turbaned man of the regime who justified the domination of the other sect and the repression of our own.” (This part of Khalifa’s fictional story became reality last October, when the son of the Mufti of the republic, Sheikh Ahmad Hassoun, was killed. His father, an Aleppine, is a man of unwavering commitment to the regime.)
BUT ONE NIGHT the Aleppines catch a break. It is the beginning of summer, and a lunar eclipse gives the city a chance to release itself from all that had befallen it. People went to the roofs of their houses to see the eclipse, beating their tambourines, beseeching Allah for mercy. They readied themselves to practice rituals that had been lost in the expansion of their city, as it took in “hundreds of thousands of villagers in search of an appropriate place in a city once beloved by travelers and savored by consuls who never forgot its uniqueness.” The moon began its eclipse, turned crimson red and bewitching. The battalions of death had never seen this before. Chants of “Allah-hu Akbar” filled the city, and both the Aleppines and the battalions of death accepted this respite.
All this may sound fantastic, but Khalifa has no need of magical realism. He invents no extravagant flights of fancy. His novel is a faithful reconstruction of his tormented city. His literary recovery of the Aleppine torments is uncannily accurate. For example: an assassination attempt was made on the life of Hafez al-Assad. The battalions of death readied themselves for revenge. The president of the republic had not been harmed, because a devoted bodyguard had thrown himself over the bomb and saved the tyrant. Nazir, the Alawi officer who had married into “the other sect,” was summoned before the commander of the battalions—an obvious fictional surrogate for Rifaat al-Assad, the ruler’s notorious younger brother. Known for his love of pleasure, with a temperament that made his extreme cruelty seem like the most natural of things, he coldly said: “Tonight we shall attack the desert prison, don’t let the sun rise on any of them.” A decision was made to storm the Palmyra prison and murder the political prisoners, “attack them like dogs in a closed ring, swat them like flies.” In less than an hour, Nazir thought, the planes will be on their way toward the desert, heavily armed soldiers heading there “as though they were hunting for wild ducks, or chasing deer in the desert.”
Nazir made a decision and approached a colonel who was a distant relative of his. He informed the colonel that he could not take part in this mission, and removed his officer’s insignia, and announced that he was ready to be tried before a military court or to attack any Israeli position. As he walked away, he watched the soldiers lift their fists in the air, proclaiming their loyalty to the commander of the battalions, and ascend the ten planes lined up on the tarmac. On the Aleppo road, in a taxi with three passengers, Nazir thought of the impending horror in the desert.
The land awoke on that hot summer day to rumors, spread like lightning, about the soldiers descending from the planes, entering the desert prison, and opening fire on the prisoners whose “brains were scattered to the ceilings, whose bodies were piled up in the corridors, like sacks of rotten oranges thrown haphazardly aboard a ship crossing the ocean in total boredom.” Black flags were raised over the balconies of countless homes: more than eight hundred prisoners had been killed in less than an hour. Bulldozers carried the corpses and dumped them in a pit. “Whoever entered Hama or Aleppo that day,” Khalifa writes, “thought that a festival of grief had begun in the early evening hours, to be followed by a carnival reminiscent of the rituals of sorrow for Imam Hussein, which had stirred the imagination of artists and Orientalists and strangers who had passed by Karbala.” The narrator’s mother is overcome with grief, because her son Hussam was in that desert prison. She sits in the courtyard, with a picture of Hussam, ululating and dancing like a woman possessed.
The character of Nazir is Khalifa’s instrument for a memorable portrait of Rifaat al-Assad. Nazir is summoned before the commander of the battalions, who had been his friend and his classmate. “Why did you betray me?” asks the commander. He strains for an answer that would not offend. “Sir, I did not betray you. I only wanted to remind ourselves of a military code of honor that would not permit us to attack unarmed prisoners.” A pause follows, before the commander, looking directly at him, says: “Didn’t you think they are criminals who want to wipe out our sect?” It was all about the sect, always. Nazir remembers a time when the two of them were young boys, on their way to school, together sheltering from the winter rain under a plastic tarp. A sudden burst of courage comes to him, and he addresses the commander by his first name, without the burden of titles or protocol: “Why do you wish to destroy our sect, and weigh it down with crimes it did not commit? Do what you wish, but leave the sect alone. You will smuggle your wealth abroad, leaving the poor to pay the price of all this.” The commander calmly fiddles with his pistol, then brings the meeting to an end. Nazir had been spared. The commander was reined in by his desire to avoid a split in the ranks of the sect—an outcome he wanted to avoid as he plotted to remove his older brother from power and take his place. Nazir is relieved of his duties and returns to his village, to the farming life and the companionship of his wife.
The legend of the commander of the death battalions would grow: a powerful and mighty man who loved life, and gave his battalions license to do what they wished. He plundered at will, and stashed his wealth in European and American banks. He was like a pampered boy who is granted his every wish “lest he ruin the evening for everyone.” News spread of his sexual scandals, of his men kidnapping comely young women off the streets and carrying them off to the swanky quarters of Damascus and then casting them away in the wretched streets. He cut in on the business of rich merchants, and one of his partners fell to his death from the seventh floor onto the cold pavement. “The next day there was a funeral for the deceased, a wreath of flowers in the name of the commander was paraded at the head of the funeral procession. The commander offered his condolences to the merchant’s sons. They thanked him, and sought no justice for the blood of their father. They attributed his death to a loss of balance, something that would befall any man who had stood on his terrace, on the seventh floor, waiting for the moon to appear.” The commander’s wealth grew as a reward for his deeds—the killings of the Brotherhood, the murder in cold blood of prisoners, “the destruction of a city that loved cotton candy and sweets more than it loved death.”
IT IS NAZIR, in the simplicity and the clarity of his village life, who advises the narrator to give up on the Gamaa, her Islamist group, and turn her back on all this, and focus on her studies in medical school. But it is too late. She returns home one evening to find the mukhabarat waiting for her. They handcuff heras her family looks on. She is carried off to prison.
Khalifa’s prison pages are brilliant. Syria’s prisons came with independence and its corruption, as the heroes of yesteryear were sent to perish in them. The two prisons—the desert prison in Palmyra and the Mezze prison on the outskirts of Damascus—begat their own distinct and horrific narratives. A rival of Hafez al-Assad, a fellow Alawi coup-maker, went to prison in 1970 and died there in 1993. A head of state, who was in actuality a Sunni frontman for Assad, was to spend twenty years in prison, until 1992, when he was released on a stretcher and permitted passage to Paris, where he died a few weeks later of cancer. Syrian prison memoirs are plentiful, but Khalifa’s pages are unusually valuable and strong because they describe the women’s prisons.
A baby is born in the prison to Suheir, a beautiful and defiant woman who is proud to be the widow of a martyr to the cause, and the child becomes beloved by all the prisoners. There are Marxist women in the prison, who are granted family visits once a month, and women from the Gamaa, who are granted this privilege every three months. There are old whores, and they fare best. The guards are extortionists and blackmailers; the wardens are perverts, spying on the women. Tuhama, a prisoner from Hama, is hanged in the courtyard. She is a mute, but the authorities believed that she was faking it: they charged her with blowing up an armored car in the streets of Hama and then feigning the disability to escape punishment. Umm Mamdouh, an older prisoner, herself from Hama, tells Tuhama’s story: her three brothers had been killed, and she went out in search of “two meters of earth” where she could bury them. “Gunfire surrounded her from every direction. She made her way through it unaware, dragging her brothers one at a time, as though she were in an ancient Greek drama. She buried all three of them on the banks of the Orontes, and prayed over them, only to discover when she tried to recite the al-fatiha [the opening chapter in the Koran] that she had lost the capacity of speech after two nights with the bodies. She didn’t care that she could not speak. Above her the helicopter circled the city, paratroopers falling from the sky like heavy rain.”
Our narrator spends seven years in prison. As her twenty-sixth birthday approaches, she is about to be released into the world she had left as though she had gone out for a “bundle of parsley.” A jailer who had praised the murders in the desert prisons sees her off. The jailer himself was seriously ill. He speaks to her of the “benevolence of the merciful leader,” hoping that the years in prison will now lead her to the straight path. He tries to convince her that the Gamaa were criminals, and that he and his colleagues are patriots who were trying to defend the country. She did not utter a word. “He stood up and gave me my release papers. He stretched out his hand, I stretched out mine to pass onto him the poison of my hatred. I shook the hand of an enemy, looked into his eyes, and saw his imminent death.”
It was a nightmare, her return to her old world. The commander of the death battalions had left the country, emptying the state treasury and departing with it. (Rifaat al-Assad now makes his home in Marbella. He surfaced of late, to preach the gospel of democracy and to offer himself as an alternative to his nephew. Not much really happened in Hama in 1982, he now says. It was just a small quarrel between the regime and the Brotherhood.) The narrator now practices medicine, and works in the city morgue. The house with the courtyard, in the Old City, has fallen on hard times. The Old City has been abandoned by the well-off for new neighborhoods. A different breed has moved in, people who keep goats and sheep in rooms with high ceilings. It was time for her, too, to go. She is done with Aleppo. She has no world of her own. The Gamaa women cannot accept her refusal to don the veil, and the young men and women of the regime look on her as an enemy. Like her devout uncle Bakr before, she leaves for London, far from the city of sorrow.
NEITHER ALEPPO nor Damascus eventually rose to challenge the dictatorship of the House of Assad. The city of Hama, in the central plains, might have been expected to take the lead in the rebellion against Bashar: it was a place with a vendetta of its own against the rulers. But so deep was the wound of Hama, from the bloodbath it had endured three decades earlier, that the Hamawis waited their turn this time around. The massacres of 1982 had made Hama into a haunted place. It was Homs, Hama’s twin in the central plains, the third largest city, that became the “capital of the rebellion.”
The demography of Homs was bound to make it an explosive place. Historically a Sunni town with an ancient Christian minority, Homs had to make room for a substantial Alawi influx. The Alawis had ridden the coattails of the regime. They are now a quarter of the population of Homs. They live in their own neighborhoods, as do the Sunnis in their old quarters, and the Christians in their own. It was as sure as anything that it would be a bloody affair when the troubles reached Homs—a veritable Sarajevo on the Orontes.
Yet it was fitting that the historic rebellion of 2011-2012 would strike its first spark in Deraa, a forlorn southern town in wheat-growing country, at a great remove from the rulers in Damascus. A small group of boys scribbled anti-regime graffiti on the walls. It was three months after the Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi had set himself ablaze. By then the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators had been overthrown, and Benghazi had conquered fear and silence, and the despot of Tripoli—part buffoon, part psychopathic killer—was reeling. There were protests in Yemen and Bahrain. The historic chant—al-shaab yorid isqat al-nizam! the people want to topple the regime!—could be heard from one end of the Arab world to the other. And the Syrians had always taken pride in their claim that their country was the “beating heart of Arabism.” The anatomical distinction was perhaps baseless, but it was one of the canonical myths of modern Arab politics. Of all the upheavals, of course, it was Tahrir Square that made the most powerful impression on the Syrians, because they have long been fixated on the ways, and the allure, of Egypt.
There was a military base in Deraa, a residential camp where the Alawi officers, and the security people, lived and congregated. Syrian political life had degenerated. These praetorian forces of the regime were the Mamluke soldiers of old, a ruling caste set apart from the population. And so the boys who dared to defy the silence with their graffiti were picked up and tortured. When the tribal elders came for them, they were humiliated and shown no regard: they were told to forget the young boys and to go home and get new children. And should they be unable to father new children, the soldiers of the dictatorship would be willing to help.
In the brief time between Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia and the “cheekiness” of the boys of Deraa, the rulers in Damascus insisted that their regime was immune to the pan-Arab eruption. The Egyptians had said that they were not Tunisians, and the Libyan ruler and his cruel brood declared that Libya was not like Tunisia and Egypt. In the same vein, the Syrians boasted that their country was unique, and bore no resemblance to Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Those places were ruled by old men, and Dr. Bashar, the eye doctor, was young. Those other Arab lands in the midst of upheaval were in the American orbit, and at peace with, or at considerable remove from, Israel. Syria, by contrast, was a “confrontation state,” the leader of the “axis of resistance” to the American-Zionist hegemony.
Deraa punctured this falsehood. And other towns would quickly take up the cause—Banias, Deir el-Zour, Jisr al-Shughur, and, in time, Homs and Hama. The remarkable thing about the first towns that embraced the rebellion is that they were precisely where the Baath party had caught on five or six decades earlier. Conceived in the Latin Quarter in Paris in the interwar years by two young intellectuals, Damescenes both, the Greek Orthodox Michel Aflaq and the Sunni Salah al-Din al-Bitar, the Baath had a hard time winning Damascus over. When the Baath first came to power, in a military coup in 1963, Damascus was unalterably hostile.
The cadres of the Baath, and the officers who used its ideological thicket to conceal their raw power, were men from the countryside—minorities. The party attracted Alawis from Jabal Ansariyah, the mountain abode of the Alawis and the coast at its base, and Druze, and Ismailis, and the lower rungs of the Sunni community. The business classes and the religious elite of Damascus had everything to fear from the advent of this rough breed. They saw through the intellectual pretensions, the talk of “reform” and of demolishing feudalism: it was their order, the one that survived for centuries, that the Baath had come to demolish. In the ensuing years Damascus had to be subdued by force, and seduced by an economic policy which in time let the Damascus bourgeoisie go on with business as usual.
The capital city worked its charms on the rural newcomers: it took them in, and transmitted the city ways to their sons and their daughters. It was not a perfect arrangement; it was a marriage of convenience. In the course of three generations, the provincial places that had given the Baath its cadres and its leaders were forgotten. The regime lulled the first generation with agrarian reform and land redistribution, and there was still patronage to be given the second generation. But the coffers were empty by the time Bashar inherited his father’s kingdom in 2000. The state wanted out of the responsibilities of a command economy. A population boom dictated such a withdrawal: Syria was a rural society of six million when Hafez al-Assad came to power, but it had become largely urbanized, with a population of nearly twenty-three million, by the time it rose against Bashar.
There is no denying that this rebellion of wrath and disinheritance is also a sectarian revolt. Fabrice Balanche, a talented French political geographer with extensive field research and an intimate knowledge of Syria, has made the essential point that the rebellion erupted from within Sunni Arab geography. The Kurds in the northeast have been left out of this upheaval, as have the Jabal Druze in the south. And the Alawi heartland, and the Alawi neighborhoods in mixed cities, are the regime’s people. They fight for the regime, and see their interests—their very survival—at stake in its struggle. To be sure, some Alawi intellectuals dreaded the regime and opposed it, insisting, in a somewhat exculpatory spirit, that the Alawi community as a whole has not been a beneficiary of the plunder and the extortion. These embattled Alawis would argue, with some evidence, that the merchant-military edifice had distributed its spoils to the Alawi intelligence barons and officers and to their Sunni and Christian partners in Aleppo and Damascus, whereas the Alawi mountain was still poor. Those Alawi villages and towns may have a villa or two for the barons and the commanders, but the community as a whole was not to blame for the dark deeds of this regime.
This line of apologetic reasoning had plenty of willful innocence in it. The fact is that the commanders of the security forces are mainly Alawites, as are the shabiha, the vigilantes whose task is to terrorize the population. It was inevitable, really, that this rebellion would be most intensely felt—and fought—as a Sunni upheaval against a smaller but more powerful sect, a godless lot, a community of schismatics, historically despised but coming into economic privilege by means of a military dictatorship. Bashar al-Assad had married a Sunni of upper bourgeois Homsi background, London-born at that, and his younger brother and enforcer, Maher, had done the same thing. But there was no way that the deep sectarian animus could be overcome.
Damascus certainly has a place of honor in the history, and the spread, of Islam. This was Islam’s first conquest when it spilled beyond the Arabian Peninsula and established the first Arab kingdom on the ruins of the Byzantine empire. In the centuries to come, Islam would spill beyond its origins, and succumb to Persians and Turks, as the mawali, the converts to Islam, overwhelmed the Arabs. A city of such sanctity as Damascus could not forever be ruled by schismatics. There had been zealous, unsparing Sunni jurists who had rejected the Alawis’ claim to having anything to do with Islam. Ibn Taymiyya, in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, the spiritual godfather of so many of today’s jihadists and a man of Damascus, had declared halal, or permissible, the blood and the property of the Alawis. “Pure unbelief” was how he described that faith.
Bashar al-Assad is no political genius, but really his dominion was doomed all along. The House of Assad had done its best to terrify the population, and to insulate them from the Islamism blowing through Arab lands. In an act of supreme cynicism—and despair, it turns out—the rulers in Damascus had aided the Sunni jihad in Iraq, providing a sanctuary and a transit point for fanatics and diehards eager to go to Iraq to kill the rafida (the Shia heretics) and the Americans. But the blowback was inevitable, and not long in coming. The Alawis had merely postponed their moment of reckoning.
Perhaps Aleppo will finally bear this rebellion good tidings. Recent reports suggest that the Aleppines have found their courage. The shabiha, so pervasive in the past, appear to have pulled back from the city. Tribals from the countryside had been over-represented in the shabiha, but there has been a split among the tribes, and many of their leaders have given up on the regime. The Aleppo countryside has slipped out of the control of the rulers. The regime did its best to keep Aleppo out of the contest—its demographic weight, the deep pockets of its business class, had been of great concern to Assad and his satraps, and so the iron fist was applied sparingly to this city. But such an accommodation is always tenuous. It requires a regime sure of itself, with sufficient treasure and brute power, and a quiescent population. Aleppo did not start this great rebellion, but it would be splendid for this city, the country’s capital of prudence and reasonableness, to announce its long-deserved victory.
Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and co-chairman of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. This article appeared in the March 1, 2012 issue of the magazine.