I went to the Umayyad mosque at midday prayers yesterday, and saw rather less than I’ve heard about. There was an atmosphere of tension outside it, lots of people waiting. A young girl approached me, she’d disguised herself as a tourist, but she was still afraid. Could we be together? She’d look more foreign that way. The were around 200 lower middle class men of a variety of ages hanging around the square watching the mosque, and traditionally dressed women watching them. As the midday prayers ended and the doors opened half the men surged forwards. ‘God, Syria, Bashar, only,’ they chanted, waving Syrian flags and pictures of Hafez. I’ve been to demonstrations, I know that edgy excitement and party atmosphere. This was thuggery. ‘These men are security,’ my new friend explained as she tried to take a photo of the pro-government ‘demo,’ but some of the other men, also security, in the square stopped her.
‘Come this way,’ a man said, ‘you’ll be safe, away from security, you can take pictures. Are you journalists?’ He looked disappointed when the girl I was with explained we were tourists. ‘These men support the government, but they are security, there is another group inside the mosque. I am with them,’ our new friend explained. While the man we were with hopefully claimed he could hear anti-government chanting from inside the mosque, I couldn’t. At that point the doors to the mosque were slammed shut.
‘Don’t take any pictures now,’ the man who’d adopted us said. ‘It’s not safe.’
A young, rich man in tears came and got into the car (again the piazza was full of vehicles) we were next to and my ‘travelling companion’ slipped into it to talk to him. It turned out his fiancé was praying in the mosque and she wasn’t picking up her phone.
The protesters opened the doors of the mosque and surged into it. ‘They haven’t taken of their shoes,’ the Syrians I was with gasped and the old women in the square all drew in their breath. I noticed my fellow ‘traveller’ was crying. The crowd of men came back out again, still chanting, and set off round the city. I saw a friend of mine and, running into various other foreigners we knew we went to eat ice cream and discuss it. The girl explained she hated these people who were prepared to sell out their country, her country that deserved better. The other foreigner argued that it wasn’t Syria’s time yet. Immediately the girl, who’d been to university in Europe, countered ‘It is now. Maybe in ten days, when Gaddafi has fallen,’ but my friend argued that it wasn’t just her country, it was the country of the South and Deir az Zour, in the East, which are different worlds to civilized Damascus.
The NY Times is insinuating that what I saw was an anti government protest. My opinion of the NY Times is plummeting.
That evening I was round some western friend’s house when various Syrian friends of theirs came round.
‘Have you heard?’ one, a journalist said ‘the have been riots in Deir az Zour, and 5 have been killed in Dera.’ He explained, in beautiful Arabic as another foreigner translated, ‘they were chanting, ‘‘This is the Sunna revolution, this is the national revolution.” The regime has sown the seeds of hatred against the Alawi sect (a pretty heretical branch of Shia Islam that the ruling family belong to) in the hearts of the people. This is the beginning.’ We listened as he hypothesized that in the next couple of days the government would cut communications, but that the people wouldn’t back down like the Damascus merchants had in ’82, that ‘This is It’.
The Syrian government loves religious tolerance, although its debatable how deeply rooted it is. During the French Mandate religious differences were exploited in an attempt by the metropole to maintain power. Syria was then the Bolivia of the Middle East, with coup after coup after coup, often with religious element, until the present incumbents father came to power. My Sunna family were very proud of their religious tolerance and the high position of Christians in Syria, but explained that the Shia are behind all the Trouble in the region, and Ali was almost certainly killed by his own companions. My mother and grandmothers Sunna tour guide warned them not to listen to the Shia in the Sidia Rouqa mosque. One of my friends has a hilarious story about going on a kebab crawl with some Christians who wanted to warn him about eating halal meat, and its well known among other religious groups that the Druze have an annual orgy and sleep with their sisters. That said an educated, well read Syrian friend of mine had a good rant the other day about how his non-Syrian girlfriend keeps on asking what sect people belong to. He finds it truly shocking.
At that point more Syrians came round, telling us about the protest at the Omayyad Mosque which had grown in the telling, though it looks like some brave, brave people tried to start something.
‘Has there been anything in Hassake?’ someone asked, referring to a large Kurdish town.
‘No. It is very bad,’ the guest explained. ‘I want to get married. These people will destroy us.’
Maybe they’re right, maybe this is the beginning. However things are not looking good elsewhere in the region. It also seems to me that the Syrian stuff is getting a disproportionate amount of coverage compared to the stuff in the West’s allied nations. One man went to protest on Saudi Arabia’s day of rage. One very brave man. I wonder where he is now.