Assad's New Front: When Words Become Weapons

"Dancers in the Dictator's Hell" by Wissam Al Jazairy

In addition to being a prominent Syrian leftist with a significant presence in the revolution, Michel Kilo is also a great short story teller. His anecdotes are found not in novels, but in newspaper columns, which Kilo calls "Stories from the World of Ghosts." These stories are multi-dimensional: funny, ironic, tragic, real, and autobiographical. Ahmad, a character from "Stories from the World of the Ghosts," published in a column in Asharq Alawsat, has a gripping story. The story, I recall, featured Kilo himself in the same Al Maza prison as Ahmad. Even though it is painful to hear how unjustly Ahmad was treated, the circumstances that landed Ahmad in prison offer some comic relief.

The latest of Kilo's anecdotes interested me a great deal because of an intriguing and controversial protagonist: Zaki al-Arsouzi (1899-1968), considered a third co-founder of the Baath Party. I was drawn to this character due to my studies of Syrian politics. When researching Arab nationalism, I looked into al-Arsouzi’s view on the subject. His position was both unrealistic and ungrounded in historical facts. He claimed pan-Arabism can be traced thousands of years back, despite the literature on the subject that says nationalism cannot be traced back, even in Europe, more than few hundred years.

Al-Arsouzi enters Kilo's story in a discussion about the sliding level of political discourse in the Arab world. As a target of personal attacks for his anti-Assad activism, Kilo includes al-Arsouzi to validate his views that there is little departure between the demonization language against opponents today and opponents from the past.

In his recent anecdote, Kilo shows the continuity between Baathist mentality in the pre-Assads days to mentality in the present. The character who embodies the continuity is Zaki al-Arsouzi. Asharq Alawsat newspaper published the anecdote in a column ("Sick Political Weapons") on August 31. In the story, al-Arsouzi was sitting late afternoon in a Damascene coffee shop when a pro-French Mandate demonstration passed by him. He claimed to those around him that the demonstration was full of "French agents," a derogatory term indeed. Few moments another demonstration passed by, but this time they were compiled of anti-French Mandate slogans. Yet, al-Arsouzi looked at his audience and said, "they are French agents." When one person corrected his characterization, al-Arsouzi wildly yelled at the protester, continuing to call him a "French agent."

I am sure this anecdote sums up the attitude of the Assad regime as well as those who became self-proclaimed "pacifists," suddenly awakened to abandon their long-standing calls for "armed struggle against oppression and injustice." Their cliché/weapon now consists of the term "traitor" or takhween to label anyone who supports the Syrian revolution plus demonizing the opponents by speaking to them in a "sick political" language, the language used in the 1940s by an elder Baathist protagonist and the one his contemporary students remain faithful to.

--Elie Chalala 

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