The heart wrenching images from Syria never stop engulfing the viewer with pain and helplessness as well as an anger that can distract attention from important details. One writer, however, by dint of her exceptional analytical ability, has been clinical enough in her observations to strike a balance between details big and small. Her name is Ala Shayeb al-Din, and her article, “Ajrafa” or “Arrogance,” appeared in An Nahar’s Cultural Supplement on June 15, 2013.
A Syrian author, Shayeb al-Din writes and comments on the shocking and detestable attitudes that humans display when presented with tragic and horrific circumstances. One occasion for such commentary occurred following the massacre in Jdeidet Al Fadel on the 21st of April 2013, where more than 483 people were burned alive or knifed to death over a four-day period. This terrifying massacre became even more appalling when a group of Assad loyalists celebrated the event by organizing “festivals” to cheer the “courageous” Republican Guards and the Shabiha (pro-Assad thugs) on their victory over “the terrorists,” when in actuality they had committed unspeakable cruelties against civilians.
Following the massacre, Shayeb al-Din reported that photos of young women dancing the dabke circulated in the pro-Assad media. This conduct raised “many critical, baffling and difficult questions as to how mercy could disappear from the hearts of some to such an atrocious extent?”
Most observers overlook, consciously or unconsciously, details that appear to be secondary and instead become caught in what can be called the larger picture: the daily death counts, the ostensible reasons for a given massacre, the types of weapons used, and the role of regional and international powers. But Shayeb al-Din avoids the tendency to allow the sweeping impressions to carry her away. Nor does she become mired down in the minutiae. She notes in her article that the Assad killing machine appears to be working according to a pre-conceived plan, with many regime loyalist reactions deliberately choreographed to send a political message. One need only consider the images portraying their behavior, images that have remained more or less consistent for the past two and a half years. The dresses worn by the women, for instance, look more like uniforms, while their yellow color becomes significant in its association with Hezbollah. This leaves little room to doubt the deliberation given to these costumes. As recently as few months ago, photos of the pro-Assad Syrian voters in Lebanon also conformed to this analysis, as if they too wanted to send a sectarian message by distinguishing themselves from the images of the largely veiled refugees. The orchestration of pro-Assad’s supporters, marching to the Syrian embassy in Al Yarze to cast their votes in the Syrian presidential election, recalled the reactions that Shayeb al-Din observed during last year’s massacres in Jdeidet Al Fadel, with both scenes carrying the same political message.
The symbolism of these contrived similarities in the appearances of regime forces and supporters is not lost to Shayeb al-Din either. The images of Assad loyalist women, with their heads uncovered, suggested that they were the frightened minorities targeted by a Sunni extremist majority. They carried red flags, the legitimate symbol of Syrians, as opposed to the green flags raised by those lawless Others, wore Western-style dresses, sometimes sported tattoos, and, of course, displayed t-shirts bearing images of Bashar al-Assad, or slogans such as “we love you.” They gloated and displayed malice towards their enemies, while showering praise and glory on the leader, the army, and the police. Even their deceptive smiles constituted a deliberate attempt to irritate and instill envy in their rivals.
The details of these and other photographs clearly reveal the sectarian nature of the regime, its arrogance, and its repressive character, all engendered by contempt, as well as a methodical prejudice and chauvinism.
Shayeb al- Din notes: “By using comparative terms we can illustrate this more clearly. When we compare the anti-regime demonstrations with their loyalist counterparts, the world of arrogance comes into focus most clearly. In the anti-regime demonstrations, the people are rebellious, angry, spontaneous, and unconcerned with what they might look like if photographed, since they are more preoccupied with their sincere indignation, and worries that regime bullets might pierce their chests at any moment. In the vast majority of cases, they are simple, poor, marginalized, come from rural areas, are dressed modestly according to tradition or locale, and carry slogans of social justice, equality, freedom and dignity.”
By contrast, the pro-regime demonstrations emphasize their patriotism and loyalty to the Assad family by using racist and exclusionary slogans which deny the presence of the Other. They imply that the opposition rebels are composed of foreign agents and traitors, a “fact” which then justifies their deaths. At the same time, the pro-Assad groups strive to appear “civilized and secular,” with their yellow “uniforms,” t-shirts, and red flags, while the demonstrating rebels are portrayed as scum, extremists and terrorists.
The message is clear. They want to convey that they, and only they, constitute the legitimate forces, “protected by the state’s army.” They would appear the strongest, the ones who will stay forever. One can discern this through body language, facial expressions, and the focus on their dress, which makes them appear an “urban and modernist [force]…confronting the backward, [and] barbaric.”
Even the sunglasses they often wear convey a similar meaning. In the pro-Assad demonstrations, those glasses represent an identification with the arrogance and overbearing attitude visible in photographs of the royal ruling family, in which Assad, his son, and his brother are wearing sunglasses. These images, which play with ambiguity, have penetrated the consciousness of people in every corner of Syria, and “are psychologically designed to instill fear in their recipients and project a sense of inferiority onto them.” At the same time these photographs strive to humiliate their targets, the sunglasses also represent an “attempt to cover the face, a subtle reminder of the fear of being exposed to security forces.”
The widespread images of the Assads which appeared after Bashar inherited the “republic,” should be considered in the same context. They portray Assad, his wife, and children, as a sporty family, “happy, modern and understanding of the enslaved people.” This promotes the image of a young reformist son, “transcending the regime of the old father.” These photographs also suggest that the children of the family should be taken as models for all of Syria’s children. Further, the images portray the first lady as a “good looking woman” who is “open to anything new.” Again, this implies that the women of Syria ought to look through this lens and repress their femininity in favor of her own eternal, beautiful presence.
This same arrogant perspective also applies to photos of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) when contrasted against those of the “official army,” that is the Syrian Arab Army. Although the FSA lack good uniforms, such as helmets or bullet proof vests, and their outward appearance — with their untamed hair and scruffy beards — bears the signs of neglect, this only indicates the difficult conditions with which they must live. Further, these images exploit the FSA’s lack of conventional and “advanced” technologies, such as planes and tanks, in an attempt to deepen the impression of an army of “displaced terrorists and beggars.” In reality, we are faced with two contradictory worlds. The first world is that of an oppressive, mercenary, illegitimate and unpatriotic regime, which has encouraged the invasion of Syria by its sectarian “allies” from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon (Hezbollah). The second world is peopled with rebels who champion a popular, just, and national cause. They stand alone in the revolution, unsupported by others, and yet still fight with the spirit of freedom.
The disdain manifested in these carefully orchestrated images offers just one example of the oppression and abuse that the Assads have inflicted upon the Syrian people for so many decades. Arrogance constitutes one of the solid bedrocks of this dictatorship, and it would not be far from the truth to say that this attitude remains one of the most important and deeply-rooted causes of the revolution. The regime’s arrogance, as well as its complete lack of decency, love, and tolerance, has devastated the lives and crushed the dreams of the Syrian people. Few, if any Syrians have escaped the psychological, spiritual, and emotional consequences.
Finally, Shayeb al-Din makes notes that the regime images serve two functions: First, they act as a ‘reminder’ of a humiliating past in which Assad and his loyalists exploited and lived off of the Syrian people. Second, they act as ‘agitating’ agents that prohibit any thought of retreating from the revolution, because retreat would only bring a reality more vengeful and enslaving than the one the revolutionaries knew before. Here, death offers the more merciful path. In truth, these images, and the arrogance they represent, give meaning and clarity to the widely used slogan “Death Instead of Humiliation.”
This essay is largely based on an Arabic version by AlaShayeb al-Din, “Ajrafa” or “Arrogance,” which appeared in An Nahar’s Cultural Supplement on June 15, 2013. The material for this essay was translated by Elie Chalala and Joseph Sills and written and edited by Elie Chalala with contributions from Michael Teague.
This essay will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 19, No. 68.
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