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from the August 2011 issue

A Conversation with Rafik Schami

Rafik Schami was born in Damascus in 1946, came to Germany in 1971, and studied chemistry in Heidelberg. Today he is the most successful German-speaking Arabic writer. His novels have been translated into twenty-three languages and received numerous international awards. His bestselling books include The Dark Side of Love, The Calligrapher's Secret, and Damascus Nights.

Syrian journalist Nadia Midani spoke with Rafik Schami earlier this year. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Nadia Midani: I’ll begin by asking what will be left in the end.  I know it’s a trap, and no one can give a real answer to that question, but I will ask it all the same: what alternatives face the Syrians now?

Rafik Schami: Only God can tell, along with a few of those who always think they know everything. But first, whoever wins, Syria will never return to conditions as they were before March 2011. Second, the present dramatic developments will leave many wounds behind, and they will take a long time to heal. Here lies the embryonic danger of civil war, which is cultivated by the regime so that it can claim to be fighting Sunni extremists. That virulent embryo will still be a danger even if the insurgency overthrows the president. Third, the regime has stripped off, forever,  Bashar al Assad’s mask as “the ophthalmologist who studied in London and is married to a charming, fashion-conscious woman.” Bashar al Assad is increasingly assuming the appearance of a dictator who— like his father in 1982—will bomb his country’s own cities, send marksmen to shoot down demonstrators, arrest and torture tens of thousands. Fourth …

N.M.: Could it be that he has lost control, and his brother Maher is now in charge of everything?

R.S.: The army and all fifteen secret services answer directly to the president. We can come back to that later, but for now a brief  response to the original question: fourth, the Syrians have paid a high price for casting off their fears. So far they have over  two thousand dead to mourn, and their insurgency may cost them yet more, but as they have done it all independently, indeed in isolation, and without any outside help, no dictatorship can terrify them now. The streets are becoming politicized as never before in the last hundred years. Every government will feel the force of that.

N.M.:  When and where exactly did the Syrian uprising begin?

R.S.: On March 15, 2011. It was children in the previously sleepy, dusty town of Daraa who unintentionally instigated revolt. Innocently and guilelessly, they wrote on the walls, in chalk and spray paint, things that adults were discussing only under their breath. Thereupon the head of the secret service in Daraa, a cousin of the president, had the children captured and tortured. That was more than the parents could tolerate.

N.M.: Unlike you, I still hoped that Assad junior would gradually implement reforms, and lead Syria into a democracy where many voices could be heard … I’ll admit now, in sackcloth and ashes, that at the time I publicly criticized your firm rejection of that idea when you wrote, “What Syria needs is democracy, not heirs to Assad.” All the same, I’ll ask you now, could there have been options other than rebellion?

R.S.: My obdurate attitude to that idea was, and still is, bound up with my exile. Exile has some advantages, as well as its obvious drawbacks. In exile, you can inform yourself better, and develop and express your thoughts freely. Syria was the first Arab republic to pass on power by inheritance. As if there were no other capable women or men in all Syria who could have governed the country—and done it in accord with the will of the people.  Appointing the colorless Bashar al-Assad, who took no interest in politics, as his father’s successor was alien to any concept of democracy. The secret services had grave doubts. The man was given a crash course in suitable behavior, and promoted to military ranks that would normally require  twenty years of army experience. He was then presented to the people as a reformer, and he did in fact set up two study groups, which met, of course, under the close supervision of the secret service. He allowed the publication of a satirical magazine, and had a few corrupt ministers arrested. From the first, it was nothing but a theatrical show of which he was director, until all the army generals and all of the leadership cadre either proclaimed their loyalty or were dismissed. After that he governed for eleven years without a single reform. It was easier to get a clear idea of all that from abroad than from within the country. Here in exile, we turned a skeptical eye to the euphoria. We saw the old Mafia replaced, but by their sons; that was the sole change. And the regime of those sons grew even bolder. Who gave away all telecommunications rights to his cousin? How can a penniless cousin of the president get to be a billionaire in ten years? Where do the billions of the Assad family in European and American banks come from? And then that same Assad presents himself to his people as anti-American.

N.M.: All the same, why can’t such a regime be reformed?

N.S.: Because at the very first step toward serious reform it would implode, collapsing from the center outward. That first step would have to be the dissolution of all  fifteen secret services. The second would be to give the Syrian people back the billions of which they have been robbed. We don’t need developmental aid. Anything else is only a superficial spectacle staged for the benefit of an equally superficial press. An opportunity for reform did in fact exist for a few days. As soon as the uprising began,  the president, with the support of the majority of the population, which never demanded his removal but was demonstrating for freedom and democracy and against corruption, could have gathered some of his best advisers around him and dissolved the secret services. He would have had to introduce radical reforms in comprehensible steps that were open to daily scrutiny. He would have been the hero of the people, and the people would have protected him and his life. Alternatively, he might have been dead even before he had announced the last clause of his proposed reforms, murdered by his own henchmen. But as they would not have had time to build anyone up as his successor, the change to democracy would have come more quickly.

N.M.: Is Bashar al-Assad really leader of the regime, or just a puppet of the secret services?

R.S.: He’s its leader. He shares power with his family, but he bears full responsibility, because the army and the secret service answer directly to him. On the other hand he himself, like his leadership, is caught in a system that oppresses and dictates to  twenty million people. 

N.M.: Does the fact that children began the revolution explain the hatred of the secret services for them? The murder of Hamza al Khatib, for instance?

R.S.: Not entirely, because they could have killed him and made sure that he was never seen again, like thousands of others who have disappeared without trace. But they brought the boy’s mutilated body back to his parents. He must have suffered hell on earth in the last hour of his life. It was a message, a warning: we will spare no one, and we will hit you where it hurts most.

N.M.: But it had the opposite effect.

R.S.: Because the secret service didn’t stop to think that even the most peace-loving of Syrians are implacable if you touch their children. Hamza al Khatib became the icon of the Syrian revolution, and since his death the insurgents have been demonstrating not just on Fridays, as they did before, but every day.

N.M.: But not in Aleppo and Damascus, except on the outskirts of those large cities. A friend of mine phones me regularly from a bar in the center of Damascus, laughing and chatting as if he were in Paris.

R.S.: The tradition of cities in Asian countries, including Syria, is not the same as in Europe. In an Arab city, for instance, the ruler was ever-present with his adherents, military leaders, and the organizations of the secret service, the army, and the police. Feudal lords lived in cities, not on their landed estates as they did in Europe, where the city was able to develop as a civil power, a counterweight to theirs, and a center of resistance. In Damascus and Aleppo traders and industrialists, importers, and other beneficiaries of the system have made more profit than ever before in history. The people of those cities therefore have something to lose. Insurgency in Damascus and Aleppo would mean the end of the regime.

N.M.: And why didn’t the provinces rebel against the father, only now against the son?

R.S.: Because the time wasn’t ripe for it then, because insurgency had to be triggered by events in the neighboring Arab countries, and because Assad senior and his aides came from the provinces themselves, and cultivated their relationship with their origins. Many thousands from the tribes of the men in power were appointed to posts in the army, the secret service, and the police. The second generation, that’s to say the sons of those men, became townsfolk and were happy to forget their peasant origin. The people of the provinces were plunged into misery and want, and now they are answering back.

N.M.: The regime says it is fighting armed terrorists. By now that claim looks more than ridiculous, since over fifteen thousand Syrians have fled from the army allegedly protecting them and taken refuge in Turkey. I admire the courage of the civilians who hope for peaceful regime change, but in view of the brutality of the troops of the president’s brother Maher al Assad, their attitude looks to me suicidal.

R.S.: The Syrian nation is showing what a civilization ten thousand years old means. I bow to that civilized stance. But about your fears. This  nonviolent insurgency in Syria is the longest in its history. No ruler in the world has an answer to that kind of thing. The regime is merely reacting, the initiative passed into the hands of the insurgents long ago, and they have already done a  great deal. The length of their nonviolent  resistance will overthrow the regime, whose movements are being paralyzed. The businessmen who still stand by the government will withdraw their support when their businesses fail. That’s the open secret of this revolution. Anyone calling on the Syrian people to take up arms is either an idiot or an agent of the regime, because if they did that, then the slavishly obedient, well-armed and well-drilled troops of the president’s brother, brother-in-law, and cousin would prevail.

N.M.: How great is the influence of writers and creative cultural figures in bringing democracy to Syria? Must intellectuals state the line they take on politics and insurgency?

R.S.: Literature and art can exert only indirect political influence. Whenever prominent figures in those fields have tried the direct way, the consequences have been catastrophic. The role of artists, writers, and intellectuals, in my opinion, is to intensify discussion during the period of insurgency, to encourage people to choose the humane path, and to offer the hand of friendship to their former enemies. Of course, independent courts will have to see that all crimes committed by the overthrown rulers get their just punishment. But not as an act of revenge—in the spirit of a democratic process aiming for maturity. Flight from responsibility with the aid of hypocritical arguments would be a mistake.

N.M.: Are any Syrian artists politically active in the country itself? What about those who work with the government?

R.S.: Of course some are politically active at home. In Syria, as well as in exile, there are courageous artists, writers, and intellectuals who oppose the dictatorship. There are also others who are hand in glove with the government and are happy to receive its patronage and prizes. The joke is that you can also find their names on the lists of signatures of those who want to see the regime overthrown. Now, however, the insurgents are publishing the names of these corrupt artists who will grovel to power. Dictators are like nuclear power stations: they promise much, and contaminate those who come into contact with them. Arabs are not alone in paying homage to the dictators. The prospect of gain has also seduced Germans and other Europeans into working for Saud, Assad, Gadhafi, and Saddam Hussein.

N.M.: What exactly is so seductive about power that it can attract intellectuals?

R.S.: It’s not so much the direct advantages—money, a car, a house—as the vanity that is gratified by proximity to power. Writers, artists, and intellectuals are far from immune to it. You accompany a president on a state visit, you’re received by the ministers—foreign affairs, home affairs, culture—of another country, you dine with prominent men who mention in passing that they were on the phone only yesterday to Obama, Sarkozy, the Devil in person for all I know. All that is tempting. Many such artists, particularly the older ones who feel that they are languishing in the shadows, will try to get a share of the limelight again—and make themselves look ridiculous.

N.M.: As far as I can tell, the Syrian uprising has no head, which gives me cause for concern. It is not led by any political party or cadre.  Isn’t that dangerous?

R.S.: What has happened in the Arab countries is unprecedented, and it is still going on. There has never been anything comparable in history before: a revolution without a charismatic leadership, without weapons, or a political party, victoriously bringing down dictators. It succeeded extremely well in Tunisia and Egypt. Syria is a more complicated proposition, because it is a very important piece in the whole Arab game of dominoes, and because its present regime has more experience than any other of civil war (in Lebanon) and of the uninterrupted rule of one family over a period of forty years. But it’s just because the uprising here is not led by any distinct group that the dictatorship is finding it so hard to suppress. Earlier, the regime could paralyze any opposition within a week by arresting its leadership. Today it arrests  ten thousand Syrian citizens, kills two thousand, destroys towns and cities—and the insurgency just gets stronger. That strength is also the weakness of the revolution, because unlike a centrally led movement, it has no distinct aim. Modern means of communication—Facebook, Twitter, the Internet, cameras, cellphones—provide it with something like a nervous system to protect it from deadly attack. But eventually there must be local coordinating committees, agreeing on strategy and tactics with other committees, or the insurgents will be going around in circles.

N.M.: Let’s assume that Assad falls. What comes next? What dangers lie in wait? Suppose fundamentalists try turning Syria into a theocratic state?

R.S.: Slowly, take it slowly! Assad hasn’t fallen yet, and I am afraid he’s not about to stand down without starting a civil war. Here he could model himself on Gadhafi. That would be a catastrophe, and all my articles in opposition newspapers warn Syrians against that danger. It exists because so much blood has been shed, and because fundamentalists agitate against the Alawites, and will take their revenge only at the moment of victory. On the other hand, the majority of the insurgents are in favor of a free, democratic republic. We must learn to forgive, and forgiving sometimes means forgetting, or life becomes impossible. With its many religious and ethnic minorities, Syria is not cut out to be a theocratic state. The Muslim Brotherhood party is active, but in an election it wouldn’t win as much as 10% of the votes. It will get those votes, too, but first it has to accept the laws of a democratic state, officially declare that it is opposed to the idea of a caliphate and accepts Christians, and explain its finances and its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Without Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood is harmless.

N.M.: Is the West right to feel anxious about the Christians of Syria?

R.S.: That is pure hypocrisy. In fifty years, the West hasn’t concerned itself for a second with the welfare of Arab Christians living under dictatorships. In fact, the opposite. Of course the Christians of Syria, like all minorities, have always been endangered, but they have lived under the protection of the Muslim population for thousands of years—even during the Crusades—and they will also survive the transition to democracy.

Translation of "Ein Gespräch mit Rafik Schami." © 2011 by Rafik Schami. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2011 by Anthea Bell. All rights reserved.

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