Friday, January 06, 2012

The 7th of March 1963

I've always been fascinated by shifts in power. When I was still at school I remember our English teacher encouraging us to read "The Children's Story" by James Clavell - and we were asked to describe our thoughts about it. At the time, I could tell that the children were being manipulated gently into accepting a new situation, and I could tell from parts of the story that the parents and the old teacher belonged to an old order, or way of doing things, which had lost the war. Today when I read the tale as an adult, I can recognise that it is anti-communist propaganda that fed on the hysteria of the cold war, but it strikes a cord which is relevant to any society which finds itself under threat today. A few years ago I imagined a similar scenario could be applied in the Middle East, with some foreign occupiers convincing children to cut up their own flag, or perhaps a Quran. Somewhere deep down, such stories feeds on our fear of losing all that we hold precious and sacred. We are provoked by the thought of indifferent and hostile enemies tossing aside our most valued possessions, and uprooting our very ideas.

I spent a long time disliking that story, in spite of the effect Clavell's story had upon me, but there was always something about it which fascinated me. It was the ease with which an old system or world would come to an end, and a new one could easily come into being, and make itself comfortable. Sometimes these changes are welcome, such as when an oppressive or brutal reign comes to an end, but other times things don't work out so well. On the 7th of March, 1963, Syria used to be a country where people could still say what they wanted without fear of being arrested or tortured. The people had already gone through the terrible years of Adib al Shishakli, and had ended an ill-planned and poorly implemented union with Nasser's Egypt. Yet on the eve of the 7th, not many people would have guessed how different their country would gradually become.

On the surface, the machinery of government continued to tick, the employees continued to go to work and business continued pretty much as usual. But at the top of the pyramid there was a brief, brutal and bloody struggle, and out of that mess came a new political ideology which wished to transform the country and the entire region. Slowly, heads of department are replaced, journalists are silenced, arrested or worse. Officers are purged, forced to retire or exiled. Then the thugs are slowly let loose into the cities and towns. Personal grudges and scores are settled as less scrupulous individuals find that they can exact revenge on those they disagree with - and ingratiate themselves with the new powers - by informing.

In the beginning people might have kept their heads down, thinking this will come to pass. But slowly, without anybody noticing, the most outspoken people who rejected anything they believed was wrong were silenced. One by one, they and their families were silenced by a creeping oppression that was terrifying in its inevitability. At some abstract level, high above the unknowing public, a titanic struggle for the soul of a country begins. Even amongst the ringleaders of the coup, there are plots, counter-plots and conspiracies. Finally, almost ten years later, only one remains and it is his will which utterly reshapes the way an entire country thinks, behaves and sees itself. Any who stand in his way are ruthlessly crushed, and those who manage to escape him are exiled into irrelevance. These exiles, like the Syria before the 7th of March, 1963, might as well have inhabited another planet. They speak a language, and in a manner, that nobody in the new generation can understand or remember. Even communicating with them, or uttering anything about them, had become taboo, such was the level of social indoctrination that they have experienced. The parents of these young Syrians are no help either, for they have either taught their children nothing - out of fear - or been happy to go along with the new system.

At some point, on the eve of that fateful night, the old guardians of Syria - from across the political spectrum - failed, and they were replaced by something so terrible and sinister that it had almost crushed the soul out of this land. Almost...

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