October 28, 2011
“The other day, I went to the woman who is the best baker in Damascus – she works on the road to the airport, I always buy my bread from her but she was crying. She told me that some bearded men came to her and said: ‘You are a Christian and you are putting whiskey in your bread.’ So she had to close her bakery. These are the kind of people who want to destroy Syria. Now people, for the first time, are interested in the religion of their neighbours. This has never happened before. You know, Syria is one of those countries where people have the names of jobs – like Najr (carpenter) and Haddad (blacksmith). Now people are asking about what their religion is.”
The political narrative is, of course, familiar. Violence is being directed at the army. “It is being directed at our public buildings and cities. This has nothing to do with peaceful demonstrations. This violence is the most dangerous thing happening now in Syria. Syrians all want to live in peace, to press ahead with pluralism and reforms. This violence is not the introduction to democracy. There is obviously a sector which is interested in conflict and not in reforms. They are all given money to shoot at demonstrators and the security forces – or they are extremist fundamentalists.”
I have been down this path before. Surely – surely – I said to Shaaban, those original, terrible YouTube pictures of demonstrators being fired at in Deraa and Homs and Hama were real. One even shows Syrian soldiers turning and firing on the man filming them with his mobile camera. We all know how brutal the intelligence services can be. I remember – but do not mention – walking past the “muhabarrat” headquarters not far from my own hotel and commenting to a friend the same night that they must be hard at work on “interrogations”. “They are done in the basements,” he replied. “You wouldn’t want to know what happens there.”
“I think you have to know both sides of the story,” comes the reply. “I would not be able to tell you the other side of the story. There are always now two sides of the story – I will not be defending anybody. Early in the crisis, our army and police and security services paid terrible sacrifices but they were told not to shoot at demonstrators. I really don’t know why people should make things up. The Syrian civilians who went to Turkey – they returned and said the Turks had promised them passports, all kinds of things which turned out to be untrue. Why would a person wanting to flee Idlib go to Turkey? They would go to Aleppo.”
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