Syria Diary

220px-Bashar_al-Assad_(cropped)Layla Al-Zubaidi in the LRB:

In a hit YouTube show called Top Goon, wooden puppets act out the parts of Bashar and his father. The director relocated his operation to Lebanon after a march last July led to the detention of many of his friends. In August, the political cartoonist Ali Farzat was kidnapped and dumped by a roadside, his hand broken, after he published a cartoon depicting Bashar hitching a ride out of town. Dissent is met with brute force, no matter what form it takes, and masks and puppets are a reasonable precaution. In the final episode of Top Goon the puppeteers show (part of) their faces. His eyes just visible behind a Syrian flag, one of them pops up from behind the stage to tell the Bashar puppet his time is up. Bashar won’t go down easily: ‘I’m president of this republic! I’ll annihilate you! Infiltrator! Scum! Al-Qaida!’ The puppeteer isn’t bothered. ‘Do you know,’ he says, ‘I can make you do whatever I want. I can make you dance.’ He makes the president do a few pirouettes. Then he unscrews his head.

In downtown Damascus I passed the usual bustling alleys filled with shops and cafés, busy as ever. The window of a loyalist restaurant displayed a cartoon. A big devil, carrying a hat emblazoned with the UN flag, was blowing a horn labelled SECTARIAN SCHISM. Little devils sliced chunks out of a map of Syria, their knives marked with the corporate logos of al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and the BBC.

I got into a cab. When the driver asked why I’d come to Syria I said I was writing about Syrian culture – I was careful not to say ‘revolutionary’ culture. He gave me a look in the mirror that seemed to say he thought I’d come from outer space. I asked him to drop me off by the central bank, where a huge portrait of Bashar, eyes tinted ice-blue, covered the monumental façade.

‘You want culture?’ the driver asked and pointed at a stage being set up in the square in front of the bank, in preparation for a visit by Kofi Annan’s international observers. Giggling teenagers in scout uniform were taking up position. Kiosks were draped with Syrian flags and posters of the ruling family surrounded the stage. ‘That’s our culture. Setting up a theatre to show the world that millions support our president.’