Incredible. Kevin Sites hosts a political debate in Nafaura Cafe in the Old City in Damascus. How many times I myself I have sat here discussing politics. Is this the start of a new Damascus Spring?
Some background: Kevin Sites is an American journalist filing a week-long series of reports from Syria. He’s produced some excellent material to date…it’s all being serialised/re-blogged on this site. Today, he’s turned Nafaura into a debating-house.
He makes a clumsy observation that some ‘mukhabarat’ (intelligence officers) were sitting nearby trying to listen. If you know the Nafaura, you’ll know that the raised seating area outside is infamous for being the favourite seats of the President’s bodyguards. No Mr Sites, not police, Bashar’s-bulldogs!
Notice how easy it is to discredit an entire anti-Iraq-war argument by saying that the Syrian students were ‘watching their words’.
He’s got some video and photo essays here.
Choosing Their Words
Aware the regime is usually listening, Syrian students speak passionately, but carefully.
DAMASCUS — In a tea house just outside the Omayad mosque in old Damascus, Kevin Sites sat down with nine young adults for a candid discussion about issues facing Syria.
The students were eager to talk politics, and the discussion touched on the alleged Syrian role in political murders in Lebanon, the war in Iraq and the Palestinian situation.
The debate, which Kevin also videotaped, was lively. But it was clear to Kevin that the youths were choosing their words carefully at times.
While Syrian culture — especially the younger population — is transforming, the regime still maintains tight control through the Mukbarrat, or secret police.
In fact, about a third of the way through the interview, a man seated behind the students can be seen on the video, craning his neck toward their table in painfully obvious attempt to listen to the discussion.
Whether the man was working for the Mukbarrat cannot be proven, but given that foreign journalists visiting Syria must register with the Ministry of Information, it’s fairly safe to assume he was.
Watch the video and decide for yourself. A transcript of some of the highlights from the discussion follows (the discussion was in Arabic with the aid of a translator).
-Hot Zone Senior Producer Robert Padavick
MAYSA: We wish that our brothers from Lebanon will express their solidarity with us and not quarrel or argue between us and them. We feel they are our brothers although they are making false accusations against us.
WALAT: We talked about the forces of the government and the administration but we are not talking about people. Even though they have participated and led this war, we still feel like we have to be brothers to them, you know? Because we feel that like any other people in the world.
KEVIN SITES: Why?
ABDUL KADER: We are all humans… we are all living in the same universe.
KEVIN: Let me ask you this question. Knowing that there is sectarian violence right now, lots of suicide bombings and so on in Iraq, do you believe the American troops should stay until the violence has stopped or should they withdraw now?
TRANSLATOR: He wants to just add something about the invasion of Iraq.
MOHAMMED: If you want to do things from a different perspective I would say that the administration is similar to somebody greedy walking the street that is very powerful and dominant. He sees somebody who is really stupid but this stupid person has a lot of money. So this guy, this powerful guy would beat him and take the money. Especially if he knows this other man is powerless and would not be able to defend himself.
KEVIN: In that analogy, are you talking about the powerful man being America and the weak man being Iraq?
MOHAMMED: Yes, true. But you understand. (He nods and laughs.)
ANIS: As for the American war in Iraq, we find it strange that American officials talk about Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. As ethnicity is concerned we are Kurds and Arabs. And as sects are concerned we are Sunnis and Shia. But either way, the word Arab is absent.
KEVIN: You are saying the word Arab is absent specifically for a reason?
ANIS: Definitely. They are trying … to erase the identity of this area and destroy it. In this place the concept of Israel would be more understandable and accepted because there is no identity of the region.
MOHAMMED: I have one comment also to say. They have always accused our people but we are Arabs. We have our own nationality. We have our heritage. We have customs that are shared among us, so why are we not unified? Taking in consideration America is many states, made up of many states and in each state they have a lot of citizens from all countries around the world. But they are gathered with nothing except for the American nationality…
WALAT: If the American forces in Iraq really came to complete the humanitarian tasks they’ve claimed and get the Iraqi people relieved of the tyrant Saddam we will support them 100 percent. They don’t do what they’ve said and now we are really confused.
ABDUL KADER: It’s a scheme to make a new Middle East, to divide these countries… This is the American scheme to control the whole world… It’s bad enough that the Americans are not just in the Middle East. They are in Somalia and Sudan, other places…
ANIS: We find it really strange that they use the term terrorist to describe Arab people only. Yet terrorism is prevailing all over the world in Spain and Cambodia. And to deal with terrorism, it should be done on the social, economical, cultural level. Not by invading a country to fight certain groups of that country.
-Transcribed by Hot Zone Associate Producer Erin Green.
Note: Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone believes it is our obligation as journalists to present unheard voices and opinions. Doing so does not imply endorsement or agreement.