You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Living Dead

Louiai Beshara/AFP

In th fall of 2012, while reporting from the Turkish/Syrian border, Peter Theo Curtis—who had been publishing under the name Theo Padnos for security purposes—disappeared. It wasn't until July 2013, when photojournalist Matthew Schier was released from captivity in Syria, that Americans could confirm those same captors were holding Curtis. This weekend Curtis was also released, and we can now present his writing under his real name. 

This article was originally published under the name Theo Padnos on May 9, 2011. 

I was living in Damascus in early 2009 during the Gaza war. The entire city turned tense, and my neighborhood with it. Store owners along the popular shopping avenues decorated their windows with pictures of blood splattered, scorched Palestinian kids. A popular caricature of Tzipi Livni, who was then the Israeli foreign minister, had her lipstick melting into a drool of blood and her eyes colored to suggest beaming demonic light. Across the exterior of the mosques, citizens hung banners depicting recently killed Palestinian soldiers. Their lips were frozen in beatific smiles as if the souls of the dead were ascending into heaven just as the photographer snapped his shots.

At the height of the war, I went to see a musical in the Dar al Assad House of Culture, the official venue for state sponsored culture in Syria. The show—a benefit for the victims in Gaza titled All of Us Together, Without Hesitation—presented a narrative history of the war on terror from the morning of September 11 to the present. This narrative rewrote history a bit, and skipped lightly over some basic facts, but the best numbers showed the crowd of youthful Syrians what they have always wanted to believe about themselves and about terrorism. For this reason, it was warmly, even tearfully received.

About halfway through the evening, the show’s creator, Iyad Rimawi, appeared by himself in a pool of light on center stage with his guitar and a stool. The song he sang was told from the point of view of a Syrian office worker who has had to make off to one of the colorless, soul-killing Gulf capitals in order to earn a living. From far away, in that mall-filled deadness, he remembers the essence of Syria. “Sometimes it’s being broke,” Rimawi sang, “flat out of cash and drinking your thousandth cup of tea at dawn as the sun comes up over the Lebanese mountains.” Home is falling in love with the girl sitting next to you on the service, or microbus, he said, and leaving your heart with her. In these sorts of situations, which are common enough in Damascus, you can’t speak to the person, of course, because addressing a woman one doesn’t know isn’t done in Syria. Home is frustration, he sang, and it’s playing endless rounds of cards because there’s not much work. “We are everything that comes from the rain,” ran the song’s chorus. “We are a glass of arak”—Syrian moonshine. “We are the basil in the air and the dead creek that runs through Damascus.”

Later, when the script turned to the central theme of the evening, namely massacres, we learned that the morning of September 11, 2001 had delivered a shock to the Arab system as well, and that the terrorist attacks in New York had been the beginning of a long process of awakening. “On the day the world changed, I was dreaming in my bed,” went the lyrics to one full-cast, Hair-like number. “I awoke late as usual, and opened my eyes on the newspaper—the day which changed the world!” The truth this cast member awoke to was that a high-tech power had lately established a beachhead next door, and that it was busying itself with murder.

When the time came to depict murder rather than awakenings, the stage was plunged into a thick, smoky darkness. As the sound of waves rolling in from the sea played in the background, a nightmare sort of general, vainglorious but very cold, appeared in a pool of light. “The time for play has come,” said this number’s lyrics:

from the sea, the voices of the dead call him
he drinks their blood
a conscious criminal
he studies his crimes

As the imaginary beach darkened, a singer off stage described how this power proceeds:

he opens his map, he draws a bead on his target
he makes a call to the satellite
his first massacre of the evening: the children of a school

Neither this metaphor nor any other in the show was especially subtle, and so by the end of the evening, I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience understood what the musical wished to say about the real nature of the bloodletting we had been watching day and night on Al Jazeera, and gazing at in the shop windows. The general was Israel. The conflict we were living through, meanwhile, was the result of two morally opposed civilizations living in proximity. On one side of the equation lived a people closely connected to the land. Rimawi put it this way to me later in an interview: “It’s like you say [in English], we say [in Arabic]—the salt of the earth. We are in everything in this place. We are in the trees. We are in the earth. We are in the air and in the rain.” Islam hadn’t united this people, Rimawi stressed in our interview, nor had religion of any kind. Neither, for that matter, did the fanciful boundaries that Gertrude Bell and her friend T.E. Lawrence drew up after the First World War. Rather, in the show, this people-of-the-earth was united by decency. It sang and loved. It lived. The signal characteristic of the enemy, in contrast, was inhumanity. It was a government equipped with high-tech devices, which it used to kill people. Its major function was the production of death.

Because the show was being presented under the patronage of the Syrian president, and because we were watching it in a performance hall to which he had given his name, and because everyone in Syria thinks about Bashar al-Assad all the time no matter what’s going on, but especially on patriotic occasions like this, it would have been impossible for the audience not to understand that we were also being cued to remember important facts about the leader of the nation.

The most salient point on that evening was that Bashar al-Assad, like the heroes in the musical, dared to oppose Israel. Egypt didn’t. Jordan didn’t. Obama certainly didn’t. Bashar al-Assad did. The other truth, which the radio stations and government newspapers were echoing (as they’ve been doing for a decade now), was that Bashar al-Assad had accomplished something governments in Iraq, Lebanon, the Occupied Territories, and Israel could only dream of: He built a peaceful society. He took the raw materials of the place—the Shia, the Alawite, the Protestant, the Orthodox Christian, the Sunni, to say nothing of the flourishing secular class in Syria—and united them under a single government.

Until recent weeks, an aura of gratitude and Assad-worship has hovered over all public gatherings in Damascus. This has been a fundamental aspect of public life in Syria, as indubitable as the mosques and the dust. It would be hard to argue that the love has been fake. In the fall of 2005, a U.N. report implicated high-level officials in the Assad government in the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. No one in Syria believed a word of the report, and within hours of it being issued, the streets of Damascus filled with cheerful, laughing citizens, many of whom were carrying giant, larger than life pictures of Assad. The squares were seas of bobbing portraits. Even now, Syrians remember those October afternoons as a time of national togetherness and pride.

Perhaps the real secret of the public affection for Assad had to do with the fact that he wasn’t his dad. He was a kinder and gentler Assad. At the same time, it might also be true to say that people loved this young man because he was his dad’s son. Everyone in Syria knows that growing up in the shadow of Hafez al-Assad would have been an accomplishment in its own right. It was a feat the whole nation could admire.

No one disputes that Hafez had a violent streak. No one disputes that he bombed, then leveled the city of Hama in 1982, causing the deaths of many thousands of people (10,000? 20,000? No one knows, since there’s never been a government investigation, nor any hint of a truth-and-reconciliation-style commission). No one disputes that violence in the family took an inward turn thereafter.

In 1983, when Hafez al-Assad was in the hospital with heart troubles, Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat, led a mutiny in the nation’s military which brought Syria to the brink of civil war. Hafez somehow revived himself. The rogue uncle fled. Eleven years later, Bashar’s elder brother, Bassel, managed to kill himself in a high speed car accident. The younger brother, Maher, a shadowy figure who has established himself as head of the much-feared presidential guard, has turned up on YouTube videos photographing freshly massacred corpses with his cell phone. He has a funny air of abstraction about him, like someone indulging a scientific interest in the effect of bombs on human flesh.

Bashar was the apple that fell far from the tree. He meant to be an ophthalmologist. During the first week of his presidency in June 2000, The New York Times looked forward in optimism. “Man in the News,” said its headline: “The Shy Young Doctor at Syria’s Helm: Bashar Al Assad.”

Later that year Assad married Asma, a daughter of Syrian immigrants to England. She had grown up as Emma in Acton. She studied French at University College London, then went on to become an investment banker. Over the ensuing decade, she and President Assad cautiously but deliberately set about dispersing the cloud of medievalism which hung over Syria during the thirty year reign of the father.

Among other things, the younger Assad allowed the internet to spread in Syria. He also permitted fancier, newer, non-Iranian cars to be imported into the country (a crowd-pleasing gesture in Syria, if ever there was one). He spoke often—continues to speak—about reform. His signal accomplishment, of course, was not allowing whatever was consuming Iraq, and whatever had provoked wars in Lebanon and Gaza, to spread across the border into Syria. The docteur, as Syrians sometimes call him, and his pretty young wife kept the peace.

The longer the story of this shy Camelot couple lasted, the more people believed. Everyone wanted it to be true. It was true, in a sense, last winter, when James Nachtwey, the fashion photographer, and Joan Juliet Buck, a writer at Vogue, turned up in Syria to profile Asma, the president’s wife. After taking note of the first lady’s tote bag (silk, Laboutin) and the president’s eyes (blue), Buck wrote of a first family busy with microcredit associations, music schools, and the promotion of what Asma called “active citizenship.” The household, with its three sons, was “run on wildly democratic principles,” wrote Buck. “We all vote on what we want, and where,” said Asma. “The chandelier over the dining table is made of cut-up comic books,” Buck explained. “They outvoted us three to two on that,” said Asma.

Later in the article the French ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevalier, repeated what had, by February 2011, become the conventional wisdom of the international diplomatic community: “[Asma] managed to get people to consider the possibilities of a country that’s modernizing itself, that stands for a tolerant secularism in a powder-keg region, with extremists and radicals pushing in from all sides—and the driving force for that rests largely on the shoulders of one couple.” Hillary Clinton apparently shared this perspective when she appeared on “Face the Nation” a few weeks after the Vogue article was published. In her view, Assad was a reformer: Recent congressional delegations containing members of both parties, she said, had visited him in Syria and had come away with this impression.

It’s all been true in a way—or at least it’s been true if you were willing to overlook just a few details. For instance you had to avoid mentioning the name of the president in public under any circumstances, and had to avoid the names of his family members, particularly his little brother. It was a good idea never to mention the name of the city his father leveled, and when you met people from there, it was expected that both of you would pretend to have no knowledge of what had happened in Hama a generation ago. You were not expected to know anything about the circumstances in which Rafik Hariri died, and if you did, you were certainly not supposed to mention that Maher al Assad, Bashar’s younger brother, has been linked by cell phone records to the scene of the crime. One thing you were certainly not supposed to wonder about was who was really in charge of the nation. If you supposed that aging generals, friends of the father, along with Maher himself maintained an important kind of control over the government, you were supposed to keep your suppositions to yourself.

Anyone who’s lived in Syria for more than a week has probably noticed that almost all young people frequently speak of wanting to leave. “The air is strangling me,” is an expression one hears from time to time on people’s lips. “Between you and me, I’m disgusted,” is another refrain one hears, especially from young women. Of course, these expressions don’t make sense at first. It’s best that way. When young people in Damascus joke about suicide or leaving for jihad, as they sometimes do, you’re supposed to laugh, because they’re laughing. Maybe you don’t notice how serious they are when they’re joking about death. Good.

“Have you ever seen a funeral?” Iyad sang in his solo number in All of Us Together, Without Hesitation. “In Sham [Damascus], we are a funeral. We are a funeral.” In Assad’s Syria, you weren’t supposed to pay these refrains much attention. If you prayed at the mosques, you were supposed to gloss over the bits in the speeches which spoke of death as a welcome release, and of the stultifying conditions for young people (the broken universities, the laughable salaries, the menial work) as a minor thing, like life, that would soon be over.

“All things will drown; all the people will flee,” said a pop anthem on the radio:

those who lived there, inside their hearts
lived with fear.
when the flood will come and the truth will come,
and when the sun rises over our drowned houses,
a voice will say: “we have a ship.
it carries the world of this life, all of it two by two.”

If life in Syria sometimes felt like life among the living dead, with paradise on the lips of the preachers and massacres in the shop windows, you were supposed to do your best to ignore this. All of this was merely a metaphor … for something. It would never be real. 

If you believed this, and if you kept your head down, as good citizens in Syria must, you probably would have been okay. If you never broke the rules and never dreamed about breaking them, you might even have been happy. You wouldn’t have had much of a future, of course, and you would have been living in a kind of exotic dream world, but you might well have been okay.

It happened that on the day Mubarak resigned, February 11, 2011, Facebook organizers had planned a “Day of Rage” in Syria. That Friday came and went with not a thing stirring in the streets of Damascus. In this exceptional republic, one thing you were definitely not supposed to do was to repeat the slogan which did so much to bring down Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, while causing a god-awful mess in Yemen. Those six words—“the people want to topple the regime” (in Arabic: al shab ureed askat al nizam)—have a rhythm like a soccer chant. But their real power is in their shamelessness. Arabic is a language of beautiful circumlocution. Young people are supposed to show respect toward those of higher status by repeating their elaborate courtesies. “The people want to topple the regime” is a stab in the heart of all of that.

Apparently some mischievous children in the city of Deraa, along the Jordanian border, scrawled this slogan on a wall in mid-March. They were duly arrested. Shortly thereafter, on March 20 and 23, spontaneous protests formed in the streets of the city. The demonstrators were then shot, apparently by snipers. The bleeding corpses and the panicked cries of witnesses soon turned up on YouTube and Al Jazeera.

This violence was so astonishing to the majority in Syria that no one, at first, believed it. What about the kindly First Couple? They would never countenance such a thing and, anyway, the media always lie.

In conversation with friends over the phone in Syria, I heard alternative theories. A band of maniacs had descended on the city? Perhaps Iranians? Freemasons? A rogue police unit, which would be tried and punished, was responsible?

But citizens in other cities in Syria were watching Al Jazeera. They resented seeing their fellow citizens picked off the way dogs in the street are picked off. They resented the cold, impersonal government, focused apparently to the exclusion of everything else on killing. For his part, Assad hid during the first week of the violence, apparently in counsel with … whom? His younger brother? Generals? His wife? Anyway, he didn’t say a word.

The chanting spread to Latakia. There, the citizens were likewise shot at and killed by rooftop snipers. Suddenly, there were many more videos on Al Jazeera, and YouTube-Syria channels overflowed. One YouTube video showed a group of youths lying in the road, possibly somewhere near Deraa, as a government tank approached. Given what had been happening in recent days, it seems likely these young people expected to die. As the tank approaches, they call out to god but do not move. In another, more terrifying video, a young man has smeared his torso in blood. He stands in the center of a road with his arms thrown back and his ribcage thrust forward, like someone who has already been shot. He doesn’t even bother to summon death. The government troops are coming. He knows what they’re there for. In the next instant, the bullets are flying, and the young man drops to the pavement along with a crowd of other, similarly defenseless young men.

A few days after the killings in Latakia came the pro-Assad demonstrations: tens of thousands of people at the Square of the Seven Seas in Damascus, clustered around a burbling fountain. Their chant: “Hey Bashar, hey Bashar, you need not fret; for you, we will fill the squares with blood.” After this, other anti-Assad demonstrators appeared in Homs, and still others appeared in Deir al-Zour. Their chant: “To heaven we will go, martyred in the millions” (A Jennah rahiheen, as shoohada bil milayeen).

Now the demonstrations are getting bigger. The funerals following the demonstrations are bigger still. Lately the police have begun killing the funeral goers. Every week, new cities take up the chant: The people want to topple the regime. Every week, the government brings in squadrons to shoot the chanters. Every week, new, more horrible videos are uploaded to YouTube.

Since the beginning of the unrest in Syria, President Assad has made two speeches to the nation, but neither of them has addressed the only issue that matters at the moment: the squadrons of snipers. Do they belong to the president’s little brother, as everyone in Syria supposes? It doesn’t matter. They now have effective control over the nation. What do they intend do with it? And what have the demonstrators done to deserve such violence? The citizens in Syria are in no position to ask these questions. They thus have no answers.

To Westerners at least, it seems clear that no government can exist for very long if it behaves this way. To kill one’s own people, indiscriminately, while bystanders film the crimes on cell phones and others call out to god, is to hasten the end of one’s own regime (another chant heard recently in the streets:“Hey Bashar, hey Bashar: We want your head”). The Assad family seems to be committing its own kind of suicide. Does anyone within the president’s inner circle realize this? It would seem not.

One of the most bewildering dynamics in the Syrian revolution so far has been the tranquil, workaday, duty-calls attitude with which the snipers seem to be carrying out their work. On Friday afternoons at around 12 p.m., they wait from their rooftop perches for the believers to come streaming out of the mosques. This is usually a time of heightened togetherness in Arab countries, and those in the streets tend to feel close to god and clean. They are awake in a spiritual sense. In Syria, the chanting has begun in these instants.

If we in the West understood why the snipers keep shooting, and why the demonstrators keep chanting, we might not be such helpless, uninformed spectators in this conflict. But we don’t understand.

Actually, the best explanation for what’s going on occurred two years ago in the Dar al Assad House of Culture in Damascus when a crazed general appeared on a smoky stage. He was meant to represent the principle of high-tech mercilessness, and hatred of the simple people of the land. In the musical, this figure was a proxy for Israel. In real life, it turns out, a figure in the region does dominate the landscape as that nightmare general did: It’s Maher al Assad, the president’s little brother. (Why is he killing demonstrators? The best explanation so far: because he feels this is his job, and because he likes his work.)

Years of government propaganda and mosque preaching have conditioned Syrians to understand exactly how they are to behave in the face of such a lunatic force. They are to resist, and to sacrifice themselves. Above all, they are to defend the land. If they die, they will die struggling on the path of god, as martyrs.