New Drive against Dissidents

The Greek Tragedy That Is Syria

The appearance of the Lebanese singer Fairuz in Damascus is a political issue. Should one pay the Syrian rulers the honour of singing for them? The controversy plays out against the backdrop of the arrests of prominent Syrian dissidents. Jan Marron with the details

Fairuz in concert (photo: dpa/picture alliance)
Fairuz in Damscus - a beacon of liberty, or a tribute to Syria's repressive regime?

​​A wave of excitement swept through Syria when the news broke: she's coming! At last! "She" is Fairuz, the voice of Arab freedom and unity. After an absence of 21 years, the Lebanese singer returned to the Syrian stage on 28 January as part of the festivities marking "Damascus, Capital of Arab Culture 2008". She is performing in the play Sah an-naum (Good morning), which premiered in Damascus in 1970.

The plot of the play is straightforward, but heavily symbolic. An egoistic ruler, who has inherited the insignia of power and an inflated and sluggish bureaucracy from his father, is surviving and thriving at the expense of his people. An ordinary girl (played by Fairuz) steals his most important instrument of power, his seal, and uses it to approve all kinds of petitions. This breathes intellectual life into the stricken country and boosts its economy. The powerful ruler is defeated by the ordinary girl.

Fairuz's son, Ziad al-Rahbani, who is himself a living legend in the music world, reworked the play – which was written by his father and uncle – exclusively for the Damascus performance. For many in Lebanon, which is sometimes referred to as "Rahbani country", this show of deference and respect for Damascus was just unbearable.

Setting foot on enemy territory

Members of the anti-Syrian "14 March" movement considered it "treason" that their icon was willing to set foot on enemy territory. A corresponding media campaign was launched. One appeal, which was also published in the French Courrier International, pleaded with the singer: "don't go." According to the Lebanese daily An-Nahar, which is published by Ghassan Tueni, the Syrian dictatorship was just waiting to "gild its image with your concerts".

Tueni's son, Gibran, was one of the most prominent victims of the bomb attacks that have been shaking Lebanon since 2004 and for which the "14 March" movement holds Syria responsible.

Despite all this, there are voices in Lebanon encouraging Fairuz to play the concerts in Damascus. Pierre Abi-Saab, for instance, editor of the features section of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, wrote an emotional piece that can be summed up with the words "Yes, Fairuz, do go!"

"Go and sing for freedom"

He pointed out that as a symbol of the "brotherly affection" between Lebanon and Syria – two countries that are already very close and whose histories and futures are intricately entwined – she should not punish the Syrians for their dictatorship. "Go and sing for freedom, and Michel Kilo and his friends will hear you from their prison cells […] as will all others who have been imprisoned for expressing an opinion and all those who are persecuted for their convictions."

photo: AP
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​​These are moving words that can hardly be contradicted. But the Syrian regime answered in its own way. On 28 January, an hour before Fairuz's performance, Riad al-Seif, member of the Syrian opposition, was arrested at his home.

The civil rights activist was elected secretary-general of the group called "Declaration of Damascus" at its very first meeting on 1 December. Since then, 11 members of the group have been imprisoned. Al-Seif was also one of the co-founders of the "Damascene Spring" initiative, which was set up in 2001. "This was our way of protesting against the way the constitution was amended following the death of President Hafez al-Assad, turning the Syrian republic into a Syrian succession," recalls Muhammad Ali Atassi, another member of the initiative.

Ever since, the regime has considered Riad al-Seif, the son of a carpenter, particularly dangerous. He set up factories that employed hundreds of people, two-thirds of whom were female. These factories were characterised by excellent management practices and exemplary company benefits. A large majority also elected him as an independent candidate to parliament, where he tirelessly pilloried the government's economic policies and its bottomless swamp of corruption.

The lively spirit of reform

It was this lively spirit of reform that put him behind bars for five years. Undaunted, he has been working hard for the "Damascene Spring" initiative, which promotes the cause of a pluralist state based on the rule of law, ever since his release in 2006. The movement counts nationalists, left-wingers, liberals, democratic Islamists, and minorities like Kurds and Assyrians among its members. A total of 163 people attended the very first meeting.

On 28 January, a court case was brought against ten of them – including the initiative's president, Fida Hurani, and two of its secretaries, Akram al-Bunni and Ahmed Tuame. The highly elastic charge being brought against them is the weakening of the state by sectarian ideas, the foundation of a party intent on toppling the regime, and the dissemination of mendacious propaganda.

According to information supplied by the human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouneh, one of the accused, Ali Abdallah, sustained injuries to his windpipe as a result of maltreatment in custody. Al-Seif himself is seriously ill with cancer. Since the middle of last year he has been requesting permission to leave the country in order to receive treatment. The rejection of this request is tantamount to a slow and gradual execution.

But what about Fairuz? She will give more concerts in Syria and bring some happiness into the lives of the Syrians. But this is not what matters on the political stage. The Syrian regime is too ignorant to understand what the significant Lebanese political scientist Joseph Samaha once wrote about the imprisonment of the intellectual Michel Kilo: the regime will only gain strength when Kilo is released. And because it is too ignorant to do so, the "14 March" has now even more arguments with which to pillory the regime in front of the entire population that it is oppressing. A double whammy.

Jan Marron

© 2008

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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