Syrians face crackdown with creativity, humor

Throughout 40 years of Assad family dictatorship, one thing united Syrians — the culture of self-censorship, fear and paranoia.

But the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has unleashed a burst of blunt irreverence and black humor that would have been unthinkable before, when any satire had to be indirect or hidden.

"The type of expression has now shifted, the subtlety has gone," said Rime Allaf, associate fellow at London's Chatham House. "Today, for the first time in recent Syrian history, people are able to get out and say it openly."

Opposition Syrians are pouring contempt on Assad using whatever medium they can, with a humor that also helps them get through the death and destruction in a crackdown that has killed more than 5,400, according to the UN. The internet provides a layer of anonymity, which is vital when retribution is a real danger, but the creativity has also spilled into the streets in the banners, signs and songs of the protesters.

"Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator" is one of several new online shows. It was created by 10 young professional artists inside Syria. It uses finger puppets that impersonate Assad — nicknamed Beeshu in the series — and his inner circle.

In one episode, Beeshu competes against Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Muammar Qadhafi on "Who wants to Kill a Million," a play on the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." His final question: Will you be able to crush the protests? He answers yes. When he's told that's the wrong answer, he flies into a petty rage, wrecking the set.

In another, he consults with two devils about how to deal with the uprising. They suggest he kill a single protester to scare the others. He proclaims he will kill 30 protesters a day, torture children and shell cities.

"You are completely insane," the devils shriek, running away. "I want to get the hell out of here."

The director of the series, who goes by the online name of Jameel, says the idea is to "break down the wall of fear."

"When you see the shabih (pro-government militiaman) or the president as puppets, you can't take them seriously anymore," he said, asking that his name and location not be used to protect him from retaliation.

More simply, it "elicits a little laugh" from people who are suffering from the crackdown, he said.

Even in the darkest places, Syrians seem to try to extract some fun. The central city of Homs has been one of the worst hit by the regime's crackdown. But as in many rallies, giant protests there often saw crowds dancing, linking arm in arm and doing a sort of joyous simultaneous hop, along with circles of the traditional "debke" dance.

The song "Yalla Irhal, ya Bashar!" — a simple yet powerful rendition which translates into "Come on, Bashar, leave" — is often heard shouted by exultant protesters to the beat of a drum. It's the most popular, but an entire catalogue of protest songs has arisen, full of puns and references to members of Assad's inner circle.

"We are discovering ourselves for the first time," said a 28-year-old Syrian who goes by the name of Samer Lathkani, from the coastal town of Lattakia. "The uprising has awakened patriotic sentiments among young people, now every protest is a thrill."

Kfarnebel, a rebellious village in northern Syria, has become famous for coming up with colorful, amusing banners.

"Aleppo will not rise even if it took Viagra," said one recent banner, criticizing Syria's second largest city, where anti-government protests have yet to take hold.

Some have paid the price for taking it too far.

In August, Syria's renowned political cartoonist Ali Ferzat, 60, was beaten by gunmen who broke his fingers and dumped him on a road outside Damascus after he posted cartoons satirizing Assad on his website.

Ibrahim Qashoush, a Syrian firefighter who wrote the "Come on, Leave, Bashar" song, was murdered in July, his vocal cords cut out and his body dumped in the river in the city of Hama.

Syria had a flourishing theater and comedy scene in the 1970s and 1980s, despite the autocratic regime of strongman Hafez Assad, which his son Bashar inherited in 2000. Syrian productions were popular around the Arab world for their black, satirical humor.

But it had to be indirect and confined to certain limits.

In one of the 1970s' most famous Syrian political plays, "Kasak ya Watan," or "Toast to the Homeland," the country's top comedian Dureid Lahham kept his satire broad.

His character, swigging from a liquor bottle, has a dialogue with his dead father who chides him over the failures of his Arab generation, particularly the failure to free Palestine.

They get into a debate over which is better, Heaven or Earth, and Lahham argues, "We don't lack a thing here … Just a little bit of dignity."

It's a far cry from a blunt banner at one recent protest: Assad's face plastered on a pack of Marlboros, reading "the Syrian regime is a main source of cancer and heart and lung disease."

Donatella Della Ratta, a PhD fellow at Copenhagen University and the Danish Institute in Damascus, said the uprising has changed Syria dramatically.

"The sacredness of the leader has been broken. Even widely considered taboo topics such as the Hama massacre of 1982 are openly mentioned and desacralized using dark humor," said Della Ratta, who is focusing her research on the Syrian TV industry.

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