Monday, July 11, 2011
Fearful Syrians Use Coded Language
By Raja Abdulrahim
At home in San Fernando, California, in early June, Hadia Al-Abdullah was watching an online video of a women's silent protest in Damascus when she saw someone who looked like her 65-year-old mother. She played it over and over to be sure. But when Al-Abdullah later spoke to her mother on the phone, the older woman didn't mention anything about a protest. "'I went out to buy a jilbab (robe),'" Al-Abdullah recalled her mother saying. "That's the code she used." On another day, Al-Abdullah's father complained that his wife was going to the "hospital" even though he had asked her not to. "If I need to go to the hospital again, I'll go," her mother said when she got on the phone.
In a country where the walls are said to have ears, Syrians have long erred on the side of paranoia. And from the beginning, the Syrian revolution has been marked by doublespeak. The regime's official line on the protests - that they are the work of "armed gangs," terrorist groups and foreign plots - belies the reality on the ground of residents rising up to demand the fall of the government. Many Syrians exist in a similar dual reality when it comes to what they experience and witness every day and what they are willing to tell the outside world, fearful that the secret police could be listening in or monitoring their emails or Facebook posts.
Although people are gradually becoming more frank, many conversations remain rooted in mundane topics in a country where even just acknowledging the revolution going on in the streets can be seen as risky. When protests first broke out in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan, state media said people had come out to celebrate the rain. Now some residents and activists will say there was "heavy rain" during a protest when referring to gunfire from Syrian forces.
The coded language has been in existence for 40 years - it has been inherited from generation to generation," said Al-Abdullah's husband, who didn't want his name used to protect his family in Damascus, the Syrian capital. "And that code has been transferred from verbal to electronic." With no outside journalists permitted into the country, the fear barrier is one more way information about the uprising has been restricted.
Much of this trepidation about speaking openly is centered in Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, whose residents have yet to protest in large numbers like much of the rest of the country. "I will mention general things like the situation or if I'm talking to my sister I might mention a news item," said one person who lives in a suburb of Damascus and declined to be identified. "But I don't feel comfortable being explicit about what my opinion is.
Every closed society has its own code, said Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and a visiting scholar at George Washington University. Syria has been no exception. "They use a lot of nicknames for the secret police" or jail, Ziadeh said. "They say, 'Do you want to go to "your aunt's house' or 'They will put you in the bottle'. No one can mention the secret police directly.
Initially protesters chanted vaguely for freedom and dignity, shielding the same goal as those who rose up in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Not until weeks - and hundreds of deaths - later did they gain the courage to directly demand the fall of the regime. The way people speak on the phone and what they'll write in email has been slower to change. Even though on the streets protesters are at threat of being shot or arrested, there is still some sense of safety in the anonymity of a crowd. But the risk in expressing themselves openly is still too great for many when it comes to using phone lines and email accounts registered in their names.
Paranoia and caution still have a way of plaguing even the bravest of activists. When activists speak on the phone to organize meetings, they use a term indicating an activity that is fun, said Mohja Kahf, a Syrian American author and professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas. She didn't want the word published out of concern it was still being used. Months ago, Kahf was added to a Damascus Facebook group by one of her cousins.
On Feb 12, the morning after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned, one member posted, "Good jasmine," evidently referring to the uprisings in North Africa, billed by some as the Jasmine Revolution. Another, perhaps bolder, person wrote, "Good freedom". Kahf, unaccustomed to using symbolic language, asked, "You mean because Mubarak resigned?" She was kicked out of the group. "I get it - they want to still go out and protest, and if they say that, they'll be in prison and can't go out and protest the next day," she said. "They want to maximize the use of themselves.
But sometimes the use of coded language speaks to more than just the deep layers of fear within Syrian society; occasionally it has been used as a way to mock the government. After the first protest began March 15, the regime called those who went out "conspirators". Now people may ask each other, "When did you become a conspirator?" Facebook pages have been created to honor "conspirators" as well. "That is one of the great things of the Syrian uprising: They make fun of the language the government used, Ziadeh said. "It's something to be proud of." – MCT
This analysis was published in The Kuwait Times on 11/07/2011