“Shadowland,” or how National Geographic went against the grain of cozy coverage in Damascus

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National Geographic has a very good feature on Syria this month, “Shadowland,” focusing on Bashar al-Assad’s assumption, the lessons he’s taken from his brutal father Hafez, and all the other hot topics in journalism about the Assads and Syria today: economic reform, political grips, ancient cities, people needing jobs, a President well-spoken enough to mask the truths of his regime. It opens with a somewhat campy Godfather analogy, in which Michael Corleone comes home to take over the family business after hearing of his brother’s death, with the famous line: “Tell my father to get me home… “Tell my father I wish to be his son.”

If there was a moment like that for Bashar al Assad, the current president of Syria, it came sometime after 7 a.m. on January 21, 1994, when the phone rang in his rented apartment in London. A tall, scholarly ophthalmologist, Bashar, then 28, was doing a residency at Western Eye Hospital, part of St. Mary’s Hospital system in Britain. Answering the phone, he learned that his older brother, Basil, while racing to the Damascus airport in heavy fog that morning, had driven his Mercedes at high speed through a roundabout. Basil, a dashing and charismatic figure who’d been groomed to succeed their father as president, died instantly in the crash. And now he, Bashar, was being called home.

Fast-forward to June 2000 and the death of the father, Hafez al Assad, of heart failure at age 69. Shortly after the funeral, Bashar entered his father’s office for only the second time in his life. He has a vivid memory of his first visit, at age seven, running excitedly to tell his father about his first French lesson. Bashar remembers seeing a big bottle of cologne on a cabinet next to his father’s desk. He was amazed to find it still there 27 years later, practically untouched. That detail, the stale cologne, said a lot about Syria’s closed and stagnant government, an old-fashioned dictatorship that Bashar, trained in healing the human eye, felt ill-equipped to lead.

Syria is an ancient place, shaped by thousands of years of trade and human migration. But if every nation is a photograph, a thousand shades of gray, then Syria, for all its antiquity, is actually a picture developing slowly before our eyes. It’s the kind of place where you can sit in a crowded Damascus café listening to a 75-year-old story­teller in a fez conjure up the Crusades and the Ottoman Empire as if they were childhood memories, waving his sword around so wildly that the audience dives for cover—then stroll next door to the magnificent Omayyad Mosque, circa A.D. 715, and join street kids playing soccer on its doorstep, oblivious to the crowds of Iranian pilgrims pouring in for evening prayers or the families wandering by with ice cream. It’s also a place where you can dine out with friends at a trendy café, and then, while waiting for a night bus, hear blood-chilling screams coming from a second-floor window of the Bab Touma police station. In the street, Syrians cast each other knowing glances, but no one says a word. Someone might be listening.

The Syrian Embassy in the US is up in arms over the article. Perhaps because the writer, Don Belt, and photographer, Ed Kashi, were given access and didn’t reciprocate with overly fawning coverage . Ambassador Imad Moustapha wrote a long, windy letter to National Geographic accusing Belt of of being a neo-con and having his impressions of Syria fixed before he landed in Sham — “Shadowland” is certainly a suggestive title. Josh Landis has the letter on SyriaComment, and it’s too long to hash out and cite… and frankly it often confirms what Belt is getting at: that Syria, to no surprise, remains politically closed despite the advent of international chains, of privatization, of tourism, and a new reputation for reform supposedly embodied in the chic first couple, who are said to enjoy gallery openings and going out to dinner. There have been openings, for sure, but you could call them cosmetic.. especially when journalists favor citing trendy bars and hotels as evidence of a “new Syria.” Take this bit from Moustapha on Belt’s description of hearing screams from the police station in Bab Touma. I wonder about the accuracy of the scene myself, having lived near there for a year and never heard a scream late at night — and I was there often, since the fiteer shop in Bab Touma was open all night. Here is Moustapha’s rebuttal of that:

Bab Touma is the second most touristic place in Damascus (after the Omayyad mosque) and it is ludicrous to think that there would be such horrible interrogations taking place among the tourists and visitors of that area.  In fact, this area has underwent the most transformation in the city as the public and private sectors focused on reviving the old city, promoting it into a premier tourist destination by turning its old houses into boutique restaurants and hotels.  Thus, as one reads this awful depiction of screams, seemingly out of a thriller novel, we have to question whether there is any proof for such theatrical stories. I challenge you to find any Syrian who would confirm this woven tale.

First of all, find a Syrian who would confirm this, and they’d promptly be in jail, or a police station (presumably not the one in Bab Touma) dealing with the consequences. Willful expression of political truths are hardly common in Syria, the advent of so many years of authoritarian government built around the cult of a leader. When they do happen, they are spoken softly, even in the confines of an apartment — because who might be listening? It’s fairly absurd to think a Syrian would come forward to the regime, to its ambassador in DC of all people, and confirm that yes, they hear screams from police stations and, naturally, try and ignore them on their walk home. Also, it’s revealing that Moustapha uses development to change the subject: one wouldn’t hear interrogation screams in Bab Touma, because interrogations aren’t done there, because there are so many tourists there, because so many old houses have been converted into hotels and restaurants there, because the Old City is the heart of Damascus’ tourism push. Quite a progression of explanation.

Of course the National Geographic article is that of two visiting journalists to Syria — Belt and Kashi also did a feature on Arab Christians last spring that included reporting from Syria — and they favor quick details of metaphor like an old cologne bottle on Hafez al-Assad’s desk. Oliver August has a long story for Conde Nast Traveler that is not exactly a foil to “Shadowland,” but is sharper, written out of much more time spent living in Damascus. It opens with an excellent scene at the theater in Damascus. The President arrives, and the play — an adaption of Richard III — takes on some other meanings, since the King is sitting in the audience, continuing to support the arts. Later, August is talking students and Syrians at the Journalists’ Club, where the intricacies and truths of expression come out.. with a quote from Syrian writer Khalid Khalifa (Khalife), of course.

Does Bashar Assad’s surprise patronage signal new cultural liberties or rather the co-opting of the arts into his political machine? To be sure, a transformation of some kind is taking place. Assad is relaxing state controls on the once-Socialist economy. The arts seem to be opening up, at least a crack, and the Old City is turning into something of a party town. The fact that we can have this discussion in public is a clear sign of change, though nobody refers to the president by name. Nobody except Khaled Khalifa, a renowned novelist. He sits at the next table and seems to be celebrating the fact that his latest book—banned in Syria—was short-listed for the inaugural Arab Booker Prize.

“What? Bashar?” he says loudly between drinks. “Wish I had been there. I would have told him to let some of my friends out of jail.”