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On Independence Day, A Subdued Syrian Capital

This photo, from the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), shows members of the Damascus Youth volunteer group visiting Syrian soldiers at a checkpoint in Damascus, on the country's national day.
Syrian Arab News Agency
This photo, from the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), shows members of the Damascus Youth volunteer group visiting Syrian soldiers at a checkpoint in Damascus, on the country's national day.

The writer is a Syrian citizen living in Damascus who is not being further identified out of safety concerns.

On this day in 1946, Syria celebrated the withdrawal of the last French soldier from its soil, and announced itself as an independent, 20th century-style nation-state.

It was a day of hope and jubilation, which over the years my older relatives would periodically recollect from memory.

They told me about the Oriental rugs with a red hue that carpeted the main boulevard in central Damascus, and the parade of Syrian military boots marching past spectators.

In a show of solidarity, armies from other Arab countries, themselves having celebrated an end to British or French mandates, also marched down the red carpets on Salihiyeh Boulevard in Damascus.

There were themed flotillas and marching bands, school scouts, and drum beats and trumpets that played at high tempo.

"Every single household in Damascus participated," one of my aunts explained. "Back then, the city streets were spanking clean. We thought of them as an extension of our own home, and we lent our living room rugs to the parade."

My mother, now in her mid-70s, has intimate memories from that day.

"My school dressed us up in white dresses, with big angel wings," she said excitedly. "And I rode on one of the flotillas with my classmates and rolled down the red carpet. We waved at people, and they cheered and cheered and waved their flags and tossed flowers in the air. It was truly a momentous day."

A Subdued Day

On Wednesday, the 67th anniversary, no parades or marching bands marked the occasion.

It has been two years since the start of Syria's uprising-turned-civil war, and Damascus now hangs precariously somewhere between a city of ghosts and a garrison town.

If you venture outside, only empty streets and jittery armed government men at checkpoints are keen to greet you. Everyone else waxes sorrowful and subdued. There was no hint of the occasion anywhere, except on state television, which is marking the day with "patriotic" footage of the Syrian military, and some talk shows.

How the country got from a national sense of jubilation to national despair depends on whom you ask. But for many of the elderly in Damascus, the signs were always there, with every celebration of independence day.

Actually, there is no official independence day in Syria. April 17 is called Jalaa Day, which translates to Clearance Day, a reference to the last French soldier vacating Syrian soil.

I asked many Damascenes what they thought of this choice of word — "clearance" as opposed to "independence."

Taking The Long View

The only answer I found convincing was the sense that Syria, with its 7,000 years of civilization, with its cities of Aleppo and Damascus as two of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, "always was and always will be a nation," as one Damascene put it.

"No matter who rules it, from before the Greeks and Romans or Ottomans or the French, everyone eventually clears out," he said. "Hence, Clearance Day!"

But focusing on trends since 1946, as they are narrated by those who witnessed them on Jalaa Day throughout the years, shows that every decade highlighted a mood.

There were the turbulent 1950s, with a thriving atmosphere of dissent and frequent though rarely violent coups d'etat.

The 1960s brought the rise of the Baath Party values, which called for the unity of Arab states, freedom and socialism. Dissent still thrived then, as did relatively peaceful coups d'etat.

One of my elderly uncles recalls having more reading choices than he was able to follow.

"There were 15 morning dailies, and three to four newspapers that came out in the afternoon," he said. "Each represented some party's viewpoint, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Communists."

"You can't say we had a functioning democracy, but we were all trying very hard to move in that direction," he said, referring to his active political career during that time.

Family Rule

In 1970, Hafez Assad, father of current President Bashar Assad, came to power, and with it came an increasing cult of personality.

"The two words, Assad and Syria, started becoming synonymous," said one Damascene in his 50s. "Slogans like 'Syria's Assad' and 'Assad's Syria' took over Jalaa Day celebrations."

Anyone born over the past 40 years has never witnessed a celebration of Syria the country without it being a celebration of the cult of Assad.

On Wednesday, a windy day with the skies threatening to rain and the booms of war occasionally echoing in the distance, I am particularly struck by the pro-regime street graffiti.

"Assad or no one," reads one slogan.

"Assad or we burn the Land," reads another, this one written in large font on a wall in a crowded public park. I also saw it scribbled in small font on a security booth just outside the U.S. ambassador's residence, which has not been occupied since the ambassador left Syria in October of 2011.

With its long, long history, Damascenes tend to take the long view. They like to think in terms of decades and centuries, not days or years.

The residents of the capital have not yet taken up arms against the regime, or gone into the streets in mass protests, but many seem to believe that change is inevitable. They just don't know when, exactly, it might happen.

One couple I visited disagreed with each other on just this point. As we sat in their darkened living room, with dimmed lights to "save on electricity" and closed windows "so the guards outside can't hear us," Safa, in her 50s, opened with a prediction:

"In my heart, I'm sure that Assad will leave," she said. Her husband, 74, chuckled.

"Not in our lifetime," he said.

"Yes, in our lifetime. You'll see. I'll remind you when it happens," she said.

"Ha. Well, you'll have to come to my grave to remind me," he said.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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