Romanticizing Revolutions: The Syrian Revolution Between Fantasy, Mythology, and Reality

Reading through the memoirs of the late Najat Kassab-Hassan, a celebrated Damascene lawyer and media persona, one can't help but stop to re-read a particular story from the days of the Syrian Revolution against the French in the 1940s.

As the story goes, the French envoy to Damascus decides to punish Damascene merchants for supporting the revolutionaries: he orders them to leave their shops unlocked at night, thus making their only source of income available to thieves and looters.

In an effort to contain the situation, the Damascene merchants' elder (شيخ التجار) calls for a meeting with the leader of the thieves of Damascus (شيخ الحرامية) and relays the story. The leader of the thieves stands and vows that none of his men will steal anything from open shops that night, for they are united, thieves and merchants, against the colonizing enemy.

Maître Kassab-Hassan concludes the story with a light-hearted comment stating that the authenticity of the story was very much doubtful, as thieves – by the nature of their profession – would not unionize or elect a leader to negotiate on their behalf. He goes on to explain that this tale was part of the folklore that Damascenes enjoyed passing on to younger generations as a way of celebrating the glory days of heroism and national unity against colonization.

This story deserves a modern-day read, as well as a comparison to current events in the Syrian Revolution against the Assad regime. The thrust of the Revolution, which took everyone by surprise, and the sincerity of the peaceful demonstrators and their clever slogans, brought many to idolize the Revolution. It has been called the "mother of all revolutions" and the "single event that brought all Syrians together."

The accelerating events, and indeed the incredible bravery of the Syrian people, have brought out the best in many of us. They also generated an incredible stream of creative, high-impact artistic and media works, and more importantly, broke the taboo of discussing key issues in today's society.

The Revolution has never been lacking in scenes of crosses and crescents merged together, logos that indicate national unity, or slogans of solidarity with towns and villages hundreds of kilometers away. We have seen the rise of a virtual community of pseudonymed online activists, who transcend religious and ethnic backgrounds, to work collaboratively as citizen journalists advocating the cause to the world. Like the story of the merchants and thieves, the Syrian Revolution has indeed planted a seed of hope in many of us, and feeds the dream of an approaching homecoming for many exiles and expatriates.

But the historic nature of things tells us that, should the Revolution succeed tomorrow, this utopia will eventually come to an end. Syrians will have to face the reality of a broken economy, bitterness and division among families and friends, possible acts of revenge and retaliation, and many groups and individuals who will claim ownership of the victory and demand their trophies.

Folk stories like the merchants and thieves tale, and the historical-fiction TV series "Bab El-Hara," are good mechanisms to remind people of their inner good - something they may have forgotten during years of hardship and oppression. However, hiding behind romantic slogans and tales - perhaps necessary during times of revolution - should not avert our attention from the deeply rooted problems we have as a society.

While social media sites are flooded with groups and pages that talk about national unity and the non-sectarian nature of Syrians, we cannot deny that sectarian and social discrimination are omnipresent in our society. In fact, they precede the Assad regime, which enforced and promoted them throughout the past 40 years.

Religious and sectarian differences, as well as ideological conflicts, are not going to whither away simply by ousting a dictator; they are key issues that will have to be dealt with sooner or later. The immediate obligation of any political power representing and leading the transitional (and future) period in Syria is to address these potential and existing problems: Conflicts between right and left wing ideologies, the existing tension between sects and cities over participation and roles in the Revolution, acts of revenge and ethnic conflicts, and ways to promote social justice that does not marginalize or bring injustice to any existing social group. The world is full of democratic, pluralistic examples that we should look to and learn from, while maintaining a localized view of the unique characteristics of Syrian society.

The story of the merchants and thieves, if true, can be a valuable lesson to us all. The brief moment of solidarity eventually came to an end. Thieves went back to being thieves, and merchants went back to locking their doors at night. Let's not be tranquilized by the spirit of the moment, and start working actively for the future.

Revolutions change the present, but they also pave the way for a brighter and better future.

Published on the Syrian National Council's website: http://syriancouncil.org/en/analysis/item/525-romanticizing-revolutions.html

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