In 1997, I started working as a media and communication officer at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, also called ICARDA, near Tel Hadya in Aleppo. It was my first job, after my graduation as a visual anthropologist and filmmaker in Holland and I wasn’t really sure whether I would like living in Syria, but my friend who was an archaeologist had said that “Syria is a great country, it’s an archaeological paradise, the people are wonderful, and the food is excellent; it just has the wrong government.”
“I would sometimes hear a click on the other end of the telephone just like eastern Germany and I always wondered if they would understand Dutch which I spoke with my mom. After a while, I realized they were probably recording everything and translating it, perhaps”Professor Josepha Wessels
I arrived in Syria in 1997 during the time of Hafez Assad and we, as foreigners were informed that it was a repressive government and that one out of four Syrians was a potential informer. Of course, there was heavy surveillance and there were not so many foreigners living in Aleppo so we got extra attention. I would call back to my home country Holland and talk to my mother and I would sometimes hear a click on the other end of the telephone just like eastern Germany and I always wondered if they would understand Dutch which I spoke with my mom. After a while, I realized they were probably recording everything and translating it, perhaps.
I was not really directly followed in person but if we would visit a Syrian friend in Aleppo in their house and then we would leave, perhaps an hour later some of the Mukhabarat, the secret police, or the not-so-secret police, because you would always recognize their white socks, dark sunglasses, and Peugeot cars, would visit this person and ask about me and my husband and who we were, etc.
I remember one of the last elections, or so-called elections, of the president, the ones that he is voted into by 99% of the population. The Ba’ath Party had organized a big event in front of the Citadel, with the governor of Aleppo and their delegations. We lived at that time in the old city of Aleppo, in an old, renovated Ottoman house close to the Citadel. In the demonstration, they carried a lot of signs, even signs in English that said “Yes to our president forever!”
“we had the face of Hafez Assad on the bonnet of our car! Of course, we were not going to drive around with that, so my husband started to peel it off and I stopped him because I thought maybe the secret police were around”Professor Josepha Wessels
It wasn’t a very large group but they were all dressed in khaki clothes and some of the very young people huddled together. It was really sort of a fascist display of support and loyalty to the president. I actually took pictures of the manifestation and I wasn’t really feeling comfortable. As I was walking back home, I came face to face with a group of people shouting their support for president Hafez Assad. They carried his pictures everywhere, looking like a young guy, and the streets were full of pictures of the Assads: Hafez, the son Bashar, and the deceased son Basel, who died in a mysterious car accident. The streets were plastered with them. The roundabout art was always either a statue of Hafez Assad or Basel on his horse, or huge statues of the president, a real personality cult all over the country.
What happened the next day after the “elections” was a surprise. Someone, probably from this group, had stuck a poster of the president on our car which was parked outside of our neighborhood because the streets were too narrow to park it next to our house. So we had the face of Hafez Assad on the bonnet of our car! Of course, we were not going to drive around with that, so my husband started to peel it off and I stopped him because I thought maybe the secret police were around and would notice this and that would be a problem for us.
“For us as foreigners, the only consequence if anything would happen was that the regime would send us out of the country but for Syrians, it was a whole different ball game. There was a genuine incorporated fear continuously of what the government or what the Mukhabarat could do to you“Professor Josepha Wessels
We drove around with the car to an Armenian guy who usually mended our car because this was in Aleppo: The Armenians were known for mending cars. The Armenian guy refused, he looked at me and said “do you think I’m crazy?!” so he would not take it off. We went to the workshop at ICADRDA and also there we could not find anyone who dared to take off the poster of the president from our car. So what happened, in the end, is that they gave us a replacement car because nobody dared to take off the poster!!
This was the level of repression at that time and I realized that this was the deep fear that people had incorporated into their daily lives. It must have been horrible. For us as foreigners, the only consequence if anything would happen was that the regime would send us out of the country but for Syrians, it was a whole different ball game. There was a genuine incorporated fear continuously of what the government or what the Mukhabarat could do to you. This I realized when nobody, absolutely nobody, dared to take off just a poster of the president from our car.
“In Hafez’ Syria, I was not even allowed to send a fax from my home so every time I put on our modem to send a fax to my mum from our house, I felt like a criminal“Professor Josepha Wessels
It is something difficult to imagine if you grew up in a country like Holland which is free and there is no such fear of government institutions. In Hafez’ Syria, I was not even allowed to send a fax from my home so every time I put on our modem to send a fax to my mum from our house, I felt like a criminal.
My mom and dad visited us several times in Syria. My mom really liked the country, she liked the food, the archaeological sites, the mountains, the crusader castles and monasteries in the West of the country, and the site of Palmyra of course. She also liked the Syrian desert where we worked and when we talked about the fact that we were continuously under surveillance because we were foreigners, she sort of took it from a positive side and said “well at least you can never get lost in this country because someone somewhere always knows where you are!”
This article is based on a conversation between Syriawise Team and Dutch Professor Josepha Wessels who lived in Syria from 1997 to 2002 and witnessed the regime change from father to son.