A New Weapon in Syria’s Revolt: Black Humor and Venomous Slogans Against Assad
As the unrest rages on, a string of alternative newspapers and websites invigorates the opposition ahead of more fighting with no end in sight.
Until a few months ago, bloggers and Facebook users in Kafr Nabl, in northern Syria, used the slogan “Occupied Kafr Nabl” to describe their location. Recently, the slogan was changed and replaced by “Liberated Kafr Nabl.”
Within days, Syrian surfers all over the country began describing their cities and villages according to the same division: “occupied” or “liberated,” depending on their status vis-a-vis the Syrian army. When Syrian rebels talk to foreign media, they mention that they already “control” half or more of Syria’s territory. When they write their posts to inhabitants of Syria, they return to the expression that arouses identification: the “liberated lands of Syria.”
The choice of words is of great significance in describing reality and shaping awareness but, in contrast to serious bloggers and gloomy posts that report the number of dead, the terrible destruction, the massacre of sick people and the rape of women, the rebel activists in Kafr Nabl decided to adopt a different mode of expression. They specialize in scornful slogans, black humor and posters sporting brightly-colored caricatures adorned with venomous captions against Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime.
On the Facebook page of the village’s artists, which bears the name “Posters of Occupied Kafr Nabl,” over 320 posters have been posted from the beginning of the rebellion until now. One, from the beginning of the year portrays Assad standing in pools of blood wearing a visored cap, with outstretched arms declaring “the situation is calm.” Another poster from May says “We request that more tanks be sent to Kafr Nabl in order to make the destruction easier,” and on another poster Assad is shown wearing elegant clothing, marching in the street with a bloodstained sword in his hand, and a shield with the symbol of Hezbollah and a Star of David. It would seem that not only Assad should be insulted by this poster.
Please “Drop an atom bomb on us so we will all be exterminated and the world will get a rest from hearing our cries and seeing our bodies,” requests a new slogan from last week, and after the assassination of Col. Wissam al-Hassan, the chief of Lebanese internal intelligence, the artists in Kafr Nabl hastened to publish a poster that says “Oh, Lebanese people, welcome to your second homeland, Lebanon.” The expression “second homeland” refers to anyone who seeks refuge in another country, and since Lebanon has ceased being a genuine homeland, the Syrian residents of Kafr Nabl are offering their homeland as an alternative homeland.
About 30,000 people live in “liberated” Kafr Nabl, which is located in the Maarat An-Numan district in the Idlib governate. It is a region that last week suffered one of the worst attacks, in which several dozen people were killed. Nobody in the village is holding his breath in anticipation of the cease fire that Al Akhdar Ibrahimi, the special envoy of UN Secretary General, hopes to achieve.
The posters also have something to say about Ibrahimi’s diplomatic efforts. A poster in English shows a girl in braids, peering out from among the ruins while holding in her raised hand, in a Statue of Liberty pose, a sign that reads “We will never kneel.” Another poster says “A cease fire – a gift to Assad. So he can rest a little and then continue to massacre.”
The posters that emerge from the computers of the Kafr Nabl artists go viral and reach all parts of Syria. They receive thousands of hits a day, and the reactions are enthusiastic. But in the country where there are an estimated 4.5 million Internet users, there are large enclaves without Internet access, and even those registered as users are finding it very difficult during wartime to surf regularly, whether due to the collapse of the electricity and phone networks, or to deliberate government obstruction of the web.
In order to bridge the gap of technological access, and to inform the public of important events, several of the rebel activists have initiated the publication of printed newspapers and magazines, which are financed by Syrian businessmen or through the donations of private citizens. These newspapers are edited and printed in secret and distributed to people’s homes, mainly in Damascus, in the middle of the night.
Some of them, like the newspaper Hurriyat (Freedoms ) or Enab Baladi (Grapes of My Country ) also have parallel websites, from which one can learn about less publicized and less dramatic local events, along with instructions to civilians on how to behave during a bombing or shooting by the Syrian army. For example, in the latest edition of Enab Baladi there is a two-part illustrated article that explains how to care for a wounded person and how to transfer him from one place to another using improvised means.
The simple but detailed illustrations describe how to lift the wounded person properly, how he should be carried by two people, and how to devise an improvised stretcher from a blanket and two poles. The serious problem is that in effect there is nowhere to bring the victim due to a shortage of clinics and medicine.
The newspaper also reports on the lives of refugees who have fled to neighboring countries, and lists the types of benefits and initiatives that each country offers them. In that way, Syrian citizens learned that Saudi Arabia has ordered the schools in the kingdom to absorb the Syrian students, about job opportunities in Jordan, and about demonstrations of support taking place in Western countries.
These newspapers convey the feeling that Syrian citizens should prepare for years of battle, organize for a prolonged “temporary” life, and conduct a reasonable alternative lifestyle that will enable them to withstand a campaign whose end is hard to foresee. The Free Syrian army also began this week to demonstrate signs of a regular army, whose members have to start to earn a living from their military service rather than awaiting a fast change that will render their service unnecessary.
The headquarters of the Free Syrian Army, which recently received generous donations from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and apparently from Western countries as well, began to pay salaries to registered soldiers – about $75 a month to men with families and $50 to single men. In video clips posted on YouTube, officers are seen getting soldiers to sign on receipt of their salary; the soldiers explain that “now we’ll have something to live on.”
When service in the Free Syrian Army becomes a source of livelihood, and when the diplomatic efforts are not more than a desire to achieve a cease fire that doesn’t seem realistic, the war in Syria is liable to become a permanent situation. The effort to unite the various militias, some of which represent radical religious organizations, into one framework of a National Syrian Army, was also unsuccessful.
In September, CIA chief David Petraeus visited Turkey and met with commanders of the Free Syrian Army, who expressed a willingness to unite. But within days it turned out that this willingness did not exist. Until even Turkey, which had hoped that its massive support for the Free Syrian Army and the civilian political opposition would bring about the necessary change and turn it into the “landlord” of the new Syria, began to change tack. Turkey, which already recognizes the fact that Western military intervention is not on the agenda, is now ready for any compromise solution that will at least calm down its border with Syria, enable it to disencumber itself of the several thousand refugees presently living in Syria, and mainly, end the danger of Kurdish terror coming from Syria.
“The civil war in Lebanon lasted for about five years before a solution was found,” recalled a member of the Syrian opposition this week. “Apparently we are also doomed to fight for a similar period of time before Syria can rest.”
The muses of Kfar Nabl can look forward to a long period of flourishing creativity