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French Version

'The Syrian Presence': More than spies and laborers

Syrian dissident and journalist Ali Atassi sees the Syrian-Lebanese relationship as more multifaceted than the stereotypes suggest

Interview

"We were walking Downtown one evening and we saw workmen reinstalling the statue at Martyrs' Square. They were Syrian," Ali Atassi smiles. "Syrians erecting a statue that Lebanese later rallied around to drive out the Syrian Army. I love this.

"I asked a workman if this place was special to him. 'You know the Ottomans hanged many patriots here, people from Beirut, the Mountain and 'Syria'' - there was no 'Syria' or 'Lebanon' in those days. We have a Martyrs' Square in Damascus, too, in memory of the nationalists hanged there - 'Syrian,' 'Lebanese,' 'Beiruti.'

"He said he was sure the place was important for the Lebanese but for him it wasn't. It couldn't be. He didn't know the story."

Atassi is part of the "Syrian presence" in Lebanon. His anecdote could be emblematic of the present state of Lebanese-Syrian relations. In the popular mind, this is bound by ignorance and a web of stereotypes that conflate "the Syrian" with the Syrian regime's 30-year-long occupation of Lebanon. An engaged intellectual, Atassi works to deconstruct these stereotypes.

A journalist writing high-brow articles on Arab politics and culture, Atassi is also part of Syria's domestic opposition. A few years ago he made a film called "Ibn al-Am," a series of interviews with Riad al-Turk - the unrepentant Communist and fiery Baath Party critic who's spent a good portion of the last 20 years in solitary confinement - that's become a cult classic among insurgents.

Lebanese stereotypes, he says, have many elements.

"'The Other' isn't only Syrian," he says. "We can see it among Lebanese - among the different religious and geographical communities, etc. This is the reality of every society.

"Lebanese and Syrians are close geographically and culturally but they've become distant as well. This distance is connected to ignorance - a remarkable number of Lebanese have never traveled to Syria.

"Syrian society is itself in a big chill, unable to express itself freely - to show Lebanese ... the cultural, economic and religious complexity of this population."

Atassi is well placed to reflect upon Syrian-Lebanese misconceptions. The Sorbonne-educated historian has been a Ras Beirut resident for some years now.

"We have two ideal types of Syrians in Lebanon: 'the worker' and 'the soldier.'"

"People see the Syrian worker as working in Lebanon for the Syrian economy. In the political discourse, Syrian workers steal from the Lebanese economy. They 'take Lebanese jobs.' Lebanese media reports on 'the Syrian worker' suggest they take millions of dollars to Syria with them.

"Three or four years ago I made a long study about the origin of this 'golden number' of 1.5 million [Syrian laborers in Lebanon] and how it gained currency. It comes from Dr. Bassam al-Hashem, a sociology professor at the Lebanese University who's close to the Aounists. He conducted a long study and presented his findings in 2001 at a conference on the Syrian-Lebanese relationship in Antelias."

Atassi is careful to point out that there is simply no infrastructure in place to tally the number of Syrian laborers accurately.

"When [Hashem] described how he derived his numbers, he revealed a number of methodological errors. To simplify, he assembled data on Syrian workers entering the country, then assumed that they simply stayed, not taking into account that they move back and forth between Lebanon and Syria. His recommendations were more polemical than scholarly."

The more insidious side of "the Syrian" stereotype, Atassi says, is the workers' association with the Syrian mukhabarat (secret police). It has been a

particularly popular media trope in the last year, with any popular loyalist demonstrations dismissed as staffed by migrant laborers mobilized by the Syrian mukhabarat.

"Before the 'Million Man March' that the loyalists failed to organize [in November, 2004]," Atassi says, "The opposition were afraid that one million people might actually come ... Before this demonstration [General Michel] Aoun told Al-Hayat, 'You have 1,300,000 Syrian workers today in Lebanon and they can be very easily mobilized for this demonstration.'

"Afterwards, Aoun said to Al-Arabiyya, 'This was a Syrian demonstration with a Lebanese face. Most of the people who went there were Syrians who live and work in Lebanon and are completely under the control of the mukhabarat.'"

Atassi's eyebrows rise. "How does General Aoun know that most Syrians working in Lebanon are under mukhabarat control?

"A large part of Lebanon's Syrian workforce is seasonal. They come for two weeks, every day they wait for work under the Fouad Chehab and Cola Bridges, and then they go back.

"The Syrian mukhabarat did have many Syrian agents but many Lebanese agents as well - in the ministries, in the army, they collaborated with the Lebanese mukhabarat, they moved freely amongst the political class. There were some workers who played this game, but the seasonal agricultural worker? What is a man harvesting potatoes in the Bekaa, what information does he have, next to the head of the Surete-Generale?"

Following the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri, anti-Syrian xenophobia reached its zenith in the mass demonstrations called the Independence Uprising.

"Syrian workers are thus twice dominated," says Atassi. "Once by their regime, their own mukhabarat, and again by Lebanese public opinion."

Reducing the "Syrian presence in Lebanon" to "soldier-mukhabarat" and "worker-mukhabarat" requires a wilful suspension of disbelief.

Atassi was one of several somber-faced Syrians who attended the funeral of outspoken Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir. Kassir was part of the healthy interchange between opposition intellectuals on both sides of the border during the Damascus Spring, after Bashar Assad succeeded his father in 2000.

"Lebanese newspapers still open their pages for us, allowing us to explain ourselves and criticize. We still have some oxygen here," he says. "The question of liberty and democracy is the same in Lebanon and Syria.

"I'm afraid that, if the Syrian regime remains as it is today, Lebanon will be in the big prison.

"This big earthquake in Lebanon will have consequences in Syria in the near future. Syria can't remain above these changes but I hope we can make these reforms without American interference. That's the big question for the future."

Beirut,06 13 2005
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star
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