Friday, October 15, 2010

Part II: The stars that dare not speak their name

Following my previous post about the stars who have now been eradicated from the flag of Iraq, I stumbled across a documentary the other night which told the story of some primary school children in Syria. Still under Ba'athist rule, and proudly affirming the Arab identity encapsulated in the stars (which still find a home in the Syrian flag), it was interesting to see the weekly ceremonial ritual in which all primary school children gather on school yard, saluting the flag. Lined up in their blue uniforms, the children salute in unison:

"Guardians of the homeland
Peace be upon you
Our proud spirits will not be subdued
The home of Arabism
A hallowed sanctuary
The seat of the stars
An inviolable preserve"

One boy takes lead while proclaiming:

"One Arab Nation!"

And all the children respond forcefully:

"One Everlasting Message: Unity, Liberty, and Socialism!"

The forbidden representation of the stars is a source of pride and ritualistic nation-building in Syria. The documentary blends in a fascinating way the everyday life of these children and their families, without entering into any political moralizing. A friend of mine who recently came back from travels in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria gave me the post-it version of what this part of the Middle East is like:

"First you have Beirut, which is a crazy city; party, outrageous traffic, clubbing, fashion, glamor and all that, but then there are the filthy rich, who live in mansions with imported maids from Bangladesh and Ethiopia (just like in the Gulf), and then you have the filthy poor, and there doesn't really seem to be a middle class.

Then there is Amman, where everything is just so organized, and it just feels very English. People are polite, but it's a bit boring and the city is so gray...

Then there is Damascus, where things seem calm and stable, education is free and there doesn't seem to be any radical poverty, people are educated and religion is toned down..."

In the documentary, we also meet Imad, a six-year old boy who is competing in a national competition for the "Young Pioneers", an initiative of the Ba'ath party. Imad creates mosques and castles out of cardboard, and hopes his architectural fabrications will take him to the national finals. But it is toward the end of the documentary, when the camera team follows Imad to hos house to meet his family. Imad's mother is a full-time caretaker of his 12 year old sister Zaynab, who was born with brain damage. With the kind of frankness and unwavering assertiveness, 6 year old Imad tells us of his life with his older sister:

"when I get home from school I look in on her
and if she seems thirsty I'll get her some water
or if she’s hungry I’ll feed her
I wish she could walk, talk to us, play with us and teach us
That would be better for me and for her
Then I could show her my models
and she could point out my mistakes
But she is a creation of God."

I seem to be getting old, because tears rolled up in my eyes as Imad spoke his uncomplicated love for his sister. Or maybe I just got something in my eye.

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