Between the years of 1989 and 1994, I worked on and off in the nightclub of the Vendome Hotel in downtown Damascus. Not the swankiest hotel, however, it was respected as the best nightclub for presenting high quality musicians and singers. This was because the manager of the hotel was a great supporter and patron of the arts. He was also best friends with the general of the Syrian army and Hafez Al Assad’s right hand men.
Many a night after my show I would play Tawle with these guys but never knew who they were until years later. Some in trench coats and all with large cigars, they had a soft spot for me and made sure I was well protected and taken care of. The wife of the General always presented me with a rose from her front row seat in the nightclub. I never went through immigration or customs upon entering or leaving Syria. I had carte blanche by presenting a short note where ever I went. There were many examples of this special treatment but maybe to be written about another time.
I used to love spending my days strolling through Souq Al Hamidya which was always crowded and bustling with people. One day, after enjoy tea and chatting in a shop I came out to find the main street empty and silent. As I looked down the end of the souq, I could see a crowd of people so of course I had to see what was up. As I approached the crowd, I could not help noticing that it was all men, more soldiers than usual and everyone was silent. We were in front of a very famous and old mosque. There was a banner on the mosque that was later translated for me and said something to the effect of “welcome to the compassionate and beloved Hafez El Assad” and much more along those lines.
Very soon, a limousine pulled up carrying the man himself. The fear in the air was palpable. I knew some of the men and they did not look happy. They did not tell me to leave but did tell me not to talk. I arched my neck to try and get a good look at the man who could clear the souq and instill such fear but too many soldiers blocked the view. The day was a special holiday and President Assad was going to pray in the mosque. This was the beginning of my non love affair with Hafez Al Assad. The next part of my story I kept secret until after the Syrian revolution started.
One year, it was a milestone anniversary for the president which meant everyone needed to express their love and admiration for the “benevolent” leader. On a certain day it was all the taxi drivers, another day it was all the doctors, etc. This meant that on my way back to the hotel from the souq I had to make my way through large crowds of chanting men with signs. And indeed all the artists in Syria would perform for the president at a large celebration. When asked I refused. The manager of the Vendome was not sure I actually could refuse but said he would look into it and see what he could do.
On my way home one day, the crowds were particularly thick. It took me forever to get home and I felt unsafe. Although the chants and signs were filled with words of love, the general vibe did not seem happy. I decided I hated Hafez Al Assad and was going to let everyone know about it. It baffled me how anyone liked this guy. I loved King Hussein in Jordan and loved watching him address the nation each evening on TV but this Syrian president was not my cup of tea.
So I waltzed into the lobby of the Vendome and in a loud voice let everyone know what I really thought of Hafez Al Assad and that these daily marches were a big pain in the butt. No one seemed to empathize with me so I took my frustrations upstairs to my buddies in the restaurants. Still no one wanted to engage in conversation with me so I went to my room pissed off and proceeded to get ready for work.
Next day, I was called downstairs and introduced to two soldiers with several large weapons who had come to arrest me. My reaction was oblivious having no idea why. Then the catering manager, my good friend, took me aside with the two soldiers a couple of feet away and showed me a pin inside his lapel. He informed me that he worked for the secret police.
He said “Yasmin, we all love you very much and we do not want to see harm come to you. You need to understand that Syria is not like Canada. Here, you can not speak badly about anyone political, let alone in public places and let alone concerning the president.” The rest of what he said I have blocked from my memory. In fact, the entire event was neatly tucked away in the deep recesses of my mind until in Canada in 2012, when I told the story for the first time at a talk I was giving about my Mid East dance adventures.
Then I realized I had been afraid to tell even my own family this story for fear of someone finding out and that I would be caught and punished or killed even in Canada. As well, I feared for the people to whom I would tell the story. I know it sounds crazy but an impression had been made on me. The soldiers did not take me away because apparently I was lucky and had friends in high powered positions. I was also relieved of my duties to perform for the president. Perhaps the soldiers were staged to drive the point home. Either way, I got the message.
Even now, I am riddled with fear writing this blog post … but I have many stories to tell and I need to start committing them to print or a blog post. Logically I know probably nothing can happen to me now. Syria has changed and not many care what I say now. However, the fear is still entrenched in my every fiber. I often wonder if a Canadian brought up on democracy and free speech could have been kept silent without her even consciously knowing it, how about so many others whose reality is this for their entire lifetime.
This is only one of my Syrian adventures. I truly love Syria with all my heart. In general I was free to roam with less restrictions by the moral police than in Jordan. Syria is rich with art everywhere and the people were always kind to me. I just did not like their president. By the way, my Tawle playing buddies had no problem with my irreverence towards power. I actually think they found it amusing.
Photo: Souq Al Hamidya