At exactly 13.28 local time, after friday prayers were declared over, an absolute silence fell on the Main Mosque of Aleppo. For at least one minute, the only moving beings were pigeons flying around the roofs of the Citadel. Then policemen moved out from their posts, and a couple od black-suited men wearing sunglasses started walking up and down the mosque. One after the other, men came out from the mosque, their relaxed chattering resonating through the square. Vendors praised loudly their merchandise. Cheerfully, ordinately, the mosque was emptied. and that was all for Aleppo’s friday of Liberation. On the side door, last glimpse of the day was a couple of policemen cheerfully shaking hands with religious men. Dozens of toddling children hanging from their mothers’ abayas could only confirm one thing: no one had expected anything to happen in Aleppo. No protests, no tear gas, no shooting. And indeed, once again, nothing happened in Aleppo.
As internet communications, phonecalls, and public gatherings are subject to the heavy hand of government control, syrians have been largely relying on friday prayers ans the only secured appointment for protesters to come together and ask for the fall of the regime – but not in Aleppo. Marches have been growing at a constant pace in rural areas and medium-size cities since one month and a half. But so far, revolts have been consistent only around mosques or, in eastern towns, when called up by kurdish movements. But all of this, never in Aleppo. The only instance of rebellion so far here, a night time protest by the students of the Aleppo university last wednesday, was swiftly dispersed by a raid of arrests. All gone. There is already no trace of dissent left in the campus. Fresh new graffities against “BBC and Al Jazeera propaganda against our Bashar” – as they rad – decorate the nearby walls. And then again, protests started in the dormitories, meaning that it was mainly people from outside Aleppo who decided to stand up against the regime. Mohammed Barakat, a kurdish resident originally from the countriside, has an explanation for all this and he spells it word by word: “Nineteen-eighty-two”. It was then, in 1982, that army troops attacked a salafist upraisal against the government taking place both in Hama and in Aleppo. The number of deaths, estimated between 20 to 30thousand, was never really known but it’s enough to have a walk in Hama to have a glimpse of that episode. Once one of the most beautiful ancient towns of Syria, now Hama is nothing but a succession of soviet-style blocks. Mohammed swears he witnessed with his own eyes the troops of Rifaa’at al Assad, Bashar al Assad’s uncle, massacring the people of Aleppo. To him, fear is still too much to hope in anything coming out from this city. There can be no more protests in Aleppo after those days. “I’m kurdish. People in my village fight for freedom, and they fight with Arabs, together against the regime. But not here. not in Aleppo”.
Yet nearby Hama, the most heavily hit in 1982, has just started awakening. Despite the closure of some mosques, friday prayers have witnessed a moltitude of thousands of people chanting against Al Assad against. But nothing like that in Aleppo. “Of course, I can’t say there is democracy in Syria. But I know Dera’a, and to me it looks like a town of long beards. Like Tell el Kalakh”, comments Antranig Papazian, a 28 years old armenian of Aleppo, as he strolls in central Saadallah Jaabri square. On his back, children play football, old people sits around, youngsters smoke and laugh. Above all their voices, an endless buzz of Syrian patriotic songs are played over by loudspeakers, while a big LCD screen on the corner keeps showing pictures of Bashar. and slogans of devotion to the Homeland. A line of new billboards praising the judgemnt of president Assad and warning against the dangers of sectarian divide crowns the street joint. Aram admits finding the all scene rather embarassing: ”Yes, we are treated like children, and we are not free. But do you know what I mean with ‘long beards’? I mean salafis, tribal sheikhs, and fundamentalists. These people have have a problem with the regime because of the Hama massacre, and because we are the only majority sunni muslim country ruled by a non sunni hierarchy in the Arab world. Assad is Alawite, a memeber of a minority, and runs a basically secular system. When it gets down to it, me too I’m a memebr of a minority, because I am christian. And I have more guarantees under an Alawite dictator, than joinijng a salafist or kurdish wave of protests that offers me no guarantees about my rights. Who wants to end up like Egyptian copts?”.
Aleppo is split between hundreds of thousand of Christians, mainly Armenians, arabs, and at least 20thousand sunni kurds, while hosting a significant percentage of Shi’as, who tend to side with the regime because of Assad’s staunch support towards the lebanese shi’ite party of Hezbollah. A mosaic of groups which mostly speak their own language, inhabit their own neighbourhoods, and look with suspicion at the growing religiosity of the local sunni community. State television has long played the fear card, presenting protests as fundamentalist upraisals against a regime that struggles to keep everyone united under the same flag. Pictures of allegedly slaughtered Alawis from the coast have been showed to explain the upraisal in Latakia, sheikhs were blamed for what happened in Tell el Kalakh, and Homs is well known for its conservative sunni lifestyle. In the end, for the varied population of a country stuck between Lebanon and Iraq, sectarian strife sounds far worse than lack of freedom. Everybody who keeps waiting for Downtown Damascus and Aleppo to rise up might have to wait even longer. Urban areas stick to their differences. Here, there is no trace of those tight-knit links between families that allows passing accounts on the army’s brutality and the people’s determination. Here there is only what the State Television passes. All the rest is Facebook or “Impossible to confirm” stories. But between Syria’s two largest cities, it’s Aleppo by far that seems far from waking up. And urban middle class christians are definitely not the most endangered group in the country. There are one million and a half iraqi refugees depending on the Government mood in Damascus, and another half million of palestinians. They could be stripped of their rights, or even – in the case of iraqis – be expelled any moment; yet Syria’s capital is by no means quiet as rich, charming, prosperous Aleppo. It might really be that its large christian population is suddenly happy to be a second-class minority vis à vis a largely muslim upraisal. Or else, than a stable oppression grants business and tourism far more than any unstable revolution. For sure, friday here is definitely not a day of protests. It’s a day of picnic, a day when hundreds of families can be seen feasting until sunset in the park.
Caught between restless kurdish villages on its North, and rebellios cities of Hama and Homs on its South, Aleppo is an island. And a fast asleep one. Pointing at children who run and play between huge pictures of Bashar al Assad, Aleppo taxi driver Kamal el Seif asks: “Have you seen this? Everybody in the world says there are problems in Syria. Now, how can you call this a problem?”. It’s the end of a friday. The highway to Hama has been systematically stopped because of the protests, 5 citizens have been shot dead in nearby Homs, and the final death toll of how manhy were killed on the southern border with Lebanon, in Tell el Kalakh, has yet to be set. But next to Kamal, on his right, there is a policeman leaning on his motorbike. And on Kamal’s right, a man in a black suit talking to his radio is just 20 metres away. “You see? No problems here”. No problems in Syria!”. And who would have the guts to disagree? Not in Aleppo, it seems.
(compiled for Jazeera English)