The Jasmine Scent of Damascus

The Jasmine Festival of Damascus, held every April, provides just a taste of beauty in a country torn apart by protests.

Jasmine Damascus (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Jasmine Damascus (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
IN A FAMOUS POEM BY NIZAR Qabbani, perhaps the most renowned Arab poet of the last century, the poet expresses an abiding love for his native city. In the “Jasmine Scent of Damascus,” he calls the Syrian capital “the rose of the universe” and wishes that he’d been a minaret planted in the city or a lantern hung on its gates.
For all that deep connection, though, Qabbani left Syria in 1967. Disgusted with the Arab defeat at the hands of Israel, he lived in London until his death in 1998. From safety in England, Qabbani shifted from the romantic poetry for which he is revered to writing more political poems, exhibiting a strong anti authoritarian bent.
He didn’t know that what would start as the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia would create a revolutionary aroma that would waft all the way north and east. But he would very likely not have been surprised. In a poem called “Sultan” he laments: “Your spies are following me all the time,” and later adds: “They interrogate my wife and write down all the names of my friends.”
His words reverberate eerily in Syria today, where anti-regime protesters are struggling to hit a critical mass that will not be deterred by a government crackdown that has included countless killings and arrests.
The numbers are difficult to ascertain. Few foreign media are allowed into the country; many local reporters covering the developments there have gone missing or have been deported. Reuters has issued statements that several of its local reporters were missing and that one had been released by Presstime. The journalists the agency had sent in from Lebanon and Jordan to cover the story were expelled.
Protests have spread from heretofore little-known Daraa, a small town near the Jordanian border, to bigger cities; on Friday, April 1, demonstrations of varying size were held in Damascus, Homs, Baniyas, Idlib and Qamishli. Those gunning for real regime change, however, had hoped for a bigger showing.
After striking a defiant tone on March 30 in a speech before parliament, on April 3 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he was appointing a new premier, former agriculture minister Adel Safar, and that he would announce a new cabinet within days. However, it is also difficult to say whether Assad is convincing people that he will actually pursue reforms or simply attempting to scare them back into submission.
Only a poet or a prophet would try to predict which way this one will go. But suffice it to say that the Syrian regime has always been far more repressive internally than say, Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. It is clear that the situation in Damascus in early April is not akin to that in Cairo in early February, when every union from the bus drivers to the doctors were joining the call for Mubarak’s resignation.
Other factors also contribute to make Assad’s grip firmer than Mubarak’s. Among them is a reluctance in Washington and Jerusalem to see him go. Some of the savviest Syrians on Twitter – albeit an elite demographic – were tweeting with outrage when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on March 27 that “many members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”
There seems to be a clear message that the US would like to give “young” Bashar, a 45-year-old educated in London, a bit more time to figure things out. Last year, Washington sent its first ambassador to Syria since 2005, and the Obama Administration has continued to try to engage Assad on several tracks. The road to Iran, naturally, goes through Damascus.
Even in Jerusalem, few are agitating to see Assad dethroned. There’s a belief here that only with Assad Jr. could there be a chance of negotiating an Israeli-Syrian peace, although at this rate, no one sees Israelis running up to the Golan for one last ski trip before a deal is inked.
Explaining Israeli strategic thinking, Moshe Maoz, Israel’s foremost expert on all things Syrian, told correspondents in Jerusalem, “You want to work with the devil you know.” The Hebrew University professor adds: “Bashar wants to continue with the strategy of his father: peace with Israel.”

In the meantime, Assad has more pressing problems on his hands. While the US and other Western powers have no interest in seeing the Assad regime toppled just now, they cannot tolerate a bloodbath. Why, the rest of the world might ask, does Qaddafi get an internationally enforced no-fly zone while Assad gets a get-out-of-jail-free card?
The answer, in part, is that the Syrian regime is much smarter than Qaddafi’s. It doesn’t shoot citizens from helicopter gunships. In tighter, smaller Syria, one doesn’t find rebel militias waiting in the wings. And Assad doesn’t need to mow down 20,000 or more people, as his father did in Hama in 1982. Today, the young Assad, in power for just over a decade, can let plain clothed mukhabarat (secret police) do the work, filming demonstrators with a cellphone camera as if they were merely protesters in the crowd, then using the footage to track people down and arrest them in the middle of the night.
In honor of the annual Jasmine Festival of Damascus, held every April, Assad has instructed citizens to plant at least one jasmine plant, so that the city will be infused with the pristine white flower’s magnificent fragrance. Clearly, Assad believes he can ride the revolutionary horse without being thrown from it. After all, Syria has always been special in the Arab world. And yet also emblematic of that world, which means it’s not immune from what goes around.
As Qabbani describes in his poem, “Damascene Moon:”
From Damascus, eternity begins…and with her
languages remain and genealogies are preserved
and Damascus gives Arabism its form
and on its land, epochs materialize.