The negative media focus on Syria in recent months has erased from minds the continuing reality: the country is among the few remaining parts of the Arab world where elegant, gracious living is still possible.

BY SAEED NAQVI

The luxury bus leaves downtown Cam hotel to Qassion mountains for a panoramic view of the world’s oldest, continuously inhabited city, Damascus. The picture has to be sketched because outside Syria everyone is counting on the level of chaos we did not see.

There are diplomats, journalists, scholars, some NGOs too, invited by a Syrian think tank to study the current situation. Edward Lionel Peck, former US ambassador to several Arab countries was in the group. From the Ahlatala Café at the Qassian heights, the vast expanse looks the very picture of tranquility. The city’s calm is all the more noticeable because, thanks to the media, we have been conditioned to expect tension, conflict, street protests.

“No fireworks here” the manager of the Café intervenes. Derra, Alleppo, Homs, Hama – “those are the cities where you might see some action”.

An Indian businessman invites me to spend the evening with a Syrian Sunni family he has known for long years. The husband is a retired civil servant; the wife dons a white chiffon scarf. She has a sad, beatific smile on her face. Her two daughters in frocks are constantly replenishing the centre table with fruits, baklavas, scones, soft drinks, Turkish coffee – endless hospitality.

The negative media focus on Syria in recent months has erased from minds the continuing reality: the country is among the few remaining parts of the Arab world where elegant, gracious living is still possible.

“But it may end soon” the wife says, wiping her tears. “Can you imagine – I have to wear this scarf now”. She is Sunni who are supposed to be with the Islamist rebels opposing the Alawi ruling elite. Then why is she unhappy wearing a scarf? Syrian social order is in turmoil.

The population of Syria consists overwhelmingly of Sunnis – say 80 percent. The biggest minority are Alawis, in their origins a Shia Sect but as a result of decades of Baath party training, have shed their religion. They are secular in a non religious sort of way, rather in the image of Mustafa Kemal Pasha or the more Socialist, left leaning Jawaharlal Nehru, a blend of an abiding local culture and western education.

Until the Ayatullahs came to power in 1979, Teheran, Istanbul, Beirut, Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Baghdad, Algiers, Tunis and any city in Morocco, and even Tripoli had among their populations the most secular elites. The secular enclaves may have been few but emphatic secular presence was a check on mindless religiosity. How was the secular stamp rubbed out in most of these societies in the space of three decades? Each city has a different narrative. The narrative of Damascus is currently in the making.

With the world’s media arrayed on the other side, it is difficult to persuade those who would care to listen, that it is secularism which is fighting with its back to the wall in Syria.

But the narrative the media beams about Syria is: Assad brutalizes his people.

It can be nobody’s case that Arab monarchies and dictatorships, Kemalist Turkey and Shah’s Iran were paragons of liberal democracy, if that be such a non negotiable value. But a certain elegant urbanity was available in these enclaves. In Cairo and Beirut, this urbanity came along with a sparkling intellectual life. Mubarak’s Cairo stilled the fizz. An anti intellectual aridity crept in which gradually overwhelmed most of the cities listed above. Damascus, believe it or not, is the last bastion where one can sit with friends and discuss ideas.

What, then, is our hostess that evening so distraught about? The growing religiosity travelling from across a post Kemalist Turkey and post Saddam Hussain Iraq have generated peer pressure for the scarf. And now, the impulses which brought in the scarf are providing hospitality for Islamism to topple the Baathist structure. Islamism is being preferred to secular Baathism by the US, Europe, Israel (Saudi Arabia) because the move removes Syria from the Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas chain. The regional chessboard changes.

Historically, in Syria Sunnis owned most of the lands and the rather poorer Alawis gravitated towards the army and other services. Just as the great Red Army, in the ultimate analysis, turned out to be a Russian army, the Yugoslav army, a Serbian army, the Syrian army is mostly an Alawi army. This army is the backbone of the Baath structure. Much the largest membership of Baath party comes from the Sunni majority for the obvious reason.

But they do not have as much of a “control” on power as the Alawis do particularly since the ascent of Hafez Assad in 1971.

There has always been a little bit of Muslim Brotherhood of varying strengths throughout the Arab sub stratum. The Iranian revolution in 1979 and breakdown of the Lebanon power sharing system after the Israeli occupation caused something of a stir in the central city of Hama, inviting a brutal crackdown by Assad in 1982.

The “Arab spring” broke up into three theatres – North Africa upto Egypt. Britain and France are to this day trying to manage the mess they have created in Libya. The Saudis are at the wheel on Bahrain and Yemen. Syria appeared to have been spared. Then Turkey began to look like a good model for Arabs in search of the electoral route. Moreover, if Syria can be fitted into that scheme, Iran will lost an ally and Turkey will gain influence.

The media has taken up the project with its concoctions and exaggerations. Double check this last fact with Ambassador Peck who is quite as puzzled. Meanwhile the lady with the scarf will swear by the holy book that she and her family in Alleppo have seen arms being funneled in for the protestors from Turkey. Others talk of Protesters being armed from Iraq and Jordan, a story the media will not investigate.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)