Sigma TV, that blessed Cypriot channel, reminds me of my 1990s more than anything else. Sigma reminds me of my first porn, my first infatuation with English and my first video of Michael Jackson. For a kid growing up with the brunt of Syria’s 90s, Sigma was a little place of solace. Sigma was where I first saw Basic Instinct, Apocalypse Now and Star Wars.
How can someone of my generation write about the 1990s? I never seize thinking of those days. I am, above all, a product of the 1990s sensory deprivation. The culmination of the autocracy and the implosion of every attempt to change in the mid 1980s, delivered us to a century of silence. It’s much more easier to track down the psychological impacts of these days than to actually remember how it happened.
The towering figurines of Hafez Assad looked down on me from every corner. It’s difficult to recall how a 10-year old child formed his complex relationship with those photos. In my earlier years, I was fully aware that these photos were the reason why my father lived in a far off city, why I had to lie about my name every time I was shipped to Beirut in the summer, and why my mother would speak very little about him in the presence of others. I saw the bitterness in her eyes, and I had nothing but hate for these photos.
In 1995, my father was somehow smuggled from Beirut to Latakia, and for the next 6 years, we lived, for the first time, like a normal family. Well, normal might be an overstatement considering that he had to hide in the bedroom closet whenever we had guests, but still, we lived all three of us in one house. My relationship with the photos changed.
I never saw bitterness in my father’s face, and when I told him that I hate them photos he smiled and said that hate is for defeated people. He brought laughter to the place, and he brought defiance to replace bitterness. My whole life had changed suddenly. The photos didn’t have that air of immortal fear and hatred anymore, they were photos of a mighty opponent, but one who couldn’t defeat defiance with bitterness. The fear, my father told me, is not but the reflection of fear in other people’s eyes. It is not but the reflection of the exasperation and desperation of what later became my forming century, the 1990s.
One of the scenes that will never leave my mind was the young lady crying helplessly as she reaches out to touch President Hafez Assad as he cast his ballot in the 1999 presidential referendum. He turns to her, smiles and hugs her. It moved me, and still does every time the footage is played again on television. I’ve made up many stories as to why that young lady was crying so emphatically. Many years later, as I read through my father’s diaries, I found these recollections of dream from April 1993.
He was attending some sort of a poetry reading, and Hafez Assad was present at the reading. As the night came to an end the room emptied and he found himself alone with the president. Assad came up to him and said, I have a feeling you want to talk to me about something. My father said, yes, but there’s something you need to know about me first. I am a member of Hizb al-Amal (Communist Labor Party). Hafez Assad, said with the most genuine surprise and pain, “But, Why?”
The dream was titled, “Stockholm syndrome.”
The 1990s were about to end, and with them the towering figurines of Hafez Assad. Within weeks my father would become, once again, a citizen.
The 90s are long over, and Michael Jackson is dead. There are very few of them towering figures now to look down on me and I don’t make much of an effort anymore to disguise my phone conversations. But I still don’t know how to write about those days. Memories from back then still come unexpectedly and leave me in a state of both confusion and contemplation.