Ataturk and Assad – Turkey and Syria continued

(Ataturk’s expressionless image adorning every shop and government building in Turkey)

Upon my arrival in Turkey, I glimpsed the horizon on my early morning train into Istanbul and I had no idea what to expect. This is the best way to experience a country, because there’s nothing but good that can come from it. As I mentioned in my post last week, I had to pay $60 for an entrance visa, which put me in a bad mood, but once I reached Istanbul the next morning, I knew it would be worth it.

At the Sergeci train station, I met a few locals who gave me directions to the hostel. Along the way, Turks were stopping to ask if I needed help and I was thankful for their hospitality. Not what I was expecting at all. First thing I did in Sultanahmet, the most historic part of the city, was visit the great blue mosque. It was the first time I’d visited a mosque and I marveled at its majestic domes and minarets.

As I approached the mosque through the courtyard, I heard the call to prayer wailing from the speakers mounted up high. I followed the procession toward the entrance, but was stopped by a guard, telling me I could not enter unless I was going to pray. Out of nowhere, a young Muslim asked me if I’d like to learn more about the blue mosque and others around the world. I agreed and he took me to the Ottoman elementary school, where they teach foreigners about the history and principles of Islam. They served me Turkish tea and gave me Turkish delight and great conversation. I was sold and wanted to ask where to sign up?

All jokes aside, I enjoyed Istanbul. The nightlife near Taksim Square showed me how young Turks live with style. The food was the most memorable. Nothing beats a good kebab with friends! And I was able to spend some time with locals, in an apartment reminiscent of the film “L’auberge espagnole,” which was home to a Turk, Tunsian, French, Pole, Spaniard and Syrian (some were couchsurfers) all living in harmony in the heart of modern Istanbul.

(Hafez al-Assad, former Syrian dictator who ruled with an iron fist for three decades. He’s also the father of Bashar al-Assad, the current Syrian dictator)

The images of both Bashar, and his father, Hafez, are shown throughout the country. On every balcony, bridge, government building and shopfront. The image of these two go hand-in-hand. Not as discreet as the image of Ataturk, this is a cult of personality I’ve never seen before. I understand how Turks adore Ataturk, but I have no idea why Syrians would celebrate the two men who’ve kept their country from advancing like others in the region, becoming a real, thriving democracy.

The Syrian people have fought the regime before (in 1982 an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama was quickly suppressed) and will continue their revolution. But to see Hafez and Bashar everywhere just goes to show how weak their rule is getting. The Arab Spring took hold in Damascus, then continued in cities across the country. As Robert Fisk writes in the Independent newspaper, the regime will soon fall. If that happens, Syrians will rejoice. Of course, if you travel through Syria, you may even think it looks like a country at peace. Looks can be deceiving.

As my bus rolled down the highway in Syria, I kept my eyes peeled for any activity whatsoever. I realize that Syrians calling for peaceful, democratic change have to hide in safehouses and keep contact minimal. This regime has used force and will continue this to hold onto power. Before pulling off the highway to the border with Lebanon, I glimpsed the city of Homs, the base of anti-regime activity in Syria. My heart goes out to those hiding out, waiting for the chance to rise up against this brutal dictatorship, one that has been passed from father to son, like some kind of monarchy, ordained to rule with absolute authority until the end of time.

Bob Dylan once sang: “And the times, they are a-changing!”

I always say, the people united, will never be defeated!

Adam Bemma is a journalist, humanitarian, and media consultant based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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