Friday, November 17, 2006

The former president's shadow

At every turn, Syrians are reminded of their former president, Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000, after serving for 30 years. Recalled officially as the father of modern Syria, his likeness remains in villages and cities in the form of portraits, statues and car decals.

His son, Bashar al-Assad, president since his father’s death, has taken a more modest approach to the cult of personality. In government offices and school classrooms, Bashar’s head-and-shoulders photo in three-quarters profile often appears beside his father’s – son typically slightly larger than father –– but he has not commissioned statues at the rate of his father.

In Damascus, the father left his imprint on one of the central parks in the new downtown. He looms above Arnous Square, standing rigidly, wearing a western-style suit – the uniform of the secular Baath Party – and benevolently raising his right arm, not quite a wave, but more as if to pat a young boy on the head.

In the evenings, under the shadow of the former dictator, Syrian boys ride bicycles, young couples stroll arm in arm and old men sit on benches, talking. Recently, as I was walking through the park, I came upon two Chinese tourists photographing each other in front of the statue.


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