You have to have strong nerves to look at the videos of the dreadful scenes in Syria. Day after day, the television channels are showing corpses, and the commentators add to the horror by saying that the films cannot be verified — the implication being that they have been faked. Damascus and Aleppo now undergo heavy shelling and bombing. When Hitler’s Luftwaffe destroyed Rotterdam or Belgrade, the world learnt of it without benefit of video film of these events. When Hafez Assad smashed Hama in 1982 and killed tens of thousands of his people, he could still do so more or less secretly. His son and successor, Bashar Assad, is a copy-cat mass-murderer out in the open.
In the sad days of Hafez Assad, I became familiar with some instinct inborn in every Middle Easterner, which is to sense the degree of danger pertaining around you. The mood on the street is all the information necessary. You just have that prickle that something bad is about to happen. Syrians mostly did not dare to meet someone researching a book like me. Those who did usually behaved like secret policemen. I have paid bribes to more officials in Syria than in any other country.
Damascus is a wonderful and historic city long in the grip of habitual thuggery. One day I saw overt secret policemen beating people away from the famous souk because half a dozen women from the Saudi royal harem did not want to be observed shopping. On another day, my wife and I were visiting the Great Mosque which has the head supposedly of John the Baptist, when a crowd gathered round us and someone slipped a black abaya over her head while whispering, “I will save you from the fanatics.”
On yet another trip I had made sure that nothing revealed the fact that I had come from Israel. In my hotel room I suddenly saw that I had talcum powder bought in Tel Aviv, with a giveaway label in Hebrew. White powder, no scent — Mossad or what. I threw the canister out of the window, where it lay on the lawn in full view. Retrieval would obviously compromise me. It wasn’t paranoia. Hafez was easily recognizable as a cunning brute. How trivial the opposition to him now seems, games-playing really, as Russian-made fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships are raising fire and flame on behalf of another brute, this one just a crude killer.