"The world is not a rectilinear world, it is a curvilinear world. The heavenly bodies go in a curve because that is the
natural way..."

-- George Bernard Shaw

"I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein."

-- Oscar Niemeyer

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

16. Hama, Syria: Between the Massacres

The city of Hama is virtually synonymous with the word "massacre".

As the home of Syria's conservative (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood, Hama lies at the epicentre of uprisings against the (Shia) Assad regime. For this, it has suffered repression, reprisals and untold loss of life. 

Current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
The most brutal carnage took place after an uprising in 1982. Then-president Haffez al-Assad, father of the current President, ordered the town besieged by his brother and his elite team of 12,000 special forces. The city was bombed from the air, shelled by artillery, and stormed by tanks and troops.

Large sections of the old city were completely destroyed. Torture and mass executions followed. The use of chemical weapons was alleged but never proved. No one knows the precise number of people killed in the massacre, but estimates range from 20,000-40,000.

Nor has Hama fared well since the onset of the "Arab Spring". Syria's fourth-largest city was once again put under siege in 2011 following large, but peaceful, anti-government demonstrations. By early 2012, the city was subdued. This time, deaths numbered in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands.

And yet, when I think of Hama, a very different image comes to mind. I was fortunate to travel through Syria in the fall of 2009: a time when the country was at peace internally; a time when economic reforms and an openness to the world offered a glimmer of hope; and a time when a foreigner could travel about freely among the most welcoming people in the world, unaware of the blood-letting to follow in less than a year-and-a-half's time.

For me, when I think of Hama, the image that comes to mind is that of the Orontes River which gently meanders through the city, sustaining life in what would otherwise be a desert wasteland.

Hama during peaceful times
 I think of its verdant banks, and the people who saunter alongside them, pausing occasionally for a family photo. I think of the waiter who when he wasn't delivering falafel balls to my table, was on his knees behind my chair directing his evening prayers to Mecca.

I also think of Hama's unique architecture, like its police station, whose style I couldn't even begin to name:

One can only imagine the horrors that took place inside this beautiful building
And it's old colonial clock tower, always under the watchful gaze of the dictator of the day:

Even in peaceful times Big Brother was everywhere
Most of all I think of what made Hama famous centuries before the massacres - its iconic Norias or water wheels. Some of the 17 or so remaining wooden giants have been creaking and croaking their way through history since the 13th century. I like the single Norias that dot the riverbank:


  But I like even more the double ones:

One of Hama's double Norias reflected in the Orontes River
By surviving all these years, Hama's historic Norias have come to symbolize the triumph of the human spirit over the adverse and brutal conditions aligned against it. So too, in a way, have Hama's people.

I don't know if I will ever be able to return to Syria, or even if there will be a Syria left to which I can return. The country is balkanized, strife comes from within and without, and the buzzards are circling. And yet, I still kindle a small flame for a Syria that one day may be at peace, both with itself and its neighbours. 

Insha'alla, it will come to pass.