‘It’s a whole new Syria’

Syrian men drink tea and smoke water pipes as they sit at a cafe in the capital Damascus where many people are beginning to debate their situation.

In the midst of the chaos and bloodshed gripping the nation, new underground forums for culture and debate have begun mushrooming across the capital Damascus, according to a recent participant, bringing together stressed out Syrians to express and debate the issues their country faces in a boldness once unthinkable in their four-decade-old dictatorship.

“Always the discussions turn to citizenship and democracy. Everyone is stressed out but excited at the same time. They all know something is ending,” said a Syrian intellectual and resident of Damascus who asked to remain anonymous.

The forums began around May, he said, and take place in private homes, organised largely by word of mouth to avoid the secret police, whose iron grip on Syria once meant political discussion forums were all but unheard of.

The last such active group, the Jamal Atassi Forum, was closed down in 2005 after one of its members read out a statement by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

But with the secret police working around the clock to try and quash protests across Syria, intellectuals, artists and those wishing to express themselves are taking advantage of a new found freedom.

The Syrian intellectual said he attended a weekly meeting of around 50 people from many of Syria’s different sects and ethnic background with the aim of staging a small ‘psychodrama’ in which participants are encouraged to act out their feelings in role play and dramatization. He said one such recent play had been on the feeling of fear.

“It’s after work and everyone is tired but still they turn up. We draw the blinds and then a few people put on the play and then we all talk about it. Inevitably the conversation turns to what is going on in Syria,” he said. “Of course it’s terrible to have all the death and blood and violence, but on the other side of things there’s a real awakening. People are very happy in many ways.”