Danielle Capalbo’s Blog

Under surveillance

Posted in Cultural differences by Quiet Giant on May 24, 2009

As I gratuitously pointed out already, in one of my first posts from Cairo, you can’t help but see everything new – at least initially – with the influential knowledge of what you’ve seen before. It’s always there, lingering somewhere.

That’s probably why, right now, my image of Syria is just a mosaic of comparisons with Egypt.

We landed two days ago, and my first thoughts were relative: It’s cleaner here. The sidewalks are level and whole. Taking a deep breath doesn’t necessarily pose a respiratory health risk. Neither does crossing the street; everyone seems to be following traffic signs and speed limits. Stuff works right. When Katie and I walked into our hotel room and flicked an entire row of light switches, it was a real gamble. We waited for the anticlimactic moment we’d gotten used to – when at least one crucial element fails to function. (Which doesn’t bother me anymore, really. The forces of the universe are totally coddling people whose appliances don’t explode or just sit around in disrepair.) But after a second, the whole room was bright.

Weird.

Of course, there’s a trade off: The Syrian government has a complete stranglehold on its citizens.

Which brings up another point of contrast. In Egypt, uniformed police officers lined the sidewalks with AK47s tossed over their shoulders as casually as, I don’t know, lethal messenger bags. But everyone quietly knew they weren’t loaded. Here, some of the guys carrying weapons are wearing jeans and T-shirts, with extra ammunition visibly strapped across their abdomens. At Denis’ apartment last week, New York Times correspondent Michael Slackman called Egypt a “mellow police state.” On the other hand, he said, Syria is the kind of place where people still disappear in the night.

In Cairo, we watched Denis regularly cope with government-issued brown suits. They knocked on his door. They called him, over and over. By Western standards, the situation was far from comfortable, but it was transparent and, by contrast with Syrian surveillance, limited.

Here, we are constantly watched by people we couldn’t pick out from a crowd. Undercover agents, basically. This morning, for instance, when we climbed into our vans, one of the guides made it clear that he knew we’d “had some fun” last night. And later, our travel agent called Edwin with details: He knew where we’d gone for drinks and spoke with bartenders there.

Other than that, Syria is every wonderful thing I mentioned above: clean, organized, ostensibly functional and safe.

But at what cost?

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