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Monday, 12 June, 2000, 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK
Living in Assad's Syria
Women in a march to express sorrow for Assad's death
By BBC Monitoring's Nadya Truman, who spent a year in Damascus

Assad's presence is everywhere in Syria. When I arrived in 1995 there was no way to avoid him, despite his rare public appearances.

Portraits the size of office blocks dominated the streets. He stared out of exercise books.

Mourners carrying Bashar's picture
Bashar appeared on posters after his brother's death
Buildings were named after him; every news bulletin, every newspaper repeated his name.

Images of his son Basil, killed in a car accident the year before, also adorned walls and souqs.

Basil looking sporty, Basil meeting the people, Basil sultry in dark glasses.

The president's less glamorous son, Bashar, began to appear on posters after his brother's death, as Assad started grooming him to replace Basil as his successor.

25th anniversary

The 25th anniversary of the Correctionist Movement, which brought Assad to power, was celebrated during my year studying in Damascus, along with a string of other patriotic days.

Damascus
Damascus is virtually crime-free
Huge firework displays were let off on Mount Qassioun and large letters across the mountain, Hollywood-style, reminded us what the occasion was.

Assad himself never joined in the festivities but his name was on everybody's lips.

In the government-run language school I attended, lessons were disrupted to allow us to celebrate. We all filed down to the basement where officials had organised a party.

The headmistress and star pupils made speeches which we listened to in respectful silence, applauding dutifully after every mention of Assad, the Ba'th Party or the Correctionist Movement.

The school was a bare, functional place, with only the usual official posters decorating the walls. In class, we studied texts that told us about the achievements of the Correctionist Movement.

Assad's palace

My flat was near Assad's palace in Rawda, a quiet leafy area where plainclothes policemen loitered conspicuously behind trees.

Assad's picture on a building
Assad's picture can be found everywhere in Syria
Large cars with tinted windows swished past but there was never any sign of the president himself.

From my balcony I could see his official residence, the People's Palace, a huge modern building perched on a hill above the city. I felt I was being watched.

However, I felt safer living in this peaceful, virtually crime-free capital than I had anywhere else.

Syrians' loyalty

Many Syrians seemed to have a genuine loyalty to Assad.

Men and women had a reasonable quality of life with the chance of a good university education. Most of all they had stability, and considered themselves lucky compared with their neighbours in Lebanon or Iraq.

My Syrian friends never criticised the government, although when translating the heavily-censored Syrian press, my teacher smiled to hint at opinions he never voiced.

Syrian man mourning
Syrians seem to have a genuine loyalty to Assad
While Syrians steered clear of political debate, Assad's rule was discussed constantly by the expatriate community.

Rumours were rife about the state of his health and the question of a successor.

Diabetes and heart attacks were often mentioned and there was a popular theory that he had actually been dead for years.

We watched his television appearances closely, looking for signs of ill health. Foreign workers were edgy, keeping the petrol tank full and a suitcase packed in case they needed to flee the country in a hurry.

And though Hafez al-Assad is now dead, it is not difficult to imagine that his giant portraits will continue to dominate the streets for many years to come.

See also:

11 Jun 00 | Middle East
10 Jun 00 | Middle East
11 Jun 00 | Media reports
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