My friend’s husband recently said he would no longer go to his barber of more than 20 years. It wasn’t over a bad haircut or an error over the trimming of his beard.
Her husband is a Syrian, who opposes president Bashar Al Assad. His barber, on the other hand, is a devout supporter of the dictator.
“We’ve become like you Iraqis now,” he told me. “Whenever we meet Syrians, there’s always that awkward moment where you’re trying to identify if the person is pro or against Bashar. People even prefer to deal with non-Syrians altogether to avoid confrontation these days.”
Syrians in the diaspora have started to experience what Iraqis have been experiencing for many years. More troubling perhaps is when Syrians start to reminisce about the “good old days” of tyranny. Especially since 2004, whenever Iraq’s security situation reached an ultimate low, people were always quick to say “you Iraqis can only be governed by a heavy-handed iron man” or “you wanted to get rid of Saddam? Look now, the country has become a haven for insurgents and the government has practically passed down all its responsibilities to Iran”.
Other quick assertions include “back in the good days, electricity would run 24/7 and the roads were always paved”. But people who make such comments either have a short-term memory or one-sided view of the issue, both in Iraq and in Syria. I usually respond to such statements by saying: Yes, if we are talking about Baghdad and Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, but it came at the expense of power shortages in the other provinces and cities in Iraq.
Other comments include: that Saddam was a true leader; he took on America, and he and his family knew and understood Arab generosity. Someone I know, an Arab, recounted how in mid-1990s, he had received a personal invitation to Baghdad by the former dictator, who prepared a feast that had gluttony written all over it.
As he nostalgically remembered his trip to Iraq, I was quick to remind him that in that very same period, Iraq was hit by economic sanctions after entering a war with Kuwait that most Iraqis did not want. As the currency quickly plummeted in value to a record low, with one dollar becoming worth thousands of dinars, the majority of people could not afford to eat more than one meal a day, relying on relatives abroad to send them money.
Last week, a friend who recently left Iraq to get married in the UAE said she was planning to visit home and had purchased a designer bag for her mother that cost well over $300 (Dh1,100).
“Here in the UAE, for most people, its almost like chump change, but if my mother knew how much I spent on it she would think I am crazy,” she told me at a coffee shop in Dubai. “But I bought it for her to pay her back for all those years that she slept on an empty stomach so I and my siblings could eat back in the 90s.”
In the same way, today Syrian friends of mine living here describe how they are faced with comments such as “was Bashar Al Assad so bad? Look the country has been burnt to the ground and Al Qaeda has taken over”. Unfortunately, these statements are quite frequent but at the same time, they’re futile, inaccurate and insulting.
Why do Iraqis and Syrians need to choose one or the other? Should it be a brutal dictator or a haven for insurgencies? Is there not a middle way, where people are governed in a way that respects human dignity and provides opportunities for employment regardless of their ethnic, religious or political affiliations?
When driving in the streets of Abu Dhabi, with its lush date palms, skyscrapers and families of different nationalities, many of my Iraqi friends who visit tend to say: “Allah! Imagine if Baghdad was like this.”
My mother has a picture of Sheikh Khalifa as the profile picture on her mobile messaging application “WhatsApp” and refers to the UAE as “my country”. Understandably, many Iraqis and Syrians have chosen to live in the UAE, which offers opportunities and a standard of life they could not have in their countries.
In Iraq under Saddam, if one wasn’t a Baathist a person would be bullied at work and would never be able to rise up the social ladder. In Syria, if one didn’t partner with Assad’s clan or high-ranking Baathists, he or she would not be able to improve their lives.
Iraqis and Syrians can have an alternative, not a dictator nor a group of insurgents running their country.
On Twitter: @hadeelalsayegh