Parallels
6:52 am
Sat June 7, 2014

Like 'Doctor Who,' Syrian Activists Hang In Limbo Post-Election

Originally published on Tue June 10, 2014 8:19 am

A popular, British science-fiction TV show about a time-traveler would seem to have few parallels with the Syrian civil war. But one Syrian activist sees some apt comparisons.

When Syrian President Bashar Assad was re-elected for a third term in office this week — in a tightly controlled election in which official results showed 87.7 percent of voters supported him — it demonstrated Assad's confidence, even three years after much of the country rose against him.

Opposition activists say the election was a cruel farce that locks the country into a path of war; many admit they are exhausted and discouraged.

"I don't blame people for voting," says Aboud Dandachi, an activist in exile in Istanbul. "That is the fear that the regime has implanted in us for 40 years. If you step out of line there will be repercussions that you can't even imagine."

Dandachi has learned to cope with the help of a popular British TV show, Doctor Who.

We meet in a cafe overlooking the Turkish city. Dandachi is grateful for a relatively easy exile, considering the suffering of so many refugees. He has made himself an expert, he says, on the parallels between the Syrian revolt and the themes of Doctor Who, a program that feature a doctor, a British phone booth and time travel.

The 38-year-old, a self-described computer geek writes From Homs to Istanbul, a blog about the war. In February this year he published an e-book: The Doctor, The Eye Doctor and Me. (Assad was trained as an ophthalmologist.)

"People can't relate to Syria unless it's something they care about," he says, explaining his reason for focusing on the popular British show.

"Honestly, my life was reduced to living for the next episode of Doctor Who," he says with a laugh, remembering binge-watching the series. "Every day I would pray that nothing happened to the Internet so I could down load the episodes."

In the spring of 2011, Dandachi was caught up in the revolt in the city of Homs, which became the capital of the revolt. Thousands chanted for freedom, led by young activists, convinced Assad's days were numbered. Break the wall of fear, they believed, and the oppressive regime would topple, too.

"We were definitely naïve," he says about the peaceful movement he joined. "When we said freedom, (it) was just shorthand for lots of things we wanted to change, lots of things that we couldn't articulate."

As the rallies grew, the regime crackdown hardened. Dandachi witnessed friends gunned down in the streets. In April, security police killed more than 100 protesters. His brother could have been one of those casualties, but he had left the rally to charge his cellphone.

Shocked by the violence, Dandachi contacted the BBC to report. In one of his last interviews from Homs in January 2012, the gunfire is so loud that the interviewer tells him, "If you are in an unsafe position, obviously, get off the line." His voice shaking, Aboud replies: "I'm fine. I'm fine."

Even now, the memory of that broadcast makes his heart race. "Don't be a coward," he repeated to himself to keep up his nerve.

By then, the protest had become an armed rebellion. Al-Qaida had set up camp in Syria. Dandachi fled to the relative safety of the coastal city of Tartous. For him, it was "enemy territory" — Tartous is a city of regime supporters. But he understood their fears.

"A bad dictator can stay in place if there are no alternatives," he says. "I understand people who are apprehensive and stuck."

Dandachi rented a small hotel room, staying in Tartous for 18 months.

"I didn't mix with anyone," he says, instead, downloading Doctor Who broadcasts. He was trying to make sense out of the chaos and the random nature of death in a brutally relentless war. It was also a way to stay sane.

"I cannot think of any time in my life that I was so engaged and tried to find so much meaning," Dandachi says.

The television show became an inspiration. In one episode, the main character prevails in a war that lasted 300 years.

"At the beginning he had so many enemies, in the end there was only one. All it comes down to in a war is resilience," Dandachi says in a bitter critique of the movement for change. "We overestimated how committed our side is, and we underestimated how committed the people around Bashar were."

This week, Dandachi watched that commitment in an election mounted only in the parts of Syria controlled by the regime. After the vote, Assad declared a mandate for Syria to manage its own affairs, ending hopes for a political solution to the war.

It was election theater, says Dandachi, not a real choice. Even hard-line opponents inside Syria voted for Assad, fearing retribution, he says.

"That is the fear that the regime has implanted in us for 40 years, that if you step out of line there will be repercussions that you can't even image," he says.

But Dandachi is unsparing about the failures of opposition, citing another lesson from the show: The hero is a skilled politician.

"Syria is what happens when a society has no political class worth a damn. Armies can fight wars forever, they can win battles, but without a political solution for framework to end the conflict, then you can keep fighting forever," he says.

Forever is only in science fiction. But Dandachi and many other activists say it is unlikely they can return home for years; becoming another generation in exile, trying to build a credible political movement.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. "Doctor Who" is a popular British TV show - science fiction that wouldn't seem to have a lot of parallels with the Syrian Civil War. But one struggling Syrian sees some comparisons. Look at this week, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was re-elected in a vote that the West decried as a farce. It showed that Assad is keeping his grip on power even three years after much of his country rose against him. For the opposition, it means years more of exile and war.

NPR's Deborah Amos spoke with an activist who draws lessons and inspiration from "Doctor Who."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCTOR WHO")

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This catchy tune is familiar to legions of "Doctor Who" fans - the iconic British TV show that features a doctor, a British phone booth and time travel. This is Aboud Dandachi's cell phone ring. And the way he tells it, "Doctor Who," a show about a time traveling alien, helped him understand the war in Syria and the failures of a peaceful movement he joined.

The 38-year-old self-described computer geek is now in exile in Turkey. And he writes a blog about the war. He wrote an e-book, released earlier this year, that includes parallels between the Syrian president, a trained ophthalmologist and the TV show - called "The Doctor, The Eye Doctor and Me."

ABOUD DANDACHI: Actually, honestly, my life was reduced to living for the next episode of "Doctor Who." And every day, I would pray that nothing happened to the internet so that I could download the episodes. (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

AMOS: In this time travel, we go back to the spring of 2011 to Dandachi's hometown - the city that became the capital of the revolution, Homs. Thousands chanted for freedom - led by young activists, convinced President Bashar al-Assad's days were numbered. Break the wall of fear and the oppressive regime would topple, too.

DANDACHI: We were definitely naive. When we said freedom, OK, freedom was just shorthand for lots of things that we wanted to change, a lot of things that maybe we couldn't articulate.

AMOS: As the rallies grew, the regime crackdown hardened. Dandachi witnessed friends gunned down in the streets - the cost for reporting those events to the outside world rose higher. Here, he was interviewed by the BBC in January 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is that Aboud? what's happening there?

DANDACHI: Yes, lots of firing, lots of explosions.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And how that close is that where you are sitting?

DANDACHI: Well, it's never been closer to be honest.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I mean, if you're in a unsafe position, obviously get off the line and get safe.

DANDACHI: No, I'm fine. I'm fine. No, I'm fine.

The host kept telling me off the air. Get off the air. Be careful. But I was not going to get off the air. Honestly, every time I hear that my heart still races. It had never been that bad.

AMOS: By then, the protest had become an armed rebellion. Al-Qaeda had set up camp in Syria. Dandachi fled to the relative safety of the coastal city of Tartous. For him, enemy territory, Tartous is the city of regime supporters.

He rented a small hotel room - stayed for 18 months - downloading "Doctor Who" broadcasts trying to make sense out of the chaos and the random nature of death in this brutal, relentless war.

Was this an attempt to stay sane?

DANDACHI: Ah, that's a very good question. I cannot think of any time in my life when I was so engaged and tried to find so much meaning.

AMOS: The television show became an inspiration. In one episode, the doctor prevailed in a war that lasted 300 years.

DANDACHI: At the beginning, he had so many enemies. In the end, there was only one. All it comes down to, in a war, is resilience. That is something that we did not understand when we started these protests. We overestimated how committed our side was. We underestimated how committed the people around Bashar were.

AMOS: This week, Dandachi watched that commitment in an election mounted only in the parts of Syria controlled by the regime. Syria TV broadcasts nonstop coverage. After the vote, Bashar al-Assad declared a mandate for Syria to manage its own affairs, ending hopes for a political solution to the war. Election theater, says Dandachi, not a real choice. Even hard line opponents voted for Assad inside the country fearing retribution he says.

DANDACHI: That is the fear that the regime has implanted in us for 40 years. That if you step out of line, there will be repercussions that you can't even imagine. I don't blame anybody for giving up, to be honest.

AMOS: But he's unsparing about the failures of the opposition, as well as the regime. Citing another lesson from the show, the hero is a skilled negotiator.

DANDACHI: Syria is what happens when a society has no political class worth a damn. Armies can fight wars forever. They can win battles, but without a political solution or framework to end the conflict, then you can keep on fighting forever.

AMOS: Forever is only in science fiction, but Dandachi and many other activists who begin a peaceful movement for change say it's unlikely they can return home for years. Another generation of Syrians in exile, working on building a credible political movement.

DANDACHI: You take it one day at a time. That's the only way that you can survive. If I accept the fact that the country screwed for 20 years, I will be completely depressed and could not function. I just have to take it one day at a time, one development at a time and hope. The moment that you give up hope, that is when you're done for.

AMOS: It's a lesson learned from a science-fiction hero - more from the real-life experiences of the war. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Gaziantep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.