The Agony of Choice

2021 is the ’super-election year‘ in Germany. Is there an „agony of choice“ in Syria? And what does that have to do with the German elections? Many thanks to the Butzbacher newspaper for the publication.

The agony of choice that I’m writing about, exists not here in Germany, but in Syria! And before I ‘enlighten you’ about the reasons for this agony, let me first give you this short background. 

At the time I was in the ‚changing room‘ of life, that is, in adolescence, a time when you just try to wear anything or everything, trying out different sizes, colours and whatever is available until you find something that probably fits you, (of course, long before a lot of us would stick to certain sets of convictions and ideas, wrap ourselves in a quite everlasting ‘outfit’), at that particular time, in 1995, Germany, to a Syrian teenager, was a source of sweetness, agony, horror and conundrum altogether, in the way that bitterness and sweetness can blend in bitter Swiss chocolate magically together. Because to most of us of that generation, Germany, as a word, was only attached to things that looked brilliant and could not be readily afforded. 

The first product was Kinder Surprise-Eggs stuffed with plastic toys at a time of pre-plastic-phobia. My friend said: „‘Kinder’ is a German word that means ‘children’, so they are logically German made“; yet his uncle, a Ba’thist*, was suspicious about them: „They are like the Trojan horse. This is how capital countries infiltrate others“. We did not get the point. Still, they were our favourites. We were lucky to have some, from time to time, because a handful of Kinder Eggs could easily cross the borders and be concealed, at least in pockets, so they would not be confiscated or run into trouble.

The second product was ‘Pampers’. Our neighbour used to ask a taxi-driver who was working on the commuter line of Homs-Beirut, to buy her whatever amount he could smuggle in. She even asked him to bribe the checkpoint guards, just in case, but there was probably a budget-limit to the bribe. She trusted ‘Abo-Elia’ and didn’t question him anymore, especially after he had convinced her of the quality of the diapers. ‘Abo-Elia’ declared their origin as: ‘the best German product’, and by saying just that, he cut out the stream of questions she could rain on him. After all, they were worth a fortune at that time. Smuggling routes were nourished in Syria when our wise government raised the motto of self-satisfaction: a campaign for promoting national products. In the long run, this created a lucrative business for lots of young men on the border cities for goods, the less harmful of which were electrical devices, medicine, chocolates, tobacco, Scotch whiskies and, of course, ‘Pampers’. Although, ironically, there was then no equivalent to the disposable diapers in the local markets, products like ‘Pampers’ were probably considered unnecessary or frivolous, regarded as a luxury item for a kind of life that did not fit us. However, even when my neighbour read the label: ‘made in America’, she did not allow the shock to change her conviction of the quality. So for us, at least in our building and several blocks around, ‘Pampers’ remain German, the unattainable, creating a need for showing-off. 

Speaking about the unattainable, the third product was the Mercedes car. The taste for the gently curved shape of the Volkswagen Beetle was replaced by the Mercedes W201 or W124, exhaling the smell of grandeur and wealth. Mercedes was another source of sweetness and agony since they were driven mainly by politicians and the elites, those who could pamper their lives without paying respect to any economic or national consideration. 

To think of the horror-side, Germany always meant Hitler. Even if it was 1995! In the school-books of history, we were taught that Hitler destroyed Germany because of his selfishness, arrogance and cruelty. As teenagers, we faced a conundrum that was hard to fathom, unaware as we were then of what was true and what was not. How could a country be the master of the world markets in manufacturing cars, making the tastiest chocolates, and bear the contradiction of being the land of Hitler and ‘Pampers’?

A few years later, I would know the mother of all contradictions that Hitler’s memoir, My Struggle, or ,My Fight, was one of the best-sellers in the Arabic book fairs. However, there is nothing more horrendous than knowing today, while working on my research, that Arab nationalism in the mid thirties borrowed its fundamental doctrines from fascism, basically chauvinism and nativism. There is evidence of meetings between high ranking Arab nationalists and German Nazi leaders in 1941. By the early 1970s, a model of dictatorships, bolstered by the invisible hand of intelligence agencies, had emerged as a reasonable outcome of an exclusive central regime represented by the one leader and the one party. 

In 2007, I became aware of the fact that I’d never voted before, neither in the parliamentary nor in the presidential elections. “It is your right to vote”, it was not only my father who would lecture me saying that, but also the posters distributed around all over the walls, lampposts, shops and those hung on tightened ropes cutting across the streets like laundry lines. Why should I? Nothing new, it was just a referendum: no opposition, no voting lists. It was as usual, either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, and in both cases, whether you consent or refuse nothing would change. In this same year, even ‘the right to be silent’ was confiscated from many (like the boxes of Kinder Eggs at the check-points). I had to “vote” because the clever ‘election’ committee had issued an election-card. By sharing in the ’national wedding’, what the media called the ‘celebration’ of the election event, the squared spot on this card was to be stamped. A stamped election card labelled its owner as a good citizen. That year, whenever any person required a document or applied for a job in the governmental sector, he/she needed to show the election card beforehand. So, that is how it came about that I shared in ‚the wedding’ although I was not invited. 

Today, as in any election season in Germany in the last five years, I have an opportunity to draw on a picture of this event from past memory and a living one and to think it all again. The right to vote would be a slogan if only one party were celebrating its own wedding to an already-dead corpse. It would be hypocritical to not respect the minds of the citizens (the guests). And to the extent that ‘plurality’ and ‘polyglot’ are terms used when we speak of language, and of people from different cultural backgrounds and legacies, when I think of them in a parliamentary context, I find them intrinsically enriching. Even plurality, from another perspective, may not satisfy everybody. The agenda of each political party, of each colour, may not be persuasive or feasible. Nonetheless, one may not value the right to vote until this right is ‘confiscated’ by a blind authoritative power. I am thinking of the Kinder piece of chocolate: you feel the ‘sweetness’ in the mouth, like Pavlov’s dog, but you don’t taste it, you are not allowed to, then only the taste of ‘agony’ replaces it. Apart from that, I think not only your voice matters but also your silence: if you don’t vote you’re strengthening the ‘confiscators’: those who are willing to turn the country into a monolith, typical to the model of the one leader, one colour, one ‚outfit’.  

I hope I made my reason clear why in Syria we have this agony of choice: it is because later, in the late 1990s, it became hard to choose between what we were used to and what was trendy: ‘Pampers’ and ‘Libero’. ‘Libero’, the Italian brand, is another story, I may tell you next time if you want. It is also elastic and fragrant, but still….                       

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* Ba’thist is an advocate or a member of the Arab Socialist Baʽath Party, the leading and ruling party in Syria.

Photo Credit: Fadi Kabbash