Homs: The Capital of the Syrian Revolution
Hassan Abbas - 22/02/2012
From the city of the Roman Emperor Elagabalus (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus in Latin) to the city of jokes and laughter, Homs has always been one of the most important Syrian cities. But today it has become the most important city of all – the capital of the Syrian revolution, dancing and joking in the face of death.
Geographical and historical significance of Homs
The word Homs has become synonymous with the Syrian uprising. In fact, the city is now known as the ‘capital of the revolution’. Granted, the first spark of the uprising came from elsewhere – it reached Homs from the southern city of Daraa. But Homs was one of the first cities that caught revolutionary fire, and it has been blazing ever since, despite the great losses the city has borne.
Homs is the capital of the province of the same name, which is the biggest of the fourteen Syrian provinces in terms of area, and the fourth biggest in terms of population. It is the only Syrian province which borders three neighbouring countries – Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. However, the city's greatest importance is not based on its geographical position as much as on the city's position on the Syrian cultural map.
History books tell us that Homs, which was known as Emesa in Latin, was the country of Julia Domna, the wife of the Roman military commander Septimius Severus, who became the Roman emperor in 193 AD. Four emperors were descended from their line, the most famous of whom were Caracalla (198-217) and the bloody Elagabalus (218-22), who brought sun worship to Rome. In modern history, Homs was the birthplace of two Syrian presidents and a number of distinguished literary figures, poets and thinkers. In late February 1954 the city hosted the meetings of Syrian civil political powers that decided to terminate the despotic rule of Adib Shishakli and establish a democratic government.
In the annals of popular culture, Homs is famous for making sweetmeats. One particular type, popular all over Syria, is known as the 'Homsian halva'.
Homs: the city of good jokes
Most importantly of all, Homs is famous as the city of funny, light-hearted jokes. For Syrians, Homsians are like the Belgians to the rest of Europe, or the people of Hebron to the rest of the Palestinians. A Homsian is often described as simple-minded (majdoub in Arabic), which is derived from jathaba, a verb that denotes in old Islamic literature the mystic whose mind has been seized by metaphysical forces so his grip on reality has ceased and he has started behaving strangely, seeming stupid. One of the accounts of the origin of this description is that the Mongol leader Timur, during his invasion of Syria, set up camp near Homs on his way down to Damascus from Aleppo, and sent a group of his soldiers to the city on a reconnaissance mission. The inhabitants had already got wind of this, so they set out before the squad arrived, singing and laughing with abandon and dancing weirdly. When the soldiers asked the reason for this strange behaviour, the Homsians told them that the city’s air and water were polluted with something that made people go crazy; no one could enter the city and remain sane. The soldiers were afraid, and went back to their leader warning him not to come anywhere near this city full of mad people. In this way the inhabitants spared their city from Mongol occupation. It is said that these event took place on a Wednesday, and therefore Wednesday is considered, until now, as the Homsians' special 'madness day'.
The people of the city like to recall this story, as proof that Homsian behaviour isn't caused by stupidity – or being majdoub – but by a particular shrewd ingenuity. Therefore you will not see them getting provoked by all the jokes and gags they are the butt of. On the contrary, they take an active role in making them up and passing them on. They may even use them to demonstrate that they are cleverer than other people. As the old joke says: “Do you know why people who aren't from Homs love jokes about the Homsians? Because their little brains can understand them easily!”
Of course the people of Homs are proud of their heroic role in the Syrian uprising, of maintaining their fierce resistance despite daily bombardment and the great losses they have suffered. They are proud to be distinguished from the more reticent cities, such as Aleppo, whose participation in the uprising has been minimal and subdued. One of the jokes about this goes: “A night passed without a single gunshot being heard. When the Homsians woke up, they thought for a minute they were in Aleppo.” Some people attach a further anti-regime aspect to this joke, substituting the Golan Heights for Aleppo, in a clear reference to the regime not having lifted a finger to liberate the region occupied by Israel for the last forty-five years. Another joke boasts about the city's heroism with a play on words in Arabic: “The teacher asks the student, 'Where is Homs? [Literally: where does Homs fall?]' The student answers, 'Homs never falls!'”
Since every new development in reality is translated in a Homsian way into a joke, it is worth mentioning this joke about the deteriorating economic situation – the cooking-gas shortage, to be precise: “A journalist from the state media asks a Homsian, 'Why is there a shortage of gas, in your opinion?' He answers, 'Because the Homsians are cooking up a big conspiracy!'” Of course the joke is mocking the official state media that present the entire Syrian revolution as a conspiracy orchestrated from abroad.
Given that the main demand of the demonstrations all over Syria is for the president to step down, this subject cannot escape a Homsian joke: “A Homsian is asked, 'If you were the president of the republic, what's the first thing you would do?' He answers, 'Step down'.”
Jokes are also told about the way that daily demonstrations demanding the fall of the regime, which have been going on for ten months, have become part of normal daily life in some neighbourhoods of Homs. “A Homsian is asked, 'Will the demonstrations stop, if the regime falls?' He answers, 'What's that got to do with anything!'”
Playing with death
Homsian humour isn't confined to the way people talk about the uprising, but extends to the way it is carried out. For example, it is said there is a wide street that separates the raging neighbourhoods in open revolt from the rest of the city. Security forces’ snipers stand at the side of the street, looking out for anybody who tries to leave the besieged neighbourhoods to run any kind of errand in another neighbourhood. When the people under siege get bored, they amuse themselves with an invented game that consists of trying to get across the street and back without getting shot by a sniper. Whoever gets shot is quite simply 'out of the game'.
All the footage of the ongoing demonstrations, confrontations and military operations in Homs has reached us by crossing this street of death. But because snipers are always lurking, on the lookout for activists, a way of delivering the footage had to be invented that didn't risk it – or the person carrying it – falling into the hands of the security forces. The solution found was to use catapults: loaded with USB sticks rather than the usual stones or pebbles. These are shot over the heads of the security forces so that they can be caught by friends on the other side of the street. Minutes later the footage can be seen on satellite TV screens.
People can only allow playing with death to become a joke once their belief in their cause has reached the point of making them laugh at the greatest of all fears: fear of death. It makes them turn their value system upside down, so that the most serious matter of all, death, becomes a laughable cliché, and life itself becomes a game. This is how the people of Homs are living their uprising. They gather in the square and line up shoulder to shoulder. They know that outside the neighbourhood the machinery of destruction lies in wait, able to wipe them off the face of the earth with a single shell. They know that on the rooftops a sniper is hiding, ready to take any of them out with a single bullet. They know that somewhere among them, in the crowd, there are eyes spying on them, memorising the look of them so that the killers can identify them. But they also know that they are living a moment of no return, a moment of truth. So their choice is either to carry on, even if that means death, or to retreat and be defeated – with humiliation guaranteed, and death still very probable. Either meet death face on, but with certain victory, or turn back to meet death and humiliation. And so they dance. They dance...
As if a feverish Mediterranean Zorba is screaming inside the head of every single one of them, saying: “Come on son! Get up and dance!” So music booms and singing rings out, and the wheel of history turns. A people who sings its own death as a demand for freedom cannot but be victorious.
Translated from Arabic by Alice Guthrie & Shiar Youssef