Watching people watch people

March 14, 2008 § Leave a comment

(The promenade next to the Assad Library in Damascus at night, July 2007)

Al-Arabiya reports that the Syrian government has increased surveillance measures at internet cafes. The president of the Syrian Media Centre Mazen Darwish said that internet cafe owners must record the names and identification numbers of their customers as well as the time of entrance and departure. This information must then be turned over to the Syrian security apparatus.

Websites like YouTube and Facebook are banned in Syria, but it is widely known that all “banned” sites can be easily accessed at internet cafes. If you have internet at your home in Syria, then it is a different case and you cannot access any banned sites, including all blogs. It is known in Syria that there are certain internet cafes which work with the Syrian intelligence and turn over information readily, but there are also internet cafes (which tend to get shut down for extended periods of time and then re-open) which do not always willingly comply with government demands. Yet people who are directly criticizing the Syrian government (through a blog or website) normally play it safe and do much of their work in Lebanon.

(Central Damascus near the Souq Saroujah, July 2007.)

When foreigners arrive in Syria (at least Americans), their passport is marked with a number and this number is then recorded at any hotel, museum, or government office the traveler visits. I have a hunch that this number corresponds to your file (if it even exists) and it is a way for the Syrian government to keep tabs on your movements. The prevailing argument is that this foreigner-tracking is for safety measures.

I once had a Syrian taxi driver ask me, Do you like our President? I looked around uncomfortably and said, Well, I don’t know him personally, do you? He laughed and told me, I am in the mukhabarat (government intelligence office)! At this point, it was obvious that he was joking, but many people only speak with close friends and relatives about their actual opinions on the government.

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