This piece was translated and edited by Syria Deeply. We cannot independently verify all of its reporting but feel it is an important and insightful account to share.
Syrians of all stripes have resented the imposition of the Assad family’s name on the public spaces of the country, long before the revolution ignited in March 2011. This sentiment was expressed in whispers in the “kingdom of silence,” as the veteran dissident Riad Al-Turk famously called the Baath-controlled country, and Syrians silently watched their streets, universities, hospitals and even Islamic schools take on the names of their dictator and his sons.
When peaceful protests spread across the country in March 2011, these symbols of totalitarian rule, which created an atmosphere that eerily resembled George Orwell’s 1984, were quickly destroyed. The first wave included smashing statues and removing posters (video below) from city squares and public spaces. Once that phase was over, activists conjured new, non-violent tactics to rid Syria of the impositions of the Assad regime and return the country to its natural state before the tyranny took hold.
These new tactics focused on changing the names of streets, public infrastructure and other spaces that carried the names of Hafez, Bashar and Bassel Al Assad (the favored successor to Hafez who died in a car accident in 1994), as well as Baathist slogans which glorified the party’s 1963 coup (which the party calls a revolution).
Activists cleared or defaced placards and street signs with the old names and invited fellow Syrians through Facebook pages to suggest and vote on new names. An important goal of this campaign was to break the barrier of fear that was erected over decades of dictatorship. People were inspired when they were incorporated in these decisions, and when they could see that the authorities were struggling to reverse this civil disobedience.
Far from the violence of war, a different type of battle emerged between security forces and activists: street names were changed by dissidents, then authorities would comb towns and cities to remove the new labels. This dance had an additional benefit because it drew some security forces from their primary mission of cracking down on protests.
YouTube clips played a role in disseminating these acts of defiance, and dozens of videos from around the country circulated on social media sites to encourage more participation. Coordinated efforts to generate buzz were organized, and on Dec. 1, 2011 street names where changed in many neighborhoods in Damascus such as Barzeh, Dummar, Salhia, Rukn al-Din, Darayya, Qaboun and Zamalka.
Activists differ on the origins of this idea, but many point to an Al Jazeera interview with a man from Homs who told the station that the shelling was on Abu Mouza, a Syrian colloquialism meaning that the violence was intense. The Al Jazeera host mistakenly thought Abu Mouza (which literally means banana’s father) was a landmark and asked the man to elaborate on its location. This exchange became a common joke in Syria, and Homsis, who are known for their humor, decided to rename the Hafez Al Assad roundabout in their city as the Abu Mouza circle.
The idea quickly spread across the country. Activists in Damascus changed the Assad bridge to Ibrahim Qashoush bridge, after the name of the protest singer who was allegedly killed by the regime in Hama. The March 8th Street in Latakia, commemorating the Baathist coup, became March 15th Street, in reference to the protests in Damascus that sparked the revolution. Ghiyath Matar, the peaceful activist who was killed under torture, supplanted Bassel Al Assad street in Darayya, and the Assad Library in Damascus was renamed the National Library.
Some locations received multiple names – the Qashoush bridge is also called the Hussein Harmoush bridge, a sign of the confusion and lack of coordination among activists. (Harmoush was the first officer to publicly defect from the Syrian Army and was later captured in Turkey and returned to Syria).
Activists have named streets after their friends in prison to energize other dissidents and stick it to the security forces, and sometimes used sadder labels such as calling 60th street as the Street of Death. Entire neighborhoods that were predominately supportive of the Assad regime were rebranded as Menheback suburbs, mocking Bashar Al Assad fans who wear t-shirts with the president’s face above the word Menhebak, or we love you, which was his campaign slogan in 2007.
New Names Hit the Airwaves, and the U.N.
After Arab and Western journalists picked up on this phenomenon, pro-regime outlets started to highlight the campaign in their reports, unwittingly building awareness for activists and spreading the idea further inside of Syria.
Syrian activists used crowd sourcing tools to change street names on Google Maps. This image is from the Ogle Earth blog.
- Syrian activists use crowd sourcing tools to change street names on Google Maps. Image is from the Ogle Earth blog.
The campaign reached a crescendo after activists figured out a way to change street names and landmarks on Google maps, by using the crowd sourcing tools developed by the technology company that were originally intended to create more accurate maps.
These online alterations prompted bizarre accusations by Bashar Al Jaafari, Syria’s Ambassador to the U.N., who blamed Google in Feb. 2012 for violating “the United Nations General Assembly, the resolution of the Arab League pertaining to the standardization of the geographic nomenclature… What does Google have to do with the names of streets in Syrian cities? What is this web site doing changing the names of streets in small Syrian cities and villages?”
In the end, changing the names of streets, schools and hospitals, proved to be a success because it destroyed the symbols of the state and reclaimed them for the people and the peaceful action came at a very low cost to activists.