Syrian “tourism”, taking a page from the Hasbara Handbook

Posted: 09/13/2019 by editormary in "Israel", Activists and Activism, Assad, BDS, Europe, Hasbara / Zionist Propaganda, Hasbara Deconstruction Site, Human Rights, Internet and Communication, Palestine, Politics, Refugees, War, Zionism

all that glitters

Any person who has been a campaigner for Palestinian rights is aware of the various techniques that Israel uses to whitewash the occupation of Palestine and the oppression that the Palestinians are subject to. Along with Hasbara, which is a kind of prepared narrative to dominate the talking points and shift the discourse to a place where it makes Israel appear to be the underdog fighting for its legitimate rights instead of its actual reality as a brutal militarily occupying force against Palestinians, there is “whitewashing”. When regimes or countries that are not democratic use whitewashing, they make use of propagandists to determine talking or selling points that make these countries seem more democratic, more progressive and more appealing than they really are. The curtain is never pulled back to show what lay on the other side of all that “great stuff”.

Israel invests heavily in campaigns of tourism. “Two Sunny Cities, One Break” and “Douze Points” are only two of the campaigns in recent years that have sought a new, fashionable kind of tourist, one that was looking for the nightlife and a place to party 24 hours, and mostly a place to continue the promotion with selfies to be shared, encouraging yet more tourism to Israel in a virtuous circle. In the advertisements, the emphasis is on discotheques, pools, chic restaurants and bars. It’s all about fun and hedonism. That doesn’t mean that the “heritage” tourism, to religious sites and kibbutzes has stopped, it’s just that the advertising focus wants the potential tourist to believe that going to Tel Aviv is exactly like going to Milan, Prague or Madrid, only in this case, your holiday will never be spoiled by rain and your fun never stops. It is selling the side of Israel that reaps the benefits from the occupation, and doesn’t actually have to even think about Palestinians existing on the other side of the wall or who are living imprisoned on the outskirts of Jewish Settlements or any of the other situations where Palestinians do not experience full rights, including the right of free movement in their own country.

The BDS movement has a statement on ethical tourism which begins as follows:

Based on the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) affirmation in its statutes that it fundamentally aims at “the promotion and development of tourism with a view to contributing to […] universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”

It would follow that tourism to countries where there is a brutal occupation, violations of human rights and enclaves of persons living in grave peril under bombing and siege by their “government” and its allies would be exactly like violating the BDS call to boycott Israeli tourism. To go to places like that would require a particular behaviour set in order to be ethical, and that set has to be consistent. One can’t dance in the Tel Aviv discos and also show solidarity by avoiding all institutional links of any sort with Israel. You can’t pick and choose parts from each; it’s all or nothing.

The Syrian government has learned so much from the Israeli government’s use of hasbara, of throwing the rock and hiding the hand. One can say that it realises that slick propaganda is the other side of military occupation and oppression. They are working hard at whitewashing Syria, pointing out the sun, fun and pride of the “loyalist” Syrians (who never had to experience the bombs and destruction of any of the opposition areas, because the opposition did not have the military power or the conviction to subject the civilian population to sieges and air strikes). But, the regime can’t do it alone. It can’t put up slick advertisements on major Western TV channels. It is really limited in the extent to which it can promote the false narrative. This means that it has to find an alternative.

syrian ministry tourism.PNG

Facebook main photo of the Syrian Ministry of Tourism

The Syrian Ministry of Tourism has always been the propaganda arm of the regime. In the past, the process of vetting (and interrogating) tourists, with those finally passing through all the hoops specifically having limited or no access to some places and making a person fully aware that the “walls have ears”, made tourism there a sort of adventure tourism and a bit of a Truman Show. You accept that you have certain limits, which you are careful to not overstep. And how could you ever forget, with pictures of Big Brother everywhere, at public transport hubs and markets, but even on archaeological sites and churches. Everyone around you knows you can be called a spy, so you will only hear the most glowing and fervent praise of the government. The element of it being an inauthentic experience for everyone was more than mitigated by: for the tourist,  beautiful scenery and a very different kind of experience (something to write home about as weird but exciting), for the Syrians playing along, making some money off of tourists. Everyone played the game, but at least, everyone knew it was a game.

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The regime in the past also had a habit of involving bloggers and journalists – and not just those whose topic was travel, but especially those who were active in blogging for Palestine or Arab Nationalism – in “junket trips” where they not only had the government approved handlers, but were also shown many of the same places, with a similar narrative and the instructions to “take the talking points back home”, with a sort of briefing of what the points were. That allowed them to create a group of people who, given the amount of perks and the hospitality, were either blinded or they felt morally obligated to pay back the courtesy. Letting oneself be wilfully blinded works if someone can ignore reality. That was certainly easier in the past, when Syria was never in the news, when people “disappeared” for having told a joke or their opportunities were determined by how much they were able to prostrate themselves before the dynasty in power and all of its long arms around the country.

Today, it is impossible to ignore what is going on in Syria. That half of the country’s population has become refugees or internally displaced. That enormous areas of the country have been destroyed by constant and relentless air raids by the regime and other occupying forces, with Russia and Iran’s proxy militias playing the leading roles in these destructive raids, expecting their payback now and in the future. That hundreds of thousands of civilians have “disappeared” and many have been documented in photographs smuggled from a Syrian prison where they were tortured to death. That massacres of all kinds have been documented, with loyalists rejoicing and calling the victims terrorists, even the children who were slaughtered by knives, nerve gas or barrel bombs.

To go to Damascus and other regime-held areas, partying in the shisha bars, sunbathing at the beaches, buying souvenirs in the souks and visiting the sites, whether pretending to be “independent”, while employed by RT, or on a fact-finding mission, getting only the facts the regime wants one to get, with the loyalist behaviour doing the self-censorship, would require a certain, pathological kind of disconnect from reality, along with a severe ethical deficit.

To go to Saydnaya and to just look at the beautiful church, denying that the regime’s most brutal torture prison is located in the same village, is just like going to Tel Aviv, and not pulling the curtain back on Hebron’s misery.

Beware of any “journalist” or “tourist” going to Syria being anything but a propaganda tool for the regime and a knife in the heart of the Syrian people whose struggle for freedom was also a struggle to no longer play the game of lies and deceit. To live in their own country, authentically, without the oppression of the dynasty in power.

Comments
  1. […] published on We Write What We Like on September 13, 2019. Republished with […]

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