We are about to reach Trafalgar Square. The day started off cloudy but by the time we arrived to the protest the sun was beating down on us through a patch of blue sky that had been emptied of clouds. Dozens of green, white and black flags – the flags of the Syrian revolution – waved and rippled in the breeze. When we got there we saw a man in a werewolf mask posing with some people and their camera. He had a placard and it said something about Assad the killer who used chemical weapons on his own people. He had ketchup smeared on his hands – that was supposed to be blood. A small group of people stood dejectedly, listening to people making statements through loudspeakers. There was a woman who regularly appears at the London protests with two crutches, I don’t know who she is, and she had placards with pictures of dead Syrian babies hanging from her neck on her front and back. She looked like a walking billboard that hobbled from place to place. Her whole manner reminded me of the beggar women in front of the Friday mosque, after prayers, waiting for the more charitable worshippers to drop some alms and save their eternal souls. The group formed a semi-circle around the speakers, and placards and Syrian flags were being held up, not facing outwards, but inwards. It seemed to sum up the whole mentality of the protest. Every now and then one of these Syrian dinosaurs would take a picture with their smart phone, the whole thing seemed an exercise in vanity. Garish, cringeworthy photographs of dead Syrian children were festooned everywhere.
A man held the microphone and started addressing the small gathering while bewildered tourists looked on at us. He said things about chemical weapons, about butchers and about savagery, all with the most appalling English. He pantomimed some story about a child that had lost his parents, again in the most awful English, perhaps expecting that he was tugging on the heart-strings of the listeners and passersby. Instead it was off-putting and would have bordered on the comical were the subject matter not so serious. It was a silly performance and the people standing there were starting to get tired. Thinking to energise the crowd he started to chant some of the tired and stale slogans that have been copied wholesale from pro-Palestine demonstrations, “Free, Free Syria!”, “From the river to the sea, Syria, Syria will be free!”, and the utterly uninspiring and unimaginative, “Syria, Syria don’t you cry, we will never let you die!”. These were empty and hollow chants that most of us were too tired or disinterested to repeat. Then a young Syrian dressed like Tony Montana with a white shirt, wide collar, and a velvet black blazer, all with slicked back hair to complete the Mediterranean-villager-in-the-big-city-for-the-first-time look, started to do a version of the Syrian “Arada” but in English, and it was cringeworthy. More tired chanting, more terrible English. Walking around the small space we had cleared was the man who had been pantomiming earlier, egging people on as if he was managing a rock concert. The whole exercise was uninspiring and left us feeling deflated and underwhelmed.
There is a generation or type of Syrian that might be living in England, but has never left Syria, and has never grasped that their way of viewing things, and what they take for granted, might not be shared by the people they now live amongst. That talking about paradise, angels, virgins in heaven, and children floating up to God, does not really make an impact with a largely secular society that views most religion – and especially Islam – with a mixture of distrust and distaste. The peculiar way this older generation portrayed the suffering of the Syrian people was a cringeworthy and pitiful affair, undignified and cheap, as if the world had to be begged to do something about the carnage in Syria as an act of charity than the international, legal, and moral obligation that it really is.
We were then told that we would be marching to 10 Downing Street to observe a minute’s silence for the victims of the chemical attack. The man picked up the microphone and began yelling angry chants through the amplifier at an uncomfortable volume. The crowds avoided us while we cringed with each yell. We walked past the horse guards and even the horses were getting panicky. Somebody eventually lowered the volume, thankfully. We passed a group of people who were protesting the war on Gaza. Cheers of “Free, Free Palestine” drew a response from the walkers on the other side, and several people there decided to join us, many looked at us indifferently. A naive air of camaraderie sprouted for a brief moment between the two lost causes, and then we moved on. We stood in front of 10 Downing Street and the man stood on a small wall and spent ten minutes shouting at people through the microphone to prepare for the minute’s silence. Eventually we managed it. When it was done we put down the placards and everybody hurried off, eager to be done with this business. Next year I expect we will find fewer people commemorating this awful anniversary, if at all.