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You must’ve heard the term “brainwashed”, but have you ever experienced it? They tell you that if somebody tells you repeatedly how ugly you are, you get to a point where you actually believe it and all efforts of convincing you of the opposite are in vain.

But what does it mean when they say Syrians are brainwashed? Is it even possible for a whole nation to be brainwashed? In fact it is. Let me tell you about Syrians today, or shall we say four months ago? This is how my generation (I’m thirty now) were raised.

Grade 1-6: this is elementary school. At the tender age of 6 we started our day by reciting the national anthem and repeating the vows to stand up to the traitors from the Muslim Brotherhood in our sweet little voices. Thinking about this now makes me very sad because there must’ve been many children whose relatives were killed or imprisoned for being from the Muslim Brotherhood “Party”. We had to make sure we wore our full scout-like gear; a small boat-like hat, a scarf and slide (which we called the nut) around our tiny necks and a brownish apron with sleeves. We also had our special melodic clap, which we delivered when our teachers instructed us to (not when we felt like applauding something or someone).The uniform wasn’t too bad, but the whole idea behind it was to make us all look the same, behave the same and most importantly believe in the same things which our government found fit. A few years ago, the First Lady changed the uniform a little bit.

Grades 7-12: We took off our brownish uniforms and wore military ones.  We had our khaki military suit, belt, military cap and black boots. No one dared come to school in red socks for example. They had to be black. Every morning, we continued reciting the national anthem, condemning and cursing the criminal bandits of the Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t know about other schools, but in grade 8 in my school the military teacher found it reasonable to forbid wearing the headscarf. In a Muslim country! The first Lady has changed the upper school uniform as well. Now boys wear a blue suit and girls a grey one with a pink shirt.

Throughout these 6 years, we had to learn military orders, how weapons and bombs could be used and defused and how to react in the case of a war! You had to learn because this was the only subject which if you failed, you failed the whole year! We had to have a book to show our learning which had to be filled with pictures of the president and his family. If you were late for school or behaved badly you could well face the punishment of circling the schoolyard crouching with your hands behind your heads or on your stomachs with your elbows on the ground.

I forgot to tell you about my favourite subject! I think it would translate into “Patriotism” in upper elementary school (grades 3-6) and “Nationalism” in grades 7-12 as well as university! Basically, we had to learn by heart every word the president had said and all of his wise sayings! This was the subject I could never study and which always brought my grades down.

In grade 10 we had to go to a shooting field where we held a very heavy rifle and practised shooting real bullets. Why, of course, we had to practise shooting a rifle! What if Israelis decided to land on us unannounced (that never happened and will never happen because we give them things for free such as the Golan Heights)? I was very lucky that when it was my turn, the expired Russian rifle had stopped working. The other girls, though, were shocked by the hard push the rifle gave their young, soft shoulders when they shot.

In grade 10, as well, we had to join the one and only Baath Party. In fact, we had no other choice. A girl I know got into trouble at home for joining in despite being warned in advance by her father not to.  We were given forms to fill in and that was that. Later on, when I graduated from university and wanted to claim my certificate, I was told that I hadn’t been attending the Party meetings and that I wasn’t eligible to receive it. In Syria, you could get out of such things through bribery or having connections or begging. This wasn’t a grave matter and the guy at the window was a nice old guy who let me go, with my certificate in my hand, when I begged him to overlook it with a big smile.

At every occasion, such as Independence Day, we had to organise celebrations at school or roam the streets holding slogans like “with our blood, with our souls we redeem you, Hafez”. We also had to sing him songs, pray for him to remain healthy and call him “the immortal father”. Many people were in shock when he died, wasn’t he REALLY immortal?

In grade 11 we had to go on a field trip to Al-Qardahah to visit the late president’s son’s grave (the brother of today’s president). Now this is the most peculiar case! This young man was supposed to be the successor of his father in ruling us. He died unexpectedly in a car accident with his companion. He was, and still is, considered a martyr! The national T.V. and 3 newspapers considered him a martyr to make his father happy. What happened on that field trip was most unbelievable to me because one of the girls who were with us started bowling her eyes for the martyr. She was almost inconsolable. I blamed her then, but I don’t blame her now as I look back on it; she had only watched too much of channels 1 and 2 and was very emotional about the tragic loss of the president-to-be that had taken place a few years back.

Why did I have no sympathy for the “martyr”? Well because on the night of his death, I was at a young woman’s wedding. This young woman was an undereducated woman who came from a poor family and who was getting married to a poor man. She was over the moon with happiness to have a party in her honour. A party just for her in her parents’ humble apartment wearing her cheap white dress. Shortly after her guests arrived and she started dancing away, policemen or perhaps security forces banged on their door and ordered them to turn off the music because the whole country had to mourn. I may have been young at the time but I will never forget how she sat down crying bitterly while her friends consoled her. She was taken to her bridegroom’s house silently and in tears.

Now, I know you’ve been reading for long. I tried my best not say everything; I would need volumes to say everything. I just want the picture to be almost complete in your head when you imagine how brainwashing is crafted. We had only 2 television channels which of course were government tools. I don’t even need to explain what our news slots were like. Satellite dishes were banned in Syria for so long and after that allowed and confiscated again, until they were finally allowed in around 1995. Only then did we start to watch any news other than our version.

Another way to brainwash us was to make reading difficult. I know very few people from the young generation who read because books are very expensive in Syria. Most importantly, though, reading was never promoted or encouraged. It was more than enough to read your school books. Did I mention that many books were banned in Syria? Not that anyone noticed.

The INTERNET! The Internet was only introduced in the late 90s. Regular citizens were allowed to get Internet connection in the early 2000s. In early 2011 the ban on Youtube and Facebook was removed! Yay!

My fellow change-wishers and I keep blaming some Syrians for insisting on having Al-Assad as president and no one but him as if he were the only “good” man for Syria. They look at what we have as perfection. What else could we want?

Just to close, I will tell you this story. Last summer in 2010 in Syria I met a young engineer. She was so innocent and so sweet. We were talking very shyly about the situation in Syria, lest we be heard. That was before any revolution in Syria had started. She said to me with big eyes, “I was shocked when somebody told me that in Saudi Arabia they don’t have electricity outages or many summer hours without tap water!”. She had thought that Syria was just as perfect as any other country. This is what I call “Brainwashing”.

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