At once it is potent and dislocating to see posters of Syrian dictator Bashir al Assad and Hezbollah Islamists politicians plastered in the streets of Sydney. Their incongruousness gives me a sense of the mundane horrible grinding mediocrity that is played out in Australian politics. Instead of reaching for a grander vision, a better way, a sustainable path we get bogged down in the base, the worst aspects of our humanity, the racism, the greed, the self obsessed that Australian elections produce. That’s why these posters are so potent. They act as a mirror for what were not and show me what we are. Dislocating for me because it takes me immediately to the Middle East where I spent 5 years.
In Syria the Assad’s are everywhere and nowhere. Driving in just before you get to Damascus you’re hit with a massive poster on a man made mountain of the holy trinity. The Father, Hafez Al Assad at top, his first son Basil the one that should have been King slightly higher than current President and second son Bashir. Bashir still looks like an eye doctor dressed in dictator’s clothes. But savagery of the regime is very real. Dissent is not tolerated and diverging from the official line will get one jailed or killed. One of my favourite stories told to me on my last visit was when Rifat al Assad, brother of Hafez, stood on top of hill outside Hama at dawn drinking Johnny Walker whiskey deciding when to send in the tanks to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. He finished the bottle and gave the command and at the end of the day about 2000 men, women and children were slaughtered. No chance this is going to figure in a ‘Keep Walking - Johnny Walker’ advert.
There is a favourite joke in Syria when a minnow delivers election results to President Hafez Al Assad and tells the president he got 99.9% of the vote. Assad unmoved responds bring me the 0.1% who didn’t vote for me. I saw this mentality in action when reporting at Bashir’s first referendum in 2000 I was told by my Syrian minder that his country was the most democratic country in the world and it was of course one man one vote. However when I turned up at the polling stations I filmed men voting 3 or 4 times and one a dozen times. When I asked my minder Mohammad what was going on he looked dismayed but suddenly smiling said they were voting for their wives, sons, daughters, brothers brothers.
On that trip my government appointed minder Mohammad would greet me every day with “Syria is the best country in the world” and “Hafez Al Asad was the most brilliant leader the world has ever seen”. Every morning for 14 days this became our ritual until Day 15 when Mohammad meet me in hotel lobby and took me to the car. I was ready for Syria is the best country in the world routine but then he said in a low voice “you have to get me out of Syria NOW! “ God knows what was really going on but Mohammad was never going to tell me.
But the power of these posters is that they transcend my experience and go some way to smashing stereotypes both ways – Australian and Middle Eastern. Thank you Scratch My Nose for reminding me of the life and death nature of Middle East politics and clarifying the slow boring crawl of the Australian scene. A dialogue is started with text like ‘Vote 1 - Mr Sheen. Member for Aussie Aussie Aussie. Woy Woy Woy'. Say no more.
Matthew Carney is a journalist working on Four Corners after working at the ABC and SBS for the past 15 years as both a reporter and producer. In Australia he has won three Walkley Awards, a Logie Award and a United Nations Media Peace Prize.