Syrian Activists Attack Assad Regime, With Puppets

Oct 23, 2012
Originally published on October 24, 2012 8:07 am

"I'm not crazy," the figure says, standing alone in a dark room, as if trying to convince himself.

"I'm not crazy?" almost a question this time.

"I'm not crazy. I'm not crazy. I'm not crazy!" he yells, finally making up his mind.

And, of course, he sounds crazy.

Meet Beeshu, an avatar of the embattled president of Syria, Bashar Assad, rendered in papier-mache and mounted on someone's finger. He's the star of the show Top Goon and the inspiration for its title.

The show — a darkly funny series about a group of Syrian characters rendered as finger puppets — was recently created and produced by Syrian activists and posted on YouTube.

But to this day, no one knows their real names.

That's because the regime in Syria is still standing, and those who want to bring it down face detention, beating, sometimes torture, and sometimes death.

An Underground Operation

In other words, the Top Goon team is totally underground.

Watch a few episodes, and you'll understand why. Episode 2, "Who Wants to Kill a Million?" is a clear reference to the tens of thousands of people who have died at the hands of the regime since the anti-government uprising began more than a year and a half ago.

In Episode 5, Beeshu's own children begin protesting against him, asking him why the president of the country has to kill so many.

In Episode 8, Beeshu's father, the longtime dictator Hafez Assad, comes back from the dead and tells him to use maximum force.

The reference is historic. Hafez Assad employed a similar tactic in a brutal massacre of Islamists and civilians in the city of Hama in 1982. But it's also funny. Rather than making a Hafez Assad puppet, the show's creators posted the dictator's ubiquitous photo, shown in government buildings and homes around Syria, on a stick. And they made the stick talk.

That's the hook of the series. It's simultaneously low budget, smart, hilarious, dangerous — and sad.

In Episode 7, the character known as Shabih, or "thug," interrogates The Peaceful Protester and beats him with a rope.

"You want freedom?" he asks. "When you get your freedom, we'll still be here. We'll just be wearing white suits and carrying a laptop and saying, 'Freedom.' "

Such humiliation is an experience that most of the show's creators have lived through. You can see it in the artful way Shabih's chin sits askew in a sinister grimace. These guys have looked into the faces of their captors.

Meeting One Of The Creators

We recently managed to meet one of the creators of Top Goon. We can't say where we met. He uses a fake name, "Jamil al Abyad," or "beautiful and white." He says the creators are actually moving onto new projects, more somber theater pieces that reflect the downward spiral of the conflict inside Syria.

As we sit and swat mosquitoes, Jamil casually asks if we want to see the puppets who make up the cast of Top Goon.

"What? The puppets?"

"Yes, they are here."

"Can we really see them?"

It's as if we are talking about someone famous. Jamil laughs and goes to get The Bag, and my heart starts pounding. Being found by Syrian authorities with these puppets could be worse than being found with a rocket-propelled grenade in rebel territory. To insult the Syrian leader in such a personal way is tantamount to treason. It's no exaggeration to say you could be killed for it.

He pulls them out, cradling each one. They're bigger than I thought, and more crude. I, of course, want to see the thug.

"This one is special," Jamil says of the Shabih. "They had to carve him out of wood to get the chin just right."

I hold the thug for a few seconds. It must feel nice to see him rendered so small, to hold him in your hand and crush him just a little.

Jamil says he hopes to take the show and perform it live, inside Syria — especially for people who've been the hardest hit by an uprising that has turned into a war.

"Those are the ones who deserve to laugh," he says. "I bet they haven't laughed in a long time."

Lava Selo contributed to this report

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The news out of Syria these days is a barrage of images: destroyed buildings, gruesome casualties, weeping mothers. It's both disturbing and inspiring to a thriving movement of Syrian songwriters, rappers, poets, writers, graffiti artists and actors trying to cope with what's happening around them.

NPR's Kelly McEvers recently attended a performance by Syrian artists in Beirut and sent this report.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It starts in a theater...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: seats, big screen, a proper emcee.


MCEVERS: Pretty soon, though, we're told to stand up. We follow the others onto the stage and behind the curtain. There, we find a dark stairway. Pieces of what look like discarded paper litter the floor. We realize they're slogans from when Syria's protest movement first started a year and a half ago: Our revolution is peaceful. The Syrian people are one.

Up the stairs, we're herded into a hot, dark room with black walls. The message is clear: subversive Syrian art can't be shown in the open.

A woman sits up front on a chair in a simple black dress. We can't tell you her name. She opens her mouth, and the stories of real Syrians begin pouring out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: It's called documentary theater, plays or readings based on the words of actual people. In this case, a single actor will perform three stories. The first story is actually an email, a young guy in Syria writing to his brother in Brussels.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: It's 3 a.m., and next to the screen there is a Kalashnikov rifle, he writes. The screen lights the dim metal and the lovely colors dance on that killing machine.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: It's clear the two brothers were not the fighting types. The writer says he sold all their books to buy the gun.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: I know you'll come back from Brussels and try to stop me, the writer says. You'll tell me killing is the worst thing a person can do. You'll remind me that this revolution used to be peaceful, that civil disobedience is the way to bring down this regime. But I'm not that dreaming guy anymore, he says, a guy who thought he could understand the world with poetry. I'm a different creature now, he says, a creature with a memory grilled in blood and metal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: It happened, the writer says, when the face of his friend was torn apart by shrapnel as the place where they were hiding came under fire. The writer had to collect the remnants of that face. His head was still warm, he says. I looked for the eyes. He found one. The lens was torn. The color was gone. Could he see me in that moment, he says? Was he able to feel me?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: When you read this message, I will be done with words, he says. I will be carrying my Kalashnikov and leaving. Like you, I dream of a more beautiful homeland, he says. But now, I will achieve it in a different way.


MCEVERS: The next story is a government soldier telling his ex-girlfriend on the phone how he had to kill a little girl. And the final story is a woman who delivers aid to stricken families. She promises a girl, who's father has been tortured to death, that she'll come back for her. But when she does come back, the girl's village has been flattened by the government's artillery.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The woman is devastated but then swears on all she knows that she will find the girl and that they will dance when Syria is free.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Singing in foreign language)


MCEVERS: A traditional Syrian song breaks the silence.

Christine Luettich(ph), who was in the audience, says as hard as it is to listen to these stories, it's better than sitting back and digesting the daily news out of Syria.

CHRISTINE LUETTICH: We have the information. We read every day. It's been one year and a half. And if you get used to it, you don't feel anything anymore. And sometimes when you just step back and have like artistic words, and then the whole feelings comes out and you just want to cry. It's a moment where you can just be like a little bit weak. And it's good to be weak sometimes.

MCEVERS: Then it's back downstairs and into the main theater. The big screen shows animated short films and a hilarious finger puppet show that lampoons Syria's president.

It's a nice change from the hot, stifling bunker, a small glimpse of what Syria might feel like one day, a place where people aren't afraid to make art that criticizes the government, a place where people laugh and dance again. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.