Syrian Snitches: The Assad Regime's Network Of Informants May No Longer Be Enough To Keep The People Down

From waiters to homeless beggars, the Syrian regime is busily recruiting ever more informants in its desperate attempt to survive.

Customers in a Damascus café. Waiters are known to collect information overheard from clients.
Customers in a Damascus café. Waiters are known to collect information overheard from clients.
Hala Kodmani

DAMASCUS - No sooner does she hold out her manicured hand to put her cigarette out, than the waiter hurries to replace the ashtray. For the last half an hour or so, he hasn't taken his eyes off the four elegant women sitting on the café"s terrace in a posh Damascus neighborhood. While he cleans the ashes with practiced slowness, the clients interrupt their conversations and briefly exchange glances. Everyone here knows that most of the waiters work for the Syrian intelligence services. Such snitches don't even bother to even hide it anymore, gladly combining their evening jobs with the duties of a civil servant. Surveillance is part of their obligations, and reporting any information to superiors, a regular routine.

Waiters, taxi drivers, hair dressers or even handicapped beggars: Always pay attention to them and to what you say, visitors to Damascus are warned. Many of them are part of the moukhabarat (a term designated for Syrian intelligence services). The inhabitants of the Syrian capital have long been used to seeing men keeping watch on apartment blocks, weapons bulging under their coats. But recently even janitors have been given truncheons to allegedly "keep the inhabitants safe."

State surveillance in Syria has taken new forms since the popular uprising started last March. Long banned from souks (or markets), street hawkers have started coming back. In Hamidyeh, the historic souk leading to the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, they have spread their Chinese dolls and women's nightgowns on the ground. Their improvised stalls cut in two the big commercial street where vendors briefly reunited last February to protest against police abuses. In exchange for their right to sell their produce, the vendors must prevent large gatherings from being formed, and report any incident to the security forces. They are also charged with keeping an eye on nearby shops and the passersby – who are becoming rarer by the day.

The country's various security services, which are mainly headed by President Bashar al-Assad's brother and cousin, have lately been busily recruiting informants and vigils, to the joy of the unemployed and day laborers. Worried about the absence of two of his carpenters, an interior architect has recently been told by his other workers that the men had been hired by the "popular committees' for 10,000 Syrian pounds (22 dollars) a day, twice as much as they typically receive from their employer.

These committees formed of men armed with rifles or high-caliber revolvers have been mushrooming in the capital since the anti-government movement began. Claiming to protect inhabitants from "thugs," they intervene before and alongside security forces to repress protestors. One of the demands of the people in the street has been the dissolution of these kinds of committees.

Informants have been particularly active around popular gathering places, including mosques. Regulars of the Friday prayer say that one in every three people present there is a moukhabarat. "We can easily spot them," says one 70-year-old worshipper. "They are especially visible at the end of the prayer, when they mix with the crowd and push us towards the exit. I berated one of them only the other day, because he wouldn't let me talk to my neighbor. I told him: ‘Son, I know you're only doing your job, but tell me: do I look young enough or strong enough to be part of the revolution?""

Funerary processions have also been oddly crowded these last weeks, even when it is not a "martyr" of the government's repression being buried. Reality or paranoia? One thing is sure, watching, listening to and pointing guns at the inhabitants of Damascus is an efficient method to keep them scared. But the regime's ubiquitous snitches also contribute to feeding the people's ire towards leaders who must resort to buying off and arming its own citizens in order to survive.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - sharnik

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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