In the wake of Russian and regime-led airstrikes on the already abused Syrian city of Aleppo, I saw it again: the raised hand, a meme I had been obsessed by during the first street protests of spring 2011. On a blood-red background, a digitally designed white hand raised on my friends’ Facebook walls, standing for the first letter of the Arabic word ana (“I”) and composing the sentence: “I am a Saudi from Aleppo.” On Twitter, several Syrian and foreigners had changed their avatars into these little white raised hands, each of them saying: “I am a Moroccan from Aleppo”; “I am an Iraqi from Aleppo”; “I am an Algerian from Aleppo.”
The raised hand meme had returned in a grassroots viral campaign expressing solidarity and outrage vis-à-vis what was happening in Aleppo. It was the “I am a Berliner” of Syria. Yet, this was not about a head of state like JFK addressing the masses, but rather the anarchist social media crowd virally disseminating red and white little memes everywhere on the internet, in the hope that somebody would pick up these digital cries and turn them into an action of sorts: stop the airstrikes, stop the killings. Aleppo, with the daily bombing it had been subjected to, its charming buildings reduced to rubble, and its destroyed old city now turned into a memory of the past, had made the public outrage of spring 2011 return.
If hands work to bond the self with the outside world, these digitally raised hands meaningfully connected citizens, whether Arabs or foreigners, crying for justice in the name of the war-battered country of Syria. After years of silence, the raised hands were back.
It was at the time of the so much celebrated — and now declared clinically dead — Arab Spring, during a warm, jasmine-scented morning, that I first bumped into the raised hand in the streets of Damascus. The hand was the blue first letter of the the motto “I am with the law” on a huge, white advertising billboard. In March 2011, Damascus was full of these little colored raised hands popping up from the top floors of city buildings, at bus stops, in public squares. Each of these advertising posters carried a slogan: “whether young or old, I am with the law”; “whether conservative or progressive, I am with the law”; “whether rational or emotional, I am with the law.” Visually, all these colored, raised hands had given Damascus the feeling of an Orwellian city watched by a Big Brother who reminded the citizens, through the seductive language of advertisement, to comply with the law and not protest.
On the web, however, these hands’ digital replicas had a very different message. “I am free,” said one; “I lost my shoes” echoed another — suggesting that the shoes had been thrown at the authority, in a public sign of outrage and disrespect. “I am with the law … but where is it?”, joked another.
Perhaps the most powerful was a blue hand stating: “I am not Indian,” a colloquial, ironic expression through which Syrians expressed their firm intention of not wanting to be fooled by the regime as if they were foreigners in their own country. “I am not stupid, you cannot fool me,” citizens seemed to say, well aware of the fact that the regime had the monopoly on defining “law” and “lawlessness.” “I am not Indian” was virally shared on the internet and was the first virtual protest I had ever witnessed in Syria.
Most probably in response to this heated online conversation, the government-backed advertising campaign was redesigned to reflect a more neutral, sober form. New posters were released that carried the colors of the Syrian national flag (red, white, black, and green). This time the raised hand said: “I am with Syria,” and the slogan declared “my demand is your demand.” The new campaign attempted at winning citizens’ hearts and minds by appealing to a generic form of nationalism, as if all the Syrian people’s demands were exactly the same; as if it were in the interest of the whole Syrian nation not to protest.
This idea matched with the regime’s official narrative that the protests were fabricated and born out of a foreign conspiracy aiming at undermining the country’s stability and unity. The campaign suggested that being with Syria meant not to protest, and vice versa, that protesting was an unpatriotic act.
Yet even this campaign was hit by citizens’ ironic responses, and the raised hand meme went viral once again. This time it moved beyond the virtual space of the internet, as I spotted posters in the city streets where unknown, bold citizens had changed the “I am with Syria” campaign to “I am with freedom,” and replaced “my demand is your demand” with “my demand is freedom.”
All of a sudden all sorts of “demands” started to pop up from the internet. It was like a citizen forum, used by people to express their ideas of identity, nationhood, and citizenship, which often were contrasting and created a space for contention.
“Whether you like it or not, I love him,” said a raised hand featuring Bashar al-Assad’s picture. “I want to be martyred,” answered another hand, standing for those who were willing to die in the fight against the regime. The middle-ground position was also represented: this time the hands were not raised but positioned horizontally, in the act of shaking each other and saying “whether anti or pro-regime, you are still my brother and we care for the country.”
During 2013 the raised hand meme had mostly been used to express this type of bipartisan solidarity rather than give voice to opposing political views. Hands had popped up from several Syrian neighborhood saying: “I want to help” and “Volunteer!”, signaling a significant shift: from the politically active citizen forum of the first days of the street protests, to the following heated debates between opposed factions, to an attempt of reuniting a war-torn country in the name of national reconciliation.
In the past couple of years the raised hands had disappeared, obscured by the black flags of Isis and the endless bombing perpetrated by the regime. When they recently reappeared, so did the outrage at yet another act of unjustified violence toward a city and its citizens. These little blood-scented, raised hands are like flashing sparkles on the internet. Amidst our virtual walls overwhelmed by the too-quickly disappearing “likes” and “shares” of Facebook and Twitter, they express the outcry of Syrian society, and its desperate desire to be finally heard.
An Xiao contributed to this article.