What is so funny about military checkpoints?
It’s late February, and I have just returned to Syria on an undercover reporting trip, one of several I’ve made in the past year, when I run into my friend Amjad outside my hotel in Damascus. Amjad is himself only just back in the city, having months ago fled into exile as a result of his association with another Western journalist. We are keen to catch up, but neither of us wants to attract the attention of Syria’s secret police, so coffee is out of the question (the cafés are thick with mukhabarat). Instead, we keep walking, and as we walk and talk, Amjad tells me the latest checkpoint jokes.
Checkpoints are newly ubiquitous here, a by-product of the popular uprising that started in March 2011. Not all of them are manned by the Syrian army. Some are run by the security agencies that protect Bashar al-Assad’s government; others by the shabiha, pro-regime paramilitaries that have been busy brutalizing the opposition for the past year; some have even been thrown up by the guerrillas of the Free Syrian Army, which opposes the Assad regime. People are afraid of the checkpoints, naturally, but they have nonetheless begun to make fun of them.
As Amjad and I amble along Damascus’s main thoroughfares, he points out the lines that form around the old men who hawk lottery tickets on street corners. Throughout the day, customers stop by in a steady stream, each one asking aloud whether he is a winner. The sight reminds Amjad of one of his favorite jokes of the moment: A driver pulls up to a checkpoint and presents his ID to the gunman, who proceeds to compare it with a list of wanted names. “Am I a winner?” asks the man, leaning out of his car hopefully.