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A Close-Up Of Syria's Alawites, Loyalists Of A Troubled Regime

Director Nidal Hassan spent a year filming in Tartous, a Syrian beach town made up mostly of Alawites who still support embattled President Bashar Assad.
Khaled Al-Hariri
Director Nidal Hassan spent a year filming in Tartous, a Syrian beach town made up mostly of Alawites who still support embattled President Bashar Assad.

The film on Syria's Alawite community isn't finished yet, but filmmaker Nidal Hassan's favorite scenes are beginning to take shape.

It opens with fireworks on New Year's Eve in Tartous, Syria. "May God preserve the president for us," one young man yells in a reference to Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

Situated on the Mediterranean coast, Tartous is a resort town, with a port and a Russian naval base. Roughly three-quarters of the people in Tartous are Alawites, like Assad and his late father, who have run the country for more than 40 years. The Assad rule has greatly benefited the Alawite minority in Syria, yet life in Tartous is not all that great.

Hassan grew up in Tartous, a town he loves and one he says is full of strange characters. He spent a year there with unprecedented access documenting the Alawite community, who have remained loyal to Assad during Syria's uprising and civil war, which is now more than 2 years old.

A Mix Of Characters

One of his favorite characters is a man who lives in a shack on the beach and rents lounge chairs to weekend visitors.

The beach man is deeply tanned, with long hair, a straw hat and a seashell necklace. He's drinking the local liquor, arak.

"Our place is so beautiful, it's like an apple," the beach man says. "People want to take a bite. But inside it's rotten with worms, bribes and corruption."

The beach man does not blame Assad for these troubles, though.

"Poor Bashar," he says, calling the president by his first name. "His hair became white."

Hassan then turns his camera on Rami Khatib, a painter and actor who, despite an injured leg, is determined to break the Guinness record for the longest continuous bike ride.

"Why are you trying so hard?" people ask him. He says they tell him to calm down, get married, smoke a water pipe and not think about anything.

To Hassan, Khatib represents someone who wants to live a better life, but his surroundings won't let him.

The film is an array of such disheartened people.

One man sleeps in a graveyard because he says the living give him more troubles than the dead. A poor family lives crowded into cement shacks with rotting and collapsing roofs, complaining the government won't let them renovate. And some drug addicts, who live on the beach, spend their nights on a roof, eluding police, playing with pigeons and listening to an Egyptian song called "I'm Not Myself."

A Different Reality

It's all meant to be a portrait of a place at a moment in time, says Hassan. It's not meant to be overtly political.

"I didn't want to do a film that would be like, 'Oh, look at us, how poor we are,' for people to feel sorry," Hassan says. "I just wanted to show a place that I know, that I come from, that I feel the pain of."

The beach man
/ Courtesy of Nidal Hassan
Courtesy of Nidal Hassan
The beach man

Still, Hassan says if people in Tartous really thought about it, he believes they would join the uprising against the government. But instead, they believe that as the predominantly Sunni rebellion becomes more violent, the Syrian government is the only thing that will protect the Alawite minority.

Alawites might not have it good now, Hassan says, but they think it would be even worse if Assad were to fall.

"There is a big group that believes that it's their life, their survival," he says. "There is also a group who almost make him a divine figure that will provide protection."

What the people of Tartous don't realize, Hassan says, is that the regime is just using this sectarian promise of protection as a way to maintain its own power.

He says Alawites are now trapped by fear — a fear that's allowed them to go from oppressed to oppressors. Most of those who lead the government's army and security forces — soldiers responsible for thousands of deaths in Syria — are Alawites.

One Town Hero

By the end of the film, a year has passed. It's New Year's Eve again. Hassan finds Khatib, the bike rider, who had embarked on his attempt to break the world record.

Khatib couldn't afford to get the Guinness committee to come to Tartous, but he's doing it anyway.

When Khatib comes back to Tartous, people line the streets. He gets a police escort back into town. He's a hero.

In a Syria that is coming apart at the seams, Hassan says, at least one guy in one town is able to realize a small dream.

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Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
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