Since March of 2011, when demonstrators first rose up against authoritarian president Bashar Assad, Syria has been embroiled in a brutal civil war that has left well over 100,000 dead and displaced millions. In August, the gassing of hundreds of civilians on the outskirts of Damascus triggered a new international outcry.
But under Assad, and his father Hafez Assad before him, daily life in Syria has long been perilous. And while Syria’s constitution nominally protects freedom of opinion and expression, one way that the government exerts its control is through language. For at least 40 years, Syrians have had their words monitored by government censors and neighborhood informants.
To communicate while living under an authoritarian regime requires a special sort of linguistic creativity. As a new paper by Nassima Neggaz in the journal Language, Discourse & Society reports, one solution that Syrians have found is to speak in codes.
Like dissidents, rebels, and spies in many times and places, Syrians use codes of their own invention to mask the political so that it sounds unthreateningly personal. In China, too, where government keeps a close watch on antigovernment speech, codes are common, most notably online. The creative ways that speakers of Arabic and Chinese have found to say the unsayable are a testament to how flexibly we are able to use language to express our thoughts, no matter how carefully it’s restricted.
In her July 2013 paper, Neggaz, a doctoral student in Islamic studies at Georgetown University, shows how Syrians have developed and used codes over the past four decades to speak about taboo subjects. These codes are shared within small, close-knit groups of trusted people—relatives, close friends—and used even behind closed doors, out of fear of neighborhood informers. These codes are passed from generation to generation, writes Neggaz.
“When I lived in Syria myself, in 2005,” Neggaz told me, “I was warned never to talk about the following topics: the government, the Assad family, the mukhabarat (Syrian intelligence), sexuality, religion, and sectarianism. These were taboos never to be brought up in any conversation, even with a close friend.”
Neggaz interviewed approximately 20 members of several close groups of relatives and university friends in Homs, Hama, and Damascus about the codes they used between 1980 and 2011. She found that members of one group, to speak of someone who was hiding from the regime, would say that the person was “sick,” mardan. Members of another group would say that he was “studying” (‘am yadruss) or that he was “taking exams” (‘andu fhussat). To describe someone who was being detained or who was in jail, it was common to say that this person was “at his aunt’s house” (huwa fi bayt khaltu). To suggest that a person was an informer, some speakers would say khattu heluw: “His handwriting is beautiful.”
In the years following the Arab Spring, Neggaz writes, Syrians have been using code to talk about the increasingly common acts of resistance. Expressions such as “it is raining” (‘am tmatir) or “we are having a party” (‘andna hafla) might be used to indicate that a demonstration is going on. Gunfire from Syrian forces is described as “heavy rain.” If a person is “coming out of the hospital,” he or she is emerging from hiding. “Coordination” (tansiqiyya) is the blanket term for revolutionary groups.
Many of these codes predate the Internet era, but they have now migrated into the realms of e-mail and Facebook, Neggaz writes. In a country where hundreds of Internet users have been detained—and some severely tortured—over the last three years, according to Freedom House, that subterfuge makes good sense.
In China, Internet surveillance itself has driven the development of a complex and creative coded language. The Chinese government regularly compels Internet companies to remove material on a stunningly broad and ever-growing range of topics. For his 2013 book “Blocked on Weibo,” Jason Q. Ng wrote a computer script to detect forbidden terms on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. His annotated list of current and past blocked terms includes such entries as “labor strike,” “constitutional democracy,” “Twitter,” “never forget,” “WikiLeaks,” “lesbian,” “hidden microphone,” “demonstration,” “massacre,” “AIDS village,” “Internet monitoring,” and “Communist dog.”
To communicate despite this censorship, Chinese people are nimbly inventing new ways to talk around sensitive issues. For example, write Xiao Qiang and Perry Link in the 2013 book “Restless China,” many new terms have sprung up to replace the word for government, zhengfu, including tianchao, or “heavenly dynasty.” Words are sometimes replaced with homophones: the phrase “drunk on rice” is substituted for “commit crime” for this reason, as is “watered weasel ape” for “administrator.” “There are many ways users navigate around censorship,” says Ng, a research fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. “The most fascinating—and challenging—to me from a language standpoint is how irony and sarcasm are often the dominant mode of expression when discussing sensitive topics.”
Irony abounds in Syria, too, where those in the opposition reappropriate the government’s term for them—“infiltrator”—and use it affectionately among themselves. Supporters of the regime become the “we-love-you-ers,” named for their pro-Assad chant. Through the ironic use of the regime’s own catchphrases, people are able to express displeasure while staying below the radar.
In a way, the linguistic tools that people use to undercut authoritarian regimes are gifts that the regimes themselves provide, by trumpeting the insincere language of state. As the political scientist Lisa Wedeen argued in her 1999 book “Ambiguities of Domination,” the Syrian government “clutters public space with monotonous slogans and empty gestures,” inducing compliance without belief. When you’re used to hearing false words, devising your own comes easy.
Joshua J. Friedman, a former editor at the Atlantic and Boston Review, is a writer in New York City. He can be reached at joshuajfriedman.com.