Sunday, October 06, 2013

Syrian Conversational Codes

People in dictatorships often speak in code to thwart surveillance.  Nassima Neggaz notes this process in Syria under the Assad regime and now during the civil war:
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...
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.



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