Text by Dani Capalbo // Photos by Nick Mendez
From ancient houses of worship to Saladin’s shrine, three labyrinthine khans, and a 13th century library, Damascus suffers no shortage of authentic attractions. But you’ll see nothing more frequently than a panoptic trilogy of faces: President Bashar al-Assad, his late brother Basil al-Assad, and his late father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years.
Photographs of the family – particularly the president – grace shop windows, countless billboards, decals on passing cars, watch faces and the walls of university libraries.
Across the Arab world, Muslim and secular leaders use the image of the great leader as a way to encourage loyalty. But it’s also a way to remind citizens that they’re under watch. It’s a practice popular since the 1950s, when former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser pioneered an anti-colonialist, pan-Arab movement that won him unconditional favor across the region. His face loomed in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq.
Since then, images of other prominent leaders, such as Hezbollah President Hassan Nasrallah, have canvassed the Middle East. Though President Bashar doesn’t enjoy the same multinational treatment, his face takes center stage in Syria. Whether he is portrayed in business suits or military fatigues, casual dress with his wife and family, or with aviator sunglasses and a finger wagging, the goal is to reach disparate socio-economic groups within the country. Because here, image is everything.