- Associated Press - Monday, February 6, 2012

BEIRUT — Throughout 40 years of Assad family dictatorship, one thing united Syrians - the culture of self-censorship, fear and paranoia.

But the uprising against President Bashar Assad has unleashed a burst of blunt irreverence and black humor that would have been unthinkable before, when any satire had to be indirect or hidden.

“The type of expression has now shifted, the subtlety has gone,” said Rime Allaf, associate fellow at London’s Chatham House. “Today, for the first time in recent Syrian history, people are able to get out and say it openly.”

Opposition Syrians are pouring contempt on Mr. Assad using whatever medium they can, with a humor that also helps them get through the death and destruction in a crackdown that has killed more than 5,400, according to the U.N.

The Internet provides a layer of anonymity, which is vital when retribution is a real danger, but the creativity also has spilled into the streets in the banners, signs and songs of the protesters.

“Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator” is one of several new online shows. It was created by 10 young professional artists inside Syria. It uses finger puppets that impersonate Bashar Assad - nicknamed Beeshu in the series - and his inner circle.

In one episode, Beeshu competes against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi on “Who Wants to Kill a Million,” a play on the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

His final question: Will you be able to crush the protests? He answers yes. When he’s told that’s the wrong answer, he flies into a petty rage, wrecking the set.

In another, he consults with two devils about how to deal with the uprising. They suggest he kill a single protester to scare the others. He proclaims he will kill 30 protesters a day, torture children and shell cities.

“You are completely insane,” the devils shriek, running away. “I want to get the hell out of here.”

The director of the series, who goes by the online name of Jameel, says the idea is to “break down the wall of fear.”

“When you see the shabih [pro-government militiaman] or the president as puppets, you can’t take them seriously anymore,” he said, asking that his name and location not be used to protect him from retaliation.

More simply, it “elicits a little laugh” from people who are suffering from the crackdown, he said.

Even in the darkest places, Syrians seem to try to extract some fun.

The central city of Homs has been one of the worst hit by the regime’s crackdown. But as in many rallies, giant protests there often saw crowds dancing, linking arm in arm and doing a sort of joyous simultaneous hop, along with circles of the traditional “debke” dance.

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