Syria's new president, Bashir al-Assad, a British-educated eye doctor, is wowing observers these days by calling for an end to "introversion" in the society run by his late dictator father.
All the new talk keeps taking me back to a dreary November day when heavy clouds cast a gloom over the faded buildings in Al-Merja Square. Damascus, city of fear. I was in a tiny office near the centuries-old sooq (street) Al-Hamedy. It was the third time I had gone there to rent a typewriter for an article I was writing for Syria Times, an English-language weekly.
As I started feeding a sheet of paper into the machine, the bespectacled, elderly owner approached.
"Son," said he, "this is the third time you have come here. What are you doing?"
"I'm writing an article," I responded.
It was evident that my answer had not reassured him.
Now, in a hardly audible voice, he asked, "Son, are you sure what you are doing is not going to annoy the government?"
I answered in the affirmative.
Still unconvinced, he began again. "Son, I'm like a father to you. Please do not ruin me."
Finally, I invited a young Syrian working at the desk next to me to check my draft and tell the owner about its content. When he said I was telling the truth, the elder sighed with relief and gave me a wide smile -- a rare commodity in that nervous city.
That was 15 years ago.
Now, presumably, Syria is poised to emerge from the fortress of silence to which it was committed three decades ago.
But my experience makes me skeptical. I call Ryerson economics professor Ibrahim Hayani, who has written extensively about the Islamic world.
There is little reason for cynicism, he explains. Assad's heir has no choice but to go modern. "Either the country will be swept away or the system itself will be swept away," he says.
We talk about how the new master has already released some political prisoners, called for an expansion of Internet accounts from the current 7,000 to 200,000, and tolerated talk about a possible withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
"There is an Arabic saying," says Hayani: ""Don't be too rigid, because you will become brittle, and don't be too soft, because you will be nothing.'"
Perhaps somewhere between the two, the Syrian people may finally discover the sound of their own voice.