The daily realities of the Syrian revolution have been shrouded in confusion, and I had been growing wary about all the news that was being reported from there. In the absence of a reliable media coverage on the ground in Syria (because the Assad regime cleansed Syria from journalists), and the fragile accuracy of reports coming from citizen journalists I wanted to see what was happening on the ground for myself, so I decided to pay a visit to our neighboring country.
My first destination was to the capital, Damascus. To my surprise, Syrian security at the borders did not ask me why I was entering the country or to where I was going in Syria. I was reassured and pushed away all the fears I had imagined on the way to the border. The road to Damascus was relatively empty of cars but peppered with billboards announcing state propaganda like: “I am with Syria whether optimistic or pessimistic”. Another billboard presented a picture of Bashar Al-Assad aside the bold claim:”We Love You”. There was some army deployment along the way from Damascus, with checkpoints that were each also attended by three or four moukhabarat (Syrian intelligence agents), men dressed in civilian clothing and carrying AK-47s. I began to worry again, what would I find in Damascus?
For three days I travelled around the Syrian capital. In a visit to the suburbs (Rif al Sham), reported to be a place of protest, I saw only a very mild version of what I was expecting. Where I saw protests, they were short, over and done within 10 minutes, and, as I saw in Qaboun, these were male-only marches, where women were being asked to leave the protests for their own safety. On the way to Duma, I experienced an unusual sectarian conversation with my driver, but there was nothing more to see than walls covered with graffiti, military deployment, and closed-up shops. In Harasta, Meadan, and Damascus itself life seemed in some sense normal—women and children still picnicked in parks, men sipped their coffee in corner cafes, and the traffic was still as bad as ever. It was not what I had pictured from media reports but there was a certain uneasy quietness that at times hinted at unrest bubbling under the surface. In Abu Remaneh, for example, I saw wealthy Syrian families happily shopping and spending their money in the glow of posters praising the Assad legacy. It was obvious that Damascus was still a stronghold of the regime. I needed to see another city.
Eighteen years ago, and directly after the end of the civil war in Lebanon, my family decided to move to live in Homs. We spent just one year there but my memory recalls Homs as a city full of black volcanic stone with pleasant restaurants perched on the Orontes River (al-Assi). Sitting in the bus seat in Damascus, waiting for the driver’s assistant who was checking every passenger’s I.D. and writing down their names, I did not know what to expect from Homs almost two decades and an ongoing revolution later. One part of me was anxious to see the city that once was home while another was fearful but determined to investigate all the reports of killing and protest that now shrouded the city of black stones. As Damascus slowly disappeared from sight, a military checkpoint appeared, manned by the familiar moukhabarat who were only stopping and checking cars making their way into Damascus while disregarding those that were leaving. Looking at the line of cars waiting to be let in, I remembered a taxi driver earlier telling me that security forces tighten the grip on the entrances of Damascus every Thursday for fear of people coming in from the surrounding areas to take part in the city’s Friday demonstrations. When I asked him if this took place only in Damascus he told me that the regime could not risk losing the capital to the protesters.
Earphones pumped Arab hip-hop, replacing the sounds of the Syrian highway with a soundtrack of social change. With “Thawra” resounding in my ears, my eyes scanned the passing villages for signs of revolt, waiting for the blue sign that announced our arrival into Homs. From Istiraha, a rest stop just outside Homs, I looked at the city from a distance and saw the high-rise skyline of a concrete jungle, buildings unfamiliar to my memories of this place I once lived in. The bus entered the city. There was black stone everywhere. We were in Homs. Heading towards the bus station I could not help but notice that there was no one in the street; a ghost town in broad daylight. The bus station that I remembered always full of buses, taxis, and hundreds of travelers was now empty; a couple of people milled about near the few minivans that were there, but that was it. As soon as I jumped off the bus I heard gunshots in the distance.
When I finally found a taxi that would take me to my hotel (three told me they were not working) and remarked to the driver that there were no cars in the wide Homs streets he replied that there was a strike. I sensed that he did not want to elaborate so I did not push it. So far Homs was a far cry from the normality of Damascus.
Wanting to make my way to Khaled Ibn al-Walid mosque, a historical landmark in the early days of the revolution where protests were launched from, but not wanting to walk since I did not know the geography well—plus the sound of gunshots coming from all directions, punctuating the silence left by the absence of cars and people—I asked the hotel to get me a taxi. On the way there the driver asked me if I was Iranian. Laughing to myself, I replied that I was Lebanese. This guy, I thought, has bought into the rumor that there were Iranians or agents of Hezbollah helping the regime oppress the protesters—as if the Syrian regime lacked the manpower or the strategic planning required to oppress its own people. He was clearly on the side of the protestors. On the way to Khaled Ibn al-Walid mosque, traversing the wide empty streets, the closer we approached the more I saw military deployments like those in Damascus. These too were accompanied by moukhabarat, only here, unlike in Damascus, there were also two to three tanks with more soldiers blocking the entrances of small alleyways or side streets that led to the hara (neighborhood).
I debated getting out of the car; I didn’t know where I was going or who to talk to since there wasn’t a soul in the street apart from the security people watching the mosque from across the street. The whole area, once a shopping center and always full of people, now looked more like a scene from a wild west movie and I kept expecting tumbleweed to roll down the street before me. I spotted two young men by the main gate to the mosque: this was encouraging. I left the car and headed towards them, the sound of gunshots getting closer now. I was worried the military behind me might start shooting at any moment. The sound of bullets was coming from two directions now; a steady stream of Kalashnikov rounds from the direction of the military and sporadic firing from inside Khaldiyeh (the area behind the mosque). My unease was increased as I couldn’t see where any of the shooting was coming from. As I approached the two young men got on their electric bicycle and drove away. With nothing left to do I called the taxi and made my way back to my hotel. Feeling more comfortable on this ride, the driver began to answer my questions telling me that there had been a strike for three days and that the regime was killing peaceful protesters. I asked if he thought the regime would fall. “Oh sure” he replied “wait until Ramadan then they will not be able to stop the youth.” I requested a drive around the city but at this all his calmness disappeared: “Impossible” he told me,” It’s getting dark now and the shabeeha (thugs, but the real term of Shabeeha goes back to the early 1990s when Syrian moukhabarat occupied Lebanon they used to filch Mercedes Benz 600 series and sell it in Syria, in Lebanon people called it Shabah,ghost ) will be out stopping cars and kidnapping people.”
The internet at the hotel was not working so I decided to have dinner by the pool. I noticed the name tag of my waiter read a Christian name (which I also realized was very Lebanese of me). I struck up a conversation about the recent events, to which he gave answers in whispers. He was really worried about the “conspiracy”, those militant Islamist groups, the Salafis that were creating the “chaos” as he described it. Almost as if to reassure himself he repeated over and over: it’s nothing though, it’s almost finished, it’s a matter of days. He reminded me of the times in the years of the Lebanese civil war when my parents would talk to others about the situation (el-wade’). Their refrain was also: its finished next week, in two days, but it never did. When I asked him where these extremists, these Salafis were coming from, and from where they were acquiring their guns, he said from Lebanon, from Jordan, from Iraq. But when I asked him to elaborate on how and why these countries were involved, he said “I don’t know, I don’t know.” I insisted and he said: “That’s what Mr. Hariri wants”. I asked him if the Christians are worried. He looked at me in surprise, “Your name tag,” I reassured him. He looked at it and smiled in relief. He told me they are afraid, they are worried. They saw how Al-Qaida groups killed Christians in Iraq after the American invasion. Christians are a minority here, he explained, and if this regime falls they are in danger.
That night from my hotel bed I heard a woman repeatedly chanting Allahu Akbar (God is great), her voice gradually growing louder then joined by a man’s. There was no one I could see in the streets but the chanting continued for 30 minutes. This whole time I was fixed to the window, thinking a protest would erupt at any minute. In the end nothing happened, and the steady stream of gunfire in the background continued without pause. The conversation I had had with the waiter the night before made me wonder: what if the minority groups had disseminated via the official state media the sectarian narrative that there were militant Islamic groups killing the army and targeting Christians and Alawites, which will create what the regime is eager to achieve: a sectarian divide. At the same time, I realized that all the protests I had been to in Damascus and its surroundings had had a strong Sunni Muslim influence, especially since most of the protesters had come out of mosques and from poor Sunni neighborhoods. I thought I should check out an Alawite neighborhood that had made the news and see how they felt about the whole situation.
The Alawite neighborhood(s) was guarded by tanks and the moukhabarat and there were few people in the streets—not so different from what I had seen before. But this neighborhood was full of Bashar al-Assad posters declaring “We Love You”, while other pictures showed the Syrian flag flying over the president’s head. Here almost every person I spoke to told me that this revolution was a conspiracy, the work of the Americans and the Saudis who wanted to divert Syria from the axis of resistance, to distance it from Palestine and make it submit to a peace treaty with Israel. I was led by a group of men to a family whose son was found beaten to death and his corpse disfigured. After showing me the terrifying pictures of his son the moment he found him in the hospital, this boy’s father told me he didn’t know who to blame but, he went on, it was obviously the work of Islamist groups similar to those in Iraq and Afghanistan. He told me they, the Alawites, had always coexisted with the Sunnis but recently, since the unrest started in Syria, they began to feel it was not safe for them anymore. He explained that two of his neighbors in the building were Sunnis, but they had already left their apartments. He began to tell me the story of the return of his son’s body: the community was outraged by the horror that was done to him so they came out in a big protest wanting to attack Sunni businesses, but he told everyone not to harm the Sunnis if they had any respect for his dead son. His words had no effect and the shops of Sunnis were torched. He also confirmed the rumor I had been hearing that Alawites were fleeing back to their villages in fear.
Later, as midday prayers began I entered the courtyard of the Khalid Bin al-Walid mosque, noticing as I did the army and the riot police who were stationed about 200 meters away. A tall handsome man at the entrance seemed to know most of the people walking into the mosque. I approached him and told why I was there, and soon after another man joined us. When I introduced myself he told me he had seen me yesterday when I had made my brief visit to the mosque. I was taken by surprise since I had seen no one to interact with the day before. I asked him where he had been, to which he smiled and answered “Don’t worry, we are watching our hood.”
The Friday khoutba (sheikh’s speech) was nothing special, the usual stories about the prophet which the old sheikh finished quickly. As soon as the prayers finished a young man jumped up and chanted aloud the now-famous words “Al-sha’ab yourid isqat al-nizam” (the people want to topple the regime). The sheikh’s request, that all protests and chants start outside the mosque, which I had earlier overheard, had had no effect. The tall man took my hand and we followed the chanting crowd towards Khaldiya, the neighborhood behind the mosque which had been closed off by the army and tanks positioned on the main streets, the same area I had heard the gunshots from the previous evening. There was no shooting here yet, but firing could be heard in the distance not far away. The tall man kept introducing me to young and old men, the atmosphere of the demonstration was extremely friendly and I was left to wander freely, always walking and talking with one protester or another. We reached a main roundabout of the neighborhood right next to a small cemetery and other marching protesters joined; a convergence of men, with one goal. It was an inspirational scene: waves of chanting people joining each other to finally gather into a sea of thousands of male protesters. The chants of “the people want to topple the regime” and “damn your soul oh Hafez” (yela’an rouhak ya Hafez) grew deafening. Two men took turns standing on a stool in the middle, trying to make themselves heard over the protestors, but the people were louder. Finally a woman, the only woman present, with a black hijab and a black thoub (dress), took to the stool and started addressing the protesters. I was told she was the sister of a martyr who was killed by the bullets of the regime. As she finished her inaudible speech, the protestors broke out into a new chant: “long live el-Ar’aour (Hayo el-Ar’aour)”. Adnan al-Ar’aour, I later discovered, is a Syrian sheikh living in exile in Saudi Arabia (for an example of his rhetoric see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-x6LQkDZM_4&feature=related). I recalled his name sprayed on the walls of places of protest accompanying the standard anti-regime graffiti of “Oh Bashar, You Donkey” Later I was to see Ar’aour’s name graffitied under the words “homosexual” and side by side with “Bashar, we love you”.
While I was in Homs it was customary for the protesters to go out and protest, starting with a takbir (the chant of allahu akhbar) twice a week after Ar’aour’s speech. At first I was surprised by this phenomenon because I did not expect these protests to have such a strong religious motivation behind them. Unlike Yemen or Egypt, the protestors here are being fueled by this sheikh’s fiery rhetoric; Ar’aour’s name is being chanted in protests and praised in graffiti in many places of protest. The protesters are not taking the political opposition seriously and there is a vacuum of a leading figure, someone with charisma who uses powerful challenging language against the Assad regime. This is something that is unprecedented in Syria in the last 40 years. The figure of Ar’aour seems to be giving the protesters the confidence that they need in order to continue their struggle for freedom. As an observer, I think it’s a risky situation because people are drifting towards extremism without knowing it. This is not to suggest that every protestor is revolting in his name, most definitely not, but from what I saw in Homs, a certain majority are influenced by his speeches.
The protest in Khaldiya cleared up the picture a bit for me: in this place where I was warned there would be militants and mujahedeen with beards and long Afghan-style hair, all I saw was people protesting peacefully, cheering for a sheikh but showing no other signs of extremism. Where were the ‘crazy Salafis’ I had been warned about? Hiding amongst the large piles of trash that lined the sides of the streets? I didn’t think so. Rather, I had encountered warm and welcoming people who were entirely unsuspicious of me as an outsider. One question I repeatedly asked the protesters was about people’s opinion of the Syrian political opposition. The almost consistent answer was, “We appreciate their efforts but they don’t represent us here on the street”. I was told many times that, “They [the opposition] are all living in exile and even the ones in Damascus, God bless them, but they are not us. They don’t know how we are risking our lives, how we are facing bullets with bare chests and how we have lost many of our sons. All they do is hangout at hotels and hold dialogues”. What do you the people want, I asked, what are your demands? “We want to topple the regime, we want to get rid of the Assad family, and we want a democratic country. We are not afraid anymore.”
My experiences in Khaldiya had refuted those claims I had heard that the streets were patrolled by militants with guns and swords. Instead it seemed sectarianism was beginning to flourish in this now divided country.
I needed to see Bab Amro and Bab Dreb and Bab Sbe’a, places whose names had been touted as housing so-called Salafi extremists. A young taxi driver in his early twenties drove me there, all the while playing a khotba by a well known Sheikh in Homs. He was full of praise for why I was there but warned me to be careful as the army was besieging the entrances to those neighborhoods. The shooting had stopped and life seemed to be getting back to normal; shops had started to open, there were more people driving and walking around in the streets. Just like in Khaldiya the smell of trash was overwhelming and high piles of garbage lay on the corners of the streets. (I had been previously told that this was either because the government was punishing the protestors by not collecting the rubbish or the neighborhoods themselves were not letting the garbage trucks through for fear of government spooks). There were signs of battle, of protest, of revolt: barriers erected on streets, graffiti demanding the release of prisoners, and later, in Bab Dreb, bullet holes, burnt shops and a mosque whose minaret looked like it had been hit by an RPG. My young taxi driver insisted on pointing these things out to me and making it clear it was the shabeeha (regime thugs) that had done this. And once, splashed on a wall, I saw “no nation will fall if Ar’aour is leading it.” On our way back to the hotel I asked the young taxi driver if he was participating in the protests. “Yes”, he replied, “every day until this regime falls”. He told me that his family had been supporters of Assad (Bashar) but after 11 years in which nothing had changed the killing and oppression had pushed them away. He and his father had each worked two jobs and there still had never been enough. When the protests started he joined them without hesitation even though his mother was against it and still supported Bashshar. After the hundreds of killings of peaceful protesters and the tens of thousands arrested, his mother finally understood why they were protesting and turned her back on the regime as well. This young man and his family’s story echoed those of many whom I had spoken to on my trip.
Hola, a village close to Hama and about an hour’s drive from Homs, was my final destination before departure. The village had been reported by the state media channels to be hostile and that confrontations there had forced the army to withdraw. This time my taxi driver was Alawite and he had taken a side road through small villages in order to avoid the Sunni villages on the way. He told me they would kill us right away if they found out that he is an Alawite. In his paranoia he insisted we stop on the way and ask his Sunni friend to drive in front of us to keep us from being slaughtered. Following behind the Sunni man in his red car, I tried to calm my apprehensive driver with comments on the beauty of the passing landscape but this didn’t stop us from almost crashing twice!
In Hola we found familiar scenes: quiet streets, trash everywhere. Another area the state had abandoned. A blackened police station lay derelict; the municipality building empty and abandoned was now decorated with colorful graffiti attacking Assad; schools whose signs had had the face of Hafez or Bashar erased. Hola, like many other places of protest, was trying to emancipate itself from the Assad legacy. There were some signs of civil resistance in Hola but not of the militant type that had been promoted by the regime. Along the main road lay piles of black stones, at every entrance to a small alley, the stones were piled high sometimes accompanied by wooden sticks. Pointing to these sticks and stones the driver said “see they are armed, they are prepared”. I wasn’t sure if a few broken rocks and some wooden sticks were adequate defenses for people being attacked by an army. The taxi driver did not agree with me and insisted that the people of Hola were dangerous. He later told me that the dangerous militants we failed to see anywhere in town must have been hiding.
Throughout my two weeks in the country next door I noticed many things unusual to Syria as I know it. I noticed that in poor areas the people have spoken and broken the fear factor. The years’ long indoctrination by the ruling Ba’ath party is now falling apart. I saw that the revolutionary spirit of Mohamad Boazizi had reached Syria and, just like in other countries of uprising in the Arab World, Boazizi’s spirit was still galvanizing people there. But I also noticed a certain revolutionary innocence amongst the youth protesting in Syria, an innocence that is being hijacked by growing sectarianism, itself a threat that could affect the whole region. Syria has always been a cornerstone for the region. In the past, the regime knew well how to manipulate foreign policy, but often left behind internal affairs at the expense of the freedoms and basic human rights of the Syrian people. Now this neglect and marginalization of the lives of millions has reached a head: people are demanding a change and freedom. The American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have caused a remarkable rise in religious fundamentalism over the last eleven years. Alongside this, Arab dictators who refuse to step down are using all means of oppression to push working class people towards extremism. In the absence of non-religious ideology and under wide-scale oppression, people slowly drift towards extremism because it’s the only window of hope that is left open for them; in the words of Karl Marx, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”
However, after this visit I’m still hopeful and still believe that we need to liberate ourselves from dictators who hide behind false causes in order to hijack our freedoms. However, I cannot deny a growing sense of anxiety at the rise of sectarianism. I’m worried about Saudi satellite channels that promote people like Ar’aour and his sectarian speechifying. I’m worried about the result of Saudi oppression in Bahrain. I’m worried that the killing of poor people protesting in Syria might push them to raise arms, thereby inviting chaos and opportunist foreign interventions. Regardless of my anxieties, it’s the Syrian people’s revolution and it’s up to them to choose a leader that they believe reflects their needs and concerns. Whoever they elect to represent them, democratically and fairly, this is their basic human right.
On my last day in Homs, while sitting in a cafe in an upper class area hoping to catch an internet signal, I was introduced to an old man in his seventies. The old man was an intellectual and part of a committee who had held talks with the president. We spoke about the Arab revolutions from Tunis to Bahrain and he summed it up thus: “It’s a generation revolution that is taking place in the Arab World. In Syria, as in the rest of the Arab World, the young generation is leading this revolution and their demands are blunt and clear: dignity, freedom, and financial equality is what they want”.
I couldn’t agree more with the old man and admired his emphasis that this is a revolution driven and held by us, the young generation in the Arab World. The revolution may have started as naïve but cannot remain so for long. Times have changed and the tools in our hands are those of mass information, enabling us to network from ocean to gulf, exchanging experiences and uniting under one slogan: “The liberation of the Arab World” — an ideal that is now is influencing and galvanizing the rest of the world.