In the first of our extracts from Writing Revolution, winner of English PEN’s translation award, Khawla Dunia explores the interplay of subjective experience and objective reportage.
A woman appears on television and says: ‘I’m the one who asked State security to come and take my son away; he’s against the government and wants to go out and demonstrate. I can’t control him: if he’s with State security I know he’s safe.’
A young man appears on television to disown his father, who runs a website that publishes details of events in Syria. As he speaks his tears fall. The smiling presenter says, ‘They’re tears of joy, because he’s devoted to his motherland.’
According to State television, residents of the southern city of Deraa are demanding the army move in to rid them of the traitorous, destructive, Salafist, fifth columnists that live in their midst. So the army goes in and shuts the door behind them, leaving nothing but silence and checkpoints in their wake.
Actors, actresses and figures from the film industry implore the government to intervene to guarantee the provision of adequate nutrition and medicine for the children of Deraa, and are accused of betrayal and following foreign agendas.
We talk on the phone in whispers, trying to find some everyday language to convey what we feel, hoping that the person on the end of the line will get the message.
We are afraid that the phone is being monitored, that the house is being monitored, that our friends are being monitored. Is it time to leave the house, we wonder? Is it still safe to sleep sound in our beds?
Each morning we bid our loved ones goodbye as though it were the final farewell, and greet them again each evening as though they have returned from foreign lands.
We watch the alleyways, and the alleys watch us. We watch the people thronging the street and they watch us.
We slip folded notes in wallets and books, perhaps waiting for the chance to raise the scrawled words aloft: No to killing! No to sieges! Stop the massacres!
We try to gather what information we can from bits of news scattered here and there.
We ask the taxi driver which roads are open and which are closed.
We switch off the phone and pull out the battery if we want to talk politics.
We observe the new cameras held by those we neither know nor trust, fearful that they might take our picture at a gathering in some public square.
We gather for prearranged demonstrations.
Our numbers are few. We withdraw, raising our eyebrows in greeting at others who are as disappointed as us, without having the courage to stand next to them.
Three months into the protests and the picture grows ever more complex, but still there are little victories. Each new Friday makes its mark in Syrian history, none more so than Azadi Friday, the Friday of Freedom, on 20 May. This is the first time a Kurdish word has been trumpeted so proudly on Syria’s streets. I can understand the joy of Kurds, who suffered persecution for many long years and were treated as secondclass citizens.
‘Azadi! Azadi!’ – ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ – the demonstrators roared, and so more of them fell. It was a Friday that they announced that Syrians of all ethnicities and groupings had found their way to citizenship and the civil state. Blood had united them as never before.
Talkalakh is a city in the Homs governorate close to the Lebanese border. It joined the ranks of the demonstrators and offered up a fresh batch of dead. Residents fled to Lebanon and the army entered the city as regime loyalists scattered rice on their tanks.
There was a Friday (27 May), labelled ‘Guardians of Society’ named for the Syrian army in an attempt to break down the barriers that separated the protestors from the common soldier, many of whom have died in clashes or been executed for refusing to open fire on demonstrators. These soldiers, who have embarked on a war against the demonstrators alongsidethe security troops, the police and the shabiha, seem utterly powerless, unable to choose between carrying out orders and their own deaths.
The State media remains coy, continuing to insist that all is well. Things are being brought under control. Armed gangs were behind the killing of demonstrators, soldiers, officers and security personnel. The death toll amongst civilians rose above 1,100 in addition to unknown numbers of soldiers and security troops.
In areas with ethnically mixed populations, fear of sectarian conflict rules the field. News reached us in the shape of rumours: slayings, vengeance, corpses put on display.
Those who support the authorities are vehement in their defence. We heard of joyful ululations in certain districts when tanks rolled into neighbourhoods belonging to a different community.
Where is the country heading? The future is terrifying and obscure.
I was forced to leave my house in fear of being arrested and I cannot be sure whether this might still happen to me. Many others have also left their homes, especially activists and those who have appeared on Arab and foreign satellite channels to talk about events in Syria. The fear of arrest took hold after many opposition figures, activists and journalists were detained, a campaign that included taking hostages for those who weren’t at home.
The authorities put about the idea of a dialogue with the opposition, but without setting out any basis for the dialogue or defining who is to take part. The Syrian opposition in exile, from the extreme right to the left have decided to hold a conference in Turkey. There are a lot of questions and mistrust about this conference within Syria, especially from the coordination committees who are the ones active on the ground.
From Fridays, where people are killed, to Saturdays, where more people are at the funerals of Friday’s victims, the demonstrations now take place all the days of the week.
Sanctions are enforced against a group of leading figures, at their head the Syrian president, and bank accounts are frozen. It’s a move that seems to carry little weight in the calculations of the authorities, who persist with their stubborn course, giving out no hope of a solution to the crisis and making no concessions to the demonstrators and their demands.
There is footage of the child Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-yearold from the municipality of Jeiza in Deraa, who had been barbarically tortured in prison. He had been detained at a security cordon in Houran on 29 April after leaving Jeiza to help raise the siege around Deraa and was handed back to his parents almost a month later on 28 May, a lifeless corpse with scars from torture and bullet wounds visible on his body. This provokes the ire of the opposition: more demonstrations are held; loyalists grow ever more afraid of partisan revenge.
The footage proves that the Syrians’ revolution is really one of transmitting images abroad. It is the revolution of the mobile phone versus the bullet.
Damascus, July 2011 ■
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger.
Khawla Dunia is a lawyer, writer and researcher and a member of the editorial board of The Damascus Center for Theoretical Studies and Civil Rights. She has published several studies, including Syrian Women between Reality and Ambition, Report on the Damascus Declaration Detainees and reports on elections and political issues. Khawla is now active in the protests and writes about them on the Arabic website Safhat Suriya (Syria Pages).
Top image courtesy of James Gordon Los Angeles.