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A Syrian American in Paris

[Syrian flag at protest held in Paris in honor of Mashaal Tammo. This and all other images in this post by Amal Hannano.] [Syrian flag at protest held in Paris in honor of Mashaal Tammo. This and all other images in this post by Amal Hannano.]

Last week, on the day after the day Steve Jobs died to the rest of the world, on another bloody Friday in Syria, Mashaal Tammo was murdered. Tammo, a beloved Kurdish activist and leader, member of the newly-formed Syrian National Council (SNC), was gunned down by four men in his home in the northeastern city of al-Qamishli, one day before the SNC was scheduled to meet in Cairo to elect its leaders. Tammo was killed by “armed gangs” according to the Syrian government-controlled media, and by “armed government-funded gangs” (shabiha)—aka Syrian security forces, according to the Syrian people. Yes, nothing has changed, seven months in and here we are, still arguing the obvious, the revolution at a stalemate, the regime as brutal as ever, the opposition still struggling—while the slaughter of the innocent continues and the blood flows.

The next day, I arrived to Paris, the capital of the Syrian Opposition in the diaspora. The leading figures are all here at the moment: Burhan Ghalioun, Bassma Kudmani, Michel Kilo, Fayez Sara, Haytham Manna’, among others. I had only been in the city for a few hours when my friends insisted we go to the protest being held in honor of Tammo. Although I had not been to a single protest in America, when in Paris, you do as the Syrians do. The Place du Châtelet was a fitting historical site for a Syrian protest. The ground we stood upon had witnessed horrific torture inflected on prisoners during the 12th century, while the Fountaine du Palmier in front of us, with its four water-gushing sphinxes, was an Egyptian beacon of hope, although these days, bleak in its own way. A large Syrian flag stretched across the square, forming a backdrop for speakers who stood holding flags and images of the slain activist, moving the small crowd to tears with their speeches.


[Protest in honor of Mashaal Tammo at Place du Châtelet.]

Although we were in Paris, when people gather, they still whisper. Everyone I met kept glancing over their shoulders before saying anything significant, to make sure no one suspicious was listening in. Their stories mixed the past and the present, Hafez’s brutality with Bashar’s. Some of them have not gone back to Syria in decades, having voiced unpopular opinions about the regime years before it became “cool” to do so. Others were worried about family members back home, who may bear the consequences of their relative’s peaceful protest thousands of miles away.

As a crowd formed to sign the portrait of Tammo, I could tell they were nervous. I was nervous too, although uniformed French policemen stood at the outside edges of the square, and a row of police cars lined up one side of the street. These once-weekly Châtelet protests had died down recently because of an incident that happened in August, when several protesters were severely beaten by “diplomatic shabbiha”: a more stylish but still brutal form of international intimidation. As in Syria, these thugs are immune to the law. Their diplomatic status protects them, even in France. They literally have the “license to kill”. Four injured protesters who were clobbered with baseball bats were hospitalized; so locals began to stay home on Saturdays. But Mashaal’s death brought them back to the square to openly express their outrage and their support for the revolution. I was not surprised, since I knew about the similar intimidation tactics in America under the leadership of our First Shabbih, Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustafa. The recent Amnesty International report, The Long Reach of the Mukhabaraat, makes it clear that no one, neither inside or outside Syria is immune to the ruthless Assad regime.


[Portrait of Mashaal Tammo being signed by crowd.] 

On Monday, at the historic Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, with the now familiar French policemen and their cars lining the street, the Syrian community in Paris gathered once more for an evening of solidarity. The mood was subdued but had a hint of glamour, as the press and their flashing cameras occupied the foot of the theater’s central staircase. It was probably only out of tact and sensitivity that a red carpet was not rolled out over the stone stairs. But the invisible carpet of blood that had brought us together was very present in our minds. The crowd packed the theatre and listened to a full program of artists, musicians, writers, and politicians presenting their thoughts on the revolution.


[Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés]


[Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés]

Samar Yazbek, the brave Syrian writer, stood next to an image of Ghiath Matar and read her traumatic experience of being taken by Syrian security forces earlier this year. A major highlight of the evening was the screening of a clip from Syria: Inside the Repression, a documentary that is now being hailed as a document of the regime’s crimes against its people. Journalist Sophia Amara visited Syria in early August for eleven days. Entering undercover, traveling alone from Homs to Hama to Rastan. Armed with a small video camera, she fearlessly covered protests and interviewed defected soldiers. All eyes were on the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, when he gave his official statement from the floor, supporting the Syrian revolution. Later, Burhan Ghalioun, SNC’s unofficial leader,  took the stage denouncing the Syrian regime and calling Syrians to unite behind the council’s mission to topple to regime and build a country that represents all Syrians.


[Left: Samar Yazbek.]
 


[Bottom left: Alain Juppe.]

The next morning, I met Dr. Ghalioun in his home. The Sorbonne professor greeted me with rolled-up shirt sleeves, ready for work. I liked him, immediately. As we spoke about his childhood, his education, decades of his opposition to the regime and difficulties of his current leadership role, I was struck by his warmth and honesty. I had heard people complain about his lack of strength and charisma. But the person I met was respectable and wise: a liberal professor turned political leader with a clean history. After months of complaining about not having an alternative, now that we have one—a great one—are we really discussing charisma? (And he has plenty of it, by the way.)


[ Burhan Ghalioun]

On my last night in Paris, I was invited to a meeting of the “other” opposition, basically a group of main figures who were not included in the SNC, such as Michel Kilo, Fayez Sara, and Haytham Manna’. The small Moroccan café in this shabby part of Paris was overcrowded. Yet for the first time since I arrived, the wifi, or “wiffy,” connection was strong with a perfectly rational access code: “moutabale”. I sat between two separate groups engaged in discussions, and just listened. I wanted to hear for myself, seven months into this Syrian nightmare, what exactly do these people talk about? I expected to hear another angle to the crisis or an analysis with depth. The conversations were as basic as any other, sincere, heartfelt, but sounded like any discussion in any Syrian living room across the world: the regime is brutal; the killing must stop; the opposition must unite, etc., etc. They had no plan, no agenda, no strategy. After defending the opposition for months now, I felt defeated.

I decided to speak to Monsieur Kilo directly. He invited me to sit next to him, wanting to hear the ideas of the “Syrian American blogueuse”. I told him that the silent majority inside Syria is not going to back the opposition unless they see a strong, united front. They were watching the divided conferences and Al Jazeera arguments, and they were not convinced. How did the opposition expect them to sacrifice their safety or even their comfort for a cause that seemed weak, scattered, and petty? He listened and agreed. He believed in the necessary unity of the opposition, as well. But judging by the surrounding environment, I was not convinced either. Disappointed was an understatement.

As an American, I know the ideological arguments and differing visions for the future, are exactly what democracy looks like; it is loud and messy, the opposite of the political repression Syrians have been ruled under for the past forty years. But as a Syrian, witnessing the disorganized opposition of the opposition, while the SNC is endlessly criticized by their own and attacked by an Arabic media that seems to have just discovered “ratings” and Fox-news tactics while SNC members are hunted by their enemy, I am ashamed and anxious.

I cannot imagine how it feels to a young man in Homs or al-Rastan, watching this chaos on his screens, thinking, “These are the people who are supposed to represent me?” Even so, Syrians on the street named the Friday before last, “The Syrian National Council Represents Me,” effectively legitimizing the SNC and blessing them with their blood, with only one request: do your job. And so, the skeptic in me pushes the optimist to the side to ask this “united” opposition. What are you waiting for?

If I had a moment of clarity during this trip, it was when I met straight-talking journalist Subhi Hadidi. He has been an opposition force and harsh critic against the Assad regime for almost four decades. Although, maintaining his critical distance, he declined to be part of any of the “official political groups” formed outside Syria, he stands firmly and proudly behind the heroic revolutionary forces inside Syria. He talks about the movement’s new strategies of protest, not by bearing arms—as some reports would like you to believe—but by creating and following a “bloody-effective” analysis: how to protest against the regime while minimizing the loss of life. He calls the murder of Mashaal Tammo, a sign that the regime is in sakarat al-mawt, the throes of death. Coming from someone so critical and realistic, those words were not hollow rhetoric, but the most hopeful I had heard.


[Subhi Hadidi]

Walking around in Paris, you cannot forget that it is the original city of revolution. The fact that we fighting our tyrant in the same country that once occupied us, is not lost on most of the Syrians here. One such figure is Hana el-Kouatly, daughter of the first post-independence Syrian President Chukri el-Koutaly. She herself lived through that critical period of Syrian history, between colonialism and the birth of a nation. She is a thin and delicate women. But when she speaks about Syria, her voice strengthens, and her face softens with emotion. She remembers another time, another past, when we fought “the French”, when we gained our independence and raised the flag of freedom. She believes the principles of her father that helped build an independent Syrian nation can be used once again as an inspiration and a guide for the future of our country.

Although I barely had time to shop, I still spotted an irresistible purchase: a set of Syrian revolution playing cards. The royal heads are chopped off, with droplets of blood trickling down their neckline and knives held in their hands. The only two cards with a face are the Jokers. The obvious correlation is the regime’s literal and figurative decapitation tactics to fight dissent. Or even the latest evolution of Kashoush’s anthem which replaces the original, infectious chorus line, “Yalla irhal ya Bashar” (Leave Bashar) to “Jahhez Hallak ‘Al ‘Idam” (Prepare Yourself for Execution). But the graphic cards reminded me of something else: our headless, disjointed revolution, the outside opposition fighting with their weak words for the inside revolution fighting with their blood, while the Jokers continue to foolishly taunt us without restraint, in open view.


["Revolution playing cards"]

A contact I knew, spoke directly with activist Suheir Atassi just before we went to the last meeting. Suheir is hiding, self-imprisoned, in fear for her life. Her health is deteriorating but her voice is still strong. She sent us a message to deliver to the outside opposition, in all its forms, a harrowing reminder of what the Syrian people are fighting: two girls, 12 and 14, were raped in front of their parents by the regime’s thugs, a warning to silence their families.

An unforgettable scene in the documentary is set in a cemetery in al-Rastan after the burial of yet another son of the town. A man, whose face is uncovered, un-blurred, speaks directly to the camera, repeating over and over, his broken French forced out through a voice choked with tears, “S'il te plait. S'il te plait; solement liberté” (Please. Please; only liberty). He addresses the French people but could be addressing the outside opposition as well, who seem to be out of touch with the fading pulse of the people. We know and they know. Syrians inside are completely alone in their fight. Because everyone on the outside, even the leaders, can offer nothing but words. And the words have fallen short. No words can replace the blood that spills everyday; no words can bring back Ghiath Matar, Mashaal Tammo or eleven-year-old Ibrahim al-Shaibani who was shot dead with a single bullet in the chest on Friday, 14 October 2011.

The latest confirmed number of dead, over three thousand; the imprisoned, in the tens of thousands; the crimes of the regime, innumerable. And it continues, every day, as thousands fearlessly take to Syria’s streets, knowing their death certificates hang around their necks as clear as the banners and flags they hold in their hands.

Suheir asks, the man from al-Rastan asks; they ask; we ask, the Syrian people united bil-dakhel wil kharij (inside and outside) ask this united opposition: "What are you waiting for?"

3 comments for "A Syrian American in Paris"

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Amal, what a strong article?? we missed your words,your support and the truth said by ur pen. I'm one of the people who met Burhan Ghalion personally and Yes He's the person you're talking about, very pure , down to earth but also has a very smart and intelligent personality."It's a dream come true if he becomes our leader" As for the "other" opposite group... finding excuses just for the sake of arguing is not acceptable they either unite or get them selves out of the game. We ask, zainab asks, Tal al Mallouhi asks, hussin Harmoush asks, everyone asks, please stop being selfish, help stopping the blood shed .

Sourieh Hurra wrote on October 18, 2011 at 11:39 PM
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We ask for admitting that out of the +3000 dead, allah yerhamon, there are around 900 members of the Syrian army. We also ask for a wahabi-free revolution.

Concerned wrote on October 21, 2011 at 10:10 AM
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It really pains me to read your report, but i think i already did know of all its contents. SNC is not working, and someone should do something to shake thing, i think members should resign and try to form something else. better now then later, we will still need something or someone to represent Syrians. what bother me most about it, is non of them were responsible for the revolution, people started on their own and paid for it on their own. As i mentioned in my tweets; SNC want all parties to do their job, UN need to protect civilians, GCC and AL pressure the Russians and Chinese to stop vetoing UN, the Syrian people need to topple the regime. not sure what good is the SNC

halabshow wrote on November 04, 2011 at 04:14 PM

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