This account of events in Damascus, Syria, on Friday April 1st 2011 was originally published in Al Quds al ‘Arabi on April 7th, 2011.
I will infiltrate the dreams of the killers. I will ask them: did you look into their eyes when your bullets closed in on their chests? Did you glimpse the hole of life? Before Damascus’ sky darkens, why don’t you look at the smooth red circles around their foreheads and stomachs, where our eyes will come to rest? Here in Damascus, the killers’ eyes will soon be sleeping. And we will keep watch over fear.
Death is not a question. Death is a window we open out onto other questions. Like every other city, Damascus is more beautiful at night, like a woman after lovemaking. But tonight, she has left a pallid violet hue over her usual darkness. So we might almost make out the killers’ eyes as they spread through the streets. Who is killing from the rooftops and behind buildings? A coward? A killer can only be a coward – how could he be brave when he’s abandoned his moral compass?
I leave the house and head for the city’s squares, its mosques. Now, in the middle of the day, I should know the city – street by street, square by square. I won’t believe anything but my own eyes. Even truth was a foolish man this morning. A man who doesn’t know love, walking before me and sneering at me. How can we talk about truth when people are hiding in their houses? The city’s squares are empty, perhaps because today is a holiday. But everyone is hiding in his or her own fear today.
Security patrols swarm through the streets; they are everywhere I go. Cars coming and going; speeding then slowing down. Huge buses of security men wearing helmets and military uniforms are spreading through the markets, squares, major intersections and places where there might be demonstrations. Men in civilian clothes are gathering; their heavy presence exposes them. How did I learn to tell the difference between a security officer and an ordinary man in Damascus? It’s hard to tell when I first started to play this game; when my instincts first outpaced questions and words. I know them from their eyes. From the way their wear their clothes. From their shoes. There are more security men than ordinary people on the streets today, in the alleys, in front of stalls, in the squares, in front of schools. Everywhere I go, the security men are there.
Security patrols are deployed near the entrance to Hamidiyya and Bab Touma Square. They stop some men, interrogate them, and take their identity cards. I don’t wait long enough to learn if they are going to keep their identity cards. I walk faster and pass them. I look out of the corner of my eyes then go into an alley. There’s hardly anyone here. Further on, around the Umayyad Mosque, the security men are everywhere, and large crowds are waving flags and pictures of the president.
The mosque is closed. I couldn’t go in. They say that people are praying inside. So I sit outside and smoke a cigarette quietly – watching. Then I left. The crowds carrying the president’s pictures are large, and security men are dotted all over the place – as though they’d sprung out of the earth.
I see strange figures for the first time on the streets of Damascus: giant men with broad chests. They wear black clothes with short sleeves that reveal their bulging, tattooed muscles. Their heads are shaved. They watch everything. As they walk, their hands move the heavy air at their sides. Faces that strike terror. Where were these people hiding before? Where did they live in this city? And how did they appear today?
I head for Hamidiyya Market, which is practically empty except for a few street vendors. The stores are closed, and only the security men roam the area. And at the end of the market, there are more buses of armed men.
I’ve started to understand, now, the meaning of “cautious calm.” I used to hear that expression and say it was superficial. These days in Damascus, I’ve learned the meaning of cautious calm from people’s eyes and movements. I leave Hamidiyya and head towards Merjeh. I’d decided not to go there since the day of the demonstration in front of the Interior Ministry several weeks ago.
Merjeh Square is empty - except for the security men, who line up in large numbers. Many of them spread across the square, and not far from them is another bus, armed to the teeth with men and weapons. Merjeh Square, with its shabby hotels, can be seen more clearly when it’s empty and its stores are closed. It doesn’t look like it did recently, when dozens of families whose loved ones had been arrested tried to gather in front of the Interior Ministry’s headquarters. They were barely starting to form a crowd; they stood there, quietly. It was a strange sight. They stood with dignity, carrying pictures of their loved ones who had been arrested for their political views. I was standing with them, next to the husband and two children of an arrested woman. But suddenly, as though the earth had split open, strange men appeared and started to beat them. The small group panicked and screamed at them: “Whoever kills his own people is a traitor!” I looked at the faces of the protestors. They did nothing; they took the blows and insults then disappeared one after the other. They were taken by those men who had suddenly appeared out of the streets. Men with enormous rings, the same bulging muscles, hardened eyes and cracked skin. They formed a human barricade and threw themselves on the demonstrators, beat them, threw them on the ground and trampled them. Other men took people away. I saw them open one of the small stores and throw a woman inside. Then they shut the iron door behind her and made for another woman. The small group I’d tried to stay with broke apart. The husband of the arrested woman disappeared, leaving his four-year-old son with me. A group of men grabbed the father and his ten-year-old son. I froze, like a statue. I pressed the child to my chest, as though I were in a movie scene. How can there be a difference between reality and imagination - and what’s the line that divides them? I was shaking. Suddenly I realized he was watching his father and brother being beaten. He saw them as they were shoved into a bus. His ten-year-old brother’s face was petrified as though he’d received an electric shock. A powerful fist aims for his little head: bang! His head dangles, hardly for a second, then he’s kicked with his father into the bus.
I recoiled and turned the child’s head away to keep him from seeing what was happening to his brother. I covered his eyes then ran. I saw one of my friends who had just arrived in Merjeh. Three men pounced on her. I screamed and grabbed her arm: “Don’t take her!” They pushed me away, the child still whimpering in my arms. They took her away. I ran further. I stopped near a small store and the owner yelled: “Get out of here! We just want to make a living!” I fled. One of the young protestors helped me to carry the child. We walked quickly.
Where was I running to? The child asked me to stay with him; he wanted to wait for his father. He said that he was afraid because his father and brother had left him and that he would beat up the police who beat his brother. He asked if they’d gone to prison like his mother. I was silent, helpless. Then I said, “You’re coming with me for now.” In reality, it wasn’t the police who beat his father. The police stood by and watched people being beaten and kicked and insulted and arrested. The police stood by silently. A group had gathered to wave flags and pictures of the president; they were the ones who beat people, as well as another group that had appeared suddenly and started to beat people with the sticks of the flags. They broke up the groups of people who had barely begun to form crowds, their faces stupefied. That evening, the news spreads that people had infiltrated the demonstrations to cause chaos and that the Minister of the Interior had received complaints from the families of the arrested. I hear this on the official Syrian television channel, and the eyes of the small child I carried never leave me. I suddenly imagine him lost under the feet of the crowds. I imagine that he drowned in the city’s streets, alone, searching for his father and brother.
So, I saw the infiltrators!
I pass Merjeh Square and still see their ghostly faces behind the bars of the moving prisons. I take a taxi to one of the mosques that I’ve heard is still under siege. But there’s nothing there, and I think maybe there’s been some kind of mistake or exaggeration in the media. I don’t monitor the city from behind the taxi’s windows on the road from Merjeh to Kafr Suseh roundabout. Instead, I scan the Internet on my mobile. I don’t want to rely on anyone but myself – the Internet says the mosque is under siege, but the taxi radio says that calm has settled over the city.
Security patrols have spread in the Kafr Suseh roundabout. Every Syrian knows them, but outsiders never expect that so many vehicles could spread across the city’s squares. They prohibit me from entering: the road is blocked. We pass the square and enter through the alleys. In these other areas, the situation seems calm. Some places are far removed from what is happening, especially the areas where the upper classes reside.
I get out of the taxi and walk towards the mosque. It’s hard to get close to it through the motorcycles and, then, the shrieks of the chanting crowd. There are high-ranking security officers and crowds carrying flags and pictures of the president. I’m told that there’s a deadly silence inside. I ask what’s happening, but everyone advises me to stay away – there are no women here. One of them asks me coldly: what are you doing here? I turn away from him, and the voices of the crowds carrying flags and pictures grow louder. The security men surround the mosque – it really is under siege. I don’t know if I can enter. The only way is to infiltrate the crowds carrying pictures and flags. This idea – infiltration - that some of my friends had talked about on Facebook seduces me for a moment, but I can’t take a single step forward.
It’s hard to find yourself among men in civilian dress who suddenly beat a young man, throw him to the ground, and take his mobile. Some of them watch from the buildings overlooking the mosque. I hear that they want to make sure no one is filming or photographing, but I can’t be sure of anything – except that the place is under siege by security men, police, officers, and the people waving their flags. They’re all security men of some kind in the end. Some of them leave the flag-waving crowd to beat up other people, then come back to hold up pictures. A rumor goes around the mosque that there are negotiations going on between one of the sheikhs inside the mosque and the security men to let everyone out without bloodshed or killing. I would learn later that the young men in the mosque were taken directly to prison.
My heart beats. By some strange circumstance, I can hear my heartbeat as though it were a person speaking to me. I realize I’m in danger – my heart tells me before my mind does. I notice a man with angry eyes carrying the president’s picture. He’s coming towards me, and I run towards a taxi. He follows and gestures towards me threateningly. I ask the driver to speed up, and the man goes back to the flag-wavers. The driver asks me, “My dear, what do you think you’re doing getting messed up with those people? They don’t care if you’re a man or a woman!”
I fall silent. My eyes cloud up, and the image of that besieged place terrifies me. What is going to happen? I hear the news of deaths in Duma and of friends who have been arrested. I hear the news of the injured and of hospitals overwhelmed after the army opened fire on protestors. So many stories coming from all over. I ask the driver to take me to a spot that overlooks Duma. He explodes: “God No! You can’t go there!”
Unarmed except for my conscience. I don’t care whether the future holds some kind of moderate Islamic rule or not. And I don’t care about the killers’ faces, or even about all the lies and rumors. All that matters to me now is not to be a silent accomplice when bloodshed becomes a language! What matters to me is that I see, with my own eyes, unarmed, peaceful people being beaten and arrested just because they are protesting. I watch as my people fall, one after another, as if they were pieces fruit falling prematurely from a tree.
The taxi driver has turned into a guardian and a preacher. He says, “The road to Duma is blocked. No one can go there.” I ask him, “Is Duma under siege too?” He answers, “Don’t start with that! It’s nothing to do with me!” “And who told you about it?” I ask him. He answers, “The army’s there. And you can hear gunfire.” “So what do you think? What’s happening?” “None of my business! I’m hardly hanging onto life myself.” “But people are dying,” I say. “We’re all going to die one day. May they rest in peace.” “If one of your children were killed, what would you do?” He’s silent for a moment then shakes his head and says, “The whole world wouldn’t be enough to avenge him.” I ask him if he’d heard that that one of the young men who were martyred in Dar`a was locked in a fridge while he was still alive. When they took out his corpse, they found that he’d written in his own blood: They put me in here alive. Give my love to my mother. The driver is silent and shakes his head. I say, “I hope that story isn’t true.” He remained silent, and his ears were red. We were about to reach my house.
I’m shaking. I see that bloodshed only begets bloodshed. I see a gaping hole in life, a hole larger than existence itself. I see it in the chests of the martyrs, without the faces of the killers. At home, I infiltrate the killers’ dreams and ask them if they glimpsed the hole in life when they turned their bullets on those naked, defenseless chests!
Translated by Amal Dimashqi