On the telephone in Damascus, or via Facebook with Tartus (the Mediterranean coastal city and surrounding region with an Alawi majority, where my home village is located), I caught up with my friends and relatives on the events in Tunisia. We were all gladdened by this extraordinary episode in Arab history. Together we followed news of the Egyptian revolution, hour by hour, as if we were in Tahrir Square ourselves, and together we raised toasts when the end of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency was announced.Together we expressed our anger at the brutal violence of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime as it launched air strikes on Libyan cities and civilians.
As the revolutions spread from one Arab country to another, we were like a person filled with joy as he witnesses the realisation of a dream he never expected to come true; a great change was occurring to renew the waters of the Arab world which had been muddied and stagnant for a long age.
During this period we used to exchange views on the possibility of the rebellion reaching Syria, where political, economic and social conditions were unsustainable. We were particularly concerned by the lack of public freedoms in the country – freedom of opinion, media freedom, the freedom for political movements and civil society organisations to exist and develop and engage with Syrian society.
My friends, relatives and I shared so much – our ideas, our worries, our dreams too.
Then on 18 March 2011, following the arrest of a group of children who had written the slogans they’d learnt via satellite from other Arab countries (‘The People Want the Fall of the Regime!’) on the walls of their school, Dara‘a province exploded in protest. At the time I was in Morocco, invited to a poetry festival alongside a number of other Arab and African poets. I followed the news on satellite channels and via Facebook, where I kept in touch with my younger daughter and friends throughout Syria. Starting with the fall of the first martyr, I began to write against a security response to the protests and against violence on my Facebook page. I wrote from Morocco, and I criticised the regime with no thought for the consequences. My only fear was that this blood spilt in Dara‘a would bring nothing behind it but more blood. Libya was burning then, and I watched the developments there, and compared them to Syrian events with trepidation. I wrote what I wrote on my Facebook page, and it never occurred to me to look at the pages of my friends and relatives in Tartus to see their reactions to the repression. As far as I was concerned, it was obvious that they would share my ideas and opinions. That’s why I didn’t bother to look. In any case, I was busy following the news, and checking my daughter’s page every day, and constantly warning her not to attend any demonstration until I returned. I remembered well the day we had participated in a demonstration of solidarity with the Libyan people outside Gaddafi’s embassy in Damascus, how the Syrian security forces surrounded us on all sides, how they abused and humiliated us in the streets in full view of all, and how they arrested some young men and women. My daughter was with me that day, and she was trying to provoke the security men with slogans such as ‘He Who Kills his People is a Traitor’ and ‘He Who Oppresses his People is a Traitor.’
On the morning of my return to Damascus, 25 March, my daughter and a group of her friends joined a protest in the Hamidiya Souq in the city centre. She was arrested in the heart of the demonstration. I read the news of her arrest on Facebook.
For some days I lived with a fear unlike any I’d known before. I recalled every story I’d ever read or heard of the misery inside Syrian prisons. I was certain I wouldn’t be seeing my daughter for a long time.
I didn’t bother checking the Facebook pages of my friends and relatives in Tartus that day either. I didn’t bother checking to see what they made of my daughter’s arrest because I assumed they’d be the first to stand in solidarity with her, especially as her name had been mentioned, coupled with mine, on more than one Arab satellite channel.
You could say that my attention was first drawn to the problematic qualities of Syrian society by my daughter’s arrest and then release from prison, and by the comments of my family in Tartus on her experience and on the Syrian situation in its entirety. My daughter told me that the officer in charge of investigating her – a man, like us, from Tartus – when he had worked out who she was, asked her, ‘Why did you demonstrate against the regime which protects you?’
‘Protects me!’ she retorted. ‘A regime which arrests children like me! Which murders Syrians!’
‘Yes,’ the officer said. ‘The regime is here to protect Alawis like you.’ He repeated the same line several days later when he called to tell me to pick up my daughter from the security branch. Of course, it was exceptional for them to call a relative in order to hand over someone detained at a demonstration; the exception was perhaps made on account of the cultural authority of my name, or perhaps simply on account of our membership in the Alawi sect, according to their way of thinking. In those days the regime’s operatives still cared about their reputation in the eyes of the Syrians first and the international community second. Perhaps they calculated that the arrest of an Alawi girl from a well-known family, a girl who had participated in a peaceful demonstration, would raise uncomfortable questions in quarters where such questions had previously been suppressed.
This was my first direct collision with the notion of ‘identity’, according to which my daughter and I constitute part of ‘Us’, the power which protects its followers, a power we must follow simply because we share the sect of its leaders. According to this notion, citizenship enjoys the status of a fallen woman, belonging to the larger homeland means nothing at all, and security must stem from the narrowest sectarian allegiance. The reason for my shock was not that I had previously been deluded enough to believe the regime was patriotic. I was one of those who knew the nature of its political and security structures, and I thought of it as a mafia enterprise surpassing sectarian identity, one that would do anything to maintain its dominance. But I never imagined that its destruction of the country would bring Syria to such a low point. I believed that Syrian society, despite everything, was coherent and strong enough in its depths to withstand any crisis. But the ruination of the last years has revealed an enormous national weakness. This was my second, and more serious, collision with the notion of ‘identity’.
One day after my daughter’s release I was reflecting with amazement on the fact that only a very few of my friends and relatives in Tartus had contacted me. Indeed, I realised that nobody at all had called to enquire or console during the period of my daughter’s detention. It seemed to me a mysterious sign, so I finally opened the Facebook pages of my people in Tartus. I was astounded by what I saw. In most cases their profile pictures had been replaced by images of Bashaar al-Assad or his father Hafez.
I was shocked by their symbolic identification with the regime. This represented a radical transformation, and one which had happened in a remarkably short span of time. People needed more time to consider what was happening in the country before identifying with anything so wholeheartedly. More than that, the blood flowing in Syrian streets had been spilt by the regime. In such circumstances it was everybody’s duty to construct their ‘identity’ from universal morals and humanity – or so I thought, and so I assumed my friends and relatives would also think.
When I write ‘my friends and relatives’ I mean a very specific slice of the Alawi community. My village, al-Malaja in rural Tartus, is considered one of the best educated in the province despite it being very small, with a population of no more than eight hundred people. Most of these have completed their further education, and include doctors, engineers and lawyers as well as writers, musicians and artists. More importantly, over the last decades the village has witnessed a political and cultural movement and a diverse social openness which was very progressive for the context in time and place. No inhabitant of the village worked for the security services or in the military. Indeed, throughout its history al-Malaja has been categorised (in security terms) as one of the oppositional Alawi villages, and an object of permanent surveillance. I thought the village’s exceptional qualities would protect it from the moral landslide apparent in other villages of the region, and indeed among most Syrians, who continued to collude in silence or to openly praise the regime, either out of fear or self interest. However, the destruction of the country and its social fabric was far greater than I had expected. My village could not withstand the damage.
I was by no means the only Alawi to oppose the regime’s brutality and to dissent from its sectarian narrative. Journalist and novelist Samar Yazbek, for instance, faced a campaign of vilification and death threats and was publicly disowned by her family and ancestral village, when she wrote in support of democracy and against state propaganda. Alawi actress Fadwa Suleiman spent the winter of 2011/2012 in besieged Homs, in solidarity with the mainly Sunni inhabitants surviving under bombs. Some Alawis have joined the Free Army and local coordination committees, and others work in secret to deliver food and medicine to their besieged neighbours. But a clear majority of Alawis oppose the revolution and believe the regime line.
I signed the first statement issued inside Syria against the lies of the regime narrative concerning events in Dara‘a. The statement and the names of the co-signers were transmitted by Arab and foreign news channels. It was at this point that I became fully aware of the radical change in my friends and relatives. I received several phone calls making various accusations – the greatest of which was treason, the least of which was stupidity.
After I signed the statement, the cultural elite began to boycott me. As I wrote more for the Arab press, and as my Facebook page commentary rose in temperature, the boycott became an attack. A long dictionary of insults was heaped upon me, along with death threats and promises of annihilation. Vicious lies and rumours about me were promoted by those who, only a short while earlier, had been among my closest friends. For me this whole experience was shocking – shocking and bewildering, and it provoked questions as to the causes, roots and depths of this behaviour.
The concept of ‘minorities’ springs from differentiating them from the social totality and inventing narratives of their historical oppression by the majority living in the same places. These narratives of darkness are then reflected in the behaviour of the members of these minorities. They make them build a shell around themselves; they prevent them from direct contact with the other, obstructing marriages and business partnerships. They also foster a sense of superiority as a sort of compensation for the historical oppression they supposedly suffered, and they differentiate them from the majority, which is not preoccupied with such details. Because of its size, a majority community does not live as an integrated and harmonious entity in terms of individual conduct and manners, but rather as various scattered heterogenous communities only connected to each other by religion, sect or ethnicity. On the other hand, the limited numbers of a given minority make it a relatively harmonious or homogenous entity in terms of daily behaviour. This harmony or internal cohesion is what gives the minority its feeling of superiority and high self- esteem, regardless of the social, economic and cultural conditions in which its members may live.
The Alawis compose 12 per cent of the Syrian population. They were originally called Nusairis, after Imam Muhammad ibn al-Nusair al-Nimairi, one of the attendants of the Awaited Imam.The community was designated
‘Alawi’ by the French, who found it difficult to distinguish the word
‘Nusairi’ from ‘Nasara’ or ‘Christian’.The Alawis are considered one of the Shia ghullu (exaggerating or extremist) sects in Islam because they believe in the divinity of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib and because their religion is an esoteric and Gnostic amalgam of many different religions and cultures. Something else which distinguishes them from other Muslims is the fact that they have no fixed religious authority and no printed books. Their religion is transmitted from generation to generation by word of mouth and via hand-written manuscripts. Like other religious minorities, they have been subjected throughout their history to religious and political persecution by imams who issued fatwas in the service of political power.The fatwas issued by ibn Taymiyya against Alawis, declaring them kuffar (unbeliever) and apostates beyond the limits of Islam and making their killing permissible, played a role in forcing them to leave the cosmopolitan cities and to retreat to the mountains in what is now coastal Syria and Lebanon. This forced withdrawal and the fear of fatwas made them a closed-off, self-enclosed people who lived in fear lest their esoteric religion become public knowledge. And like all the people of the countryside and mountains in Syria and throughout the Arab world, the Alawis suffered too from the oppression of the urban classes.
In March 1963 a group of army officers, mostly from the minorities, launched a successful coup in the name of the Ba‘ath Party. The coup was led by Salah Jadeed, Muhammad Omran and Hafez al-Assad – all three of them Alawis. It was followed in 1970 by Hafez al-Assad’s coup against the coup. He called his new coup ‘the Correctionist Movement’, and through it he rose to absolute power, either liquidating or imprisoning his previous partners, including the Alawis. At this point, fatwas were issued by the Shia imam Musa Sadr, based in Lebanon, and by the shaikh of al-Azhar in Egypt, declaring the Alawis to be a branch of Shia Islam and thus – given that the Syrian constitution states the president must be a Muslim – qualified to rule.
There was a gradual change in Alawi behaviour at this point. They became more open to other non-Alawis, they moved to the cities and began the process of assimilation with the other inhabitants either voluntarily or through the demographic policies imposed by Hafez al-Assad. And like any authoritarian regime which seeks to ensure the permanence of its reign, the Assad regime deliberately brought its sect into the governing apparatus by encouraging them – especially the sons of the rugged mountain communities, where extreme poverty, barren land and a lack of development left them no other options – to join either the security services or the army. Inhabitants of the villages surrounding Qardaha, the president’s village, were heavily recruited. As the Assad family increased its prominence and political power, more and more young Alawis became involved in the security industry. On the one hand, a military career protected Alawis from the spectre of poverty; on the other, it gave them a new social status with which to distance the spectre of historical persecution.
In the early 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood launched a campaign of bombings and assassinations. This campaign was coupled with a sectarian dimension that targeted Alawis specifically. The images of these killings remain fresh in Alawi minds. And Hafez al-Assad, assisted by his brother Rifa‘at, was able to exploit his battle with the Muslim Brotherhood to reinforce total control over Syrian society. Rifa‘at slaughtered many of his Alawi rivals at this time, blaming their assassinations on the Brotherhood. The Assads ruthlessly eliminated any Alawi authority figure that might potentially oppose them.
In February 1982, when fugitive militants holed up in the ancient city of Hama, the regime destroyed the city entirely over the course of eighteen days, killing 40,000 people. The massacre occurred in sight and hearing of a suspiciously silent world.This silence was a criminal collusion shared by most Syrians, who for decades failed to speak out. After the Hama massacre, fear ruled Syria. Hama was where Syria’s social fabric began to dissolve.
Syrians noticed this happening but fear prevented them from doing anything to stop it. Fear grew and flourished among the Syrians and crept like a beast among them. Hafez al-Assad expertly nourished Alawi fears by exploiting the violence of the Muslim Brotherhood to nourish their sense of historic victimhood. He encouraged the development of a hidden grudge against the Sunni majority alongside the assumption that every single member of this majority was either a Brotherhood member or sympathiser.
Assad Senior continued to strengthen Alawi power in the security and intelligence sectors while administrative corruption was generalised until it became the rule rather than the exception. Corruption was directly linked to the security agencies, because the authority of the lowliest security officer exceeded that of even a minister. Meanwhile the idea grew among the majority of Syrians that every member of the Alawi community was inevitably a security officer or intelligence man, or related to one. And of course those who did work in the repressive apparatus were sure that their position depended on the president being from their sect.
A further factor that strengthened support for the regime was its early development of the countryside, electrifying villages and building surfaced roads and water pipelines, including in remote Alawi areas where people may have believed they received these blessings from the state simply because they were Alawis. The regime encouraged this ‘favoured community’ vision amongst Alawis, urging them to pursue higher education, sending many to study abroad at the state’s expense, and providing employment opportunities in the bureaucracy. When Alawis believed that social development was offered as a reward for their sectarian identity, they failed to realise that such basic opportunities were their right as citizens of the nation.
Naturally in this scenario the ideal citizen was the citizen closest to the military-security system. Amongst the Alawis as among the other communities, the idea of citizenship gradually diminished only to be replaced by loyalty to sect, family, clan or class. The mass Syrian national identity itself crumbled into sub-national fragments, each in apparent rivalry with the other to seize what opportunities it could. For the Alawis, if the sect provided both identity and privileges, then it became the homeland; an attack on the sect became an attack against the homeland; defence of the sect was defence of the homeland; sacrifice for the sect was sacrifice for the homeland’s sake.
This distorted view of the homeland was reinforced daily by the stagnation calling itself stability that ruled over a Syria in which there was no outlet for political, civil or cultural activity beyond the constraining framework of the official institutions. Such civic activities could have made a qualitative difference to Syrian society, or could at least have lightened the consistency of daily life, which resembled a living death. Had it been permitted, such a civic movement could have provoked a reconsideration of the notion of citizenship. It would inevitably have changed the relationship of Syrians to the homeland and to the rights and duties that the homeland implies, as well as to each other as partners in all the details which make up the construction of our future civilisation. But was such a movement allowed by the tyrannous regime, by the regime which ruled Syria as if it were a family plantation? Naturally the answer is no. Why? Because the regime was well aware that a free cultural movement affirming the values of citizenship would result in revolution at all levels of society, and in the declaration of the regime’s downfall. This was the eventuality the regime sought to avoid at all costs, and this is why it preferred a society of competing blocks, each too scared to speak its obsessions aloud.
When Bashaar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez, there was great optimism. It seemed Bashaar was opening the door a little to civil society, and it was every Syrian’s dream that things would begin to change. Many staked their hope on reform coming from the heart of the regime itself, and awaited the declaration of a national committee to study the events of the eighties and their negative consequences. They awaited a new social contract for Syrians on the basis of citizenship and real participation in the homeland.
Of course, they waited in vain. What happened in fact was the total annihilation of the few emergent civil society groups, an increase in the powers of the security agencies, an ever more blatant generalisation of corruption, an increase in favouritism and nepotism, an increase in the exclusion and marginalisation of large sections of Syrian society, and the near-elimination of the middle class.
All this led to a general loss of hope in any change and resignation to the reality of the situation. As far as many Alawis were concerned, the situation was palatable enough so long as their lives were not in danger. But how quickly this changed with the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, when the regime mobilised to counter the challenge by besieging the revolution in specific areas and alienating it from others – stock divide-and-rule methods. At a time of peaceful protest, state media spoke of armed takfiri gangs killing soldiers and security agents (those honourable patriots), and of their goal of sectarian war in Syria.Then it launched false-flag operations and spread rumours amongst the Alawis, reminding them with increased intensity of the narrative of historical persecution. The regime also sacrificed some Alawis in areas of sectarian friction in order to frighten the rest into believing that those who claimed to stand for revolution were actually sectarian killers intent on revenge for Hama. Simply put, the regime let loose the monster of fear which had been latent in Alawi minds, and reinforced the link between homeland and sect, and the link between their personal survival and the survival of the sect/homeland. And today the Alawis believe they’re fighting against the threat of personal, sectarian and national extinction, and that the other – he of the different sect – is the enemy who targets the homeland (which is inextricably wrapped up with the sect).
It was for this reason that they were shocked by me and others like me who reject the identification of homeland and sect.The ‘betrayal’ of which they speak is the betrayal of a concept which, as they understand it, is axiomatic and self-evident. Bashaar al-Assad is not important to them personally, but only as a guarantor of the survival of the unified concept of homeland and sect. Their fear of the revolution is fear of a deeply-rooted mental structure, their individual and collective consciousness, being unsettled.They do not consider the men they have sacrificed as fuel for the war of a ruling dynasty but as martyrs in the path of preserving the psychological typology to which they belong; preserving the fixed ideological reference which has been the title of their lives for forty years and which, for once in history, placed them in the front rank.
Of course it goes without saying that the deviations of the revolution, specifically its Islamisation, which has led to the arrival on Syrian land of al-Qaeda and extremism in all the meanings of the word, and the sectarian media discourse that claims revolutionary affiliation – all strengthen their assumptions and increase their defensiveness.
But will they realise the extent of the delusion under which they have lived for so long? Will they understand that the graves of their children, increasing day by day, were nothing but a cheap price for the regime to pay? The regime treated these children as pawns in a game of chess as it fought for its own survival.
Perhaps they will eventually understand. But this will come long after their lives have been transformed into an endless round of funerals and condolences, and after all, Syria has been transformed into a land of cemeteries and death by the crimes of a regime which uses sectarianism as a tool of war.