Her damask cheek

12/3/2013 | sundry

Early one morning in the summer of 2011, a good few months after the ouster of Hosny Mubarak, I received an international phone call. It was an unknown number that began with 00963. I could tell this was the country code of some Arab state, though I didn’t know which. After some hesitation I picked up, and I was greeted by a thin voice speaking with inflections that sounded vaguely Iraqi. “Remember Abu Dhabi,” the voice said eventually, with a warm chuckle. “This is Thaer.”

Then I realised: it wasn’t really Iraqi Arabic that I was hearing; it was that only slightly different dialect spoken in much of eastern Syria and along the Iraqi border, a dialect I had first encountered when I made the acquaintance of my present interlocutor in early 2007, in the UAE.

In a flash the cafeteria annexed to the office where I used to work during the year I spent in Abu Dhabi came back to me. Since I could smoke there I actually spent more time in the cafeteria than in the office, working on my laptop and drinking cup after cup of Turkish coffee. The cafeteria was the place where, most often, I had my first meal of the day: a complex sandwich called a philly cheese steak that wasn’t actually a philly cheese steak at all, according to my American co-workers. But it had cheese and beef and it was edible and filling. Thaer made it for me.

Thaer was the waiter at the cafeteria, a very young man from Al Hasaka who had been in Abu Dhabi for two years when I arrived, trying to save enough money to start his life back in Syria. He was the one who served me the coffee. He chatted with me, told me about his large family and his online love affairs; he even read me vernacular verses of his own composition. Thaer confided that at first he couldn’t believe I was Egyptian because the Egyptians he had encountered had been invariably arrogant to him.

The last time Thaer had phoned, following my return to Cairo from the UAE in 2008, was many months before the onset of the Arab Spring. He was still in Abu Dhabi then, in some kind of career conundrum. Like millions of blue-collar workers in the Gulf, Thaer was at the mercy not of his Emirati employers but of some go-between who one way or another controlled his right to stay in the country; after this person humiliated him, apparently for no good reason, Thaer left his job and started looking for another. But the go-between had reported him to the authorities and he was repeatedly arrested and questioned.

He had phoned to ask me if I knew a muwatin (lit., “citizen”: a member of the tiny minority of Emirati residents who hold citizenship), someone who could intercede on his behalf. Thaer wanted to stay on in Abu Dhabi, partly because if he went home he would be immediately drafted into the army. I phoned the only muwatin I could count on but it was no use. Within weeks Thaer was deported and, for all I knew, conscripted. He returned to Syria with as little money as he had when he arrived in the UAE.

Then, at the end of 2010, the revolution erupted in Tunis; on 25 and 28 January, 2011, things started happening in Cairo. By the end of March, nearly two months after Mubarak stepped down, Libya and Syria were in the throes of civil strife. The uprising in Syria, which somehow steered clear of Damascus, was interesting in that, though just as brutally totalitarian as Gaddafi’s, the Syrian regime could play on sectarian differences, putting forward the Qaeda hypothesis far more credibly: the Islamist-sympathetic Sunni majority of Syrians were automatically pitted against the country’s many minorities, manipulated by the nominally secular Alawite core of the power structure.

And, sure enough, by the summer of 2012 hundreds were already dying every day: what had begun as a peaceful call for democratic rights was fast turning into a sectarian civil war as a result. Of course, I wasn’t very clear about this yet. In Cairo both the then ruling Military Council and the Islamists were casting dark shadows over the apparent triumph of the revolution, but I was still charged with the energy of insurgency and I believed the revolution in Syria could bring about positive change. The jihadi tendencies of the revolutionaries, which in time would make the horrendous atrocities of the Assad regime almost acceptable, had not yet come to light; and I expected someone like Thaer, who was Sunni and underprivileged, to be wholly in the thrall of what was going on.

“Don’t worry about the phone bill,” Thaer said now, using the same casual tone with which he had begun the conversation. “They’ve given us free credit to phone people all over the world.” Who had given whom free credit and why? I couldn’t quite figure out from Thaer’s brief, seemingly reluctant explanation. “It’s just that you’ve been on my mind and I thought I’d ask after you while I had the chance. Things are a bit difficult, yeah, because I’m in the army…”

It struck me more than anything that Thaer had no strong feelings one way or another. As he told me how “my people” had had to relocate while he served near Daraa (the southwestern province where the revolution first erupted), he sounded ambivalent and resigned. Could he have been doing reconnaissance work for some party or other? But what on earth would he ever find out from someone like me…

And that was when it began to dawn on me that, while the conflict in Syria was still objectively clear (a people rising up against a repressive order), the subjective exposure to what was happening there must be infinitely more complex. When the phone call was over I couldn’t quite tell why Thaer had called, or how he could sound so incredibly nonchalant.

I believe Thaer called because he remembered an old friend. Maybe he wanted to escape a hard and ugly routine and thought of someone from a different world. Be that as it may, his call was a sobering experience.

Perhaps for the first time after life resumed a facade of normality here in Cairo, it occurred to me that whatever came of the revolution in Syria, and it was obvious by then that it would take a very long time for the Syrian revolution to triumph, it probably wasn’t worth the suffering of ordinary Syrians living ordinary lives — regardless of which side of the divide they might be on or for what reasons they were on it.

Thaer was clearly on no particular side. He had every reason to be fighting on the side of the revolution but he was apparently fighting for the regime, and his entire extended family had been turned into refugees. Was the Arab Spring really about the kind of “dignity” he had exhibited when he refused to bow down to his superior in Abu Dhabi? Was it about living conditions that would spare young Syrians the trouble of suffering indignities in the oil-rich Gulf? ***

My only visit to Syria took place in April 2005, at the height of the Cedar Revolution: the earliest of the Arab Spring avatars (with the sole exception of the 1991 Shaabani Uprising in Iraq). I went to Damascus by taxi from Beirut with anti-Syrian regime Lebanese friends who had participated in the protests. This was right after the Syrian army finally withdrew from Lebanon, under pressure from protests that took place in the wake of the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Al Hariri in Beirut.

On the way to the border I was repeatedly told to be careful who I spoke to and what I said. This was a totalitarian regime, after all; every other citizen was a Mukhabarat spy. As an Egyptian coming from Beirut at this of all times, it was easy to get in trouble, and trouble would be very serious indeed. If I got into a fight with someone who happened to have (Alawite) family connections with the powers that be, it was likely that I would disappear within the hour, never to be heard of again.

As per the Arab-nationalist provisions of the Baath I didn’t need a visa, but I was almost barred from entry after it was discovered through my passport that I was journalist (journalists were only allowed in Syria through the proper government channels). The border guard were even sloppier than their Egyptian counterparts, a little more rude too perhaps; they also seemed to be significantly more scared of their superiors, and their attitude bespoke the ruthlessness my Lebanese friends had been telling me about.

I stayed only two days in Damascus. The evening of my arrival, at some out-of-the-way cultural centre, I attended an experimental theatre show in which the earnestness and energy of the young performers belied the utter hopelessness of their position. Compared to their peers in Beirut or Cairo, the aspiring artists I encountered in Damascus had had very little exposure to contemporary trends. They were trying too hard to be cool for too small and desultory an audience.

Perhaps it was my Lebanese friends’ projections but, here as elsewhere, I felt there was something holding people back. Even when they were loquacious, which generally speaking they weren’t, people seemed to be avoiding the most important topics (which I thought must have to do with politics, the government and “the walls having ears”…)

I went to the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque, to Ibn Arabi’s shrine and the Hamidiya bazaar, all the while comparing what I saw to Cairo. I remember the food being superior and people being more relaxed about alcohol. I remember the shopkeepers being friendlier and the goods of better value. There was virtually no hustling. On the whole Damascus was like a quieter, cleaner, more honest-to-God version of Cairo. But it was also like Cairo, as I imagined it, in the 1960s: the pseudo-Soviet emblems of the all-seeing state, Father Hafez and Big Brother Bashar were ever-present; so was the profound terror of unspeakable punishments that could be meted out to anyone at any time should the state so desire.

People had the faces of the Assads tattooed on their arms, let alone plastered on their windscreens and shop windows. This was a repellent phenomenon because it bespoke not only fear but a kind of vile utilitarianism: by associating themselves with the consecrated family, by declaring their devotion to power, people could presumably get ahead faster or more smoothly. That mattered to them more than dignity or sense of right.

The tattoos in particular I would remember as I brooded over Thaer’s call: perhaps not all Syrians “want to topple the regime”, after all? Perhaps decades of state control will breed that species of utilitarian human being? Perhaps sectarianism — Sunnis hating Shias, including Alwaites, as well as non-Muslims not devotedly in the service of the Umma — was the only thing that could break the mould.

I have since seen evidence of the revolution (or at least very significant components of it) being no less miserable and murderous than the Assads. I have seen people that I hold in high regard, many of whom had suffered at the hands of the regime, side with it against what is no longer merely a threat of fundamentalist tyranny. And I have seen former agents of the regime defecting and moving to Turkey or Qatar, the better to reap the benefits of “liberation”…

On our way back to Beirut, having seen Damascus for the first time, the car was stopped at a border checkpoint and our documents picked up for inspection. They did not come back with the guard who had taken them, however, but with an imposing moustachioed officer.

Sticking his head through the car window, the man bellowed, “Where’s the Egyptian?”

Terror-stricken, I looked up, thinking maybe this was the end not of my visit to Syria but of my life as I knew it.

“Izzayyak,” the officer said: Egyptian Arabic for “how are you” (as opposed to the more standard Levantine kifak). Before I understood what was going, he handed me my passport, guffawing. “Isn’t that what you say in Egypt? Have a safe journey now,” he said.

Al-Ahram Weekly



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