By: Salma N. Abdulhady
“Not in a million years,” I answered my Egyptian friend, when she told me Syria is next immediately after the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “You don’t know our government,” I told her, “they are ruthless and they are willing to kill millions of innocent people to stay in power.”
I lived in Damascus for eighteen years, and on the surface, everything was normal. I was born into a well-educated family and was raised by a hardworking father, who believed in serving his country and his fellow citizens, and a loving mother, who devoted her life to her kids. I attended private schools and, like the majority in Syria, we were moderately religious. This sounds so ordinary even to me, but growing up in the eighties was anything but.
Whenever I think of the year 1981, I associate it with the day Rifaat Assad decided to do the unthinkable. On a gloomy afternoon, he unleashed a brigade of female paratroopers in the streets of Damascus. They were military women formally trained in brutality, armed with batons and accompanied by armed military personnel. Their mission was to remove the hijab from unsuspecting Syrian women. They were given a monetary award for every hijab or scarf they removed. My aunt was an eyewitness and a victim of these attacks. A respected lady in her mid forties, my aunt was a conservative woman; she wore the hijab – as did many Syrian women – in addition to the niqab or face cover, which is less common. She came home deeply shaken a
nd trembling, trying to cover her head with her hands. I still remember her words, “They were monsters, they were grabbing the hijabs off of ladies’ heads by force, they beat anyone who resisted, and they didn’t care if the woman was old or young. They attacked everyone and it was a big party to them.” Later, we heard accounts of the thugs ridiculing the hijab, dancing with it, and stepping on it. A number of men, who came to the defense of the women being terrorized, were promptly shot by the armed thugs.
This day is vivid in my memory. To me, it was the day that our country was painfully stripped of its honor and dignity. As a Muslim girl growing up in Syria, it was the day my country no longer felt safe.
The following day, President Hafez Assad appeared on TV with his wicked smirk and excused the savagery of the female paratroopers, claiming that they were motivated by a praiseworthy desire to see their country move forward. None dared to dispute such a claim. Shortly after this incident that shook Damascus, President Assad had the audacity to ban the head cover in all schools – in a country primarily populated by Sunni Muslims, who believe that the hijab is an obligation for all Muslim women.
It was the same year that I decided to wear the hijab. I had previous plans to do so, but the regime’s actions and my family’s insistence that I wait only provoked my defiance and my determination to wear it despite the certain challenges that lied ahead. Simply put, my high school years were a living hell. It seems that I spent those years constantly worrying that I would be caught by the school’s military studies coach (military studies is a required school course), who made surprise visits to each class, ensuring that the hijab ban was being upheld. I skipped classes, hid in bathrooms, and huddled under desks to escape her notice.
However, my trials suddenly seemed trivial when my youngest uncle was taken from his university by security agents. At 21 years old, he was only a few years older than me; handsome and witty, he was a third year medical student and was to become the first doctor in the family. He vanished.
To spare her worry and heartbreak, they told my grandmother that he was hiding at a friend’s house. Four months later, he was still in their clutches and they had no choice but to tell her. I remember the visitors who came, the vigils we held, the prayers we made for his safety and release. Months passed with no news, and my family paid money – to people we later discovered were con-artists, playing on the hopes of desperate families – in repeated attempts to see even a glimpse of him. When detainees were released, my mom went from one house to another in search of some answers about her baby brother. She would always return home in tears, frustrated because they always seemed know something but were too afraid to say anything. It has been over thirty years since he was taken, and as his family we never discovered any formal charges, trials or judgments. When we put together all the available pieces, my mom thinks that he died in prison. This would be the most merciful scenario. Of course, a body or even a death certificate was never released so our hope remains. To this day, my grandmother has visions of him returning to her. Always, he has come home and she finally gets to hold him and hug him, and as she touches his face, she tells everyone around her, “This time it’s real, he is home.”
Homes were raided, people were arrested, and many fled the country out of fear of persecution. In fact, my older uncle did just that. Someone came to the door asking for him, and we all know what that meant, so he left. Fate had it that he lived a short life; he died away from home and family and away from my already heartbroken grandmother.
The list goes on and on. We lived in constant fear of who was next and what more the regime would do. Everyday, my mom waited anxiously for my dad to come home. My dad was, and still is, very critical about the government, its brutality, and its corruption. We feared that one day they would simply take him.
Nothing was sacred and no one was safe. The regime succeeded in dividing our communities by planting informants everywhere. At school, we knew of students who wrote reports about teachers and students. Oftentimes, the reports were fabricated for revenge or personal reasons. Informants were, and remain today, everywhere: taxi drivers, building guards, trash collectors, grocery store clerks, classmates, coworkers, and next door neighbors. In Syria, you can’t afford to trust anyone; we bitterly joke that the Assad regime hires two agents for every citizen. Everything and everyone is under surveillance.
Syria is a good place and I am proud to call it my homeland, but nothing is left of the beautiful place that once was called an oasis. When I visit, sadness seizes my heart. Over the course of forty years, the Assad regime robbed it of everything. The educational system is in disarray and the judiciary system is for sale for the right price. The health system is a disaster, and ironically, while no one trusts a doctor there, Syrians scattered all over the world represent some of the best physicians. Most young men are well educated, but jobs and business opportunities are available only to individuals with connections or to those willing to forfeit an overwhelming share of their profits to Rami Makhlouf, more recently known as Mr. Five Percent (Makhlouf reportedly controls 60% of Syria’s economy). Hence, a countless number of young men have been driven to leave their country in search of a better life. Otherwise, they continue to chase after impossible dreams.
This was a glimpse from the life of one ordinary Syrian girl, only one of twenty three million Syrians whose lives have been affected by the regime’s atrocities. In March, the regime reached a new level of inhumanity. With the torture and murder of their children, the Syrian people refused to tolerate and remain subjugated; they moved into the streets and stood in the face of live ammunition with olive branches and a remarkable level of bravery and dignity.
Despite forty years of absolute repression, the Syrians have proven themselves over the past year to be among the bravest and most resilient of people. They are determined to actualize their unified dream of freedom and democracy. It is their unflinching will that makes a free Syria possible and inevitable.