I will steal into the murderers’ sleep and ask them: Did you see their eyes when the bullets hit their breasts and foreheads? Did you see, before Damascus’ sky darkened to their eyes, the rift in the weave of life where we may glimpse a way out? The murderers here in Damascus will soon fall asleep and we are left with our deathlike worries. Death is a window we open up to our questions.
Damascus is like any other city. At night it is even more beautiful, like a woman after a lovers’ meeting. But tonight the city holds on to its dark blue so that we can distinguish the eyes of the murderers as they spread out on the streets under the cloak of darkness. Those who hide on the rooftops and behind the houses to sit and shoot are cowardly killers. How can a murderer ever be regarded as brave; he is already devoid of morality.
From my house I head towards the city squares and mosques. It is noon. I have a compulsion to see the city—street by street, square by square. I only trust my own eyes. This morning even Truth is like an idiot who knows nothing about the art of love. He walks ahead of me cracking jokes. How will one ever be able to talk again of truth when people have to hide in their homes? The squares are empty. Perhaps it is a holiday.
The many patrols of the security forces spread around the streets where I am walking along. Cars roam to and fro. Fast and slowly. Big vehicles full of policemen and men with helmets in military uniforms are dispersed around the market squares and at all the major crossroads; even in places that are in no way suitable for demonstrations.
Men in civil dress whose dire presence reveals them—how did I learn to discriminate between an ordinary civilian and a security police officer here in Damascus? Hard to say at which point this game started or at which point intuition began to precede my speech and my questions. I can tell from just looking at their eyes, from their dress, their shoes. Today the presence of the security police in streets and alleys, in the markets and by the shops, outside schools and wherever I go, outnumbers ordinary people by far.
The police patrols hover around the gates of the Al-Hamidiyah market and on the Bab Toma square. They stop some men and question them; they take their identity cards. I don’t stay long and will never know whether their identity cards were confiscated or not. I hurry past and throw covert glances at them before I disappear into the alleys. Hardly a soul in sight. But suddenly, near the Umayyad mosque the security police are massively present alongside crowds of people waving flags and pictures of the President. The mosque itself is closed. I am not let in. They say that some worshippers have been trapped inside. I sit down to smoke, calmly studying the scene. Then I leave. I am impressed by the amount of people flagging the portrait of the President. The security forces are crowding the place as if they have popped up out of the ground.
Suddenly—some amazing figures appear that I have never seen before. Big overgrown men with broad pumped-up bodies dressed in black with armless tops boasting big tattooed biceps. Shaved heads incessantly rove the scene, glaring at all and everything with their arms vibrating alongside their bodies—stirring the air into a thick soup of fear. Frightening figures. From where have they sprung? From within the city? Where have they been hiding up until now? How did they get here today?
I walk on towards the Al-Hamidiyah market that is now almost empty. Shops are closed. Only a few peddlers dispersed among the security police. On the other side of the square I see vehicles full of armed men.
This is when I understand the full meaning of the words “tense calm.” I used to think that it was just a rhetorical concept. But now, during these days in Damascus, I have fully understood what it means. I walk past Al-Hamidiyah market towards Al-Marja square, despite the fact that I decided never to walk here again after the day we demonstrated outside the Ministry of the Interior a few weeks earlier.
Al-Marja is empty apart from the intense presence of the security police. Up close there is a vehicle full of armed men. The square with its closed shops, with its absence of ordinary people, and with its shabby hotels is more distinct than otherwise. In no way does it resemble the square on that other day when families of those who had been arrested were peacefully gathered outside the Ministry of the Interior. It was not a meeting. People just stood there in silence. Holding up pictures of their politically detained relatives. I was standing next to a father with two children of one of the detainees.
Suddenly the ground had opened up and spewed out strange, armed men who began to bash the demonstrators. The small frightened group chanted in chorus: “A traitor is one who kills his people!” I studied some of their faces. They made no resistance but just accepted the blows and the degradation. One by one they were dispersed. The men who had poured forth out of the ground took them—men with heavy rings on their fingers and under their tired eyes; baring their thick biceps they formed a chain around the protesters and thrust themselves at them, bashing them, bringing them to their knees, kicking and trampling them to the ground. Others picked up bodies and carried them off. I saw some of them open up one of the shop fronts, throw a woman inside, and then close the iron shutting. They then went off to fetch other women and to maltreat them in the same way. The protesters who still clambered together were forcefully parted. The father beside me disappeared after having left his four-year-old son in my care. Some men had seized him and were now holding him and his ten-year-old boy. I froze to a statue. Pressed the little boy’s body closer to mine as if I were in a movie. What is the difference between fiction and reality? Where is the dividing line? I was shaking all over. Suddenly I spied the face of the little boy as he watched his father and older brother being brutally beaten—blow upon blow. He watched as they were thrown into a van. The older boy’s face mesmerized as though hit by lightning. A heavy blow hit him on the head and his head fell limp to one side. Then one more kick was directed towards him and his father while inside the car. I shrank within and forcefully turned the little boy’s face towards me to spare him the rest of his father’s and brother’s fates. I lifted him into my arms and ran. A female friend of mine who had just arrived, was suddenly overpowered by three men. I grabbed her arm and shouted: “Leave her alone!” before I was brutally shoved to the ground with the child still dangling on my arm. They carried her off. I just ran, stopping a while in front of a shop. The owner shouted at me: “Go away! You are disrupting commerce!” I ran. A young demonstrator ran up alongside me and offered to help me carry the child. We hurried on.
Why was I running? The child wanted me to take him back. He wanted to wait for his father and brother. He said he was afraid but that he was going to hit the policeman who had hit his father and brother. He asked if his father was going to prison like his mother. I was stunned. There was no answer to give him. I was paralyzed and just told him to come with me. Actually, it was not the regular police that had mishandled his father and brother. The police had been looking on like bystanders with their arms crossed while people were being kicked, degraded, and detained. They looked on passively as one group came by carrying a portrait of the President, shouting out their support for him. This was the same group that just before had been attacking the defenceless protesters. Another group emerged and began to hit this first group with their flagpoles. The demonstrators were dispersed in a terrified turmoil only to be reunited soon after. In the evening rumours spread that some outsiders had infiltrated the demonstrators in order to cause unrest, and that the Minister of the Interior had received complaints from the relatives of the detainees. Listening to this on the news cabled out on the state television later I saw the child looking intently at me. I tried to imagine him being trampled down by the crowds among the hundreds of terrified feet; I imagined him lost in the streets of the city searching desperately for his father and brother.
So, they are saying that what I saw was the enemy infiltrators’ invasion of the peaceful protesters!
Walking past Marja square I register all the human figures behind bars in the ambulating prisons. I hail a taxi and head off towards a mosque that is rumoured to be under siege. But there is no crowd there. I decide that it may just be a rumour. I don’t look at the city. On my way to Kafr Souseh I surf on my mobile phone. I only trust my own eyes. On the Internet I find out that the mosque is under siege. The radio, however, reports that all is calm!
At Kafr Souseh the security police are patrolling intensively in cars that the ordinary citizens recognise. Strangers would never notice. I am stopped and not allowed entry to the square—the road is blocked. We pass the square and drive into the alleys. In some parts of the city it certainly seems to be peaceful. Some places are far from the centre of things—especially the affluent districts.
I get out of the car and walk towards the mosque. It is hard to get close. Motorbikes. Counter demonstrators with flags and portraits of the President. There is said to be a death-like silence in the mosque. I ask what’s happening. Everybody advises me to go away. There are no women here, says one person laughing. What are you doing here? I turn my back on him. The mosque is truly under siege. I can’t see any way in. The only possible opening seems to be to infiltrate the counter demonstrators who are carrying flags and pictures of the President. The thought of infiltrating the enemy ‘tickles me’ as my facebook friends would describe it. But I am unable to advance a single step.
It is a dark and disturbing experience to find oneself among men dressed in civilian clothes who suddenly emerge from the backdrop of the city only to begin to bash a small boy, throw him to the ground, and take his mobile phone, while others climb up on the houses surrounding the mosque. I overhear them reassuring themselves that no one is filming them from down under, but I feel unsure of everything apart from the fact that the mosque is under siege of the police, the security police, and the flag and portrait bearers who belong to the security forces. Some are taking turns to manhandle the people and to carry the portraits of the President. Rumours are circulating among those surrounding the mosque that negotiations are taking place between an Imam and the police to let the captives leave the mosque peacefully without bloodshed. Later I learned that they were let out; only to be marched straight into prison.
My heart is beating hard. It strikes me that it is sounding differently, almost as if someone is trying to speak to me through the noise. This someone reveals to me where the danger is. She leads me on before my rational mind hinders me. A man with a livid glare is staring at me. Carrying a portrait of the President he heads in my direction. I run off fast towards a taxi nearby. He runs after the taxi shaking his clenched fist at me. I ask the driver to hurry. The man eventually returns to the flag bearers. The driver says: “Why are you making trouble for yourself? Those people don’t make any difference between men and women!”
I am silent. My sight is blurred—darkened. I am paralyzed by fear brought on by the image of the besieged place. What is going to happen there? News reaches me: the killings at Doma continue; my friends are detained, many injured, overfull hospitals bursting with demonstrators after the army’s gunfire. News comes from all directions. I ask the driver to take me once more to see what is happening at Doma. He stiffens and loudly begs me: “For God’s sake, please don’t go back there!”
Bereaved and feeling stripped of all but my conscience—I don’t care any longer whether the liberal Moslems come into power or not. I don’t care much what people are saying about this. I don’t care what the mothers look like. I don’t care about the rumours. The only thing I care about is that now—when blood has become the language of the people—I will never let them silence me! It really is a concern of mine that defenceless people are battered, imprisoned, and killed for simply having demonstrated an opinion. I am witness to my people being forced to the ground like unripe peaches!
The driver starts to patronizingly lecture me: “The road to Doma is closed. All entry is prohibited. I say: “Is Doma also beleaguered?” He answers: “Don’t speak in those terms. I don’t want to get involved!” “Who has told you that the road is blocked?” I want to know. He answers that the army is there and one can hear the shooting. I ask: “Uncle, what do you think is happening?” “I don’t want to get involved,” he repeats. “I can hardly make a living for myself.”
“But people are dying,” I say.
“Some time we will all die. God be with them.”
“But what if your son was there? What would you have done then?”
The driver shakes his head in silence. After a while he says: “The world would be claustrophobic without him!”
I tell him about the rumour that one of the dead young persons at Dara had been shoved alive into a refrigerator. When his dead body was found there had been writing on the inside in his own blood saying: They put me in here alive. Give my love to my mother.
The driver shakes his head in silence.
I say that let’s hope it’s not true. He blushes around the ears.
At this point we arrive outside my home.
I am shaking all over. I notice that bloodshed entails just that: blood. I notice a rift in the weave of life, a hole bigger than existence itself. I can see the same hole in the chests of the martyrs. I can’t see the murderers’ faces. I imagine myself stealing into the murderers’ sleep asking them if they saw this hole when they aimed their guns at the breasts of those defenceless young people?