Silent siege

Souzan Ibrahim is a well-known Syrian poet, author and journalist. The everyday life and rights of women have dominated her writing and journalistic work. She left Syria in 2018 after having been threatened and attacked by both the regime and the rebels because of her texts. She arrived in Östersund, Sweden as a guest writer. Below is an extract from her upcoming book where she has collected journal notes from the war in Syria. 

November 29 2018 Text: Suzan Ibrahim Translation from Arabic: Ghias Aljundi

“Grandchildren of Khalid” Friday Protests, 22 July 2011
At my house in the Qaboun Suburb of Damascus 

I woke up at eight. I drank my coffee as usual. I was alerted to the lack of mobile coverage when I wanted to charge my phone. I tried to call Homs, as I do every morning, but I discovered that the landline was also silent. I looked through the window to the street, it was full of calmness and stillness. Not even the sound of one car! I was surprised and asked myself: Will it be another bad Friday?!
The weather was hot, a gentle breeze shakes the leaves of the huge tree under my window. No movement… no voice… even the doves had disappeared.

A white butterfly flying, the sound of the water pump’s motor, and the voice of the imam at the mosque began to rise. The sound of a shop’s metal shutter getting louder. A pickup car, another car’s horn. The branches of the small green tree are sway in the breeze. The butterfly hovers around the huge tree.
A report on the channel “Alarabiya” from the Syrian border with Iraq, which monitors the movements of Syrians in the village Albagous, which overlaps both Syria and Iraq. The village is in the province of the city of Boukmal, whose centre, according to the report, has been besieged by the Syrian army. Many minarets announced the noon prayers, followed by the Friday sermon, which I did not understand at all.

The news of the demonstrations began to appear on Al-Jazeera: Daraa-Al-Keswa-Idlib, while official Syrian television refuted the news via its network of correspondents. In the breaking news, I read: limited gatherings in different areas of Idlib.

I listen carefully and look through the window. My range of vision is short, as the street runs south about 50 meters ending on a corner, and the north side extends ten meters to turn towards the Tishreen area. There is no other way other than this window to see if a demonstration had begun in the neighbourhood, but I did not hear anything. The place from which the demonstration usually begins is about one kilometre away from my house. The wind plays a role in delivering the sound sometimes. I heard more than once the roar of cheers after the worshippers left the mosque following Friday prayers, like many nights after the evening prayer, demanding the overthrow of the regime.

On Al Jazeera, an eyewitness (Ayman) said: Ten thousand demonstrators went out in Kfar Nobbel, and the army besieged and occupied the city, arresting and shooting randomly. Syrian TV says: Gunmen fire on civilians and riot police in Kfar Nobbel, Idlib. It also reports on a limited gathering in the Al-Kaswa suburb of Damascus, stating that there were no more than 150 people, contrary to what Al-Jazeera said.

Al-Jazeera: Mass demonstrations in the heart of the city of Hama demanding the departure of the Syrian regime. Mass demonstrations in Lattakia demanding the departure of the Syrian regime and demonstrations in Homs go peacefully without confrontation with security—according to an eyewitness, Abu Sultan of Rastan. Sources to Al-Jazeera: Syrian security besieged the neighbourhood of Qaboun in Damascus.

Two doves pick up seeds, the male moves around the female. Still it was quiet with no life on the street.

I read in the book “Lilit” that there was no religious war at all before the emergence of monotheism. The term “modern paganism” was created to describe the main feature of the intellectual trend of modern society, and this is a trend alive in the majority of intellectuals.

The intellectual freedom demanded by modern thinkers was available during the days of pagan religion, as it was called. There may be more than twenty gods in a society, and the appearance of a new god was not a serious problem that called for a destructive war. Thus, the new paganism becomes equal to intellectual freedom in all fields, especially religion.

I thought: We are living a misguided paganism! Each Religious sect draws a shape of a single God, gives it a name, and interprets the Qur'an as it wishes. Pluralism is a natural trait, not monotheism! They demand political, economic, and cultural pluralism. How can we accomplish this in the light of religious monotheism, in which each side attacks the other side, and maybe this religious sect would grant someone forgiveness from its religious ivory tower, but not equality?

I thought: In my next novel I can introduce Sheherazade, Lilith, Atalanta the hunter girl, the Prairie Girl, and Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly over the Atlantic… they will be my heroines!

6:30 PM. Communications are still cut off. A shy movement in the street. The doves stood on the iron bars of the windows, cleaning themselves. A pleasant smell wafted into my nose. It was the smell of hubble bubble—tobacco with honey flavour—emanating from my neighbour’s house, who was seated on his balcony just under my window. The night passed quietly, and the 21 day moon was shining low on the horizon.

And all communications were still down.

Saturday 23 July

I woke up before the dawn prayer. I immediately checked to make sure the communications were back, but my hope vanished. The mobile phone network and landlines were as silent as a cemetery. I looked through the window to see the moon that had risen in the sky. The morning star was dancing, perhaps Venus or Mars. I could not sleep again easily because of the loud noises of dawn prayers emanating from the many mosques surrounding me.

I was still in my secluded room, isolated from the world. I made a firm decision to go out to contact my parents and make sure that everyone was safe. I whispered in secret: Could it be possible that Salah did not try yesterday to make sure that I am fine? Did he come? Has he been denied entry after reading in the news about the siege of the neighbourhood?! From here I cannot see anything, and I dare not go out from home on Fridays since the outbreak of the protests.

After a morning bath, I started to get myself ready to go out, and my heart still whispered: Salah may come… what if he arrives after I have left the house, and there is no way to communicate?

Shortly before eleven o’clock, my friend Salah arrived, excited. He told me about the situation in the neighbourhood, checkpoints spread over every corner and street. He tried to enter the area twice yesterday evening, but the soldiers at the checkpoints prevented him for his own safety, and some of them reassured him: If your relative is in her home, there is nothing wrong with her!

I decided to leave with him, taking the laptop with me, to spend some time outside the house so that I could contact my family and friends. They must be worried by now. From my house to the main road (less than one kilometre away), we passed through five military checkpoints, whose personnel checked our identity cards and some asked us to open the back of the car.

The line of cars grew. Once we reached the main road, the mobile coverage returned—the reception was blocked in my neighbourhood only—and I made a quick call to my family. We went to Linas cafe in Abu Rummaneh (Central Damascus), spending two hours there. I contacted my parents again, opened the Internet via 3G, bought some of the necessary essentials, and after that we went back, going through the same checkpoints again.

At one of the checkpoints, I saw a small, narrow high metal table with a machine gun on it and a soldier behind it. It caught my attention that the majority of the soldiers at the checkpoints we passed were barely twenty. Everyone was in their full battlefield uniforms, despite the extreme heat, and carrying their rifles.

In some of the soldiers’ hands were white papers, which I later realised were lists of the wanted, so they could check identity cards against the lists and then allow people to pass through. Some of the soldiers narrowed the street by placing garbage containers in the way, so only a single car could hardly pass through. Even the minibuses operating the line from Qaboun to Al-Thawra were inspected. 

A boy arrived carrying an aluminium jug, a small cup, and a straw, used for drinking a local drink called Mate (a drink originally brought from Argentina by Syrians who lived there), and gave them to a soldier. In front of the soldier was a juice bottle in which he kept ice water, I mean a frozen block of water. He was pouring some of the water, which had melted in the heat, over the cloth covered centre of his helmet.

Another checkpoint, near the supermarket where I shop, had several soldiers. It’s located at the small bridge fifty metres before my house, and some soldiers lie on the ground in the shade of a wall to escape the flames of the July sun. 

The soldiers did not check my identity—maybe they were not looking for the names of wanted women. Salah brought me home and then he left. I continued my day normally and spent my night quietly.

The next morning, I went to work.

The soldiers, the checkpoints, and the guns had completely disappeared.