Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Brief Taste of Prison

In 1986, fresh out of my medical internship, I headed to the Beirut airport to catch my flight to the United States to start my residency training. I was looking forward for a change. The civil war was bogged down in recurring cycles of violence with no end in sight. Besides, as a Syrian citizen, I had little long term prospects for a medical career in Lebanon. I checked in at the ticket counter and proceeded through the Lebanese immigration counter. As I turned the corner to descend to the departure lounge, I saw two men at the bottom of the stairway and my heart skipped a beat.

The men were short, scrawny, in ill-fitting suites and looking out of place. I knew immediately what they were. They might as well have had neon lights on their forehead flashing mukhabarat.
After a momentary hesitation, I proceeded down the stairs with an air of confidence hoping that I would pass without harassment. I was wrong. I handed over my passport to one of the men. He opened my passport then looked up at me with disdain and asked where I was going. After I told him, the dreaded question came up: “Wein daftar al askarieh?”-where is you military service booklet. I told him that I did not do my military service but that my family had left Syria when I was five years old. He frowned and fell silent. His friend whispered to him: “He’s a doctor just going to specialize, why don’t you let him go?” But he had other ideas. They both walked off to their officer who was sitting in the middle of the departure lounge looking like he owned the place.

I suddenly spotted a familiar face among the crowd of passengers. He was a family friend of my fiancé (and now wife of 18 years), a businessman who appeared to be well connected. I inched over to him and told him that I needed his help. He looked back at me sheepishly and told me that you can’t mess with these people. With a casual wave of his hand, the officer summoned me. Looking bored, he proceeded to lecture me for the next five minutes about how it was my patriotic duty to liberate the Golan Heights. When he was done, he waved to his men to take me away.

I was driven to the mukhabarat headquarters in Ramlet el-Baida. On the sixth floor office, I was relieved of the contents of my pockets including my wallet and was asked to surrender my belt. I was told that when the senior officers returned later in the afternoon, they will interrogate me. I then followed one of the officers to the basement of the building. He opened the metal door, let me in and locked the door behind me.

When my eyes accommodated to the darkness, I made out the outlines of my prison. It was a long narrow space, dank from the water covering almost half of the floor on the right. Lining the left side of the cell, some sitting on blankets others standing, were about fifteen other prisoners. Some walked up to me to console me as I stood shocked and dazed. They were a mix of Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians, in this predicament for various reasons. Some had been in for almost three months. I spent the next hours feeling like my life was being sucked out of me. Just hours ago, I was hopeful and happy looking forward to a new and promising start. Now, I was in prison, not knowing what will happen to me or even whether anyone knew where I was.

Late that afternoon, the officer who booked me showed up at the cell door looking annoyed and called me over. He let me out and as I stood there soaked in sweat and disheveled, he told me to tuck in my shirt. We took the elevator back to the sixth floor offices. I feared the worst. As I exited the elevator, two neatly dressed young men introduced themselves as bodyguards of Assem Kanso, the head of the Lebanese Baath party. They told me to look out the window across a couple of empty blocks to a building. They told that my fiancé and her mother were waiting for me there.

Unbeknown to me, the businessman had managed to give a Lebanese immigration officer the phone number of my fiance’s family home and told him to call to tell them what happened. When the call was made, my future mother in law sprung to action. A friend of a friend knew someone who knew the wife of Assem Kanso. Calls were made. The bodyguards collected my suitcases, and had the officer return my wallet. I was driven to Mr. Kanso’s home for a tearful reunion.

When I returned several days later to the airport, it was in Mr. Kanso’s Range Rover with two armed men sitting in the back. I felt like the prototypical Lebanese warlord that I loathed so much. At the airport, the hypocritical bastard who lectured me about patriotism was now apologizing profusely. He called his minions to carry my suitcases. One of Kanso’s men walked me down to the departure lounge and bid me farewell. I asked him not to leave until I am on the plane but he told me not to worry, that everything was “taken care of”. I felt relieved only when my plane was in the air. I did not return to Lebanon for another ten years and then only with a different passport.

I hesitated for several months before writing this piece. On the one hand I did not want to over-inflate the magnitude of what happened to me. After all, I was lucky enough to come out of it unscathed. On the other hand, it is more than just a good story, it is emblematic of what goes on in routinely in Syria and to a variable extent in other Middle Eastern Mukhabaratocracies.

What angers me most about what happened is its complete randomness. Your life, as a citizen, is completely dependent on the whims of single, all powerful individual. If the mukhabarat officer woke up that morning with an annoying itchy rash on his backside, then consider yourself screwed. If, on the other hand, his wife was good to him the night before, he may feel generous on that particular day. You as a citizen have no rights and the law is what THEY tell you it is.

I cannot claim, because of this event, that I know what Michel Kilo and other political prisoners feel during their long incarcerations. I do know, however, how it feels in the first few hours: the sudden and unpredictable loss of your freedom, the shock, the desperation and the fear of what is to come. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemies… I take that back, I DO wish it on that mukhabarat officer in the departure lounge and I want to be the one sealing his fate with a flick of my hand.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Looking at Iraq and Fearing for Syria

The steady stream of impersonal bad news from Iraq has tended to desensitize me to the magnitude of the horror facing ordinary Iraqis. That changed when I heard on the radio the story of one Baghdadi family's plight. They are a Sunni family of limited means forced to leave their apartment in a Shia dominated neighborhood under threat to seek refuge in the Western, Sunni dominated areas. Their Shia neighbors don't want them to leave but are unable to protect them. They used up all of their modest savings on this move.

This is happening all over Baghdad in Sunni and Shia neighborhoods. The city is becoming polarized and divided. Anyone with enough means is leaving the country. In addition to the indignation of having to forcefully leave one's home, violence threatens everyone. Dozens of mutilated bodies are found everyday in Baghdad. Suicide bombers strike at will. The depravity of the violence facing Iraqis is mind-numbing. Nothing is sacred; not mosques, not churches, not funerals and not weddings. The average citizen has no one to turn to for protection. The Iraqi police are infiltrated with sectarian killers and the American troops often act like paranoid, trigger happy vigilante. A recent report has put the death toll in Iraq since 2003 at over 600,000!

This IS a civil war, make no mistake about it. The sectarian killings remind me of the Katl al hawiyeh of the worst episodes of the Lebanese civil war, only magnified several fold.

I vehemently opposed the American invasion of Iraq. I hated Saddam and all that he stood for but I also knew the Americans had no idea what they were getting into. They were driven by ideology and not reason. The pretexts given for the invasion were fabricated and self-serving. Yet, how can you not rejoice when a despicable tyrant such as Saddam is deposed. I hoped against all odds that the Iraqis could pull it off but a combination of massive American incompetence, self-serving sectarian interests and nihilistic jihadists have conspired to turn Iraq into its present state.

The story of this family has left me with a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. I felt sad for the Iraqis but also fearful for Syria. Is this what awaits Syria should the Baathist regime crumble? How different Syria from Iraq? The Saddam regime was much more brutal than the Asad dynasty ever was and the sectarian divides are not as raw in Syria -though no one really knows what will happen once the tight lid of the regime comes off. It is not surprising then that the average Syrian feels besieged and fearful of change. This is the reason why many Syrians, even those who want change, minimize the regime's misdeeds; peace and safety first, democracy can wait. Some feel that the autocratic police state is a necessary evil keeping anarchy and chaos at bay. Because of these sentiments some in Syria are angered by Syrian expatriates, sitting in the safety of exile, agitating loudly for change. What these people fail to realize is that Syria's present predicament is the result of the Baathist regime's utter failure to build a viable state after 43 years in power.

Yet these are particularly volatile times and, as Iraq clearly shows, a sudden forceful change in the absence of a viable opposition movement with popular support, will be disastrous.

So what has the story of the Iraqi family taught me? Well, it has reinforced my feeling that change has to come from within with help from Syrians on the outside but without foreign interference. The other necessary components are that the Syrian people have to be invested in change and that within the vast corrupt Baathist machine, their are few honest souls who will allow some reforms to start materializing.

I realize that there are many "ifs" in my equation for change and the process will be long and tedious, as my friend SB has pointed out, but the alternative, an Iraqi-type quagmire, is too painful to contemplate.

(Photo by AK, Texas hills)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Redefining "Resistance"

When Arabs talk of about Al-mukawamah (resistance), they refer to a just struggle against anyone who breaches the sanctity of Arab land. It is a logical, justifiable and understandable nationalistic response to free occupied land. It is an idea that has instant mass appeal. Resistance, however, was always too narrowly -and negatively- defined as armed struggle, which often became an end in itself. Some leaders of resistance movements exploited the mass appeal of resistance to justify all of their actions and silence critics. Moreover, the idea of resistance was often commandeered by entrenched regimes to deflect attention from their own shortcomings; that explains the sudden fervor of the Syrian government for creating a "resistance" movement akin the Hizbullah in the Golan heights shortly after the July war in Lebanon.

It is time for us to redefine the idea of resistance both in relation to the methods and the targets of such resistance. First, we need to ditch the idea that resistance=armed struggle. My own experiences have taught me to abhor violence both on moral but also on pragmatic grounds. Armed resistance has a role when there are well-defined and achievable goals. Otherwise, it becomes self-destructive for the resistance movement itself and the people it claims to be working for. Second, we need to broaden the targets of resistance to include our own, corrupt and autocratic governments.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am not advocating the creation of dissident guerilla movements. The last thing I, or most Syrians for that matter, want to see is Syria turned into another Iraq.
What I am advocating for is a form of civil resistance. A skeptic would say that its precisely what the leaders of the Damascus Spring and other dissidents have done and that has gotten them nowhere. The problem is that these leaders lack the visible support of the common citizen; even autocratic regimes are mindful of the will of the people -provided that will is expressed. The reason as we all know is that most Syrian citizens are politically disenfranchised and fearful of airing their political views. Yet, despite the tight government control on the media, Syria is not as closed a society as it was in the 70s and 80s. Many Syrians have traveled abroad and have access to information that the government does not control. They know and have seen alternatives to the autocratic system that they have to endure. Moreover, Syrian civil society has shown that it is capable of acting independently of the government. Witness the admirable Syrian civil society response to help displaced Lebanese. Some of it, to be sure, was government propaganda. Most, however, was the coordinated effort of common citizens, unions, professional groups and private businesses.

I am not expecting or imagining mass anti-government demonstrations to suddenly materialize in Syria. Yet, the Syrian people can no longer afford to wait for the halting pace of "reform" that the regime espouses. What is needed is coordinated civil action for change. It should start far from hot-button political issues but with issues that the government itself claims it is working to change such as corruption, economic reform and issues of social justice.

Is this all wishful thinking? Perhaps. An organized, activist civil society on its own may not be capable of affecting the type of change that is needed. Nevertheless, civil society groups working independently of the government are still critical for the long term health of Syria and are essential to mitigate the effects of a sudden (regime) change that would cause the instant disintegration of the centralized government.

(Illustration: Picasso's dove of peace)