The Kingdom of Silence and Humiliation
|October 17, 2012|
They came for me on December 14, 2006. Plainclothes police carrying automatic weapons stormed into an Internet café in Damascus and grabbed me and a friend. They brought us in a car to the headquarters of the Syrian secret police. Around midnight they dragged me from my holding cell to the man I would come to know only as "Captain Wissam." He was a tall, dark-skinned officer. He looked at me and smiled. "We will release you in just a few minutes," he said. "You should be a good citizen." He then called a guard, whom he ordered to "take good care" of me.
Both men spoke with the distinctive accent of the Alawites; in fact, every single person in the prison did. The Alawite minority has effectively ruled Syria since 1963, and especially since President Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970. So when you hear this accent, you pay attention. Ever since I can remember, this has been the way that the people with real power in our country speak.
They did not keep me for a few minutes. They threw me into a cell they called "the Suite." Measuring five feet by one and a half feet, it had no windows. There was a hole in the floor for a toilet and a hose attached to a faucet in the wall. The hose had two purposes: to keep the toilet clean and to provide me with drinking water. They told me I'd be staying for two years.
As it turned out, they let me go in 40 days. But that was more than enough. During that period, which I spent entirely in solitary confinement, I was interrogated constantly. I was tortured repeatedly, both psychologically and physically. (Forgive me, but I would prefer not to go into the details.) Every single day I feared death. When they released me, I staggered out onto the street, bearded and unkempt, wearing the same clothing I had on at the time of my arrest (though now everything was in tatters). Outside, everything seemed to be normal. People in the streets were walking around and enjoying their lives, smiling and laughing.
This was Syria under the Assads. I had drawn the attention of the secret police because of my membership in a student group that set out to publicize the human rights abuses of the regime. To engage in opposition meant questioning not only the government, but the entire version of reality that it had imposed upon us for decades.
Like millions of Syrians, I started my education at the age of six. My first day at school began with a greeting to our "Great Father," Hafez al-Assad. We sang songs in his praise. His picture was everywhere: in our notebooks, our textbooks, our classrooms, even in the bathroom. He was the one who protected us from the danger of the imperialists and Zionists. He was the one who regained the honor of the Arabs. At school we learned that Assad's cleverness had enabled Syria to win the Yom Kippur War, and we used to celebrate this day every year by holding up pictures of Assad marking the victory.
What we didn't know, of course, was that the regime had actually been defeated. They used to tell us that Bill Clinton said that he fears two things: death and Hafez Al-Assad. Once our teacher told us that an agent of a foreign enemy country had tried to assassinate Assad, but when Assad was in range, the agent couldn't see him on his rifle scope. The teacher told us that the hand of God intervened to stop the killing.
The portraits of the Great Father were always striking. When he smiled on TV, we felt intense love for our wonderful president. I was enrolled in an organization called "The Baath Party Pioneers." We dressed in uniforms and chanted every morning that we would stand behind our great leader to smash imperialism and Zionism. Just like any normal school kid, I conformed with the rest.
And why wouldn't I have? We thought of him as a supernatural being, a kind of god. I remember how once, in the fifth grade, we were wondering whether Assad really used the bathroom; the very thought was strange.
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