Friday, April 29, 2011

The Lives of Others in Syria

Life in Syria's Psychological Prison of Fear

My friendship with a young Syrian man, Yusuf, revealed the terrible realities of living under Bashar al-Assad's regime.

By Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff
Friday 29 April 2011

In late January I arrived in Aleppo, Syria, for a 16-week immersion course in Arabic. Staying in a university dormitory gave me the opportunity to live with Syrian students and practise the language. When I first met Yusuf (not his real name), he struck me as quiet and reserved. A master's degree student with a fondness for poetry who almost always wore a suit and tie, he would take the time to politely correct my Arabic grammar when we spoke together.

Of all the Syrian friends I made during my stay, Yusuf was the one with whom I developed a special bond. Friendship runs very deep in Syria and my friendship with Yusuf was unlike any other I have experienced. One day we were visiting ruins near Damascus and it was raining very hard. Yusuf was using my camera to take pictures and jokingly he said to me: "If I drop your camera into this puddle of water, what will you do?"

I joked back: "I will throw you in after that camera – it's expensive!" His face darkened somewhat and he said: "You would choose the camera over me? The camera can be replaced, our friendship cannot. I would do anything for my friends."

Being a true friend in Syria is the closest thing to being family. You are expected to act as if your friend was your brother or sister and, truly, as time went by, I felt that Yusuf was my Syrian brother. I knew he would do anything for me, as I would for him.

Maybe these relationships run so deep in Syria because of the way 50 years of Baathist rule has shaped its society. The pervasiveness of the state security apparatus has created suspicion and fear that floats just below the surface. While simple conversations regarding day-to-day things are easy to have, politics, religion, and especially any serious discussion of Syria's political system, are taboo. It was only after we had spent quite a bit of time together that more complicated and personal topics could be discussed.

As my relationship with Yusuf evolved, I realised he was an individual with many things on his mind. One of them was marriage. At 26 years, he was neither engaged nor married. Marriage is an important step in Syrian culture and an individual is not really considered a man until he is married, owns an apartment and has a job. But marriage is a tricky thing in Syrian society. Assuming the girl's family agrees to the marriage, Syrian men need to pay a dowry of roughly $4,000. Not only that, but the groom is expected to provide an apartment for the new couple. Housing in recent years has become very costly and between the dowry and the cost of housing, many young men do not have the means. Before the current wave of protests, the Syrian government was aware of this and was in the process of building thousands of new apartments to help bring down the price of housing.

Eventually my friend confided in me a story that illustrates how the arbitrariness and thoughtlessness of the Syrian regime combines with other social pressures. For a number of years, Yusuf was in love with a girl from his village. When he finally decided to ask her father for permission to marry, her father said no and proceeded to engage his daughter to another man. Yet my friend could not forget his love so easily and continued to see her even though he had been forbidden to do so. Unfortunately, her father was an important man in the internal security services. When he found out that Yusuf was still seeing his daughter, he wrote a false report that landed Yusuf in jail for several days, where he was beaten.

Even that was not enough. Yusuf was then sent to Damascus where he was held and tortured for another 11 days – until his father intervened and convinced high officials within the internal security services that my friend was a genuine supporter of President Bashar al-Assad and the regime. As proof, he showed them a poem my friend had written about the president. A general saw the poem and loved it so much that Yusuf was released.

This is not an unusual story, and the subsequent psychological pain it causes is great. My dear friend bears scars that are both physical and psychological. Unable to be with the girl he loved, and having just been through a terrible ordeal, he took a knife and proceeded to slash his arms and his chest.

Today we see many Syrians standing up and saying enough is enough. It is enough for so many who have been disappointed, abused and arbitrarily subjected to the vagaries of corrupt officials in the regime, both high and low. My friend, like many other Syrians, is tired of living in a psychological prison of fear that forces him to constantly look over his shoulder in public when having a discussion with a friend, or wondering if he may have offended someone who has the influence to send him to jail.

Syrian culture is rich with so many textures and flavours and the people themselves – strong and yet hospitable – deserve the right to choose their own future, be it political or personal. My friend takes part in protests wherever possible and one of his friends has already been killed. Yet I admit I have urged him more than once (guiltily) to leave the country rather then risk being killed or imprisoned – to which he has always responded: "Oh brother, this is my country and I will stay here and fight until we are free or until they kill me. Remember me and tell our story so the world knows what we did here."

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