Now That We Have Tasted Hope (an Excerpt)

Following the Arab Spring uprisings in Syria, the author recounts his arrest in Damascus after a protest outside the Ommayad Mosque.

  • Only at Byliner
  1. Buy the McSweeney’s / Byliner Original Now That We Have Tasted Hope for $4.99.

    On March 15, the same day protests erupted in Daraa, worshippers gathered outside the Ommayad Mosque in Damascus to protest Assad’s government. According to Al Jazeera, the protesters chanted, “God, Syria, freedom—that’s enough” and, “peaceful, peaceful.” On March 25, opposition groups planned a day of protest called, “The Friday of Glory.” Demonstrations in Daraa that day reportedly swelled to more than 100,000 people. Security forces once again attacked the protesters, and the UN reported that thirty-seven people were killed in the clashes. That same Friday, in Damascus, protesters gathered outside the Ommayad Mosque. Blogger Rami Jarrah, also known as Alexander Page, wrote the following account of that protest and his subsequent detention by security forces.

    ***

    I was in Ommayad Mosque, it was a Friday, and me and a friend who had news of a large protest taking place in that mosque appointed during Friday prayers decided we would take part. I mainly wanted to get some filming done. While entering the mosque, it was obvious that there was a really high security presence, men in plainclothes were on the side of the mosque holding black batons, which made me think twice about continuing, but I wasn’t going to turn around now. They would probably realize something was up and approach us. So we went inside and headed to a spot near the imam who was already giving his speech.

    The sheikh was explaining that the West was trying to fiddle with Syria’s society and trying to break its unity. For a moment I was sure nothing was going to happen; looking around me I saw people who looked bored and seemed as if they were just attending prayers like any other Friday.

    And just then we heard a large banging noise, which came from the exit at the far left behind us from where we were sitting. I didn’t know what the sound was, but suddenly people were up and running toward the door, and the sheikh was shouting in the microphone trying to get people to stay put but with no luck. We then made it toward … the commotion. People were chanting “Freedom,” and so I joined even though I had promised myself that I was only going to film. We then went on to chant in support of the people of Daraa. This went on for about two to three minutes and we were trying to get outside, but it seemed something was stopping people from moving. Finally, I was almost out the door and just as I was turning back to make sure my friend was behind me, a man in his late twenties grabbed me [around] the chest. Initially, I didn’t realize what was happening because I had seen this person just a minute ago chanting “freedom” like us, but then I could see behind him just on the outside part of the mosque protesters being beaten by plainclothed security men. He then tried to pull me outside. I managed to quickly get loose and ran in the opposite direction, and the first thing that came to mind was deleting the film, but I didn’t have time for that, as I was sure the man was chasing me. I saw my friend ahead and gave him the phone while speeding past him. Just ahead, I could see that the sheikh had started prayers and about twenty people were taking part, so I decided to jump in the line with them while taking my jacket off, but just as I settled down, I was pulled out of the line by two men who immediately started pounding me to the floor. One of them was dragging me [by] my hands while the other was beating me.

    As I was dragged out of the exit, I realized that the protesters had scattered away, and all that remained were people being beaten like me. I was handed over to a large group of thugs with batons who seemed hungry for my arrival and I could hear one saying “hato al kalb,” meaning “bring him here, that dog.” I was lifted on my feet and pushed quickly out of the courtyard; just outside the main doors there was a beige bus with pictures of the president all over. They were loading people onto the bus, and I think I was the last person, as it started moving once I was on it. I was thrown to the floor right by the driver, who also took a swing at my head saying “badak huriyah ya arsa,” meaning “you want freedom you %*>%.” Just a few meters away from me towards the back of the bus, a young man in his twenties had the attention of most of our captors, and he was screaming “Why are you doing this; we are calling for your freedoms; we are not hurting anyone; we are peaceful protesters.” This made them more furious, and so they continued to beat him for the remainder of the drive. Soon his voice became an echo in my head as I was more interested in what I was going to say once interrogated. I decided I was going to say that I just happened to be there and saw people chanting and got carried away and apologize for it.

    I couldn’t see where we were headed because I was on the ground with my head pushed against the driver’s seat. We arrived at our destination a few minutes later; as the driver stepped on me in order to open the doors I glimpsed a crowd of Mukhabarat waiting on the steps of a building’s entrance. I was dragged towards them and again was hit repeatedly as if it was their last chance to take a blow at me. I realized on the way up the front steps that I was in an area called Jibeh, and this now made me sure that I had been brought to the secret police political branch in the very center of Damascus, well-known and notorious for its role in abusing prisoners. At this moment they pulled a dirty rug over my face and pushed and pounded me, moving quickly through what seemed to be a hallway and down at least three staircases. I could hear people screaming from far away and their voices getting closer and closer as we moved on. I myself was very quiet. I was terrified. The men rushed me through a long corridor, and with the rug shifting over one side of me I could see to my left people crawled in the corner just under the stairwell. I was finally thrown into a small cell that had no door to it. I immediately turned my attention to a man in his forties who was also in the cell; he looked at me and blabbered, “You are too young for this,” then shouted at the men who brought me in that “We are humans.” Suddenly four or five men rampaged into the open room and took lashes at both of us. But this didn’t go on for long, as they were occupied with the rest of the detainees that were being stampeded by us.

    After about ten minutes the atmosphere calmed a bit; someone came in and searched me and took my watch, belt, shoes, and money. The man [was] still nearby mumbling to himself and looking at me, shaking his head. Although we didn’t speak, I felt very attached to him [and he had] a look in his eyes of affection and pity toward me. We were left there staring at each other, during which the sounds of screaming and begging haunted me. I impossibly tried to ignore the sounds and instead thought about what I was going to say when interrogated and vowed to myself that I would not tell them anything of my other activities whatever the circumstances. The guards and thugs who brought us in were just at the door standing there whispering to each other but seemed as if they were talking about normal-day life issues. These circumstances didn’t seem to be different than any other day to them.

    Two to three hours later, a man walks in and kicks me telling me to stand up. I walked with him past the guards and further down the corridor. Walking by, I could feel heads and eyes turn from both sides at me, and he said that I should look neither left nor right or he would have to hurt me. He then led me into one of the rooms on the same side as the one we were in, but this one was much brighter, and he told me to stand by and that I should be honest and not lie about anything to his mualim meaning “teacher or master.” He was strangely being very polite. While he spoke to me, I couldn’t help but notice the ASUS brand laptop, which lay on a four-legged plain table and a beaten-up couch in front of it, so I quickly recalled to myself my email and password information, as I knew these were going to be asked for. Suddenly a man walks in with two other men who followed behind. The man was wearing a tracksuit, but seeing the other’s frightened of him led me to believe he was obviously a high-ranking officer. He sat on the couch and stared at me and began asking me questions such as my name, date of birth, which city I was from. He didn’t inquire of the protest but instead jumped right to my Facebook credentials, and as I noted them to him he started entering them into the laptop, which took some time. He seemed to make a mistake purposely with the password and then shouted, “You laughing at me?” and ordered the men to start beating me. They were loyal with speed, and I quickly offered to type it in myself, but this he didn’t like. The password process took at least ten minutes but again this was not out of stupidity, as I was being kicked and pounded while he looked through my account. He ordered the men to take me to a spare cell for further interrogation and that they could carry it out themselves. They seemed thankful of this as they pulled me out the room across to one of the cells on the other side.

    Once in, I was told to take my clothes off, and [I was] left in only my boxers. Two middle-sized men began to kick me in the upper part of my body and crushed me down onto the floor as a third man filmed and laughed at me. “Who was with you? Who told you about the protest?” they screamed at me. I kept repeating myself, saying that it was just by chance and that I knew I had made a mistake, but they were not having it. As I took blows to the body I lost all sense of pain and I no longer felt anything, but this they seemed aware of as one of the men started to strangle me by the neck. I must have passed out three or four times and each time they would punish me for doing so. They then made me stand up for hours on end. I was not allowed to sleep at all as they went in and out of the cell over the coming hours. Soon I had already lost track of time, and each time I would fall asleep it would not take long for them to beat me to wake up. I had never imagined that not sleeping could cause so much pain. It became a sort of routine that I had gotten used to; I could hear ongoing screams from other cells. It was clear that I was not the worst off, but as time went by and I was given neither food nor water, the experience was gradually becoming unethical.

    I could no longer feel my feet but still I was forced to stand up. My stomach and lungs felt compressed and ached. It no longer seemed as if they were interested in what I had to say, as I was no longer asked any questions. With only the ongoing beatings and suffocating techniques, I started to feel as though my breath was going to stop at any second; when I panicked [about] this, without having to speak, they would throw a bucket of water over me, and unable to open my eyes, I could sense them standing there watching me as I licked the water dripping down my face. But this was not just water, as it smelled of bleach. Losing my breath as I swallowed, they laughed at me. I tried to act as if I was dead but this meant nothing to them and they continued to beat me constantly. The men I encountered were not everyday people you meet; with no sense of mercy they repeatedly humiliated me with their insults and threatened me. “We will fuck your mom and make you watch us doing it, have you tried that before? Have you tried watching strong men fucking your mother?” The words replayed in my head for the remainder of my time [there]. I had never felt fear like I felt fear in that moment.

    After what seemed like hundreds of hours, I was dragged out into another room. This time totally [I was] unaware of where I was taken. I was given my clothes and slumped onto a chair by a desk. It took me forever to put my clothes on, as my muscles were loose to an incredible extent. The room was really bright and I could barely open my eyes as a man walked in. I recognized him by his voice to be the same high-ranking officer who took my credentials days before. He started to slap me across the face shouting that I should dress more quickly and also smirked, “You have only been in there for only two days, some people have done years.” He then said that they were going to release me. I started to weep like a child. He then beat me even more and said that I was not going anywhere before signing some papers. I had heard about these documents before. My signature would be a statement that I would never take part in such activities again and that I was wrong in doing so, etc. I was given a pen and forced to sign about five times; very quickly someone was turning over each page [so I would] not to see what was written, even though I was incapable of seeing my own signature. Upon signing all the pages, the officer began to pull me by my hair down on the floor and smacked my face with his other hand. He slapped me at least twenty times and then walked out the room with his shoulders widespread and arms dangling down on his sides.

    I was picked up and taken to the other end of the hallway where I had previously seen people under the stairwell, but they were missing this time. The guard shouted at me to find my shoes in a pile of at least 100 pairs. Once I got through this impossible task and put them on, the guard made me take my jacket back off and place it over my head as he pulled me up the stairs. I could hear gates being opened and shackles all around me. Once on flat ground while being led to the door and the jacket still blinding me, the guard told me that I would walk out the door and take a right and not look back, and to keep walking and, once far enough, to take a bus and not a taxi or they would take me back to the cell for another few days. As he took the jacket off my head and allowed me to put it on, I could see it was early morning and that no cars were around. He walked me down the steps and took a right with me and a few meters later told me to walk on. The releasing procedure happened obscurely fast.

    I could still barely feel my legs after a few hundred meters, which were torture to walk. I decided to just take a taxi because I was too tired to search or wait for a bus. I found an empty taxi quite soon after deciding to do so, and I directed the driver to my house. While on the way there, he looked at me in curiosity and asked me if everything was OK. I then started to cry and explained to him that I was just locked out of my house all night and that I had now gotten the key, but he answered me back saying, “I know where you were, it’s OK ammo (my child).” He then patted me on my shoulder and continued to stare at me. I then knew why the guard didn’t want me to get into a taxi and prayed that I was not being followed. My money, watch, and belt were not given back to me, this I realized once I was at my destination and not having any money to pay with, the taxi driver didn’t even hesitate to let me off and told me to take care of myself. I later realized that I had in fact been in custody for three days, as it was a Monday. Maybe the fact that the officer had seen thousands like me in his cells meant that he no longer kept track of his prisoners’ times. I slept for days on end and finally got up again.

    Being home was a relief, but I now felt more neglect of rights than ever before. I decided that I was never going to stop what I was doing, but instead this time I would be much more careful. Maybe take the role of a journalist instead, as this could be safer than actually taking part in the protests. I have since been active in a reporting sense, and much determined, as I have now tasted what the Syrian people fear most. Every now and again nightmares of my encounter do not fail to haunt me in real-time replay, but somehow this makes me stronger. I now cannot deny my hatred. The Syrian revolution is not an easy one—we cannot just topple the regime and move on. The Syrian regime is one of the most brutal and uncivil regimes on the face of the planet. While the international community hesitates to take action, Russia, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and notorious Iran throw their weight behind the Syrian president … but yes, we are gaining momentum and we are sure we have won this fight already. The question is no longer, will we? but rather, When and how will we? I hate to think otherwise, because if the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad gets full control back and calms the situation … then we, the Freedom Callers of Syria, shall be annihilated … one … by … one.

    Buy the McSweeney’s / Byliner Original Now That We Have Tasted Hope for $4.99.