Chapter Two: A new era, a new hope.
The year is 2000. I have more than two lousy channels on my TV now. A couple of Lebanese channels can be caught by our antenna, and for that I was grateful.
One day I was watching TV, and suddenly, the Lebanese channel I was watching stopped its programs and started airing Classical music. I changed the channel, all Lebanese channels switched to either classical music or Quran. Someone died. Someone important. The Syrian channels were airing the usual programs. Someone important in Lebanon must’ve died then.
I ran and told my family “Someone important in Lebanon died and I’m not sure who it is yet”.
I went back to check if there’s an announcement, but there wasn’t anything yet. Then the Syrian channels stopped their programs. My heart skipped a beat. It happened. I knew it happened before they say anything. Hafez Assad is dead. They announced it. I froze.
I told my family and they didn’t believe me. “Hafez Assad can’t die” my mom said in shock.
We gathered in front of the TV. It’s over. The dictator is dead. Bassel, his son, died a couple of years ago. Is this over? Are we finally free of this family? Could this be real?
When Bassel Assad died, the entire city was forced to close down. People couldn’t get bread or any food for days. That’s why when Hafez Assad died everyone went out to buy food. A car parked under our house and sold bread. The price was 60 pounds instead of 15 (or was it 10? I’m not sure). Then everybody went home. The streets were empty. No one knew what will happen next.
The day Hafez Assad died, the parliament decided to change something in the constitution. They all approved on changing the age of the president to be 34. Why? How? No one knew. It took them half an hour to change the constitution. It was so weird and so illegal lawyers told me.
Bashar Assad. We had no idea that he existed before Hafez’s death.
A tall stranger came along, his name was Bashar. He is a doctor, they said.
He didn’t touch his father’s coffin. He didn’t help. He didn’t know how to pray before the burial. He seemed emotionless, and completely useless. He just took over. He’s the new president.
What a letdown. A man we never saw before is taking over the presidency. Inheriting it. Syria has become a kingdom under the name of Syria Al Assad. Syria, my Syria, was given a last name.
We now have a new president. He spoke at the parliament, and it was horrible. He can’t read well, he can’t speak well, how is he going to lead?
We started hearing news about this new guy, that he’s well educated, and that he’s been studying in England. He speaks three languages. Maybe he is different. We sure hoped so.
Personally, I have just finished high school, and was looking forward to college.
I went to a camp called Bolt “Sa3ika” where we were treated like soldiers, and for what? To get extra grades so I can get a better major in college. I won’t start on our educational system now because it will take an entire book to explain how bad it is. Anyway, in this camp, we were introduced to new mottos, really bad ones that would kill any hope left in a free man’s heart. The worst one was: “الى الأبد الى الأبد أسد ورا أسد”
Translation: Forever and ever Assad after Assad.
Still, we had hope that Bashar is a better man, a more enlighten man, and of course, a more merciful man than his father was. Plus, I was going to college next, where I can easily not attend Al Baath party meetings, and avoid marches and all regime supporting acts I used to be forced to do. And most importantly, no stupid uniform and no mottos to repeat like a parrot without meaning any of them. I was about to have a space of freedom I never had before. And I’m gonna enjoy it.
College was different, things were easier than ever for me, and I had some peace of mind. No more Al Baath crap to take. That sure felt great. And there were some changes in Syria, positive ones. We were promised change, and change there was. Not political change nor any kind of freedom, but we now can install satellite dishes, and there are private universities, and Dial Up internet connections. That got me occupied for a while, and college life was nice, time flew, and I suddenly found myself working in a private company and making money.
The year is 2007, I started working as I said, and in that company I met new interesting people, two of my coworkers were recently released from prison, they were political prisoners, and they weren’t a part of the most feared and most hated Muslim Brotherhood or else they would’ve been killed. I sat with those two and we spoke, a lot. They were a part of a movement that started in the 90’s and was found out afterwards by the regime. Many of them never got out of jail. Those two told me things I didn’t know before. They told me stories of how they were kidnapped by security forces without a warrant, how they were tortured and interrogated by under educated people without any presence of lawyers or judges, and how they were thrown in jail for years without a trail or any accusations.
They showed me scars, physical and emotional ones. There are things much worse than getting killed they said. So many horrible things they’ve seen in those years they spent behind bars. They had no idea where they were held, for how long, or even why.
I was busy between my new job and learning new languages I had no time to really think about doing anything, I got used to living like this, not to talk politics, not to discuss anything, just to nod along, and on the bright side, I now have my passport, after paying hundreds of thousands of pounds, I finally got away with serving the military service. That was the smartest decision I’ve ever made in my life because I simply wouldn’t have make it in there. Military service would’ve killed me. I am a proud man, and I can’t accept being humiliated by anyone, and the only thing they do in military service in Syria is to insult and humiliate young men to make them obey the orders and become a tool of destruction in the hand of Assad’s regime. I know I can’t be that. I know I would’ve been killed there.
So, I have my passport and I can go anywhere, that’s the dream right? To leave Syria and never look back. That was my dream, but I couldn’t do it. It doesn’t matter why, I had to stay in Syria, keep working, and bury my dreams of leaving and living free somewhere far away.
After my dream was shattered, I got depressed. All I did was work. Work work work. I did some travelling since I love going out, and that’s how I survived that era.
Paying my way out of the military service (Legally) took a lot of me. Going in and out of government buildings, dealing with government people, and paying them off to do their job made my life a living hell. People who work in most government bureaus are under educated, bribe loving, stinky, ego maniacs. They know that we need them and they enslave us to give us what we need. I paid more than 20,000 pounds to pass a completely legal paper. Like I said when I was talking about education in Syria, government services too would take a book to explain how bad they are. Getting rid of those parasites is one of many reasons for this revolution we’re seeing. You see those in government banks, military service offices, electricity/water/telephone service offices, and everywhere else. Al Baath party believes in Socialism, it’s like communism, only worse in my opinion. Socialism approved its failure many times, even here in Syria, it’s barley working, and it turns the workers with some power into greedy monsters, since no one can do anything to them if they didn’t do their work. We have to sweet talk them, and treat them like kings, and pay them to do their work.
Let’s skip a couple of years and get to the year 2010, Bashar Assad has been putting all kinds of change or reformations on hold since 2005, and things are getting worse every year. The economy is dying, prices are through the roof, education is worse than ever, freedom is dead, and names like Rami Makhloof showed up and started taking over every major project and stealing billions of dollars every year while the people can’t find jobs. Cities like Homs and Hama and Dara has been forgotten from any serious projects, and the mayors there started stealing every penny in their cities. Citizens are being humiliated by security forces on daily bases, and people are getting upset.
One day I heard the news about a man in Damascus, who has been beat up and humiliated by a policeman, tens of people from the street gathered and started chanting "الشعب السوري ما بينذل" “The Syrian people won’t be humiliated” over and over, more people joined in, policemen gathered and tried to separate the people and failed. A minister from the government came down there, apologized to the humiliated man and took him in his own car, then he yelled at the policeman, and the people left afterwards. That incident was something we’ve never expected. People in Damascus got the courage to do this. I was very glad that this happened and didn’t end badly.
A while after that I heard the news about a girl in Homs, a girl I don’t know personally but I know her family. A sweet 18 years old girl called Tall Al Mallouhi. She comes from a family of poets and writers known to all Syrians. Her parents are nice and decent people. The news I heard was that this teenage girl got arrested and will be prosecuted for treason. They said she is sending information to Israel through the internet. The first thing came to my mind was “What information did this 18 years old girl know anyway?” I kept hearing news about this girl and it was confirmed that she was in fact in jail. The trail took place short after and she was sent to spend five years in jail. I asked about this and found out that this girl, like the rest of her family, is a poet, and that she wrote a poem on her blog mentioning freedom in Syria, and that’s all she’s ever done. This story made me so angry that I kept talking about it all the time to everyone I know. Whenever I sit with someone, Tall Al Mallouhi was what I talk about. A teenage girl gets 5 years in jail for a poem? They’ve ruined her future! They’ve killed her hopes! Right there I knew that this situation won’t last long. I knew that something must be done. This regime can’t go on like this anymore. We gotta move soon. But how and when?