The First Years Before the Revolution

The iron fist of the Syrian security forces, monitoring Syrians in their bedrooms, and denying people their freedom. This was the introduction to the Syrian revolution. This is what my generation lived and experienced. 
Saruja finalSaruja street in Damascus

Like all Syrians, I was sitting watching TV, watching the former president of Tunisia flee to Saudi Arabia. Later, I watched the Egyptian president go to jail. Instinctually Syrian activists went to the streets to support the revolution in Libya or froze in front of their TVs admiring the patience of Yemenis.In Damascus, in the old city, in a small café on Saruja street next to the French cultural center, activists used to meet, I remember Aous and the whole crew meeting there everyday. And from there the protests in Damascus erupted.

You name it, al Sha’aln protests, the Ministry of Interior affairs protest, all the protests in the center of Damascus city used to be organized and coordinated in that café. And from there, the security services arrested so many activists. And there, I met my friend for the first time in five years and this is my story with him.

Earlier in 2000, right after the death of Hafez al Assad and the handing over of power in five minutes to his son Bashar, a kind of civil rights movement started among the students in the universities around Syria, most notably at Damascus University. This movement was like a wave, sometimes high and sometimes low, depending on the political climate in the region.

In 2003, the wave was high.  Many people went to Iraq to fight against the Americans. And don’t believe that all who went there to fight were Jihadists and extremists. Many young people including Arab nationalists and lefties went to fight the “imperialist” invasion of Iraq.  And many of them were killed there. But others never had the chance to fight. They were taken to the frontlines and were put in dugouts to await their fate.

Well, I think people in Syria including the activists were happy to see a dictatorship taken down in Iraq, but sad to see the loss of the museum in Baghdad. Believe me, people cried more over what happened to the museum.

Anyway, the second wave was during the 2006 war in Lebanon. I was sitting in the Damascus University cafe with Omar. We were talking about Fouad Siniora who was the Lebanese prime minster at the time, and the division in the Lebanese government over the attack. The next day, the security arrested Omar.

In 2010, I started my master’s degree in the sociology department at Damascus University. One of the students was married to an officer in the security services. He was promoted, so she asked us (her friends) to go to his office and congratulate him.  Of course I didn’t go, and here’s what happened. Nasir, my “buddy”, went. He told me after the visit that this officer said:

“Welcome, and thank you all for coming, but do you know why your Palestinian friend Nidal didn’t join?” Salim replied, “Nidal is an employee and couldn’t take a day off, but I’m sure that he wished that he could join us.” The officer commented: “Well, I want you to know that my door is always open to you, and I know that you’ll not hesitate to come to visit and inform us if you have any concerns about the security of our country. I have no doubt that you’re all patriots, unlike Nidal, who in 2006 conspired against Hezbollah with his friend Omar in the café of the university in 2006 and didn’t come to tell us. Despite us knowing him very well.

Nasir told me this and I started to freak out. I didn’t want to think about 2004, although I was lucky that year. But still, it was horrible. Indeed yes, the political security branch in Damascus knows me very well. Even Samee’, the soldier that made the coffee for the head of political security knows me. And here’s why.

In 2004, during my last year of university in the sociology department I had to choose a topic to write on for my graduation thesis. I had noticed the appearance of homosexuality increasing in the university, and it happened that I had a friend who was a part of the gay community in Syria. I asked him if I could do a study about this community, and within a week he agreed to help me.

I talked to my supervisor and she was very excited about it.  She managed to get me the approval from the Dean and asked me to get the approval from the political security apparatus to conduct the field research and be allowed access to the prisoners in Adra prison. It was the first I had heard there was a section in the Adra prison for gay people, and it surprised me when we did the site-visit and conducted interviews.

While processing the approval and security permit, the head of the security branch asked his assistant to call me to their headquarter. I went at 10 in the morning and we had this conversation:

The officer: what would you like to drink?

Me: coffee will be good

The officer to the soldier: get him tea

Me: I shut up

The officer: What’s your name?

Me: Nidal Betare

The officer wrote on the piece of paper: Nidal Azzam

Me: Betare sir

The officer: your great-uncle Mahmoud’s last name is Azzam. You’re lucky I knew him.

My great-uncle was a high-ranking officer in the Syrian air force, and the leader of the Syrian air force in 1973. And was a key actor in Assad’s “corrective revolution” coup in 1970, and the one who imprisoned Yasser Arafat (Abu Ammar) in Damascus in 1969. And the one who died in 2002. For the officer it was a big deal, but he didn’t know that I had only met my great-uncle twice in my entire life. Once during his brother’s funeral. And the second time during his mother’s funeral.

Me: I shut up

My great uncle’s name saved me from prison. But it didn’t save me from being interrogated for a whole year between 2004-2005. And it didn’t stop me from being forced to end my research.

For them, homosexuality is a conspiracy the British government was leading through supporting the gay community in Damascus. And that the U.S. government was funding through Freedom House, as it happened to be that there was another researcher studying the gay community. And he claimed that he was funded by Freedom House. So the security had to make sure that I was not linked to the British government. That I was not linked to the U.S. government and Freedom House.

It took them a year to confirm my innocence. Honestly, I was lucky that it was that officer who interrogated me. But that’s another story.

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