I saw Syria this summer, for the first time since 1976. I saw the white rooftops of Syrian villages nestled in the mountains of Idlib. “That tractor’s Syrian,” I said to my seventeen-year-old daughter, Banah, standing roadside in southern Turkey. “That tilled soil not nineteen meters from us is Syrian. Those crops are Syrian.”
“Those goats are Turkish,” Banah said.
“Give Syria my love,” I’d said in March 2010 to a friend leaving for Syria, from which my late grandfather, a member of parliament in the multiparty 1950s, was exiled in the late 1960s. The Baath Party assumed power in Syria in 1963, imposing martial law. My two brothers and I left in 1971 with our parents, who were fed up with lives cramped and crouched under the fear of state police. They entered the U.S. on student visas, but they’d sold their goods in Damascus, resolved not to return to the Baathist dictatorship.
“You’ll see Syria one day,” my departing friend replied.
I felt ambivalent about Syrians who came and went easily to Syria. What reports did they submit about dissidents met abroad, lowering their heads under the regime’s bar? Everyone faces pressure to turn informant. Syria’s police state wedges mistrust between each citizen and the next.
I shook my head. “Maybe in my daughter’s lifetime the dictatorship will end. Not in mine.” Despair about Syria had become a habit.
Then Muhammad Bouazizi, a fruit vendor in Tunisia, lit a spark, setting himself on fire in December 2010 to protest mistreatment by the government. His spark lit the revolution.
It lit my daughter, Banah. Born in New Jersey, she grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a small city in the American South. On February 2, Banah made a YouTube video calling for freedom in Syria, mentioning her paternal grandparents, who were condemned by exile never to spend a day in the house they worked years to build in Syria. Her father and I made her post “Syrian Girl Protest” anonymously, knowing more than she what this regime is capable of doing.
When I was her age, Syrian agents in Germany shot a dissident Syrian mother in front of her children—a woman my mother knew. Under the shadow of the 1981 assassination of Banan Tantawi, my brother and I had not been allowed to expose our New Jersey home address to friends in high school, as we were children of a man under death sentence in Syria for the crime of Muslim Brotherhood membership. Banah’s father had signed the 2005 Damascus Declaration uniting oppositionists behind gradual, nonviolent democratic change in Syria; signatories inside Syria had been hunted down and imprisoned.
On February 3, I posted my own YouTube video, closing with, “I’m Mohja Kahf, and I will see you in Syria!” I did not want to remain anonymous. Forty-eight years of terrorizing a people, even across the world, even to the fourth generation, even inside our own heads, is enough. No amount of Syria’s resistance to Zionism and imperialism justifies brutalizing the Syrian people. Goddammit, it is enough. Bouazizi said it was enough.
Although in February there were signs, for anyone with eyes, that people inside Syria were ready to demand change, our videos were criticized. “You’re calling Syrians to risk their lives, from far away? You’re in Arkansas.”
I ordered a set of CDs to learn Turkish. I would go to Turkey, together with an array of Syrian diversity: Christians, Alawites, Druze, Sunnis, Ismailis, Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Circassians, women and men. We would attract press at the border, then enter Syria. We would lie down before tanks. Like so many Syrians abroad, we felt desperate to help the ones inside somehow. Exiles and expatriates would throw in our lot with protesters inside, to struggle together for a democratic Syria. It would be our road to Damascus.
That was our crazy plan. My brother-in-law, Hamzeh, was immediately in, because he’s crazy. I emailed Syrian exiles and expats: “Who’s in?” Mariam was. A fashion designer, Mariam lived in Montreal, Riyadh, and New York when she wasn’t in Milan, Paris, or Dubai. Her uncle Jawdat Said is a nonviolence teacher of Syria, like her late mother Laila Said, and Mariam herself, who belongs to the Syrian Nonviolence Network. Silda, a Circassian who attended Damascus meetings for the revolution before leaving Syria, emailed from Canada, “Count me crazy.” We cheered victory in Tunis, in Tahrir Square. Two Arab dictatorships crumbled before our eyes. Crazy was now doable.
I am an ordinary person. There are millions like me. Although I hope I am the kind of crazy Margaret Mead says changes the world, I am mostly sane. Yet there are moments that sensible people recognize as worth extraordinary risk. What seems to elude pundits, both from the left and the right, is that what’s happening in Syria is not really about Shia crescents or traditional opposition politics; it is a change at the existential level. Something has crossed over in Syrians. Like many Syrians inside and outside the country, I resolved: my safety, my job, my home, and yes, my lifebreath if necessary, were now at the disposal of the nonviolent struggle for a democratic Syria, so help me God. This is the heave into freedom for Syria, and I will put my whole bodyweight into it.
By June, our border-crashing idea had changed into a slightly more practical plan: to aid Syrian refugees in Turkey, nine thousand in six camps. Banah and I reached Turkey in July, after depositing my eight-year-old son in Jordan with doting grandparents. Because I am not crazy, but realistic, I called my brother to remind him that he was executor of our will should anything happen to both me and my husband, who was by then lobbying for the Syrian protest movement on three continents.
My parents, brothers, and uncles in America pledged to help pay the credit card bill for our refugee mission. After the regime spilled blood in Dara, even skeptics in the family were on board. It felt good to have my father, with whom I have a rocky relationship (in part over conflicts about religion and politics), say, “Don’t worry about the bill.” As much as I disagree with nearly every view he has, I am grateful for the courage with which he has lived his life and, in the 1980s, risked it. Even his failures gave me this: the certainty that neither a tyrannical human being, nor a state—in any hemisphere—with an enormous repressive apparatus, should be granted the power inside our minds to decide who we are.
I rented an apartment in Antakya through Rasha, a Syrian from Qamishlo living in Istanbul. A vivacious Assyrian not much older than my elder daughter, Rasha sublet by the day from the apartment’s easygoing Turkish owner whenever she could run relief to Syrians in southern Turkey.
Antakya was amazing. Old men sat outdoors playing dominoes; vendors hawked boiled chestnuts; women in skin-baring sundresses strolled with women in head-kerchiefs through the park that our building overlooked. Over the balcony’s plastic pots of ferny plants, we could see the Orontes River, wending its way from Syria. Its Arabic name, “Asi,” meant “The Rebel” and we were elated to be near it, even if it looked greenish-black and soda cans floated in it.
Banah and I learned the way to the post office on Köprübaşı square, and planned to pay respects at the small white-domed Alawite shrine nearby. We fell asleep to the midnight squeaking of the swing in the park, our windows wide open. We chatted in broken Turkish with moms who recognized us as mother and daughter and called Banah “çok güzel” (very beautiful). We met Syrian activists in Harbiya village, original source of laurel soap, whose green cakes my Aleppan grandmother brought for us to America. Harbiya was where Apollo fell in love with Daphne, who ran and ran and turned into a laurel tree to escape his pursuit. Antakya felt close to Syria. It smelled like hugging my grandmother.
We had been warned how hard it was to visit the camps, how politically complex. Not sure of finding a way, we started shopping for children’s underwear—what we learned they needed most. Rasha introduced us to “Qasim,” a Syrian asylum-seeker lost in the mountains for twelve hours before reaching Turkey. He took us to the market for refugee clothing. We bought puppet-making supplies; Banah imagined crafting with the traumatized children. We’d made sure to buy puppet eyes back in Fayetteville, doubting we’d find googly eyes on short notice in Turkey. Despite the Turkish ban on media in the camps, I imagined documenting refugee testimonies, tweeting—the writing part of what I wanted to do. My elder daughter, Weyam, had taught me to use Twitter for the revolution on her college break in March.
Barriers to the camps proved insurmountable for us. I formed a new plan, targeting a population even more in need: Syrians fled from Syria, undocumented, unable to shop for their needs. I would rent a pick-up and, using contacts I was acquiring, deliver clothing, soap and computers to Syrian escapees—and record their stories.
Thrilled to find Mariam and Silda in Istanbul at an opposition meeting, I cajoled the brunette and blonde to Antakya to help me and Banah. Together, we’d be four Syrian girlfriends, riding to the aid of the revolution. Mariam and Silda found Antakya as breathtaking as Banah and I did.
Not all the locals were sympathetic to Syria’s uprising. Some provincials of Syrian Alawite descent seemed to believe Syrian regime propaganda characterizing the struggle as a Sunni assault on Alawites. Still, more than one Antakya waiter gushed at us four, “We didn’t know Syria had such beauties.” Angelina Jolie had nothing on us.
“I love you guys,” Mariam says. We will criss-cross the main square, with its statue of horseback Atatürk, many times yet. “Do you know how amazing it is to be here together, to love one another, to look for the best in people?”
Overwhelmed at being so physically near Syria, moved at encountering Syrians fresh from protests and suffering, I haven’t fully grasped the downside: we are also close to the reach of Syrian regime agents. Unsavory characters are posing as revolutionaries.
I feel bolstered when my brothers-in-law, Hamzeh and Mojahed, surface in Antakya. Hamzeh works for a controversial London-based Syrian dissident channel, the Fox TV of Syrian dissent. He arrives with his big-shouldered, soft-spoken Syrian-Brit cameraman, Ennes. Mojahed, whom I’ve known since he was seven, just joined a Syrian-funded dissident station in Jordan.
Hamzeh knows the Antakya Syrian scene from when he smuggled himself over the mountains into Khirbet al-Jawz, site of a regime massacre, to interview survivors. The town’s name means “walnut tree ruins.” By the spreading walnut trees, Hamzeh had plunged through a stream and plucked wild basil and apples. Back in the studio, Hamzeh munched an apple on the air, saying “I picked this in Syria; in your face, regime.” Viewers ate it up. Sitting in the cargo space of a van in Antakya, Hamzeh can’t contain his delight at showing Banah, Silda, Mariam, and me videotape of protesters in Damascus cheering his name.
Later in the revolution, Hamzeh will be the target of an unintentionally hilarious Syrian state news episode portraying him as a dangerous arms-runner. “Youths, do not watch dissident tv,” the segment closes solemnly. It’s not as if Hamzeh didn’t have enough girls in Syria, even in pro-regime houses, clandestinely sending him pining IMs.
Hamzeh isn’t the only one with face. Some Syrians we meet recognize us from YouTube, especially Banah from her video-gone-viral. “Syrian Protest Girl” has fans.
It is July 19. Hamzeh thwarts my plans his first morning in Antakya, first by sleeping till noon, having stayed up till six, when we are supposed to buy computers for underground Syrian citizen-journalists at nine. Then he steals two-thirds of my crew. Mariam and Silda sally with Hamzeh to the Syrian army defectors’ camp, where ex-officers are desperate to publicize their testimonies despite the Turkish media ban. Hamzeh smiles into camp with a brunette on one arm and a blonde on the other. I’m not allowed to reveal which of the three charmers wore the hidden camera, even though I supplied it.
Foiled, Banah and I go with Ennes and Mojahid to tape an interview lasting four hours and five cigarette packs with three brothers escaped from Syria. One, Aleppo University activist Wael Kurdi, described flash-mob strategies wherein protesters amass, film video, and flee before army arrives, surviving to protest again. Caught with Samih Shqeir’s Syrian freedom song on his phone, Wael found himself in a cell with seventeen men denied water for two days. He witnessed a young protester raped by regime thugs lose his mind.
Banah’s journal notes,
I couldn’t begin to imagine what his experience did to him, but it made me start to realize how huge this fight will be, because it’s not just about Assad. It’s about humans being squashed like bugs; it’s about cruelty beyond comprehension.
Wael is only two years older than Weyam, my eldest. My parents left Syria so we would not grow up contorted by fear, but despite growing up under its order, Wael had not let it define him.
Mariam, Silda, and Hamza rejoin us over lahmbajin and yogurt drinks like my mother makes, provided by our host, an avuncular second-generation Syrian exile. Mariam learns from his nieces how to say “I love you” in Turkish. After dinner, Mojahed and Ennes hurry to film hospitalized Syrians before visiting hours end. The most wrenching part, Mojahed texts Banah, is having to wipe the tears of a Syrian paralyzed by bullets in his back, because he can’t. His eight-month pregnant wife is in hiding.
Hamzeh persuades Silda, Mariam, Banah and me to visit Syrian escapees holed up at the edge of town: “You’ve got to hear their stories. The world needs to know.” We cross the hotel parking lot braced for more harrowing accounts.
“That’s when three men step in our path,” Banah’s journal notes.
“How are you, Dr. Kahf?” says the lanky red-haired one, extending his hand. I shake it in surprise, recognizing the Aleppan I’d met at a June opposition conference.
“What the hell is he doing here?” Mariam mutters on the staircase. Information come to light suggests “Red” is a double agent.
Cigarette smoke and men fill the room. Hamzeh introduces a gaunt Turk: “Goes by ‘Erdogan.’”
Erdogan chuckles. He and “Turan,” a stocky, tattooed Syrian, smuggled Hamzeh into Syria for the Khirbet al-Jawz footage.
“I trust these guys with my life,” Hamzeh says. He met them what, three weeks ago?
One of the guys in the room looks sixteen. It is hard to look at the fresh scar skewing his right eye without wincing. “Raed” and “Safwan,” from the brutalized northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughur, where something happened that no one will talk about, bring us tea.
“Guess who we met outside,” Hamzeh says. A tête-à-tête between him and Erdogan ensues. Meanwhile, Mariam recounts to Raed and Safwan a damning conversation she’d had with Aleppan Red in July. In another room, eye-scar boy’s story mesmerizes Silda and Banah, who recounts that night:
I’m so sleepy right now, but desperate to keep writing so as not to forget. Talked to Ziad, a protester whose eye was stabbed and stitched back into its socket wrong, intentionally, without anesthetic. By doctors who said, “Want freedom? Here’s your freedom.” (In a regime with an ophthalmologist president.) Ziad talked about the cruelties of the hospital. His friend was hit with two bullets, and they sliced him open from chest to stomach so he’d die faster. The purpose of these hospitals is to perpetuate pain.
The smoke, to which we add, is so thick that I open the door—to find Red and company sidling. I slam the door. “They’re here. In the hallway.”
Erdogan stands. “It’s no longer safe here.”
I eyeball the peephole. “They’re pacing the corridor. Five of them.”
“We have to relocate,” Turan announces.
“But we paid in advance. Where will we get more money?” Safwan says.
I hear Erdogan mutter, “Anyone objecting to moving I suspect of being the mole.” The tension in the room is now as thick as the smoke.
While I ask Hamzeh privately which man to trust with cash we can contribute, Mariam opens a window for fresh air. Below, she spots our regime thugs (as we are now convinced they are). They wave, then screech away in a fast car.
Erdogan tells Turan, “Someone leaked our location.”
“Someone here, or one of the guys out in town?”
“They’ll be back soon. We’ll find out,” Erdogan says grimly.
I decide this is a good time to leave. I have to herd cats to pull Mariam, Silda, and Banah from riveting conversations in different corners. They resent me for it, unaware of the mood shift. When the van arrives, I am flabbergasted that Hamzeh does not accompany us. He’s off with Turan and Erdogan to God knows where in the Antakya night.
I arrange to introduce Mojahed and Ennes to Qasim so they can tape his story. It’s after midnight, but pushcarts peddle corn-on-the-cob at Köprübaşı. In the center of the plaza, Ataturk is still riding his horse for the Turkish nation.
“Sofrasi Café’s got the best kunafe,” Qasim says. Antakyans consider this Palestinian dessert their own specialty.
Ennes, whom we’ve told about the leak at the hotel, whispers, “Good kunafe’s all over town. Why that café?”
“I grew up in Syria,” Silda sotto-voices, “and have a feel for these things. This is not normal. Someone is waiting for us at that café.”
The mole business has the hair on the backs of our necks up. I reassure; Qasim’s references, two Syrian revolution tweeps I communicated with, check out. Qasim reported a regime crime to Aljazeera from Syria. He’d been the target of an Antakya kidnapping attempt by Syrian agents. A young woman had phoned him, said she was an escaped Syrian in distress, could he meet her. Just before he arrived, he called, and saw her signal three musclemen to stay out of sight as she picked up her phone. He fled.
When Qasim shortcuts through a dark alley, Silda balks.
“How about this café?” I say, to keep the peace, pointing to the “Defne Locanta.”
The Daphne turns out a bad choice. Management asks point-blank if we’re pro-revolution and, when we say yes, he won’t let Ennes film. Four waiters slouch near our table, fiddling with cellphones whose cameras aim at us. When Banah rises to the bathroom, they jump. On edge, I shadow her.
Hamzeh phones, asking to meet at Köprübaşı square. “Right away.” It is two a.m. Qasim says goodbye at the bridge over the Orontes.
Hamzeh takes Banah by the hand when he sees us. We cut through the park, seven Syrians in the Antakya night. Each of us is linked to dozens of people across four generations affected by Syrian authoritarianism. In the past twenty-four hours, our seven pairs of ears have heard stories of hundreds more blighted by it. The regime goons are among them, their humanity diminished by the cruelties they commit. How has such a regime existed so long on this earth, where humans live? The empty swing squeaks in the breeze.
“Emergency meeting,” Hamzeh says at the apartment. Everyone goes on the balcony for the smoking that accompanies everything. I lug plants aside to make room.
“Hey—is that pot?” Hamzeh and Mariam blurt. Yes, the plants on the balcony are cannabis. No wonder the landlord is so easygoing.
“And you two recognize weed, instantly,” I hoot. We’re in stitches.
“No, this is serious,” Hamzeh says, wiping his eyes. “Listen.”
Erdogan and Turan, his “trusty smugglers,” told him Syrian agents were offering fifty million Syrian liras—a million dollars—to kidnap him.
Not just Hamzeh. I would bring fifty million liras in Syria too. My little work is enough to bother the regime! Syrian agents are following my Antakya tweets? My writer’s ego goes into overdrive.
Nor is that all.
“It’s Banah,” Hamzeh says. That’s when the bottom drops out of my heart.
“Especially the girl, the daughter of Najib Ghadbian. An easy catch,” the smugglers had said. Fifty million liras await whoever abducts her to Syria. My arm slips around Banah.
They’d taken Hamzeh to a den of smugglers.
“Even I got scared then,” Hamzeh admits. “Turan and Erdogan wouldn’t harm me, but I don’t know these other folks.”
“They got the same offer,” Turan says, gesturing at the hungry-looking men. “It’s all over town.”
“Go on, ask them,” Erdogan says.
Hamzeh is happy to leave the smugglers’ lair.
“You know we love you, man,” Turan says. “But I tell you, nobody in this town couldn’t use that kind of money.”
“Better leave,” says gaunt-faced Erdogan. “Now.”
“I knew it!” Silda says. She’s packing. “The waiters—that alley—this is not normal!”
“Hang on,” I say, my mind racing. “They say ‘BOO’ and we run? My parents didn’t leave Syria forty years ago for us to turn into scared rabbits after all, dammit. This isn’t Syria. There’s supposed to be a rule of law here. What they’re contemplating is a crime. We could go to the police, take precautions.”
“This is very serious, Mohja,” Hamzeh says. Now he wants to get serious, after derailing my delivery plans all day?
“They don’t get to scare us off!” I yell. “Goddammit, I have underwear to buy!” Drama, too, I get from my father.
“Mohja, do you know how close to Syria we are?” Mariam embraces me. “Seni seviyorum,” she says—“I love you” in Turkish.
I saw Syria. I saw it. “In Syria, they face this danger every day—more, because the police themselves are after them—yet they keep protesting.”
“And they do their best to stay safe.” Silda returns. “I was there. They wear plastic bags under their clothes to try to be safe from the tear gas. They duck when bullets fly. They don’t not duck, Mohja.”
“They can be safe easily,” I protest. “All they have to do is stay in their homes, not go out shouting, ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ They know that there are once-in-a-lifetime moments, when certain things become more important than safety.”
“But you’d risk your life to…deliver underwear?” Ennes says, in his British tones that (Banah notes) make anything sound reasonable. “You’re a writer. You can do more good—“
“Don’t give me that elitist ‘you can do more good elsewhere’ argument,” I interject. “I wanted to be here. That was the point. Remember, the Road to Damascus plan? To tell people inside, ‘We’re with you. We’re not in an armchair far away.’ Here, a bowshot’s length near them.” I saw Syria across a river. I was that near.
“A gunshot’s length near,” Silda says.
“Well, I’ve lived,” I retort. “I’ve been married, had great sex, raised kids, have a job I enjoy, a house. With a yard—with mature trees! I’ve lived a life; I’m ready. People like me are the ones who should be on the front lines. These twenty-year-olds in Syria haven’t done any of these things. And they’re out in front, getting their eyes gouged, taking bullets in the back.” My voice cracks.
“I can’t believe you’d say that,” Banah says. “You’re ready? You have an eight-year-old boy! And me and Weyam NEED you. How can you SAY that?” Her eyes fill with tears.
It’s decided, with that. It was over the minute Hamzeh said Banah was the target. I know the chances I am prepared to take with myself, but I have no right to risk Banah.
Hamzeh doesn’t know there’s no need to keep arguing. “Listen to me, Mohja. One hypodermic needle, and ten minutes later Banah’s in Syria, in their hands. And they make her another Hamza Khatib.” The thirteen-year-old boy who was tortured to death in May is an icon of the Syrian revolution.
I shudder. I open my laptop, contact my travel agent, Daun, back in Fayetteville. The thought of—not the United States government and its Middle East policies so counter to American heritage values of freedom and democracy, but—Fayetteville, where Banah bought googly eyes, is so comforting. Arkansas! It is hard to think of a more innocuous place just now. Daun is open twenty-four/seven. Daun with her New York accent in Fayetteville instructs me how to change our tickets. It’s four a.m., July 20. We book an afternoon flight to Istanbul. We tell no one in Antakya, trusted or not.
“Even if there’s a five percent chance the smugglers are telling the truth, leaving is right,” Mariam says as we pack. Mariam has a flawless calibration of sane and crazy.
“I feel defeated, Mariam.” I am strewn across the bed. So help me, the regime will not win the knockout. Already I am planning how to supply Syrian escapees from my new operations base in Istanbul.
When I get a strange phone call, it starts to look like the smuggler’s tip may be more than five percent true.
“I’m Abdo. Abdul…rahman. I’m a Syrian here in Antakya, and my sister’s here too. She wants to meet you.”
“Really?” I put him on speakerphone, gesturing shhh to Mariam, Silda, and Banah.
“Yes. And my sister knows Quran. “
Mariam and Silda stifle guffaws. “How nice for her,” I say. These are the notions the regime cultivates about the nature of the Syrian opposition. We should send them pictures of us with the pot.
“She’s in touch with the Islamist Syrians in Hatay. And she wants to put you in touch with them.”
“Why would I want to be in touch with Islamists?”
“To organize demonstrations against the Syrian government.”
“Well, you have my number, Abdulrahman. Give it to your sister and have her call me.”
The “sister” calls when we’re at the airport. “I’m Nabila, Obaida’s sister.”
I put her on speaker and signal the others.
“Obaida Abbas—he called you earlier, my brother?”
They can’t keep their fake names straight.
“Right. How can I help you?”
“I’d like you to organize a demonstration with me.”
“Sure! I’m in Antakya to the end of the month, so I’m ready whenever you are,” I say, and the four of us get on the plane to Istanbul, roaring with laughter.
Somewhere in Syria, blood is flowing from someone as precious as my Banah. Mass graves await discovery. Over three thousand victims of the regime’s violent crackdown are being grieved by their Mariams and Sildas, but Syrians are refusing to be shaped by this order of fear. Protesters are choosing to risk their lives for change, even while innovating smart tactics to regroup and survive.
The plane is about to close, when an officer in a phosphorescent vest boards and strides down the aisle—to our row.
“Suriye?” he asks me.
“Evet, ben Suriye.” Yes, I’m Syrian. Those Turkish cd’s are paying off.
“Gadpiyan?” he inquires. I barely recognize my husband’s mispronounced surname.
“That’s not my name; it’s my daughter’s.” He checks her boarding pass against a paper, then deplanes and we begin takeoff protocols. Banah, Mariam, Silda, and I exchange wide eyes.
Yes, they ran us out of Antakya. But it’s not Antakya we want; it’s Syria. We want a free, democratic, pluralistic Syria, achieved through nonviolent struggle. If one road is closed, we’re coming through another. A line has been crossed, inside Syrians. This is our time to be free.