The number is 103.
That’s how many flights he’s boarded since the Syrian uprising started. Then
there are countless meetings and umpteen faces, some he will remember and many
that have already been forgotten. In the past 22 months, ever since Adib
Shishakly’s criticism of the Syrian government went from private to public, a
lot has been unaccounted for.
There’s a lot he wants to forget, the helpless hands reaching out for food, the dead bodies and razed towns. But he’ll keep collecting the boarding pass stubs. It’s a sort of memento of the role he played in the opposition against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“I’m in for the long haul,” he says. One trip after another, until the “tyrant” falls.
On one such trip, his already chaotic life got wilder. Those were the early days of the uprising. Adib, an influential exile, wanted to spend Eid with his fellow countrymen. People, he believed, that needed to be liberated against the rule of Bashar al-Assad. He would come out of the underground. Fortunately for him this was a five-star hotel on the Bosporus. He would break bread with other Syrians, those stranded on the border between Syria and Turkey.
His was a trusted name. Adib Shishakly is named after a military leader and later President of Syria. Adib is his grandson. From Istanbul, Adib dabbled in politics. It was in his blood, he said and so he nurtured a friendship with the budding Free Syria Army (FSA). A few trusted foot soldiers wanted to show this grandson of privilege the real story. So he flew into Hatay Province.
No harm, he thought. He had after all helped found the opposition Syrian National Council, SNC. It was his duty to see the people his coalition claimed to be representing. Fighting had been fierce in certain provinces, the North seeing most of the action between the Free Syria Army (FSA) and Bashar al-Assad’s military state. He knew it would be raw, rough. But he was “totally unprepared.”
There’s a lot he wants to forget, the helpless hands reaching out for food, the dead bodies and razed towns. But he’ll keep collecting the boarding pass stubs. It’s a sort of memento of the role he played in the opposition. One trip after another, until the “tyrant” falls.
Thousands of people, fleeing from war, were stranded behind a barbed wire, their fingers coiled in the fence. They begged for entry. No chance. No luck tonight, despite it being the night of Eid.
He emptied his booth. His hands weighed down with the weight of the parcel. It contained bread and yoghurt and laban, a yoghurt drink. When he saw the sight, he recalls feeling foolish. So many mouths, so little food.
The Turkish soldiers were under orders from Ankara to secure the border. No more refugees could enter. Many stood no more than 300 yards from the fence: children with no shoes, many with no clothes on at all, women with puffy eyes, hair in a curled mess. Most didn’t have a minute to pack. MIG jets rained bombs and demolished their lives, they just upped and left.
“I wondered what was beyond the fence. How were they surviving?” When Adib got to the border, in the early days, there was no UN presence. “It was a state of chaos, how much or how little can you give people with nothing,” he wondered.
His contacts from
the FSA wanted to take him deeper inside, into what they called the “liberated
areas.” His uncreased suit would draw suspicion, though, so he changed into
jeans and a t-shirt, the standard rebel uniform. He walked with three men into
Syria from an unpatrolled part of the border. A battered sedan awaited them.
Barely settled into his seat, Adib was thrown back as the driver handed him a
Kalashnikov. “What have I got myself into?” he thought. He held the gun tight.
Their destination was two schools in a “liberated” village. Atimeh had only recently fallen into rebel hands and the schools had been turned into refugee camps. It was full, with the injured sleeping on the hard floor with no blankets, no medicine. Children drew on blackboards with pieces of chalk that would soon run out. They were probably attempting to create something that resembled normality. But for most this was absurd.
Two classrooms had been turned into kitchens where rice was cooked in military sized pans. Women behind the cauldrons yelled for more rice, more salt. They assured Adib that more would come running; the fighting would surely get more intense.
The little food that he had brought with him was gone in seconds. More hands stretched out but there was nothing left to give anymore. He dialled a contact at the United Nations (UN). They were of no help: the UN followed the legal channels of aid through Damascus. It was just him and whoever he knew.
Adib called upon his friends, relatives, anybody that he thought would help. He described the scene. Small donations trickled in. The first task was the purchase and distribution of blankets. Beyond the school people slept with no shelter. For them, he organised tents. And that is how it began
Bashar al-Assad stares, steely-eyed, from billboards in Damascus, a photo frame in the foyer of Damascus University, a seafront placard in Latakia. The message is simple: everywhere you look, you’re reminded who’s in charge. In Aleppo and even Homs it’s the same cult of personality all propagating the dear ruler of the country .
In the early days, no one paid much attention to the problem of internally displaced Syrians. The civil war and the official spillover in refugee camps was the major focus of news and aid. Then there was no UN presence. Only a few aid agencies operated in the area. It was then that Adib dedicated himself to the humanitarian mission.
When I first met
Adib he was a businessman in a designer suit. Before the uprising, he shuttled
between his two homes in Riyadh and Houston, living a cushy life in exile. He
was Vice CEO of Rabigh Wings, an aviation company that provided spare parts. He
lived in five star hotels, at one of which I met him for the first time.
We drank camomile tea at the Ciragin Palace Hotel, an Ottoman palace, as a grand piano entertained guests. The uprising was only a few months old, though the chaos I saw in Homs made it evident that this would be a protracted struggle. “Two months,” that’s how long he said it would take.
Anticipating a quick end, Adib, along with big names in exile like Burhan Ghalioun, set up the Syrian National Council. This body would form the political opposition. Now as the conflict enters its 22nd month, and has claimed 60,000 lives, it ceases to exist.
The uprising against Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011 when children spray-painted the walls of a school. “The people want the fall of the regime,” they wrote. The same message brought down the regimes of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
Syria, it was believed, was another one of the Arab Spring countries. But the Syrian President for Life won’t abdicate as easily. “They are power crazed,” says Adib. He recalls the cult of personality in the family. Adib grew up in the same leafy neighbourhood as the Assad clan. They shared mutual friends. “Since their childhood, they’ve been told they are the heirs to Syria. They’ve become delusional,” he says.
Syria doesn’t belong
to the Assad clan, he repeats time and again. For this reason, he is one of the
few who shuttle from Marrakesh to Doha, from London to Cairo. It is he, suave,
compromising, English-speaking, who is present at all the meetings. He pushes
the opposition line at donor meetings. In 2011, Adib was involved in the
creation of the Assistance Coordination Unit in London.
In Cairo he sat with representatives from 20 countries, including a senior US administration official and the head of USAID where aid distribution was discussed. In December last year in Marrakech a figure for the amount of aid was decided upon. Since the founding of the ACU and Adib’s role as aid coordinator, he has begun opening offices along the border in Hatay. Now the ACU is looking to set up in the liberated areas.
This is why in our last conversation Adib keeps yelling, “Do you need help?” He is driving up and down the border, identifying areas that need assistance. The real challenge he says is to reach the liberated areas.
Already he has good
relations with FSA on the ground. His first act that won him rebel support was
the provision of satellite phones. The regime routinely cuts electricity and
communication became an issue. Through satellite phones and Skype, the rebels
communicate with each other and Adib. But as the war gains momentum, new items
are in demand.
In the many Skype chat rooms to which he has been allowed access he identified two central demands: anti-tank missiles and bread. The Syrian staple is pita. MIG fighters wiped out two bakeries in the liberated areas. Adib went to survey the scene, the closest he has got to the front lines. Nothing remained of the bakery. He contacted a bakery in Rihali, a small town in Turkey. It was late in the night, the baker was in bed. He got out of bed for $1,000 and baked. The FSA fighters collected the bread and dropped it off just 5 km away.
“The rebels are helping the displaced. There are the ones who often feed the people,” he says. Adib and his organisation are setting up bakeries in the liberated areas.
The first was set up in the village of Dor Taizzeh through the assistance of the French government. Despite siding with the rebels, Adib acknowledges the presence of new brigades with links to al-Qaeda. The FSA rebels are unfunded and underequipped, he says.
“He who can provide will win the hearts and minds,” he says. Adib feels that the slow response of the international community thrust the people into the arms of extremists. Progress is being made, though. For a long time Adib spoke of a “top secret mission,” which has just now materialised.
The Internet has become a powerful weapon. It has become the medium through which fighters have been able to keep in contact with each other. It is how Abu Qassim’s brigade acquired more weapons, how they have managed to get information out. He is one of the narrators of a war that foreign journalists have been prevented from covering.
At a meeting in Marrakech he met the UNHCR nominee. They decided to work together so long as the ACU could secure entry into the liberated areas. Adib coordinated with the brigades on the ground and the FSA promised support. The UN convoy passed into Azaz and Atma in northern Syria and provided 1,000 tents and 7,000 blankets. A UN statement echoes the same. “This is an area that the UN has not been able to physically reach ever since the beginning of the conflict.”
stares, steely-eyed, from billboards in Damascus, a photo frame in the foyer of
Damascus University, a seafront placard in Latakia. This time, he’s hidden
behind aviators. The message is simple: everywhere you look, you’re reminded
who’s in charge. In Aleppo and even Homs it’s the same story, the same cult of
personality all propagating the dear ruler of the country. Syria is propaganda
I met artists (many have requested their names be withheld) who feared retribution from the government if they produced works of art that challenged Bashar. But art and literature are a serious vehicle of rebellion, I argued. At Ayyam Art Gallery in Dubai, I met artists who were chronicling the Syrian uprising.
It’s August 2011. In the gallery’s air-conditioned office sits a blue-eyed, tanned boy. This is Hisham Samawi. He is the youthful, American-accented face of the gallery. Despite the cool, Ayyam, like much of Syria is feeling the heat. The gallery is in the process of shifting headquarters from Damascus to Dubai. The din of war had just reached the outskirts of Damascus.
Ayyam is in a sticky situation. It has been credited with reviving the art scene in Damascus but it too, like the many who have fled, will have to shift. Ayyam operates as a collective and artists use the gallery as a bank to store their works. Some sell for thousands of dollars. Samawi says Ayyam’s insurers are no longer willing to insure the art if it remains in Syria. “There is no debate, we need to move the art out.”
So a flight of art is underway. Some 3,000 paintings are expected to be brought out over a period of 10 months. There will also be a corresponding movement of staff and artists.
Tammam Azzam is one of Ayyam’s artists. He’s a machine, churning out digital art as though he is programmed to do so. When we first met Tammam looked like a stuttering madman with bulging eyes. He was enraged by the chaos in his country. We stood outside the gallery in Dubai’s stifling summer as we talked. He chugged Turkish coffee, downing one cup after another, smoking continuously as he did so.
For him art sparks the imagination. The Arab Spring provided him with an opportunity to reignite the radical in every Arab, an image that had been dormant for too long. It was through art that he would aid the revolution.
Dubai gave him a sense of freedom that Damascus had never permitted. His first show “Dirty Laundry”, a series of oil on canvas would open at DIFC. Though one could see the connotations, there was nothing overtly political in Tammam’s message. The evening before his show was to open Tammam was struck by an idea, emboldened in his exile.
He asked the gallery to deliver a used washing machine to his new house in Dubai. Tammam had been collecting scraps of paper from the revolution: pictures from Libya, from Tahrir, articles in Arabic and English about the Arab Spring, sorry tales from Syria. He plastered them on to the washing machine and painted parts of it red. He stuffed the mouth of the drier with red-paint stained newspapers. The message was clear:
The dirty laundry is out in the open and when washed the blood will remain. The show was a success as women in stilettos drank champagne, discussing the turmoil that had engulfed the Arab world.
Tammam Azzam is a village boy from Sweida in southern Syria. The village is predominantly covered in black because of a volcano that erupted. Tammam has always wanted to paint out the black, the darkness from his life. But the dream of being an artist wasn’t a very realistic one, he recalls. He became a graphic designer, art wasn’t easy to sell in Syria.
Tammam dreamt of Damascus, “the city of promise,” he called it. His dream of becoming an artist came true when Khaled Samawi, the founder of Ayyam advertised a competition for young artists. The idea was to revive the art scene and transform it from medieval to contemporary art.
Tammam was one of the artists who won the competition but even then certain names dominated the industry: Mohanad Orabi and Othman Mousa.
Tammam lived and worked out of a small bed-sit in Jermana that doubled as a studio. His home stank of turpentine. Eventually he got studio space free in a friend’s basement. In 2002 he got his hands on a computer. “We were too poor to dream of buying such a thing,” he says. That’s when his affair with digital art began. He had his first solo at the age of 24. “Those were golden days in Damascus,” he recalls.
Then the Arab Spring came. “I’d tell myself, tomorrow this will end.” But it didn’t.
He worried about his wife and young daughter. They were gagged but life was good. But his wife was unwilling to stay quiet. She had been present at the protests from Day One. Then the international media was not present and those few who carried cameras had seen them smashed by government forces.
Protestors had gathered outside the Tunisian Embassy and later the Egyptian. It was at once a show of solidarity and a threat to the regime. Tammam was scared. He didn’t dare protest. “When we were on the streets, he was hiding inside,” his wife says. “But today he is the artist who dares,” she chuckles.
For Tammam the journey to open dissent began only in exile. Perhaps it was because he’d left his wife and daughter in Syria. He didn’t have a house, or a life. All he had was a computer. With no studio, no space, he had to create some form of escape, he says. So he made art.
This time it was different. “I promised myself, I would be scared of no one.”
Summers in Dubai with their dizzying heat drive residents out. The gallery’s closed for summer. Tammam was making at least one piece of digital art every two days, but there was nowhere to show.
His art acquired a new nature. Aside from dissent, it also became art that would be accessible to all: public art. The medium that allowed him to reach people was Facebook. He uploaded his pieces and soon the number of friends in his virtual life began to climb. The number of subscribers to his Facebook updates rocketed and praise for his regular interpretations of the war in Syria just flowed in.
A reading of his Facebook timeline is an artist’s interpretation of the Syrian uprising. It can be likened to an artistic chronology of events.
When the UN monitors entered Syria, Tammam posted a picture of the UN logo digitally mastered and splattered with red. “Even they can’t stop the bloodshed.” Another uploaded photo has a picture of the globe with Syria coloured in red.
“Blood, that’s all that’s there now,” he says. There’s a picture of a grenade with flowers flowing out of it.
For months Tammam work made its rounds around Facebook groups, among those who supported the uprising. “He’s a crazed, an inspired man,” said fellow artist Ammar al Beik, whose documentary, “The Sons Incubator” on the uprisings took him to the Venice Bianelle.
In our last phone call ,I congratulate Tammam. “You’re a big artist now,” I say. He laughs. His last piece, a new appreciation of Gustav Kimt’s “The Kiss” has been photo-shopped on a Syrian building struck by bombs. The message that Kimt sought to give was that of global uninhibited love.
There is still space for love but we, the Syrians, are still being ignored, is the message he wants us to take away. This painting has gone viral from his Facebook to The Guardian blogs and art websites.
“This Arab Spring was good for something, I found a muse,” he says.
Beep Beep. That is
the sound of someone logging into Skype. It’s Abu Qassim, he always logs on at
night. Most of the time this 22-year-old doesn’t answer when I call. He says
he’s too busy, fighting a revolution.
He once said, a
revolution was not like a party but in our last conversation he says he’s ready
to celebrate. The rebels are closing into Menag Military Airport. Now they
would have more guns, more rockets. He says the end was near.
He’s said that before though. Perhaps it’s what he tells himself; perhaps that is what keeps him sane, keeps him going.
Early on in the uprising he had likened himself to a “caged animal” but in this conversation Abu Qassim says soon he’ll be “free.”
Free for what? I ask. “To do as I please, to not be afraid of Bashar’s men,” he says.
Who will keep the peace? “We will, we are the people’s army,” says Abu Qassim.
Will the militias unite and work together? He remains silent.
Men in his brigade haven’t had the luxury to plan the future, nor the opportunity to speak with others fighting for the same cause. Even if they did, words like democracy don’t mean much to him. “Is America a democracy?” he asks. Employment. Opportunity. Those are the big words that drive him.
But who will repair the damage that has been done, the opposition? He laughs at the opposition. They are too busy fighting amongst themselves, too opportunistic. The exiles don’t know Syria he says. “There will be chaos but better to live in chaos than in fear,” he says.
It’s November 2010, and I’m sitting in a conference room at the ministry of foreign affairs. At the head of the table is foreign minister Walid al-Muallem. He calls the fighters, the rebels, “Terrorists.” Again and again, he promises, that the armed men are not the sons of Syria. According to the state, they are foreign fighters sent to Syria “to create chaos.” The foreign minister says he has proof that there are fighters from Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, fighting for dollars.
“Syria is a proxy battleground for a bigger war,” he says.
The Mayor of Homs meets us in his home. We drink orange juice from crystal glasses. Not far from his house is gunfire. Many of the AK-47 toting men are “crooks” who have apparently been previously arrested for felonies. “People who love their country wouldn’t destroy it,” he argues.
Bouthaina Shaaban welcomes us to her office. She is the Advisor to President Bashar al-Assad. Very early on she had identified the Internet as the mover behind events. “It is as useful as dangerous a tool,” she had said then.
As I speak with Abu Qassim over Skype, it’s obvious that the Internet has become a powerful weapon. It has been the medium through which fighters have been able to keep in contact with each other. It is how his brigade has acquired more weapons. It is also how they have managed to get information out. Over the course of 20 months, Abu Qassim has told me his story, he is one of the narrators of a war that foreign journalists have been prevented from covering.
This is his story.
Was he just meant to
sit and watch? Could he ignore a fight that threatened to claim the lives of
people he loved? Early in the revolution his brother joined the FSA. He
absconded one night. “Foolish boy,” his father would later recall. But the
brother was in touch until one day the phone calls stopped coming.
“It kept getting worse, no petrol, no flour. Then Abdou disappeared. Not one phone call in the past nine months.”
In the early days, Abdou had been in regular contact updating his brother about the bonhomie as the Free Syria Army called out for Bashar’s exit. “Yallah Erhal Ya Bashar” (Come on Bashar, leave): he had heard this revolutionary singsong through the telephone one night. His brother was with the 8th brigade. They had camped out in a mosque.
As the uprising became civil war, the conversations became more and more infrequent and his brother ever more distant. When they spoke his brother would call his fight, a “holy war”. Abdou was never religious, but the man on the other end was pious.
Abu Qassim recalled a conversation in August 2011: more and more people were dying and weapons and ammunitions were in short supply. Two mullahs from Saudi Arabia camping in the same mosque had promised some gifts. “Unlike the international community that never delivered, the preachers produced machine guns,” Abdou had told his brother.
Slowly Abdou drifted away. “I was speaking to a complete stranger in our last conversation. This was another man,” he says over Skype.
What made Abu Qassim leave? He said it was the “search for truth.” People lived in constant fear. Frequent power cuts meant a lack of information. “Better out there than in here,” he thought. He has been a member of Free Syria Army (FSA) for the past 14 months.
He hasn’t seen much combat. He’s computer literate so his role has been to update Facebook groups, relay information in Skype chat rooms and update videos on YouTube. He has also coordinated with anti-regime activists on the Turkish border and secured the arrival of eight satellite phones.
Abu Qassim is from
the Ansari neighbourhood in Aleppo. His father had a small clothing store, shut
for the past seven months. The buildings in his neighborhood are slowly but
steadily being destroyed. Fighter jets circle the sky, shells rain and sniper
fire is almost a constant. On many nights his family doesn’t have electricity.
In many neighbourhoods, people cook on open fires. Items once readily
available, meat and fuel, are smuggled in from Turkey at high cost as a black
Initially, he says, this was a fight by nationalists for a better way of life. The aim was to secure the northern part of Syria so that an equivalent of Benghazi (in Libya) could be created. At first they got weapons from government soldiers they had captured. Later, weapons started to flow in from Lebanon. Rumours circulated that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were financing their fight.
“Too many outsiders got involved,” he says.
Over the past few months Abu Qassim spoke of confrontation between jihadi fighters and armed units. He faced off to a man he called a “mullah.” Late in the nights, members of FSA brigades would sit around together discussing the day’s battles and cooling off with a bottle of araq, a grape wine. The “mullah” who was also camping in an abandoned school accompanied them. He chastised the fighters and vowed that one day Syria would be free of alcohol.
“He said that one day an Islamic flag would fly in Damascus.” He feared that global jihad had arrived. The boys kept drinking but the mullah’s interjections had dulled the vibe.
We don’t want no Islamist state.”
That’s not it: more and more brigades have come up. Those who joined the revolution early are underfunded. “Our brigade doesn’t have enough weapons and we don’t have funding,” he says. He explained that the rebels often provided the locals with the much-needed flour and other necessities.
The fighters from other countries are better equipped and seeking to win the hearts and minds of people by satisfying their basic needs. “People want bread. He who supplies the bread has won the people,” says Abu Qassim.
Now there is just lawlessness in northern Syria. “This is not the revolution it once was.” But he’s not prepared to turn around. What will he go back to? Something will come out of all this nothingness, he says. It has to.
Yallah Erhal Ya Bashar, (Come on Bashar, Leave). With that, he signs off.