Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Mukhabarat


Sisi and His 40 Thieves

Why Corruption Lingers in Cairo


On December 9, 2014, at the headquarters of one of Egypt’s most powerful anti-corruption bodies, the Administrative Control Authority (ACA), Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb gathered state officials to inaugurate Egypt’s newly drafted four-year national strategy for combating corruption. The timing was auspicious; it was International Anti-Corruption Day.

The officials met in a large, white room filled with sky-blue chairs. Minister of Interior Mohammed Ibrahim (since sacked) was there, along with ACA Chairman Muhammad Amr Heiba (now replaced and made an advisor to President Abdel Fattah al Sisi), Advisor to the Minister of Justice Azzat Khamis, and Khalid Saeed, chairman of the technical secretariat of a body now known as the National Coordinating Committee for Combating Corruption.

Sunlight streamed in from the windows onto the white walls. Mehleb boasted about Sisi’s success in moving Egypt up 20 places on Transparency International’s latest annual Global Corruption Perception Index—from 114th place to 94th out of more than 170 countries.

Apparently, it is a family affair. One of Sisi’s sons, Mustafa, is an officer at the ACA and part of the graft clean-up crew. In April, he claimed to have helped the security service Amn el-Dawla bring a case against 7 government contractors and officials who were accused of paying and soliciting a total of $170,000 in bribes  within the Red Sea governorate’s Executive Agency for Drinking and Sewage Water.

But our year-long investigation, based on leaked documents and insider accounts, reveals a slew of corrupt practices and an abject failure to curb corruption by these very groups who claim to be combating it.

For starters, Egyptian officials hid at least $9.4 billion of state funds in thousands of unaudited accounts in Egypt’s Central Bank, as well as in state-owned commercial banks, and spent it by the end of the 2012–13 fiscal year.

Known as “special funds,” many of these accounts are operated by bodies such as the Ministry of Interior and the ACA.

Since Egypt’s military overthrew former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and took power just as that fiscal year ended, it is possible that a portion of Gulf aid that had flowed into the country was stowed into army-operated special fund accounts.

Earlier this year, the Mekameleen channel in Istanbul broadcast a series of leaked audio recordings of Sisi and his Chief of Staff Ahmed Kamel apparently discussing the movement of $30 billion of Gulf aid into accounts operated by the army. Other leaked conversations between Kamel, Sisi, and various Gulf dignitaries reveal plans for Gulf aid to be transferred to various army figures through bank accounts operated by the Tamarod activist movement, which helped spearhead protests against Morsi in June 2013.

These special funds accounts also appear to be linked to Mubarak’s ACA Chairman, General Mohamed Farid al Tohamy, a man considered by many to be Sisi’s mentor. (The two first crossed paths when al Tohamy was director of Egypt’s Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance Unit.)

During the 2010–11 fiscal year, these special funds accounts held almost $900 million, some of which was used by the ACA, though it is not clear how much. That was also the year Hosni Mubarak was deposed. Soon after, then-President Morsi removed al Tohamy from the ACA following public allegations by a subordinate investigator that al Tohamy had sabotaged incriminating evidence to protect members of the Mubarak regime.

Al Tohamy was criminally indicted on charges such as hiding evidence that implicated businessmen connected to the top generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) who had sold illegally subsidized fuel and used the ACA budget funds to purchase gifts for then SCAF chief, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

But when Sisi took power, the case mysteriously vanished and he appointed al Tohamy (recently retired) to lead the military-affiliated Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, or Mukhabarat, which reports directly to the Office of the President.

The reason why graft is still so pervasive, despite the large number of government agencies designated to fight it, is that these agencies are accountable to no one. Right now, Egypt’s anti-corruption strategy tasks the bodies represented at December’s gathering, along with a host of others including the Mukhabarat, with implementing a series of benchmarks, a process that began last year and is set to finish by 2018.

These benchmarks include outwardly well-intentioned measures such as “establishing special courts to address issues of corruption throughout 2015–16,” “passing a new civil society law,” and “creating an official means for an exchange of information between civil society, the bureaucratic corps, and anti-corruption bodies” (albeit in a way that does not “harm national security.”)

Progress was to be measured by several performance indicators.

Most common among these are “reports” to be drafted, vaguely, “with the knowledge” of the National Coordinating Committee for Combating Corruption. It is not clear what body will draft the reports or whether the task will fall under the purview of the National Coordinating Committee, which is the primary body tasked to implement and monitor this new anti-corruption strategy.

The National Coordinating Committee’s members include representatives from a number of questionable bodies, such as unreformed ministries and Egyptian anti-corruption groups such as the ACA, Anti-Money Laundering Unit, Public Prosecutor, Ministry of Interior, Mukhabarat intelligence service, and Ministry of Justice. Many of these bodies have either been implicated in acts of corruption, or are being actively investigated by the Central Auditing Organisation (CAO), a state auditing and anti-corruption body chaired by Hisham Genena, and are thus, among the players most interested in sabotaging the anti-corruption committee.

(The Interior Ministry is also infamous for a litany of human rights abuses, including the Raba’a al-Adawiya massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters following Egypt’s anti-Islamist military putsch, which Egypt’s Mukhabarat under al Tohamy have also been alleged to have helped plan and organize.) It is possible that these corrupt groups have begun turning the National Coordinating Committee into a place of backroom deals.

There are signs of potential mission creep: Egypt’s intelligence and security forces could well play an expanded role in corruption.

As a result, since both the CAO and ACA are represented on the National Coordinating Committee, the CAO’s investigations have put it at loggerheads with a number of other bodies. In particular, over the last year, Genena has flung a lot of mud at the Interior Ministry, publically accusing members of siphoning state funds into private bank accounts. He has also pointed a finger at individual members of the Public Prosecution and ACA of being involved in purchases of state land at undervalued rates, and of actively working to sabotage his anti-corruption cases by stalling those that the CAO sends to the courts. Genena has also targeted prominent members of the judiciary.

These judges include the newly-appointed Minister of Justice Ahmed Zind and his associates who have called for Genena’s blood—they have filed a case for him to be impeached for “insulting” members of the judiciary. The case is being reviewed by the Office of the Public Prosecutor, which is close to the police, army, and the judiciary headed by Zind. It seems increasingly likely that the judiciary will block any prosecutorial efforts brought forth by Genena.

It may seem that Genena is a lone fish in alligator-infested waters, but he is shielded, in part, by his unbridled support for Sisi and Egypt’s current military regime. In one media appearance, Genena claimed that Sisi had personally given him the green light to root out corruption in state institutions including the Interior Ministry. He has often claimed that both Egypt’s military and Office of the Presidency are free of corruption, and have not held anything back from his audit squad.

Genena’s loyalty has, so far, paid off. Last month, a prominent television host was sentenced to six months in jail for charges including insulting Genena on air and accusing him of being a member of the now illegal Muslim Brotherhood. Then in November last year, Genena submitted a memo to both Mehleb and Sisi accusing the police of burgling a room his auditors had used during an investigation of the Interior Ministry. The police were said to have stolen investigative records and notebooks. And yet, Genena now works with them on the National Coordinating Committee for Combating Corruption.

Sisi’s and the military’s support of Genena is only one sign of potential mission creep: that Egypt’s intelligence and security forces could well play an expanded role in corruption.

After all, a similar scenario played out in Algeria. Before the country’s bloody civil war in the 1990s, its intelligence services, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), largely focused on security and counter-terrorism matters. Afterward, it was accorded power to investigate internal corruption in state institutions, including ministries and state-owned enterprises, and became intimately entangled with the web of Algeria’s key décideurs, the core power-brokers and decision-makers in le pouvoir.

Since the civil war, the DRS has been led by KGB-trained military intelligence Chief Lieutenant General Mohammed “Toufik” Medienne who is now believed to be engaged in a power struggle with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Medienne has since had an eye on almost all state operations, often using and leaking evidence to blackmail, publicly humiliate, or eliminate political rivals—much as Egypt’s media, some with close military ties, may already have done. “State institutions are the most powerful and dangerous opposition to Sisi,” wrote Al-Maqal newspaper in a column this month by Ibrahim Eissa, another high-profile media personality widely-known for his close association with the armed forces.

The details of the recently released 32-page anti-corruption strategy itself are hopelessly confounding. It doesn’t even specify or delimit the role or influence that each member of the National Coordinating Committee for Combating Corruption can have.

The final six pages, which set forth those anti-corruption benchmarks that Egypt’s police and intelligence services would have a role overseeing, and the timeframe for which they are to be implemented, are conspicuously absent from the truncated 20-page English and 23-page French translations that the committee circulated. These versions include creating an “amended” pay structure for bureaucrats, passing whistle blower protections and freedom of information laws, and amending bids and tenders laws.

Even though Egypt’s national anti-corruption strategy does attempt to create space for civil society, the media, and other actors to take part in monitoring corruption and the implementation of the strategy’s benchmarks, these watchdogs have been largely co-opted or stripped of their ability to operate freely.

The drafters must have excluded these benchmarks to avoid accountability. Even though Egypt’s national anti-corruption strategy does attempt to create space for civil society, the media, and other actors to take part in monitoring corruption and the implementation of the strategy’s benchmarks, these watchdogs have been largely co-opted or stripped of their ability to operate freely. For example, a draft law, leaked in November 2014, seeks to criminalize the dissemination of any information related to the army, which it considers “by nature as secrets related to national security.” Even though the law has yet to pass, it has already had a chilling effect. The leaked conversations between Sisi and Chief of Staff Kamel from earlier this year went essentially unreported by the local Egyptian press.

Even though few dared to report on the leaks, the police began a media crack down, targeting the very journalists who had shown restraint in reporting on the army. Instead, these writers published stories about the Ministry of Interior. Over the last few months, police summoned a number of journalists from the private daily Al-Masry Al-Youm and the pro-regime daily Al-Dostour, and referred them to the State Security Prosecution after each paper published reports about allegations of corruption within the Interior Ministry.

Ironically enough, Dostour claimed that the Ministry of Interior itself had recommended the journalist who heads the paper’s crime page, which ran the controversial corruption story. Nobody was kept in custody, however, and this month the Ministry said it had dropped its legal charges against Al-Masry Al-Youm as part of its “efforts to strengthen its relationship with the different parties in the nation and different media outlets.”

Another draft law, released shortly after Sisi rose to the high office, would give the government power to shut down, freeze assets, block funding, confiscate property, and reject the governing boards of any non-governmental organizations, stripping them of any ability to enforce the benchmarks Egypt has set up for itself in its anti-corruption strategy.

Much like during Mubarak’s rule, Sisi has learned how to consolidate his power. But his is a different consolidation strategy: In the midst of intense rivalry between the Armed Forces and Ministry of Interior, Mubarak favored the police due to his fear of a potential military coup, often using them to spy on and limit the powers of the army.

To a degree, Mubarak sought to reign in the influence of entrenched military figures, much as Algeria’s Bouteflika sought to accomplish in late 2013 with his rival, Medienne (by reportedly prying from the DRS its anti-corruption and military counter-intelligence units and handing them to a perceived loyalist he appointed to Algeria’s Ministry of Defence). Sisi has, however, tilted more toward the army and military intelligence and has reigned in the non-military security services.

Sisi’s actions recall the story of Ali Baba, and how he tricked 40 thieves out of their gold, by learning the password to their treasure caves, “Open Sesame!” In this case, that key word is “anti-corruption@

Continued corruption in Egypt at the highest levels

A year-long investigation in Egypt, based on leaked documents and insider accounts, reveals a slew of corrupt practices and an abject failure to curb graft among the very government bodies that claim to be combating it.




Remembering Anthony Shadid

When I first met Anthony Shadid he was sitting across the table from me in a Doha conference room in 2003 eagerly jotting down quotes in a tiny notebook.

There were about 10 of us in the room– young, enthusiastic journalists from several countries that had been hired as the first staff writers for Al Jazeera International. It would eventually become the television channel Al Jazeera English.

I wrote this four years ago, but still resonates today. Thank you for the advice, Anthony.

From our archives on this day in 2012…

Anthony was there to interview us for his piece on Qatar’s media ambitions at the time. I remember being fascinated by his ability to use such a tiny notebook (about the size of a pack of cigarettes) to capture so many voices at once.

But being young, idealistic and vocal, I was also terrified by what he was going to use and barely slept that night! Thankfully our comments didn’t make into his story, and fears of being snatched at night by mukhabarat never materialized.
I ran into Anthony several more times over the years, at conferences and news events, even at the gym in Beirut.

“Hope all’s well with you,” he wrote me a year ago. “If you’re in Beirut, I’d love to get coffee when I get back.”

Having known more than a few egotistic journalists over the years– whose talents don’t compare to his– Anthony was very humble for a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.

He encouraged my work on this blog and printed out a draft of my in-depth piece on the Lebanese Jewish community, “a subject that is really dear to my heart,” and promised to read it. I always planned to follow up with him and now regret not having had the chance to do so.

Though our encounters were often brief, what sticks with me the most about Anthony, in addition to his insightful writing and humility, was his perspective on the role of a journalist: “My job is to bear witness,” he told a 2005 conference in Texas, explaining that “conversations… are probably the best thing we can encounter as journalists.”

He said listening to and recording the thoughts of average people was often more important than the punditry of leaders and analysts that claim to speak for them.
He further elaborated on this theme at a 2008 AUB conference saying:

“If I’ve learned something after more than 12 years of being a foreign correspondent… (it’s that) the journalism we can be least proud of is the journalism that comes from claiming to know too much, of acting like someone we are not.”
He also discussed lessons learned while revisiting his own work–articles he had written during the 2003 invasion of Iraq–while writing his 2006 book “Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War 

He said of his previous articles:
“The articles that I felt held up over time were the ones that gave voice to the people I met there over those weeks (in Baghdad), that describe their sentiments, their fears, their hopes and their ambitions.
The ones that felt dated and cliched were the ones where I put forth my own views when I said with too much certainty what was going in a country that wasn’t my own.”
Note: I posted an extensive review of his book on his hometown Marje3youn
Here is the full lecture:

May Anthony’s words live on, and continue to inspire other journalists as they have inspired me.



Why the innocents are tortured?

Why would the regime arrest and torture someone if they didn’t do anything wrong or if they can prove their innocence?

Such a question seems to be a common logical retort by many Egyptians in response to accusations that the regime, personified in its security and judiciary bodies, carries out gross injustices such as random arrests, assault, torture, beatings, illegitimate detention, sexual assault and killing.

At first glance it seems to cast a shadow over irrefutable evidence that the regime is indeed torturing many of its citizens, including the innocent.

That is why we must remind ourselves of reality and attempt to answer that question:

Why would the regime torture the innocent?

Why torture the innocent?

Wael Eskandar in  /   February 23, 2014

Perhaps the answer to this question is best illustrated in the 1979 film, ‘We’re the bus guys’ where two people are arrested after a fight with the ticket collector on a bus.

The guys are taken to police headquarters and mistakenly transferred with political prisoners to a torture camp. They defend themselves by explaining that there must be some kind of mistake – that they’re the bus guys – but no one cares to listen.

The warden doesn’t care either, he doesn’t necessarily disbelieve them but he’s under orders to get confessions out of all prisoners. After all, it’s not like the other political prisoners are more criminal in any way.

Torture and humiliation ensue in the name of the country and the reason they ended up there along with the political prisoners gets lost along the way.

The story is set between 1966 and 1967 and is based on true events.

Back then, the mukhabarat, Egypt’s intelligence services, were dominant in dealing with political security matters. They told the guards – the torturers – it was necessary to lock these people up, they were enemies of the state and Egypt would triumph if they were held in prison.

In 1967, after Egypt was defeated in the Six-Day War, one question haunted the torturers: “Why were we defeated if we locked all the bad guys in?”

The story of the bus guys is the story of the Egyptian regime post 1952 when the free officers enslaved an entire nation. Power was in the hands of a few self-seeking individuals who profiteered from their positions and constantly fought to retain them.

It remains very similar to the story today.

The keys to the dynasty changed hands within security services, but the regime’s indifference – and perhaps even contempt for its citizens – carried over.

Upon taking over, President Mohamed Anwar Sadat arrested old power brokers within the government in 1971 to empower himself and keep their followers from regaining ground.

Sadat attempted to uphold Nasser’s previous promise to end the ‘intelligence State’ by reforming the security apparatus already notorious for its harsh oppressive practises.

Under Sadat, there were moments where such practises were reduced considerably but the targeting of political opponents remained focused and old security practises were revived at various times. Towards the end of Sadat’s reign, state security had been more empowered to deal with the country’s internal politics.

In 1981, officers within the military conspired with extremist Islamists and assassinated Sadat. When Hosni Mubarak became president, more power was granted to the police represented by state security, the sadistic arm of the Mubarak regime.

This was partly due to the assassination of Sadat, which meant that the military was not immune to infiltration and that mukhabarat failed to uncover the plot to assassinate the president.

Mubarak was also attempting to sideline Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, the defence minister at the time and a popular figure within the ranks of the military.

By the 1980s and 1990s, state security had become so strong that it replaced intelligence as the main driver of the political agenda.

Along with other factors, shifting control to the Ministry of Interior allowed one ministry to become both the judge and executioner, and thereby, torture became systematic by spreading inside police stations and over a much wider range of offences not limited to the political.

Under the firm grip of either intelligence services or state security, citizens’ rights and their dignity are disregarded.

The current security apparatus is not trained to serve the people, but the regime.

But regimes aren’t human and perhaps that is why most members of the security apparatus are dehumanised.

On a more practical level, those inflicting the torture are quite separated from those making the arrests; they are taught not to listen and to inflict pain no matter what words are uttered by their victims.

Another way to describe it is that the regime does not care how many innocent lives they destroy, but how many threats to the state are averted irrespective of the cost.

There are bound to be a handful of threats amidst the thousands they have arrested and killed. In the end, torturers are not held accountable because orders come from the main agenda drivers who protect the state and, in many ways, are the state.

In all likelihood they do not think that torturing innocent people is a mistake in the first place.

The state has been consistent in its approach but the more worrying aspect of today’s Egypt is the silence – and even blessing – in response to such practises.

(Turkey was and still is a security State, even worse than Egypt, even during this 2 decades of “Democratic system“)

Many have not only turned a blind eye, but even blessed the brutality of the state and created excuses.

Perhaps it is as American philosopher Eric Hoffer says, “The most effective way to silence our guilty conscience is to convince ourselves and others that those we have sinned against are indeed depraved creatures, deserving every punishment, even extermination. We cannot pity those we have wronged, nor can we be indifferent toward them. We must hate and persecute them or else leave the door open to self-contempt.”

Many Egyptians today believe that the police state can help solve the current crisis by offering some sort of stability.

Researchers Thomas Plate and Andrea Darvi described it best when they said,

“The tragedy of the secret police solution is that it is such a blunt and crude instrumentality that in the name of preserving paradise it winds up creating hell. And when even the moderate critics of the regime are eliminated, incarcerated, exiled, or intimidated, the secret police machine rolls on … Enemies of the regime will be created even if real enemies have long since ceased to exist.

In the end, the answer to the question as to why the regime would chose to torture the innocent is found in the question itself.

It’s because the regime chooses the immoral act of torture in the first place.

It is because the security apparatus that is violating the law also controls who is to be held accountable for violating the law.

It is because the regime doesn’t really care.

The fact of the matter is that we’re all the bus guys.

To be subjected to grave injustice is just a matter of chance. It does not help if you do everything right, abide by whatever laws you can, cheer for the police despite their injustices, or keep to yourself.

Sooner or later, you or someone close to you will fall victim to these injustices.

By that time, it will not matter to security forces if you had been protesting their rule or cheering them on.

Wael Eskandar is an independent journalist and blogger based in Cairo. He is a frequent commentator on Egyptian politics and has written for Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, Counterpunch, and Jadaliyya, among others. He blogs at


What do I think of Syrian and the Syrians

Syria has a new refurbished army, liked and supported by the Syrians.

Since 1974, the Syrian soldiers and lower ranked officers were trampled, humiliated, and abused by the Assad regime.

The soldiers were used as slaves to the high ranking officers, working to increase the wealth of the officers and the political structure of the Baath and Assad oligarchy.

The brave and steadfast Syrian soldiers were dispatched to fight outside their borders, in Lebanon and Iraq, without any good reasons and without the modicum of dignity.

The Syrian soldiers were left uncovered beside their tanks and air missiles, and harvested by Israeli fighter jets like sitting ducks.

The Syrian soldiers were assigned in freezing mountain tops, wearing sandals and thread bare blankets.

This is history. The new Syrian army has its own patriotic structure, honored and respected by the citizens and enjoying the confidence and support of the people who experienced unimaginable horrors and miseries.

All the recent victories against the terrorist armed factions have nothing to do with the standing power of Bashar Assad.

Bashar is just a figure head, a symbol of continuity for the State against the belligerent hateful neighbors and western powers.

The Syrian people suffered since 1974 from multiple indignities.

They were shackled, intimidated from expressing their opinion, denied the right to demonstrate their individual private entrepreneurship, to open up to foreign experiences… A people under the close surveillance of the Mukhabarat (secret services agents) and cowed into silence.

There were over 200,000 Kurds, born in Syria, who were denied even an Identity Cards.  They were the “invisible” Syrians who could not secure a passport to leave, living in “No State” recognized by the UN.  They were afraid of taking a bus to another city in order to avoid being checked by a security or a police man.

These Kurds have since secured “full citizenship” since the revolution started, as many minorities left incognito because no one dared to demand his rights.

These same Kurds are now fighting the extremist factions in the Kameshly and Hasakeh provinces by the Iraqi and Turkish borders. The terrorist factions want to secure an outlet for the stolen oil extracted in the region and sold to Turkey.

The brave Syrians lived in silence, in exchange of free primary and secondary schooling and for a national health care, low cost of medication and affordable basic foodstuff and clothing.

This armed civil war that was concocted and planned years ahead on Syria was never to fight and bring down the Assad regime: It was to ruin and humiliate the Syrians and the nation of Syria.

This nation that remained self-sufficient, even in the darkest periods in history. This people who was among the wealthiest among people throughout history.

What we have now is a “guerrilla State” so that the foreign States that hate the Syrian people stay in the dark of plans and objectives of the war in progress.

A guerrilla State intent on wiping out all the external extremist terrorist Islamic factions, particularly the Al Qaeda Nusra Front that pay allegiance to Zawahiri.

The Syrian people got the message clear and loud: they know exactly who are their nemesis and why they hate the Syrians as a people.

Syria is “The Arab”, the Arab culture, language, resistance, soul and spirit.

Without Syria there is no Arabic roots, culture and civilization.

Bashar will be re-elected, and not because he is loved, but in defiance as a symbol of continuity of the institutions.

Bashar will ultimately bow down to the determination of the Syrians to start a new beginning, and he will graciously fade away once a political settlement is achieved.

And the negotiations will be carried out with the new refurbished “Free Syrian Army” opposition, after it let go of and discard all its leaders who closely cooperated with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and France.

The Syrian people have pinpointed their nemesis:

1. Israel who has known from its inception that Syria is the sole danger for its existence and that the Syrians will never acknowledge this foreign implanted State in the Near East.

2. Monarchic Wahhabi Saudi Arabia that knows that Syria is the main obstacle to the widespread of its obscurantist sect in the Near East. Actually, the main ally to Israel is Saudi Arabia.

3. Turkey and regardless of who is in power: the military of the current Moslem Brotherhood. Turkey has made it a strategy to regularly humiliate, threaten, blackmail and antagonize the Syrian people.

Turkey wants to cut-off the water supply of the Euphrates River to Syria by building more and more dams without any serious negotiation with Syria. And Turkey has occupied the north-western province of Alexandretta during the French mandate in 1936.

4. The previous mandated power of France has been the arch traitor to Syria’s interests since it vacated its troops in 1936 and has been trying to destabilize this State at every opportunity.

The French political system actually hate the Syrian people and totally and unconditionally support the Zionist State of Israel. since its inception in 1948. France was the main weapon provider to Israel for 2 decades and built Israel nuclear power plant and aided in its atomic bombs.

5. Germany is another State that staunchly aided Israel in all kinds of financial aids and nuclear submarines. Germany was the main supplier of weapons to the armed Syrian factions and reeked plenty of money from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the Gulf Emirates in order for the civil war to linger.

There are about 1, 25 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon and will reach 1.5 million by the end of this year: A third of Lebanon’s population and they are constituting a huge burden on the capability of this tiny State that is suffering from economic downturn for 2 successive years and struggling with internal and external political pressures and conflicts.

The able Syrians have demonstrated entrepreneur talents and are opening side businesses and getting involved in the civil work construction. It is the Syrian kids, women, the elderly and the handicapped who are not receiving the proper care and facilities for education and health care. And only 17% of the promised $1.7 billion have been forthcoming.

The Syrian refugees have started their journey back home.

The regions of 16 million Syrians  have been liberated from the extremist factions, and only the second city of Aleppo (the industrial hub) is still not fully secured.

This extended calamity has toughen the Syrians up to resist any other kinds of oligarchy to sneak in the cracks of intimidation and political maneuvering.

Syria will regain a glory that was denied her and will keep resisting any foreign meddling in its business of extending dignity to all its citizens.

Democracy and civil laws will prevail in Syria: The true revolution in the Arab world.

Note: What they said of the Syrian soldier

How to finish in a revolution? The writer, the revolution

The Qasabji bar in Damascus, on an unremarkable road just outside the Old City, was where Khaled Khalifa and I had our best conversations. Qasabji was a singular room shaped like a boxcar, crowded with wood tables, benches and chairs that pushed against one another and three walls

Khaled always entered first and greeted the customers sitting at tables near the door. He bent down, kissed the men, flirted with the women, and strutted to where Nabil, Qasabji’s owner, had cleaned a spot for us.

Khaled ordered either a glass of arak or the local Damascene beer, Barada, pulled a cigarette from his pack, lit it, and added to the purplish haze of smoke. I only saw Qasabji bar at night, crowded and smoke-filled, loud, dim. Khaled always faced out, better to see the men and women, but mostly the women, and when an attractive one entered he banged the table with his fist and hooted like a wolf.

Matthew Davis posted on Guernica  this November 15, 2013

The Writer and the Rebellion

“The last chapter is the most difficult to finish in a revolution, as in a novel,” writes Khaled Khalifa from war-torn Syria.

(This sentence is from the French explorer Alexis de Tocqueville who visited the USA in 1840 and described the political and social system)

Toni Milaqi, Coffee Time, acrylic on canvas, 120×90 cm, 2008. Courtesy of artist.

I met Khaled Khalifa in 2007. He was a fellow at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where I was working. His third novel, In Praise of Hatred had come out in Arabic the year before, and within the year would be short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, commonly known as the Arab Booker, and Khaled would be profiled by the New York Times.

Qasabji was one of two Damascene locales where Khaled had often written In Praise of Hatred. He had worked until the early hours of the morning, Nabil serving him cup after cup of coffee. It was a romantic image, the focused writer, the devoted bartender, but everything about Khaled was romantic—his outsize personality (he once orchestrated an entire club to dance while standing atop a bar), his love of women (his womanizing is notorious), his capacity to drink (he buys Smirnoff vodka in two gallon jugs, places them around his apartment, and fills them with olive oil when they’re empty). And when he talked about writing, he spoke with a refreshing earnestness:

“If you are going to be a writer, you need to be strong.”

“You cannot write a novel emotionally hot. You must be cold.”

“At one point, I decided that if I did not make it as a writer, I would kill myself.”

Khaled Khalifa was born on New Year’s Day, 1964, in a small village near Northern Aleppo. His father was an olive farmer and owned an olive oil company; his mother raised children.

Khaled was the middle child of a large family of 13 that would come to have 9 boys and 4 girls, something he once told me allowed him the chance to get lost.

Aleppo is Syria’s most populous city, a commercial hub that has historically been a meeting point of Eurasian cultures. Khaled’s family lived among this diversity.

“There are two faces of the city. One face is like a ghetto. We were living there. I remember this neighborhood because all the poor people, like Armenians, Kurdish, Turkoman—these nationalities were living in the past. These were the poor people, the farmers, and they came from the villages.” There was another newer Aleppo that was more cosmopolitan, more “Aleppine” as Khaled called it. His family lived between these two cultures.

At the time of Khaled’s birth, Syria was nearing the end of a tumultuous political period. Syria was given independence from France in 1946. By the time of Hafez al-Assad’s coup in 1970, the Syrian government had been through 4 different constitutions,  20 cabinets, the formation and disintegration of a merger with Egypt, and 4 previous military coups—three in 1949 alone.

The turbulence was in part due to the end of WWII and the collapse of the Western colonial system that had dominated the Middle East between the two world wars. It was also a result of a blossoming Arab intellectualism in the wake of this fresh independence, the buds of which were often left-leaning and communist.

Though Aleppo was historically a commercial town, not a political or intellectual center, it was not immune from these ideas, and its local cotton industry was the focal point of attempts to organize workers and put into practice what was being debated in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad. Khaled’s older brothers brought these ideas into the Khalifa household.

By the time Khaled was in high school, a different political movement was developing in Syria. Though political Sunni Islam had existed in Syria since the 1930s, it grew following the November 1970 coup orchestrated by Air Force Commander Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president.

Hafez Assad was a member of the minority community of Alawites, a heterodox Shia Muslim sect which came from the northwest mountains of Syria. He was also a member of the Ba’ath Party—the secular, left-leaning political party that had been founded by a Christian Syrian(Michel Aflak) and an Iraqi in 1947.

Throughout the 1970s, Assad’s Ba’ath Party faced mounting opposition from The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in urban centers such as Hama, Homs, and Aleppo. This opposition culminated in assassinations of government ministers and military personnel, one of the boldest attacks occurring in June 1979 at The Artillery School in Aleppo, when many young officers were killed and dozens more wounded.

Hafez Assad responded with brutal force, arresting, torturing, and murdering thousands of Syria’s citizens.

In March 1980, an entire division of the Syrian army entered Aleppo, and for more than a year, it conducted house-to-house searches for sympathizers to the Brotherhood.

It is this bloody period in Aleppo’s history, as Khaled was a teenager, that In Praise of Hatred recounts. His narrator is an unnamed teenage female whose family participates in and is victimized by the violence. Like many great novels, it uses the personal to get at the national.

What is rare about In Praise of Hatred is that it does the dual work of documenting a period decades past while also illuminating the present.

In March 2011, the Syrian people joined the “Arab Springs” in other countries in revolting against their regimes, and the response by Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s son, who took power in 2000, has been similar to his father’s. “I was translating a section on the university in Aleppo,” Leri Price, the novel’s English translator, wrote me over email, “and how there had been purges and murders of its professors, and when I turned on the news that night the BBC were [sic] running a story about purges and murders of the staff in the University of Aleppo. You couldn’t make it up.”

Khaled spent over 13 years writing In Praise of Hatred. In one of our conversations at Qasabji, he said the novel finally fell into place when he discovered the character of the Yemeni, Abdullah, a man in his mid-forties who wants to marry one of the narrator’s aunts. That’s the character’s dramatic purpose. His intellectual purpose is to give background on the various Islamic parties and spin tales of martyrs and battles that captivate the narrator and send her to Aleppo’s religious front lines.

No one wins in Khaled’s novel.

Sectarian hatred leads to pain on all sides: families are torn apart; cities destroyed; memories seared; a country traumatized. Not surprisingly, like most art or writing critical of the regime, the novel is banned in Syria. Yet the novel is widely read there.

Khaled likes to tell the story of its launch in Damascus, an event, he jokes, that drew the entire capital city. “On one side, were all my friends, and writers, and other artists. And on the other, was all the Mukhabarat,” the secret police.

In 2009, two years after I first met Khaled, I spent the summer in Damascus learning Arabic. On my second night in the country, Khaled picked me up from my hotel. Short and stout, the nexus of his body lodged in his rotund gut, his curly salt-and-pepper hair bushy on both head and chest, he engulfed me in an embrace and said, “Matt, Matt, welcome to Damascus, my friend, welcome to my paradise.”

His red Peugeot had a large scrape and dent along the driver’s side door from a recent accident. Inside, empty and half-empty Gitanes Lights cigarette packs littered the floor, and there was so much white ash on the dash, the seats, and the consul, it looked like it had snowed inside the vehicle. We turned out of the parking lot and found our way to congested Al-Thawra Street.

We drove to a store and bought chicken, vegetables and hummus and then drove to his apartment. Khaled lived up a mountain and across from a mosque. I spent several evenings at this apartment, usually for dinner as a prelude to Qasabji or his favorite club, Mar Mar.

There were two bedrooms (one for sleeping and fucking and the other for writing); a large living room with a television, usually tuned to Al Jazeera; a balcony with a view of the lights of Damascus; and a sizable kitchen.

Khaled’s money came from writing television scripts. He was quite good at it and was paid handsomely, and sometimes, when I was at his home, I heard him arguing with producers or directors over money.

His first love was poetry.

Khaled began writing in childhood, publishing poems as early as the fifth grade. At university in Aleppo, he discovered fiction, and by his second year, he was writing his first novel. He tore it up.

“You tore it up?” I asked during one of our conversations at Qasabji.

“Yes, because I felt it was not my voice. I took the voices of other Arab writers. It was very important for me because I tore it up after two years of work. I wrote for two years, very important years for me. All my time was for reading and for writing and for sex and for hasheesh. And for discovering books and the city and the country. I discovered everything.”

Khaled studied law in college, though he rarely attended class. He claims he was able to graduate by cramming for college exams 50 days before they were given. When he graduated, he did his customary two years of military service required of every Syrian male and then moved to Damascus.

He and his friends established a literary magazine called ‘Alif (the first letter of the Arabic alphabet) in order to create a new, modern Arabic literature. He wrote a novel, the first one of his to be published. “I left poetry. Good-bye poetry forever,” he said.

The novel’s publication ushered in the most turbulent period of Khaled’s life. He moved in with his parents to avoid being homeless. They hounded him to get a job as a policeman or judge, especially his mother, who worried not only about his financial situation but about confrontations with the government if he pursued his dream of becoming a writer.

He told me he was very sad at this point, because he knew novels take a long time to write, and that any other work would take him away from his fiction. He lived in Aleppo off-and-on for five years.

Eventually, because of the strain with his family, he moved back to Damascus. He took money from friends for one year and wrote. He began writing for television, and when he sold his first script, “it was a very very very very big moment for me.” He paid his friends back.

His mother couldn’t believe that he had been paid that much money for writing. His twenties were over and his thirties about to begin. It was 1993. He had just penned the first chapter of In Praise of Hatred and published it in his magazine ‘Alif. “But I felt it was not good. I wrote 90 pages and tore it up and started again. When I wrote the next 20 pages, I said ‘Yes, this is my novel.’”

Thirteen years later it was done: a novel born of an idea when he was depressed and broke and unemployed inside his parents house in Aleppo—of memories from his time as a teenager whose city was at war. The novel and its writer have made an important impression in Syria, especially among its young.

I met several twenty-something Syrians working in the international community who were effusive in their praise; a young filmmaker, Bassel Shahade, once pulled me aside with a smile to say Khaled approved of his film idea; and during an evening when Khaled and I were out to dinner with a young musician and writer, a waiter asked if I knew who I was eating with.

“That’s Khaled Khalifa,” I said.

“No,” he protested. “That’s a god.”

In the early morning hours of September 16, 2010, I arrived in Damascus for the second time. Syria was becoming the place for foreigners to study Arabic. The country was cheap and fun and its Arabic dialect was often thought the language’s most beautiful. There was a sense that after 4 decades of secrecy and closure, a curtain was being drawn open for Syria’s Great Reveal.

An influx of foreigners rented apartments or Arab homes in the Old City, creating an army of backpackers on the cobblestone streets where once Romans and Crusaders had walked. In more formal, geopolitical ways, Syria was receiving a second look. Once lumped in with North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as part of Bush’s Axis of Evil, the Obama Administration placed the country close to the center of its Middle East policy. The idea was to further isolate Iran by making inroads in Damascus.

President Obama nominated an Ambassador to Syria for the first time since 2005, the experienced Arabist Robert Ford. Even the mainstream media showed a renewed interest in Syria beyond terrorism and international conflict. National Geographic featured a story about a new Syria opening up to the world; Vogue published a controversial hagiography about Asma Assad, Assad’s wife; and the Times ran a series of profiles of Syrian artists and intellectuals.

It was this last topic that had brought me back to Damascus. My first summer there, largely because of Khaled, I had met dozens of artists, writers, and filmmakers who had left Syria because of censorship or oppression or opportunity but were returning to a burgeoning creative scene. It was part of Syria not widely known in the West, and I wanted to write about it as a means to explore Syria’s history, politics, and culture.

A Fulbright Fellowship gave me 9 months to do so, and before I left for Syria, I had formulated a rough arc of my nine months in country. Because of the pervasiveness of Syria’s Mukhabarat, I decided to delay contact with people or issues that could potential threaten the regime. No mention of politics unless they arose in context. No meetings with public dissidents. No interviews with political or religious activists.

I would spent the first 8 months meeting artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians, asking them about their lives and creative work, getting a feel for the dynamic in Syria’s capital city, and then, with a month left, ask tougher questions that could potentially lead to trouble. The rationale was simple. It behooved both my own personal safety and those of my subjects to avoid complicated, political issues.

So in September and October, as I settled into a spacious apartment with a gorgeous, panoramic view of Damascus, a city that, legend has it, Muhammad did not want to enter for fear you only enter paradise once, I spent time with artists whose work was benign: a group of young artists experimenting with animation and video art who wanted to start a comic book series; a musician and singer in the Damascus Higher Choir who invited me to the group dress rehearsal for Carmina Burana at the redolent Damascus Opera House; and Bassel Shahade, the young filmmaker making a short film about a poet whose heart literally broke from failed love.

And, of course, there were my conversations with Khaled at Qasabji.

Khaled’s control of English was better than my control of Arabic, so it was the former that we spoke. We understood each other well, but if there were times when I wished language wasn’t a barrier, it was when we spoke about the Mukhabarat, the secret police.

In 2009, a couple days after I arrived, when Khaled’s English and my Arabic were at their worst, we had dinner at an outdoor café. We were eating chicken schawarma and drinking a kind of yogurt, sitting on plastic chairs, and a wedding party drove by with horns honking.

“Ah, just get to the fucking,” Khaled shouted, and then he hit my leg in cahoots.

This was at the peak of Khaled’s popularity in Damascus, the same summer when the waiter asked if I knew I was sitting with a god. Totalitarian regimes allow godliness in singular form, and I asked Khaled whether he had ever had contact with the government. His answer was choppy, and I’m not confident in its veracity, though it rings true. He said that when he began winning awards for In Praise of Hatred, he was asked to meet with one of Bashar Assad’s close advisers. The adviser offered Khaled whatever he wanted—a new car, a new home, money—if he would speak positively of the regime. He declined the offer.

A year later at Qasabji, amidst the cigarette smoke and conversation, Khaled lamented to me the lack of development in Syria’s literary culture. He said many writers live abroad and that one of the reasons was the censors. But, he said, visual art thrives here, in part because Bashar likes and doesn’t really understand it. He pointed to the wall, where an abstract painting hung over the table, and pretended to be the Syrian President. “Yes, I think this is just fine,” he mocked.

He told me that a writer’s life was no different than any Syrian’s life—they all faced dictatorship and censors. A fruit vendor was as restricted as an artist.

Maybe it’s because of the recognition he has received, the acclaim that started in the Middle East, spread to Europe, and is poised to proliferate in Britain and the United States, but Khaled never seemed bitter when he talked about the struggles of being an artist or writer in Assad’s Syria.

At our first dinner together in 2010, he regaled me with stories of his summer, which he had spent in Europe with an “important man’s wife,” answering questions from European journalists. He said they all wanted to know what it was like to write under a dictatorship, about what the censors were like, and what that means for him as a writer. He waved his hand.

After 3 years, he was tired of answering such questions. He told me that a writer’s life was no different than any Syrian’s life—they all faced dictatorship and censors. A fruit vendor was as restricted as an artist. Instead, he was eager to talk about the new novel he was working on. He held up his two pudgy index fingers and placed them parallel on a horizontal plain. “It is about the Baath Party and the Syrian people,” he said, a smile creasing his face. “And how they never meet.” He moved his fingers in a straight line, always parallel.

The last time I saw Khaled in Syria was, of course, at Qasabji. It was October 9, 2010, and he was preparing to leave for a one-month writing residency in Hong Kong. He hoped to work on the new novel, which he was tentatively calling The Parallel Life. We spoke about our plans for the winter when he returned—how he was going to bring me to the mountains, to a home he was building, so we could write our novels in peace. How we were going to invite our Egyptian friend Hamdy and our Mongolian friend Ayur, both writers we knew from Iowa.

A few weeks later, in early November, I was sitting inside the University of Damascus campus. The previous day, a group of Fulbright Fellows had gathered at the university to fill out forms for Iqama, or residency. The application took all day, and we had returned to receive our passports with our Iqamas stamped inside. Everyone’s passport was ready except for mine and a friend’s. We were told to walk to the passport immigration police station close by and answer more questions.

It became clear early on, when the officers asked us how many states were in the United States and what was the last state admitted to the union, that this wasn’t a routine clarification of answers. It became more apparent when we were escorted out of the police station and asked to get into an unmarked white van.

We spent part of the afternoon in jail for reasons we did not know. We were interrogated on three separate occasions, and were offered coffee, tea, and chocolate in a lieutenant’s office while watching American action movies. We waited in this office until evening, when we were told to leave the country. There was no explanation given, only a stamp in our passport that said: “You are welcome to leave Syria in 48 hours.”

Before we left the station, a line of generals shook our hands and said: “Ahlan, wasalan,” Welcome. The next night, we traveled to the airport for a scheduled flight to Amman. A hawk-nosed border guard typed in our passport numbers and became confused. He visited his superiors, spoke with our Syrian handler. We were interrogated for a fourth time. Finally allowed to leave, our handler gave us our passports with a warning.

“I shouldn’t tell you this,” he whispered. “But on their computers you are labeled as national security risks.”

Our deportation instigated three weeks of diplomatic wrangling between the U.S. and Syria and between different agencies in the U.S. government. At one point, John Kerry spoke with Bashar al-Assad about us, and Bashar said there had been a mistake and that we could return. The culmination of all this was a choice between Syria and Jordan; the caveat was that if I chose Syria and was detained or deported again, I would lose my fellowship.

I wanted badly to return to Damascus, but by Thanksgiving, I had chosen Jordan. Three weeks later, Muhammad al Bouazizi self-immolated in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, which sparked the Tunisian Revolution, which sparked The Arab Spring, which I experienced from Jordan’s sleepy capital of Am

When revolution spread to Egypt, Khaled, back in Damascus, posted to Facebook: “If we succeed in Egypt, we will win every where.” Protests in Syria began tepidly, as if waiting for results in other countries.

On January 26, a man self-immolated in the fashion of Muhammad al-Bouazizi.

A week later, A Day of Rage planned for February 3 netted very few participants. Yet by March 15, following the detention, torture, and murder of teenagers who had scrawled anti-regime graffiti in the Southern Syrian town of Daraa, a town abutting the Jordanian border, a more cohesive protest movement coalesced.

Protests were now taking place in cities across the country, with Daraa at its center. I followed Khaled’s response on Facebook.

March 18: Who can stop this raging sea of waves?

March 23 There is no third road ahead of us. We either live with dignity or die with dignity.

March 27: How alone we are in this world. Even the soil and the skies are against us.

March 27: If emergency law disappears, I will really quit smoking.

Snipers on top of buildings wantonly killed protesters in Daraa, Homs, and Baniyas. Reports emerged of torture, rape, mutilation. A singer’s vocal chords were yanked out of his throat. A cartoonist’s hands broken and smashed. Refugees poured out of Syria to the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

April 30: Those who inside wish to wake up and not see the name Daraa on the map, I tell you look inside for a second and you will discover that the beast that lives inside you will eat you and Daraa will remain the queen of cities.

May 3: Can someone explain to me how an artist, all kinds of artists, and a writer, all kinds of writing, and at the same time, the siege of Daraa? I swear I still don’t understand it.

In late July 2011, I returned to the U.S. I spent a night with my family in Chicago and then drove to Iowa City, where Khaled was teaching a writing course to Arab teenagers. He had told me to find him at Java House, a coffee shop on Washington Street full of young writers and burgeoning scholars, and when I walked in, Khaled was ensconced at a wood table, getting news on the revolution out through Facebook.

Khaled hugged me and we left to go outside so he could smoke. We talked about my deportation, the revolution, the regime, and Syria’s future. The revolution had only been on for several months, and successes in Tunisia and Egypt had given hope across the region and in Syria that other regimes would soon collapse. Khaled was ebullient.

We covered many topics. He said that he hadn’t been restricted at all in his movements, that he wasn’t directly working for the revolution though he was broadcasting it, that the regime will fall and those in charge will be tried as criminals, and that when the regime fell, there would be blood for about a couple of months before things subsided.

That evening, we went to George’s, Iowa City’s Qasabji: a dim, narrow bar of perpetual darkness. We met friends who still lived in town and drank and talked late into the night. “I think now, in Syria, we have a very new idea,” Khaled told me. “Now I’m writing my new novel. I have been writing for four years. But now, I will rewrite it, because I feel it is old writing. We have a new time, and new ideas, not just for writing but for the people too. Now we can understand our people. We are talking about this with young writers. What will be the future, I ask. You must be better. Because after the revolution you have new ideas about writing and about all art. We will have new ideas.”

I drove Khaled to DeKalb, Illinois the next morning, where a Syrian musician friend of his lived. The two men hugged and joked and watched Al Jazeera. They went to his back deck for a cigarette, and the friend told Khaled he shouldn’t return to Syria, that it was too dangerous. Khaled protested and said he must be there at this time, that he couldn’t leave now, that he knew how to keep safe. When he stood up, his pants were soaked. He had unknowingly sat on a chair with a large puddle. He smiled at me through his stubble.

Syria was disintegrating.

In mid-August 2011, as Khaled returned to his country, President Obama called for Assad to go. In mid-November, Jordan’s King Abdullah became the first Arab leader to ask for Assad’s removal. The killing didn’t stop. In an interview with Barbara Walters that aired December 7, Assad said a leader who kills his own people is crazy. Two weeks later, a two-day military campaign began in the Jabal al-Zawiyah area in Idlib, killing at least 200 people. The Arab League called for Assad to step down on January 22, 2012 amidst shellings and bombings of cities like Homs and Hama. On February 4, China and Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on the violence.

January 18: Sometimes silence is a tank

January 19: The last chapter is the most difficult chapter to finish in a revolution, as in a novel

February 6: Khaled sent a letter to friends around the world that began: My friends, writers and journalists from all over the world, in China and Russia, I would like to inform you that my people are being subjected to a genocide.

On the same day Khaled posted his letter to Facebook, the US Embassy in Damascus shuttered its doors. More than a month later, the UN and Arab League supported the Kofi Annan proposal to end the violence.

On March 31, the Assad regime claimed victory over the opposition.

On April 12, a UN-backed ceasefire began. On April 25, many children were among the 69 killed during shelling of Hama. On May 3, an 18-year-old student at The University of Aleppo, Khaled’s university, was tossed out of a five-story window for protesting the Assad regime.

On May 25, over 92 people, thirty of whom were children, were massacred in the Sunni city of Houla.

On May 26, in a funeral for a friend who was shot in the head during a peaceful protest, Khaled Khalifa was beaten by security forces. His left arm was broken.

On May 28, Bassel Shahade, the young filmmaker whose face had turned into a smile when Khaled approved of his project, who had left a Fulbright Fellowship at Syracuse to train activists how to shoot video, was killed by shrapnel in Homs.

May 29: Who doesn’t know our martyr Bassel Shahade, I tell you he’s a kid who knows only the rays of light. Bassel, you broke our hearts.

June 1: Bombings, bombings and bombings now

June 3: Unbelievable bombings and heavy gunfire

July 20, 2012 in a Facebook message to me: Hi Matt, until now I am safe, but under bombing and fear. Don’t worry.

Perhaps because of its premeditation, it is the death of the 18-year-old tossed from the fifth floor of Aleppo University that sticks with me. Its only solace is that somewhere in the city of merchants on the Old Silk Road, there is another Khaled Khalifa taking note.

“I cannot say more in these difficult moments,” Khaled wrote in his letter to writers and journalists across the world, “but I hope you will take action in solidarity with my people, through whatever means you deem appropriate. I know that writing stands helpless and naked in front of the Russian guns, tanks and missiles bombing cities and civilians, but I have no wish for your silence to be an accomplice of the killings as well.”–Khaled Khalifa, Damascus

In 2012, In Praise of Hatred was translated into English and published in London by Doubleday. The ending had changed. In the Arabic original, the unnamed narrator leaves Syria and joins her uncle in London. In the English translation, the novel ends with the narrator discharged from a lengthy prison sentence, presumably to remain in Aleppo. Khaled was furious with the change, but, he told me, he was in Damascus, so what could he do.

Ever since the war began in January 2011, I had little doubt that Khaled Khalifa would remain in Syria, in Damascus, his paradise, to help usher in the new ideas he spoke passionately about in Iowa City.

More than two years on, however, I wonder whether this ending will change, too. Khaled’s health is failing; he is depressed; he has been barred from leaving the country. I get none of this from him, only those close to him. From him, I get positive emails, an optimism as much at Khaled’s core as his rotund gut and passion for writing.

Khaled’s fourth novel was recently published in Cairo. I’ve also heard that Qasabji is still open, Nabil still serving arak and beer, albeit at a higher price.


Matthew Davis is the author of When Things Get Dark: A Mongolian Winter’s Tale, parts of which won awards from The Atlantic and The Best American Travel Writing series. He was a Fulbright Fellow to Syria and Jordan in 2010-2011 and is currently a Tom and Mary Gallagher Fellow at The Black Mountain Institute at UNLV.

Preaches a message of forgiveness: Grand Mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun

Robert Fisk published in The Independent this Sept.23, 2013

“I had five sons, now I have four”: Syria’s senior cleric pardons the rebels who killed his son

The Grand Mufti of Syria preaches a message of forgiveness

I met those men who assassinated my son Sania.  And they told me they didn’t even know whom they were killing.”

Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria, sits in a straight-backed chair, his immaculate white turban atop a narrow, intelligent and very troubled face.

His son Sania was a second-grade student at Aleppo University when he was shot dead getting into his car.

“I went to see the two men in the court and they said they’d just been given the number of the car’s registration plate, that they didn’t know whom they had killed until they went home and watched the news on television.”

I ask for his reaction to the men’s confession, and the Grand Mufti puts his hands over his eyes and weeps.

“He was only 21, my youngest son. It was October  10 last year. I am trying to forget that he is dead. In fact, I feel as if Sania is still living. On that day, he was to be betrothed to his future wife. She was a student of medicine, he was in the politics and economics department. ‘Sania’ in Arabic means ‘the highest point’.

The two men said that 15 in all were involved in planning my son’s death. They said they were told he was a very important man. I said to them: ‘I forgive you’.  And I asked the judge to forgive them. But he said they were guilty of 10 times as many crimes and must be judged.”

Sheikh Hassoun holds up a finger. “That same day I received an SMS message. It said: ‘We are not in need of your forgiveness.’

Then I heard on one of the news channels that the gang’s leader had said he would ‘judge the Mufti first. Then let him forgive us.’ So I sent a message: ‘I have never killed any man and I don’t intend to kill any man but I regard myself as a bridge of reconciliation. A Mufti must be a father to all. So what do you want to kill me for?’

“All the men involved were Syrians, from the countryside of Aleppo. They said they received their command from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that they were each paid 50,000 Syrian pounds  (£350). This shows that my son’s killing was not out of doctrine or belief. The two killers were 18 or 19 only.”

So each man was paid the equivalent of £350; Sania Hassoun’s life was worth a total of just £700. “I had five sons,” the Mufti says. “Now I have four.”

Sheikh Hassoun is, you might say, government-approved – he prayed beside Bashar al-Assad in a Damascus mosque after a bomb warning – and his family, let alone he himself, was an obvious target for Syria’s rebels. But his courage and his message of reconciliation cannot be faulted. In whatever new Syria arises from the rubble, Sheikh Hussein should be there even if his President has gone.

And he speaks with remarkable frankness.

When I tell him that I fear the mukhabarat  (intelligence service in Syria) contaminates all it touches, including the institutions of government, he does not hesitate for a moment before replying.

“I suffered from the mukhabarat. I was taken from my post as a preacher from 1972 until 2000. I was taken from my position as Friday speaker in the Aleppo mosque and from lecturing on four occasions. The intelligence services all over the world are the same: they never look after the interest of the human being – they only look after their own institution. Sometimes the intelligence service can be against the president himself.”

And he asks whether it is not also true that the American intelligence services do not also spy on Americans and all of Europe, a difficult question – it must be said – to deny. “Let us put aside the Prophet Mohamed, Jesus and Moses – all the rest of the world are controlled by intelligence services.”

Unlike most Syrians, the Mufti looks forward rather than back. He prays for a Geneva 2 conference. “I am the Mufti of all Syrians – Sunni Muslims, Christians, Alawites, Druze – of all the diversity of sects we had before the war. There is no choice other than reconciliation; it is the only way back. But to offer reconciliation, we must eliminate the ‘external hand’ first.

“And if the neighbouring countries like Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon don’t try to make this same reconciliation, they will burn – the fire of crisis will flow to them, especially Turkey. For all Syrians, we are open for them to come back. The problem is those who came from outside Syria – especially from Iraq and Turkey – who came without visas over smugglers’ trails either to meet death or to overthrow the authorities here.”

A tougher Mufti emerges now. His sons’ killers, it transpires, are not the only prisoners of the regime that he has met. “I saw men after they were arrested,” he says. “Some were in tears. They said they thought they were on their way to fight in Palestine, not to fight in Syria.”

There are times – when Sheikh Hassoun speaks of an “external hand”, “elimination” and “criminal gangs” – when one hears His Master’s Voice. And on the question of sarin gas, he takes the government’s side of the story. He quotes Bashar al-Assad as saying he would never use gas against Syrians – that if he had used it, the war would not have gone on for two and a half years.

The first major use of gas came in March at Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province, near the Mufti’s residence, when at least 26 civilians suffocated to death. This is his version of what happened.

“Some of the farm labourers reported to me that all the terrorists in the area had suddenly left – the night before the attack – and had evacuated all their people. So the civilians were happy – they were civilians and many were the wives and children of soldiers – and so they went back at last to their homes. Then came the chemical missile attack. I said at that time, in March, that this event is just an experiment, that gas will be used again in other places.”

This, of course, is not a story the Americans want to hear.

Five months ago, the Mufti was invited to speak at George Mason and George Washington Universities in the United States and he travelled to Jordan for his visa. He says he was asked to go to the US embassy in Amman where he was interrogated by a woman diplomat from behind a glass screen.

“I was so insulted that I decided not to go and I left for Damascus the next morning.” A wise move. Sheikh Hassoun says that, the same day, one of his sons, who was in Amman, received a call from the embassy denying him a visa. “To be a secular Mufti,” the sheikh adds, “is dangerous.”

And it is true that the Mufti is a most secular man – he was even once an Assembly MP for Aleppo. “I am ready to go anywhere in the world to say that war is not a sacred deed,” he says. “And those who have fought under the name of Jesus, Mohamed or Moses are lying. Prophets come to give life, not death.

There is a history of building churches and mosques, but let us build human beings. Let us cease the language of killing. Had we paid all the funds of war to make peace, paradise would exist now. This is the message of my Syria.”

A dangerous man indeed.

An honest test of mass feeling in Syria?

Kind of Lebanese March 8 and 14th mass rallies?

There are suggestions in journalistic circles (for example Sarkis Naoum) for President Bashar el Assad to relax the interventions of the army and security services for a week, just to let the people demonstrate freely where they side.

Those suggestions are basically ironic because loosening of control is not going to happen and also because the Lebanese example was given the wrong political interpretation.

What is that all about?

As the Syrian mandated power over Lebanon withdrew its troops from Lebanon  in 2005, after the assassination of Rafic Hariri and the international pressures on Bashar to withdraw from Lebanon, the Lebanese population demonstrated in mass in the Martyr Square (downtown Beirut).

Hezbollah and the parties supporting Syria during its mandated period, mostly under duress, called out for a mass rally on March 8.  Hundred of thousands crowded the Martyr Square under the  banner “Thank you Syria”.

On March 14, a Sunday, hundred of thousands answered the call for another mass rally to celebrate the event with joy, after over 15 years of official mandated power agreed upon by the US and the western European States (including France).

Fact is both rallies were very happy of the withdrawal of Syrian troops and their intelligence services the “mukhabarat“.  Hezbollah was the most relieved because the physical presence of Syria in Lebanon was the major check and balance on Hezbollah strategy for getting involved in Lebanon politics.   The other Moslem shia faction AMAL, and headed by parliament chairman Nabih Berry, was representing Hezbollah in the parliament and municipal elections and in the government…

The political parties that called for the March 14 rally had also enjoyed privileged support of the Syrian regime, out of proportion of their representation among the population, but every party was relieved that some kind of Lebanese-style political game will be replayed as before the civil war that started in 1975.

Hezbollah was by far the most organized, united, and well-armed among all the other parties, and its tacit jubilation was the most striking of the Syrian withdrawal. Indeed, Hezbollah got totally immersed in Lebanon politics and gained membership in all political representative institutions. Hezbollah was expanding its support bases in many regions in Lebanon and was able to finance its social services from government funding and budget, in addition to Iran organizational, financial, and military support…

It didn’t go unnoticed in Syria what “Thank you Syria” really meant and its implicit malice, and the Syrian regime will not take seriously any Syrian banners among demonstrators saying “Thank you Bashar” and “Long live Bashar”…

Mass rallies in Syria in support of the regime is tacitly expressing feeling of fear and worries of the current situation and the after Bashar conditions.  Not many in Syria favor the coming to power of any Islamic parties, whether they claim to be moderate or otherwise, Turkish-kind or Saudi Wahhabi-kind: The minority sects and communities are very many, educated, and diversified and hate to live under the Islam Charia laws .

If Bashar relaxes its troops for “free” mass rallies, it still will be doubtful what they really mean in their extend of support to the regime.  The Lebanese political parties interpreted the March 8 and 14 rallies as either supporting Syria mandated presence or against.

It is all faked understanding in order to resume the political game without approaching the crucial and critical social and political problems of Lebanon: Mainly, stripping the 18 officially recognized religious sects from their political rights to meddle in civil status and election laws…

Communication technology activists: The challenge to the Syrians secret services

The Irish NGO Frontline, located in Jordan, trained Syrian activists on how to erase data at long distance, secretly exchanging e-mails, and saving sensible database (videos, pictures…). 

For example, the Iranians have provided the Syrian security forces GSM antennas that can expand (balloon) the reach of signals and thus, capture the coordinates of anyone using performing satellite mobiles.

Fidaa al-Sayed, communication Syrian specialist and activist, located in Sweden, countered that breach in security by asking his “operators” on the ground to shut down automatic mode and using solely the manual mode.

Since March 15, If you are caught in Syria publishing images and videos on YouTubes or sending videos to Al-Jazeera channel, you are more likely to be beaten silly or killed in prison.

Transmitting, emitting news from Syria is resembling to activities engaged in Radio London during the occupation of Nazi Germany to France.

Usama Monajed, 31 of age and residing in London since 2005, is one of the precursors for clandestinely supplying communication equipments into Syria.  Usuma had assimilated the “non-violence tactics” of Gene Sharp.  Usama held seminars on communication technologies to Syrian activists, able to visit Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon without visas.

The sophisticated equipments included satellite modems, smartphones, and portable computer. Usama manages the network “Shaam News”, a site based in the USA and functioning since February, three weeks before the start of the Syrian uprising on March 15.

On March 15, 2011, two dozens of young activists demonstrated in the Souk of Damascus, by the Great Mosque.  They shouted: “Syrians, where are you?”  They shot a video of their demonstration that made the tour of foreign news media.  All these youth were detained, and not a single one has emerged from prison since then.

The Syrian regime tactics are to close-off a city, cut electricity and internet connections.  In Daraa, the activists recharged their mobiles using electric generators: They filmed the repression, particularly the beating to death of marchers by the security services, the “Mukhabarat”.  The activists vacated Daraa in the night, walked to nearby villages by the borders with Jordan, and remitted their communication equipments to their contacts.  The videos were transmitted on Al Jazeera.

The “authorities” or the 4th brigade of Maher Al Assad, brother of Bashar, ordered a few neighborhoods to either hand-over the activists or face occupation.  The neighborhoods opted for the second alternative. Maher Al Assad is on top of the wanted list for crimes against humanity.

Amrou is a Syrian activists residing in Paris.  He is 29 of age and has been transmitting live videos to Al Jazeera.  Amrou had smuggled to the activists in Banias quality communication equipments and explained to them how to use the software Bambuster. Bambuster can transmit high quality images directly from a phone. On Skype, the operator in Banias relayed the news: “It is done.  He is on the roof. The manifestation is starting.”  Amrou calls his contact in Al Jazeera in Doha and tells him: “All is in place”.  Three seconds later the live video is on TV stations.

The operator on the ground has to cut filming within 30 minutes, lest he is localized by the Syrian communication specialists to the regime.  Amrou prefers the Iridium satellite phone instead of Thuraya, because it is far secure.   Amrou suggests to his operators to use the software YouSendIT to post on YouTubes: It leaves “no trace on your portable computer.”

The Syrian activist Firas Atassi, residing in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), is in charge of the “communicators” in Homs.  Ammar Abdulhamid of Silver Spring (USA) is managing the activists in Damascus. Syrian communication leaders overseas are centered in Germany, Turkey, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Australia; every where there are heavy Syrian immigrants.

Note 1:  Since March 15, over 15,000 Syrians have gone throught the prisons revolving doors, after suffering harsh and savage torture.  More than a thousands have been assassinated, even within the prisons.  Bashar Al Assad has called upon the retired old guards in the secret and intelligence services to join in the efforts of taming the revolts.  Most probably, things are getting out of hand and Bashar has to pay for not demonstrating firm control over his brutish oligarchies.

Note 2: Most of these information were taken from the French weekly “Le Nouvel Observateur”




June 2023

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