Author: Rana Zeid
Photographer: Muzaffar Salman
I am Sara Jamil, I am not Tina Modotti, and I know nothing about the revolution.
On Good Friday April 22 2011 I saw people dressed in grey. Their eyes were like the eyes of good wolves that lost their will years ago. The clamour was like a moaning, an echo refracted from the sleeping, waking mountain: “Freedom…Freedom.” The Syrian regime is aghast. Fear of the regime is its omnipotence, and the collective strength its gallows. The protesters can only suppress the bitterness by being found guilty.
I spent my days alone in my home close to the gateway to the Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus, a road plastered with mages of Assad. I used to imagine that there must be a statue at all the gateways to the towns near by that would show Assad naked, with the male sex hidden behind a stone apron, and possibly a dwarf from the security services wrapped around his leg. The incarnation of he who sees himself as this country’s sole demon.
The protesters’ voices sounded like the roar of a gigantic water pump which, having been shut off, is letting the water flow freely into the countryside. Their voices protested the silence of Damascus and were a warning to the town and its stupid reaction, the mukhabarat on the Abbasin Square and the snipers on the rooftops, the crust of residential Damascus. A fragile and layered crust like the rings of an onion that only provokes lustful and mendacious tears when you rip them off. I thought this was a spontaneous reaction from people of the suburbs, whom I had seen curl up on the floor of the microbus, crammed with the other passengers heading home, stuck right in the volcano of this misery. Their clothes were covered with dust, but their hearts kept illuminating the night and continued their song.
A bout of hysterical crying gripped me as the demonstration passed by. That day all the protesters from the suburbs were headed for the Abassin Square in the heart of the capital. Once when I was small I was seized by that same hysterical crying while attending prayers on the Night of Power, Leilat al-Qadr, the third to last night of Ramadan, and Sheikh al-Buti broke out in tears in the Iman Mosque in the Mazraa neighbouthood, and I thought that he must be unhappy because of my misery, so I cried long and pointlessly.
I cried as if I was being cleansed of my sinful obedience to Satan while I looked at them; and a protester inspired me to wait until the next day before I joined the protesters of the Syrian Revolution at the Ummayin Square. He murmured something to the effect that there would be two million for me to walk with. I was overjoyed and started to take photographs so that they could be published.
I was betrayed by a road going from Damascus to the suburbs on the outskirts of town; it splintered me. I who knew nothing about the revolution except for some rebels’ faces. The next day the taxi driver who locked the doors around me said: “We have removed your body with bulldozers, do you know that I also took part?” I answered audibly: “It is a duty. On second thoughts we should clear away the brains. Please let me out here.”
They killed hundreds of protesters in the massacre of Zablatani. I passed the massacre, walked over the roads, where the killing had happened, heading towards the city.
During the siege of the suburbs on the outskirts it is a bad idea to breathe. On the very same long road that I followed by foot years ago, heading home without a single pound on me, I was shot at, but I did not die, the fast car was only hit by a stray bullet. We drove on the side streets, the ghosts floated around, laughing; I heard the sound of the bullets penetrating material: objects, bodies, and I started to feel on my back with my hand. I was struck by a brief panic attack, I thought the bullets had penetrated me, I saw the running blood, their running blood, and started practicing how my soul would leave my body. It mattered that I was too good to die, I did not want to embarrass myself in front of them and look like an idiotic martyr.
The Arab Syrian Army entered battle formation, like the Israeli Army, who get up to shoot, only to then sit down for fear of the unarmed protesters. I saw soldiers huddling under bridges as if they were Satan’s embryos. After Good Friday in the countryside of Damascus, and in Homs… Syria became a vast plain left to travelling thieves, like in Tjekhov’s Russia.
In Homs the solider hid behind a barricade of sandbags. In front of a traffic light he looked like he was about to shoot anyone who as much as looked at him, as if the gaze could reveal who was a demon or expose who was slowly turning into one.
I shook like a chicken that knows it will be slaughtered once it is grown. But the stupid interrogator was not able to use a computer, so he pretended to conduct a thorough inspection in front of his people, after he had asked me to turn on my laptop. Then he shouted that I wasn’t guilty. The Baa’th Party does not provide security personnel with technical tools. They give them sticks, bullets, duct tape and nails.
One of the officers said to me: “I don’t want to carry weapons, they forced me to do it, I am scared of the protesters.”
The officer: “Who are they?”
Me: “The protesters, those who shout: freedom, freedom.”
The officer: “And what else did they shout?”
Me: “They weren’t shouting, they carried a banner with an elegantly written slogan: Keep Maher al-Assad’s hand away from the people.”
The officer: “Are you crazy?”
Me: “No, most certainly not Colonel sir.”
The officer (pleased): “I am an officer, not a colonel.”
Me: “I hope you will get a whole a brigade. If his Excellency doctor Bashar al-Assad has abolished the state of emergency, why am I here?”
The officer: “You are hallucinating, who is this Bashar?”
Me: “Bashar, the demon who frightens the fig cactuses in the gardens of the poor Mezze neighbourhood.”
The officer: “We are all Bashar.”
They let me go because my husband belongs to the Alawite sect.
An hour after my release I was numb from the after effects of the psychological torture, and the scars stayed on my body for the next three years. My passport photo shows no personal features, I don’t look like it, and it doesn’t look like me. In the mirror I am a wolf eating its hand. I resemble a neutral yet penetrating smell, like the smell of pink markers when you are ravenous at school.
If I had known that the world would become murderous, I would have shouted: Come back dear friends, eat my body, don’t go, this is not where the revolution is, it only takes place in the poor areas of Damascus. The monster eats the hungry ones.
A journalist interrogated me. I knew that he was in direct contact with Buthaina Sha´ban’s office, so I lied about my political views, because most foreign media in Syria are controlled by people who work with the security services. He said to me: “Shhh… the telephone dialer has been open all through our conversation.” I did not ask him which security service was on the line, instead I whispered to him: “They hung up a long time ago, don’t worry. There is nothing of importance in our conversation.”
I am Sara Jamil, my chestnut brown hair has been left to the turbulent wind: Go, don’t go, go to your death. I am she who knows nothing about the revolution. My summer shirt. An officer ripped it by a control post blocking the main road between Homs and Damascus’ outskirts on one side and Damascus on the other. There, close to the Tropicana swimming pool, in front of the October War Liberation Panorama, the museum of victories over the brutal enemy, the Syrian regime defeated the survivors from the massacre of Eastern Ghouta and arrested most of them. My hair flew in the wind and they waved to me, they wanted me to take more pictures. The rebels of Sabqa, of ´Ain Terma, Kafar Batna, and Harasta, and Duma… I am your sister Sara, the jailer killed me and sent me to the city of whores. I am still suppressing my fear at every roadblock, and at every siege I take a stone in my mouth and chew it in order not to divulge anything. I am Sara Jamil, my body is a sacrifice to the crows. Will you return from the dead?
I heard strong voices telling me: Sara, don’t be afraid, pretend you are afraid of us and your death curse will soon be broken. I used to shudder with fear and lie and say that I was against you. The Dochka was right in front of me, while long rows of tanks ploughed the soil. Before this I was walking with a bag on my shoulders trying to escape the recurrent siege. The sniper looked at me. He held up a machine gun that could easily reduce me to a butterfly net. I waved to the soldiers, to the murderers, like some convincing traitor. Then the fourth control post stopped me, my bones groaning. His words crushed my silence and I said to him: The armed gangs will burn down the country, so that he would let me pass through to Damascus and avoid the humiliation.
I used to think of love, of kisses, but now my body is covered with big, blue marks, I swell up when I get sad and I shrink when I’m cheerful.
I am Sara the disappointed, Sara the hungry, Sara the dead. Have you found my body amongst the bodies in the mass grave? I’ve been looking for it since that day, I want to kiss it, squeeze it, and then bury it. I beg you, don’t wave to me again, for I still believe that Bashar al-Assad’s regime can spy on me, I still have a personality disorder. For two years I haven’t left my home. Please bury my lost body in the countryside.
I arrived to the centre of Damascus, everything was as it always had been, the city’s civilized, comfortable faces drove me crazy, I hated myself and these faces, I hated hearing the sentence: “You don’t have the luxury of detention” from a tongue covered in curses. I answered cagily: “Let’s talk about the dark night Modigliani spent with Anna Akhmatova.”
Translation by Sune Haugbølle
This text was originally published in Arabic in alhayat.com in 2014, click here for the Arabic text.