North Africa, West Asia

Syria, storytelling, and all things between: a meta-commentary on ‘the Prisoner Series’

Al-Akhbar English (AAE) is the English branch of a prominent Lebanese newspaper, Al-Akhbar. During the second week of February 2014, Al-Akhbar English published a six-part special series called, “Syrian Prisoners: In Their Own Voices.” This is the story of that series.

Yazan al-Saadi
30 May 2014
Prisoners exercising, 1890, by Vincent Van Gogh

Prisoners exercising, 1890, by Vincent Van Gogh I find it difficult to write about myself. I say this not out of any sense of self-loathing. Rather I think there are countless other voices out there today more deserving. And frankly, if I write in an unrestrained way about myself, I fear I'll come across as an obnoxious buffoon (we have enough of those already, no?).

But in the convoluted discussions over Syria, the meta-commentary exercise we are engaged in matters (or so I'm told). So what follows is also a personal musing (honestly, more like a rant) about the complicated nature of context, memory, personal bias, truth, and one of the oldest topics of them all: story-telling.

Let me first briefly describe who I am.

How the writer came to be

I was born in Kuwait to a hard working, upper-middle class Syrian family. Both my parents are engineers, and sacrificed much, and continue to do so, for family. They fell in love during the heydays of university in Damascus in the 1970s. Their union flourished despite every consecutive trial they faced. They adapted and evolved.

My parents taught my older sister and myself many things. Let's summarize these lessons for convenience: learn and understand everything you can, empathize because it is rare, and trying to do the 'right thing' will always be hard. Also, they inadvertently taught us to be stubborn. A cursed gift.

I lived in Damascus for half a year as a child during the First Gulf War. That was the longest continuous period of time I have lived in Syria. Since my birth and until only a few years ago, my family made sure to visit the country once a year, staying days, weeks, or a few months at a time.

Through these brief annual visits I discovered tiny parts of Syria for myself. Walking the streets, hearing the sounds, smelling the air. Clumsily existing within a sliver of a sub-section of what entails Syrian life was my education and direct experience of that country.

But I mainly learned of Syria from stories told me by my family members and their friends. Chronicles of the trials and tribulations that are part and parcel of the daily toil, fables of bureaucratic absurdity, lamentations about rising prices, or the way a particular field looked as the sun set, and the taste of incredibly sweet pastry. These were typically mundane yarns, with no greater purpose than to represent snapshots of Syrian life as portrayed by whoever the teller was.

But there were other stories that seemed heavier at their core.

Sometimes these were tales spoken in hushed tones or in a dead-pan, matter-of-factual manner. Stories of history and power. Memoirs of those tortured and exploited. Accounts of various forms of injustice, committed by familiar or foreign hands. This assemblage of anecdotes details fatalistic acceptance, festering dissent, and fantasies of what the future may hold.

So many stories, tiny and tremendous. All valuable.

Because of them, I loved and hated Syria.

I haven't been to Syria since the fall of 2010. It's been too long, and a lot has happened.

I'm very well aware that one version of Syria is gone today, and likely never to return.

I regret that I've barely scratched the surface of what I should know about Syria. So I want to be clear: I do not represent millions of people, each a universe of emotions, experiences, ideologies, interests, thoughts, perspectives, regrets, hopes, dreams, ambitions, and intelligence. This is just my story, filtered by my bias, and coloured by my beliefs.

How the ‘Prisoner Series’ came to be

Eventually, I stumbled into journalism. It was a career choice I have yet to find comfortable for many reasons. I am not entirely sure of its contours, or whether I will survive and persist within its system. What I do know however is that I'm fascinated by stories, especially ones that linger along the margins of a spotlight. I wanted to coax them into the foreground, in a way that informs and engages, no matter how miniscule the results.

Journalism is a powerful craft. It educates, raises awareness, and could potentially be a potent positive force for change. At the same time, it manipulates, represses, and can and does ensure the perpetuation of the status quo.

A voice for the voiceless, a rod for the powerful.

It is the worst and the best thing to do for one intrigued by the nature of stories.

It is a thankless task. The pay is horrendous. The hours abnormal. And the stress, uff.

To add insult to injury, words written by journalists are usually lost within the whirlwind of information, where an unceasing industry of reports are spewed forth by newspapers, news-sites, blogs, twitter accounts, commentary sections, gossip columns. Imagine, this infinite web of narratives, viciously and mercilessly competing – and at times cooperating – for dominance.

Journalism has rules and counter-rules, sets of styles, and an array of agendas. It feeds out of drama.

And there are few things more dramatic than war.

The war in Syria, born out of an uprising, has been raging for three years. Hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, billions of Syrian pounds' worth of destruction. I'll leave the sordid details for others to recount.

The war in Syria is not only a physical conflict of political power, human bodies, and military might - it is a war of words, where narratives clash in brutal fashion.

Few news agencies are mainly interested in the truth behind events in all their ramifications. Most have automatically taken a particular side, and actively crafted stories that support their respective positions. The less truths and accuracy are emphasized, the more it is about scoring cheap points within the over-arching propaganda battle.

All the sides, regime or opposition, Arab or foreign, are guilty of this.

Many are unconcerned about what Syrians themselves have experienced or whether they have any voice at all – unless, of course, it fits with a particular narrative. Many more news agencies have exploited fears, victims, and tragedies in order to curry favour with their audiences or their financial/political backers. Hoaxes, exaggerations, hearsay, simplifications, these have all been found acceptable standards of reporting – again, on all sides.

And the audience has participated in this macabre theatre too, in so many ways.

When confronted with a story or narrative that does not conform to their position, the audience has reacted against it – some out of legitimate contentions, others for reasons of the more knee-jerking kind. Rarely are discussions on Syria cool, collected, and civil. Rather, slurs, heated tit-for-tats, and unwavering denials are the norm.

I don't blame the audience entirely. The propaganda coming out from all sides has been astounding. Division and confusion have thrived. And meanwhile the price being paid for this is only paid by the Syrians, no one else.

Al-Akhbar English (AAE), the news-site I write for, is not immune from this conflict.

AAE is the English branch of a prominent Lebanese newspaper, Al-Akhbar. The English website was established in the summer of 2010, by men and women keen on creating an alternative, independent English-language news site, with an ideological bent of a progressive flavour.

The essential idea was to have a platform for local thoughts and views directed towards English-reading audiences worldwide, and to translate Al-Akhbar's Arabic reports into English.

I've been writing for AAE since November 2011. Since then I have seen it transform, shift, and readjust. Al-Akhbar, the newspaper, took a side with regard to resistance, conspiracy, and such. There are kernels of truth in the position they took, and then there are non-truths. This shouldn't be surprising, do you think any other agency is different?

But despite the Arabic newspaper's editorial slant, a variety of views on Syria remains within the paper, particularly within the English website. We, in the English edition, have tried to remain independent as best as we can, and we have always been keen to allow all sides to articulate their positions, to varying degrees of success and failure.

We are painted in simplified shades, charged with being pro-regime or pro-Hezbollah, and thus guilty-by-association. I think such charges shrugs aside a far more complex dynamic at play within the agency. These are narrow, useless observations. Half-truths.

Our ‘prisoner series’ was published in and out of this climate.

Screenshot from Al-Akhbar English's Features page

Screenshot from Al-Akhbar English's Features page

During the second week of February 2014, Al-Akhbar English presented a six-part special series called, “Syrian Prisoners: In Their Own Voices.” Six people shared their personal stories either of being imprisoned by the regime or kidnapped by armed opposition groups.

The idea was not merely to report about these events, but to transcribe what they experienced told to me in their own words. Each account was published, coinciding with the second round of the Geneva II meeting between representatives of the Syrian government and the external opposition.

I had pitched the idea to my editor, and she quickly agreed. It is here I must stress, that a writer is nothing without an editor who is supportive of their work, who tries to push and prod the writer to be better and to cover all bases. I was lucky I suppose. I had a good editor who made sure I got the work done, and challenged what I came up with.

We both agreed that it was necessary to have stories of Syrians who have suffered at the hands of the regime and the armed opposition. It was important, I felt (and so did she) because it showed that despite all that has happened, Syrians are united in one aspect: the crimes committed against them by all sides, and one of the biggest crimes directed by both the regime and the armed opposition – which isn't sufficiently reported on I believe – is the nature of imprisonment, and the torture, abuse, and harassment that flourishes from such acts.

The Prisoner Series

In order for me to accumulate these stories I had to rely on friends in Lebanon, as well as colleagues, who helped me in finding Syrians who have experienced imprisonment by the regime or by the armed opposition and were willing to talk about it. It was frankly easier to find Syrians from the former than the latter, I suppose for a number of reasons:

First, the number of Syrians who went through the regime's incarceration system was staggering, and seemed to be far, far more than those kidnapped by factions of the armed opposition. It became sort of mundane and normalized, a fact of life within the Syrian state – how poignant that imprisonment is quickly explained as “having a cup of coffee” with your neighborhood's security apparatus.

Secondly, the fear of speaking out about being imprisoned by armed opposition groups was highly sensitive – it was tantamount to being supportive of the regime. Indeed, many Syrians opposed to the regime are still uncomfortable with the notion (and I believe, the utter need) to criticize the crimes committed by the opposition. This will change, if it has not already.

Nevertheless, in the span of two weeks I was able to get the voices I needed.

My preference was to sit down with these people in person and record the interview. I had attempted to make sure that they could speak freely, interrupting only when I needed them to not go off on tangents, or asking them to describe a scene they mentioned sketchily in more detail.

Detail, I think, is key in any story. How did the room look, what did they say, what did they hear, what was the colour of the car they were taken in (if they remembered), what was the smell. These seem banal questions, even silly, but I felt it gave the story more richness, it made the story real.

I was also really keen on making sure what was told was the truth, and the truth is a very tricky factor in all of this. But this can be deduced by various means: if there are similarities with other tales, if the timings fit public records, if the story changed during repetition, and so on.

It was hard at times, because I pressed and scrutinized their memory (which is naturally fleeting) of what was undoubtedly traumatic events. I tried to balance my emotional desire to be sensitive, with a more cold-hearted need to ensure that the story was as accurate as it could be. Where were you beaten? Did you scream? Were you sexual molested? Can you describe what the person who aimed their gun at you looked like?

Most of the tellers were understanding. One of them, however, sunk into depression after sharing his tale with me. By his request I did not share his story. It was a good story unfortunately, he had such a unique, dry wit telling it but I think it's better for him to share it when he feels able to. I was told, and I do sympathize with this, is that he ultimately felt (and still does feel) helpless. Helpless for what happened to him, helpless for his liberation, helpless to those who are still trapped.

Helplessness is one of the most terrifying feelings a human being can endure. It is shameful, even though we can all agree that it wasn't their fault. It is steeped in guilt.

I feel helpless about the evolution of this war, and that feeling is part of what drove me to do the prisoner series. It was something tangible I could do in the shadow of this leviathan. Anything in the face of despair and destruction and helplessness.

One thing I do admire in all those who shared their stories is the subtle, dark sense of humour they all had about the experience. It was unanimous. It was humbling that they were able to laugh and joke about extraordinary situations – the surrealism of the Syrian prison system, or the way they were treated in a Kafkaesque manner that sought to dehumanized them, or the sheer chaos of being kidnapped by a faction, which is usually not defined by rules and regulations, but rather the arbitrary whims of the kidnapper. Both terrifying in their respective ways.

I was keen to capture, as accurately as I could, what I had recorded. It was important for me to ensure that each of their unique norms, turns of phrases, and personal styles were there. Was this clear in the final outcome? I'm not entirely sure. I hope so. It is difficult to transcribe such a complex thing as a voice into the simplified form that is an article – with its constraints of space, word length, coherence.

The alternative would be for the reader to be there with me as I did the interview to see the people for themselves, and hear how their tone shifts, how their voices crack, sped up or slowed down, emphasized a word here or there. How their eyes brightened or darkened. How their hands moved wildly when explaining a scenario, or when they casually acted out how they cowered because of this or that situation.

They are human beings after all, and they acted as anyone would have.

We forget the humanity in all this mess. I forget the humanity in all this mess.

Afterthoughts

I personally do not know what I would do if I were imprisoned or kidnapped, and hearing their tales caused me to further question my resolve. I might delude myself with the belief that I would be strong or keep whatever shred of dignity I had. But this is likely far from the truth.

Those who shared their tales are not entirely healed.

I believe that once this war is over, the psychiatric and physical work required is going to be colossal.

Ultimately, the stories were published and as expected, those who were supportive of a certain position shared the stories that matched their interests and lashed out at the stories that did not. My idealistic and ambitious personal aim to cut across the divisions was clearly not going to materialise I’m sorry to say, at least not in such a wide, influential way, as I secretly had hoped. The divsion is too strong, and getting more entrenched with each shot fired or shell launched.

The truly tragic reaction lies in the justifications people made about torture or abuse. Torture, I think, can never be justified, no matter who it is applied to, and for whatever aims. It is simply barbaric. Beyond the immorality of it, torture and abuse does not provide any strategic, tactical, or military benefit other than completely subjugating the victim in the worst of circumstances. And yet, no matter who – regime or opposition – you will have people defend these acts down to the wire. Madness. Sheer, utter madness all around.

Worse still are those who just will not accept or believe that these events are happening. Despite all the evidence one can provide. I imagine even if you dragged them to the prison cells or the kidnapper's havens, and showed them the blood and urine stains on the floor, they still would not budge an inch.

I do think there should be doubt in one's own position, the idea that one should also be critical and harsher on one’s own side against the other, rather than mindlessly following the propaganda.

We are not gods, after all, and even if we were, divinity, as history and fables have shown from time immemorial, does make mistakes.

Nevertheless, people will be people, and they will stick to what they convictions. It is their narrative and they are comforted by it, no matter what the price. And the irony of it all, I think, is that humanity's best is judged by the worst of times, and by that measure, there is no innocent party here. Not one. I wonder if they – regime and opposition – can see how genuinely they mirror each other, would that bridge the divide?

We are told this is a revolution for liberty and dignity, and I see no liberty or dignity in these stories. We are told this is a fight for self-determination and freedom against terrorism and the forces of dominance for the sake of resistance. And yet I see no freedom and self-determination, nor resistance, in these stories. I see horror. I see despair. I see hypocrisy. And I see brutality.

Today, there are still tens of thousands of people who are imprisoned by the regime and there are hundreds who are still kidnapped by the armed opposition. Every day there is abuse, physical, mental, and emotional. They are ignored and forgotten completely as the geo-political game drudges along. I fear they will be forgotten in the public consciousness once this is all over. We cannot allow this.

Their story needs to be heard, and reheard endlessly, so that it is firmly drilled into our minds. We must remember, because I believe if we are to progress in the next chapter of our collective Syrian story, there must come a time of reckoning and accountability.

Until then, let me share a story with you:

Once upon a time there was a young man I met in a cafe in Beirut who said, “My arrest was on March 19, 2012 and they kept me for a year and a half, under the justification that I was delivering food and medicine to conflict 'hot spots'...”    

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