The Syrian city of Al-Salamiyah lies to the east of Hama, where the Fertile Crescent becomes barren. The ruins of Shmemis castle, dating to the late Hellenistic period, cling to the cone of an extinct volcano nearby. The major historical site in the city itself is a shrine containing the tombs of Imam Taki Muhammed and Radi Abdallah. Some believe that Imam Ismail, the foundational figure of the Ismaili sect, is buried here too.
Although it’s an ancient city, with ancient links to the Ismaili faith, the ancestors of its present population were 19th and 20th century migrants from Ismaili hill towns to the west, places such as Qadmous and Misyaf. The town, which also houses significant populations of Sunnis, Twelver Shiites and Alawites, has long been a model of sectarian co-existence. Its secularism has been real – a genuine popular tolerance for difference, not the debased, propagandistic ‘secularism’ of the regime.
Along with Homs, Darayya, Dera‘a and Kafranbel (each one for different reasons), Al-Salamiyah has become one of the capitals of the Syrian revolution. As a predominantly non-Sunni community which has since the start stood solidly for freedom and against the regime, its example proves both the mendacity of Assad’s sectarian narrative and the oversimplified western media discourse which portrays the fight as one between Sunni extremists and minority-secularists.
As part of its divide-and-rule strategy, the regime has spared Al-Salamiyah the aerial bombardment and rocket attacks it has visited on majority-Sunni areas, but the city has suffered as much as anywhere from detentions and disappearances. Its revolutionaries, like all revolutionaries in regime-controlled areas, live underground.
Al-Salamiyah has also bled (in January and February) from bomb attacks, probably organised by Jabhat al-Nusra, which targeted the regime’s shabeeha militia but also killed many innocent civilians. Despite such provocations, Al-Salamiyah’s revolutionaries have cooperated with the Salafists of Ahrar ash-Sham, who have brought food aid to the city. And the community has done a great deal to house and feed its brothers and sisters of all sects fleeing violence in Homs and Hama. Pioneers of the early non-violent protests, many of Al-Salamiyah’s residents are now engaged in the armed struggle.
When I met Aziz Asaad, an activist from Al-Salamiyah, across the Turkish border in Antakya, I asked him why the community was so revolutionary, why it hadn’t been scared into fence-sitting or even grudging support for Assad by the Islamist elements of the opposition. His answer: “We read a lot. We’ve always read books.”
It’s certainly true that the city’s sons and daughters are renowned for their education and culture. Just one example: the great poet, satirist and screenwriter Muhammad al-Maghut grew up here. His verse, more cynical and less romantic than that of the slightly more popular Nizar Qabbani, was attuned to the ugly tone of the times:
“Lebanon is burning – it leaps, like a wounded horse, at the edge of the desert and I am looking for a fat girl to rub myself against on the tram, for a Beduin-looking man to knock down somewhere...”
Why did Al-Salamiyah rise? For the same basic reason as the rest of Syria: in reaction against the terrible decades-long oppression of the Assad regime. Here, as illustration, is Aziz’s personal story.
When he was 19 he was a student of Information Systems Engineering, as eager as any of his townsmen to earn academic qualifications. He was also a young man with a passion for airplanes. When he met an Iraqi ex-pilot he was spurred to research and write a long article on the role of air power in the Iran-Iraq war. He managed to publish the article in “Avions,” a specialist magazine in France.
That was his mistake. He thinks something in the article must have upset the Iranians, Assad’s closest allies. He was arrested and tried for the crimes of “seeking to undermine national unity, and the disclosure of military information.” He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment. After the first year, and after paying a thousand-dollar bribe, his parents were able to pay him a two-minute visit. During this agonizingly brief encounter they were insulted by the guards, but at least they knew their son was alive.
Aziz spent four months of his detention in solitary confinement, in the dark. Mercifully, he forgot his sense of smell. Sight was irrelevant.
The cell was 90 cm wide and 180 cm long. It included a toilet and a tap. The terrible humidity caused mould to grow on his skin. He caught scabies from his filthy blanket. Sores filled with puss developed all over his body. Unable to see, he explored these with his fingers.
How did he survive? By exercising his memory. He remembered his parents, his brothers and sisters, his aunts and uncles, and he laughed and cried. He was tormented by guilt for hurts he had inflicted on his loved ones, and moved to tears by their remembered kindnesses.
But imagination didn’t always help. One day (we can’t specify morning or evening, because he had no way of distinguishing), Aziz awoke in great pain. He touched his right shoulder. An insect emerged from the skin there. He grasped the thing and judged it a cockroach, but it seemed larger than a cockroach. For a timeless stretch after that he was gripped by panic. He threw himself against the walls. He imagined his face being eaten. When despairing calm returned, he considered suicide, but could think of no way to commit the act: he could find nothing sharp, nothing to make into a rope. These were the worst moments of his life.
Some days later he was taken from the cell for yet another interrogation. Because the interrogating officer couldn’t stand the smell, he ordered hot water and Aziz was able to wash. In the light for the first time, he had visual proof of his sores. The swellings, particularly those in the abdomen and thighs, held the shapes of subcutaneous worms.
At some point after that he was called again from the cell. Alcohol was thrown on his body. It stung terribly, but he knew it would help to cleanse his wounds. Then the guard brought out a lighter and set fire to Aziz. Aziz ran. Aziz screamed.
This torture did in fact get rid of the parasites. Eventually Aziz was moved to a shared cell, anointed with disinfectant in the mornings, and placed two hours daily in the sun. Until his physical wounds had healed.
Some die. In September 2008, Aziz saw a young Christian man perish under torture in the Faiha branch of the Political Security.
But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
“I bore it,” he says. “I told myself to be patient, that I would get out and assert my rights some day or another. And the beautiful thing is, I didn’t have to be patient for so long. Less than a year after my release, the revolution began.”
Since the outbreak of revolution, so many have been killed under torture, so many adults, so many children. Children have been raped in front of their parents; parents have been raped in front of their children. Such abuses have been a key counter-revolutionary strategy, and they have been perpetrated on an enormous scale. But as Aziz’s story makes clear, sadism has always been a normal part of the regime’s repertoire.
Given this knowledge, we must ask if it is lack of humanity or lack of imagination which makes some condemn the Syrian people’s struggle. And what kind of simple-mindedness assumes that Syrians need Gulf or Western provocateurs to prod them toward rebellion? The relevant question isn’t why a community would revolt against such oppression, but why not?
Today Aziz is tormented by the fact that he was unable to complete his education. As for the revolution, he recognises that hard times lie ahead, yet he’s sure of the final victory. For that, he thanks the regime. “They made us strong,” he says. “They trained us to withstand any torture.”
Robin Yassin-Kassab is a novelist and co-editor of the Critical Muslim.