Ghouta, Damascus Province – I was destined to experience the siege with a friend of mine who spent many years in prison. Hardly an event goes by without her comparing the siege to prison, saying that the two experiences are greatly similar in more ways than one.
In both instances, you are confined to a specific and small area. It is all about the same faces and the same stories. One has to learn to suppress their desires, even the most basic ones. Much like the prisoner’s life is in their jailer’s hands, the life of a person under siege is controlled by whoever is firing mortar rounds or manning the MiG jets circling above, not to mention the specters of hunger and illness.
Prison is much harsher than the siege in some respects, such as physical torture and estrangement from one’s family. But the siege is crueler in other ways, as it encompasses one’s family, loved ones, and children, as well as their food, education, and future.
The longer and harsher the siege, the less likely people are to resist, as they grow tired and trapped in their grief and despair.
A few years ago, Yassine al-Hajj Saleh wrote Taming the Beast, in which he described the long-time political prison, its times, ghosts, and tools used to domesticate it in Syria under Assad. It is a story about the victim taming the beast while still under its grasp.
It’s heart-breaking to visualize this weak and frail person whose bones were broken, whose nails were pulled out, who was subjected to methodical hunger, humiliation, and destruction of their identity, smiling calmly at the huge beast with the ugly foamy mouth and flailing long arms.
“The siege is a compulsory lifestyle and a joint experience for tens of thousands of Syrians. Its prolonged duration and broad ‘social basis’ make it a truly national experience.”
Yet many Syrians under the revolution in general, and under the siege in particular, are still experiencing the moment as a temporary thing, even though it has long since turned into an inescapable way of life.
Everyone is tired now, especially as many liberated regions were lost again to Assad forces. When some residents of these regions recently chanted slogans in support of regime troops, I thought that they probably haven’t heard of Taming the Beast, and that the revolution, for them, was epitomized in a military victory here and there, or that death and hunger eventually gained the upper hand in spite of everything.
Everyone is waiting for “liberation,” the date of which remains unknown. The wait alone consumes whatever resistance capacity remains. The wait is abominable, addictive, and excruciating for the mind and soul.
“There are two kinds of people under siege. The first kind ‘kills time’… the siege here is lost time, the negative impact of which is shouldered by the person under siege until the moment of salvation. In contrast, the second kind seeks to tame time, make a new start, and score new achievements under the siege. The besieged here blends the siege into their own life plan, thus giving it a new meaning and broadening the scope of their freedom even when under siege. The most important means to tame time” is not to squander it by waiting. Holes in the thick wall of the siege must be broken though so one can breathe and see the outside world.
It is of no use to try to emulate any part of one’s former life under the siege. Some essentials of one’s previous life no longer exist. Youths recently staged a protest calling for the release of one of their friends who was kidnapped by ISIS. Many street dwellers reacted by asking, “Who is ISIS?”
Life without electricity means life with no TV, no internet, and no outside world. People merely discuss what happens within their narrow geographical area under siege. Even the words used become more repetitive. As times goes by, one starts looking for an elusive word that used to be self-evident before. Visual images gradually fade depending on how rich one’s imagination is.
“The relation between a person under siege and time is complex and contradictory. Some readers among us may be culturally up-to-date and in touch with the outer world, but other aspects of our personalities just stop growing and are dwarfed.” This holds true to a certain extent anyway.
The siege here is different from prison as it is a “semblance of freedom” that gives the illusion that life is bearable. The beseiged thus lives within the boundaries of local elements that puts them under constant pressure, which undermines their capacity to keep up-to-date with – or even feel – whatever is happening outside what they are subjected to.
“The siege is a beast with which one can live only if one tames and controls it.”
It is all about routine and the suffering of daily life at its simplest, such as providing water, food, and cigarettes, and not knowing anything about the siege duration or scope. This accumulates as an exhaustion that gradually glosses over any temporary satisfaction of having defeated the beast.
A friend of mine told me that when MiGs roar overhead, she wants them to come closer so that she can raise her arms toward their metal wings “like the Titanic hero” and let the enormous pressure of the explosion lift her upwards to a noisy and “fun” death.
As long as the beast is not defeated, taming it means that life and death should not be equals. The same holds true for freedom and slavery.
Note: The quoted phrases are taken from Yassine al-Hajj Saleh’s Taming the Beast after replacing the expression “prison is a siege” with “siege.”
This article is a translation of the original Arabic.