by Elie Chalala. Everything I read about Ghayath Mattar confers an image of a young man who was a model activist in the ongoing Syrian Revolution. Ghayath was a pacifist and advocate of non-violence, states the Madrid-based Syrian exiled author Nawal al-Sibai, according to the website Aklam Hurra (Free Pens). She points out that Mattar’s legacy is what can be called a political will: “Even if they kill us all we should not resort to weapons to defend ourselves.” According to al-Sibai, Ghayath’s death is even more outrageous due to the fact that he was quite distant from the opposition groups who have recently been calling for the use of weapons. Another respected witness to Ghayath’s non-violent character is the writer Abd al-Wahab Badrakhan of Al Hayat: “Ghayath was known in Darayya to have distributed flowers to the soldiers at the beginning of the uprising.”
When the details of his arrest and the manner of his death became known, there were no surprises, especially in terms of the deception and the deadly tricks used in his abduction. The security forces orchestrated an ambush of one of the opposition leaders, 32 year-old Yahiyya Sharbaji, in his hometown of Darayya. Yahiyya’s brother was fprced to telephone Yahia and tell him that he had been wounded. Ghayath went along with Yahiyya to help, but as soon as they arrived, Ghayath was surrounded by shabiha, who were reportedly behaving like wild beasts that froth and salivate at the sight of their prey. Their first act of revenge was taken against his vocal chords, which had so often been heard echoing the word “freedom” with a voice that shook the wall of fear in the early days of the Syrian uprising. Ghayath and his wife were awaiting two births, that of a child and that of a nation. While the killers prevented him from celebrating these momentous occasions, they cannot prevent them from happening all the same. This account of Ghayath’s treatment is based on several sources including Yassin al-Hajj Saleh’s article in Al Hayat, a posting on Ziad Majed’s Facebook page, an article by Ghassan al-Muflah in the Kuwaitee Al Siyassah Newspaper, and is also corroborated by reports from Human Rights Watch. Upon returning Ghayath’s remains to his family in the manner of throwing his corpse down in front of them, the shabiha told the dead activist’s mother and wife to “Take him and make shawarma out of him.”
This same treatment was given to the parents of the Syrian-American musician Malek Jandali, another prominent supporter of the opposition. Jandali’s parents were attacked because of their son’s political convictions and activism,. The harming of the offender’s family members is a tactic of revenge and silencing that was similarly practiced by Saddam Hussein’s regime. In a Friday telephone interview from Orlando, Florida with CNN, Malek Jandali said that, “Dr. Mamoun Jandali, 73, was carrying groceries from his car to his home in Homs when a man grabbed him from behind and asked him to help care for someone who had been injured. “When the doctor agreed to do so, the man spoke into his cell phone and said to bring the patient. Moments later, two other men showed up unaccompanied by any patient. They handcuffed the doctor, covered his mouth and nose with duct tape, then took him upstairs,” Jandali continued. The musician’s 66-year-old mother, Linah, was in bed. “All of a sudden, she finds two men attacking her while the guy was holding my dad and ordering the other two to beat my mom on the head and eyes,” Jandali said. “My dad, he couldn’t do anything other than watch this atrocity.’” The three men broke his mother’s teeth and beat his father, then locked them both in their bathroom and ransacked the house, their son told CNN.
In spite of Ghayath’s pacifism, he was killed under torture in the city of Darayya. When the time came for the funeral, hundreds of Syrians and non-Syrians gathered to pay their respects, including ambassadors from the U.S., Great Britain, Japan, and other EU countries. Their presence, of course, was intended to show solidarity with the Syrian people and honor this peaceful activist who was able to survive for a time amid the violence of Bashar al-Assad’s shabihha. But as soon as the diplomats left the memorial gathering in Darayya, the security forces intervened, using tear gas bombs and firing into the air in order to disperse the hundreds of Syrians who were attending the event.
Ghayath has been eulogized by many Arab commentators. The words of the Lebanese poet Inayeh Jaber in Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper best illustrate the horrific nature of the crime against Ghayath: “The young Syrian man, whose body lay in a heap on the ground, was still breathing when a military man shot three more bullets at his head that silenced him. This scene caused me a deadly horror. I became speechless and collapsed from shock. Had I had the street mentality of the criminals who kill people, I would have gone to search for the murderer and killed him. But since I do not have these vengeful feelings, and am incapable of possessing them, I felt great pain, without knowing its cause — neither the broader nor the more immediate.”
The personal narrative of Jaber continues. “I closed the window despite the summer heat, and paced the room back and forth many times. When I finally opened the window, the tears were streaming down my face. I was surprised by how many tears a Syrian event could elicit. I had heard of Ghayath, but had never seen his picture, thus I tried to draw one by writing. I imagined him being very handsome with romantic features. My interest in imagining Ghayath’s picture was more like a yearning. I imagine it has something to do with madness which the words fear, since Ghayath was tortured to death and buried, making my relationship with him akin to waiting for rainfall after seeing a cloud, but nevertheless waiting in vain”
This picture of Ghayath later emerges in Jaber’s narrative: “When I finally saw his picture on the TV, I felt as though my heart would burst, and the pain was unbelievable indeed… His wide smile in the photograph was just as I had imagined it.” Inayeh Jaber concludes her short eulogy in Al Quds Al Arabi asking, “How is it possible for such a true smile to die…”
But Iraqi sociologist Faleh Abd al-Jabbar sees the murder of Ghayath Mattar through a different lens. He writes, “The dead are dangerous!” The danger comes “when they extend their hands from beyond the grave, from glass cemeteries, or from marble graves, to lay hold on the living. For every dead there is a lover, a bereaved mother and father, sisters and brothers, cousins, fellow villagers and townspeople. The dead are part of a fabric of kinship that is among the oldest in the world. Our Syrian brothers call this the mujtameh ahli (roughly translated as “civil society”), which exists in the villages and towns. It is a collective fabric that gives a meaning to life and death,” wrote al-Jabbar in Al Hayat on September 18, 2011. What this means, perhaps, is that the killers, regardless of their ferocity and because of their inhumanity, will eventually face justice, and, as al-Jabbar commented, it doesn’t matter if this occurs in a tribal, religious or international court. Thus it is the strong and enduring traditions of Al Mujtameh al-Ahli and kinship that may eventually bring the killers to account.
This essay first appeared on Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63