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No Loyalty Even for a Loyalist: Stories from Syria’s ‘World of Ghosts’ (Ahmad’s Story)

by Elie Chalala. Over the years, we have devoted a generous space to covering dissent by Arab intellectuals, especially the Syrians. We believed that most of those who were arrested and imprisoned for long periods of time, the poet Farag Bayrakdar, 14 years; Riadh al-Turk, 17 years; Yassin al-Haj Saleh, 16 years, had been viewed as members of different leftist and Communist parties, thus posing threats to a repressive regime. But after reading stories written by the leftist intellectual and Syrian opposition figure Michel Kilo, during his time in Al Maza Military Prison (the article to follow is based on one of his stories), readers can clearly recognize that even ordinary Syrians, harboring little if any hostile feelings toward the regime, have spent similar periods of time in prison.

Appearing in the London-based Asharq Alawsat daily, a strong supporter of the Syrian opposition, Ahmad’s story about “concealing secrets from the Syrian authorities,” powerfully narrated by Kilo, hit me on two levels. First, Ahmad’s personal tragedy, while it is to be fully anticipated from a repressive regime, is still powerful and has had a marked impact even on those familiar with the regime’s savagery; second, it testifies to the sheer stupidity of the Syrian dictatorship, challenging the  assumption that even though authoritarian, this regime represents some sense of order and justice. This false hope of legitimacy ended quickly as images appeared of MiG 23 and Sukhoi jets bombing the Syrian people and destroying their cities and villages.

While on the upper floor of the notorious Al Mazza Military Prison, Kilo noticed a prisoner had posted on the wall behind him two pictures: one of a red rose with a picture of the Lebanese diva Fairuz, and the second of Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s former president and, of course, Bashar’s father. The prisoner’s peculiar choice to place the picture of his jailer and tormentor over his head intrigued Kilo.

When Kilo asked if that prisoner was an informant and supporter of al-Assad, one man answered, “No.” On the contrary, the prisoner, a recipient of a prestigious award, having distinguished himself during the 1973 October War. Kilo also noted the prisoner’s eyes were red with tears, and that at night he constantly cried and moaned. But when the prison warden passed around at 11 o’clock to shower the prisoners with insults, the prisoner had gone to sleep.

Ahmad the prisoner told Kilo that his brigade commander asked him to travel from his military base at Al Qatifato the city of Qatana in Rif Damascus, in order to transfer a tank. When he arrived, the maintenance officer told Ahmad to wait in a coffee shop, where he would be notified when the tank was ready. He obliged, entered the coffee shop, and sat in a far corner. Because he did not know any of the officers then in the restaurant, he put on his beloved headphones, and played songs of Fairuz. In fact, he loved Fairuz so much that his tank bore her name. A group of officers sat in another corner, but he hardly noticed their conversation because of his preoccupation with Fairuz. Hours passed and a soldier arrived, telling Ahmad, “the tank is ready.” Later, it was placed on a carrier.

Ahmad was arrested only two days later and accused of keeping secrets. The investigator asked about the officers’ conversation in the restaurant, but Ahmad told him that he had heard nothing but Fairuz. The investigator became upset and kicked, slapped, and electrified Ahmad, all on the grounds that he was concealing information. Ahmad eventually concluded that the officers were accused of talking about orders to defend the Euphrates Dam against an Iraqi attack. Then, one of the participants complained after hearing the order, saying, “We have the Israeli enemy, and apparently this is not enough, so we have to have an Arab enemy?” Ahmad says that the investigator identified these officers as the “conspirators.” Of the seven of them, three of them were, like Ahmad, recipients of awards of honor. Ahmad also said the Baath newspaper published an interview with him about his award in the October War, and then reprinted it annually for the six years he remained in prison. Nor did it matter that the conspirators said that they neither knew “me nor my identity.”

Ahmad also said that the conspirators ridiculed him as a “womanish” officer for wasting his time listening to music.

The accusations of concealing secrets landed Ahmad in prison with the other “conspirators” where he was subjected to three months of torture. Kilo said that he did not ask him about the picture of Hafez al-Assad hanging over his head, but Ahmad noticed it as if he were seeing it for the first time and said, “His mercy is the only saving hope. “

“I am now 33 years old, and if he pardoned me, I would be able to resume my life, work as a driver, marry and make a family, and perhaps build a home and become happy…” Ahmad’s excuse for posting the picture centered on his hope that one of the prisoners or the policemen would write a report about it and thus the authorities would grant him freedom. One night, Kilo writes, “while we were in the midst of a chess game, Ahmad asked me loudly, apparently intentionally so the others could hear: ‘Isn’t the president a beast and criminal when he imprisons a person until death, though he would have been able to grant him mercy or issue an order to execute him?”

But the president did not grant mercy to anyone; only releasing Ahmad from prison after 17 years and two months, at which point he had become a ruin of a human being, “almost blind from crying,” wrote Kilo.  Ahmad never married after his release, never had children, never built a home, and never tasted happiness. He confined himself to a room, a virtual prison that he never left except to relieve himself. When he died after two years, his brother told Kilo, “He never left Kafar Soussa — his home town — for Damascus except once, and during his last days, he refused to eat despite his mother’s pleading and constant cries.”

This is one of many stories which Kilo describes as “actual stories from the world of Ghosts,” and that reveals the reality of a regime that harbors no loyalty for its people, not even its own loyal soldiers.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, No. 64.

© Copyright 2014  AL JADID MAGAZINE
Artwork: “Untitled by” by Imran Faour, source Al Jadid.