This photograph was taken in our house, my wife Samira Al-Khalil and me (Samira leans her head on my shoulders at the back), in the Qudsayya suburb to the west of Damascus towards the end of 2005. The photograph encompasses a lot of Syria’s history in the last half century, without being a photo of people invested with power, capital or influence.
Seated on the left in the photograph is the lawyer, human rights activist, and author Razan Zaytouna who is one of the most prominent figures of the Syrian revolution, a revolution that is now missing an essential component with her absence. Razan was one of the most prominent founders of the Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) that was instrumental organizing protests as well as documenting and covering them in the press. She lived in hiding for over two years in Damascus before she was smuggled out with Wael Hamada, her husband, to Douma on the 25th of April 2013. Razan worked in Douma and Eastern Ghouta documenting atrocities committed against the Syrian people at the hands of the main violator, the regime, and then the then ascending violators, Islamists. On the evening of the 9th of December 2013, Razan was abducted by an armed Salafist militia called The Army of Islam.
Seated near Razan is Randa Baath, who has translated several books from French to Arabic by the likes of Pierre Bourdieu, Olivier Roi, Pascal Dibie and many others.
At Randa’s side is her husband Emad Shiha, who has spent 30 years in the regime’s prisons between 1974 and 2004. Emad was a member of a pan Arab Communist Organization (ACO) which spanned three countries: Kuwait, Lebanon, and Syria. All the members of the organization, hardly a few dozens, were arrested, with the worst thing the Kuwaitis and Lebanese suffered from being a three-year prison sentence. The ACO had carried out a bombing of an American facility in Damascus in 1974, which resulted in the death of a Syrian citizen. In an interview conducted by Razan Zaytouna weeks after his thirty-year in jail, Emad summarized the organization’s fate as follows: “five of our comrades received death sentences which were carried out on the 2nd of August 1975. Eight members received 15-year sentences, and five got life sentences”. What Emad did not mention was that his brother, Ghiyath, was one of those executed, while he and Fares Mourad (seated on the far right of the picture) were two of the people who received life sentences.
At the time of the executions, it had been just under five years since his military coup d’état, and perhaps Hafez al-Assad saw this as an opportunity to monopolize violence, legitimacy, and justice all in one move. The man would become soon the source of his regime’s legitimacy, of the Syrian state, and its very entity indeed. This is what lay the grounds for transforming the republic in Syria to a dynastic rule. Hafez al-Assad is absent in this photograph, and he was absent from life when it was taken, after thirty years in power where his image was omnipresent. The photograph shows another Syria, divers and multicolored, one that was invisible at that time.
After thirty years in prison, Emad began translating books from English into Arabic, he also wrote two novels: The pollen, Desired Death and Remnants of Babylonian Times. Up to recently, he was residing in Damascus with Randa. They have just moved to Paris for medical reasons.
Near Emad sits a young Syrian woman who lived abroad but was visiting Syria at the time, she was a friend of Razan as well as being a prominent writer and activist for the Syrian cause. It is a very Syrian thing not to be able to mention her name.
Near the young woman is Fares Murad, a Palestinian-Syrian who was born in Al-Nayrab refugee camp in Aleppo. He is a friend of Emad and his comrade in the ACO, in struggle, and in prison. Fares was released in February 2004, six months before Emad. During his time in prison, he developed spondylosis where the vertebrae begin to fuse together, causing a curvature in the back and a compression in the neck, which meant Fares needed to actively maneuver his body in order to visually engage with whoever he was talking to. The lungs are also compressed between the hardened curved spine and the ribs, which causes shortness of breath and a host of lung infections. This was what eventually ended Fares’ life, who was not allowed to leave the country to receive proper treatment abroad. He passed away in 2009 at the age of 59 and was buried in Damascus. Emad and Randa had to pay a big bribe for Emad to be able to leave the country to France.
The bearded man standing on the left is Shady Kurdiyah, a friend of mine and Samira who was visiting at the time. He was born and resided in the city of Al-Salamiya in central Syria. Shady was not a former political prisoner, nor was he a political activist in particular, rather, he joined the circles of former leftist political prisoners out of trust and friendship. Shady was imprisoned twice after the Syrian revolution began where he was tortured. Shortly after his second release from prison he passed away at the age of 43.
Standing next to Shady is Nazem Hammady, a lawyer, poet, and human rights activist. Nazem, along with Razan, was one of the founders of LCC, having had to live in hiding as well from the beginning of the revolution, until his smuggling to Douma (with Wael Hamada) in September 2013, weeks after the chemical massacre in Eastern Ghouta in August 21. Nazem lasted under three months in Douma before he was abducted and forcibly disappeared along with Razan by the Army of Islam. After his abduction, a poetry collection of his was published under the title Against. Before his disappearance, a separate poetry collection was published entitled, The Mysterious Mulberry Leaves.
Near Nazem stands Samira Al-Khalil, spouse of this writer. Samira was an activist and member of a leftist opposition group called the Communist Action Party, having spent four years imprisoned between 1987 and 1991. Samira was disappeared along with Nazem and Razan, her fate remains unknown since the evening of December 9th, 2013. After her forced disappearance, I edited a book which contained her handwritten diaries in the bombed and besieged Douma. The book also contains a selection of posts Samira published on her Facebook page at that time. The book is entitled Diaries of siege in Douma 2013, and it has been translated to Spanish, Italian, French, and the English translation has been completed but has not yet been published.
To the side of Samira is me, her husband. I have also been a leftist political prisoner for 16 years, from 1980 until 1996 for being a member of another communist organization called the Syrian Communist Party – Political Bureau. I met Samira after my release, started a relationship and eventually got married in 2002, towards the start of my career as a writer. I have published nine books, along with hundreds of articles in journals and magazines. I have been living outside Syria since October 2013, firstly in Turkey and subsequently in Germany since 2017.
Behind the camera stands Wael Hamada, Razan’s husband, who is also a human rights and political activist, and another of the founders of the LCC. After the revolution, Wael was imprisoned twice by the regime, the final time being in al-Mazzeh airport, which is controlled by the fourth battalion, a fascist military collective headed by Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s brother, who transformed several airplane hangars into torture camps. Wael initially fled to Douma with Razan on the 25th of April 2013, but the courageous man quickly returned to Damascus to continue his revolutionary activities, before finally making his way back to Douma and settling there in September 2013. Wael disappeared along with Razan, Nazem, and Samira on the 9th of December 2013.
There are two important aspects in the photograph above: the first being a red and black photograph of Samir Kassir to the right of my head. Samir was a Lebanese journalist, historian, and activist who was assassinated in Beirut in June 2005, right after the forced withdrawal of Assad’s forces from Lebanon in April 2005, he was forty-five. Samir had a central role in the Independence Uprising that preceded this withdrawal and was ultimately assassinated with a bomb placed at the bottom of his. Samir’s assassination was a response of the Syrian- Lebanese security regime to the forced withdrawal. At the time, the security regime resorted to a series of assassinations, which started with Rafik al-Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, who was assassinated in February of the same year. Samir who had Palestinian and Syrian origins was the first Lebanese intellectual to link Lebanese independence to democracy in Syria, having written a book about the topic. A year before Samir’s assassination, we, Samira and I, were in Beirut and we met Samir, he signed a copy of his book for us: Syrian Democracy and Lebanese Independence, and his other book Military for whom? After this trip to Beirut, I was banned from travel and therefore was unable to participate in his funeral.
In Remnants of Auschwitz, Giorgio Agamben discusses the paradox of witness, with the Nazi concentration camps in mind: those who have seen all do not testify for they have not survived, and those who have survived have not seen all, making their testimony lacking. Testimonies are therefore not possible, for there are no witnesses to the most extreme experiences, the ones in urgent need of witnesses, the most egregious aspects in humanity’s fate, from long years of imprisonment to torture, to assassination, and forced disappearances. Who has seen everything? Samir? Fares? Shady? Samira, Razan, Wael, or Nazem? None of them returned to testify.
In Arabic, there is an etymological link between the witness (shahid) and the martyr (shaheed), one which can be interpreted to mean that one cannot be an eyewitness unless one is at once a martyr, for only the martyr has seen all. But the martyred do not rise to tell their stories, it is us, the ones who were not martyred who tell their stories. We testify because we have both survived and did not survive. Our survival of what happened to our loved ones is an opportunity for us to speak, while our failure to survive (we bear those loved absent within us) imbues our testimony with credibility, though it remains incomplete.
Another detail is the books in the background of the picture, this is our library, Samira and me, in our rented apartment in a suburb of Damascus. These books have been packed up in cardboard boxes and placed in a cellar in Damascus. This is the most sever insult to books who needs our eyes to exist. Samira had already been disappeared a few weeks before the house was abandoned, and I was already out of Syria. some of our loved ones took it upon themselves to deposit the books and our stuff in “safety”.
In this picture there is more than 24 years of forced disappearances, over 80 years of prison time, one assassination, two premature deaths, and years of exile’s suspended life. These experiences have shaped the Syrian identity and a lot of the Lebanese identity over the past 50 years. Today, both nations endure the worst crises they have faced in over a century.
But there is life in the photo. Our life, women and men, meeting from time to time in our private places, eating, drinking araq or wine, exchanging information, helping each other, and possibly singing and dancing. We wanted to have ordinary lives, and this proved to be impossible in “Assad’s Syria”. For ordinary life entails public ordinary life, normal life or all. You must change to regime of permanent exception to live ordinarily. This is what the Syrian revolution was about, and what we tried to achieve. We lost.
The photo looks to be a testimony of the past. In reality, it talks much about present to those who want to listen, or to look.