Why We Decided to Stay in Damascus

For many Syrian dissidents who have left the country out of necessity or desperation, it is quite inconceivable that there remain many anti-regime activists living in Damascus. Some of them have given up political, revolutionary and civil activity, while others are still trying to play a role. There are those who have opted to work publicly within organizations that are not banned or persecuted, and those who are still working in secret despite the grave risks that entails. Here they explain their reasons for staying in the capital.

19 October 2017

Alice Al-Shami

Alice Al-Shami (pseudonym) is a Syrian writer.

Translated by: Yaaser Azzayyaat

[This article is part of a SyriaUntold series featuring daily life stories from Damascus]

For many Syrian dissidents who have left the country out of necessity or desperation, it is quite inconceivable that there remain many anti-regime activists living in Damascus. Some of them have given up political, revolutionary and civil activity, while others are still trying to play a role. There are those who have opted to work publicly within organizations that are not banned or persecuted, and those who are still working in secret despite the grave risks that entails.

They all realize, however, that they are in a vastly different place from where they were seven years ago. Perhaps this is what constitutes a fundamental difference between them and other activists who have fled the country.

31-year-old artist and cartoonist

“When I read what exiled dissidents post on their blogs and social media accounts, I sense that they are stuck at the moment of their departure, maintaining a static image of the Syrian situation, of life in the city, and of the revolution. Perhaps it was too painful for them to recognize the massive change the country has sustained, and the major shifts in the balance of power. The domains of struggle have been disintegrated into thousands of small pieces, and isolation has eroded the common denominators shared between many of them.

In fact, those who had nothing in common in the wake of the revolution, or may have been even deemed polar opposites, have found new common denominators in the minutiae of everyday life. The indiscriminate shooting and bombing has more or less united them all.

It remains so, at least, until a debate turns into a blame game. At the end of the day, you realize the difficulty of voicing your opinions once you hear common phrases such as ‘Is this their goddamned freedom?’ or ‘The army must burn that region to the ground.’ No one wants to listen to you or give credence to your take on what is happening. What are you even doing here, if you are a dissident? Go abroad; go to the rebel-held areas; live under ISIS and Al-Nusra; there is no place for you among us. No one recognizes the existence of an opposition in Damascus. Those with known pasts of dissent must have remained in Damascus after admitting to their sins and repenting for their disbelief.

I remain in Damascus. Whatever happens, this city will remain my origin and my destiny. Regardless of regimes and rulers, Damascus is my natural habitat, the home of my memories. Nothing can wash away my memories of this place, and these days will soon turn into memories added to our record of this strange, complex and cruel, beautiful and ugly city. Nothing in the world is quite like Damascus to me, and I feel fortunate to still find my place in it.

As dissidents who have not left the country, we live defeat every day; the defeat of our dream. We cannot deceive ourselves. The details stare at us on every corner, at every moment of our lives: when we walk in the street, when we follow up bureaucratic processes, when we go to work, and when we buy groceries. At the same time, I believe that our choice to live in defeat is a triumph in one way or another: a triumph over delusion. We cannot base a revolution on delusions and float far from the ground. I would rather experience the pain of defeat than live in sweet delusion.”

36-year-old engineer and civil activist

“I do not know how or why I escaped detention so far. Perhaps this was one of the fundamental reasons I never considered leaving. I do not blame anyone, and I am in no position to judge others. I am one of the fortunate few who did not pay dearly. I was never arrested. I have never been pursued. I was not forced to leave my house. I have not been forcibly recruited to any belligerent group.

In fact, very few know about my secret activism, and no one at my workplace knows that I am a dissident. I have remained calm and cautious as to what I say since day one. I was witness to entire groups of activists getting arrested due to recklessness and frivolous chatter.

I understand that the road is very long, and as foolish as this may sound, I am still hopeful. I did not anticipate a swift transition in the beginning, and when the movement turned into an armed rebellion, I quarreled with many activists I used to work with. I insisted on calling it a counterrevolution that will prolong the road and lead to nowhere positive.

I try to be objective, and honestly, I have no personal feelings against the regime. I do not care if he [Asad] leaves or stays in power for the rest of my life. All I know is, one day he will leave, but how and at whose hand, and will the alternative be better? I do not think we would like the answers to these questions.

I believe the error into which we have all fallen, as we rebelled against a regime so entrenched in an extremely complex political setting, was that we only listened to what we wished to listen to. We mistook this for an easy feat following the example of Egypt and Tunisia. Many of us now realize that both the Tunisian and the Egyptian revolutions are not over either, and that counterrevolutionary movements are easy traps to fall into.

I think staying here increases the potential for positive change. It creates balance of sorts. I do not refer only to myself, but people like me who dream of bringing about change. In fact, there has been change. It may be hard to believe, but Syrians today will not return to pre-2011.

It is true that many opponents say the regime will emerge stronger than ever, and that its crackdown against opposition will be ever more brutal, but I disagree on that. Regime loyalists have a lot to say nowadays, and their unpretentious attempts at reform under the regime’s roof will sooner or later lead to a collision, because it is an irreparable regime. When such a collision happens, I want to be here. The future is still rife with opportunities and possibilities.

I experience the daily stresses that people live through: the high cost of living, security restrictions, the proliferation of weapons and explosives, the random shelling, the celebratory gunfire, and the rampant corruption... I work in a regime-affiliated civil organization, and I have no problem with that. Young people who take initiatives within the organization are just like me, Syrians dreaming of change, and they found an opportunity in this organization.

I do not care if the organization whitewashes the regime’s public image, and I am certain that such details have no value in the long term. What matters is that young people meet, debate, think and work together; that they face similar challenges and frustrations and pursue common dreams that resemble those of 2011 revolutionaries. What is the use of a boycott here? Collaborate and strive for change from within – that’s what I’m trying to do right now.”

28-year-old relief worker in an international organization

“I still recall that day when I wiped my Facebook accounts of all traces of the opposition and the revolution. I was laughing and crying at the same time. Could it be possible that I had written all these explosive revolutionary words? Was I really this bold as to curse Bashar Al-Asad in my real name?

Who am I now? Who is this woman who enters the building of her workplace with a big flattering smile in front of the inspection officer? Who is she that no longer follows the news at all? Who sits with her co-workers, and as they talk about the victories of the Syrian Army she only responds with a few words like ‘Really?’, ’Unbelievable!’ or the occasional ‘May God deliver us.’ I have become one of those who tout ‘God deliver us,’ except that I do not mean a single word I utter these days.

I used to walk every day in the streets where I had previously demonstrated with hundreds of young men and women. Where did they all go? What happened to them? I could not bear the pain of the memory, so I changed my walking routes. We were naive dreamers. Everything was beautiful and full of hope. Now, I do not belong anywhere or to any group. Neither the country nor the outside resembles me. I do not get along with opponents nor with loyalists. I have a friend with whom I vent my despair, frustration and pain, yet even we grew tired of talking to each other.

I suffer from severe depression and undergo medicinal and behavioral therapy. Perhaps the only reason I do not leave the country and migrate is that I am ashamed; ashamed of my failure. I am not talking about the failure of the revolution – sometimes historical conditions are just not ripe. I am rather talking about my failure to understand things at the time; my failure to take part in a successful collective work; my political and historical illiteracy; the personal responsibility I bear amidst the tragedies that have befallen my country and my people. How can I leave everything and go? I am fairly responsible for what is happening.”

35-year-old journalist and feminist activist

“I will refer back to my Sufi religious upbringing, which enabled me to always dabble with the notion of ​​death, the afterlife, the purpose of my life, and how I will be judged there by my actions here.

I then turned to atheism and nihilism, contradicting all what I grew up with. It was a difficult period in which I no longer recognized a reason for my existence. What is the purpose of anything if the endgame is nothingness, and what is the purpose of being a good or a bad person if the outcome is the same?

I then started looking for inner answers that could help me to go on. I exist to enjoy this existence, and to make it a better place for me and for others. This is my conclusion. Meanwhile, traces of my Sufism continued pressing me during my reflections about death, reconciling me with the end, and freeing me from fear of annihilation and nothingness.

In a stupid and inopportune moment, I did not hesitate to be part of the revolutionary movement, the profound change that was subverting my society.

Why am I here, though? For a nihilistic woman who is perfectly reconciled with ​​death, and who is still looking for meaning and finds it in bringing about a positive change, Syria is the ideal place! Our influence broadens and narrows, depending on circumstances. Sometimes I try to spread the spirit of ​​positive change in my neighborhood through such initiatives as waste collection, or defending feminism from a non-religious position. I think the best word to describe what I am trying to do is grassroots advocacy. I have no doubt that it makes a difference.

I am afraid of fear itself; it shackles me. I have been arrested four times, and I am trying to overcome my fear of being arrested through behavioral therapy. Although my activities today are different from those I had at the beginning of the revolution, I know that all regimes, including ours, do not appreciate free individuals and groups who think differently. Being part of a movement, activity, or even an individual initiative that encourages free thinking means that you are taking on the regime. I still have a lot to do here. If I were elsewhere I would still wish to be in this part of the world, so I consider myself fortunate.”

[Main image: A drawing portraying the psycho-emotional isolation of Syrian dissidents in Damascus (Comic4Syria/SyriaUntold)].

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