This article is part of a SyriaUntold series featuring daily life stories from Damascus and beyond.
After her older brother dealt her a powerful punch in her tearful face, Mona felt the sour and bitter metallic taste of blood in her mouth. Even though she screamed out that she was in the early months of pregnancy, he did not hesitate to beat her again and again, the same way one would beat a male rival. Mona discovered then and there that revealing her marriage to a man from a different sect to her parents had been an absolutely naive decision.
Mona is a Druze woman in her thirties from a village in As-Suwayda. She is one of seven siblings, all educated. Three of them, including her older brother Sultan, are university students. Her parents work assiduously in their large plot of land in the village. Another brother, Amer, had recently traveled to the Soviet Union and married a Christian Russian woman there. While her parents disapproved of the union and reproached their son for it, they didn’t disown him. They were satisfied with excluding his wife from social occasions that may have a religious connotation, such as paying condolences. The family was friendly towards others in the village and, putting aside some transient tensions and conflicts that are to be expected in any sizeable family, harmony prevailed. The relationship between the children and their parents was pleasant and warm.
All of the siblings married early, except Mona who reached her thirties without getting married. She was an attractive, pleasant and affable lady, but she had a limp. That handicap was enough for the men in the village not to approach her. Most of them had bullied her in school during their childhood. After finishing high school, Mona got a job working for a governmental department in As-Suwayda and, when she finally decided to take her mind off marriage and commitment, or any type of meaningful romantic relationship with the opposite sex, she met Mohsen.
Mohsen was an employee from Daraa who was relocated to As-Suwayda, also in his thirties. He had speech problems that made it difficult for him to communicate with others. He had a lisp and a stutter that was obvious even when just greeting others. He used to hear the faint whispers and laughter behind his back which made him more anxious and made him stutter even more. In this country, there is a tendency to bully anyone who is different, including those who suffer from a disability. Even well-intentioned adults behave callously towards physically or mentally challenged individuals. By going out of their way to be nice, they end up embarrassing and pressuring them.
An unexpected romance
Mohsen found no friend at the workplace but Mona who, despite her limp, was better off than him. She had the advantage of living in her own city and community, having the same accent and slang as her peers, as well as many memories in common with the residents of As-Suwayda. For Mohsen, the highlight of the day was sitting with Mona in the office and drinking mate [a hot infusion popular in South America and Syria as a substitute for coffee]. They would wash the bombilla [straw] with hot water before they passing it from one to the other. Mona did not notice his stuttering the same way he was oblivious to her limp. Theirs was a purely human interaction, liberated from all labels and prejudices.
Mona did not think that she should be careful around him or talk to him in a formal manner because he was from Daraa. Mohsen didn’t consider for a second that Mona was a Druze girl. Over time, they fell deeply in love. Their shivering hands met, their breaths accelerated, and the couple felt a happiness incomparable to anything in their past, which had been laden with disappointment, embarrassment and rejection. Yet the decision to commit to each other was nearly impossible.
Mona had heard stories about the terrifying things that happened to women who married non-Druze men. Their fate ranged from torture to mutilation and even death. Mona remembered one horrifying story that the villagers told about a Druze family that had cut off a Sunni man’s penis because he had dared to marry their daughter without their consent. Mohsen, in turn, was no stranger to the ways of village life. In Daraa, he had heard about women killed for marrying without parental approval. He was well aware that marrying Mona could prove a very dangerous decision with dire consequences. The fall out would be likely worse for her than him. If her relatives tried to kill him or chop off his penis, they would have to deal with his kin, who still held on to a culture of revenge killing.
The prospect of being tracked down for mutilation or murder was simultaneously funny and terrifying for Mohsen. It would force him to take two steps back for every ten steps forward in his relationship with Mona. He loved her and she loved him. As a Sunni man, the law was in his favor and so was religion, permitting him to marry from any sect or religion. By what right could anyone stop him from doing so? Mona lacked the same social privileges that Mohsen enjoyed. She was worried that her parents would disown her and that society would judge her harshly for marrying a Sunni man. She worried that, at worst, her father would beat her. She never contemplated things could escalate beyond that. Her family was well-educated and cultured, and one of the siblings had already broken the rules by marrying outside the sect. “What could possibly happen?” Mona thought. “There is a solution for everything.”
Announcing their relationship was relatively easy for Mohsen. He told his mother, who had widowed many years earlier, as well as his brother who was living in exile in Europe. His mother was not too sold on the idea and worried for the safety of her son. She told him all of the horrible stories about men in Daraa who had been murdered after marrying women from As-Suwayda. This exacerbated his worries, but not enough to change his mind. As he told his mother: “If you want me to stay alive, don’t dare tell anyone about this.”
The two married in secret. They would take short breaks from work to go to the small home they had made in an uninhabited building. There they would make love and live as a couple. They lived on stolen time, hours stolen from her family, from their bureaucratic and silly job, from their cynical colleagues, and from a society that would not let their decision to be together pass peacefully. They felt freely and joyfully despite the horrors lurking in the horizon and casting shadows on daily life. This was the first time that they felt truly alive, and to them that was worth all of the suffering and sacrifice.
A few months later, Mona became pregnant, a development that caught them off guard. It wasn’t feasible to hide this fact from her parents for very long. The status of the relationship was no longer just an issue that concerned the couple, it also carried implications for their son or daughter, who would need security and acceptance from the community to succeed in life. Despite all of the fear and anxiety over possible repercussions of the inevitable confrontation, Mona decided to tell her parents. She chose to do it at a family gathering. Developing her own maternal instincts gave her courage that she never had before.
On that day, she asked Mohsen to wait for her in their small home, promising to call him once the matter was resolved. She kissed him, certain that her family were not murderers and would not hurt her nor her baby. They might become angry, some of them more than the others, but she would succeed in convincing her sister or older brother to stand by her side.
Mona arrived at family home on her own. She found her parents and siblings gathered around a large, sliced watermelon. They were passing around the Mate and a plate of seeds, exchanging stories and laughter. She sat with them for a while and then went into the other room and called her sister Suad, a married women in her forties who had three teenage kids. She told her that she had been married for a few months and was expecting a baby. Her sister thought that Mona was joking, but she quickly realized that it wasn’t a joke after Mona started crying and begging her for support.
No sympathy, no mercy
What happened next was extremely cold, harsh and strange. Suad stood before Mona with an expressionless face, as if she were controlled by a wireless device. She went out to the guest’s room where everyone was sitting, and returned shortly with the eldest brother, Sultan, and Amer, who had married a Russian. They closed the door behind them and, before Mona could say a word, Sultan punched her in the face and blood gushed out.
“Have mercy brother, I’m pregnant” Mona screamed.
She was unable to recognize the people before her. They had succumbed to insanity, as if a devil had taken over them and stripped them of their souls. All of them had been laughing together barely one moment ago. She had greeted them one by one and kissed their heads on arrival. They were her sibling. They had played together in the field when they were children. She had slept by their side in the same bed. They had attended the same school and shared the same food, toys and clothes. How could these people standing in front of her have any connection to the siblings she loved and knew? Mona did not have enough time to get answers as Sultan punched her again. As for Amer, who had also broken the rules, he strangled her then threw her to the ground and started to brutally kick her in the stomach.
She begged her sister for help but she watched on coldly as the rest of the family gathered at the door to find out what was going on. Souad finally went out and told them that Mona had committed an unforgivable sin and that her brothers were disciplining her. Mona heard screaming and insults directed at her. She heard her mother curse her and the rest of her siblings vowing to kill her. Sultan kept them at bay saying, “We will not kill her before we know who the bastard who smeared our honor is and we cut him to pieces.” Punches and kicks rained down on her. She had fretted about her baby’s safety after the first punch but it soon became obvious that it could not survive such a beating. She passed out.
Mona was detained in the room for twenty days without food. She had a miscarriage. They kept her alive all of that time to force her to confess who and where her Sunni husband was. When the brothers lost all hope of gleaning this information, they decided to kill her. The eldest, a university student, slaughtered her with a knife. He then smoked a cigarette and put it out on her now cold disabled leg before turning himself in to the authorities with his head held high. He was proud of having retrieved the family’s honor, even if partially, as he had not managed to kill Mona’s husband. Village elders and lawyers had assured him that he would only be in prison for a couple of years given the nature of the case, as honor killings in Syria carry a milder sentence than murder.
The odd thing is that all of the villagers knew that Mona was being kept captive in her house, just like a farm animal waiting to be slaughtered. Yet nobody told the authorities or tried to intervene to save her life. It was an internal family matter, a matter related to the sectarian social system that had nothing to do with the law.
As for Mohsen, he disappeared from work and from As-Suwayda and Daraa. Nobody heard from him again. Perhaps he left the country like that legal activist whose story everyone knew about in Daraa, a man who had loved a Christian woman from his city only to lose her. Her brothers killed her and threated to kill him so he fled Syria and changed his family name to hers. That Christian woman had also been called Mona and she too went down in history as a martyr who defied patriarchal and sectarian domination. A domination that demands women sacrifice what they hold dearest and forces them into an impossible choice: a choice between freedom, which could mean death, and conformity, leading a long but miserable life.
Mona was murdered and betrayed by her family and neighbors but she lived freely, even if she only managed to do so in secret and for a short period of time. That experience holds a value her brothers will never be able to comprehend and they will never be able to take that away from her, even if they have succeeded in taking her life.