(Photo: Fadwa Suleiman at a protest in 2012 photographed b Thibault Camus for AP)
By Farrah Akbik
It was as if I were stepping onto the page and walking into Satis House¹. A decrepit old house perched upon a ridge in Al Kiwan, overlooking the Ottoman Railway that snaked down towards the Barada. A house that echoed former glory and youth that was now a mausoleum to my two great aunts and their stale virginity. Siba and Amina were as dilapidated as their abode. Two spinsters forgotten by time, mixed in with their trinkets and clutter, dressed impeccably to mirror each other. Pressed pleated skirts, bespoke handmade shoes from the Armenian cobbler, silk scarves perched upon their heads. I sat there in awe of them as they followed my aunt to the kitchen making sure she didn’t whisper any evil omens into the coffee pot. The threadbare nets billowing like Miss Havisham’s² decaying wedding dress in the heat of the Damascus breeze. The walls hunched over struggling to carry their weight, as if waiting for Siba and Amina to leave. ‘This is what awaits young girls that are too highly strung!’ my aunt Rabia whispered in my ear. Siba placed two gold bangles on my eight-year-old wrist, her sinewy witch-like fingers travelling up to my face as she examined me intently. ‘She is dark like her Moroccan mother, but tolerably pretty.’ It was common enough for remarks to be made about my appearance as if I were not present, and with time it became apparent what was expected of me.
Patriarchy was a bitter poison that I couldn’t swallow. Born and raised in England, I arrived in Damascus at the age of sixteen. Everything was a shock to my system, and nothing more than having to run the gauntlet of the restrictions of my sex. It was summer and my aunty Zahra was ecstatic at the prospect of having a new charge to marry off. I remember the heavy oak lounge door sliding open – my cue to totter in in a pair of hideous heels hastily bought the day before, trying to balance the mandatory tray of tar-like coffee as the potential groom and his mother stared at me intrusively. He was a pompous doctor of 32. ‘What are your ambitions in life?’ he asked. My face burned with humiliation as I felt him lay judgement. What I should have said is, ‘It’s my ambition to one day write an article so I can highlight what an imbecile you are!’
Our every move was governed. There was an etiquette to everything. A set of rules that were embedded into everyday life. We were at the mercy of our male relatives, and should anything go wrong, the judicial system was archaic and riddled with corruption. Hence a woman’s best prospect was to marry well, and her worth was measured by her lineage, beauty, assets and talents. All would be rendered worthless should she jeopardize her reputation or rupture her hymen. ‘Be careful on your bicycle!’ A woman’s downfall is the downfall of a family, the dishonouring of her male relatives. Born into a lifelong sentence of carrying the burden of guilt for something it was implied she would do should she not be reined in every minute of the day. We were never allowed to forget that we are susceptible to picking forbidden apples. I was riddled with frustration, like a bird flying frantically and violently at cage bars. No matter my injuries I would fly at it even harder, fall, recover, and then flutter again. The more I fluttered the harsher the criticism aimed at me. The years went by and I carried within a silent resignation that travelled back with me on my return to England.
But the revolution changed everything. It was the summer of 2011, and it was time for our annual visit back home. Now in my early thirties, I had followed the unravelling events voraciously via twitter, on fire with anticipation and hope. I trawled the internet, articles, blogs, and sparred with Robin Yassin-Kassab on Qunfuz.com³. For I had lived in the dense atmosphere of dictatorship, I’d sung the Baathist⁴ songs, and been taught to refrain from using the word ‘Assad’ in public. I knew the sentiment of the people, what it was like for those who worked for 5000SL a month, queued for their rice and sugar rations only to find them riddled with maggots. The people who didn’t give a damn if Bashar visited ice cream parlours with his trophy wife or showed Brangelina around the souk!
We came via Jordan, driving past Daraa where military helicopters hovered like vultures. Daraa, the birth place of the children who demanded freedom, who wrote their sentiments for all to read. Tanks littered the highway along with sporadic checkpoints. You could smell the aspiration of the masses and see the concern of the jittery security forces. Secret services in their garish pointy shoes and stubbled faces were everywhere. History was unfolding before my eyes. ‘1, 2, 3, thank you Sarkozy!’ they chanted in Benghazi. I sat up all night waiting for the UN Security Council air strikes vote⁵. It came through! Now surely they will not abandon us either, for don’t we bleed too?
The Gemini club in Saboura… it was Ramadan and we were breaking our fast. A few days earlier the cartoonist Ali Ferzat had been bundled into a car, beaten, his fingers crushed, then thrown at the side of the road near the airport. And now in the Gemini – there was Asmaa Al Assad, strolling through with her cronies in tow, somewhat bow-legged due to her tiny frame, with her signature bob and a look of unparalleled self-importance tattooed across her face.
We came from very similar backgrounds, Asmaa and me. Both daughters of Syrian men that had migrated to London, my father an aeronautical engineer, hers a doctor. We were British educated, and instilled with a strong Syrian identity. But that’s where the similarities ended. She rushed about perfecting the propaganda farce. Hosting a dinner for disabled children, with national TV there to film the philanthropic charade. She walked past my table, a modern day Lady Macbeth, we could all see the blood stains even if she couldn’t. It perplexed me how we could be so different. Were we not both nurtured on democracy, freedom and human rights? Did she not listen to the history lessons of WWII? And what of Ferzat’s fingers? In which art lesson was she taught to crush the artist’s hands? If there was anyone that could have had an influence on Bashar, it was her. She had a responsibility towards her country, especially to the women and children. Instead she morphed into a Marie Antoinette.
My stay that summer was so different to all the other years that preceded. Everything was eerily subdued. The streets quieter, especially at night. People were on edge. There was something brewing and we knew things would never be the same again. I was sure that should I attend the mosque on Laylat Al Qadr⁶ I would witness with my own eyes the call to freedom. I borrowed a white prayer suit and convinced my then husband to take me. The Umayyad Mosque was peppered with security and national TV. People were eating sunflower seeds and were stretching out as if on a picnic! So we headed to Al Hassan mosque in Al Midan, where the opposition Sheikh Kareem Rajeh was known to preach anti-regime sentiment. But the mosque was bolted shut and in darkness. A passer-by told me the government had banned all gatherings and that Rajeh had stood down in protest. We headed west to Kafersousseh where the mosque was alight with the sermon resonating to a congregation spilling onto the pavement. To a square that was crammed with militia and thugs armed with an array of weapons. The residential flats that encircled were buzzing with women watching, many in their white prayer suits lined up like doves in a cage. I wasn’t allowed in the mosque, because there was no female section. My husband went inside and told me to stay in the car. I didn’t.
Centuries ago they would bury girls under the sand at birth⁷, but now we were buried in our everyday life movements. I was rubbing the glass from my eyes that night in the midst of a hostile simmering chaos and overwhelmed by the realisation that there were no women around me. I looked about and one of the thugs made eye contact, smiling wryly with a vacant hateful look about him, holding a club that he was thudding repeatedly against his other hand as he stared me out. What did it represent, that club, those threatening thuds? It resonated with every strike: fear, torture, death, humiliation, rape, poverty, injustice, male dominance, dictatorship. My memory flashed back to years prior, when a soldier had hit me across the face on a micro bus because I had asked him to stop touching my thigh. We had all had enough. I looked back unflinchingly. It was going to take more than his club to abate the hunger for change that I could hear echoing from the mosque walls. The Arab Spring was finally here and the dunes were shifting from my limbs. A revolution was mobilising. Women were mobilising.
I never wanted to be confined to the balconies looking down on the auditorium of life. I wanted to be in the middle of events. And that is where I stood in my demure white prayer suit that speckled amongst a sea of dark angst, in a passive defiance of ashen cloth, a flag of feminist rhetoric. I stood my ground as the thugs swarmed around me in agitated anticipation, oblivious to my silent female protest. I had been taught to fear the regime, to not talk of politics freely: ‘Close the manwar,⁸ Farrah, the neighbours will hear!’ But I also wanted rid of the shackles that chaffed my wrists and were exclusive to my sex. I have never felt freer than on that night stood enveloped in white in defiance of the tyranny of a government and of a society that would have me excluded. I did not have to spray-can slogans across my naked breasts, defecate on a flag, spout heresy or garner 10,000 likes on Instagram. ‘Stop apologising, I accept you as you are,’ a friend once said to me. And that night I was me, I stood there unapologetic, in quiet and dignified protest, in the hope that I could finally be myself free of restrictions. The revolution gave birth to an unprecedented freedom for Syrian women. Waad’s camera, Dima’s pencil, Fadia’s paint brush, May, Fadwa….Razan….the list is endless and largely anonymous. For all the women that disappeared into Fadia’s ‘Hole’⁹, for those who risked a loss of ‘honour’, so that we may have a presence that goes beyond our female beauty, fertility and marriageability. So that our future generations of girls will look back at this revolution and see also the sacrifice of women and its significance. So that if we choose not to marry, like Siba and Amina, we need not decay and rely on the handouts of our male relatives. That we may have the same opportunities as our brothers. That we have our birth right to walk through life without being policed every step of the way. That we are no longer condemned to Satis House.
¹ Satis House; in reference to the fictional house from Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations.
² Miss Havisham; fictional character again from the above novel that was the resident of Satis House. An old woman that had decayed over time in her wedding dress.
³ Qunfuz; Blog by writer Robin Yassin-Kassab.
⁴ Baath Songs; Anthems that are taught to children at school, lauding the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, which was founded on the 7th of April 1947.
⁵ UN Vote; voting on the resolution commenced on the 17th of March 2011. At 6.33pm ET it was decided to implement a no-fly-zone and to take military action against Gaddafi. Resulting in rapturous celebrations by the Libyan people.
⁶ Laylat Al Qadr (The Night of Decree), believed to occur within the last ten days of Ramadan, it is when Muslims believe that the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad PBUH.
⁷ Female infanticide in pre-Islamic Arabia was common. And often as a result of “disappointment and fear of social disgrace felt by a father upon the birth of a daughter”. Encyclopedia of the Qur’an, Children
⁸ Manwar (small window); residential buildings in Syria normally have shafts in them, where the bathrooms are situated. There are little windows that open out onto them, from all the surrounding flats. You could often hear your neighbour’s conversations through them.
⁹ ‘Hole’; Painting by Syrian artist Fadia Afashe. It depicts the story of her friend that was detained by military forces. She was stripped naked and placed in a cell for 10 days with male criminals. On her release she disappeared from society.
May Skaf (April 13, 1969 – July 23, 2018) Syrian actress and activist.
Fadwa Suleiman (17 May 1970 – 17 August 2017) Syrian actress and activist of Alawite descent. One of the most iconic faces of the Syrian Civil War.
Razan Zaitouneh Syrian human rights lawyer and civil society activist. Missing since December 2013.
Waad Al Kateab Syrian journalist and award winning director of ‘For Sama’.
Dima Nachawi Syrian illustrator that has documented the plight of Syrians through her illustrations.
Kareem Rajeh Widely respected Syrian cleric opposed the Assad regime.
Ali Ferzat Syrian political cartoonist, attacked by armed government thugs in August 2011. They broke his hands as a warning.
Siba and Amina Qabbanni Bastions of old fashioned Arab feminism! My great aunts, that stood firm till their last hour.
Zahra and Rabia Akbik, my aunts.