Here’s an extract from my novel The Road From Damascus, in which the dying Ba’athist Mustafa Traifi hallucinates the Hama massacre of 1982. Back then the regime really was fighting an armed group – the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t much like my writing of four years ago, but the passage is rustling in my mind today for obvious reasons.
What’s time to a corpse? From the moment of its death, time becomes a foreign territory, a land stranger and more distant with every minute, every decade, until soon there’s nobody left to put a face to the corpse’s name, to the name of the dust, and soon the letters of its name have sunk into the graveslab’s grain, and the stone itself is broken or buried or dug up. And the land which was once a graveyard is overgrown, or shifted, or levelled. And the planet itself dead, by fire or ice, and nobody at all anywhere to know. No consciousness. As if nothing had ever been.
Unless there is Grace watching and waiting for our helplessness.
There is no permanence for a corpse, not even for corpse dust. Or corpse mud, in this country. All this graveyard sentiment. You may as well shoot it into outer space. Into the stars.
Mustafa Traifi is dreaming intermittent dreams of war. He sees the city of Hama from above and within. Sees the black basalt and white marble stripes. The mosque and the cathedral. The thin red earth. The tell of human remains, bones upon bones. The Orontes River rushing red with the blood of Tammuz, the blood of Dumuzi, the dying and rising shepherd god. The maidens weeping on the river banks.
Life is precarious. This place is thirty kilometers from the desert. The river raised by waterwheels feeds a capillary network of irrigation and sewage channels, and agricultural land in the city’s heart. Traffic is organised by the nuclei of marketplaces (Mustafa sees from above, like the planes) where there are householders and merchants and peasant women in red-embroidered dresses and tall men of the hinterland wearing cloaks and kuffiyehs, and mounds of wheat and corn, and olives and oranges from the hill orchards, and complaining oxen and fat-tailed sheep. Where there is dust in the endless process of becoming mud and then again dust.
Ramadan begins tomorrow. Every night throughout the month Muslims will congregate for taraweeh prayers; in Syria, each night’s taraweeh will turn into anti-regime protests. During Ramadan people work less and therefore have more time for meditation – and for protesting. The security forces repressing these protests will be tired and snappy. The protestors will be quick-tempered from thirst and hunger, and also in many cases less frightened of death. For a pious Muslim, to die in Ramadan while standing up for justice is a very good death. At the same time, fighting in Ramadan is frowned upon. Regime violence during the holy month will outrage people even more than usual.
The regime would like to frighten everybody into their homes before the fasting starts. Hence the escalation today. The city of Hama, where between 10 and 20,000 people were massacred by the regime in 1982, was invaded by traitors before dawn. Up to 45 have been killed so far, and numbers are rising quickly. In the east, Deir-ez-Zor is also under tank attack. Several have been killed. A child has been murdered in Albu Kamal, right on the Iraqi border. Moadamiya and other suburbs of Damascus are being attacked. Hundreds have been taken away and many injured. Reports are coming in of heavy gunfire in Homs. (Updated figures at lunchtime claim 121 have been murdered so far today throughout the country).
Does the regime want to provoke an armed response? (In the tribal areas near the Iraqi border, it probably will). Or does it really think that after months of massacres Syrians will be intimidated by a larger slaughter? The barbarity, idiocy and treason of this regime are beyond doubt. As uniformed Syrians murder civilian Syrians, the Golan remains under Zionist occupation – as it has been since Hafez al-Asad lost it in 1967 – and the many Israeli violations of Syrian sovereignty, which the state assured us would be avenged ‘at a time and place of Syria’s choosing’, have not been avenged. The brave security forces of the Asad thugs – great at invading Syrian cities, shooting women dead, mutilating little boys. Absolutely shit at defending Syrian people, dignity and territory. I do hope the Free Syrian Army is real. (Joshua Landis thinks it isn’t; but then, Joshua Landis has, repulsively, started to refer to pro-regime Syrians as ‘pro-stability.’)
For days Syrian security forces stayed out of Hama; not even traffic police were seen in the city. During these days, no armed gangs emerged from the shadows to terrorise and loot. Christians and Alawis were not rounded up and shot. Nobody was whipped for wearing an unIslamic haircut. All that happened was day and night demonstrations against the regime swelled into crowds of hundreds of thousands – men and women, adults and children.
Perhaps the security forces stayed out of the city on the request of Hama’s governor, and perhaps that’s why he was sacked. Now security forces have entered the city and brought plenty of insecurity in their wake. At least sixteen Hamwis were killed yesterday.
Slaughter in this city – over sixty protestors were murdered there a few weeks ago – reminds Syrians of the greatest wound in their contemporary history: the Hama massacre in 1982, when 10,000 were killed at the lowest estimate, by aerial and artillery bombardment and in house to house murder sprees. There are reports that poison gas was used, and of dismemberments and rapes, but no-one really knows. No journalists slipped inside the city. There was no satellite TV, no internet, no mobile phones. Still, a thousand stories escaped the net, and every Syrian has heard some; stories whispered, not told. Hama, ‘the events’, is the great taboo.