I wasn’t going to write about Syria this week, since I feel like I’ve used up the subject, but something recently happened that changed my mind. So bear with me; let me tell you a story.
One year ago in Damascus, I lost my soul in a Backgammon game. I had been consistently beating my friend Musa (“Moses,” in Arabic), stripping him of 500 Syrian pounds ($10) each time. As the pieces clicked around the board, he grumbled that I was cheating. Slightly annoyed, I remembered a story about a guy who jokingly wrote “my soul” on a piece of paper and gambled it away on a poker hand. Musa was delighted with the idea, and then ... I had a stroke of bad luck. He won the paper soul, and never let me live it down.
Musa was wearing a suit at the time, as I remember. In fact, he always wore a suit and tie. At home in the village of Jebel al-Zawiyah, on the streets of Aleppo, to class, in cafes — always a suit. I finally asked him about it one day. He grinned and leaned forward to whisper.
“You know who always wears suits? The Mukhabarat,” the secret police. The “political security” guys, to be exact, were snappy dressers. Musa dressed like them because, he told me, doing so made it easier to get around. He would stroll past the security guards at the front gate of the university, give them a nod and they wouldn’t check his ID.
Musa didn’t just impersonate the Mukhabarat for convenience. He wore that suit for his own safety, because he had tried being an “ordinary citizen” before, and still faced the brutality of the regime. A year before the uprising, Musa was just a young university student, mostly concerned with a girl in his village whom he adored. Like most Syrians, he accepted life under the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and thought little of politics.
The father of the girl, however, didn’t like Musa, and he had a few buddies in the Mukhabarat. Soon, Musa found himself on the floor of a basement somewhere in Aleppo, and then in Damascus. His torturers lashed him for 11 days, probably with steel cables and rubber hoses, and applied electric current to his body. By the time his father secured his release, Musa was nearly dead.
But you can’t kill Musa that easily. He’s got guts, and he’s smart as hell. After he moved to Aleppo, Musa invested in a few suits. In the alternate reality of a Middle Eastern dictatorship, sometimes it’s better just to scare people before they get to know you. Sure enough, when I met Musa in February 2011, a fellow student warned me not to trust my well-dressed friend, since he was surely an agent of the Mukhabarat.
Events soon proved that student wrong. A month later, an uprising began in southern Syria, and Musa was one of its earliest proponents. He quickly became a prominent organizer, a suave networker who brought together dissidents and newly-formed revolutionaries from around the country.
By May, the body count was rising as the regime tried to stifle the incipient uprising. Because of his connections, Musa became a wanted man. But for the next 11 months, the Mukhabarat couldn’t track down that wily, gutsy bastard. So last week, they went to his village instead, to send a message. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful place, lodged in the hills and olive groves of Syria’s northwest corner.
Musa’s family lives in a compound of small cinder block houses, and beneath one there’s an abandoned cellar. When the Mukhabarat arrived early last week, they entered the compound and pulled six men — Musa’s brothers, cousins and uncles — out of their homes and brought them down into that cellar. First, they tortured them. Then they threw in some high explosives.
Last I heard, the women in the family were digging out the bodies by hand.
Six bodies. Seven thousand five hundred corpses, and counting, have been laid to rest in Syrian soil since March 2011. Seven thousand five hundred human beings, for whom living daily life was a gamble — from the way they dressed to what they chose to discuss. Bashar and his Mukhabarat certainly started that macabre game, but truth be told, now it is we who play along.
We sit back and pontificate about non-intervention, about working with the “international community,” about “peace” and “negotiations” — as if tyranny and evil are questions in a simple strategy game, a Backgammon game, if you will. Only this time, as the pieces tap around the board, the stakes aren’t Syrian pounds, aren’t dollars, aren’t just a paper soul.
Jonathan Panter is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Storyteller appears alternate Fridays this semester.