Painting on the Walls of the Abyss

Translated by: Yaaser Azzayyaat

رسم على جدران الهاوية

(Tammam Azzam)

There is an odd Chinese malediction that goes “I curse you; may you live in interesting times.” As I attempt to write about the revolution, pondering on how wicked that curse is and how wicked growing up in interesting times is, I feel the touch of letters in that saying on my neck.

On February 21st, 2011, Syrian blogger Okbah Mushaweh tweeted that blogger Ahmed Abul Khair had been arrested, and that he was held in Palestine Branch, the most infamous intelligence center. That was the first time I heard of political detention. That incident shook me to the core, since I had not yet learned about the numbers of detainees in prisons. I had been totally unaware of the violent and bloody underpinnings of all the slogans on democracy, and behind the smile of the young president adorning streets, textbooks and institutions. It seemed that everybody had been colluding to hide these atrocities from us. Yet what I witnessed back then sparked my enthusiasm and pushed the curiosity in me like a little calf.

I tweeted that day, “Will Ahmed Abul Khair be Syria’s Wael Ghoneim?” I believed that having a goal higher than oneself is what makes people willing to sacrifice themselves. What else would make Ahmed do what he had done? I received a call from my cousin who ordered me to quickly delete what I had tweeted. I felt terrified and regretful. By midnight, the few words I had composed turned into demons and chains that wanted to strangle me. Ten security branches besieged my imagination throughout the night. My bravery then proved to be much more fragile than my enthusiasm. I deleted the tweet the next day.

The internet had been my magical gateway to the outer world. There, I got to know Dr. Bara Sarraj, the former detainee in Tadmor Prison, I read Mustafa Khalifa’s The Shell, and I also got to know Yassin Haj Saleh, one of Syria’s intellectuals and former prisoners. I realized how the world was much, much bigger than my father’s library. I felt profoundly ablaze: Why have they been lying to us? Why have they concealed all of those atrocities?

There must be a revolution! I had been convinced ever since that there is no going back. The dream of revolution began to overwhelm my thoughts. The twenty-six letters of the alphabet shrunk into R E V O L T, and colors were reduced to a bloody red. We began to watch the news, passionately, eagerly and desirously. We counted protesting spots, reciting the Koran and praying that the next Friday’s protests be a million-man strong. Fridays followed incessantly, and their names were manifold: Dignity Friday, Glory Friday, Martyrs Friday… Steadfastness… Persistence… whilst our disappointments followed incessantly.

I live in a small village in the countryside of Damascus. Thanks to the remittances of its young expatriates, primarily the Gulf countries, it has developed into a town. Seldom have we depended on the state, which meant very little connection to it, both positively and negatively. My friends and I used to wander in town two months after the spark of the uprising, witnessing no demonstrations, no sorrow, no scenes suggesting that a fire is burning in our surroundings. Yet once we went online, we got overtaken by dozens of opposition pages, videos and news of detentions. It felt like the digital world in the anime Digimon. By then, my father realized that my laptop and the internet are the devils making me deaf to his warnings, so he stopped me from using them. But the news found their way to me through my friends. He deprived me of visiting or calling them, leaving me to myself and his words. I began to think carefully, closer to my mind and far away from my enthusiasm and passion, imagining a Syria drifting to an Iraq-like fate if this torrent of madness kept going on.

My father was not a loyalist, but he stood against the revolution. I was left alone with my books: Kawakibi’s The Natures of Despotism, Ali Tantawi’s Memoirs, the baccalaureate literature textbook that is fraught with rebellion. Between the texts of Kawakibi and Jawahiri, I only calmed down to rebel once again. The poems, prose excerpts and history stories were injecting all the more adrenaline into my blood. My father had also given me Maarouf Dawalibi’s Memoirs, hoping that I would understand that Syria was never liberated from the French thanks to revolutionaries as in rosy dreams. Syrian Independence was actualized based on agreements among international superpowers! Prior to the revolution, my father had always been right, and we pursued the same path, which made having to be on my own and to oppose my father’s will very difficult.

My friends and I felt that, underneath the dreary ashes in town, there had to be some latent cinders. We considered that we ourselves could be the potential spark that might start the fire, even if we were to burn. We thought of organizing a demonstration. We knew how completely suicidal such an idea was, and we anticipated that the people would put an end to our attempt even before the regime would. But dying for the sake of a great idea did not feel so terrifying. We believed that we had to do some awareness campaigns before taking to the streets. We created a Facebook page focused on raising awareness and provoking the ardor of people. We also sent letters as well as e-mails to everyone we expected to participate in the revolution, including the notables of our town. We signed the letters as “Free women in the town.” They were impassioned speeches, written powerfully, majestically yet simply, at times addressing the mind and at others the heart. We were not waiting for written responses, but for reactions.


Painting on walls

We formed a group with shifts according to availability and capabilities. It required two persons at least: one to spray and the other to have her back. We used facial veils, wrapping up our hijabs and covering our faces with them during the mission. It was not so difficult for people to recognize us. Our town has always been so small that everybody knows everybody.

We would get the spray cans from a friend of ours who was going to Al-Awa’il High School in Damascus. She in turn would get them from a Damascene guy from Jobar whom we had met online. Another source for us was a friend studying graphic design in Kalamoon University, who used to ask for sprays under the pretext that she is an art student. Buying spray cans was so suspicious, and their sellers were required to ask for the buyer’s identity card and to write down their information.


Every time we planned on spraying, we would walk along the roads tens of times to make sure that nobody was there to see us. I would tremble whenever I’d see a black car with a plate like the plate on my father’s car. It was more frightful than thugs and security forces. I would imagine my father’s eyes that were capable of tearing me apart, as I knew well his opinion on what I was doing. In case of emergency, running away would not be that easy. The spray cans in our bags would make noises as we ran, so we tried to avoid any emergency and to stay secretive. We still had the smell of the spray on our clothes, however, as well as the stains of spray on our hands, making secrecy all the more complicated. After a while, we began printing out and carving ready made graphic plates that we had found on the internet, thus improving our spraying technique both technically and artistically. A quick random spray would thus be enough for the symbolic picture to be imprinted onto the wall, alongside a short phrase like “Sorry for the inconvenience, We are building a homeland,” or just “Freedom” if time was too short.

We would take advantage of power outages or of Ramadan dinners to enjoy the streets emptied of both people and watchful eyes. Of course there were some surprises. I remember that we were once spraying on a door, which suddenly started to open. Behind it was a woman with a white veil on her head and a candle burning in a dish in her hands. Shocked and astonished amidst the dark, we imagined her to be the Virgin Mary shining. We went pale in front of her for a moment, threw the leaflets and fliers away and ran as fast as we could, hearing the startling clank of the spray cans behind us. We survived miraculously.


What would cost us valuable efforts and time did not stay on the walls for long. All of the traces would get erased in a few minutes, as nobody would welcome rebellious slogans on the walls of their houses or shops. We had to take photos for the record and documentation. After finishing the job, we would change our appearance and wipe the ink and the sweat, then hang out a little bit until the gas smell fades away before going home safely. We would attentively observe the reactions on our way back. We only heard curses, in our faces or behind our backs, addressed at troublemakers scribbling on the walls as if they were lemon peels.

Soon after the formation of the Free Army, some young people took to the streets alongside gunmen protecting their backs. On that night, they painted the walls of two schools and the cemetery of the town with the colors of the flag of the revolution. We watched them with joy mixed with grief, since we had to yield to the fact that peaceful civil action without guns is like cultivating the air.

Planning a sit-in

We had the desire and enthusiasm (can I add here “the audacity”?) for building another world and a new homeland founded on freedom, justice and values. We continued to send our letters that had not been taken seriously for three months. At the end, we threatened to go out and demonstrate. The blood in our veins boiled, and our necks craned forward in aspiration like roosters getting ready to crow.

I was preparing to earn my baccalaureate at the time, and the courses I attended at several private institutes were my primary pretext to leave the house and meet with friends. Moreover, my father’s traveling gave me a good deal of freedom. I filled my time planning for revolutionary activities, writing letters, designing leaflets and preparing chants. A day before the sit-in, we passed by the square to take a look at the spot and memorize its map. We found the place full of strange men with unfamiliar faces and uncomfortable looks. We jumped out of our skin. We went back home to listen to some of Qashoush’s songs and chants, where our hearts were re-filled with faith and courage again. We exchanged some jokes about the regime’s thugs until we finally laughed. Mockery was resistance, and laughing an escape in dangerous times.

On that night, my uncle summoned me to inquire about news of 18 girls planning to do a sit-in, investigating whether I had any relation to them. I was tongue-tied, and I made up several lies trying to rid myself as well as all of my friends of any connection with the news. My mind was madly whirling and trying to identify the informant.

I returned home and found my mother in tears as the news were leaked to her. Her knees had stiffened and her eyes were wide open due to her fear. She grew too old within hours, and I felt enormously empathetic with her, and a wave of promises, reassuring words and apologies ascended to my mouth. I almost bent down to kiss her hands and cursed the whole world before her tears. But I quickly remembered the detainees and the tears of the martyrs’ mothers, their cries punctured my ear, and my mother clouded in front of me. I maintained my composure and rudely told her that everything she had heard were lies, then I left.

We lost hope in our town. We cursed the lacking chivalry and the luxury that renders hearts cruel and selfish. Those who wear fur coats cannot feel the creeping of cold under the skin of the naked, let alone the flayed skin of those under torture. We became afraid of each other. There was nothing binding us to such a shameful town any longer. The real battle was in the capital: We must leave to Damascus.


Protesting in Damascus

Our families agreed to let us travel to Damascus. We were throbbing violently, as our aspirations made us fly. Trustworthy people provided us with locations of demonstrations in Kafarsouseh, Midan and Jobar, as well as instructions and any necessary codes. Freedom was hovering over our dreams like an eagle; we could not imagine that it might turn into a raven croaking over a grave that we were digging. Freedom was swaying in the horizon like a star; it never occurred to our minds that it might fall down on our heads.

We arrived at Midan in mid-December 2011. We walked until we reached Daqaq Mosque. Girls were gathered in the upper floor, the sudda, whilst men were in the courtyard of the mosque, having agreed on what to do. One guy shouted: “Takbir!” Our whole being trembled, and we shouted back “Allahu Akbar!” The men ran outside the mosque, and we followed them with our chants.

“Freedom… Freedom…” Words were like small sparks breaking through our lips. We cried out from the bottom of our hearts, until our throats became sore. We ran, racing against time in order to win our freedom. We cried out as if we were at the wedding of a long widowed homeland. We marched like a river, filling the alleys and roads. Who could not have imagined that these masses screaming for freedom from a seemingly single throat would eventually end up scattered, each thrown at a different corner of the earth or heaven? We had never cherished our homeland to this degree before, and never enjoyed a superhuman spectacle to this extent. Shortly after, bullets began to assail, and we felt that our feet no longer stood on the ground. Yet we felt stronger than bullets and on top of them. We were so glad that I imagined for one moment that victory is flapping its wings above us, that our land recovered from its wounds and that the voice of injustice was forever silenced.

A few minutes later, a group of buses parked, unloading men and women carrying flags, loudspeakers and cameras, all chanting “Abu Hafez.” Thugs and security agents began to surround the alleys. The young men in the protests asked us to empty the area quickly. We were all ready to stay and resist, but they told us that our stay would only cost them extra effort. My friend grabbed me from my hand and we started running. The roads were narrowing down in front of us, and jasmine started losing its aroma. Some people from Midan followed us to the main road. We took the green Southern Beltway bus. We had not seen these Midani guys before, but we knew them from their spirited eyes, as well as the sweat on their foreheads. They stepped down after two stations. A more experienced friend of mine told me that the tactic adopted in Midan demonstrations is that each group of girls be followed by two or three guys, to make sure of their safety.

We went back home, and before catching our breaths we checked the news. We learnt that a number of young men and women were arrested after the demonstration, and many were martyred. Behind the smiling face of the revolution loomed a scary skull.

I write these memories as the battle of Aleppo and the attempts to break its siege were ongoing. We have changed a lot since then, so did geography and history; they changed several times and are still changing. As I contemplate on the abyss which we all took part in digging, now filled with skulls, flesh and blood, I wonder: should it be the foundation of an edifice for civilization, or just another mass grave?

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Sham Al-Ali

A participant in the Al Jumhuriya Fellowship for Young Writers

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