On the morning of March 25th, 2011, I went to the office to check my inbox, twitter, FB,and the news of the region. Egypt’s Tahrir protesters had continued the demonstrations every Friday since the ouster of Mubarak. Libya was embarking on the path to civil war. Yemen’ stubborn president was showing no signs of giving in to protesters’ demands.But Syria was making headlines now as well. The events in Deraa in the south of Syria had sparked a series of protests against the mistreatment and murder of civilians asking for basic rights not enjoyed while under the Emergency Laws, originally implemented in 1963.
That Friday I had read a tweet, “I dont know if im going to be detained today, imprisoned, or die. Freedom to Syria”.
Even though, I am not Syria, that tweet echoed in my head as I started my way towards Damascus old city, specifically, the Umayyad Mosque. This was not my country. This was a country about to experience its biggest challenge to the legitimacy of the regime. As an Egyptian, I thought it was quite dangerous since we had just ousted Mubarak a few weeks earlier and they were weary of youth moving around to spread the so-called Arab Spring. As a US citizen, it was again dangerous since the relations between the two countries have been strained for over 5 years, since the death of Hariri in Lebanon, but more so because of Assad’s stance against Israel and support for Hezballa.
I was to head down to the mosque and gauge the events there to decide if I would return to Cairo for the subsequent few weeks. Just days earlier, the chairman of the company I worked for had called me and asked me to make this assessment. He told me, “Don’t make my mistake.” He was referring to going to Tripoli Libya in mid-February and getting stuck there for a few weeks as events escalated. He ended up arriving at the Marsa Matrouh port in Egypt after a long wait.
As I got off the bus to head towards the famous Hamedayya market, I took of breath of the relatively clean air and thought how Cairo’s pollution, this was not it. The weather great, the sun shining, and that one tweet.
Walking through the market, there was no peculiar signs. However, at the end of the marker, in front of the mosque, I saw few tourists and all of a sudden a bunch of people starting chanting over the Imam’s preachings heard from inside. I took out my mobile camera and filmed what turned out to be a pro-regime demonstration of about 50 people, all males.
These demos were interrupted by people in suits coming from inside the mosque. As the noise subsided, I entered the mosque with the intention to pray, and observe the atmosphere in this central Damascus location.
In the prayer hall, I sat and listened to the sermon being held over the loud speakers. I quickly realized this was no sermon. There was no mention of any religious topics. The imam spoke about how great Damascenes are, that they are peaceful people, weary of everything. This soon led to the denunciation of ‘fitna’ by outsiders, but how Damscenes are not susceptible to this malicious interference in their internal affairs. That Facebook groups were created by those outsiders in order to plant this fitna. At this point, a young man in his twenties stood up in the middle of the crowd and walked to the back towards the entrance, all the worshippers eyed his every move.
The imam continued to explain how the groups created on Facebook to sow the trouble in Syria were Israeli agents. More and more people were standing up until finally about 50 people towards the back entrance stood up and starting chanting anti-government slogans.
Everyone in the hall stood up, the imam stopped, the crowd started reforming and soon enough there was a Pro-regime rally formed and moved to push out the Pro-democracy people.
At this point, everyone took out their mobile phones and started taking pictures or videos. I mean everyone. I did the same. At one point, I looked away from the content of what i was filing and saw at least 30 people standing in my immediate vicinty with mobile cameras. Other people found a small exit and were departing the mosque from there, perhaps anticipating uncertain times in the not so distant future.
A few minutes later, the imam started the prayer, without finishing the sermon. By this time, most people had exited the mosque. I found my shoes and walked o
Both had now grabbed me towards the crowds again where a third man led me into a long narrow room inside the mosque, just right of the prayer hall. This room is usually closed off to any worshippers or toursits, I had been to the mosque compound before and I know that this room is never entered by us ‘common’ folk. The room was beautiful old syrian furniture with marble and that old school wood intricate furniture. There were a lot of security personnel in there, all plain clothes. They sat me down next to a young guy with blood coming down his eyebrow. Every few minutes, more guys came in from the door dragging a person who looked afraid. We were all eventually lined up on chairs near a wall. There was about 8 of us in all. Most crying, probably knowing their fate more than I could imagine. I was asked repeatedly for my phone and ID, but that was already taken from me as I sat down.We remained there for another 20 minutes or so and the imam had finished the prayer and come into this room infested with security personnel of different levels. Thugs, their bosses, and then some high ranking men. The imam would scream out loud that none of the people will be hit in God’s house. The security men would repeat it to themselves just as loud. There was a lot of confusion and movement, phone calls and activity. No one was calm. Except me. For some reason, pissing in my pants didnt seem like it would help. Although I did try to mention that I’m a non-syrian and that this is all a big mistake. I was reassured once my mobile camera would be checked that I would be released. Shit.
As we waited in angst, the captured Syrians started increasing their pleas of innocence, but to no avail, they were told to shut up, quite belligerently. We all had our hands tied with plastic instead of handcuffs. It was so tight, blood circulation was cut off and people had no choice but to complain, again, the security men were not concerned with this.I was asked to stand up and was directed towards the door I came in from, but I was the only one. When other men asked my guide where and why I was leaving, the answer was “the Maalem wants him,” and pointed with his finger to the ceiling and brushing the top of his shoulder as to indicate stars on a uniform, a high ranking official’s uniform. This was a sufficient response for the people who asked, and there was at least 4 different people asking. But he decided to keep me standing in the corner near the door for some time. During this time I was looking around but one really strung out security man started holding my throat and wanted to slap me, but was held back by others. I was finally asked to continue outside again with the same guide. But at the door, a very strange incident took place. Three security guys asked my guide to where I was going, but he answered the same, the Maalem orders, he wants to see him. For these guys, that wasnt acceptable. They started to pull me back into the room, while my guide started to pull back, and here I was stuck in the middle. I thought about jokers to the right and Bob Dylan.
Finally my guide lost this small battle and back I was with the other Syrian guys. But because I was Egyptian they sat me off to the side to try and figure out what they are going to do with me.
Finally a seemingly high ranking officer, asked me to stand up and he said I have one chance to answer his question. Ten other security guys surrounded me and this short, influential person. He asked me what I was doing there. I answered that I was just praying and was off to my house afterwards. This was not the answer he wanted to hear. Everyone was asked to stand up and we were all directed to the door at which point the security people pulled out transparent duck tape and started taping our mouths by wrapping the tape around our the back of our heads a few times.
We walked out the room, still in the courtyard of the mosque where everyone must have their shoes removed to find a van parked there. This is the same part of the compound where tourists and worshipers must remove their shoes to walk around, out of respect. We were rushed into the van, hands tied, mouths taped and thrown on the floor of this seatless van. The security men stood at all windows so as to block the view from either direction. And away we went. At this point, i start having a small anxiety attack and trouble breathing as a result. The tape on my mouth was making me extremely tense as we were all crushed up on each other in the back of this van. I started dry heaving so much that eventually the tape came undone. I’ll never forget the detainee I was crushed up against, a young syrian in his early twenties looking at me and gently tapping my knees as to reassure me we were still altogether and that we will need much more strength, as I was about to find out.