MOHJA KAHF, 3/1/2011
Syrians live in fear of saying the wrong word. Ghassan Yasin said it on February 17.
Yasin, a thirty-something resident of Aleppo, Syria, created a grass-roots group called the Committee to Combat Corruption. This in itself, a citizen organizing a committee, is an illegal act in Syria, without prior government clearance. Representin the Committee, Yasin speaks briefly but candidly via phone on a news program airing in Syria on the Orient TV satellite channel at three p.m. Thursday February 17. The theme : “Syria’s Day of Outrage.” The host introduces Yasin by effusing, “You’re against corruption! You have a committee against corruption? Can you work in corrupt conditions?”
“Definitely not “ Yasin replies. Here’s what gets said next; the man is paying dearly for these words, so I’d like to print them in full:
Yasin: “It’s an idea on the internet, on Facebook, but it will definitely become reality some day….the topic of this episode is very important, regardless who calls for going out and who is against it. I live in this country and I wish I could go out to the street and protest just like anyone else in another country. But our demands are going to be very limited. We’re not going to demand, like the people of Tunisia and Egypt, the downfall of the regime and changing it, and such slogans…this does not represent the Syrian people. We, as youth living in Syria, love our country a lot and are proud of its foreign stances. But we have a specific perspective. We can be resistant and be Arab nationalist, but at the same time our country can be in good shape.
I feel like Syria is for all Syrians, not just five percent of them. Syria has more corruption than Egypt and more corruption than Tunisia-but we don’t want any protests. Our demands are going to be very limited, and I’ll tell you right now on the air: we are going to out to the streets, but we’re not going to demand the downfall of the regime. We’re going to demand the downfall of corruption—the corruption that the government in all its press releases says, “We are against corruption” so therefore we are practically with the government. But there is a difference in the apparatuses. The government for forty years has been using slogans, just slogans, and slogans that are socialist, but where is the socialism in reality? How is there socialism and we have private industry?”
Host: “That is socialism. Some people say that socialism is like in Soviet Russia, and some people say that it is like this case, when we are all participating in the wealth of the nation.”
Yasin: “That’s where the problem is. Our problem is a problem of laws, of slogans. How can there be socialism but no accountability? We want to apply socialism and make the role of accountability clear. We, the Syrian Committee to Combat Corruption, inshallah will go out to the streets very soon. We’re just waiting for events in Egypt to finish so that there won’t be a connection between the Egyptians’ demands and ours.”
Host: “God bless you, and I hope that you also get an official permit from the Ministry of Social Affairs.”
The Kafka-esque barrage into Yasin’s home apparently happens the next day. According to friends who report conversations with him and his family on Facebook, it is the mukhabarat, members of Syria’s massive and multi-layered state security agencies, licensed to brutalize the citizenry. Yasin has already fled Aleppo when they arrive at his home, telling a friend who goes by the Facebook moniker “New Syria” that if he is unable to contact him again, it is likely because the mukhabarat have caught up with him. Yasin does not make contact with “New Syria” again.
Yasin’s last Facebook status is short love poem he posted on February 17:
Let me sip from your lips, so I can start a new life.
Put your hand in my hand so we can run off together.
Tempting, you are, as a whiff of ripe peach,
sturdy as an olive tree.
Before you, they were all chimeras.
You are the one that I love
with pure honest love.
Ghassan’s friends catch on—“If freedom’s your true love, you’re going to get the wind knocked out of you, and marvelously,” one says.
“Freedom’s worth it all,” comes the reply from Ghassan.
A friend named Ahmed agrees, “Freedom is beautiful.”
Ghassan replies, “ Viva Egyptians, Ahmed!” He’s keeping up with the comments on the dot, greeting “Suzanne” here and “Randa” there and chatting charmingly with readers. One friend asks if he’s a fan of Nizar Kabbani. Kabbani (1923-1998) is the late great Syrian poet of eros and revolution, who should have been here for this, all of it, the Jasmine Revolution, Tahrir. Come and see this day, Nizar.
“I’m not just a fan of his, I’m a passionate admirer!” Ghassan responds, on February 18, 2:36. It is the last thing he posts.
Three days later, a woman named Arwa posts the the single-word interrogative, “Ghassan???”
A friend named Ghaliah responds “What’s so strange about his name, Arwa?”
Arwa: “His name isn’t what’s strange—it’s that he has been absent. It’s not like him. I’m worried about him.”
“New Syria” replies, “Ghassan has been taken into custody. Please, support him here. Demand to know why this wonderful guy has been imprisoned.“ The subsequent comments express shock and dismay. There are seventy comments under the last status at the time of this writing.
One participant in the Facebook group “Syrian Intifadah” remarks, on learning of Yasin’s disappearance into mukhabarat custody, “Ghassan was braver than I. I phoned in a comment to that program myself, but I didn’t use my real name.”
Ever since the disappearance, Suhair Atassi, fearless organizer of Syrian civil disobedience actions in Damascus who also spoke frankly on the same Orient TV program, punctuates her Facebook statuses with the query, “Where is Ghassan Yasin?” She is a free Syrian. There are many in Syria who are free, because freedom is not something you wait for the state to give you; it is something you are, and she is. So is Ghassan, wherever he is. “The free Syrian who spoke frankly, and disappeared,” is the epithet floating through the ether describing him. Someone named “Ramrom” says “good morning to you, Ghassan,” every day in the comment list under Yasin’s last status, and wishes him freedom, and offers him coffee.
People who speak frankly in Syria tend not to use their real names, because of the Kafka-esque conditions that have held in the “kingdom of fear” since Martial Law was imposed in 1963 with the coming to power of Syria’s Baath Party. Martial Law enables the state to ignore basic human freedoms ostensibly guaranteed by the Syrian Constitution. Syrian public culture under the Baath strips the citizen of any sense of civic efficacy, embuing citizens instead with a sense of the futility and danger of political involvement. Any violation of the strict code restricting what a citizen can do or say can mean indefinite detention without formal arrest or charge or habeas corpus. Yet Ghassan Yasin proves that there are young Syrians in the generation that came up under the Baathist culture of intimidation who are not afraid to speak out anyway. He is one of the free Syrians – already free on the inside, who are waiting for the outside, for the Syrian state’s dark and outdated gloom of Mordor, to catch up.
There are at least 17,000 “disappeareds” in Syria.
Go to: https://www.facebook.com/ghassan.yasin1/posts/142746132456603 to “like” Yasin’s last status, in his absence. Wish him a free morning. Condemn his disappearance at the hands of Syrian state security agents. Demand that the Syrian state tell the Syrian public, “Where is Ghassan Yasin?”
*Thanks to my sister, Noma Kahf, for help with this piece.
Waj, could you please also link the following:
The tv clip (in Arabic): https://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=107254839355378&oid=137068333019956
News in Al-Wafd (Arabic) reports the imprisonment of Ghassan Yasin: http://tinyurl.com/4pjqcvv