by Zakira Suriyeh
They begin to leak out slowly, after decades of silence, the details of what is simply known in Syria as “the events.” After decades of being stuffed deep into spaces we didn’t know were part of our anatomy, they reemerge clear, sharp, as if they had just happened yesterday.
For as long as I can remember, whenever we summoned the courage to speak, we whispered. We whispered behind closed doors, only in the company of closest family, with grandfathers darting their frightened looks into the dark corners of the room. They could never shake off the nagging feeling that someone was listening in the shadows. In Syria, there is always someone listening. During these rare instances of “courageous” grand declarations against oppression, corruption, injustice, it would be enough for one to whisper “The Events of Hama”, and these magic words of terror would instantly restore the room into a safe haven of silence. It seemed that in those moments of self-enforced silence, the shadows in the corner grew darker and longer like black holes in our living rooms ready to swallow us whole.
Hama, an ancient Syrian city, has become the symbol of this forced silence. Hama, the site of a massacre, represents an evil act that diminished an entire city into a painful example for the rest of the country, a reminder for what happens when the silenced dare to speak. Hama, is the way a brutal regime decided to end their bloody fairy tale with “and everyone was silent, happily ever after.”
But now, 29 years later, the details are leaking, oozing out, at a slow yet quickening drip. A close friend from Hama, who has lived in America for half a century, used to just utter Hama under her breath and that would be enough to remember. But now, every time we speak, about Egypt, about Libya, even about events unrelated to politics or the Middle East, she will begin a story out of nowhere, out of that deep space, mentioning names of families and what happened to them in February 1982. Entire families that were terrorized by day and slaughtered by night.
On the phone (a “safe” American phone) friends whisper tales that they are hearing from their Hamwi friends, about children murdered in front of their mothers and husbands shot execution style in front of their families. Bodies were left in alleys to rot overnight, until the military trucks rambled down the ravaged streets at dawn. The survivors, crouched behind the thick stone walls, listened to the menacing rumble and the thuds of their loved ones as they were thrown into the back of the trucks, the bodies piled into a towering heap. The blood flowed out of the back of the trucks, forming a stream, staining the ancient cobblestoned streets of Hama crimson red. The screams of wives, daughters, mothers were stifled by others in the house as they hid in closets and underground shelters. The secrets, the details, once so masterfully concealed, come out with force now.
After all these years, the bloody news from another town triggers the memories. They have a primal need to utter the truth to anyone who will listen, as if they cannot contain the memories any longer, as if they need to scrub out the insides of their hearts, as if by finally releasing the stories to us, they will somehow be free of the guilt of silence.
So today, we watch, knowing very well what it means for a Syrian city to be sealed, knowing very well that what is happening in Daraa, has already happened before. As the cliché goes, you cannot understand your present until you understand your past; but when your past is your present and your present is your past on repeat, things get complicated. Supporters of the current regime claim that the son should not have to pay for the sins of his father. But the son has now dipped his hands into the blood of another city who dared to speak.
While we were sleeping, people in Daraa were slaughtered in the dead of night, their children huddled in beds crying with their mothers, listening to gunshots instead of lullabies. They fell asleep not knowing if they will ever see their fathers. The mothers lay awake, remembering when they were children 29 years ago, when they would hear the whispers of Hama.
The voice of Syria became fainter and fainter under Hafiz Assad’s rule until it disappeared completely after the massacre of Hama. Since then, silence has dominated the Syrian people, their stories died with their voices. But now, the voices are finally rising above a whisper. When children are imprisoned for graffiti, when some have decided that having a voice is a crime worth killing for, and others have decided having a voice is a cause worth dying for, we all must break our silence.
The streets of Daraa are streaked with rain mixed with blood, the blessing mixed with the curse. How will “the events” end this time? Will we continue to sit behind closed doors, praying there is no one lurking in the shadows? Will we whisper “Hama,” short pause, “Daraa”? Will yet another decade pass in silence? Will Daraa join Hama as a two-syllable code for silence, fear, terror? Or will it be the city that let its blood flow through its streets so the rest of the country could reclaim its voice?