Mohammad L. can’t stop crying. It has been this way since July. The tears come unbidden, during his solitary walks around Cairo or when he is having coffee with friends. Sometimes they come when he talks about his old life in Syria. That embarrasses him. He worries that people will think he is weak. The tears aren’t real, he says. But sometimes, it is hard to tell.
The tears and the angry, mottled scars on his face are the legacy of Mohammad’s participation in an anti-government demonstration in Syria last April.
When the Syrian army opened fire on the demonstrators, a bullet shattered the right side of Mohammad’s jaw, curling his upper lip into a snarl and furrowing the flesh up to his temple.
The tears came later. During an operation in July, Mohammad’s surgeon cut into the crescent below the right eye. Now, that eye cries when it wants. He cannot control it.
Mohammad describes being shot:
A chance encounter
I first met Mohammad near midnight at an outdoor coffee shop he haunts in downtown Cairo. I was late for a meeting and dreadfully lost in a maze of narrow alleys. He was the fourth person I had asked for directions, but the first to give me the correct ones, and to offer to see me safely to my destination. I bought him a coffee the following day to thank him for his kindness and was struck by his story.
In Egypt, it is common to meet political dissidents who cannot go home. It is rare to meet one who is so terrified of his own country’s security apparatus that he avoids his countrymen in exile.
Mohammad’s journey, from apolitical English literature major to refugee in Egypt, began in his hometown of Dera’a, near the border with Jordan. The 25-year-old smiles without humor as he describes the “Nationalism” classes that began in fourth grade.
“We have exams,” he told me, “and we have to remember all the president’s sentences or speech. You’re not allowed to miss any letter of it. They always told us it is like Koran. Don’t change any word of it.”
Growing up in the Assads’ Syria
Mohammad remembers a long list of things you didn’t do in Syria: you didn’t go to mosque for the early prayer (deep piety was suspect); you didn’t joke about how hard it was to find a job; you didn’t say negative things about President Bashar al-Assad, not even to your parents.
Mohammad was a good boy who didn’t break the rules. In high school, he even joined Assad’s ruling Ba’ath Party.
But when he matriculated at Damascus University seven years ago, Mohammad began giving Arabic lessons to visiting students from the U.S. and Europe. He compared his life to theirs, and started to feel like his life came up short.
Mohammad started scribbling his thoughts in a secret diary that he called Planet Syria. He made mocking lists of his country’s faults: grades were bought and sold; spots on the national soccer team were bought and sold; as long as you had money you didn’t have to do much of anything.
Not that he would have said any of that aloud. He burned Planet Syria in his backyard when he left Dera’a in June.
The United Nations estimates that 5,000 Syrians have been killed since the country’s uprising began in March, though Syrian rights groups say the number is much higher. Tens of thousands more Syrians have fled the country and now live in exile in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere in the region. Cairo has become a haven for Syrian opposition activity.
No choice but to join the protests
Mohammad doesn’t have an activist’s temperament. He is mild and a bit prim. In weeks of conversations, his temper rose only once, when I asked him if he regrets joining Syria’s uprising. The answer is that he regrets nothing.
To hear him tell it, Mohammad had no choice but to join the protests. The starting point was the arrest of several local schoolboys – aged 9 to 15 – who, playing around after school, held a mock demonstration like the ones they were seeing on TV in Tunisia and Egypt.
“Forget about your children and try to make new children. If you can’t, bring us your ladies and we will give you new children,” the police told the frantic parents, Mohammad says.
And then stories started coming out from the prison. The boys had been tortured. Some had been raped.
“It might have been my brother next time,” Mohammad says as he tries to explain the rage that drove him to the streets.
Mohammad’s youngest brother, Hazem, is 17 and a source of constant worry, precisely because he’s young.
Mohammad describes his family as middle class – his father used to work for the army and his mother is a school teacher – but stresses what that means in Syria is that you have enough to eat and a small apartment. He jokes about the bedroom he shared with his four brothers. They called it, “the hospital,” with their five beds all lined up in a row.
Afraid in Egypt
He fled Syria in June – a friend had offered him a place to stay in Egypt and his face wasn’t healing. Mohammad knew the scars and swelling would eventually give him away as an activist. Indeed, he was pulled aside at the Damascus airport and interrogated by two security officers. It was only after he gave them $300 that they let him board the plane.
Mohammad describes being interrogated at the airport:
Mohammad avoids other Syrians in Egypt – even political dissidents – because he worries about spies. He went to the Red Cross in Cairo once, but an Egyptian man working there urged him not to register with the office. Syria has spies everywhere, the man said. They will snatch you if they know you are here.
Since then, he has been very afraid.
He flinches at the noise of fireworks in Tahrir Square. He cuts short calls to his family because he fears his phone is tapped. He has swapped his Syrian Arabic dialect for the Egyptian. He shares a three-room house not with Syrians but with Eritrean refugees.
Three weeks ago, men from the Syrian army paid a visit to Mohammad’s mother to offer him a deal. If he returned to Syria within seven days and enlisted in the armed forces, they would welcome him back as a patriot. If he refused, he would have to remain in exile, they told his mother, forever.
Mohammad agonized over the decision. In Cairo, he has little work apart from a few translation jobs and he cannot finish college here because he doesn’t have his college transcripts to prove he is a student.
But 25 years of life in the Assads’ Syria taught him to be leery. He suspected the men were lying and that if he returned he would be imprisoned and tortured. For now he is staying in Cairo and following news from home via clipped phone calls to family and friends.
From them, he hears that some Syrians fear the country is moving toward a civil war, pitting Sunni Muslims (of whom Mohammad is one) against al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
Surprisingly, Mohammad says he’d rather al-Assad hold on to power than for his country to descend into civil war.
Mohammad still calls himself an activist but says he doesn’t feel he has much in common with the Tahrir Square demonstrators.
His reaction when I told the story of an Egyptian pro-democracy activist I had just interviewed who was beaten up by Egypt’s security forces? “Well, I was shot in the face.” He smiles, but it is hard to tell if he is joking.
More on Syria:
The BBC’s Guide to the Syria crisis for context and background.
Al Jazeera’s liveblog on events in Syria for latest reports, videos and comments.
Bassam Haddad, Director of George Mason University’s Middle Eastern Program, has a number of interesting editorials in the Ezine about the Arab World Jadaliyya. The latest is entitled “The Idiot’s Guide to Fighting Dictatorship in Syria while Opposing Military Intervention.”
The independent news source the Media Line highlights the worries over Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
In the London-based Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat, the Lebanese journalist Diana Mukkaled reports on the debate sparked by a video of a Syrian military officer being questioned by members of the opposition. The question is, she writes, “How can an unarmed people who have been suppressed and killed avoid behaving in the same manner as their oppressors?”