Growing up in Saudi Arabia, my frustration with religion started at a young age. Although my parents were not restrictive of my opinions, they had always advised me not to express my thoughts in public. Moreover, they had always avoided my questions about Syria. I had many questions about why we had not visited Syria for 7 years, but they never mentioned the “Massacre of Hama” in front of me – EVER!
As a child, and later as a teenager, I had always known things without even asking about them, things about life, sexuality, human behavior… etc., which led me later to believe that I have been always in touch with my previous life. I embraced this idea which contradicted all religious beliefs.
No matter how I remember things, everything takes me back to 1990, not only because of the incident I mentioned in a previous post, but also because my frustration with suppression started that year.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 put me face-to-face with the methods of the under-estimated Saudi “mukhabarat” i.e. intelligence agencies. Overnight, everybody turned into an informant. Some Muslim Brotherhood’s Arabs, mainly Syrians and Egyptians, volunteered as spies for the Saudi mukhabarat. Even in the distant city of Medina, the fear of an Iraqi invasion – or even an Iranian one – that was promoted by the Saudi regime to suppress any rejection of the British-American intervention – became the subject of people’s talks and the stimulus of their fears. I remember some of my high school classmates carrying high-tech recording machines to record what teachers and other students said about the “situation”. It was then when I found out that a “private conversation” under dictatorships could never be actually private.
Even the slightest expression about not wanting my own country to be involved in killing other Arabs was dangerous. The frustration grew enormously when Hafez Assad declared his military support of the war against Saddam Hussein, sending Syrian troops to help Americans kill Iraqis.
In 1990, I started reading about sexuality. I was convinced back then that I was born gay. However, loving science, mathematics, and physics, my mind needed some kind of proof that one is born gay, but asking questions about sexuality was not, and still is not, an option since the only answer anyone will get is “it’s haram” i.e. a sin.
Amazingly, with all the questions in my mind about sexuality, I met in 1990 a group of Saudis who were trying to have sex-change operations. The way they looked, spoke, acted and dealt with everything added more questions to mine. Regretfully, I still don’t know what happened to them.
In 1993, I finished high school in Saudi Arabia and I was eager to leave to Syria thinking that life there would be easier. It was to some extent. However, on my first day in the university, registering as a medical student, another kind of frustration started. I found myself asked by another student who was a member of the “National Union of Syrian Students – NUSS”, and of course of al-Baath Party, to sit down and answer a few question, however, very politely.
The student (with a nice smile and a friendly voice): Are you a member of al-Baath Party?
Me (with a smile as well): No.
The student (Looking surprised – the poor thing): Really? Are you a member of any other party?
Me: No. I don’t believe in political parties anyway. I prefer to be independent.
The student (trying to be more convincing): Perhaps you are right, but al-Baath Party is different.
(At this point I was thinking: here we go!)
The student (his tone changed slightly to be more suggestive): Joining al-Baath Party will make everything easier for you later.
(At this point I was thinking: WTF? And not joining it will make my life like hell? Is that what he means?)
The student: There will be many benefits, and it will be easier for you to find jobs later.
Me (trying to be a smart ass): Are you saying it is obligatory?
The student (back to his friendly tone): Of course not!
Me: OK then, I prefer to be independent.
The student (with a smirk now): I told you it will make everything easier, especially that you are coming from Saudi Arabia and that you are originally from Hama.
Me: What is that supposed to mean? Let me rephrase my previous question: Is it obligatory for students from Hama who lived in Saudi Arabia to join al-Baath Party?
The student (aggressively): No, of course it is not obligatory.
(At this point I stood up)
The student (aggressively): But it is better for you. As I said, it will make things easier.
Me (smiling): Well… I never liked easy things… not even at school… I never liked easy subjects… but thanks for your advice anyway.
Back then in Syria, male university students had to have some kind of military training that would reduce their military service to be 24 months instead of 30. Six hours of weekly humiliation between 8:00 and 14:00, and a 13-day summer “military camp” for four years, during which, the above conversation happened 2 times but within “military zones”. Those students, who wanted to recruit other students, were actually informants. Hafez Assad’s regime used to add graciously 7% to their grades if they aided the regime in its hunt for any opposition among students. One of my friends had to run away to Jordan in 1994… I never heard of him afterwards.
I never liked medicine, but this was the only thing that my parents forced me to do – enroll in the faculty of medicine. 1993-1994 was my first school year at the university. Bassel – Hafez’s oldest son and his named “successor” – died in January 1994. They declared a 3-day mourning period. Universities were shut down for a week. It was the exams month, so I packed my stuff and left to Hama, not to study, but to be able to celebrate.
What a day it was in Hama! People’s faces were different. “At least we will not have another Assad in power”, some said, others said, “Now he can feel how hard it is to lose a son”. The Massacre of Hama had happened 12 years before that. The memories were still vivid. However, it was very dangerous to speak about it. No matter how I tried, not even the people who were the happiest for Bassel’s death dared to mention what happened in Hama in 1982. Back then, buildings’ walls were telling the story people did not dare to mention.
Bashar was sent for to come to Syria later. Nobody took him seriously, and no one thought that such a man could ever reach power. My uncle, who over-ranked and met Bashar in 1994 told me when I asked about how Bashar was, “He’s an idiot!”
Suddenly in 1994, Syrians had their own “Trinity”, the father, the dead son, and the idiot! Their pictures were everywhere – disgusting pictures disfiguring everything in the country. Luckily, they couldn’t paint them on the sky.
The faculty bodies of all universities in Syria were corrupt. In Aleppo, one could actually “buy” his passing marks from the dean of the University of Aleppo for 2000 US dollars. Ironically, buying the classes from each professor or teacher could have cost less.
Adding to that corruption, the NUSS members were desperate to deliver anyone to the secret police. Al-Baath party even offered different kind of “rewards” for informants. All campuses became intolerable. Hating medicine in the first place, I wanted to transfer myself to another field of study, but the rules were being changed each year, making it almost impossible to transfer. I started working, but I kept registering each year hoping that “this year they will allow me to transfer”, until 1998.
1999 was the year of Hafez Assad forth term vote. It was also the year of my first arrest and torture in a Syrian mukhabart prison.