“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Thirty-six short words, but what an idea! As Americans, I think all of us have our special reasons for not taking those words for granted. Some serve in the armed forces, defending those very liberties. Others are first-generation immigrants from countries where such civil liberties do not exist. Here is one of my reasons:
Last night I woke myself in the night, weeping for a man I’d never met. Ibrahim Qashoush was a fireman who wrote poetry in his spare time. When his country, Syria, rose in rebellion against an intolerable dictatorship, he turned his talent to writing revolutionary jingles. His songs became famous, and were sung by hundreds of thousands as they peacefully protested the regime.
Earlier this month, Qashoush disappeared. I avoid graphic material on this blog, so I won’t describe what they did to him. It’s enough to say that he is dead, murdered by the security forces of his own government. He leaves behind a grieving wife and three boys who will grow up without a father.
This is an intensely personal story to me, because I have lived in Syria under Bashar al-Assad. Four and a half months is not very long, but it felt like a long time for me to have my voice stifled. I saw the fear in my Syrian friend’s eyes when a few days into my stay I innocently made an imprudent remark in the presence of the wrong listener. So it only ever happened once. I learned to be quiet, just like everybody else.
Syria is a beautiful country. I’ve visited many corners of the world, and Syrians are the most warm and open people I have ever met. But the silent, menacing force of an oppressive government is crushing to the spirit. Certain topics are simply never discussed. There’s a peculiar universal and obsessive impulse to compulsively look over one’s shoulder. Because even the walls can’t be trusted to keep a secret from the dreaded mukhabarat (secret police).
I don’t know if it’s possible to understand this feeling without experiencing it. As a connoisseur of dystopian fiction, I had read about it in plenty of books before I arrived. I was so acquainted with the concept of a totalitarian society that at first it was a sort of novelty living in one, like being a character in a book.
But the novelty soon wore off, and I found myself frightened in spite of myself, and then angry at being frightened. Most of all, I was angry on behalf of my Syrian friends. I was an American. The mukhabarat couldn’t really do anything to me (at least I believed they couldn’t). And I could leave if I wanted, and in fact was planning to leave. But how dare the government keep its own people feeling so miserably afraid for a lifetime?
A few months into my stay in Syria, I had a sort of breakdown. I shut myself in my room, and poured out a tirade at the mukhabarat. I had a convenient captive audience in the person of my ceiling fan, which I had been cautioned to assume had been bugged by the mukhabarat. Whether it was bugged or not, that ceiling fan endured an hour-long diatribe detailing my fury at the oppressive Assad regime, and those creepy, shadowy, awful mukhabarat.
It was only naiveté, not bravery, that allowed me to face my invisible foes with the truth of what I thought about them. I hadn’t lived long enough in Syria to personally know anyone who’d been dragged off by the mukhabarat to disappear forever or be returned a tortured corpse. That’s why I am in awe at the courage of the Syrian people, who know full well the hideous strength and brutality of their government, and defy it anyway, because of their unquenchable belief in an idea. That same idea embodied so beautifully by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.
I think about Syria every day, and my heart is with those young people waving their signs in the streets. The headlines are always the same: so many killed in Dara’a, so many in Hama, so many in this or that suburb of Damascus. I watch the videos of protests, taken surreptitiously with civilian cell phones because journalists are not allowed in the country. I read the horrific first-hand accounts of what goes on behind closed doors in packed-to-bursting Syrian jails.
I choose to believe that the peaceful activists in Syria will prevail, because I believe their cause is just. And because all I can give them right now is my belief. May God bless them, speed their cause, and re-gift to them the precious rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.