Thursday, 19 July 2018

Review: My Country, by Kassem Eid

First posted at SyriaUK.

My Country, A Syrian Memoir
Kassem Eid, Bloomsbury, 2018

On the early morning of 21 August 2013, the Damascus suburbs of Zamalka and Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta, and Moadamiya in Western Ghouta, were attacked with rockets loaded with Sarin nerve agent. An estimated 1,500 people were killed. Kassem Eid, then 27 years old, was amongst the survivors.

The Sarin attack comes halfway through Kassem’s book. By then he has already told of how the people of Moadamiya had suffered regime violence, snipers, car bombs, massacres with hundreds shot or stabbed or burned by regime militia.

Childhood

When Kassem Eid was just three years old, his family came to Moadamiya. Only three miles from Damascus city, Kassem describes the rural quality of his childhood home town, with old mud houses, surrounded by fields and olive groves, with neighbouring families who had farmed there for generations. Kassem’s large Palestinian-Syrian family lived in one of the few modern buildings, a block built by the Ministry of Media for its employees.

Kassem describes his parents with great fondness, his late father working in TV, radio, and journalism, and passing to his young son an interest in the outside world and the English language through an illicit hoard of Reader’s Digest saved from the parents’ years in Saudi Arabia.

But as Kassem grew older, the harshness of his world was revealed. He tells of his first day at school, lined up under the sinister smile of the dictator Hafez al-Assad and reciting the daily pledges of loyalty, of learning that at every level Syria was governed by connections to the ranks of power, with no opening to advance on merit, and with privilege and power maintained by violence.

His friendships growing up included a few across sectarian divides. In particular he writes of his schoolfriend Majed, a son of a military pilot who goes on to be a fighter pilot himself, from an Alawite family, the same sect as Assad. Their relative positions are demonstrated in the sixth grade when Kassem outperforms Majed in test scores, only to be docked marks in his fimal report card to give the military officer’s son top place.

Later when the revolution comes, Kassem’s contacts with Alawites help him to arrange the smuggling of food and medicine into Moadamiya, but his relationship with Majed cannot survive the uprising. At their last meeting, Majed says, ‘Many Alawites hate Assad too, but we still fight for him, because if he falls, they’re coming for all of us.’

Revolution

Moadamiya’s revolution began with a protest on the afternoon of 18 March 2011. Around 300 people marched through the town centre calling for the resignation of the mayor, and for the return of municipal lands confiscated by the regime. Plain-clothes Shabiha regime agents arrived, armed with clubs, swords, and guns to attack the demonstrators. Despite this immediate resort to violence by the regime, Kassem describes himself and his family that evening daring to hope that freedom was possible for the first time in years.

With Shabiha militia on Moadamiya’s streets, the town’s community leaders went to negotiate with Air Force Intelligence chief Jamil Hassan, who threatened them: ‘Make sure that such events never happen again. We wil not be so forgiving next time.’ He was in a position to deliver on his threat. Germany’s chief federal prosecutor has recently filed charges against Jamil Hassan, for ‘crimes against humanity.’ He is charged with command responsibility for the systematic torture and killing of hundreds of detainees by Air Force Intelligence staff between 2011 and 2013.

Moadamiya’s residents knew much of what to expect from the start, even if they were to be shocked by the scale of what followed. Kassem knew from personal experience. Years earlier his eldest brother Yazid had spent months in prison after being picked up by Air Force Intelligence, and Kassem himself had previously been picked up by regime security forces, giving him a brief and brutal experience of the Syrian state’s violent system of institutionalised torture.

After the first protest, the Shabiha imposed a curfew on Moadamiya. Despite this, by early April Moadamiya saw daily protests of over 10,000 people, and over 15,000 people on Fridays, with every protest attacked by Shabiha.

The book describes how in those first weeks Kassem witnessed a horrifying sexual assault on two women by Shabiha, after which he persuaded his sister to leave Syria along with her young family. He and his brothers also persuaded their mother to leave for Jordan. Kassem began joining the protests, experiencing gunfire, and witnessing increasingly frequent killings by snipers.

Kassem puts the count of people killed in Moadamiya in the first seven or eight months as 200 people. More than 5,000 people were detained, including children, close to ten percent of Moadamiya’s total population. By the end of 2011, over seventy percent of the town’s population had fled. This was the point when some joined together to start the Free Syrian Army.

The year that followed, 2012, saw even more extreme violence, with executions in the streets and horrendous massacres where as many as 450 were killed by Shabiha in one event. Kassem describes the aftermaths of the massacres with images of pure horror. With his knowledge of English, Kassem focused on media activism, translating reports, filming fighting, and documenting casualties.

Although Kassem knew nearly every founding member of the FSA in Moadamiya from school or from the neighbourhood, at first he wasn’t ready himself to take that step. That day would come later, on the 21 of August 2013 when while still suffering the effects of nerve agent he picked up a gun and joined his neighbours in fighting to try and stop regime forces advancing into Moadamiya after the chemical attack.

Survival

The second half of the book describes what followed the international failure to respond forcefully to Assad’s chemical massacre: the grinding starvation siege of Moadamiya, the division and gradual surrender of the community, and his own surrender and then brazen escape from Syria.

But perhaps the bitterest experience was his time in America. He had told his friends in the first months of revolution that the United States had a million reasons to take Assad down. Now he experienced the alienation of visiting a society enjoying a privileged protected peace, disconnected from the reality of his war.

Protests in America were without gunshots, but a demonstration in America’s capital didn’t attract the thousands seen in Moadamiya. Just 1,400 people, most of them Syrian. Where, he asked, were Washington DC’s Muslims? Where were the non-Syrian Arabs, the Palestinians, the Americans who wanted to defend democratic values?

In America, Kassem spoke at universities, on news programmes, in meetings with policymakers. He writes that he was pleased when Samantha Power, Obama’s UN Ambassador, asked him to stand up in front of a Security Council meeting, but later he wished that he had not stood silently, but that he had screamed.

Kassem has cut a tight, powerful story from the span of his personal experience. No one book can capture the full scale of events in Syria in the past few years, but by the intensity of this sample of one neighbourhood seen through one pair of eyes, Kassem Eid’s memoir gives a powerful impression of the great drama and disaster of the Syrian revolution and its violent suppression.

The clear line Kassem Eid traces through this one vital part of Syria’s story should make a good introduction to readers not immersed in all of the war’s details, as well as being welcomed by those already deeply involved. May his testimony endure.