Our source, Sami, by his own account, is a Sunni Muslim who lives in Qusayr, a farm town near the city of Homs. He grew up in Qusayr with his best friend, Fadi, who is a Christian. Given the existing sectarian divisions in Syria, their friendship and current separation, in many ways, illustrate the nature of the country’s religious and ethnic diversity. For 40 years, “Arab nationalism” dictated that public recognition of differences such as ethnicity and religion was taboo. Sami and Fadi are not their real names. Read Sami’s account further below.
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Sami in Qusayr, September 13, 2012
When the revolution came to Qusayr, I didn’t realize how the conflict would change the way I looked at people, especially those around me. Especially, how it would separate me from my good Christian friend, Fadi.
Over the months that I became involved in the street demonstrations demanding political reforms, I wanted to know what Fadi thought of the changes that were taking place.
Fadi said that he, like his family, did not like what the armed forces of the Assad regime were doing to the demonstrators, but he would not join me in the streets. There were no excuses for the brutality, he told me one day. At the same time, however, he argued that we all knew how brutal and merciless the regime was.
Our fight for freedom would turn bloody sooner or later, Fadi told me repeatedly, and many people would then be at a disadvantage.
Fadi’s fears were justifiable but I never understood how he could still think about consequences and other stuff when people were being killed unjustly; when corruption prevails; when you already admit that the regime must go, yet you are held back by your own fears.
His worst fears came true a few months ago when the fight was drawn into Qusayr’s Christian neighborhoods. Though some Christians might have worried that rebels would attack them, it turned out that it was the regime forces who broke into and looted Christian homes in the town. We can’t tell even by their appearance, whether the government security who attack civilians are government conscripts or shabiha or thieves because they all dress pretty much the same way these days.
Free Syrian Army rebels captured the thugs, took away their weapons, gave them a public trial during a demonstration to stain their reputation in the community, locked them up for a few weeks and then released them.
“On the computer, [Fadi] always chose strategic games like Red Alert. Personally, I never got the hang of those games….” – Sami in Qusayr
But Fadi and his neighbors felt they had no choice but to abandon their homes when government tanks began shelling our neighborhoods. Some of the homes, Christian and Muslim, are now in ruins.
My picture of Fadi
I still try to picture Fadi, who I haven’t seen or heard from since. He was always keen to dress smartly but in a casual style: jeans on campus, but the standard sports outfit in town, and white sneakers all the time or slippers. He’s about 170 centimeters tall and his favorite singer was Assala. On the computer, he always chose strategic games like Red Alert. Personally, I never got the hang of those games, so I never played them with him.
Fadi is 23 and comes from a humble family. He is not rich; his father used to work in construction and Fadi and his brother, Badi, were the first to attend classes beyond high school.
I first met Fadi when I transferred to a predominately Christian school, Jibrael Al-Shaer Primary School. I had known many Christians in my neighborhood but Fadi became my best friend.
He studied hard and always wanted to be number one in class and, indeed, he was one of the top students. We remained friends throughout school days and went to Al-Baath University in Homs together. I studied English literature and he studied electrical engineering. Even though we seldom saw each other on campus, we met at least twice a week and usually on weekends.
The wisdom of Kung Fu Panda
Fadi’s house is only a kilometer from mine. We would usually meet at his place or in the town’s park, and sometimes at my house; he was sort of lazy to come to my place.
Religion was never a big deal in our friendship. I never visited his church, nor did he visit a mosque before. Fadi rarely went to his own church; I guess he just went to church once or twice a year and we did not invite each other to go to each other’s places of worship. I have always been curious to go inside a church and have a look, but I was a bit shy to ask.
When there were sectarian tensions in our town, we would always try to be objective in our discussions. The Christian community in Qusayr is not large and most Christians are closely or distantly related to the Hana family that often was the center of community rumors and controversy. Fadi disliked the Hana family a lot and he would often call them drug dealers and thugs.
The main thing that united us was mutual respect, among other things. We likek telling jokes and watching American animated movies together. I can barely remember a day when we fought. Even when we argued about something, it would usually end in a joke or an apology from one of us.
“When we got carried away, Fadi was the one to remind me that there were risks in such talk.” – Sami in Qusayr
I remember the first animated movie we saw together, “Kung Fu Panda.” It was hilarious. We laughed a great deal, but Fadi thought that the movie was full of wisdom as well as comedy and that was in his view what made the movie successful.
Cautious conversations about things Syrian
Politics was my favorite topic but we could not talk at length about it; usually we made sarcastic implicit jokes about the regime and then laugh secretly. When we got carried away, Fadi was the one to remind me that there were risks in such talk. We agreed that talking about the regime’s corruption would not help, and that change should come from each and every person.
We were top students at university, and we knew we had good job chances in government or the private sector, or we would travel abroad to work. Things like poverty and corruption did not concern us that much after all; we were determined to excel academically.
That was before the revolution came to Qusayr.
One of the ironies of life in Syria was a State TV show called “Spotlight.” The show’s stars would talk at length about politics and corruption, but the subject was taboo for the rest of Syria. Anyone who dared to even say as much as half of what they said on TV would surely be arrested. People were very afraid of this.
I told Fadi I thought the government was fooling us by airing a show like “Spotlight” and letting people watch it.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You know that we are not allowed to say anything that those guys on TV say, so the reason behind such shows is obvious.”
“What is that?”
“Well, come on,” I said in disbelief.
“They just want us to enjoy being slaves for them; to laugh at corruption and live with it. The main reason for this show is to ease people’s tension and anger with the government so that people say to themselves, ‘There is freedom; we can talk and point out mistakes.’”
“Those shows are meant to persuade the outside world that there is freedom of expression in Syria! As if!”
“If people got so fed up with the government’s corruption and oppression, they would explode and start causing problems.”
Fadi looked surprised and a little suspicious. “Where on earth did you get that from, Sami?”
Fadi mocked me. “You are a really dangerous man,” he said. “I should stay away from you, ha hah.” Then he turned serious. “You are using your analytical skills in the wrong way. Please let’s not open this again.”
Religious talk fraught with risk
I used to do most of the talking, and Fadi was a great listener. We would talk about almost everything. We used to talk about religious issues, but then one day we agreed to stop.
Every now and then he used to ask me something about Islam and I would ask questions about Christianity, although he did not know a lot about his religion partly because I don’t think he cared that much about it.
I guess Fadi felt threatened by my knowledge about my own religion and my thoughts about Christianity; maybe he felt that I was trying to convert him or something. Fadi said such topics would soon turn into hot arguments and that we would not get anywhere in the end since neither of us would be convinced of the other’s argument.
I personally did not like that, but I had to respect my friend’s wish.
Two paths to the orchard
We often rode our bicycles into the Syrian countryside. Once we rode seven kilometers to visit my family’s fruit orchard. We pedaled past green trees as the sun was was burning above us. Before we got to the orchard, we heard dogs barking loudly. We slowed down and Fadi got worried.
Dogs are not supposed to follow ordinary people or attack them, I said. They are supposed to scare thieves off. They won’t bite.
I wasn’t convinced, though, so we discussed how to get passed the dogs and decided to bike by the dogs as fast as possible. We went for it. I got scared and stopped, but Fadi pedaled on.
I stood and watched Fadi pass the dogs at breakneck speed. I could not even see his legs as he was pedaling so fast but it I could picture the frightened look on his face.
I chose a longer and safer route to catch up with Fadi.
He never called to ask how I was
About three months ago, I called one of Fadi’s cousins, who is a mutual friend.
Fadi has left Syria, he told me. He is working alongside his brother, like a regular worker, the cousin said.
I felt by the even sound of the cousin’s voice that Fadi had somehow changed. I asked him to tell Fadi to call me.
Fadi never called me.
“The first thing I am going to say to him when I see him again is, ‘Why did not you call to check if your friend is still alive?’” – Sami in Qusayr
I never imagined this conflict would tear us apart; that it would change us in such a way. I have not seen Fadi or talked to him for over four months now.
I am sure he is all right, because he is now in a place where they are no tanks shelling the neighborhood and there are no shabiha threatening to kill Syrian civilians.
I really feel bad about it and I do hope that Fadi has a good explanation for not calling me. The first thing I am going to say to him when I see him again is, “Why did not you call to check if your friend is still alive?”
I have two other Christian friends. One of them called me the other day from Damascus to check on me and asked me to watch out and look after myself (which implicitly means “stay out of troubles and do not do anything stupid. i.e. take part in demonstrations or do anything against the government.”
Fadi was not the only person who has surprised me in this way. I have other friends – colleagues and professors who I used to think of as role models – who disappointed me with their fear of the government and the silence they kept despite all the massacres. None of them supported the regime but they were just too scared to even speak about what is happening.
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.