Ghosts in the mosques

Opposition to the Syrian regime runs deep, as women, children, and the elderly take part in the resistance.

Large demonstration in Syria
A Syrian living in Jordan gestures, with her fingers painted in the colours of the Syrian national flag, during a protest against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad outside the Syrian embassy in Amman September 29,

The uprising in Syria, as in elsewhere in the Arab world, has relied mainly on peaceful demonstrations; although also like Egypt, Yemen and even Bahrain, there has been an underreported violent side to the opposition as well.

Unlike other countries, protesters have not succeeded in establishing any sit-ins in public squares. Early attempts to establish sit-ins, such as in Homs’ Clock Square in April were violently dispersed by government security forces. The regime took to posting security forces by main squares to prevent any future sit-ins.

Lately since the beginning of the school year, some protests have rekindled on campuses after a brutal crackdown on university activity over the summer, but almost all demonstrations have emerged from mosques.

Mosques remain the only public spaces that have sometimes escaped the government’s crackdown. There have even been cases of Christians, Alawites or secular Sunnis standing outside mosques waiting for prayers to finish so they could join demonstrations.

Filming these demonstrations to send to the internet and satellite news networks has been a key tool of the opposition.

Sometimes they are left unmolested long enough to demonstrate freely for an hour or more. Other times they use guerrilla tactics to avoid security forces, conducting so-called “flying demonstrations”, which occur at a pre-arranged location and are held ever-so-briefly – just long enough to film, so it can go up on the internet and be passed on to news networks.

One such flying demonstration took place on a Thursday night in early July, and residents of the wealthy Mazzeh neighbourhood in Damascus were surprised to hear opposition activists staging a demonstration, chanting “The people want the downfall of the regime!”

The activists had hoped their demonstration would encourage the locals to join in. The locals came out, and instead of joining the demonstration, attacked the participants with sticks and cudgels. Even security guards and building workers joined in the melee.

Then, after midnight, hundreds of people took part in a pro-regime demonstration in the same street – not quite what the opposition activists originally had in mind.

They shouted, “Arur you prostitute, Maher will step on your head!” They were referring to firebrand opposition cleric Sheikh Adnan al Arur – who lives in Saudi Arabia – and to Bashar al Assad’s brother Maher, a military commander.

Unlike opposition demonstrations, this one was not interrupted by security forces. The opposition activists made a critical error: Many people in Mazzeh were, in fact, regime supporters.

Freedom’s lot

On the night of July 19, I took a taxi towards the Damascus neighbourhood of Qabun, the opposition stronghold.

The driver was nervous. “There are problems there every night,” he said.

Loitering just outside the neighbourhood were soldiers and riot control police. Inside, Qabun’s street lights were turned off and there were no security personnel. The walls were full of graffiti that had been crossed out. We nearly drove straight into a demonstration.

Men on motorcycles blocked the road to prevent cars from entering in the direction of the demonstration. Others stood as lookouts. They shooed the driver away. He dropped us off and left in a hurry, refusing to take passengers who approached him, afraid the demonstrators would vandalise his car should he linger.

All the shops were closed that night – a lesson learned after a restaurant and pharmacy were destroyed after they remained open during a previous protest.

The streets were bereft of people except for the hundreds of men marching through Qabun’s main road at 10 PM. They had started at the Abu Bakr al Sadeeq mosque, though there were few overt signs of religious devotion. Not many of the demonstrators were bearded or wore dishdashas (traditional robes).

I approached one young man standing guard and introduced myself so that I would not arouse suspicion as an outsider – an 18 year-old engineering student called Amir. We walked with the demonstrators to an empty lot next to a mosque and a pharmacy. A man slowly drove a three wheeled motorcycle rigged with loudspeakers, blasting chants such as “the people want the collapse of the regime”, “down with the Baath”, and “Assad is a germ in Syria” (responding to the president comparing pro-democracy demonstrators to germs). Yet there were also many takbirs – calling “God is great!” – which is one of the more popular slogans in the demonstrations.

Amir called the empty lot “Freedom Square”, like the more famous one in Cairo. He told me that for the past two months, they had been demonstrating like this every night after the evening prayers. I asked who organised it, and although it was popular, he said that it did not have any organiser. Hundreds filled the square, while a cluster of about twenty women in full black burqas – entirely covering their faces – stood a safe distance behind.

Different men took turns with the microphone, leading the crowd in chants or giving speeches. “I want to speak to the police,” one man said. “Shame on you … we’re not terrorists, we are Syrians. There is no leader for this demonstration – it’s peaceful and popular. We salute anyone who defects from any military unit and joins us.”

Another man took the microphone. “We are not against women coming,” he said. “We want a separate

Students protest against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, as men, women, and children are participating in resistance against his regime [REUTERS]

demonstration for women because, in this country, women and men started mixing and this is a shame for us.”

An angry argument ensued, and the microphone was taken away as men shouted at one another. The demonstration then descended into bedlam. Most of the men were against any kind of demonstration for women at all.

“We complete our men, we want to come out just like our men,” two women shouted. Tempers flared between the sexes.

As men left in still-bickering groups, some stayed to clean the bottles and trash left behind. Others marched back to the mosque in Freedom Square, cursing the soul, quite literally, of Bashar al Assad’s father – “God damn your soul, Hafez!”

Fridays in Homs

Three days later, I attended Friday prayers in the central city of Homs, at the Khalid bin al Walid mosque – named after an important military commander during the early days of Islam.

But today was not Friday. Today was ahfad Khalid – the grandsons of Khalid. The opposition gave every Friday a new name, and this time it was a reference to Homs and this mosque.

The sermon was tame, mostly avoiding politics and sticking to religion. The elderly imam condemned sectarianism and called it a Jewish plot. He asked the youth not to shout until they left the mosque. But the moment prayers were complete – whilst men were still kneeling and shaking the hands of those on either side to wish them peace and God’s blessings – the young men erupted in angry shouts of “God is great!” They ran out into the bright sun, past the courtyard and down the steps to the street to begin protesting.

They chanted “Death over humiliation!” and “Peaceful, peaceful, Muslim and Christian, Sunni and Shia!” To the tune of “Happy Birthday”, they sang “Damn your soul, Hafez!”

Groups from different mosques fused. One group carried a huge Syrian flag that covered hundreds of demonstrators.

“No country is standing with us,” a local businessman I was marching with told me. “They’re going to kill a lot, until the regime falls.”

Across Cairo Street, in the Bayada neighbourhood, was another protest, but security forces prevented the two demonstrations from merging.

But this demonstration continued to grow as it flowed through the streets of Khaldiyeh. Streets were blocked off by rocks, cinderblocks and sandbags. The demonstration halted in Khaldiyeh’s main square, by al Ilu Garden. Protesters shouted their salutations to Sheikh Adnan al Arur.

A woman, clad completely in black and wearing a niqab – covering all but her eyes – stood up on a small platform. As she took the loudspeaker, the crowd of a few thousand strong went wild and shouted “God is great!” repeatedly, and then “With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, oh martyr!” The woman, who was related to a recent martyr, shouted back to them, above the din.

The protesters, well aware of the public relations battle being fought, stressed that they were not armed. They explained that some men had covered their faces with scarves just to avoid being identified by security operatives. Desperately they told me about the recent martyrs. The night before, 12 year-old Ahmad Arrifai was killed, as was 22 year-old Hiba al Arwani. The day before that, 30 year-old Hossam Juria and 16 year-old Rabia Juria had been shot to death. A 64 year-old woman, Dalal Kahil, had been killed. Muhammad Nuri Kahil and his cousin Muhamad Bassam Kahil were also killed.

‘We (don’t) love you’

Four days later and still in Homs, I visited the Omar ibn al Khatab mosque. I had heard its sheikh was an opposition supporter.

Women and children were camped out in cars outside the mosque, waiting for the final prayer of the day to finish.

As soon as it concluded, around 200 men emerged, shouting the usual refrains: “Takbir! God is great!”, “Damn your soul, Hafez!” and “The people want the downfall of the regime!” Then they sang their support for other neighbourhoods. “Deaths at Bab Assiba won’t stop us, Hamra will continue unto death!”

Undeterred, they continued: “We are the generation of freedom, we want to remove the Baath!” and “We are the nation of Muhammad!”

“You are dogs and we are lions!” they jeered. And then they mocked a pro-regime song, “We love you (Bashar)”, by slightly altering the lyrics: “We don’t love you!”

It was a very young, energetic crowd, and a few of the men were wearing masks. They jumped up and down, chanting and singing as if they were attending a football match. They stood in a big circle and held up a giant Syrian flag. A few dozen people stood around watching, comprised mostly of the older crowd. One woman wearing a headscarf marched into the crowd and disapprovingly dragged her chubby son away, who looked no older than 12.

A few cars honked impatiently as some protesters blocked traffic for a few minutes. A masked youth discreetly lit a firecracker between two cars. “The army is coming!” someone shouted. The firecracker exploded with a loud bang and everybody took flight.

Later that night, back in the hotel, calls of “God is great” wailing in the nearby neighbourhood crept through my window, with the unmistakable cadence of gun shots in the distance. Going out to explore, I heard more chanting and drums a ways off.

After almost an hour of walking around in the dark, I found them in an unlit street by a roundabout, beneath apartment buildings and near a mosque. They banged on drums and sang “Upright, I march” – a famous revolutionary song by Marcel Khalifa – and other classical Arab songs.

At one in the morning, the demonstration came to an end.

The counter-revolution will be televised

On July 28, Syrian television broadcast a massive pro-regime demonstration in Aleppo. Tens of thousands of people took part. They were shown carrying numerous pictures of Bashar.

There were a few Hezbollah flags here and there, and some interspersed pictures of Mary and Jesus Christ. One man held a Quran up in the air. Another carried a sign that said, “Arur you homosexual” (the regime had tried to delegitimise Sheikh Adnan al Arur by saying that when he was younger, he was dismissed from the army for engaging in homosexual sex).

At the demonstration, military men staged a show by rappelling down a tall building in the Square. An angry older woman in jeans with bleached hair and a face marked by cosmetic surgery stood on a stage and angrily shouted at the crowd in praise of Syria, urging them to be nationalistic, even leading the crowd in chanting oaths of allegiance to Syria en masse. She praised the army and celebrated its martyrs.

It was an expensive production, with powerful beams of light shining into the sky. It ended with fireworks, while different pop-singers wearing military clothing sang patriotic music and songs for the army.

At a simultaneous demonstration held in Quneitra, state television broadcast people carrying a massive Syrian flag. A demonstration in majority-Alawite Tartus on the coast was also shown.

“With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you oh Bashar!” they shouted.

“The people want Bashar forever!”

“God, Syria, Bashar and nothing else!”

They carried pictures of Bashar, and some of his father, calling out for “Abu Hafez” (Bashar’s son is also named Hafez – “father of Hafez”).

Next Friday

The next day, I took a taxi to the Bab Omar neighbourhood of Homs for Friday prayers.

The taxi passed dozens of security men, clad in loose green uniforms and sneakers, waiting under the comforting shade of some trees. They had clubs, shotguns, rifles, riot gear and shields. They were positioned between the Omar mosque of Hamra and the Fardos mosque of Inshaat in case they were ordered to disperse the protests.

I met a local contact at the Abdallah bin Zubeir mosque. Its sheikh, Abdallah Horani, looked quite young and was beardless. The mosque was densely packed, with many people lining up on mats outside on the street since there was no room inside.

Inside, prayer goers were pressed tightly against each other. There were many young boys in the crowd, along with some Bedouins in traditional garb. There must have been a thousand people crammed indoors. An array of fans and air conditioners battled the heat inside the mosque with futility; the fans shook as they squeaked and chirped like birds.

Sheikh Abdallah’s sermon was angry, and typical of one that takes place just before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins. He urged people to respect it and its meaning, and warned them not to watch the special Ramadan television programmes that were very popular in the Arab world. He prayed that god would make them successful and grant them victory over oppression.

At the end of the normal Friday prayer, he added an additional, special one for the martyrs of the uprising. Immediately there were calls of “God is great!” and thus began the protest, marching towards Jurt Arraees.

On Suez Street we were met by more demonstrators from the Abdul Qadir Jilani mosque. That mosque’s sheikh had been arrested earlier in the uprising for fifteen days – he was accused of turning his mosque into a field hospital for the opposition. The demonstrators from the Jilani mosque carried a giant flag from pre-Baathist Syria. When they met with our group, they shot confetti into the air.

The residents of the neighbourhood emerged to support the demonstrators. Old women with traditional tattoos on their faces grinned. They stood on corners, providing their water hoses for people to drink from, and sprayed the cold water into the air to cool us all under the bright sun beating down on us.

Women on the side and on balconies threw rice down at us. One woman splashed cups of water at people. Her husband grabbed the entire bucket of water and dumped it on the head and body of a friend he saw in the demonstration. The husband laughed and jumped back as his angry friend barked at him. Women and children looked down and smiled or sang along from balconies above the demonstrators.

It was a carnival-like atmosphere. More tunes were busted out in song:

“Damn you Hafez for producing this donkey!”

“We don’t love you!”

“We won’t bow to anyone but God!”

“Not forever, down with Assad!” (In response to the “Assad forever” slogan of regime supporters)

“The people want the downfall of the regime!”

They carried signs with the day’s slogan: “Your silence is killing us”. Other signs condemned sectarianism (although, in my opinion, whenever demonstrators condemn sectarianism in an all-Sunni demonstration, it is probably already too late, as I had witnessed in Iraq).

One man had an immense drum which he beat along with the songs and chants, whilst others clapped. The singers who led the demonstration sat on their friends’ shoulders.

We walked all the way to the beginning of Jurt Arraees. This was the intersection where armoured personnel carriers had previously shot at protesters, so the elders beseeched the youth to turn back. After a rumour that the army was approaching led to a few hundred people departing, the remaining two thousand chanted, “Why are you afraid? God is with us!”

Those remaining continued their festive incantations: “Down with the regime and the Baath party!” “Bashar, Arur is better than your mother!” “He who doesn’t give rights to the people is a germ! He who pretends to be a rejectionist and resistance is a germ!” (a reference to the president implying the opposition was a foreign conspiracy, which he compared to germs) “Hafez sold the Golan!” “Syria is for us and not for the Assad family!” “Damn your soul, Abu Hafez” “The Syrian media lies!” “Death, but no humiliation!”

They improvised humorous lyrics, always going back to the chorus “Come on, Bashar, leave!” They squatted and quietly chanted “The people want the downfall of the regime” over and over again in a murmur and then in unison they jumped up and angrily shouted it.

And then an effigy of a pig with Bashar’s face on it was held up.

Carbonated soda vs. tear gas

On the first day of Ramadan, August 1, my friend Suheib picked me up and we drove to the poorer districts on the edges of Damascus, looking for trouble.

Because of heightened security, it was often difficult to locate any protests. We passed Zamalka and a picture of Bashar that had been torn down, and entered Arbeen. There was tense electricity in the air.

As youth buzzed back and forth chaotically on motorcycles, men stood around on street corners and by walls, seemingly waiting. I knew they were not only waiting for the protests, but keeping a look-out for security. Suheib saw that I recognised it too.

“There are unnatural movements,” he said. He stopped and asked people for directions, knowing they would tell him to avoid certain streets if a protest was planned there.

Around 10 PM, shopkeepers hastily pulled down the shutters of their shops in anxious anticipation.

We walked to the main roundabout, overshadowed by a construction site, in the dark of night – the street lamps were turned off.

Hundreds of men marched towards us from Arbeen’s Great Mosque, near the vegetable market. They stopped at the construction site and smashed cinderblocks on the ground to get smaller chunks to throw. Other men began erecting roadblocks made of cinder blocks, signs, garbage dumpsters, overturned tables.

“Come on guys, get rocks!” shouted older men.

Unlike other demonstrations I had been to, these were not the singing type, and the crowds appeared leaderless. They chanted for Arbeen. They chanted the usual curses at the regime. “God is great!” they chanted, “We wont bow to anybody but God!”

They marched in the direction of the security forces so they could unleash their impromptu projectiles. Teargas canisters were fired back.

“Why are you afraid God is with us!” they shouted when some men started to retreat, regaining their courage and rushing back.

After hearing gunshots, I – along with some others – retreated back and ducked for cover. A group of men

While demonstrations against the government continue to be peaceful, security forces continue to include tear gas, and often bullets [REUTERS]

raced around the corner, carrying a young man with a bullet wound in his abdomen and a growing circle of blood.

They put him on the back of a pickup truck and urged him to say the shahada, in case he should die. “There is no god but God,” he gasped as the pickup sped off, “and Muhammad is his prophet.”

Waves of men ran back to avoid the tear gas or gunfire. They coughed, spit, and choked.

“Guys, Cola!” somebody shouted, pouring a local version of 7-Up on their faces to remedy the effects of the tear gas. They collected themselves and set forth on another sally, only to be met once again by tear gas and gun shots.

A young man sporting a pony tail and trendy clothes carried an expensive looking camera, filming the unfolding events – even asking others where he could go to find a better angle.

After some time, we left Arbeen and, luckily, stumbled upon another demonstration taking place in Zamalka. On the drive home, I saw two security vehicles with armed civilians and uniformed men parked on the overpass above the Hassan mosque in the Midan district.

Bullets in the dark

Back in Homs the next night, I walked from my hotel in the Inshaat district to the nearby Hamra area and its Omar ibn al Khattab mosque. Lights in the neighbourhood had been turned off, and its empty streets were eerily dark. I passed a biker cop monitoring the area.

Shortly before 10 PM, around a hundred youngsters had gathered on the main street, anticipating another demonstration. They piled bricks at the entrance to the road to block it off, and elsewhere they smashed bricks or cinderblocks on the ground to create smaller projectiles to throw – a popular (and convenient) tactic.

One young man in a tank top and a bandana carried a tire and a brick over to a corner and tossed them ceremoniously as if claiming his territory.

It was a wealthy area, with expensive shops, restaurants and even a fitness club. Normally, all would have been open until late during Ramadan. In stark contrast to what would normally be a festive occasion, pictures of two martyrs from the previous day’s demonstration were hung up on the neighbourhood’s walls.

Boys gathered to look at the pictures and discuss them. “Where did he eat it?” one boy asked another, meaning where in his body was he shot. I saw two youths equipped with slingshots.

The mosque was tightly packed with men and youth praying Tarawih, the special night time prayer of Ramadan. Its courtyard was also full of hundreds of men. Outside the mosque, over fifty youth waited for prayers to end.

After the 12th ruqu’a – or kneeling cycle – of the prayer, Sheikh Mahmud al Dalati paused and asked the women to leave the mosque for their own safety in anticipation of a clash that night. He also urged people not to confront security forces.

After the prayer, the Sheikh did his dua’ – adding slightly political prayers to God, praying for martyrs, for victory, for the release of prisoners. After each dua’, the men, whose palms were raised, called out to God. Even the youth outside the mosque, who had not been praying, stood with their palms up and called out “oh God!” After the last one was said, waves of men poured out of the mosque shouting, “To paradise we’re going, millions of martyrs!”

They shouted that with their blood and their souls, they would sacrifice for the city of Hama, for the city of Deir Ezzor, for martyrs. The tire was set on fire.

I squeezed to the front of the crowd as the tire that was previously tossed with such pageantry was set ablaze, but could still not make out what was happening in the dark. Some youths were throwing bricks and chunks of cinderblocks. Tear gas was shot at us, and the sound of rifle shots cracked and echoed against the buildings, but in the darkness, I could not see the source.

The crowd fled, then regrouped and regained courage, shouting “why are you afraid, God is with us!” I made my way back towards the front and heavier shooting started. And then heavier gunfire commenced. A wave of fear carried us away. Shots got closer and closer behind us as we sprinted away looking for places to hide.

I was unfamiliar with the neighbourhood and panicked as I found every door closed. In my flight, I slid over a car while a more agile youth simply leapt over it, and I continued sprinting in a crouch in the darkness, feeling pain everywhere from the exertion, overcome with terror.

Finally though I heard a voice calling, “Come on boys! Come in!” and found an open gate to an apartment building, and an older man beckoning for us to enter. With about fifteen others, I collapsed on the staircase after climbing up one or two flights, gasping for air, shaking from exhaustion and fear.

Bullets in the dark – part 2

It was 10:40 PM. Older people from the upper middle class apartments came out and urged us to go up higher in the staircase, or to come into their apartments. Residents seemed well-dressed, the building was modern and clean.

Syrian regime propaganda described demonstrators as Islamic extremists, outside infiltrators, mercenaries, drug addicts, poor criminals. But here were the educated and affluent residents of Homs united in opposition.

Whispering, they offered us water, cigarettes, and a platter of tea with a kettle and glasses. Old women came out of their apartments to bless us.

Then we heard shooting outside. The residents urged us to be silent.

“Yesterday they were shooting inside buildings,” somebody warned. A middle aged man and his teenage son were also on the staircase. They were panicking, making phone calls and crying. The man’s other son had called his father just as he was getting arrested. Others tried to calm them and reassure them, or beg them to be silent so the security men outside the building would not hear them.

I guiltily resented the father for crying so loudly, worrying that we would get killed because of him, as long bursts of automatic weapon fire got closer.

“If anybody wants anything, let us know,” an older man said.

“Guys, don’t go out, there’s a sniper in the playground,” another man warned.

I had no intention of going out. I didn’t even know where I was. One resident peered out his window and said there were strange people on the streets. The residents of the apartment building very quickly adopted the youths as their own.

“Please don’t go out,” begged one middle aged resident, Abdallah. “Please come into our apartment. Does anyone want to use the phone to call their family?”

After a brief respite, the shooting outside resumed, then abated again.

“There’s 200 men in the mosque who can’t get out!” one of the youths on his mobile phone announced.

Less than half an hour later, we heard long bursts from automatic weapons.

Two of the youths on the steps were from across town in Bab Assiba, a poor opposition stronghold. They had left their bicycle by the mosque. When it seemed safe, a man offered to drive some of them home, but he was not going in my direction.

Abdallah allowed me to use his family’s land line to check on my friend Khaled, to see if he was okay, and to tell him I was safe. I got through to him but he told me his 20 year-old son was missing.

Abdallah invited me to sit in his affluent living room, where I confessed that I was an American journalist. Abdallah had lived and studied in the United States and was excited by his unexpected guest. His mother had a perfunctory lace white scarf on her hair and wore an embroidered white and brown gown. She fingered orange worry beads. Pictures of family weddings were on bookshelves. They appeared secular, the brides not wearing veils and dressed in western fashion. Abdallah’s brother and his family lived in the apartment above. Abdallah lived in Inshaat with his wife and children but he came to Hamra so he could take his father to the Omar mosque every night. Their Filipino maid served us juice and coffee.

“Every day in Ramadan is like a Friday, so they want to scare people,” he told me, explaining why security had cracked down on the Ramadan demonstrations.

He drove me back to my hotel when it was finally quiet outside. Armed people from the poor neighbourhood of Bab Omar had come to defend Inshaat from the security forces, he told me. I said I was impressed by the solidarity the older people had shown with the youth.

“They are my people,” he said, “This is my country.”

You can follow Nir Rosen on Twitter @nirrosen

Source: Al Jazeera