Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Syria: Living on the Edge
I have lived with my family in Idlib, which is under regime control, since March 2012. Although we’re against the regime, we have chosen to continue living here rather than seek asylum in a liberated area.
I work as a teacher in a rebel-held area close to Idlib. Many of its residents have fled the brutal oppression of the regime. I persevere for the sake of the children of those who can see through me the city they long for city and the past they have lost. For my part, I find in them a way to assuage my guilty conscience and connect with a revolution I still long for.
With my colleagues, I take a service minibus that is only for teachers. This minibus, recognised by all the factions, is a miniature community that includes supporters of the regime, those who are neutral because they are afraid of everyone, and those who oppose the government. That requires all conversation to be cautious, and we usually limit ourselves to discussing cooking and kitchen matter, since that is the furthest thing from politics.
On the road out of Idlib, we have to pass through three regime checkpoints and three opposition ones. The last regime checkpoint is only two kilometres away from the first opposition one.
In December 2013, we were stopped at the Rodko checkpoint, the second opposition checkpoint, belonging to the National Unity Brigades. There was a lad there no older than 20, who we were used to seeing every day and whose short beard did little to mask his kindly, childlike features. He was standing next to a 40-something man with a deeply-lined forehead, who said to our driver, “As-salamu aleikum, sheikh. Who are these women with you?”
“These are women from Idlib travelling to the school,” the driver answered.
“Tell the women that make-up, tight clothing and short jackets are not allowed,” the middle-aged man said. “Everyone has to wear an overcoat or a jacket to below the knees. Any woman who doesn’t comply will be sent back home. It’s haram [forbidden] and you are our charges.”
The youth we knew nodded his head in agreement.
“Yes, sir,” our driver replied. Then he looked at us in the rear-view mirror, laughed sarcastically and said, “Did you hear that, Miss so-and-so and Miss so-and-so? Otherwise they’ll whip you for disobeying.”
I was deeply affected by the tone of the man at the checkpoint, at how he had given us orders rather than advice. We continued on our way, making a few scornful jokes.
On our return from school, the walls near the checkpoint where we had been stopped that morning were freshly painted and covered with slogans about modest dress and wearing make-up, but without any reference to holy verses or virtuous hadith.
In thick, red script they had written, “Who do you resemble?” And below that, “The mothers of believers, or singers and actresses?”
The next day, none of us had complied with the orders we got the day before. At the first checkpoint on the opposition side, belonging to the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, we were stopped by a man in his late twenties. He had a black beard and wore prescription glasses, from behind which peered two frowning eyes. His face bore a harsh, severe expression.
He told our driver, “I need IDs, and I need to know who’s with you.”
“I have some women with me. We pass through here every day,” the driver said in surprise.
The man took our IDs and shuffled through them.
“From tomorrow, everyone has to wear compliant clothing. Make-up is forbidden. Anyone who doesn’t follow the rules goes back.”
He returned the IDs to the driver.
“Make them understand that they’ll be forced to return. Now go!”
The arrogance and condescension in his tone reflects the way a wide swathe of the revolutionaries see us – as employees and thugs of Bashar [President Assad], as supporters of his regime, and as sinners for remaining in Idlib, which their fatwas declare a land of heresy.
As we continued on our way, there was visible anger among those women who were wearing make-up and loathed the idea of anyone interfering in their dress or appearance. For my part, I felt a hidden anger at the revolutionaries, at their attitude and way of thinking that was alienating people.
The next day, at the same checkpoint, the same man stopped us again. A few teachers were clearly wearing make-up.
“Didn’t I tell you yesterday that we’d make you go back if you don’t stop wearing make-up?” he asked the driver.
“There is no one on the bus who is way over the top,” the driver replied.
“There’s no need for us to single anyone out,” the man said. “Turn around, go back to Idlib. There will be no work for anyone until they all comply.”
I was blinded by rage, the blood boiling in my veins. I wanted to speak up, even though I was among people to whom I didn’t dare reveal my true self.
If I spoke up, I wouldn’t be able to tell him that I wasn’t a regime thug, that I too was a revolutionary, that I had marched in the streets for the sake of freedom, that I was afraid for my revolution and for my religion because of the extremism he and his kind represented. A million thoughts raced through my mind.
I was afraid to open my mouth and then be shunned by him because of my “nakedness,” or to endanger myself in a single moment that might change the entire course of my life unless I was extremely careful with my words. Just as I had made up my mind to speak, but before I could get a single word out, he turned and left, announcing an end to the matter.
The driver was turning around but I signalled him to stop, and called over one of the men at the checkpoint, a man in his forties with long hair and no beard, his weapon slung over his shoulder. He had been looking at us and listening to what was going on. He came over, opened the minibus door and looked at me.
With a big smile on my face, I began, “First, as-salamu aleikum.”
He returned the greeting, so I continued, “Secondly, why do you want to make us go back? We’re responsible for all the children in our school, as God is our witness. You’re hurting them and affecting their futures, and they are blameless in all this.”
He relaxed somewhat at this.
“So why are some of you wearing make-up if you’re just going to teach children, rather than putting on a fashion show? That’s haram, sister,” he replied.
My colleague, a woman who shared my views, answered him.
“When you make us go back, you’re affecting our livelihood, and that too is haram,” she said. “I’m taking care of orphans and raising them in my home, and I also have a daughter at university. Who will support her if my salary dries up? And my son in prison – who will remember him, who will send him money?”
Her words seemed to affect him. The orphans and her imprisoned son seem to have stir his feelings.
“Your words are sound, dear mother, but would you accept your daughter acting like this?” he answered more kindly.
“My daughter has been brought up well,” she answered, “and if you want to turn anyone back right now, you can turn back the ones who are wearing make-up. Why should all of us be punished?”
“Would it be reasonable to single her out, to embarrass her and make her go back alone? She’s our responsibility, too, and we worry for her safety,” he replied.
The other youth suddenly reappeared and angrily pulled the man away from the bus.
“Stop arguing,” he said. “You’re not going to the school today. Now turn around and go back.”
My heart hammering, I spoke up. “No. We’re not turning around. We’re going on.”
Everyone at the checkpoint surrounded the man and the youth as they began arguing furiously a few paces away from us. It ended with the youth throwing his hands up in anger and stalking away from the checkpoint, and the man coming back to us to say, “Sisters, we’re letting you go through, but first the bus has to pull over to the side so the women wearing make-up can wipe it off their faces. Then you can go.”
And so, at some distance from the checkpoint, the make-up was wiped off the offending faces. Although some passengers blamed them for the predicament we were in, I felt humiliated on their behalf. But I was more concerned about the glare of the youth at the checkpoint, a look that held the threat of new, unknown laws that frightened me. He did, however, let us pass when we were done.
Our driver told us, “Next time, don’t try talking to them. I don’t need to get slapped around by them or have you hear some ugly language.”
I didn’t pay much heed to his words. I considered that this time I’d won a round in this war of attrition.
The next morning, a Thursday, while we were still waiting in line at the last regime checkpoint, we saw buses carrying teachers turning back to Idlib. I was stricken with fear and doubt.
When our turn came at the regime checkpoint, the soldier opened the door, looked in and said, “So, all ladies.”
“Yes,” affirmed the driver.
“That means the militants are going to turn you back,” the soldier continued with a sarcastic laugh. “They said no woman is allowed to go through until you’re all covered in those black garbage bags from head to toe. Still, try to change places now – let the ones who are more covered up sit at the front and the rest move to the back.”
So that’s what we did – we traded places. I was wearing an overcoat that was about te centimetres too short, and the soldier asked me, “Why did you sit in front? Your coat doesn’t reach the ground. What, do you want them to kill you?”
My response froze on my lips and my heart filled with tears before my eyes did. Could someone really have said that to me?
We continued on our way to the next checkpoint, which was crawling with militants we’d never seen before. They were fully armed and wearing black, their faces hidden behind masks that revealed nothing but angry eyes and that bore the words Sharia Court Security. It was a terrifying sight.
Of course, the youth from the day before was waiting for us right in the middle of the checkpoint, surrounded by men from the sharia court. He looked at our car, his eyes keen with a desire to regain his lost authority. The black-clad men swarmed around the car as he spoke to the driver.
“They did not obey and wear sharia-compliant clothing,” he said. “Turn around and go back to Idlib. No school, until you learn that God is right.”
My colleague squeezed my hand, imploring me to keep quiet. In fact, none of us made a sound. The driver began turning back while the youth gave us a triumphant look, the look of a victor in an unequal battle. A look that was slowly killing me, someone who never once feared the regime soldiers as I loudly called for freedom while marching in the streets of my own city.
Where had this youth come from to slice off my wings and steal my words, and what right did he have to return us to a time of fear?
I struggled to hide my tears from those around me. A few minutes later, we were back at the regime checkpoint, and when the soldiers saw us, they called their commanding officer.
“So, ladies, they made you turn back, huh? Didn’t I tell you you’d be coming back?” said one of the soldiers, gloating as he opened the door.
The commanding officer asked, “What happened?”
Some of the regime supporters among them told him what had happened.
He said, “It’s all right, ladies. You are our pride and joy. Don’t be afraid, we’re here to protect you. Those animals don’t really care what you’re wearing. They’re just flexing their muscles. They don’t want there to be education in the world. They are darkness, and education is light. You should calm down and pretend today’s a holiday. Go and enjoy yourselves and have a rest.”
His words burned a hole in my heart. I felt as if I were choking; it wasn’t just my eyes that wept but my whole body. The officer had cleverly understood how to exploit the situation, how to strengthen his popular support. That was obvious from the praise my regime-supporting colleagues heaped on him.
“That’s it, that’s how one should talk!” one of them exclaimed.
Stupidly, with one blow, the rebel youth had managed to score a psychological victory for the regime of greater value than dozens of military operations – alienating me and others like me, making us feel orphaned by the revolution and afraid of those who were supposed to protect us, and distorting the very idea of religious tolerance and the way one should encounter God.
In Idlib, my colleague and I disembarked from the bus and burst into tears. We cried for the revolution, for our country, and for its lost youth.
Through tears, I told her, “We can’t remain silent. The revolution belongs to us, if we remain silent, they’ll become like the regime. We aren’t regime thugs. When everyone was afraid, we were the ones protesting in the streets. I won’t remain silent.”
“These are not people you can reason with,” she replied. “Didn’t you see them? They’ll drag you off to their sharia court.”
“I wish they’d take me,” I retorted, “so that I could tell the court what those people are doing, how they’re disfiguring the revolution and deforming our religion.
“They don’t even remember what God said to the Prophet, peace be upon him, ‘And had you been severe and harsh of heart, they would have broken away from around you.’ We have to think about what we’re going to do, but we can’t remain silent.”
I thought of writing those holy words on card and holding it up to the window when the bus passed the checkpoint. But the fear that my colleagues might report me made me abandon the idea. I also thought about wearing niqab [fully-veiled costume] and hitching a ride with a car on that road, and then walking up to the checkpoint to speak with the commanding officer there and file a complaint about what had happened.
But no one would agree to accompany me on my crazy errand. Finally, I came up with two ideas that I actually went through with. The first was writing a letter to the spokesman of the faction that operated the checkpoint, who had a reputation on Facebook as someone trustworthy. To that end I created a new account on Facebook under a false identity, and sent him a letter detailing everything that had happened.
He replied briefly, apologising and explaining that it had happened because of the ignorance of some of the militants manning the checkpoint, but also explaining the importance of sharia-compliant hijab. He thanked me for my commitment to the revolution and promised that he would address the matter.
The second idea was to ask a friend of mine, the sister of a battalion commander on one of the farms surrounding the city of Idlib, to tell her brother what was happening, and ask him to relay my account to the sharia court that had sent its people to intimidate us.
His reply disappointed both his sister and me, “What’s the problem if they have to dress in compliance with sharia law? Anyway, your friend is veiled. I don’t see why she’s upset; this censure isn’t directed at her.”
Even the most open-minded member of her family, who happened to be the battalion’s media spokesman, said, “Serves them right, they need to learn religion.”
Their attitude summed up the whole sorry story – a dominant mode of thought, a revolution buried in its infancy, and a religion transformed from belief in a merciful God to the terror of being policed by the ignorant and injustice posing as faith.
On Sunday morning, we all gathered in the bus to make our way to school. Some of my colleagues had brought niqabs and long abayas [cloaks] with them to put on before arriving at the checkpoint so as to avoid any problems with the rebels, and then take them off as soon we had passed.
I was staunchly against this idea, and I told them, “I’m wearing an overcoat. My clothes are perfectly modest and I won’t be forced to wear a niqab on top of it just because I’m afraid of them. If I wanted to wear it, I would have to be convinced and then I’d wear it always. And don’t forget, if they find out somehow that you’re just wearing these at the checkpoint and then taking them off, we’ll be seen as liars and hypocrites, and God knows what our punishment will be then.”
Some of them listened and put the niqabs away, while others remained determined to wear them. Indeed, after we had passed the last regime checkpoint, they put on their niqabs, and I tried to prepare myself for the worst. We arrived at the checkpoint, my eyes searching all the faces there – most of them new – for the youth we had met before. He was nowhere to be seen, although I kept looking and looking until I was sure he wasn’t there.
Another young, smiling man stopped us, holding a toothpick in one hand and a weapon in the other. He asked the driver where we were from and where we were going.
The driver replied, “These are teachers from Idlib, we’re heading to….” The young man interrupted him to say, “May your road be safe. Our children are entrusted to your care.”
He tapped the car lightly to signal us onward.
My colleague and I looked at one another, unable to believe what had happened. The commander, the emir, had been true to his word. He had managed to address the situation and fix things. Hope began to creep back into my heart.
I later sent him another letter.
“Thank you for doing your rightful duty,” I wrote. “Please don’t let our revolution fall into their hands. It must not die. May God protect and uphold you on your path.”
Ghalia Eid is the pseudonym of a schoolteacher in Idlib.
This story was produced by Syria Stories (previously Damascus Bureau), IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
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