Syria Before the Storm: A Dissident Recalls Life in the Pre-Assad Era

In this deeply autobiographical essay, a leading Syrian intellectual recounts his early years in rural parts of the country, lamenting the political and cultural vitality since lost in a society shattered by tyranny and war

Syria Before the Storm: A Dissident Recalls Life in the Pre-Assad Era
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

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My father, Ibrahim al-Haj Saleh, was a man of faith. As a child, he had attended a traditional Islamic elementary school, known as a “kuttab,” where he learned to read and write. I witnessed him pray and fast during the holy month of Ramadan his whole life.

My mother, Ajaja al-Husayn, who was uneducated, also fasted every Ramadan and prayed occasionally. She died in 1990, while three of her children were in prison. My father, who later remarried, made the pilgrimage to Mecca some time in the mid-1990s. Yet, to the day he died as an octogenarian in 2011, he remained the same man I had known since earliest childhood, when he was in his late 30s: cleanshaven at all times but for a light mustache, moderate in behavior and religiosity, loath to stay anywhere outside his house for long. (My brothers claim I have inherited this last quality from him.)

It was at my father’s hands that I memorized the opening verse of the Quran, known as “al-Fatiha,” when I was about 5 years old. I remember I used to mistakenly jump straight from “In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful” to “Master of the Day of Judgment,” due to the repetition of “the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful” in the third line of this short verse.

We lived in a small village in rural northern Syria known variously as al-Jurn, al-Jurn al-Aswad, al-Jurn al-Aswad al-Tahtani and Jurn al-Haj Saleh. Its first school opened in 1962, which was fortunate for my brother Saleh (born 1957), who, unlike our elder brothers Muhammad (b. 1953) and Mustafa (b. 1955), did not have to attend another school several miles away, traveling by dirt roads that turned into muddy valleys in the rainy season.

The village of al-Jurn in northern Syria today. (Yassin al-Haj Saleh)

I was born in 1961. The family lore holds that I started school in the second half of the academic year of 1965-66 and was top of my class. I recall nothing of this, even though I do have earlier memories. At school, where there was only one full-time teacher for all six grades, we acquired aspects of the beliefs and ideas of other teachers who came in from elsewhere in Syria to our “educationally underdeveloped” region. There was one teacher of seemingly Islamist persuasion from whom I learned the well-known poem and song, “O Imam of Prophets, My Support,” as well as another verse by the great South Asian Muslim poet and thinker, Muhammad Iqbal, which went: “China is ours and the Arabs are ours / India is ours, everything is ours!” From a Baathist teacher, I still remember two lines of doggerel he composed himself, celebrating the military coup carried out 60 years ago this week: “On the 8th of March (1963) / The light shone and the fire went out / The Baath carried out its revolution / And smashed the shackles of colonialism.”

My happiest memories of childhood in the village were those connected with the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, which we called “al-Mawlud,” celebrated each year in the large space for hosting guests known in the local dialect as the “mathafa,” or “utha” (from Turkish “oda,” meaning “room”). Though this area was owned by my grand­father’s eldest brother, Humaidi al-Haj Saleh, and then bequeathed upon his death to his eldest son, Mustafa, it amounted to a public space for village residents and their guests. Among its memorable features was a clay jar refilled with drinking water each day, located in a special little area. As drops of water seeped out of the clay, they created a flow that helped chill the water served to guests. The jar had its own dedicated drinking vessel made of silver, engraved with drawings and writing, which was later bent out of shape when a tractor accidentally ran over it in the early 1970s.

It was in this same space that the inhabitants of al-Jurn and the surrounding villages heard the news of the war against Israel in June 1967, over my uncle Mustafa’s radio set. At some point, I was one of the messengers sent to our house, where the women of the village had gathered, to deliver word that we had downed this or that many enemy planes so far.

Of my grandfather’s brother Humaidi, who died around that time, I recall that he used to sit on the floor of the mathafa on a rug made of patches of old clothes, or a blanket of pressed sheep’s wool, with a large Quran in front of him on a special support we called the “kursi,” from which he would read while swaying his body to and fro.

As for my grandfather himself, Abdallah, he was a peculiar man quite unlike any other. Well-educated, he owned old books, of which I recall “The Unique Necklace” by the 10th-century scholar Ibn Abd Rabbih. He was the village chief or “mukhtar” (literally “the chosen one,” an official title dating from the Ottoman era) as well as its religious authority (“mufti”). Rarely mingling with others, he made a habit of completely self-isolating for several days at least once a year, shutting himself away alone in a room without speaking to anyone, receiving his food outside the door of the room. This pious practice is known as “khalwa” (seclusion).

Abdallah married three times, though he never had more than one wife at a time. I suspect he was never a family man and may even have hated women. If he passed a group of women wailing in mourning, he would curse them in classical Arabic: “God damn you!” I can’t recall him once entering our house, nor that of my uncle Muhammad, his youngest son from his first wife, who died early. His relationship with my father, his eldest son, was still cold at the time of my arrest in 1980, when he was about 75 and my father was 52. The only time I ever felt warmth from him was when I visited the village around 1979 and he learned I was studying at Aleppo University. Regrettably, he died just a few months before my release from prison in late 1996.

For all his personal quirks, my grandfather — whose nickname was “the Scholar” — may have been partly responsible for giving al-Jurn its local reputation for learning, which, in the context, meant knowledge of reading and writing, and how to conduct the prayers and other ceremonies at Eid festivals, and the hosting of Mawlud. People would come to al-Jurn from the surrounding villages to hear the news and discuss their affairs. It was also visited by travelers from further afield, who sometimes stayed the night, sleeping in the mathafa.

At Mawlud, the mathafa would fill up with dozens of men, some carrying tambourines, which they warmed from time to time over a fire lit outside the space for this purpose. My father would clap one of his hands on the back of the other to the beat of the tambourines, adding his voice to a chorus reciting, “O Meccan one, o Meccan one, praise for Muhammad is dear to me.” I used to enjoy hearing this rhythmic incantation, which is the only one I now remember. Of the prose chants, I recall “the Muhammadan Essence,” which came near the end of the ceremony. A young man would meander through the mathafa carrying a special container emitting incense smoke. As the vapors mixed with the chant, which grew louder as the men’s voices and tambourines became more animated, and the women ululated at moments of particular rapture, a transcendental ecstasy would overcome some of the younger men. Standing in the center of the scene, they would convulse and froth at the mouth before falling to the ground. At that point, Sheikh Ibrahim — a Sufi cleric with a green turban, from the nearby village of al-Tayba — would utter some words in the ears of the fallen men and place his sword upon them, then cover them with a wrap or pelt of lamb’s wool until they recovered a few minutes later.

It was a spectacle of utmost excitement for us children. Normally, I would sit near my father among the men, enjoying it all profoundly. At other times, I’d slip away to play with cousins my own age. The women sat near the entrance, following the activities without directly participating in them, except for the ululations, which were reserved for the older mothers. At the entrance itself were large pots filled with a drink so delicious I could never get enough of it. I thought it must be what they drank in paradise. It was not without disappointment that I later learned it was nothing more than water sweetened with sugar, plus a dash of the “lemon salt” we used to use on food before lemon fruit was available, and some orange blossom water.

Another exciting part of Mawlud evenings was the so-called lux lantern that was used only on special occasions, such as weddings. Our usual sources of illumination were kerosene lanterns, which gave off only a dim glow. The lux was much brighter and ran on denatured alcohol rather than mere kerosene. This precious blue alcohol could be poured onto our palms and ignited with a lighter to give off a smokeless blue flame. Even more important to us was that the lux made our shadows longer. I enjoyed seeing my shadow extend so far. Unlike the kerosene lamps, the lux would also attract moths, which fell down dead when they touched its base. The kerosene lamp would never receive the honor of such a sacrifice.

The second public space in the village, aside from the mathafa, was the adjacent cemetery, whose graves were spread out over a hill. My childhood memories of this cemetery are more cheerful than sad. On the mornings of the Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha holidays, we children would go early to the cemetery and snatch the pieces of candy placed by women on the graves of loved ones. Sometimes, we were asked to read al-Fatiha or other Quranic verses for the souls of the dead, which I did with the pleasure of a diligent student who knew a reward was coming. Apart from the candy, we might also be given a franc or two, to buy more sweets from the village’s sole grocery store, owned by my uncle Muhammad. There was nothing else for a child my age to buy except candy, sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds.

The cemetery in al-Jurn today. (Yassin al-Haj Saleh)

At Eid time, dozens of men would gather in the mathafa and repeat the customary chants with vigor: “God is greatest, God is greatest, God is greatest, praise be to Goooooood, God is greatest indeed, utmost praise be to God, glory to God day and night!” Meanwhile, we children would sprint from the cemetery to the mathafa and wait impatiently for the religious rites to end so we could eat a piece or two of meat — our share of the Eid sacrifice. This meat we would snatch with our bare hands from a platter reserved specially for children, with the meat and its juices served on loaves of freshly baked “saj” flatbread. To this day, I maintain this is the best bread in the world. Finest of all was the “malawih” bread my mother baked on the convex black metal saj griddle in our kitchen every morning, leaving the “rgag” bread for less skilled bakers. Shunning the special equipment used for rgag bread, my mother would knead the malawih dough with her hands until it was thin and broad enough to cover the griddle almost entirely.

While Eid is associated for many with new clothes, I don’t recall this in my own case. Our family was becoming poorer at the time, and new clothes were not things we ever expected. Nonetheless, the candy, games and happy spirits of everyone as they exchanged Eid greetings brought joy to my heart. A visitor would say, “A blessed Eid to you!” And my mother would respond, “A most blessed Eid to us both!” Then the grown-ups would sit on floor mats on the grass in front of the house and drink tea. In my memories, the season was always spring.

At some point each year, before Eid al-Fitr, my father would donate a portion of the wheat grown on our land to those in need among my uncles. This was his act of “zakat,” or almsgiving, incumbent on every Muslim. Was he also donating from our flock of sheep, whose number dwindled from dozens down to fewer than 10 by the end of the 1960s? I don’t know.

One summer, I think in 1968, I learned some of the Quran at a kuttab school run by my brother Muhammad, who was eight years older than me, under our father’s supervision. I memorized most of the short chapters from the final section of the book. The next summer, I attended another kuttab in the nearby village of al-Faris, run by another relative. Here, students were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, dictation and how to spell words from the Quran’s shorter chapters.

I began fasting during Ramadan while in third grade, which I believe was also in 1968. On the first day, I grew hungry after just a few hours and broke my fast long before the mandatory sunset deadline. I managed to fast all day for more than a week thereafter but broke my fast early again after getting hungry on the ninth day. Nonetheless, my efforts earned the approval of my parents, who were pleased to see me join the grown-ups in the fast at such a young age. I can still remember them rewarding me with a thigh of turkey to eat one night during Ramadan. Back then, it was rare indeed to eat meat — it would happen just a few times each year. My mother was always resisting her grumbling son’s requests to slaughter one of her few chickens because he wanted to eat it. She had to account for seven children — later eight — besides him. But whenever she did sacrifice a chicken, she would treat me to a particularly appetizing sandwich. (In all likelihood, she made each of her children feel they were being singled out in this way.)

My mother worked all day looking after her growing family. She would bake and cook every day. She would milk our ewes and churn the milk, extracting the butter before it melted to turn it into cooking fat. She would gather firewood. In the cotton season, she would pick cotton for a meager wage. All the while, she would give birth to and raise more children. I remember her pregnant with my two younger brothers, Khalil and Firas. My father did no housework per se, though he would cut our hair and nails, and handle the agricultural land. Until around 1968 — if my memory serves correctly — he hired a boy to herd our sheep in exchange for one lamb per month. Later, my brother Saleh and I herded the dwindling number of goats and ewes. My mother attained some relief when she moved with her younger children to the town of Raqqa in the fall of 1976. Shortly after that, her eldest son Muhammad became a doctor, and the family’s financial situation began to improve.

Among the Ramadan traditions observed by my father (the eldest son of Abdallah al-Haj Saleh) and my uncle Mustafa (eldest son of Humaidi al-Haj Saleh) was the recitation of the entire Quran. This was not a feat that just anyone could accomplish. In emulation of the grown-ups whose praise I had won through my academic performance at school, I took part in this ­challenge during the Ramadans in which I fasted in the village. In sixth grade, I managed to finish the Quran in 19 days, a feat I made sure to boast about in front of my uncle Mustafa, who wasn’t sparing in commending me. Eager for more, I started the book again from the beginning, aiming to complete it for a second time before the month was over, but I grew lazy before even finishing the second (and longest) chapter, Surat al-Baqarah, and gave up, satisfied that I’d already sufficiently paid my dues.

I can scarcely recall anything of religion studies in school. Perhaps there was no such thing at the time. With only one teacher up to my fourth grade, then two in fifth and sixth grades, in just two rooms for all six grades, the classes all tended to blend together. I do remember classes for reading, arithmetic and handwriting, then grammar, science, history and geography. What little I can recollect of religion class amounted to memorizing chapters or verses from the Quran. I don’t remember where I learned to pray, though I believe it was with my father, not at school.

I started praying in sixth grade, of my own volition. My father made no attempt to force it on us, nor did I see any of my three elder brothers do it. I would wash myself with the same copper pot my father used, then perform the ritual ablutions. For the most part, I performed each prayer at its designated time. My father would try to make things easier for me, saying it was fine to combine two prayers into one, which I did at times. But I preferred to pray each prayer at the appointed time.

Once, in what was probably the summer of 1971, I prayed the sunset prayer on a wooden deck in front of the house, which we used to sleep on in the hot months. When I finished praying, I was overcome by an extraordinary serenity, a calm and peace of mind I had never before felt. It never happened again during subsequent prayers, but those precious moments have remained vivid and alive in my memory. Nothing since has resembled them, except for occasional times of tranquility while reading books in prison.

My prayers were not always so solemn, however. Later that same year, in the fall, my brothers Saleh and Mustafa would try to sully my sacred moments by making me laugh during them. This was one year after the “Black September” massacres in Jordan, and Syrian radio would dedicate an hour each day to Palestine, starting at 6:30 p.m., presented by a man with a supposedly Palestinian accent named Abu Salim. Once, Abu Salim was lambasting Jordan’s King Hussein for vowing that Palestinian guerrillas “shall not pass” from Jordan into Palestine to carry out operations against the Israeli occupiers. Apparently, Abu Salim’s pronunciation of the words “shall not pass” (“ma yumarrkoosh”) was sufficient to make me explode with laughter. And Saleh thought there was no better time to repeat the phrase than when I was prostrate in prayer, filling me with anger and laughter in equal measure.

It was around that same time, in sixth grade (1970-71), that I came across an issue of a Soviet magazine — perhaps al-Madar (The Orbit) or al-Ittihad al-Sufyiti (The Soviet Union) — whose colorful pictures I enjoyed. Seeing me holding it, my schoolteacher snatched it furiously from my hands and ripped it to pieces, saying, “This is a communist magazine!” Against this crude injustice I was powerless to do anything. It may have been about that time that the same teacher gave me a religious book on Islam, with an olive-green cover and, of course, no pictures. It bored me to death and I remember nothing at all of its content now. Years later, that teacher became a “youth commissioner” at one of the schools in Raqqa, meaning he must have been a Baathist.

The fall of 1971 marked the first major separation of my life, when I left my mother to live in Raqqa with my brothers Saleh and Mustafa, who were then in ninth and sixth grades, respectively. Our eldest brother Muhammad had placed second in all of Raqqa in the baccalaureate exams that summer, earning him a place at Aleppo University to study medicine. His name was read out on Damascus Radio, and he was granted a monthly stipend of 150 Syrian pounds (then worth $40) by the state, which was a lifeline for our parents. Our father himself was looking for work in Raqqa at the time that would not have paid more than that sum.

In Raqqa, I kept up my prayers for a month or two, then stopped. There was no particular reason for this that I can recall. Under the influence of my brothers Saleh and Mustafa — not to mention the elder Muhammad, who had taught them his ways — I began to enter a different world, one of “culture,” books, ideas and argument: the world of the mind. Among the subjects debated in this world was the existence of God. My brother Mustafa believed everything could be explained by nature. I would ask him, “Who created you?” He would answer, “Nature!” When I asked who created nature, he would retort, “Who created God?” He once spoke about the universe originating from cosmic nebulae, a thesis I later learned came from Immanuel Kant.

My siblings and I attended school both in the village and in Raqqa. My father was forced to live with us in Raqqa while working part time as a laborer, since the income from our land no longer sufficed for our family of 10, which became 11 after the birth of Firas in 1972. We were entering adolescence away from our mother, who remained with the younger children in the village. Our income was meager. Life was tough.

One Friday in late 1971 or early 1972, my father took me to pray with him at the al-Fawwaz mosque, near the room my two brothers and I were renting with him in Raqqa for 45 Syrian pounds ($12) a month. Entering this mosque in the middle of Tell Abyad Street, I felt like all eyes in the prayer hall were on me, making me deeply uncomfortable. Until then, I had only ever prayed by myself. After standing for a while near my father, I slipped away between the rows of worshippers and left the mosque, freeing myself from the prying eyes of the curious. My father probably asked me afterward why I had left, to which I likely mumbled something in embarrassment — I can’t recall. Either way, he never tried to do it again. That was the first and last time I entered a mosque, in Raqqa or anywhere else, until 2008, when I went to several mosques in Damascus and Aleppo posing as a worshipper while working on my book “Asatir al-Akhirin: Naqd al-Islam al-Muasir wa Naqd Naqdihi” (“The Mythologies of the Successors: A Critique of Contemporary Islam and a Critique of the Critique”).

In our first year in Raqqa, I cannot remember there being any books in our rented room except our school textbooks. We had a radio, with which we listened every morning to the Lebanese star Fairuz on Damascus Radio’s “Marhaban Ya Sabah” (“Hello, Morning”) program. In the afternoons, the music would switch to songs by Abdel Halim Hafez, Nagat, Shadia, Fayza Ahmed, Afaf Radi, Warda, Muhammad Rushdi, Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab and others. In the evenings, it was Umm Kulthum. It was at this time that my musical tastes developed, which were mostly Egyptian, then Lebanese. Throughout the day, the radio also provided regular news bulletins to top up our dosage of patriotic doctrine.

Starting the following year, however, there were other books and magazines in our room. I began to read foreign novels translated into Arabic, such as the detective stories of the French author Maurice Leblanc, starring the famous Arsène Lupin character. For some reason, I read nothing of the Gibran Khalil Gibran works stacked on our small shelves.

That same year — 1972 — witnessed a split in the Syrian Communist Party. In our social milieu, this sparked heated discussions, in which my brothers took sides. The “Bakdashists” — followers of the mainstream party leader, Khalid Bakdash — were denounced, as was a booklet about Bakdash released around the same time, titled, “Forty Years of Struggle.” The joke among Bakdash’s detractors was “forty years of struggle: half of them asleep, the other half fleeing to Russia!” I cannot now recall whether the name of Riad al-Turk, head of the dissident communist branch, had yet entered our conversations at that point.

I was utterly enchanted by this atmosphere, captivated by its debates, youthful vitality and abstraction. One conversation in particular has stuck in my mind. My brother Muhammad, then in Raqqa on a break from university in Aleppo, was arguing with another of my brothers, Mustafa, who was in high school at the time and a zealous communist. At some point, Muhammad asked mockingly, “Why! Is Marxism a theology?” I loved both the phrasing and the import of the words, which left an indelible imprint on me.

Even after I stopped praying in Raqqa, I continued to fast during Ramadan until ninth grade, when I gave that up too. Together with my school friends Uwais al-Msarea and Ahmad Jasim al-Hmaidi, I was a member of a youth organization called the Democratic Youth Union, linked to the branch of the communist party that had split from the Bakdashists in 1972, known as the Syrian Communist Party – Political Bureau (SCP-PB). This union, which soon perished, was a window onto “culture” for us, introducing us to the names of writers whom we never really read: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Alberto Moravia, Colin Wilson, Maxim Gorky (“Maxim” was Ahmad’s nom de guerre in the union), Vladimir Mayakovsky, Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda (which was my pseudonym), Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Above all, there was Marx, Engels and Lenin.

We became familiar with foreign literature before getting to know modern Arabic literature itself. Ahmad was the intellectual among the three of us, awing me with his ability to reel off endless names of foreign writers and thinkers. He would also write stories. In 10th grade, after we had parted ways following a quarrel, he got a story published in the official state newspaper, al-Thawra (The Revolution), under no less a title than “Prometheus.” Such was my envy that I wrote a story myself, titled “In the Heart of the Dead Time,” but the paper refused to print it, though the editor of the culture page did tell me the story was “artistically advanced.” Ahmad later became a neurologist and kept up his passion for culture, writing a book in the late 1980s called “The Epic Hero in the Novels of Abd al-Rahman Munif.” He was an alcoholic who died of liver cirrhosis in Raqqa in the mid-2000s. As for Uwais, he died of a hereditary disease while we were still at school.

This world of ours had no place for fasting, prayer or religion as a whole. The world of literature and culture stood at odds with that of religion and its practices, which seemed dated, constrictive and unimaginative. We wanted freedom and creativity, which we found in “culture” and “communism.” We were moving forward, and it seemed the society around us was doing the same.

In 1974, I obtained a card to borrow books from the cultural center in Raqqa — a public institution — and started taking out translated novels, particularly Russian and French ones. I read them ravenously for hours on end. From time to time, I also went to the reading room at the center, which was close to our high school, al-Rasheed, to read al-Thawra newspaper and its cultural supplement, as well as the magazine al-Mawqif al-Adabi (The Literary Position).

Beyond the authors mentioned above, in my high school years I began reading Arab novelists. Of these, I recall the Kuwaiti author Ismail Fahd Ismail, whose books were on our shelves for some reason. (Was he a “comrade”?) There must have been a printing error in my copy of his novel “Kanat al-Sama Zarqa” (“The Sky Was Blue”), because the title read “Kanat al-Sama al-Zarqa” (“The Blue Sky Was”) — a solecism I found bizarre. Another of his novels was called “al-Mustanqaat al-Dhawiya” (“The Luminary Swamps”), which, if I remember correctly, referred to spots of light in a dark prison cell.

Whereas today I forget the names of books and authors I read only weeks ago, I can still remember reading back then “al-Qalaa al-Khamisa” (“The Fifth Fortress”) by the Iraqi Fadhil al-Azzawi, and “al-Zaman al-Muhish” (“The Desolate Time”) by the Syrian Haidar Haidar. (The latter fell into my hands again when I was in Adra Prison outside Damascus in the early 1990s, and I was unable to get past the first few pages.) I also had the fortune of reading the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, along with his “Awlad Haratina” (“Children of Gebelawi”) and most of the other novels he had published at that time. Another pleasure was Tayeb Salih’s “Season of Migration to the North,” though I was unable to finish his other novels written in Sudanese dialect.

Perhaps this keen interest in books and words was of help to my shy, adolescent self, living in a tightly controlled environment where the companionship of female contemporaries was unavailable.

My father was not pleased by our communist trajectory, though it didn’t seem at the time to portend anything particularly grave, and he made no great issue of it. He would have preferred for his sons to become Baathists, so they could secure jobs and career opportunities that, in his view, were going to others less deserving than his children. At al-Rasheed High School, a counselor did try to persuade me to join the Baath Party, yet even in those days the party couldn’t win the respect of a teenager enamored of culture and communism. I would have no part of it. Later, the “leading party in society and the state” — as the constitution officially described the Baath Party — took its own revenge by sending one of my peers instead of me to France for a two-week trip for students excelling at French, even though my grades were better than his, in French and all other subjects.

In truth, I expect my father had mixed feelings. On the one hand, he regretted his sons’ missed opportunities for promotion and influence. On the other, he was pleased with our performance at school, which ranged from acceptable to good. My mother, likewise, would have preferred her sons to enjoy more success in the world but was happy we enjoyed distinction within the social context she knew. Once, in an argument about us in the village, my grandfather’s wife scoffed at the word “communists.” To which my furious mother replied: “Communists, and more honorable than you!” Muhammad’s parents, Abu Muhammad and Umm Muhammad, took solace in the fact their eldest son was studying to become a doctor one day.

In middle school and high school, there were two religion classes each week. These involved memorizing “hadiths” — sayings attributed to the prophet and other biographical anecdotes about him. As one who had until then known only the Quran, this was new to me. There was also religious “guidance and orientation,” derived from both the Quran and the hadiths, which we were obliged to know and answer questions about in tests. Religion class never held any interest for me but, as a conscientious student, I managed to get good grades in it regardless.

In the summer of 1974 or ’75, a Sufi sheikh named Muhammad Khan came to our village. Evidently a man of some charisma, he quickly gained the trust of the villagers — except my father. Ibrahim al-Haj Saleh was of the opinion that he knew his religion sufficiently so as to require no lectures on it from an outsider. In this respect, he was rather like his fearsome father, whom no one would dare go near. Not long afterward, Khan betrayed the villagers’ trust, vindicating my father’s suspicions. It transpired that, one night, when one of my uncles was away from home, Khan was hosted at the man’s house as a guest by his wife. This might not have been scandalous in itself — on the contrary, women were commended for opening their doors to visitors — except that the Sufi tried to convince the aunt in question that she was possessed by an evil spirit, which he, as a man of God, could exorcize by lying on top of her. She kicked him out the house, and that was the last anyone saw of Khan in the village.

A while later, possibly in 1975 again, another stranger showed up in al-Jurn. Going by the name Ibrahim Shanwan, it was said he came from Jordan. This man was no Sufi but seemingly a Muslim Brotherhood partisan. His presence nearly sparked a civil war in the village. Some of my uncles welcomed him, particularly Mustafa, whose social status was on the wane as his finances declined and the mathafa ceased to play the role it once did as a public space. It’s possible that some of the uncles worked to set Shanwan against our “communist” house. My father was skeptical of him, at any rate, and kept away. After raising tensions in the village for a few weeks, Ibrahim Shanwan left.

When it came to relations with the likes of Shanwan, and Khan before him, the villagers were neither neutral nor passive participants. On the contrary, they seized the opportunity to try to win distinction within the village at the expense of their neighbors. Anyone hosting a visitor of apparent status or influence gained points in the competition among the houses of the village, which numbered no more than 10. Even my father’s posture of deeming himself above it all was not free of such considerations. For years, he had been accustomed to enjoying better relations than others with the schoolteachers, a fact not unrelated to his children’s good grades. In his dealings with Shanwan specifically, he may also have been influenced by his children. My brother Mustafa, who was then 20, had grown his beard out at the time. On the sole occasion Shanwan came to our home one summer evening, he made a comment about Mustafa’s “Castro-like” facial hair. My father didn’t hide his resentment at this intrusion into his own house, and Mustafa himself said something less than reverent about the Muslim Brotherhood’s categorization of beards. The visit was not a success.

At that point in time, the traditional contest for social status in that remote and microscopic Syrian village was beginning to constellate around a rising source of formidable power: the regime of Hafez al-Assad (who had seized the reins in 1970), which was increasingly making its presence felt through the Baath Party apparatus and a variety of security agencies. Some of my uncles and their children joined the Baath Party and the so-called Peasants’ Association, a fact that had tangible effects on family relations in the village. In 1976, my brother Saleh was dismissed from his job as a teacher at the village school, on the basis of a “security report,” possibly written by an uncle of Saleh’s age. Saleh had been teaching at the school while studying at university simultaneously. His dismissal was the first of many torments my mother was to endure in the years to come, not least due to the schadenfreude of relatives rejoicing at the downfall of the first son of the village to teach at the school. It was in the mid-1970s that the villagers’ harmless squabbles were elevated into serious rifts by the interventions of this harmful new force: the Assad regime.

At al-Rasheed High School in Raqqa, I was becoming a self-confident teenager, academically successful, with a rebellious streak. My friends and I would hop over the school wall to escape religion or “socialist nationalism” class if we thought we could get away with it. (Sometimes we were caught, in which case our punishment was to crawl across the school courtyard.) Once, in religion class, the teacher mentioned the word “vulva,” and a boy named Abd al-Muhsin raised his hand and asked, “What does ‘vulva’ mean, sir?” The teacher lost his temper and ordered the boy out of the classroom. He then asked us what the troublemaker’s name was. No one replied. In defiance of his authority, and out of a sense of group solidarity, we stayed silent — until one boy cracked and gave up the name. This boy was religiously devout and perhaps felt conflicted between loyalty to his classmate and a pious revulsion at such lewdness. To me, this was yet another point against piety.

In 1977, I began studying medicine at Aleppo University. It was here that I became a communist. At the time, this meant active opposition to the Assad regime, rather than the merely passive holding of transgressive ideas. In truth, my own “communism” was always more a matter of political opposition than ideology or symbolism. The party I joined, the SCP-PB, took a more radical stance against the regime than the mainstream Syrian Communist Party (SCP) from which it had defected five years earlier. Its rhetoric adopted the language and vocabulary of democracy, as opposed to the traditional communist parlance. In my second year at university, I began reading new kinds of works: books about Lenin, Soviet tracts on Marxist philosophy, and a bit of Marx and Engels (“The Communist Manifesto” and “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”). I also read all the available works by the Syrian leftist Yassin al-Hafez and others by Abdallah Laroui and Burhan Ghalioun. And I learned from fellow comrades.

In the three years I spent at university before my arrest and imprisonment, I saw a stern and austere side of religion I had never known before. In biology class in my first year, a teacher named Adnan Qashlan said something about the soul, which he attributed to complex functions of protein, if I recall correctly. A rather reductionist thesis, no doubt. At this, a bearded student stood up without asking permission and recited the Quran verse: “They ask you about the Spirit, say, ‘Its nature is known only to my Lord, and you [i.e., humanity] have been given but little knowledge.'” The student was openly challenging the teacher and his “materialist” thesis head-on. Yet the teacher didn’t throw him out of the class or show any anger at all. I personally found the student’s conduct boorish and narrow-minded. That the Spirit’s nature was known only to his Lord didn’t mean the rest of us could learn nothing whatsoever about it. The student was showing off his power to silence an attempt at a scientific explanation of reality — an attempt that was open to criticism, certainly, but not from a position that allowed no criticism of itself. The authority of religion was challenging the authority of science — inside a university, no less.

In the summer after my second year at university, we were obliged to attend a military training camp, where we were supposed to be taught the ways of combat. It was the month of Ramadan. One day, one of the trainees from Raqqa was smoking a cigarette when he was aggressively confronted by another, who complained he was being insensitive to those fasting. As their voices rose, the military officer in charge of the training came and scolded them both, but especially the devout one. This was August 1979, just two months after the massacre of dozens of army cadets by Muslim Brotherhood-linked militants at the Aleppo Artillery School. The regime was on its guard against Islamists. At the same camp, I was approached one day by a fellow student with a kind face and trimmed beard, who was the only one among us who wore a caftan and a hat fashioned from the same material. He asked me if I wanted to “participate” with “them.” Participate in what? I asked. In reciting praise for the prophet, he said. I didn’t respond. I had brought several novels with me to read at the camp, among them “Najmat Aghustus” (“August’s Star”) by Sonallah Ibrahim.

It was a sign of the times that the only woman from Raqqa in our university class started wearing a hijab in early 1980. By the end of that year, I would be arrested.

Prison marked the second great separation of my life, after the separation from my mother and our home in al-Jurn in 1971. This time, it was a separation from the normal and expected course of life for a young man in his 20s, as well as a separation from friends and classmates, and from opportunities for love or sex. (I had a girlfriend before prison, though our physical relationship was confined to the upper half of the body.) Later, this separation was eased to some extent when we were permitted books and materials to learn English in Aleppo’s al-Muslimiya Prison, starting in the second half of 1982. This enabled new possibilities for learning and change.

In prison, I also had religious experiences of a kind, which I recounted in some detail in my book “Bil-Khalas Ya Shabab! 16 Aman fil-Sujun al-Suriya” (“Salvation, Guys! 16 Years in Syria’s Prisons”). In 1987, we were denied all visits for a period of around 20 months. (This applied to those of us who lacked connections or intermediaries with the regime, a matter by no means devoid of social, political and sectarian dimensions.) By then, two of my brothers were also in prison: Mustafa, who was arrested five years after me, and Khalid, arrested six months after Mustafa. This was more than an agony for our mother — it was an assault on her very life. Indeed, she died of cancer not long afterward, in 1990, while the three of us were still imprisoned.

During the time when visits were forbidden, visitors could still come to the prison and try to talk their way inside. If the wardens agreed to turn a blind eye, which sometimes happened, it was possible for us to speak to these visitors through the windows of our wing. From these windows, we often saw our mother, who never ceased trying to visit her three sons in prison, making the 130-mile journey from Raqqa to Aleppo without ever succeeding in meeting us properly. She would bring money, food and clothes, which she was sometimes able to get to us and sometimes not. Once, shortly before the start of Ramadan, she asked me (and possibly my other brothers too) to fast. And I did indeed fast, albeit without observing any other religious rites beyond that. It was a fast dedicated to my mother, a bridge linking us together and a bid for her forgiveness for all the pain my brothers and I had brought her. I fasted once again on the first day of the first Ramadan after her death, but never again. Her absence, and my brothers’ release from prison in late 1991, lightened my burden in that regard.

Looking back on it today, that experience of fasting seems a liberating farewell. Just as prison as a whole was like a second childhood for me, allowing (I hope) for a liberation from the first childhood and its worlds, so this brief second phase of religiosity was a valedictory reclamation of its earlier counterpart. Yet, in turning the page on religion in an orderly manner in my thought and practice, I think I have avoided the pitfall of its converse, by which I mean fervent and hysterical hostility to religion. I have encountered examples of the latter and find it no more attractive or less self-righteous than religious bigotry itself. My earlier life experiences rendered me equally averse to both.

I record these recollections as a personal testimony, which may or may not resemble those of others of my generation, and from which younger generations can draw what conclusions they may. Yet my strongest motive for writing them is my belief that, for many of us “secular” intellectuals and political activists, our stances toward “Islam” (and other religions) are shaped to a considerable extent by childhood experiences and memories. The distinguishing feature of my generation, and perhaps older ones within the Arab world — I would argue — is an arrested development. Starting in the 1970s, the political, social and economic transformations that were underway, often to the benefit of the general populace, were terminated. This extinguished the emancipatory force that had pushed Arab societies toward new experiences, ideas and organizations. It also prevented them moving on from the older experiences — or pushed them back toward them after a brief separation.

I believe a review of the output of our leading intellectuals since the 1980s makes this clear. The late Syrian writer George Tarabishi described the resurgent religiosity of the time as an act of “apostasy.” Yet, quite apart from the uncomfortable religious parallels in the term — the absolute certainty in the truth of the doctrine rejected by the “apostates” — it also conceals a decline within the secular camp itself. Both the “apostates” and not a few of those who “have not changed in the least” (to quote Quran 33:23) are alike in having lost a great deal of freedom in thought and practice. The three decades or so between the 1980s and the recent Arab uprisings saw a general renunciation of liberty, in the names of “reason” and “modernity” no less than religion.

Childhood experiences bind us to our origins. Their influence cannot be overcome by youths who are not exposed to broader horizons, wider interactions, and new and different worlds. We were denied the language needed to give expression to our inheritance from childhood and adolescence, due to the restrictive environment that prevailed. The liberation and imagination we once glimpsed on the horizon disappeared in a repetitive present revolving around itself. Rather than taking possession of our childhoods and moving beyond them, we deride and dismiss what we inherited from them as “backward,” unscientific and superstitious thought.

This applies to many of my generation. We suppressed our childhoods and never fully outgrew them, because we were forbidden to break free and attain independence. That which we disdained and repressed in this manner took refuge in our unconscious, though it continued to seep into our consciousness too, coloring our thoughts and writings, so that what lies between the lines often contradicts the lines themselves. This is because, rather than describing our experiences, illuminating them and moving them to the realm of conscious thought, where they might become knowledge susceptible to discussion and addition, our notion of “knowledge” imprisoned them in the depths of the self. If they ever managed to rise to the surface — to consciousness — it could only be between the lines. On the lines themselves, we were mature adults, while between the lines we remained children unable to grow up. When a major social, political, intellectual and psychological crisis erupts, as happened twice in Syria in the span of 30 years (first from 1979 to 1982, then from 2011 to the present), our sober and dignified “knowledge” shatters and the children inside us all come out. The suppressed rushes to the surface, and the space between the lines contests what the lines say. Prose becomes a minefield. The written word is a contradiction, saying one thing and its opposite simultaneously. Everyone is driven to doubt everyone else, for are they speaking with this voice or that one? Texts, and their relationships with selves, become spaces of civil war.

When people of my generation were spending their adolescence getting arrested, tortured and imprisoned for years on end, this wasn’t an exceptional occurrence happening only to a small minority. All young Syrians were imprisoned in one way or another. Not a few became hostages to their multiple prisons: the prison of “knowledge,” intimately bound to a patriarchal authority, and the physical jail, which embodied the forbiddance of independence. If and when the latter was not literally one of Assad’s prisons, it was the confinement of the narrow communal group (which was also, in fact, one of Assad’s prisons). The present was reserved for the eternal ruler, the future was forbidden to arrive, and the past alone was our possession.

Or, rather, it possessed us. With no space in which to hold any public discussions, our pasts were deprived of a collective language to help us take control of them and separate them, and separate ourselves from one another.

Faced with Syria’s simultaneous eruptions and implosions, neither the young nor the old will salvage any of their dignity without scrutinizing the old and repossessing it. They may also need to produce writing that doesn’t destroy itself by the tension between its lines and what lies between them, as our evasive generation did and still does. Evasiveness doesn’t vanquish social determinism when politics is prohibited, but rather is the means by which our liberation itself is vanquished. Yet determinism, in turn, is not all-powerful. It is not predetermined that the child is the father of the man (to quote Wordsworth). The two can be separated, but this requires taking ownership of the struggle and trajectory. It is a question of insubordination and confrontation, not something achieved by itself or by the mere act of adopting this or that intellectual stance. We separate from the past and from childhood when we take charge of the course of our lives, fight for independence from our family and origins, and make the effort to create open futures.

When I left prison in late 1996, it seemed to me we had lost 20 years. In our village, which I visited in January 1997, there was electricity and potable water, not to mention television. The houses were certainly more comfortable than they had been in my childhood. Yet education was worse, and fear was everywhere. Greatly diminished was the hope for a brighter future, which had existed until the 1970s and had driven many of my father’s generation to make great sacrifices to educate their children and take part in the general progress, which they saw as their right. Gone altogether was the intellectual and political discussion that had shaped people’s orientations and perceptions of themselves and their roles. No longer was there any contest over the ownership of politics, thought and life, so total were the fear and submission. In my father’s and grand­father’s days, people had resisted more.

In 1997, I saw a woman in Raqqa wearing the niqab, or full-face veil, for the first time. She was the wife of one of my relatives, of my own generation, who had dropped out of school early. I wonder: Is the veiling of the face connected in some way to the failure to democratize social status, a way for people to elevate their station and attain some modicum of sovereignty over their fate? Perhaps. Yet it also undoubtedly involves an objectification of women, and an ownership of them by men, in much the same way as Syria as a whole has been objectified and turned into the property of the Assad dynasty, rendering all Syrians minors, unable to transcend their childhoods or attain their independence.

A version of this essay was published in Arabic by Al-Jumhuriya, a publication co-founded by the author, on Sept. 21, 2017.

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