It was a month before I left Syria—my home country. I was walking down the main road in my neighborhood when I heard a girl yelling at a man, “Let go of my mother. Leave my mother alone.” She was speaking to a man wearing a camouflage military uniform. He appeared to be a member of the Shabiha militia. The man angrily screamed back, “What happens to your mother is not your concern!” He repeated again, “What happens to your mother is not your concern!”

People outside of Syria may find this phrase uttered by the Shabiha very difficult to fathom. He repeatedly condemned this girl’s concern for her mother and rebuffed her attempts to save her. I myself was astonished at this degree of insolence. I thought of all the universal works of literature depicting the cruelty of dictatorships, but I could not find such a case where a girl’s bond with her mother was so profoundly debased.

When recalling the sort of literature that specialized in this type of cruelty, I thought of the atrocities being committed against Syria—what we’ve see with our own eyes would be very difficult to put down on paper in poem or novel form because this much cruelty tests the boundaries of literature.

As much as writing seems like an urgent and necessary response, the end result might look more like a form of narration that defies all and any artistic rule. Right now, Syrians need to speak, and speak, and speak, as a form of therapy. Thoughtful prose, novels, poetry, and similar literary texts might come later when this brutal violence we’re being subjected to finally stops.

I would have preferred to have encountered the conversation between the girl and the Shabih in some kind of novel. I’d have preferred to consider it as solely a product of the imagination of a novelist or a storyteller. Instead I heard it happen with my own ears—it broke the link between reality and imagination. Every now and then I remember this scene and the thought occurs to me: we are living in a profoundly cruel novel. This is not real life. Real life has to be different than this. In real life, this girl is walking with her mother in peace. In real life, she’s not displaced from her home—a home that is not situated in an area heavily bombed by the regime’s aircrafts. In real life, the bond between a mother and daughter is sacred, not something that’s disapproved of.

If only that girl and I met as characters in a novel. As a fictional character, I would remember the time when I stopped seeing my own mother because she lives in another town that’s being bombed every day. Exchanging normal visits like a mother and son were no longer possible. And again this Shabih would emerge, waiting to voice his disapproval of my mother’s visits to her son telling her, “What happens to your son is not your concern!”

Another scene from this novel would take place a few days after leaving Syria. Talking to my eight-month-old daughter via Skype—I’d lull her to sleep and sing her the usual lullabies while she closed and opened her eyes looking at the screen and smiling. Aside from missing her, I Skyped with her because I feared she might, with time, forget my face or the sound of my voice. What I said to her was of little importance. What’s really important was for her to see me and hear my voice as if I was still there.

The night I left, for the first time she refused to sleep, and kept crying incessantly. When I picked her up she grabbed my shirt collar and clung to it, so I wouldn’t put her down to sleep. It was as if she had mysteriously sensed I was leaving in a few hours. In ordinary travel occasions, or in different circumstances, I’d have abandoned the idea of travelling all together. But at that moment I had to overcome my emotions. This was no place for a father’s natural vulnerability when it came to his daughter. I certainly could not take her with me on this risky adventure.

Remaining in Syria was becoming too dangerous. It wasn’t just that the country had turned into a warzone, but I was living in a territory still controlled by the regime, and the Shabiha were raiding homes to search for those who opposed them.

I had to leave for good. Whether I stay put or flee—either scenario provided it’s own set of difficulties: leaving for territories not controlled by the regime, or remaining in hiding, and suffering the ever-present possibility of being discovered by the intelligence. The opposition fighters had taken control of some areas very close to where I lived, but getting to these areas had become impossible due to the regime’s presence in these territories.

I was able to obtain a fake ID with a different name. Only my picture was real. I started living under a different name. I had to get used to the idea that I’m not me, I’m someone else. Every time I left the house I had to remind myself that I had a different name, a different family name, and I come from a different area. My safety required having that fake person—that fake “me”—belong to an area well known for its support of the regime.

With time, I too, got used to the idea that I was not myself anymore. My connection to the real me put me at risk. My pictures online depicting me as an opposing writer were a threat to me. A neighbor might catch on to the near-absolute resemblance. My relationship with myself became a source of confusion. The writer in me puts me in jeopardy. And the connection I have with others, including my family, might cause them unnecessary trouble. I started feeling like a burden to others and myself.

In the George Orwell novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, children were trained to report their parents to the intelligence authorities. That was what Orwell’s imagination had come up with in the year 1948 when he wrote that novel. At that time the world had just gotten rid of Nazism and was still straining under the weight of Stalinism. Only now, writing these lines, I remember the children of Orwell’s novel. The rest of the novel does not amaze Syrians anymore. We have tried forms of oppression and brutality Orwell could have never thought of. The Shabih’s disapproval of the girl’s connection to her mother did not come from George Orwell’s world, nor did it come from that advanced dictatorship. The Shabih had realized with his brutal sense that his success in policing Syrians required him to oppress the mother while the daughter watches on.

In prisons, or even when the regime forces raid the homes of rebels, the leaders tell their subordinates to rape the women in front of their chained fathers, brothers, or husbands to augment the humiliation. It’s not only a matter of defiling their dignity, but to strip people from their natural feelings towards their loved ones. They want to crush the most intimate forms of the human connection. Killing young children in front of their opposing parents is also a common form of this type of punishment—a burden you carry forever having put your closest family members in danger, whose only fault was their kinship to you.

Maybe, when this nightmare is over, we will write stories and novels about sons who have forgotten what it’s like to be a son. Or of mothers who only remember motherhood when crying for their massacred children. Maybe we will write stories that are hyper realistic to us, but considered a cruel product of the imagination to the rest of the world.

We are actors in an exceedingly long horror film that the world has not seen and perhaps doesn’t want to, but we are its heroes as well as its victims.

Maybe the world will not believe us when we tell our stories of the monsters we’ve lived with. They’ll say we’re exaggerating when we speak of the skeletons, tens of thousands of them, detainees killed under torture—a number that continues to grow.

We, the inhabitants of a planet called Syria, will prove to other people that the cruelty they have encountered in literature is nothing but a small joke compared to the reality we live in. We are residents of a dictator’s brutal imagination.


Text: Omar Kaddour Translation from Arabic: Emad AlAhmad