COMMENTARY: How My Syrian Speech Is Being Freed

COMMENTARY: How My Syrian Speech Is Being Freed
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By "Ali Mohamed Al-Issa"

EDITOR'S NOTE: Syrian expatriate "Ali Mohamed Al-Issa," now residing in the U.S., writes about how he and his fellow citizens have been emboldened over the past year to speak more freely about their country's revolution. He is using a pseudonym to protect his family in Syria--where the struggle for democracy ensues.

When I was growing up in Damascus, Syria, my parents used to stress to us that while the Baath dictatorship offered us little, we had an obligation to give back to the society itself, because it defined us.

I left Syria five years ago to get a better education and training in the U.S. so that one day I could go back home and try to bring about some change to the country.

When I first got to the U.S., I was surprised to learn that many Syrians here, though they shared my passion for the country, didn't understand my desire to return. They argued, "The system is what will end up changing you, rather than you changing the system."

I saved the advice I heard and continued my journey inside the U.S., feeling no need to rush. After all, my country has been in a status quo for decades. The system was so corrupt, and the regime seemed so unbreakable, that it seemed unlikely that any change could happen before I finished my years in the States.

The story started to change when I went back home for the holidays in 2011. I was in Damascus when the Tunisian revolution erupted, and succeeded in a matter of few weeks. My parents and I talked about the possibility of a domino effect of the Tunisian revolution, and we assumed Egypt would be next, but expected Syria to be the last piece in the game.

Had I known Syria was only three months away from becoming a falling piece, I would have definitely stayed. The two months that followed my return from Syria changed everything. These were probably the best days of my life. The domino effect happened faster than anyone had predicted. As Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain were all launching their revolutions, and some already ending them too, I passively wondered, "Why does Syria have to be the last?"

Then on March 15th, 2011, the Syrian revolution started. The first protest was in the southern city of Daraa. Three days later was the day the Syrian revolution was scheduled to go large scale--the "Friday of Rage." Three o'clock in the morning Pacific Time was the zero hour. Many of my friends and I awoke by that time, turned on Al-Jazeera and waited. By 3:30 a.m. the first video was uploaded to YouTube, and with that video everything changed.

It is hard to express the mixture of feelings we had while we watched. The part that can be explained, though, is the sadness we felt for not being there. It was also hard to imagine how it felt being in a protest in the heart of Damascus. No one could answer that question, as no one dared to talk about it on the phone or online. The barrier of fear was starting to break, but it would take months before it broke on a large scale.

Whenever I opened the topic with my mom on the phone, she would pretend my voice was breaking up. My friends would avoid my Facebook comments and posts. It was too soon to get beyond the idea that Big Brother was still watching us.

Conversations Emerge From Hiding
On my Facebook news feed for the first few weeks of the revolution, it did not feel like there was a revolution going on in Syria. Facebook status updates might sound like a minor issue for someone who hasn't experienced living in Syria. The fact of the matter, however, is that Facebook updates tell a major part of the story. These updates were a projection of the Syrian society and the change that was happening on the ground. For me, the revolution was fated to be successful when it succeeded in its first few weeks in breaking the barrier of fear and the thought that Big Brother is watching, as reflected in the process of changing the nature of Facebook statuses throughout this period.

This was even a concern for those of us outside the country who harbored thoughts of returning one day. The first status I ever wrote on the issue was not until ten days after the revolution started. On March 25th, 2011, I wrote, talking about freedom, "I can already smell it... and it smells sweet." I was thousands of miles away from Syria, and I still felt scared after updating this vague status.

A few months later, I was explicitly writing stuff like "Bashar Assad, you are a criminal of war, we will hang you soon." The relationship between Facebook statuses and the revolution is no different for people on the inside. My friends who regularly protest in Damascus went from writing stuff like "I'm leaving my house..." to imply they are going on a protest, to now explicitly announcing the time and location of the protest they are going to.

Communication between Syrians has also been an indication of the changing social dynamics as a result of the revolution. After March 15th, I lost some very good friends who de-friended me because of my political stance, and I got in touch again with activist friends who I hadn't talked to in years.

Communication also went through the gradual process of breaking the barrier of fear. When I first started communicating with my family and friends in Syria, we had to come up with a safe communication system to avoid any risk. It started with coded conversations, like, "By the way, as it turns out, I have some friends who were really nice today." That was how I implied to my mom that some of my friends were going to a particular protest. She didn't miss a beat, and replied in code, "I know you have some nice friends. But I also know that your friends hang out in downtown San Francisco. And downtown San Francisco is really dangerous. Don't ever think about going with them, because you know what happens in downtown San Francisco."

As my friends in Syria grew more bold, we moved into a less cautious communication system. We would talk explicitly about the revolution online, but by translating our conversation into a random language through Google translator. Everyone was trying to figure out a way to get away from the government's internet service provider. Today, as in the case with our Facebook statuses, I explicitly discuss the revolution with my friends in Syria on the phone and on chat without any coding or fear.

Today, when I logon to my Facebook, it is like life in Syria has stopped except for the revolution. The discussions I read are no longer about soccer, cars, new cafes, or a favorite actress, but rather about freedom, a civil democratic nation, new constitution, civil rights, and minority rights.

Though the Syrian revolution is nowhere near the end yet, it has already succeeded in achieving one of its major goals: awakening Syrian society and reactivating the role of youth as part of the nation. Citizens are no longer scared to speak out and discuss. This successful social change guaranteed that the revolution will be successful, not only to topple the regime but rather to build a new nation.

In 11 months, the Syrian revolution, through its civil movement, raised an army of civil open-minded activist ready to build a new democratic nation. All the people who initially criticized my idea of going back to Syria are now waiting themselves for the day the revolution is successful and are all ready to go back and participate in shaping the future of our country. The revolution has revolutionized the people, and we owe it to the estimated tens of thousands of martyrs, missing, and detainees.

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