Syria: a tale of parallel realities

Homs — Syria — Winter 2012.

It was a clear, cold day in February, and a pigeon landed on the bombed-out clock tower. Abu Youssef watched it from the window, while curling his hands around a steaming cup of liquid. “Do you want coffee?”, he asked, while critically studying my outfit. “Please!”, I replied a little too eagerly.
Wearing only a thin sweater, I had come foolishly unprepared for the cold, and something warm was more than welcome. He leaned over to the kettle, and poured a dark slurry into a dirty cup that looked as if it was glued to the table. I picked it up, and held it to my lips.
Lukewarm.
“We haven’t had any oil or gas here for over a month. And since we opened up the walls, a permanent draft has taken hold of the building.”
Abu Youssef pointed to the gaping hole through which I had entered his living room. What the hell was this place?

For a month now, the Syrian army had laid siege to a couple of neighborhoods in the city of Homs. The streets were unsafe, and sounds of shelling were alternated by the silence of snipers seeking target. Many had fled. Yet, beyond this facade of destruction, in the shadows of ever-present death, some people clung to life. They were mostly husbands, and their sons, who had not wanted to leave the family possessions unguarded. There were women too — often too old or lonely to go elsewhere — but for the most part this was a community of men. Men, who killed their time smoking cigarettes, and sharing tales of a war that had no name.
Most believed it couldn’t last long. They would surely soon discover that this was nothing but a bad dream. A temporary hiccup in their peaceful existence. Or was there more to this?
As violence intensified, this motley crew of neighbors had pushed aside their furniture and taken down paintings and family photos. They had then drilled giant holes in the walls, creating a surreal labyrinth of corridors that led through living rooms, kitchens and courtyards. It functioned as an escape route to safer parts of the city, where normal life continued and a parallel universe played out its script. In the opposite direction, the maze provided a smuggling-route for food, drinks and cigarettes. And curious people like me, who were trying to understand this mess.
That’s how I ended up in the house of a man whom I had only met an hour ago, at the central bus station of Homs. We had started talking about my research, after which a warm invitation had followed.
To a freezing living room.

“My wife is in Damascus with the children. She has not been here in weeks,”
Abu Youssef said.
“But every ten days or so we meet at the bus station, so she can feed me.”
The grin on his face betrayed a chuckle.
“She thinks I’m starving to death here, but I’ve never eaten so much! Oh well, a man has to protect his house, huh?”
“Protect it against who?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders and ignored my question.
“No one has ever hurt a fly here,”
“I just refuse to accept that they call everyone a terrorist. We are good people, and we will continue to be.”

Abu Youssef and I continued talking like this for a while. An hour, maybe two.
Although we were in the midst of a war that everyone had an opinion about, he was clearly avoiding questions about the cause of the conflict. Who started it? And who should we blame?
“I don’t think anyone really understands what happened. If Allah wants it, the guilty will have to answer one day.”

Other topics passed his lips more easily. He spoke a lot about his family. His son who had been drafted into military service, and his beautiful daughter who was going to college next year. Abu Youssef’s family turned out to have fled Turkey generations ago, and there was also a distant Algerian relative somewhere. A member of the resistance against France, who was exiled to Syria at the end of the nineteenth century.
“So I’m a revolutionary after all!” he said, while throwing me a wink.
But aside from a joke here and there, the conversation stayed far removed from politics. He didn’t care who was in power, he said, although he didn’t have anything positive to say about the people who were holding his neighborhood in a stranglehold.
“There are undoubtedly armed insurgents here, but I’ve never seen them. Let them fight it out in the desert or somewhere else!”

Meanwhile, people were constantly walking through the living room. Most entered through one hole in the wall, to quickly disappear through the other. Only a subdued “salam aleikum” occasionally interrupted our conversation. Some neighbors lingered around a bit longer. Or smoked a cigarette while listening to our conversation.
It was a diverse group of people, many of whom expressed themselves a little less nuanced than their hospitable neighbor.
“It’s a criminal regime!” a boy yelled right through our conversation.
“Look what they’re doing to us.” He pointed to the hole in the wall. “I hope our guys from the Free Syrian Army will give them a hard time. President Assad is like a cancer that needs to be cut out of the country. They must die!”
Others came with stories of relatives who — without explanation — were arrested by the security services. To be brought back killed and maimed.
A warning.
The boy who wished the president dead was convinced the end was near.
“We are in the majority. More than 80 percent of the country wants to get rid of this regime. Give it a few months, but we will win!”
“Isn’t that percentage a bit on the high side?” I asked, surprised by the conviction with which he said it.
“I think it’s even higher!”
“According to al-Jazeera, there are demonstrations everywhere, and on Facebook everyone is supporting the revolution. I literally don’t know anyone who supports Assad anymore.”
Abu Youssef, meanwhile, was staring out of the window.

“Facebook, al-Jazeera. It seems no one lives in the real world anymore.”
He sighed.

A loud scream suddenly interrupted the conversation. Through the hole in the wall a hoarse male voice was calling on us from a couple of houses away.
“They’re coming! They’re coming!”
The men in the room exchanged anxious looks and started to discuss what it could be. One of them screamed back and climbed through the hole to find out what was going on.
Abu Youssef’s face showed no emotion.
There was a dull bang. As if someone had slammed the door in this maze of houses. Then another one. This time longer and deeper, like a sound effect played in slow motion.
Whoooooom!
“They are shelling again,” Abu Youssef said in a neutral voice. It’s far away and I’m sure it will soon stop”

But it didn’t. The volleys followed each other faster and faster and they seemed to get closer too. Everything in the living room was shaking. The curtains, the walls, and the old television. Even my sticky cup of coffee started to slide.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Abu Youssef looked carefully out of the window. His face clouded.
“Shit! The neighbor’s house is on fire!”
He turned and called out to a boy with a green baseball cap, who had just entered the living room from the neighbors side of the wall.
“Sorry, but it’s better if you go. He will take you back to the bus station.”
Abu Youssef then shook my hand, thanked me for my visit, and nodded to the boy. “I am very sorry for this! I hope we will meet each other soon.”

It was a strange and untimely goodbye.

Meanwhile, my escort had already left and was beckoning impatiently from the other side of the hole. “Come! Come!”.
Without looking back, I followed him through various apartments, a storage shed, over a balcony, past a courtyard, and through other places that were once private and mundane. It took forever. Then we trotted down a long deserted street, eventually stopping at a big shipping container that seemed out of place, even in this post-apocalyptic setting.
While my lungs were screaming for air — and I cursed myself for my lack of exercise during the past months — the boy led me to a small grocery store that lay hidden behind the container. It appeared to be open, and inside people were waiting in front of a counter.
As if this was just another Thursday afternoon.
“Wait here!”, he instructed me.
He opened the door and disappeared into the store.
There I stood. A lost, sweaty, panting foreigner, in the middle of a conflict zone. Although the houses seemed deserted, I felt being watched. Like a fat mouse in a reptile terrarium, waiting for the inevitable.
Meanwhile, I noticed that the sound of shelling had quieted down. It was now more of a rhythmic background noise; a sound which would have normally drowned out against the bustle of traffic. But here it was quiet, and it sounded like a requiem to the playing children, honking cars and busy street vendors who had once roamed here.
“It’s time to go”, came a sudden voice behind me. The boy had come out of the store unnoticed and beside him stood a calm-looking man in his fifties who was flipping a car key around his indexfinger.
“He will take you to the station”. The boy pointed to the other end of the street, while starting to walk back in the direction of Abu Youssef’s house.
“Woooh stop! What’s your phone number!?” I yelled, taking my phone out of my pocket.
Without asking, he walked back, snatched the thing from my hands and impatiently started typing.
“Here. Safe trip back!”.
And before I knew it, he was gone.

My driver turned out to be a taxi driver with a yellow Dacia of which the boot lid was removed. “For safety,” he insisted. Later I would learn that many cars in Homs had their doors removed to avoid being stopped at checkpoints. After all, a taxi could quickly be mistaken for an arms smuggler, or worse: a car bomb.
The ride was short. Maybe ten minutes. And only at the end of the trip did we have to stop at an army post, where a young soldier waved us through without any fuss.
We didn’t look like terrorists.
From one moment to the next I was back at the busy bus station, where food stalls were open and street vendors sold grapes, tissues and Barbie dolls. The taxi driver reminded me that I still had to pay him, so I fished all the change from my pocket and pressed it into his hand. He seemed pleased.

The bus to Damascus — a big air-conditioned luxury coach — was already there, so I bought a ticket and got onboard. After finding my seat I texted the boy. “I hope the situation is safer now”, and “Do you have Abu Youssef’s phone number?”. I put the phone back in my pocket and looked out of the window into a parallel universe where war seemed far away.

“Are you a tourist?” someone suddenly said in cheerful English. Next to me a young man, with a hairstyle that could have been from the 1970s, had taken his seat in the bus.
“Yes, I am a student”, I lied. “And I study Arabic in Damascus”.
During my stay in Syria, this had been my invented alter ego. Amazingly, it worked every time. When buying a bus ticket, extending my visa, during demonstrations, and even at the many military checkpoints. Apparently everyone thought it was a plausible answer.
Even on a bus from Homs to Damascus.
“Welcome to Syria!” he continued, with irritating enthusiasm.
It took me a few seconds to switch.
“Uhhh, thank you.”
The boy’s name was Hamza — “you can call me Zaza!” — and he was on his way back to Damascus, after a week’s holiday with friends in the coastal city of Latakia.
“It’s so beautiful there! Have you ever visited?”.
He wanted to continue talking, but I was faster. “Yes, once, a long time ago, before the start of the conflict.”
“Conflict?”, he looked at me in surprise, and started to smile.
“There is no conflict!”
I stared at him blankly, not knowing what to say. Would he really not know that the army is shelling his fellow countrymen a few miles down the road? It would be hard to keep something like that a secret, right?
“Ehh, what do you mean?” I stammered.
“Don’t believe everything you read or see! The Americans and Israel want to put Syria in a bad light.”
“They put fake videos online of shootings and demonstrations, but they were not recorded in Syria at all! They are from Libya and Iraq.”
“But in Homs…”
He paused and tried to gauge my facial expression.
“…of course there are military actions going on in Homs, but they are only aimed at taking out foreign terrorists.”
“Infiltrators.”
“They would do the same in your country, right?”
“Where are you from?”

While I explained to him that I was from the Netherlands — and the conversation quickly deviated towards marijuana, Amsterdam and its red light district — I thought of Abu Youssef. Despite the violence and holes in the walls of his living room, he had remained nuanced. What would he say to this boy?
“Here, look!” Hamza turned his phone towards me. A video played, showing a young lady speaking into the camera from a shopping mall. Something about a festival, and a clothing brand that apparently sponsored it. Under the video was the text “Homs”, followed by three red hearts and a rainbow.
“Looks like nothing is going on in Homs!”
“But you’ve heard of the demonstrations, haven’t you?” I asked. “There are a lot of people who believe that things are not going so well in Syria.”
“Of course those people exist”, the tone of Hamza’s voice had changed, as if he was trying to explain something to me that I was too stupid to understand.
“I know a guy who also started saying things on Facebook about the revolution, and that the system must fall.”
“I unfriended him because I just couldn’t take his bullshit anymore. But actually we should feel sorry for him, because he is influenced by evil forces. It’s probably not even his fault.”
Hamza shrugged. “But luckily the vast majority of us Syrians are not like that. The troublemakers are only a very small group. Five percent or something.”
“This country is not perfect, but our government wants the best for us. And I’m sure everything will be fine!”
I stared at Hamza in disbelief. It felt like a mirrored dejavu from the conversations I had in Abu Youssef’s living room. Where were the hidden cameras!? Was I being tricked? He saw that I was uncomfortable and started to fumble with his phone.
“Can I have your Facebook? I like having international friends.”
“Of course,” I stammered, and took his phone to type in my username.
An awkward silence followed.

“I hope you don’t mind if I try to get some sleep.” I lied.
He nodded.
I turned my head back to the window and pretended to be asleep.
This world was going crazy.

An hour or two later we drove into Damascus. Hamza had fallen asleep, which gave me the opportunity to stare out of the window without being bothered. The streets were busy. People were rushing home from work, restaurants were full, and shopkeepers were making their last sale of the day. Apart from the many diesel generators that were compensating for the city’s electricity shortage, few things reminded of the war that was being fought up north. Abu Youssef might as well have lived in New Zealand. After spending some time in what looked like a permanent traffic jam, passengers started to get out out of their seats. Our final station couldn’t be far. The bus then took a sharp turn and entered the crowded area that you find around every transport hub in the Middle East. The station was difficult to miss, as a huge portrait of president al-Assad adorned its main gate. Underneath it read:

“All is going well in Syria!”

A few months ago, this slogan had suddenly appeared all around town. On government buildings, on bus shelters and even on the main gates of the city’s football stadium. But in whose Syria did things go well? While the state was forcing its alternative reality on people in peaceful parts of the country, a different story was playing out in Homs. A story in which that same state shelled its citizens.
Depending on the Facebook friends you had, or the television channels you watched, you could live in either world. But what truths lay hidden behind these realities fighting for a monopoly? Was there such a thing as truth at all in Syria?
While my mind was trying to take hold of all of this, the bus had stopped and everyone rushed for the exit as if their lives depended on it. Hamza had also jumped out of his seat and was already standing in the aisle.
“It was good to meet you!” he shouted.
And then he was gone.
As I made my way through the crowd of taxi drivers that were waiting outside, I felt something vibrate in my pocket. My phone. A text from Homs?
“Boy Homs Escape” it said on the screen.
I didn’t even have time to ask his name, I thought, and clicked on the message.
Four short words. My breath stopped.

“Abu Youssef is dead.”

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Bart Veenstra

Bart Veenstra

Anthropologist and IT-eng. Working on information democracy. Formerly based in the MENA. This is my playground, to explore the stories behind reality.