18 May 2011
When Ali’s friends were arrested by the security forces the first thing they demanded to know as they beat them was what was their Facebook password.
Rumours are rife that Facebook is being ‘tapped-into’ with the latest high-tech Iranian spying devices; so says a man who had to give-up his desk in a leading telecoms company to an Iranian brought here especially to implement the technology and teach the engineers how to use it. But who really knows, truth rumour, belief, and fact are all mingled into one these days.
Such rumours and stories abound and do nothing but increase the general state of paranoia we are living in so I try to be suspicious of them all. A friend invited me for lunch the other day then called 2 minutes later and cancelled, when I met him later he said there was a bunch of secret police sitting at the next table and he and his friends (of Iraqi decent) didn’t need the attention they would get from eating with one of the very few Westerners left in town.
I’ve noticed my friend becoming more and more anxious these days, “Most people worry more”, he says, “Things were much easier before this unrest, now we can be stopped by the police for no reason”.
In the internet cafe a ‘secret police officer’ enters, my friend sends me an email (I am at the other side of the room), “Keep your fucking mouth shut, there is one of them just over there”, meanwhile, in Arabic, the man enquires about whether the owner is taking copies of customers passports – the owner lies and replies that he always does, I make a quiet exit out of the place.
We walk the long way home avoiding the secret police station now manned 24 hours and more vigilant then ever, my friends closest friend had been arrested for attending a small demo 5 days ago, he was caught because he ran back to help a woman who’d fallen, after 5 days in a tiny room with 26 other men, bound and blindfolded, he was released, he brought with him horrific stories of beatings and torture. They had picked on his friend the most because he had previously been in prison for political reasons, they would beat him, screaming “Is this the freedom you want?”
On the television in the corner of the room I can see the graves of men being unearthed, their blackened hands bound and tied, killed by bullets to their heads, are these civilians, or more soldiers executed by fellow soldiers for not killing civilians, nothing is clear, facts are changed, truth is no longer relevant? Now there are images of tanks rolling across the countryside (just minutes away from here), intercut with scenes of soldiers making their way steadily, heroically, across the green pastures, it looks like a real war out there I think to myself, whilst, from the ‘safety’ of my Hummus restaurant, life passes by quietly.
Damascus is a city of wonderful spicy smells and great vivacious food dishes which have, for a moment, distracted me from the troubles on the edge of town where well over 1000 Syrians have now been killed by the regime in its crackdown on the democracy protests.
Soon, my friend joins me for Hummus – he cannot hold back at his anger at the thought of his friend, a doctor, being subjected to such torture and humiliation at the hands of the secret police. He tells me of new rumours that the Government are going to install CCTV cameras all around town – he says Syria will be like Orwell’s 1984 – I joke that the UK already is, he replies that the difference here is that the CCTV is to be used to identify protesters and hunt them down… a little different to how it’s used in the UK he continues, I tell him that is exactly what the police in the UK use it for at, and after, demonstrations… We talk and eat, lost in the lazy sun, tasty pickles, and fresh hot Hummus, for a moment we are transported, no longer in Syria.
Suddenly, my friend stops and glances to his side, “Fuck me it’s one of them” a man stands close-by staring at us, he is in his late 50’s, behind him a younger man also stares. My friend tells me to finish-up and leave, he stands up nervously walking around the big man who doesn’t move an inch, I watch my friends nervousness against the curiosity of the large man, wondering who is making who nervous here… such is the paranoia inflicting this nation right now.
My friend suddenly changes tack and instead of trying to leave talks directly to the man firmly shaking his hand, a smile breaks across the strangers face, it appears that the man is out with his son and is merely curious about us two guys talking excitedly and animated in English. As the man and his son walk to another table I breathe a semi sigh of relief, nudging my friend and repeating that it was simply a father and his son out for a meal, nothing to be worried about, a silly misunderstanding, maybe my friend says maybe you are right, but then again…