Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s twelfth letter to his wife Samira al-Khalil, abducted in Douma in 2013, is penned on the occasion of her birthday, “the only day I’ve ever celebrated since your disappearance.”
The only day I’ve ever celebrated since your disappearance has been your birthday. I spend it, alone, with you.
For weeks leading up to your birthday, Sammour, I have been thinking of how often a love of experience brought us together; a wish to take a risk; to adventure and seize new beginnings. Beginnings are always difficult, and experiences can be tragic. You and I certainly know that.
In the 1980s, you became a communist, affiliated with an opposition group, knowing well this could get you arrested and tortured. When that did indeed happen, you yelled in the street to alert the heedless what was happening around them, and what might happen to them. They silenced you, and scolded the curious peering from their balconies. The private, secretive organization with a monopoly on weapons, known as “the state,” wanted everything to be in its plain sight; wanted its subjects to be open pages, enjoying no secrets or privacy. In this, its methods were espionage and torture.
Like you, though perhaps a few years earlier, I too became a communist, joining another opposition group. Like you I was arrested by the secretive organization, which wanted to turn me into an open page while it remained a closed book of unknown contents. Do you remember what Hafez al-Assad’s brother Rifaat, head of the so-called Defense Companies militia, said at the 1979 Baath Party Conference about the necessity of “the secrecy of the security mindset”? And his suggestion that security personnel should live in special areas, so that the general population wouldn’t know how they thought? A few years later, Rifaat lost his power struggle with his brother, but the resolution of the struggle was “familial” and “domestic:” no arrests or torture or killing. The loser continues to live well to this day in democratic Europe with the plundered money of the Syrian people. As for the “secrecy of the security mindset,” and the regime’s senior security personnel living in unaccountable worlds impenetrable for the Syrian populace, these too remain unchanged.
We became communists at a time when communism meant changing reality, changing the world, and with and before that changing oneself. We weren’t able to change our country’s reality, but we changed ourselves, as we wanted to, as though we wished to be the change we wanted to see in the world, as Gandhi counseled. When we left prison, we were no longer the same people who went in. We accepted prison as part of our lives, in the way we’d wanted freedom to be.
Years after prison, you began a new experience, moving to Damascus and living independently of your family. I did the same after I got out. The decision to move to another city and begin anew was, and still is, harder in our country for a woman than a man. Yet you took and made that decision, which was truly courageous. If total liberation was impossible, the former inmate wanted at least to be free in her personal domain. I, the male former inmate, required no especial courage to do the same.
In the year 2000, in Damascus, our paths crossed: two former political prisoners; independent; residing in the capital they hardly knew before prison; living off their work—you, by uploading texts onto the computers that were then still only starting to proliferate; me by writing and translating.
Our marriage was likewise an act of freedom, given our differences in origins and backgrounds. An act of courage, too, and on your part more than mine. This new beginning was a continuation of what preceded it, in terms of activism, and prison, and independent life. As of September 2002, our two stories became one.
The fourth beginning—the fourth experience—came with the revolution. I went into hiding, in order to be able to say and write what I thought was right, and you wanted our home to stay open to whatever extent possible. It was you who turned a rented residence into a home, and you for whom leaving that home was tantamount to leaving the country. You said so in your book, Journal of the 2013 Siege of Douma.1 I hadn’t realized that at the time, Sammour. Only today do I understand that your preservation of the house was a way of holding on to our shared space, to a safe haven to which we would return after an absence that might be lengthy, but would always be temporary nonetheless. Your phrase in the book calls to mind the major experiences of uprooting and displacement, Sammour, but those experiences would lose little time scoffing at your bitter phrase. What awaited us was yet crueler, and bitterer.
When I left Damascus for Eastern Ghouta, and my stay there grew long, you wanted to join me in the new experience. So keen were you to try it that you “thanked” me in your book for “bringing [you] to this place.” For once, Sammour, I wish you hadn’t come, and hadn’t thanked me. For one time only, I wish I’d insisted on you staying away, even if it might have upset you for a while.
For half a century before your disappearance, the experiences of our lives always contained the elements of danger and change; danger faced with no guarantee of safety, and change as the result. We both are the products of experiences that shaped and created us. It wasn’t possible for me to decide for you in that moment of destiny, or to choose safe experiences for you. How I wish it had been.
Your enthusiasm for experiences always made it easier for you to live with their difficulties. Despite the harshness of what you describe in your book, this enthusiasm prevailed over the pain; the pain of what you observed around you and what you suffered yourself. You didn’t deny the suffering, but your words were devoted more to the observation.
I worked on transforming the experiences into ideas, while you transformed them into sensation and life. You personified them in what you were, whereas I portrayed them in what I did. You were adept, Sammour, at distinguishing between individuals, and your judgment in this regard was more accurate than that of your incautious husband’s. We both know more than one example of that. As for myself, I tried to be adept at distinguishing between ideas; between the true and false among them; between those which open doors to others and those which close upon themselves. What drew us together was that we both wanted to distinguish and take a side: to distinguish between the living and the dead, and to be on the side of life.
Your politics was empathy and partnership, and voicing the pain of the suffering. Your words in your diaries of the siege were steeped in this politics of empathy. You didn’t place your personal pain above that of others, and you decided simply and clearly that the siege you experienced alongside the people of Douma was far worse than your time in prison (which happened also to be in Douma). My politics was speaking the truth about power to the people. Here I’m deliberately re-wording the common English expression about speaking truth to power. I don’t see power as the addressee at all, even if one is speaking defiantly, and even if one takes “power” in the broader sense encompassing people of economic, social, and religious influence, as well as the thinkers, artists, and litterateurs who wield symbolic influence. Power may be the subject of an address, but the addressees themselves are a diverse group of people; those affected by the acts of the powerful, and those capable of being partners in word and deed to change power.
In your disappearance at the hands of a religious nihilist power—one which steals much, and kills many, and lies a great deal, just like its Assadist counterpart—I’ve come to find another politics, of which you are the name and symbol. In that regard, I have a rather unpleasant recollection, Sammour. In April 2016, just a few days before it was due to occur, I received an invite from a member of the “Coalition”2 to an “Evaluation Workshop Regarding the Course of the Revolution over the Past Five Years,” to be held in Istanbul. I was in Istanbul at the time, though a different Istanbul. I replied that I was uninterested in the Coalition and its people, and that “my politics is called Samira al-Khalil.” The man didn’t respond; didn’t so much as offer solidarity. It evidently never occurred to him to say, for example, that I could speak about this “politics” of mine at their evaluation workshop.
I always avoid telling you anything about these unhappy stories, but how I wish today you were beside me so we could talk about so many stories, as we used to do, perhaps only for a few minutes, after one of us had returned from a short trip here or there, or from traveling.
Today, you have a horrifying story about one horrifying long experience, the weight of which our previous experiences are unable to lighten. Your story will be told by you yourself, and by us together.
All these experiences of ours—activism; prison; independence; love; and then this long, silent absence—are chapters of the tribulations of our sorrowful country, the origins of whose woes we either didn’t see in its makeup, history, environment, and world, or we did see but couldn’t believe our eyes. Your absence is conjoined with the coma of the country, and with tragedies afflicting incalculable numbers of its people.
Today, as long as you’re apart from me, and I’m unable to look after you, and as long as I’m apart from the burning country (which, we were told candidly, would be burned in order for its arsonist to remain in power), I will try to be the narrator of Samira’s/Syria’s story, which has no end.
This is my politics.
And this is my fight.
Despite the frailty of the tools, the old fighter remains fighting, searching for new ways to stay in the battle—in many battles.
We lived a life of fighting, Sammour, and we’ll depart in the end as fighters.
On your birthday, be well!
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 2 February, 2019]