Nine months ago my daughter, Tal Malouhi, a student in high school, was arrested by one of the branches of the security for reasons we do not know until this moment and I do not know anything about her fate. Sir, I knocked on the doors of all the security agencies and the presidential palace and all the official channels possible in order to be assured about my daughter or know anything about her fate or the cause of her arrest, but to no avail. Finally, I received a promise from one of the security authorities that my daughter would be released before the month of Ramadan starts. But, Ramadan is about to end now and Eid will come soon after, while our family is still suffering for our lovely daughter. Mr. President, I cannot describe to you after this disaster on our family, the amount of suffering caused to all of us. Your daughter Tal is a smart student and she loves her country and its people. She writes what comes to her young mind in honesty and transparency and in line with her age. Sir, We have no one left for us, but to address you as the father of all the Syrians in order to save the life of my daughter as she is at a tender age and does not understand anything in politics. And may you long live for our country.Letter to Bashar al-Assad from Ahed al-Malouhi, September 2010
In February 2011, Ahed al-Malouhi found out her daughter’s fate. Tal was sentenced to five years in prison by the State Security Court on charges of “disclosing information to a foreign country,” or treason, after being detained since 27 December 2009. Her crime? Blogging poems about Palestine.
Tal was seventeen when she was arrested becoming the youngest known prisoner of conscience in the world. In addition to enduring over two years in Assad’s dungeons, the innocent girl from a conservative family in Homs has been slandered by society and her reputation has been ripped to shreds.
Tal blogged in Arabic, under her own name. Sometimes I wonder, if she had known her fate, would she have chosen a pseudonym?
Razan Ghazzawi, aka @redrazan, is one of the few Syrian bloggers who writes about the regime using her real name. She paid the price for taking that risk late last year when she was captured at the Jordanian border. She was detained for fifteen days. She was released but faces a trial and a sentence for up to fifteen years for “weakening the national morale.” She was arrested again on February 16th, along with twelve of her colleagues at the Office of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression in Damascus in an armed raid without arrest warrants. She was held for three days at the Air Force Intelligence branch in al-Mazzeh. She describes those three days as much worse than her previous two week experience in Assad’s prisons. The nine men —including the center’s director Mazen Darwish— are still in prison.
After her first arrest, Razan told me via email, “They did not ask me about my blog in detention. I think they might be monitoring my blog but the Political Intelligence branch in Damascus uses Google translator to understand what you’re writing in English. For some reason that gives me relief. I wouldn’t dare to blog in Arabic, I respect bloggers who do. Also, security forces haven’t discovered blogging yet, they’re obsessed with Facebook and email accounts.”
Razan met Tal al-Malouhi during her first stay at Adra prison, in the isolated “political” wing in the basement. Her cellmates were women charged with political crimes. She said, “I saw Tal there. . . . She is very down, she feels that people have forgotten about her. She’s not social nor likes to talk, she walks up and warms her milk and continues studying —she’s doing her Bakaloria this year— without saying a word to anyone. She then rests and listens to her MP3 radio that was permitted recently in prison. She eats lunch, but doesn’t eat much. She’s thin, and all she talks about is getting out of jail. She knows what’s happening in Syria because of other detainees before me. We didn’t talk much, because and as I felt, it was hard for her to see women coming after her and leave before her.”
One line in Razan’s email haunts me, “Mostly I cannot forget the people I met, and I cannot face and accept the person I became during those fifteen days.”
My own pseudonym was never as suffocating as in those first hours of hearing about Razan’s detainment. I wanted to rip it off in every one of my tweets that ended with #FreeRazan. I felt I was barely holding on to Amal. The guilt of my false name weighed heavily on me. But there are times when reason is forced to take charge of emotion. Amal survived that night. But she also forced me to realize how entrenched our pseudonyms have become.
Activist Alexander Page, chose his name randomly — he had seen the name of an artist online while he was giving a phone interview early on in the revolution. When asked about his name, he used the artist’s name, Alexander Page. Alexander participated in the early protests in Damascus. His detailed media accounts were crucial because of his direct involvement with the people on the street which he communicated to international outlets in his perfect English. He was arrested for three days after the March 25th protest in Damascus. He continued his activism and reporting until October, when he was informed by a contact that his real name was associated with his pseudonym. He was wanted by the regime. The next day he fled Syria with his family. He continues his cyber activism from Cairo, running the Activists News Association. Although everyone knows his real name is Rami Jarrah, people still correspond with him as Alexander Page. His attachment to his pseudonym is so strong, he still turns around if someone calls out “Alex.”
I finally met an online activist offline, Rami Nakhle, aka Malath Omran, is one of the revolution’s earliest and most unlikely of cyber activists. He used to be a model Syrian citizen. He served in the military, supported the regime, and had no access, or any reason to seek access, to any source of information outside the regime’s propaganda which shaped his world view. He also never used the internet until 2006.
He is from a village outside the southern city of Sweidah. During his sheltered childhood, he used to believe that everyone was Druze. When he left Sweidah, he was surprised to find that Syrian society was a mix of sects, religions, and ethnicities.
He told me, “When Bashar took over, I was extremely hopeful things were going to change. We were aware there was something not normal, but we used to say, thank God, we were safe, the country was stable. We accepted the regime and make excuses for everything else. We thought, Bashar is a young man. He is interested in technology. He will modernize the country. I cried a lot when Hafez al-Assad died, as if he were a father, in all honesty, like any other citizen.”
Not this citizen. When Hafez al-Assad died, I cried as well. I thought the entire country would finally rise up and revolt. I was terrified for my family. It took the entire morning to get through to them on the phone — 2000 was still the age of landlines. My father answered in a low but carefully normalized voice, that hinted at something hidden beneath his tone, something that was tangible to me even between the cackling noises —a sign we knew indicated someone might be listening. I had forgotten until now, that was the first time I heard him say, ma fi shi, the same way it is used today, tinged with disappointment and despair. Later that summer, he would tell me in person, in the safety of our home, “We will live like this for another thirty years.”
Rami is someone I shouldn’t have anything in common with. But that’s how it goes in the revolution, connections are severed and reconnected on an entirely different qualifying system. In fact, it’s one of the most powerful parts of the revolution, these unexpected ties form a network of alliances that replace real ones which existed before, but had turned out to be superficial illusions.
In university, Rami realized life in Syria wasn’t as rosy as he had thought. He became disillusioned with the regime’s disregard for human rights after a friend was murdered by a family member in an honor killing. When he began to research the Syrian legal system, online, he discovered the plight of thousands of political prisoners. Later he created a Facebook page for detained Syrians and needed a pseudonym. Malath means shelter, and Omran i his younger brother’s name. When he was young, whenever his mother would get upset with her younger son, he would run and hide behind Rami. His mother would say to Rami, “You’re malath Omran.”
Opening a Facebook account had a problem: it needed a face. So he created one using an online program compiles a standard face from the features of thirty-two other “typical” faces. His perfectly symmetrical, digital face became the one thousands of his followers knew.
When I met Rami, it felt like there were four of us sitting together, Malath and Amal, Rami and myself. I asked Rami, “Are you ever jealous of Malath?” (Hoping Amal would not hear.) He laughed and said no one had ever asked him that before. He leaned in closer to me, maybe so Malath couldn’t hear, and said that yes, he was. It was reassuring to hear that virtual reality had become simply reality for other people as well.
The best part about losing my “real” identity was finding out I’m not alone. Many “real” friends have changed their Facebook names, deleted all personal photographs, pruned their friends’ list from any pro-regime “friends” like weeds, and started over. Others, like myself, have made Twitter their virtual home.
Sometimes it feels as though the real me is just a placeholder for the future, when Amal and I will merge, although the possibility of that happening anytime soon grows bleaker by the day.
Sometimes it feels as though our online lives have taken on lives of their own. @THE_47th, a popular Twitter activist, chose his handle from his “unlucky number that became his lucky number.” When I asked him how it felt to feel more real as a pseudonym than himself, he responded (via DM, of course): “Ppl r nvr thmslvs all the time.. But there’s always tht 1 persn u can be urslf in front of.. If tht person is nt available.. There’s twitter.”
I often discuss the revolution with an anonymous tweep who is not Syrian. We talk about the acts of courage we witness every day from the activists inside Syria. One day I messaged him that I was positive he had Syrian blood inside him. He messaged back, “Sadly not. If I were Syrian I’d wonder if there was a hero hidden inside me too.”
Perhaps the most popular Syrian Twitter activist, @AnonymousSyria — anonymous, but he insists not Anonymous — tweets from inside Aleppo. He says, “We can’t wait to be free and take off our masks. We had no choice but to be anonymous. It’s like you have a nice human face but you hide it because you’re afraid of its ‘consequences.’”
For Syrians across the world, our real faces and real names now have consequences.
Over the last months we’ve watched repeated scenes from reality via YouTube—clips of men being beaten up by security forces. They are on the ground being kicked and slapped, and we hear the security forces’ variation of the common refrain: “You want freedom? Is this the freedom you want?” Assad supporters love that phrase. They point to the piling garbage on the streets, the illegal additions onto buildings, the electricity/gas/mazout/food/water/medicine/fill-in-the-blank shortages, the plummeting economy, the state of lawlessness that has taken over the cities, and shake their heads slowly, repeating the same question in a sarcastic, menacing tone: “Is this the freedom you want?”
No, that’s not the freedom we want. We want to live in a country where Tal would be safe in her home, writing her poetry, blogging without fear. Where Hamza al-Kahtib and the hundreds of other murdered children would still be alive. Where Razan Ghazzawi wouldn’t have to face an illegitimate trial and report to the Air Force Intelligence branch everyday between nine and two. Where Alexander Page wouldn’t have to live in exile with his family for speaking the truth. Where Ousama Idris’ son wouldn’t have to lead his father’s funeral. Where Rami al-Sayed would be among Homs’ living, making films of his toddler daughter Maryam, instead of being the martyr known as Syrian Pioneer who documented over eight hundred videos of protests and martyrs. Where all of us living online wouldn’t have to make a choice with every tweet, blog post, and Facebook status, between speaking our minds and placing our families in danger.
We turned to Twitter to tweet for Syria, but it was #Syria that connected us to each other in a way that would never have happened in the real world. Syrian tweeps join forces on Fridays to tweet an original hashtag in support of those on the street, to “trend” our cause. We watch video clips, dissect articles, and count our dead. We make jokes about the regime we would have never dared to before.
Our real names have been swallowed by our pseudonyms; our real faces have disappeared from our profile pictures — replaced with flags, historical figures, or composites. We erased the key components of our identity to use our voices in a way they have never been used before. We encoded ourselves so we would stop speaking in codes. To call things by their real names, things like murder, torture, rape, repression and humiliation. And to call for what we never thought we would dare to in our lifetimes: freedom, justice, and dignity.
In Twitterland, conversations sometimes shift away from the grim tragedy of our country to the mundane, combatting what I call revolution fatigue. Late one night, during one of these private conversations, @AnonymousSyria asked me, “Have you ever watched Lost, a TV show?” Sensing there was something deeper to this question, I replied, “Yes, I loved that show. Do you think we are ‘lost’?”
A few minutes later his reply appeared on my screen, “We are not Lost, we are so real, so found.”
Two years after my arrest, two years of suffering from the bitterness of despair, chained from freedom along with the defamation of my reputation, two whole years of physical weakness, and now it is the time to end it all.
Today I am declaring starting an open-ended hunger strike calling for my freedom and hoping to put an end to the tragedy of my arrest and the deterioration of my health and psychological state.
I hereby call upon your conscience to help me put an end to my agony and sufferings of my arrest.
To the original Syrian cyber-activist: We will not be silent until you are free. #FreeTal