Deraa, the rebel kid

Two tales of one city

Deraa is a border city, located in the south-western part of Syria a few miles away from Jordan. The city has a rich history and a name that has been mentioned both in Egyptian hieroglyphic tablets and in the Old Testament.

Contemporary Deraa was, until last March, known as a conservative city, whose social pillars were exclusively formed by the old families of the area, its ancestral tribes: the Abazid, the Masaalme, the Mahamid, the Al Fahi. Each clan gathers some 20,000 family members. Amazingly, today Deraa is known for being the Syrian Sidi Bouzid, the town which first lit the incandescent fire of hope in the country.

Activist and writer Florence Gozlan is Deraa’s most famous ambassador; Mashallah News met with her in Paris to hear the story of the city’s uprising and Florence’s journey through decades of social conservatism and political repression.

Inside, you’re torn. You’re torn all the time.

Florence is a Deraa child. She was born there sixty years ago. She defines herself as a layman and is proud to say that she never set one foot in a mosque before. It would have obliged her to wear a veil for prayer and she didn’t want to be forced. Florence left Syria in the eighties without having seen the Umayyad mosque from the inside, which she later regretted, to Paris, her capital in exile. Florence left her home country with her husband after his brother was tortured in prison and died. “In the eighties, they were not just after the Muslim Brotherhood,” Florence recalls. “They were after the leftists too. If you want proof, just read The Shell by Mustafa Khalifa. He says it all.” Florence was unable to return to Syria for twenty years; she never saw her mother and father again. They died before she was finally allowed to visit the country again, in 2004.

Florence was unable to return to Syria for twenty years; she never saw her mother and father again.

That year, after the UN resolution 1559 calling upon Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon, Assad’s regime opened up a little bit. Some of his former political dissidents in exile were authorized to come back as temporary visitors. Florence was invited for a chat over a cup of coffee with the authorities at the Syrian embassy in Paris. “It’s always about drinking coffee with them,” states Florence. “To say the truth, the man I talked to was very polite, and asked me lots of questions. ‘Why did you wait 20 years before visiting?’ he asked me. ‘The president is pressing for people like you to come back home, you know’. But I didn’t move to France because I needed to find a job and to earn money, I didn’t arrive in France as a migrant. My husband and I were seeking political asylum.”

Twenty years in exile

Back then, before the eighties, in Deraa, Florence was already a passionate soul. A human rights activist and a writer, she had a specific interest in women’s rights. “Deraa is a very traditional place. Day after day, I could see the miserable relationships that my mother, aunts, and every other woman I knew entertained with the men there. It was obvious to me that women were considered second-class human beings. Not only traditions were against them but religion as well. And by religion, I mean all the religions, I don’t just mean Islam. In the Bible, women are asked to be as submitted to men as Jesus to the Church,” she quotes. “Submitted, no less.”

Women were considered second-class human beings. Not only traditions were against them but religion as well. And by religion, I mean all the religions, I don’t just mean Islam.

With a tourist visa stamped in her French passport, Florence went back to Deraa for two weeks in 2004. She hadn’t changed, her hair was still short and she was as fearless as ever. But others had. Her friends couldn’t go out on their own, they had to stay home. “The problem is, that since men aren’t free themselves,” says Florence, “how could they let their wives be free? It’s the dialectic of the master and the slave right there.”

Since men aren’t free themselves, how could they let their wives be free?

Florence goes on. “In Syria, you have to have different faces, different masks. One face with your neighbour, another with your boss. Even if you disapprove of the regime, you can’t say that. Sometimes not even in front of your brother or sister. This means that inside, you’re torn. You’re torn all the time. How do you expect people to be healthy and balanced when they have to wear six different faces every day, according to what each social life’s situation requires? You simply can’t be normal.”

“From the first year of primary school to university, our kids are dressed in military uniforms. This is part of the brainwash they’re victims of. You are French: at school, if you disagree with your teacher, you can say so. He has to argue with ideas why he thinks you’re wrong. Here, you can’t say anything. It’s not about the truth. It’s about you being against the regime.”

The revolution of children

“I’ve written articles for years,” explains Florence. “I’ve written about how people were imprisoned and tortured for no reason. Nobody else seemed to care. Nobody dared to talk about it. Sometimes, I reached abysses of despair. For the past year, however, things have changed. When Bouazizi set himself on fire and things started to shift in Tunisia, I felt hope rushing back in. After Assad gave an interview to the Financial Times in February, I wrote a piece addressed directly to him, in which I said: ‘Don’t you dare think that Syria doesn’t look like Tunisia or Egypt. There’s a Bouazizi somewhere in Syria too, only he’s hidden for the moment. But soon, he will come out. And the whole of Syria will be on fire.'”

When Bouazizi set himself on fire and things started to shift in Tunisia, I felt hope rushing back in.

Never did Florence imagine, though, that the Syrian equivalent to Bouazizi could come in the form of 15 kids from Deraa. “Two weeks later, I was watching Al Jazeera,” Florence recalls. “I saw the Omari mosque and in front of it, people demonstrating, not daring to pronounce the name ‘Bashar’, but yet, standing there. I thought: is Deraa the unknown village starting the Syrian revolution? Deraa, my own hometown? I was crazy, I cried. I can’t express what I felt at that moment. Something had been triggered, I could feel it.”

There’s a Bouazizi somewhere in Syria too, only he’s hidden for the moment.

Encouraged by what they saw on television from the events in Tunisia and Egypt, 15 boys aged between 10 and 15, wrote on the walls of their school the famous slogan: “As-shaab yoreed iskat el nizam” (The people want to bring down the regime). They were later arrested, tortured and killed. “I named it the revolution of children,” says Florence. “They started it. They were the martyrs. These kids were taken to the well-known secret service Palestine department in Damascus, where the worst torture is usually performed. This shows how far from its people our rulers are. They totally ignored how the tribes would react.”

From humiliation to resistance

“Each of the main Deraa tribes counts approximately 20,000 persons,” assesses Florence. “If one of their members is touched, the other 20,000 take his side. Had the regime known this, they probably wouldn’t have tortured those kids, they wouldn’t have torn off their nails. They wouldn’t have humiliated their families.”

And so, the story goes on. “First, the chiefs of the tribes went to see the mayor of Deraa,” says Florence. “He chased them off. So they went to Damascus and met with the chief of secret services, Aatif el Najib, the president’s own cousin. Do you know what he said to them? ‘Forget about your children. Forget about them and have other children. If you can’t, send us your wives and we’ll take care of it’.”

Do you know what he said to them? ‘Forget about your children. Forget about them and have other children. If you can’t, send us your wives and we’ll take care of it’.”

“When the chiefs came back to town, it was decided to go down on the street the next day. And so they did. Every day, people started to get killed. But Deraa encouraged the other cities to stand up and demonstrate. First, of course, it was about their lost children. But soon, it was about freedom of speech, creating new political parties, freeing the political prisoners. Assad sent some men down to Deraa and offered to pay two million pounds for each dead child. But it was too late.”

Soon, it was about freedom of speech, creating new political parties, freeing the political prisoners.

“I remember,” concludes Florence, “when I came back to Syria in 2004, we were sitting around the table having dinner, and I started to crack some political jokes. I hadn’t seen my family for 20 years and I wanted to crack jokes, like I always do. Someone from my family ran to close the window and started to yell at me. I could see the fear in everyone’s eyes. So I stopped with the jokes. Today, it’s another story. The same person that ran to close the window now sends me messages on Facebook to tell me how proud they are. When they travel to Lebanon or Jordan, my cousins call me to say they saw me on Al Jazeera or on Al Arabiya and they’re proud of what I say. I tell them that I’m not doing anything besides talking. I tell them they’re the ones going down on the street, they’re risking their lives. But I love to hear them say they’re proud. The fear is over.”

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