Water bottles & roses

Choosing non-violence in Daraya

Rights & dissent
Water bottles tied to roses & notes, distributed by Daraya protesters

Daraya, a town of about 200,000, is notable mainly for its grapes — and, truth be told, for its lack of social diversity. If Damascus is a little too full of people of different faiths, military sorts and Baathist Party members, for your comfort, you beat a retreat to Daraya where a calm coexistence has traditionally existed among Christian Arabs and the town’s majority, Sunni Arab Muslims. But since March 2011, Daraya has been on the map because of its non-violence activists. Concerted studies of non-violence began over a decade ago in this suburb of Damascus; today, the non-violent youth of Daraya has taken a lead role in organising the town’s protests. How has this quiet suburb become an epicenter for non-violent values in this uprising?

In 1998, a group of some 20 youths in Daraya, about 15 to 25 years old, got booted from the mosque where they had been studying Quran. Their lively discussions had veered too close to social change, not acceptable in an authoritarian state. Yahya Shurbaji, then 18, was one of these youths.

Although it had an Islamic orientation, this was no fundamentalist movement. Like most Daraya townspeople, these young men and women came from conservative Muslim backgrounds, but these youths valued tolerance, universal equality, individual empowerment, and above all, peace. Their Quran teacher, Shaikh Abdul-akram Siqa, encouraged openness to other intellectual traditions. Siqa is a Daraya cleric known for thinking outside the lines since 1979. He is Daraya’s other claim to fame, frequently embattled by more conservative Sunni clerics, some of whom in past years have even collaborated with the state police to imprison him.

These youths valued tolerance, universal equality, individual empowerment, and above all, peace.

Siqa introduced Yahya and other Daraya young people to Shaikh Jawdat Said, who has been teaching non-violence for decades in Syria. Said interprets the Quran with an emphasis on the sacredness of life above all, in an approach that might be called Islamic humanism. His first book in 1964, The Doctrine of the First Son of Adam, meditated on the Quranic verses about the first murder, in which Abel says to Cain, “Though you stretch your hand to kill me, I do not stretch my hand to kill you.” Said draws connections between Quranic non-violence and Gandhi’s practices, as well as to the Buddhist thought of his friend the Daila Lama, and to the ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr.

That day in 1998 when they were kicked out of Annas Mosque, young Yahya Shurbaji and 13 other boys and 10 girls sat on the ground outside and held their meeting anyway.

“Though you stretch your hand to kill me, I do not stretch my hand to kill you.”

“It was freezing,” Osama Nassar, a younger friend of Yahya, currently in hiding in Syria, recalls. Shivering, braced against the push of the police state and the pull of religious conformism, the Daraya Youth Group was born.

The group grew to over 50 members, about half of them boys and half girls. Wearing vests saying “Until you change what is in your selves”, a Quranic verse that makes the individual responsible for his or her own destiny, Daraya Youths swept city streets in 2002.

“Give me a broom, too!” says a 12-year-old bystander. Yahya, Osama, and the other Daraya Youths made trash pick-up cool.

Shivering, braced against the push of the police state and the pull of religious conformism, the Daraya Youth Group was born.

“Surely they were commended for this,” you may say. Ah, but in Syria, citizens are not only not rewarded for civic volunteerism; they are punished for it.

Then, there was the anti-corruption campaign. The young women and men published an awareness-raising calendar: each month featured a drawing illustrating forms of corruption.

 “The government’s role is to serve the people, you say? Not to milk them for gain?” A radical notion, in a police state, that the Daraya Youth propagated.

In Syria, citizens are not only not rewarded for civic volunteerism; they are punished for it.

Their most delightful project was a public library. Members gathered books, rented a space, and put up a placard: “Paths of Peace Library.” They went to the Ministry of Education for a license, says Osama.

“No,” said the Ministry of Education. “Go to the Ministry of Information.”

“No,” said the Ministry of Information. “Go to your municipal government.”

“No,” said the municipality. “Open your library first, then we’ll see.”

Paths of Peace Library opened. The state police promptly shut it, confiscating all that dangerous material — the books.

“You said we could open,” the Daraya Youth protested.

The official of the paper government shrugged, “We have no real say. It’s them,” pointing to the state police. It is the shadow state — the police state — that calls the shots in Syria.

Paths of Peace Library opened. The state police promptly shut it, confiscating all that dangerous material — the books.

The Daraya Youth’s most political project was to march, a hundred strong, through the main street of Daraya in silent protest against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Syria’s government opposed the US invasion too, so you may think the Daraya Youth earned kudos from the Syrian government for this. Ah, but they organised a protest by themselves, without the Baath Party. You don’t do that in a police state.

It was enough to land them in prison. In May 2003, women members were interrogated and harassed, and Yahya Shurbaji and 18 other men in the group were imprisoned. The group became defunct. Yahya spent over two years in prison. He emerged an insightful, congenial visionary of non-violent struggle.

Yahya spent over two years in prison. He emerged an insightful, congenial visionary of non-violent struggle.

Back in the early 2000s, the emphasis of the Daraya Youth was on personal and social transformation. In March 2011, an uprising erupted in Syria. The first peaceful demonstrations took place in the southern city of Dara on March 18, far from Daraya. When the police state responded by shooting live fire at unarmed civilians, cities across Syria rose in solidarity.

Daraya’s first demonstration to be uploaded to YouTube was on March 25. Yahya Shurbaji and other men and women in the former Daraya Youth Group were at the forefront of the Daraya movement, organising rallies with non-violent principles. Beginning in the early Daraya protests, Yahya brought flowers for protesters to offer to the soldiers sent to suppress the demonstrations. Yahya became known as “the man with the roses.” He insisted that regime forces be viewed as human beings with choices, even in a police state.

Yahya became known as “the man with the roses.” He insisted that regime forces be viewed as human beings with choices, even in a police state.

By April, several non-violence groups had sprung up, including the Syrian Non-violence Movement and the April 17 Youth. Today there are some 12 groups in the Damascus area espousing non-violence teachings, including Noble Selves, The Subversives, and Damascus Coalition for a Civil State. Three generations of non-violence work in Syria has borne fruit in other regions too; 25 Kurdish Syrians began the Non-violence Movement of the Jazeera Region around 2000. Nabd is a secular non-violence group in the Homs area, born during the revolution, focused on growing tolerance and trust between neighbourhoods of different religious affiliations. Dara has its own non-violence teachers and study groups, such as Dr. Mouhammad Alammar of Nawa, imprisoned since September 17.

Fountain in Daraya, with its water dyed red

Together, members from many of these groups plan weekly non-violent civil disobediences in Syria, posting them on the Internet in a Freedom Days Calendar. They have leafleted for the revolution; distributed cash to revolution orphans; and dyed the water of public fountains in Damascus and Aleppo plazas a red color to remind citizens that human beings are losing their lives under the repression of Syria’s authoritarian regime.

Razan Zaitouneh is a human rights lawyer and leader of the Local Coordinating Committees, a significant ground coalition in the Syrian uprising. In her essay, One Revolution Is Not Enough she describes how some hotheaded protesters, including one young man named Islam Dabbas, appalled at the unnecessary bloodshed committed by regime forces, wanted to shout insults at soldiers. Yahya persuaded the protesting youths to try offering them water bottles instead.

The young drafted soldiers were confused and made eye contact. Some of the soldiers began to see the protesters as human beings.

Razan herself, from a more legal-political side of pro-democracy activism, expresses her initial skepticism about this highly spiritual approach, but describes in her essay the visible effect it had on many soldiers. The young drafted soldiers were confused and made eye contact. Some of the soldiers began to see the protesters as human beings. The angry young Islam witnessed the transformation in some soldiers. He became one of the biggest advocates of water for soldiers, and promoter of non-violence values, even after his father was taken to prison. Islam himself was taken to prison during a July protest, in the act of giving water to soldiers.

Twenty-six year old Ghiyath Matar began as another youth with neutral views towards non-violence in March. By April, he had become convinced by Yahya’s kindly mentoring and his own protest experiences that non-violence was the path to personal and political change in Syria.

Islam himself was taken to prison during a July protest, in the act of giving water to soldiers.

“It was interesting for friends to watch his personal transformation as he absorbed non-violence teachings,” says Canadian resident and Syrian activist Afra Jalabi, a member of the SNC who has known Yahya Shurbaji in person for years.

Ghiyath and other Daraya women and men composed notes to attach to the roses and water bottles. One scratch copy of a note in Ghiyath’s handwriting reads, “We are your brothers. Don’t kill us. The nation is big enough for all of us.”

Scribbles verified by Razan Zaitouneh as coming from Ghiyath Matar’s hand. His draft of note to soldiers sent to suppress protesters. “You and I are brothers. If I were in your place, I would not kill peaceful protesters. The nation is big enough to fit all. I beg you, leave us to protest in peace.”

Soon Ghiyath had to go into hiding, along with Yahya’s brother, Maan, and Muhammad Tayseer Khoulani, other non-violent protesters. Yahya was living as a fugitive too, with three friends including Osama Nassar. Osama and Maan had been members of the original Daraya Youth.

“We are your brothers. Don’t kill us. The nation is big enough for all of us.”

On September 6, 2011, an Air Force Security squad raided the safehouse where Ghiyath was hiding, capturing him, Maan Shurbaji, and Muhammad Tayseer Khoulani. Using Maan’s phone, they set a trap, persuading Yahya that Maan was injured and needed his help. Yahya took off, only to be pursued by two security SUVs. Yahya stayed on the phone with Osama until 15 minutes before the chase ended. Air Force Security captured Yahya and his friends, imprisoning them for their peaceful protest activities. Six non-violent protesters in all were captured in the trap.

Two days later, Ghiyath’s father received a visit from Air Force Security. “Your son is undergoing surgery. He will not survive it,” the agents said, “unless you sign documents promising not to speak to the press.” The documents were signed.

Six non-violent protesters in all were captured in the trap.

The next day, Ghiyath Matar’s body was delivered to his eight-month pregnant wife and his parents, covered with signs of torture. A long gash in his abdomen had been crudely stitched. His throat was bruised. He was castrated.

“He’s kabob now,” was the remark of the agent who released the body to the family.

Ghiyath Matar is one of three Daraya men from the group to die under torture. Zaher Mobayadh was murdered in custody on June 1; Taleb Samra met his death under torture on October 23. In all, 14 Daraya youths have been killed.

Ground activists in the city tell the Canada-based Syrian journalist Afra Jalabi that over 900 young people from Daraya have suffered imprisonment during the revolution, although only 600 have been officially documented. Despite scoffers at the potential for the effectiveness of non-violence even within the revolution, it seems the police state of Syria feels it has something particularly dangerous to fear from a group of young people who believe that individuals can install social and political change through non-violent means.

In all, 14 Daraya youths have been killed.

Ghiyath said, in one of his last Facebook posts, “We chose non-violence, not from cowardice or weakness, but out of moral conviction; we don’t want to reach victory by having destroyed the country. We want to arrive morally, so we will stick to this path until God works His will.”

Afra Jalabi spoke to Ghiyath’s mother by phone. “It was one of the hardest phone calls I ever made,” she told me — this, from a woman who has spoken to diplomats and world leaders. “I asked her what we could do for her, what Syrians and people everywhere could do for the family.”

“We chose non-violence, not from cowardice or weakness, but out of moral conviction; we don’t want to reach victory by having destroyed the country.”

“Promise to remember what he stood for,” Ghiyath’s mother replied. “Promise you will work to see that the non-violence values for which he died will not be lost in this revolution.”

Afra took a deep breath. “I promise.” She did not say it lightly.

Dr Mohja Kahf is an associate professor teaching Middle Eastern Studies, Arabic literature, gender topics, and postcolonial thought at the University of Arkansas. Born in Damascus, Syria, she migrated to the United States with her family in 1971. On February 2, she published a short video supporting the revolution in Syria. Since then, she has attended meetings of Syrians supporting the revolution in Antalya, Istanbul, Chicago, LA, and worked on Syrian refugee issues in southern Turkey during July.

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