On a square shaped piece of paper, Naji Al-Jerf wrote “Freedom is coming, even if after a while”, he sat in a Turkish coffee shop, prior to our scheduled meeting. It was not our first, even though there weren’t many. Back then Naji or “Al Nouj” Or “Al Khal” as we all liked to call him, back then he spoke to me about his publication “Hentah”, which he had been managing at the time. We discussed the media, and what may come after the Syrian revolution, what was missing in that field starting expertise and reparation. He kept on removing his hair falling over his forehead, repeatedly while sipping on some Nescafe. It was his favorite drink; he even considered it to be “one of the best inventions”.
It happened few months before his assassination in Turkey, maybe even more. I can no longer recall the exact dates in which we had met, but what I remember most about Naji was his constant reminder for me to share a part of my story, something that had to be done before it was too late. “To be different is to have enough courage to discuss your differences”, Naji repeated it many times, but I never felt comfortable with shedding light on what makes me different, for there may be many accusations: some might think that I am looking for fame, or might think that I’m an intruder, it may even escalate to the extent of accusing me of being either a traitor or one of the “Embassy’s Shiite figures” (accused of working with foreign embassies for political purposes). Yet, the burden of belonging to a category or sect with which I have nothing in common became too frustrating and consuming. Those who chose silence often give is enough power to explain challenges which may not be as visible to the society around us.
I am a Shiite from Lebanon, even though I never fully understood the meaning of the term “Shiite” before 2005. I remember quite well asking my mother back when I was around 10 years old about the reasons which kept us away from our village in summers, when all of our friends headed there for the long vacations, we used to spend hours in Beirut. Back then, my mother explained that we are from Baalbek, but “we don’t visit often”. That sentence stuck to my mind and I started using it whenever asked about my village and family. We were known to be born and raised in Beirut, yet everything changed after 2005 and the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. I was no longer “simply” born and raised in Beirut, more questions followed like “where are you originally from?” “I’m from Baalbek… But we don’t visit often”, “Why?” “Because I don’t share the same opinion as the people residing there.”
Truth be told, we were simply different as a family. Not only in the sense of heritage and tradition, not only because we were a Muslim family in a figural way. We were secular, not religious, yet respecting everyone’s political and religious views. My family was simple and chose not to indulge us in the complications of religion, we were not only different because we were hardcore defenders of civil marriage, but simple because we did not support the political views of the Shiite sect. We are Muslim Shiites but we share nothing in common with that sect, neither religiously nor politically.
Years passed by, and between 2005 and 2010 a lot has changed in Lebanon: opinions and political views, but not for my family and myself, for throughout the year we had proven that all of Hezbollah’s religious, political and social acts don’t represent us, as Lebanese. Many challenges surfaced because of that bold statement, the fear of political assassinations, the complex security situation in Lebanon, the deaths of many political figures and journalists because of their opposing views, in addition to school harassments, loss of friends, finding difficulties in making new friends, breaking up with a boyfriend whose political views supported militias fighting in Beirut during 2008, not to forget all of the terror and threats which followed my decision of hanging the Lebanese flag on my balcony during that period of time.
Everything that preceded 2011 seemed to be simple, funny, not too complex, and everything that followed these years, since the protests erupted in Daraa and Damascus, turned my life, and everyone’s lives, upside down.
The origin of everything
Being a descendent from Bekaa means that many terms will soon become familiar, in the early teenage years, until you reach a certain age through which you are able to discuss these terms, for you to be able to answer as many related questions as possible. Questions that will be asked by the society around you in Beirut, where many people may think that since you are from the Bekaa, your thoughts, ideas and political views will not differ from the Bekaa people. This may soon turn these questions into debates through which some people may try to standardize your ideas and views, proving otherwise may become a challenge.
After the Damascus spring, my origins were known, Lebanese, Muslim, and Shiite, from the Bekaa valley yet not supporting Hezbollah. The Syrian uprising started and supporting the opposition and every activist standing against the regime was something that I felt responsible enough to do, it was not to be discussed; it was destined.
I remember clearly how my father rushed into the house in early 2011 as protests were erupting in Damascus, I was sitting in the living room watching some Lebanese basketball game, my father grabbed the remote, looked for Al-Arabia channel where the screen was divided into four smaller ones broadcasting live protests from 4 different cities around Syria, he said: “This is Syria and this is really happening!”
The University Challenge
2011 marked my second year in the faculty of Media, which is known to be politically close to the March 8th movement and parties, knowing that I was involved in journalism trainings and the media sphere since day one, my projected date of graduation was 2014. But I did not graduate that year. In fact, it wasn’t until the summer of 2016 that I actually got my diploma.
Six years of university studies is something hard to explain to employers, six years, which shaped anyone who covered Syria. My political views did not grant me much support in the faculty, views which may have been a key reason as to why it took me 6 years to graduate, views which were not admired by many in that faculty.
I failed the same course four times. When I failed it for the second time I discovered why, it was simply because I had sent a project via email to the assigned doctor who had noticed a link to my blog in my signature, in which I shared many of my political views. A few days later, he asked for a meeting and expressed his disappointment in me and in my views supporting the Syrian revolution condemning the “path” I had chosen for myself, stating how I “do not represent my sect” and how It’s a shame that I am a student in that faculty. Back then, I refused to think that my political views caused my failure, took me few months to realize that it had been due to them all along.
I never fully understood what scares me about Lebanon. Was it not approving of Hezbollah’s policies and acts in Lebanon and Syria? Was it the fear of reactions from my peers? Was it the fear of my parent’s families, even though we had clearly drawn lines with them because of all the religious and political differences? Or was it the fear of possible reactions, which may hurt my family due to my opinion? Was it because of these questions that I worried that the little rebel inside of me might overtake the voice of reason inside my head? My constant need to scream out about how angry I am at my sect, a sect which I never chose to be a part of, how its intrusion in Syria destroyed that country, and almost ours!
Is checking your car daily or fearing to be attacked on the streets part of the twenties? While others can live pretty much normal lives, dancing, traveling, we, the ones wanting to change the world, planning to take down dictators, we are the ones paying the price, we live in a constant fear of a war which may take us down at any given moment, even if we are not very well known political personalities, we do have a voice, and it’s being heard.
After 2011, writing seemed to be easy, and in the beginnings of 2012 and 2013, everyone was singing, chanting, shouting, cursing, waving a flag which suited them from Damascus till Beirut’s Martyr square.
It was a revolutionary start, reconsidering our opinion was not an option until the geo-political changes which started in 2014 and spread throughout 2015, at that point, self-censorship became mandatory.
“They might support you today and turn against you tomorrow”, a sentence which my father started repeating constantly when noticing that I am about to write down an opinion about Syria or Lebanon, sometimes he used to add “We can’t even trust ourselves anymore, politics is a vicious circle”.
Saying goodbye to Aarsal’s field visits
The kidnapping of Lebanese army soldiers in Aarsal in August 2014 by a group which was soon after identified as an ISIS alliance was a turning point for me, visiting Aarsal as a Shiite became a bit tricky.
The army imposed strict security checkpoints around the village and after a number of incidents, attacks and explosions; any journalistic presence in Aarsal needed a special permit from the army.
Few months after the kidnapping of the soldiers, and as soon as ISIS claimed full responsibility of the kidnapping incident, I stopped visiting Aarsal and found myself again in that vicious cycles of fear. It was “preferable” if I don’t visit the village for I am Shiite and the big gap caused by the kidnapping between different groups in that area raised a lot of questions and concerns regarding everyone’s safety. I found myself again prisoner of my sect, without choosing to be part of it.
Yet, and regardless of all the events mentioned, whenever I found myself to be stuck in that vicious cycle full of anxiety and fear and disturbance, my memory takes me back to 2015, to moments after Naji and I had left that coffee shop in Istanbul. Back then I had asked Naji if he had kept that squared piece of paper only to find out that he had left it on the table. Right before making a turn to get it, Naji stopped me and said: “You never look back, always look ahead” and I never did, and that was one precious lesson.