I’m writing this wired on excitement with intermittent chants of ‘God, Syria, Bashar, and only,’ and car horns as a soundtrack. I’m in my second internet cafe after the first one stopped working as I attempted to look at the news. The man running it clearly thought it was a result of the content I’d been viewing.
Today is Friday. I met my new Syrian friend at the Umayyad mosque. We agreed that while there was about double the amount of Mukhberat present the atmosphere was less threatening than it had been the week before. While prayers were taking place inside the mosque the men started their chanting, which isn’t the kind of behaviour to endear them to devout. My friend and I leant against a car in the sun and descended the concessions the regime has announced, she doesn’t take them seriously, and watched tourists strolling past without much more than a glance for the protesters. The atmosphere changed a bit though when a second group as far away from the shwyia (kinda the Arabic for pikies) as possible started chanting as well.
‘They are real people,’ my friend cried, ‘but they support the regime as well!’
A young lad from Swadia approached us. He was friendly enough, but found it hard to believe we were tourists. He told us how he hated the French because they were fighting Libya. I was noncommittal.
‘Go away!’ my friend screamed at him.
We moved to the doors of the mosque and stood on the ledge that runs round the building providing a convenient seat, or for us a viewing platform to see what was going on. Then we heard a noise inside the mosque, the crowed surged forwards and we managed to cover our hair and join them. It was chaos inside. A member of security wanted us out.
‘It is prayer time, no tourists allowed.’
‘You’ve got your shoes on’ I replied. A scared looking woman with a pushchair intervened.
‘They will be safer in here.’
It was chaos inside. People were literally fighting to get in to the prayer hall. There were women trapped inside the mosques courtyard, a few children that had been separated from there parents crying and some people ignoring the whole thing and praying. About a third of the people were carrying their shoes, adding to the surreal overtones. My friend and I ran across the courtyard of the mosque to see if we could get in to the prayer hall from the other side when I heard my name. We joined my friend and swapped what we knew. Not much. It looked like everyone had left the prayer hall, or been driven back or something, so my Syrian friend and I ran back to see what was happening with the man that had greeted me checking out the prayer hall.
‘I want to talk Arabic,’ my companion told me ‘but I’m too scared of these people.’ Between the prayer hall and the gate of the mosque that opens into the square, the gate we were running towards is a small room. We only really noticed it because of the line of men, arms folded, that were cordoning it off. As we watched they opened the door and pushed another, limping, man into the room.
‘They are crying in there.’ My friend said. ‘We were not supposed to see that. We should leave.’
I hadn’t been able to see into the room, but I wasn’t arguing.
Outside the mosque we saw another of my friends. He’d been into the mosque to pray. Apparently they’d got in a special prayer leader who looked pretty scared as he told the faithful that they didn’t know who was behind the stuff on facebook and Al Jazeera. It is the Americans or the Israelis, or maybe both he told them. Someone stood up.
‘You are a liar.’ he yelled out, and the chaos irrupted.
Mukhaberat, about a third of the total people inside according to my friend, emerged from among the faithful ‘like serpents appearing from beneath the leaves of the rose.’ Some people yelled freedom; some ignored everything and continued praying, others shouted that god wouldn’t hear prayers after lies. This mans verdict was that there are too many undecided people for anything to happen. Mine is that there is too much fear. People are too afraid of who they are talking to make friends, let alone strategise, or even decide on chants. My Syrian friend was too busy trying to hide her tears to have a verdict. We watched another limping, but defiant looking man being pushed into the mosque, and consoled my friend. People we knew gathered and someone suggested that we go to a restaurant with a TV. Once there we fielded calls from family and friends, and phoned round finding out what had been happening in other areas of the city and trying to confirm what Al Arabya told us – people chanting Allah Akbar in Douma, a super conservative outlying suburb of Cham. We decided that we’d be far too obvious to be safe there. We glimpsed a bit of state TV, which had lots of photos of pro-government demos. The most convincing of these was in Swadia. I wanted to ask R about it, but his phone was off. I guess he was at work.
I did however get a call from a Syrian I know slightly who’d seen me. We met up and walked around the half-dead Friday streets, talking quietly when there was no one there.
He had somehow ended up just outside the Old City on a road leading to the central square of the New chanting ‘ freedom’ with about 50 others when the mukhaberat attacked. My acquaintance saw people curled up on the ground being kicked, but had personally been rescued by a shop keeper who’d reached out and pulled him into his shop. We went to join some friends of his, passing tourists and dodging the convoys of chanting youth, which annoyed my friend. He said he wasn’t scared for the moment, but I think he’d phoned me because he’d look less Syrian next to my white skin, and his English was a lot worse than usual. As we walked round the city we marvelled at how normal chunks of it were. ‘The problem is the people,’ my friend grimly pronounced. ‘Look at them. They have had no education. And those that have are afraid.’