Arabic version (by Walid Daou)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
There were foreign soldiers firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition at unarmed protesters in Palestine.
There were local soldiers firing live bullets and mortar shells at unarmed protesters in Syria.
There were drones dropping bombs on residential neighbourhoods in Gaza, destroying entire buildings and burying children under the rubble.
There were MiGS firing TNT barrels on residential neighbourhoods in Aleppo, destroying entire buildings and burying children under the rubble.
The events of our short story are set in Nabi Saleh, a tiny village north west of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank with a population of just over 500, and Bustan Al-Qasr, a neighbourhood in Aleppo city with approximately 60,00 inhabitants.
Once unheard of and engulfed by obscurity, both Nabi Saleh and Bustan al-Qasr made a big name for themselves thanks to the persistent unarmed protests organised by their residents.
Nabi Saleh residents launched their first demonstration in December 2009, to protest the ongoing colonial expansion, land theft by Israeli occupation forces, and the confiscation of the village’s main water supply, Ain al-Qaws spring, by the adjacent Israeli colony of Halamish. Ever since, Nabi Saleh residents have protested on a weekly basis against the Israeli occupation despite brutal repression that was not limited to violence during protests. Israeli occupation forces carry out constant night raids and waves of arbitrary arrests as a means of terrorising the villagers and intimidating them into submission.
Not only was Bustan al-Qasr one of the first Aleppian neighbourhoods to hold large protests against the Assad regime, it was also one of the first places in Syria where protesters chanted and held signs criticising abuses carried out by armed rebels.
The lyrics of this song, wherein several stanzas criticise lootings and kidnappings by the Free Syrian Army as the chorus repeats the demands for freedom and the overthrow of the Ba’ath regime, perfectly embody the critical thinking and revolutionary vigilance that have characterised Bustan al-Qasr’s protests: Protesters vehemently speak out against violations by armed rebels in their faces, while never abandoning the essence of the revolution. Bustan al-Qasr witnessed its single bloodiest massacre on 29 January, 2013, when over 65 people were found executed in Queiq River with their hands bound.
The children of Nabi Saleh and Bustan al-Qasr often lead the chants in their respective demonstrations. “No-one tells them what to say,” said an activist from Nabi Saleh. “Our children are born into a reality where they have no option but to resist.”
Children’s rights organisations may not like the fact that the kids of Palestine and Syria stand in the front lines or throw rocks at soldiers, risking their lives, but in this part of the world, we have no such privilege of shielding the innocence of our children anyway. A safe and de-politicised childhood is a luxury that our children are denied.
The brave and inspiring protests in Nabi Saleh and Bustan al-Qasr are met with excessive violence by the Israeli occupation and the Syrian regime respectively, but they also draw widespread media attention and have become favourite destinations for activists to the degree that they have been somewhat fetishised.
* * *
Nariman Tamimi is a 37-year-old woman from Nabi Saleh. A mother of four children, all of whom participate in the village’s weekly protests, Nariman has been arrested by Israeli soldiers on three occasions since 2009. Her husband and partner in struggle is Bassem Tamimi, the charismatic human rights defender and protest organiser. Bassem is committed to the struggle for freedom, dignity and equality in Historic Palestine.
Both Bassem and Nariman staunchly believe in unarmed resistance. Nariman, however, is much more than just “Bassem’s wife”. She is a protest organiser in her own right, working with the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tslem in filming and documenting the protests in the village. On 17 November, 2012, during a protest in Nabi Saleh against the Israeli aggression on Gaza, Nariman filmed the fatal shooting of her own brother, Rushdi Tamimi. Rushdi, a 31-year-old police officer and a father of a two-year-old girl, was shot with 80 bullets by Israeli occupation soldiers. Two days later, he succumbed to his wounds in a hospital in Ramallah.
As if losing her beloved brother was not hard enough, Nariman had to cope with the tragedy without her husband Bassem, who was serving a four-month sentence in Ofer military prison at the time. Bassem had been arrested a month earlier for protesting; it was his 13th overall arrest, which came less than five months after he was released following 14 months in occupation prisons. Nariman and Bassem’s house is subject to a demolition order by the so-called Israeli “civil administration” – which is anything but civil – and her children have been injured several times by Israeli occupation forces. During Bassem’s imprisonment, Nariman had to put up with the Israeli soldiers invading her house at dawn repeatedly, violently searching the rooms, terrifying the children, and confiscating her laptop. In 1993, Bassema, Nariman’s sister-in-law, was pushed down the staircase by an Israeli court interpreter, which resulted in her death. Despite all the attempts by the Israeli occupation at crushing her family’s will and deterring them from protesting, however, Nariman’s powerful voice continues to bellow during protests. Her lens has not ceased to expose Israel’s crimes, either.
* * *
Maha Ghrer is a 26-year-old woman from Harasta in the Damascus countryside. An English literature graduate, Maha is the sister of prominent Syrian blogger Hussein Ghrrer and the widow of martyred Syrian activist and human rights defender Mustafa Qaraman. Since the start of the Syrian revolution, she helped Mustafa through all the projects and initiatives he created. Mustafa was strongly committed to the struggle for freedom, dignity and equality in Syria. Both he and Maha staunchly believed in nonviolent resistance. “I don’t shy away from saying that Mustafa cultivated my personality,” Maha told me. “For me, Mustafa is more than a lover; he was a supporter, a comrade and a brother. I don’t want to lie and say that I had dreams about Syria prior to the revolution, but when the revolution erupted, I felt a sense of belonging to Syria and I had many dreams that I wanted to achieve with Mustafa.”
On 16 November, 2012, during the weekly protest in Bustan al-Qasr, a mortar shell hit the protest as a little girl was singing for freedom. Several protesters were killed and injured, including Mustafa. He was killed a couple of weeks after he and Maha got married. “He was three metres away from me when the shell fell. Moments before the shelling, I asked a friend to take a picture of me and Mustafa as if my heart had told me that he was going to leave,” Maha recalls. “When the security situation got terribly dangerous, I asked Mustafa to leave the country. He rejected at the start, but finally agreed under pressure because of his love for me. That protest in Bustan al-Qasr was supposed to be our last, but Syria felt that I was going to take with me one of her most precious sons, so she beat me to him.”
As if losing her lifetime love was not enough, Maha had to cope with the tragedy without her brother and role model Hussein, who has been detained by the Syrian regime without charges or trial since 16 February, 2012.
* * *
Nariman and Maha do not know each other, but their stories are strikingly similar. This familiarity is not a peculiar irony, for these two women epitomise their peoples’ struggles. The two women had their dreams wrecked and hearts shattered by two fascist regimes. Yet, like myriad Syrian and Palestinian women, Maha and Nariman stand tall and defiant.