The war in Syria, now in its eighth year, has been punctuated by a series of grisly massacres — so many that it has become nearly impossible to keep track. But the massacre of August 21, 2013, the day that Bashar al-Assad’s regime unleashed sarin gas on the suburbs of Damascus, is one that will not easily be forgotten. For those following the geopolitics, it is the day that the Syrian dictator crossed President Barack Obama’s infamous “red line.” For the families of the upward of 1,000 people who died a bloodless but painful death, it was a day of darkness and mourning. For Kassem Eid, it was the day he died and was born anew.
In his new book, “My Country: A Syrian Memoir,” Eid, a Palestinian-Syrian activist from the Damascus suburb of Moadamiya, describes waking up that August morning. “My eyes were burning, my head was throbbing, and my throat was rasping for air. I was suffocating,” he writes, painting a scene of an experience that is too often debated in the abstract. “Suddenly my windpipe opened again. The air ripped through my throat and pierced my lungs. Invisible needles stabbed my eyes. A searing pain clawed at my stomach.”
A few hours later, he awoke again — on the ground of a field hospital, where he learned he had been counted among the dead.
Fluent in English, in part because he grew up poring over Reader’s Digest magazines with his father, Eid had until then been convinced that he could best serve the revolution as a media activist. But the sights of that day — of asphyxiated children whose faces turned to blue and purple as vomit dribbled from their mouths — were too painful and grotesque to bear. For the first time, he decided to take up arms. He remembers looking in the mirror and not recognizing himself. “Whoever — or whatever — this was, it was not Kassem,” he writes. “This was a monster, a beast, with bloodshot eyes and a wild face contorted with fury and pain, an image of anger personified. I had never before wanted to be a fighter, but in that moment of my life, it was all I wanted to be.”
His book, released in the U.S. last week, is one of only a handful of first-person, English-language memoirs about the Syrian uprising, the latest in a slowly growing genre. While their stories have been told by others, the proliferation of books like Eid’s indicates a desire by everyday Syrians to say their piece — to remind a world increasingly preoccupied by overblown threats of terrorism that real people make revolutions, fight in wars, and suffer injury and loss. At a time when outside actors are normalizing relations with Assad and overseeing the “stabilization” of the Syrian state, these accounts remind us of the origins of the revolution — the personal experiences with authoritarianism that propelled hundreds of thousands to take to the streets — and that Syrians themselves participated in and were affected by the conflict in myriad ways. The role foreign actors have played in Syria may overcrowd international discourse, but it cannot negate the experiences of those who lived under Baathist rule.
Eid’s story, of course, begins long before his resurrection. His book opens a window into the Palestinian-Syrian experience, eloquently outlining the consequences of growing up in a family that refused to pledge allegiance to the Baath Party. He recounts a series of unfortunate events that made his embrace of the revolution all but inevitable when the uprising came knocking on the door of his hometown, Moadamiya, in March 2011. Eid’s page-turning memoir is, above all, a deeply personal tale of survival, of trying to hold on to life — and humanity — in a time of utter darkness.
When Israel expelled 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948 — what Palestinians call the nakba, or catastrophe — Eid’s father and his family trekked on foot to Syria, where they arrived to a life of being treated as second-class citizens. (Eid’s mother’s family was also forced out of Palestine during the nakba; she was born in Jordan and is a Jordanian citizen.) The Syrian state refused to grant Palestinians citizenship, claiming that doing so would interfere with the highly coveted “right of return” to their ancestral home. “This sounds reasonable in principle,” Eid writes, “but in reality it means Palestinians in Syria could never fully integrate into society, and remained refugees, without the full right of citizens.”
As a young child, Eid picked up on cues that, politically, something in Syria was not right. He wondered why adults talked about the politics of Palestine, Israel, and America — but never their own government. On his first day of school, at age 6, he felt uncomfortable during the morning assembly, where students were told to chant Baath Party slogans that he did not understand. When he walked into his classroom and saw a large photo of a beaming Hafez al-Assad, then considered Syria’s immortal leader, he felt afraid of Assad’s smile. That evening, he asked about what he had seen at school. His father explained that Hafez al-Assad had come to power in 1970 after killing, jailing, or exiling all his political opponents, overseeing a litany of crimes since then. For those reasons, Eid’s father, a journalist, had avoiding joining the Baath Party.
Failure to join the Baath Party had consequences for his father’s career and trickled down into his family’s life, too. As a sixth-grade student, Eid himself felt the harsh consequences. Despite outperforming his classmates, Eid’s grades on his final report card were docked such that his childhood best friend — whose father was a military pilot and Baath Party member — was recognized as the top student. “Was this how education worked in Syria? If so, then there was no point in trying,” Eid writes. “After this I began to lose interest in my studies.”
That was the first of many instances in the years leading up to 2011 in which Eid suffered educational, personal, or professional loss due to his father’s — and, eventually, his own — refusal to be a Baathist. When the people of Moadamiya held their first protests against the government on March 18, 2011, calling for reforms, Eid’s family was cautiously optimistic, even knowing that, as a marginalized group, Palestinians could be blamed for the unrest. “It was a time of heightened but mixed emotions,” he writes. “I knew my mother was happy about the revolution, and about the protests — to see people speaking their minds finally, to see people objecting to the conditions that had led my father to an early death — but her elation was shot through with fear. We had always existed on the margins, as Palestinian-Syrians.”
“We had always existed on the margins, as Palestinian-Syrians.”
Moadamiya, just three miles outside Damascus and surrounded by a number of key military bases, was strategically important to the regime. Eventually, the protest movement morphed into armed resistance by the townsfolk. By mid-2012, it became clear that neither side could secure a military victory and the regime began to employ a new strategy against Moadamiya: starvation. By the time the August 2013 chemical weapons attack happened, the town had been under tight siege for nine months, leading to severe malnourishment. “Starvation had sucked the life and hope out of everyone in the town,” Eid writes, “including me.”
That November, Eid launched a hunger strike to bring attention to his town’s suffering, with the demand that the Assad regime’s armed siege of Moadamiya be lifted. Using the pseudonym Qusai Zakarya, he blogged about his hunger strike. With the help of activists in North America, he rallied support from the likes of Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who joined a solidarity hunger strike. Because of his prominence, Eid became a prime target for the regime, which he came to realize wanted to use him as a mouthpiece in support of a local cease-fire that was being negotiated. The regime’s demands were “stupid and meant to strip us of our dignity and displace us,” Eid writes. “I don’t want to become yet another displaced Syrian — adding to my displaced history as a Palestinian.”
Eventually, Eid felt so much despair that he leveraged the regime’s desperation to negotiate his exit from Syria in February 2014. With the help of U.S.-based Syrian activists, he came to America, where he has spent much of the last four years. (In 2014, Eid went on a speaking tour across the country. I was a law student at the time, and that May, I organized and moderated an event at my alma mater, the University of South Florida, at which he spoke.)
Eid’s memoir is gripping, hauntingly raw, and a testament to his resilience. It is just the latest manifestation of his commitment to shed light on the unspeakable atrocities Syrians have endured and his avowed determination to seek justice for those wronged by the Assad regime. A longtime critic of U.S. policy in Syria — particularly in light of the Obama administration’s orchestration with Russia of a deal in which the Assad regime claimed to turn over its stockpile of chemical weapons after the gas attack that Eid survived — Eid is now receptive to some parts of President Donald Trump’s Syria policy. He has taken to stroking the president’s ego and cheering on strikes against the Syrian state, regardless of who is dropping the bombs. The strategy, which some online commentators have questioned, highlights the fraught position that Syrians who’ve suffered at the hands of the unrepentant Assad regime find themselves in.
The armed conflict in Moadamiya was predominately Syrian in nature; despite some foreign involvement on the government side, it was the townspeople taking on the regime. But in other parts of the country, a native Syrian insurgency gave way to a foreign invasion. In the months following Eid’s departure, outside forces reached their peak power in Syria. By mid-2014, Raqqa, a provincial capital in the country’s north, was overrun by fighters from abroad and had become the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State.
Three years earlier, Raqqawis had joined the revolution against Assad. By 2013, Syrian rebels, fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda-affiliated militant group, had wrested the city from regime control. ISIS eventually forced the rebels out and held court in Raqqa until 2017, when a U.S.-led coalition captured the city — destroying it in the process.
As power in the city changed hands again and again, the people of Raqqa lived for years at the precipice of uncertainty. It started with the rebel takeover of the city. “We knew the regime firsthand, in all its brutality and intransigence,” recalls Marwan Hisham in “Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War,” which he co-wrote with writer and illustrator Molly Crabapple. “The rebels were unknown, but they said that they fought in our names. Perhaps they might be open to our influence. Raqqa stood at a fork between two potential futures—prison versus anarchy.”
At that point, Hisham, a native of Raqqa, could not have foreseen how dark of a prison his hometown would become. In his hauntingly beautiful memoir, he offers an intimate perspective on life in the city — from the pre-revolutionary struggles of working-class people in Assad’s Syria to the euphoria of the uprising and the horrors and moral dilemmas that came with sharing a city with the nihilists of ISIS. Crabapple’s immaculate illustrations bring the already vivid and eye-opening account to life.
The book largely covers life in Raqqa, but thanks to Hisham’s travels and the writers’ nuanced understanding of the broader conflict, it also takes on dynamics of the war elsewhere in Syria. The deviant version of Islam forced on the people of Raqqa was of the Sunni variety, but Hisham and Crabapple write also of the proliferation of Shiite fighters in other parts of the country, whose role is typically underplayed in the international counterterrorism discourse. “As the situation on the ground tipped in the rebels’ favor, the Assad government—thanks to efforts excreted by the Islamic Revolutionary Government of Iran—invited Shia jihadists to come to Syria and take starring roles in their war movie,” they write. Whether Sunni or Shiite, the invasion of Syria had a singular effect: “More and more, Syrians were excluded from the speaking parts. Foreigners directed the scene.”
Hisham chose the strategy of “simply living day to day” early on.
Faced with the options of feigning subservience to the foreigners who had occupied his city or torture, Hisham chose the strategy of “simply living day to day” early on. But that approach became increasingly difficult as ISIS not only meted out corporal punishments, but also flaunted its enlistment of child soldiers and enslavement of Yezidi women, trafficked by the militants from Iraq to Syria. Hisham paints his internal struggle in passages about servicing the militants at his uncle’s cafe, where ISIS fighters came to access the internet — “I felt a weight of guilt descend on me for working at the café. I will always feel it,” he writes — as well as in pondering whether he should stay in or leave the city of his birth. “Was it self-deception to stay, my eyes closed to the city’s inevitable trajectory?” he wonders in one passage. “Was it sinful to exploit the situation, if only for survival? Was I obligated to leave?”
One distinction between Eid and Hisham was the latter’s uncompromising position not to take up arms. In 2014, after the militants’ brutal and public killing of American journalist James Foley, western governments for the first time became seriously interested in Raqqa. The United States began bombing the city under the rubric of its so-called war on terror. At that point, Hisham chose the path of journalism, taking up the potentially deadly task of reporting on the crimes of ISIS. He wrote for a number of international news outlets. Eventually, he teamed up with Crabapple in what they call “art crime”: For Vanity Fair, Hisham took photos of scenes from ISIS-controlled Raqqa and Mosul, Iraq, as well as rebel-held Aleppo, which Crabapple turned into drawings. Those collaborations were the precursor to the artistic and literary masterpiece that is “Brothers of the Gun.” (Hisham twice wrote for The Intercept in 2016, after he left Syria for Turkey.)
The authors uncritically adopt the terms “Islamist,” “Salafi” and “jihadi” — words that are often conflated and misunderstood — but they are prescient in their observations about what the increasing power of those who weaponize Islam meant for Syria and the rest of the world. For Hisham, who grew up (begrudgingly) attending a religious school, the impact was quite personal. “They hijacked not only the uprising but my life as well, and then they looked down on me, as if I was the one who was supposed to be ashamed,” he writes. “And I was furious at my people for being so politically ignorant that they couldn’t see what was deteriorating and at the outside world for denying me the choice of how I would be identified.”
The evil that pervaded Raqqa is what ultimately forced Hisham’s flight, adding him to the the 6 million Syrians who’ve sought refuge outside their country’s borders since 2011. Like Eid’s ancestors who were forced from Palestine 70 years ago, Syrians, undergoing their own nakba, fled while hanging on to the possibility of return. “Return: the word that destroyed Palestinians’ futures and upon which Arab countries, like mine, denied them equal status,” Hisham writes. “Return. How ill-omened principles are and how limitlessly they test us.”
Eid’s and Hisham’s revelatory memoirs come at a critical moment, as everyday Syrians are increasingly written out of their country’s story. The dominant narrative has instead become about the false dichotomy of the Assad regime versus ISIS, or, even worse, about the foreign powers fighting for influence in the now-shattered country — with no mention of the Syrians who have so valiantly fought back against oppression in all its forms. Eid, as a Palestinian-Syrian from outside Damascus, and Hisham, a native of Raqqa, experienced life before and after the revolution differently, but one common thread in their stories is that they lived a life of deprivation under the Assad regime. They cannot possibly speak for the entirety of the Syrian populace — nor do they claim to — but their experiences do much to deepen our understanding of the rich, complex, and increasingly fractured mosaic that is Syrian society.