“DO NOT TAKE PART IN these student protests, Hassam,” his father said.
“It’s not just students, Father. People want justice, and freedom from tyranny. They want democracy.”
The dining room went silent. His father never raised his voice.
“The secret police have informers everywhere. If you’re identified at one of these protests, if you speak out against Bashar al-Assad, they’ll arrest you, torture you, maybe even kill you.”
“All the people want–”
“Listen to me.”
“Hana, bring the twins and we’ll watch television in the living room,” his mother said.
“No, Mama, I want to hear.” Hanna was sixteen, two years younger than Hassam and five years older than the twins, Amir and Nadya.
“Mailaki, let the children stay,” her husband said. “Everyone needs to hear this. It’s for their own protection.”
Their mother frowned. “I’ll serve the basbousa.”
“We have a good life in Syria. My job in Syria-Tel provides for all our needs. It pays your tuition fees at university and next year Hana’s as well. But if you criticize the government we could lose everything, and for what?”
“But Baba, they treat us like animals,” Hana said. “They detained those young boys for over a month and tortured them just because they wrote anti-government slogans on their school wall.”
“And I don’t want that to happen to either of you. That’s my point.”
“Every day thousands are taking to the streets, Baba. The government will have to consider at least some of their demands.”
“Just the opposite,” father said. “There are rumours troops are being flown in from the capital. There’s a crackdown coming.”
“What will they do,” Hana said. “Shoot peaceful protestors?”
Hassam and Hana shared a look. Their father was old, complacent and out of touch. Peaceful protests had brought reforms in Egypt and Tunisia, now it was Syria’s turn.
“Promise me you won’t take part in any protests, anything that could be construed as anti-government.”
“I promise, Baba,” Hassam said. He was too busy with his studies anyway.
Hana was silent. The twins eyes opened wide at their older sister’s act of defiance.
“Promise me, Hana?”
“I promise, Baba.”
“Good. Now here’s mama with the basbousa.”
His wife brought in the sweet cake and placed in front of her husband to cut and serve.
“Yummy.” The twins clapped their hands.
“One more thing.” Their father hesitated, knife poised. “I’ve spoken to your uncle about Saleem. Your cousin is a bad influence, maybe keep stay away from him until things settle down.”
His father needn’t worry about him. Hassam was apolitical, more concerned with finishing his education, establishing himself in a career, getting married and raising a family. He understood life in his country didn’t afford him all the freedoms of a western democracy, but he chose to work with the system as opposed to rebelling against it.
His life was good. He had friends, family, enough money for tuition, a cell phone, computer, Nike Hi-Tops and a pair of Levi 501s. When time permitted he could even afford to go out for dinner with his classmates or members of his extended family.
How would more freedom of the press enhance his life? Certainly it wasn’t something he was prepared to die for. Besides, if democracy was so important how come only fifty-eight percent of Americans voted in their last election?
Hassam’s concern was the protests might close the university and interrupt his education. He would heed his father’s warning and keep his distance from Saleem who was caught up in this folly.
* * *
EVERY MEMBER OF THE family was on their feet when they heard the door open.
“Hana, are you all right?” their mother said.
Hana collapse against her mother and began sobbing.
“Where were you? We could hear gunfire all evening.” Their father drew the blinds.
“I was coming home and there was a funeral procession for those killed by the security forces yesterday at the sit-in. The street was blocked and suddenly there was gunfire.”
“You could have been killed.” Her mother hugged her.
“I tried to get out of the way but I couldn’t tell where the firing was coming from? I hid under a table in a café.”
“I told you to stay away from the funerals.”
“It was on my way home, Baba. I couldn’t help it.”
“You’re home and safe now.” Her father patted his daughter’s shoulder.
“I saw dead people, Baba.”
“Hush, Hanna. Don’t frighten the twins,” her mother said.
* * *
“WE CAN EITHER FIGHT like men or die like dogs,” Saleem said. His cousin had finally caught up with Hassam at home. To get him away from the house, Hassam invited him to go for a shai and they were now drinking the hot sweet tea sitting in an empty falafel café.
Hassam was reminded of his mother’s cautionary warning that the walls had ears and wished his relative would keep his voice down.
“My father says the government has made concessions,” Hassam said. “They’ve released political prisoners and say they’ll cut taxes, raise the salaries of public sector workers and provide more freedom of the press. We should let things settle down.”
“Too little, too late and meanwhile the security forces open fire on peaceful demonstrations and funeral processions.”
“But how can you fight them, Saleem?”
“We get weapons from the black market and our Sunni brothers in neighbouring countries who support our struggle.”
Hassam drained the remnants from the tiny glass. “I don’t want to hear anymore, Saleem. You’re putting us all in danger.”
“Join with us, Hassam,” his cousin said. “For God, Syria, freedom.”
* * *
THEY CAME JUST BEFORE dawn.
“What do you want?” Hassam’s father called out from behind the door.
“It’s the police. Your son, Hassam, is wanted for questioning. Bring him out and no one will get hurt.”
“My son, is staying with relatives,” his father said.
The butt of a rifle slammed against the door. The twins began to cry.
“Mohammed Khouri. For the safety of your wife and young children don’t force us to come inside.”
“I will go with them, Baba.” Hassam had come downstairs and stood beside his father at the door.
“No, Hassam. Hide.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong. They will question and release me.” Hassam turned the lock and pushed the door open.
“My son,” his mother cried.
“Don’t worry, Mama.” He stepped outside.
There were shadows of many men. Something hit him on the side of the head. Another blow on the back put him on his knees. Hands grabbed him beneath his arms and dragged him to idling truck.
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