In the spring of 2009 in Damascus, I was accused of being an Algerian spy. I am neither Algerian nor a spy. I am a dual U.S.-Japanese citizen and a professor of religious studies with an intense aversion to danger and no appetite for espionage. I fastidiously wear a bicycle helmet, pay my taxes early, and have never so much as told an extravagantly detailed lie. I am more like Mr. Bean than 007.
But the paranoid police state of Assad’s Syria is impervious to sound reasoning. For the first time in my comfortable life, I understood the fear and paranoia that terrorizes ordinary citizens subject to the delusional whims and inscrutable logic of a brutal secret police.
In March 2009 I was a PhD student working on my dissertation about medieval Islam; I settled in Damascus to spend a few months re-immersing myself in the Arabic-speaking world. I hoped that living in Damascus would be like living in Cairo, where my life as an Arabic-speaking ex-pat in 2005 and 2006 was exhilarating and mostly carefree. Fleeing the routine of life in New York, I hoped to see my research and the world afresh.
On the first afternoon that I was installed in my Damascus apartment, I marveled at the city from my spacious veranda. Perched at an elevation of over 2,000 feet, Damascus stretches out from the edge of the desert at the foot of Mt. Qassioun, which forms one band of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range. My view overlooked the northern neighborhoods of Salihiya, Muhajireen, and Rukn al-Din that sit nestled on the eastern slopes of Mt. Qassioun. The sky was piercingly blue and the air was brisk and dry. I was optimistic.
It’s strange now to think of Syria in this way—a respite. The UN reported in February that almost 70,000 people have been killed in Syria since it has been consumed by a voracious by civil war that began in March 2011, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated in May that as many as 120,000 people may have died. The UN counts over 1.5 million registered refugees who have fled their homes. There are 4.25 million internally displaced people out of a population of a 20.82 million. It seems impossible that I once lived in Damascus and strolled through areas like Sabaa Bahrat Square, in which an enormous fountain sits ringed by imposing government buildings and the Central Bank of Syria, where people are now machine-gunned down in the carnage of the civil war.
But Syria was a different place then, at least on the surface. And I arrived in Syria from Iran, where I had just spent a month at a Persian language institute in Tehran during the 30th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, living in an eerie, semi-deserted scholar’s dormitory that I shared with a Norwegian woman who showed up with a suitcase full of tinned fish and photos of her boyfriend. After a month of self-consciously adjusting my obligatory headscarf in cities around Iran, sipping coffee in open-air Damascene cafés felt liberating.
Then the mukhabarat came for me.
My landlord Anas knocked on my door early one afternoon and confronted me with the news that the mukhabarat, or secret police, had informed him that they were interested in having a meeting about me. The mukhabarat are feared and firmly entrenched institutions in many states of the modern Middle East. Each nation has their own mukhabarat secret police, but they all share a threatening familial resemblance. President Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, has used the surveillance of the mukhabarat to maintain his authoritarian grip.
I considered the possibility that my first experience of prison would be in Syria.
Anas lived with his family in the apartment next door, and I knew him as fastidious and mild mannered. Almost every time I saw Anas he wore a scab colored sweatshirt with the words “World’s Best Grandma!” sewn onto the fabric with soft white thread and festooned with fuzzy hearts. Anas had already exchanged his festive uniform for a sober button-down for his audience with the mukhabarat, and his face looked as bloodless as his dour shirt.
“I don’t even know who you are! Are you Algerian? French? Japanese? Who are you, really?” Anas sputtered at me, his voice increasingly shrill, as he quailed that the mukhabarat were on their way.
“Why would you think I’m Algerian? Or French?” I asked, baffled that I was suddenly being mistaken for a North African masquerading as a Japanese.
“People think you are Algerian. You’ll need proof that you’re not French or Algerian. Please be prepared,” Anas warned me cryptically, as he scurried back to his apartment to wait for the mukhabarat’s arrival.
Anas told me it would be a couple hours before they arrived, so I went for a jog to calm my jangled nerves. The locals in the neighborhood were going about their daily business, but as I scanned the streets I wondered who among them answered to the mukhabarat. My chest tightened with fear as I ran, so I returned home after only a couple of miles. There, I learned that the mukhabarat were already in Anas’s apartment questioning him.
There was a loud pounding on my door. I rushed to answer it. “Give me your passport!” my landlord demanded. When I opened my mouth to speak, Anas widened his eyes and surreptitiously put his index finger to his lips. I tried catch a glimpse of his apartment through the open door, but he shifted and blocked my view. He winked. And then Anas mouthed “Thanks,” and slammed my door in my face.
With my passport now surrendered, paranoia began to set in. Maybe Anas was a member of the mukhabarat and this was a well-practiced ruse. I considered the possibility that my first experience of prison would be in Syria. At that time, Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-Japanese American journalist, was being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison after being arrested in January on suspicion of espionage. I did not want to join her ranks.
Anas murmured an apology but refused to tell me what had happened. His lovely, bath-robed wife tugged at his sleeve.
I felt and looked like Mr. Bean, my ear desperately pressed against my front door and all the walls that I shared with my landlord, trying to hear that transpired on the other side. The most I could hear was indistinct speech through my front door, which faced Anas’s front door.
When I lived in Cairo, the frequent suggestions by locals that multitudes of foreigners were Israeli Mossad agents, or that the city was crawling with American spies, had struck me as absurd. I had travelled to Iran, Jordan, Morocco, and all over Egypt, and I had never been accused of anything. Now, for the first time, I was suspected of lying about my identity, and therefore my reason for being in Syria. I was acutely aware that this was a serious accusation.
After a couple of hours, Anas returned with my passport. His beautiful and much younger wife stood next to him in the doorframe. He murmured an apology but refused to tell me what had happened. His lovely, bath-robed wife tugged at his sleeve.
“Thanks. Bye. Sorry,” Anas said. He looked shaken. He followed his wife back into their apartment and closed his door.
Paranoia morphed into crippling fear. I had a choice to stay in Syria or to leave, but I knew that I was under surveillance for some unknown reason. In an attempt to allay my fears, I called a friendly Syrian-German acquaintance in Damascus and explained what happened. He became instantly concerned. “The mukhabarat keep us safe, because they’re always watching. And listening. We have a saying in Syria—do you know it? ‘Even the walls here have ears,’” he told me. I wondered how the walls had misheard so ineptly to conclude that I was an Algerian and also a spy.
Later that night, I lied and told Anas that I received an emergency call from home about my mother’s health and had to fly home to Tokyo immediately. Kind but flustered, Anas helped me cram my two bags into a cab in the dark of night.
“I’ll probably come back soon. I’ll call you when I arrive in Tokyo,” I reassured Anas. He probably knew that I was unlikely to follow through on this, but he smiled and helped me disappear into the Damascus night. I have regretted that statement and wondered if I would have caused Anas more or less hassle if I kept in touch. I wonder where he and his family are today, as his country is riven by an increasingly bloody civil war. His children would be eight and eleven.
I will never know why the mukhabarat came for me, but I do know they were watching.
The Middle Eastern cities where I once lived seem like estranged friends with whom I don’t know how to become reacquainted—and none more so than Damascus. As the frayed edges of the Middle East now erupt in violence after the initial elation of the Arab Spring, the Middle East I knew has irrevocably changed. The price of revolution and the Arab Spring is profound political instability in which a slew of actors and organizations battle to grasp the reigns of power. After the euphoria of revolution comes the slow and messy business of establishing law and order, even as organizations and individuals fight—sometimes bloodily—to establish new regimes.
The Syrian opposition is a splintered constellation of fighters with their own interests that run the gamut from secularists to Islamists to extremists. The al-Nusra Front pledges fealty to al-Qaeda. Hezbollah, itself backed by Iran, backs Assad’s forces. Both Assad’s regime and the rebel fighters have been accused of using chemical weapons. While I have watched some video coverage of the war, I will never be able to watch the video of a rebel commander, identified as Khalid al-Hamad, who is also known as Abu Sakkar, mutilating the corpse of a government solider, cutting out his heart and liver or lung, and plunging his teeth into one of the soldier’s internal organs. Sectarian violence has metastasized into barbarity. All of Syria’s immediate neighbors—Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel—have a stake in the future of Syria, now awash with weapons.
I watch Syria unravel and descend further into chaotic brutality that will indelibly mark several generations of Syrians. I am now far away, comfortable, and safe—a professor at a liberal arts college. I try to explain to my students the magnitude and consequences of the news they read and watch about Syria, and of the confluence of historical and political forces that have led to these events, but sometimes it is impossible to explain things from such a far distance. My students were young children when the September 11th attacks occurred, and so they have grown up in an America engaged in decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most have not been to the Middle East, and so the eruption of extraordinary violence 10,000 kilometers away appears to many of them as a sad event in a distant land. I experienced only a flash of the irrational logic of the Syrian regime, and I was spooked and I fled. Looking back at it now, the signs of fear, anger, and violence were there for all of us to see all along.
I will never know why the mukhabarat came for me. Once I arrived safely and home in Tokyo and sat in my childhood bedroom, I sifted through my memory of every interaction I had in Syria for some clues. The bullying broker who found my apartment had asked me if I was Algerian, a propos of nothing, despite the fact that I told him that I was Japanese. He said that my Arabic sounded like I might be from Algeria, despite the fact that I was speaking the Egyptian dialect, and then bluntly declared that I could not possibly be Japanese. A female employee at the cell phone company where I unsuccessfully tried to purchase a 3G Internet modem inexplicably wrote her phone number on a small piece of paper and asked me to call her. A couple of American friends had visited me in Syria, and perhaps we had appeared conspicuous as we travelled happily around the country for a week. I had not even properly started my research, which is about medieval texts, and is centuries removed from the sensitive politics of the modern Middle East.
Later, I spoke to a colleague, who had also lived in Syria, about my misadventure with the mukhabarat. She told me that she had been capriciously and implausibly told in Damascus that her visa could not be renewed because she was prohibited from entering Syria in the first place, and that she had to leave the country that same day. I wondered whether I might have found myself in her position if I had chosen to remain in Syria. I am content to never know why the mukhabarat came for me, but I do know they were watching.
In my last few hours in Syria, in the airport lounge of Damascus International Airport, at midnight, several President Bashar al-Assads stared down at me from massive and ubiquitous posters that papered the halls. “We’re all with you!” the posters declared sinisterly. If those posters still hang on the walls of the airport, then those Bashar al-Assads now gaze imperiously upon the frontlines as rebel and government forces battle for control of the airport, which has since been pounded with mortar fire. A couple of locals I knew had quoted me unsubstantiated figures that the mukhabarat employed either one in six or one in eight Syrians. I wondered who in the airport were with al-Assad and were watching me. I wonder whether they ever came back for Anas.