When someone whispered to me from his grave

Ahmad’s narration of his quick burial made me feel as if I am burying a family member...

Hisham Melhem

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Often I sing for my friends when death's cold hand I see
But when I am called who will sing one song for me
I wonder who will sing for me
When I'm called to across that silent sea who will sing for me?

Carter Stanley

Someone whispered to me from his grave. Quietly but steadily he chronicled his short happy life and quick violent lonely death. At times I had to press my cheek to the damp ground, smelling the earth trying to listen to the slow, faint stream of words coming from the beyond. I was lying over his grave in the dark, facing the headstone listing only his name under the word Martyr, holding a flash light in one hand and trying with the other to wipe a tear.

Listening to his soliloquy how I wished I could hold his cold hand to comfort him in his eternal solitude. His name is Ahmad Bawwabi. He was born in Aleppo, and 22 years later he was killed in one of its neighborhoods; Bustan al-Qasr (the garden of the palace) and was hurriedly buried in a “stranger’s home garden among dead flowers and neglected plants” as he told me.

Across Syria, many private gardens conceal graveyards of young activists and protesters who were felled by bullets fired at them by regime snipers in cold blood. Sometimes the victim is a family member, but in many cases he or she is a total stranger who is destined to become the hidden silent member of his/her adopted family. When the uprising began in Syria, public funeral became new occasions for fresh calls to continue the struggle against tyranny, for freedom, and for dignity. But when that brief moment of boundless enthusiasm was cut ruthlessly by the Assad regime, identifying the victims and holding public funerals exposed families and friends to regime wrath.

There is a code of silence binding the welcoming family and its dead guest. That silence is rarely broken from one side, when the families let “gardens speak’ their secrets to friends, to keep the hope alive, and to others who will tell and retell the stories, of the young men and women who fought the good fight, died while standing, never compromised, and never despaired.

These men and women knew that they were living dangerously, exposed to the indiscriminate shelling of regime forces, and the brutal violence of the “Islamic State” (ISIS), while they were trying to create a better society and a promising future, but as Ahmad empathically said from his grave “it was still the happiest time of our lives”.

The life and death of Ahmad Bawwabi

Ahmad spent his childhood in Aleppo unaware of the agony of his and other Syrian cities such as Hama during the long, bleak and violent decade of the 1980’s. What he heard, were the occasional whispers about the unspeakable violence. People, who live under despotic regimes, whisper even to their loved ones, even in the shrinking sanctity of their own homes. At age fifteen, his father moved the family to Qatar, where Ahmed finished his high school, before he returned quickly to his beloved Aleppo.

During his second year in college the uprising began, and Ahmad quickly joined the movement. He spoke of the early peaceful protests that were met by the regime’s thugs who would beat the students and detain them. Then the regime moved for the kill, using artillery to shell Bustan al-Qasr. By now, peaceful protests were replaced by armed activities by the Free Syrian Army which liberated his neighborhood. That brief liberation gave Ahmad and his colleagues a free space to think and plan for a different Syria.

Across Syria, many private gardens conceal graveyards of young activists and protesters who were felled by bullets fired at them by regime snipers in cold blood

Hisham Melhem

When Ahmad’s neighborhood was cut off from the rest of Aleppo, he began with his fellow students organizing special workshops to teach young students in different neighborhoods who were unable to go to classes because of the fighting. Ahmad and his friend Abu Kifah were forced to cross check points and areas controlled by regime snipers. They would argue about who should go first when going through regime areas, until they agreed that they would rotate. One day it was Ahmad’s turn, and the first crossing was successful.

When they reached the second, for some reason Abu Kifah did not want Ahmad to go first, but Ahmad darted in front of him and made it half way across to the other side, when two sniper bullets hit him in the neck. He was bleeding profusely, when Abu Kifah finally managed to carry him and “started to run in all directions”.

Bloods and tears were flowing, with Abu Kifah holding Ahmad and standing in the middle of a street, devastated and not knowing where to go or where to bury the still warm body of Ahmad. An old man in the neighborhood, a stranger took pity on them and brought them to his house telling Abu Kifah “this is my home garden. You can bury your friend here”.

‘No one sang for me’

Ahmad’s narration of his quick burial made me feel as if I am burying a family member. I felt the cold of the graveyard, as I listened to his voice somehow picking up speed. “Everything happened so quickly. They wrapped me up, prayed on me, dug a grave in the man’s garden, and buried me in a hurry. Just like that, I was left alone, away from my home in a garden that I never visited before”. I wanted so much to console him and felt that I was standing with them in that garden witnessing the burial of a man I just knew of his brief life and death.

A shiver went down my spine when Ahmad said in utter resignation “no one sang for me”. I felt that I betrayed him because I could not sing for him. I don’t know what Muslims sing at funerals, and mostly forgot the Christian hymns I once knew. I could only remember the Stanley brother’s classic bluegrass/hymn who will sing for me, but who could sing it? Ahmad had only few words left. “Very few people knew that a twenty-two-year-old man called Ahmad was killed …My death was quiet, just like me. Nobody witnessed it other than the sniper and my good friend Abu Kifah”.

‘Gardens Speak’

I met Ahmad Bawwabi at the “gardens speak” brilliantly conceived by the young Lebanese artist/activist Tania El-Khoury as an “interactive sound installation “based on the actual oral histories of ten ordinary Syrian men and women who were buried in private gardens across Syria during the first two years of the uprising. This is not an exhibit you watch; you are expected to experience an intimate encounter with one of these ten people. You enter barefooted an enclosed dark garden space in which there are ten headstones planted in shallow dirt. Under the headstone a speaker is buried.

When you remove the soil with one hand while holding a flash light in the other you read more info on the deceased, then the speaker is activated and you hear the whispering voice of the dead victim. To hear the voice clearly, you have to lie on the soil, literally over the dead person. Now you are an integral part of the ritual, and very acquainted with the departed, and you are expected to partake in the act of mourning. You experience the horror of the violent death of a person you have come to know and maybe identify with, a situation that could inspire you to also identify with the cause or the good fight that the victim believed in and died fore.

The other face of Syria

Syria has always had a rich and dynamic cultural and artistic life. Its intellectuals and artists produced seminal works in literature, arts, music, history and political science. When they could not publish or exhibit in Syria, they would move to nearby Beirut to continue their creative work and subversive art and satire against their repressive regime at home.

After the 1967 defeat in the war with Israel, Syrian intellectuals and artists, mostly exiled in Lebanon, were the leading force that asked the right critical questions about the underlying social, cultural and political reasons for the defeat. Even during the repressive era of the Assad dynasty, long before the uprising, Syrians developed oblique but biting criticism of the rotten Syrian reality.

Watching the horrendous, almost unfathomable human and material losses in Syria in the last five years, and how more than 5 million Syrians were turned into refugees, and almost half the population internally displaced, with human losses exceeding 400,000 dead, one is forgiven if one approached despair.

It is true that the despotism of military rule in Syria, particularly under the Assad dynasty had hollowed out political life in the country in the last half century, and it is true that civil society has been undermined, it is also true, that civil society along with a tremendously courageous and creative community of mostly young artists/activists are keeping the faith and the hope that a unitary civil state can still be rebuilt around the concept of citizenship rights. Throughout Syria, particularly in areas not under the control of the regime and ISIS, local councils are organizing themselves and providing local services.

In recent weeks following the lull in fighting, Syrians went by the thousands to the streets and squares of more than a hundred cities and towns not under the regime or ISIS. In fact, the civilian population of Idlib, particularly in Maarat al-Nu’man took on openly the extremist al-Qaeda branch in Syria al-Nusra Front. The protests were reminiscent of the hopeful early days of the uprising. This is the other face of Syria.

Culture in defiance

From the beginning of the uprising Syrians one could see the evolution of a culture in defiance that keeps manifesting itself in art, music, theater, cartoon, and graffiti. In fact the uprising was sparked by the arrest and torture of fifteen schoolchildren in Daraa for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of their school. The regime’s swift and violent reaction to artistic defiance, particularly satire was a clear indication from the beginning that it realizes the potential power of subversive art and culture.

The regime waged war on those body organs Syrians used to express themselves artistically. The renowned cartoonist Ali Farzat was beaten severely and nearly killed in 2011 because of his satirical cartoons against Assad and his regime. The regime’s goons smashed his hands to prevent him from drawing. He is still drawing.

Ibrahim Qashoush, however, did not survive the regime’s vengeance. Qashoush wrote scathing and catchy anti-Assad songs that were widely sung during the early demonstrations. The aspiring poet was killed and his mutilated body was found dumped in a river. His throat cut out and his vocal cords were removed, in a clear message to would-be poets and singers.

What followed in the last few years, even after the violence dominated the uprising, was an explosion of artistic creativity by Syrians in the country and in exile that kept re-enforcing the humanity of Syrians and the deep faith of many of them in their ability not only to survive but also to potentially build a better Syria. The creative use of social media (Youtube, Facebook and Fliker) helped introduce Syrian artists/activists and their works to Syrians at home and abroad.

A group of Syrian artists elevated the art of conceiving and disseminating posters on line to new heights. The called themselves: The Syrian people know its way. The slogan is used on every poster they produce. When a poster is approved, it will be immediately uploaded to their Facebook and Fliker pages.

The small previously unknown village of Kafranbel in North-Western Syria is arguably the smartest, wittiest hamlet in the country. Its eloquent and sardonic banners, commenting on current affairs, have earned the village and its sharp artists international acclaim.

Kafrranbel has become the symbol of hopeful defiance. The struggle will continue in the spirit of Antonio Gramsci’s dictum of “Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will”. Syrian artists, intellectuals and activists understand through their collective intellect their grim reality, however they have shown us through their work that they have the will to overcome it.

My last words to Ahmad upon leaving his garden were: Ya Ahmad we are doomed to hope.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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