|Young people in Syria are interrogated by the secret police if they listen to heavy metal music, writes Romuald Stankiewicz in this personal travel report from the country.
By Romuald Stankiewicz
I met Mohammed in Damascus. After finishing high school he came to this city for a callback from an international corporation stationed in Dubai. In a warren of oriental streets and passageways, we were sitting in a completely European-looking pub, full of young people, all of them drinking Danish beer. Everyone stared at me when I asked for some local beverage. The bartender finally found a dusty bottle of Syrian arak.
I asked Mohammed why he decided to leave Syria.
“Any young person wants to leave this country,” he replied. “There are two ways to live here — either you accept the system or you leave the country. No one even thinks about revolution, the people are too afraid of the government.”
The Syrian president looks at his subjects from billboards, flags, portraits, and even from windscreen stickers. When I bought a pre-paid SIM card, I had to leave my fingerprints on the contract.
“But it’s not that bad here,” I objected. “We are sitting in a pub, drinking beer. People look happy, there is no hunger.”
Mohammed could not agree with me.
“It’s very hard to understand if you come from Europe. If I were to imagine hell — that would be here. Everything is controlled. Government agents know that I’ve been talking to you. We have no sense of personal freedom.”
Whenever I travel in Syria I meet true hospitality. When I talked to Mohammed this was also the case. He invited me to visit him in his home town, where I could stay at his aunt’s place.
A few days later I decided to accept the invitation. I was already on the bus when I called Mohammed.
“There is a problem, you cannot stay at my aunt’s, I’m sending you a hotel address.”
He sounded quite worried.
“They took me to a police station. I was told to stand at attention for five hours. They would beat me whenever I moved my head. I was kicked, and not allowed to smoke, even though they blew cigarette smoke straight to my face.”
At first I could not believe the story. I asked, “Why would the police treat you like that?”
“The government agents think that if you have a beard and long hair and wear black then you are bound to be some kind of satan worshipper. Bands like Anathema or Metallica are prohibited in Syria. If the police finds their CDs in my place, I will go straight to jail. Someone must have told them about the music that I am listening to.”
I was intrigued to find out how Mohammed discovered metal music. He said, “I attended a musical school since I was a little boy. I started playing gitar, acoustic first, then electric. Then my friend borrowed me some metal CDs. For me the most important part of this music are the lyrics. They give me the sense of freedom. There are some Polish bands that I like — Behemoth and Vader in particular. I also love Scandinavian metal.”
Music shop in Aleppo
The next day I visited a few music stores. All I found was some Arabic pop music and loads of European pop released in Syria, since the copyrights apparently do not apply here. The salesmen either couldn’t understand my questions on metal music or changed the subject instantly.
In the evening Mohammed invited me for a dinner to his place.
“Recently my son has been having some trouble with the secret police,” Mohammed’s father said calmly. “I am a bit worried, all the phones in our family have been bugged.”
“We don’t have communism or democracy here. Young people here don’t want any conflicts or wars — as opposed to the government. Maybe they are afraid that metal music will encourage the young to start some kind of revolution. And it will start eventually. It can’t be like that forever.”
Then we talked about how happy they are about their family life.
“I have another hearing at 7 o’clock tomorrow. The agents will probably lash me until I tell them something,” said Mohammed.
I spent a few more days in Syria — sightseeing, visiting the places that had been the cradle of our civilization. I met some wonderful people, who always invited me to their homes insisting on drinking at least one cup of tea. On my last day in Syria, Mohammed called.
“Fortunately my case ended well,” he said. “I hope that we will meet at some metal festival in Europe soon.”
The character’s name has been changed.
Romuald Stankiewicz is Editor-in-Chief at the independent radio station Radio Bez Kitu in Kraków, Poland.
Radio Bez Kitu:
Human rights in Syria
“Syria’s poor human rights situation deteriorated further in 2009, as the authorities arrested political and human rights activists, censored websites, detained bloggers, and imposed travel bans…”
Quotes from Human Rights Watch’s ‘World Report 2010: Syria’