Displacement

    About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    Fear of the Tyrant
    My Escape to Germany

    Syrians have been fleeing the tyranny of the Syrian regime and coming to Germany for decades, not just in the past few years. In the twentieth century they were fleeing the despot Hafez al-Assad; now they are being driven out by his son, the dictator Bashar al-Assad.

    On 7th April 1997, after a fearful five-month wait in the Lebanese capital Beirut, I landed, with my German wife, at the airport in Frankfurt. At that time Lebanon was occupied by Syrian soldiers; they controlled the country’s external borders, and the international airport in particular. I owe the fact that I am in Germany today to someone who worked at an international human rights organisation; when I was planning to leave from Beirut, he impressed on me: ‘We can help you with the departure formalities inside the airport, until you get to the final checkpoint before boarding the aircraft. There, though, Syrian soldiers are in command. Or to put it another way, this is a division of the Syrian military intelligence service. There you will be on your own, because the Syrian intelligence service doesn’t recognise either international organisations or human rights organisations.’ The human rights worker’s words were clear: despite all the support I had been granted, I had to run this risk alone; even international organisations feared the unscrupulousness of the Syrian regime.

    One small checkpoint before the path to freedom

    So a small Syrian intelligence service checkpoint at Beirut Airport still separated me from freedom. Once I got past it, I would finally have left behind the danger of falling into the hands of the Syrian intelligence services again. The thought of this alone was terrifying. Because under Hafez al-Assad the intelligence services had spread like a cancer in order to keep Syrians under their thumb and subjugate them to Assad’s dictatorial will. However, this intelligence service apparatus didn’t just have power over Syrians within the country; its influence also extended to the neighbouring state: Lebanon. The state with the unique political system that had always been the lung that enabled free Syrians to breathe. And indeed everything went without a hitch until I reached the checkpoint of the Syrian intelligence service. Now I had to manage on my own. Not much time had passed since my release from prison; any faux pas would mean having to go back to that terrible place.

    It was an odd location: a small, sparse room inside the airport. A place that absolutely did not give the impression of being a checkpoint of the notorious Syrian military intelligence service, the mere thought of which was enough to make your knees tremble. Not a trace of a desk; no computer. Only a young, not tall man, standing there. Alone. His features implied that he was from the rural population, who did not harbour a great deal of affection for the tyrant in Damascus.

    Only the secret serviceman’s clearly visible weapon seemed to say: ‘I am the instrument with the help of which Hafez al-Assad spreads his power and demonstrates his authority and unscrupulousness.’ The gun’s effect was, however, slightly lessened by the fact that the boy was holding a book in his hands. Unfortunately, I was far too nervous to peek at what kind of book it was. Probably a novel, with which the young man was trying to kill time and assuage his boredom, although secret servicemen usually – if they read at all – treated themselves to books like the work of Karim al-Shibani: ‘Hafez al-Assad – A Historic Personality in Difficult Times’. Or books of socialist or moral instruction, the kind that were published by the Baath Party and the Armed Forces Command.

    This young secret serviceman was most probably doing his military service. Indifferently, he asked me what my profession was and why I wanted to leave Lebanon. His manner of enquiring gave the impression that he was simply repeating phrases he had learned by heart. He seemed not to have any great interest in stopping members of the opposition and Assad’s opponents at Beirut Airport and preventing them from fleeing his tyranny – even if this was actually his job and the reason for his presence here, in this curious place. In a muffled voice, trying to conceal my fear and my Syrian accent, I answered: ‘I am recognised in Germany as a refugee. I am a teacher!’ He didn’t ask where or what I taught, or why I wanted to go specifically to Germany. He didn’t scrutinise my face or my passport, either, nor did he show any interest in my answer. He returned my passport straight away and gestured to me to carry on. Then he said: ‘Goodbye!’

    Contact with a foreign power

    The brief moment in which the boy looked at my passport had seemed like an eternity to me. If this secret serviceman had realized my situation, I would have gone back to prison – but this time only God would have known for how long, and on what charge. And whereas on my first arrest, years earlier, I had been accused, absurdly, of ‘membership of a political entity that targets the heart of government and besmirches the purity of the nation with false rumours’, this time it would surely read ‘contact with a foreign power’, which in Syria can be punishable by death. And that would not even have been entirely fanciful. Because I, the Syrian former political prisoner and member of the opposition, was trying to leave Lebanon for Germany on a passport that had not been issued in my name. So I had indeed had contact with a ‘foreign power’, because the German authorities had approved my application for family reunification with my German wife. After much to-ing and fro-ing, they had decided that they would issue me with a passport in my real name before I entered Germany and would hand it to me as soon as I arrived in Frankfurt, i.e. before I set foot on German soil. And indeed, as soon as the doors of the plane opened in Frankfurt, two policemen boarded the plane and checked the passengers’ papers. I knew that I alone must be the target of their check. When it was my turn, they immediately took away my passport and ordered me to go with them. We went to the police station at the airport, where they handed me a German travel document.

    Fear of the regime – even in the sky

    Shortly before we boarded the plane in Beirut, my wife had walked past me in the airport, as if by chance, to find out whether we were out of the woods. ‘Is it over?’ she asked me in a whisper. I was on edge; I signalled to her to stay away from me until we were sitting on the plane, had taken off and left Lebanese airspace. Because any little mistake might betray us and take us right back to the beginning of our efforts to leave the country. We had agreed that we would travel on the same plane, but not together. As I walked up the steps to the plane, a peculiar feeling came over me. I couldn’t believe that I was on the way to freedom. Even on the plane I didn’t want to speak to my wife, so profound was my fear of the regime. I was afraid a government spy or a secret serviceman could be sitting near us. Only when the plane had taken off and we were gradually flying away from the Middle East did I begin to comprehend that I really was about to escape the Syrian regime’s sphere of influence. Little by little I felt freer. Once we had put the complicated entry formalities in Frankfurt behind us, the first thing I did was call my mother. I was finally able to reassure her: ‘I’m in Germany. It’s over.’
    Ahmad Hissou is a member of the editorial team of Fikrun wa Fann / Art & Thought.

    Translated by Larissa Bender and Charlotte Collins

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2016

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