Coffee with Syrian intelligence

Coffee with Syrian intelligence
Blog: An innocent comment leads to a Syrian writer receiving a dreaded call from the country's political intelligence department.
4 min read
05 May, 2015
Thousands of writers and peaceful activists have disapeared in Syrian prisons [Anadolu]

One day recently, I was sitting with a group of people in the Jardinia café in the Syrian city of Idlib, listening to a young man named Yasser tell us interesting and amusing stories. All of a sudden, Yasser turned to me: "I was beaten up for your sake, Khatib."

I thought he was joking, so laughed. But Yasser maintained a serious tone and said he had been summoned to the political security branch of the Syrian intelligence service in 2001, for writing a comment on an article I wrote for an Idlib website.

Civil society

It all started when I and three writers from Idlib signed a statement calling for the revival of civil society in Syria.

This included demands for greater public freedoms in the country, an end to the draconian state of emergency and martial law, and no more state security trials.

We were immediately referred to the intelligence branches in Idlib and at times summoned to the main office in Damascus.

When we stood in front of intelligence officers, they would repeat the same thing: "If any freedom were to seep into Syrian society, God forbid, the country would be destroyed like Algeria. Syria would become easy pickings for Israel, is that what you want to happen?"

I had included a line in the statement that many of my friends believed was rash; they had suggested I remove it.

I wrote that we four writers had made more journeys to and from intelligence branches than we had travelled on public transport.

"I read the statement at the time and wrote the following comment: 'Don't worry about it Mr Khatib, my father is a branch secretary and I will speak to him for you'," Yasser said.

"The same day I got a call from the operator at the political security to go and have a cup of coffee with 'the boss'. And you know that "a cup of coffee" is a Syrian term intended to make fun of the person who is summoned."

Coffee with 'the boss'

"In security branches a person is offered all manner of beatings and insults but never offered hospitality," he said.

     We four writers had made more journeys to and from intelligence branches than we had travelled on public transport.

"What happened changed my opinion about the Syrian intelligence. As soon as I walked into the office a tall and dark-haired officer they called 'the boss' saw me and left the papers he had been looking at, walked straight towards me and shook my hand."

"He said, 'Welcome Mr Yasser, please have a seat', then he told the porter: 'bring us two coffees, medium sugar, son.' As the porter left, so did the two intelligence agents.

"When we were alone, the officer said: 'Okay, tell me what you meant when you wrote that your father is a branch secretary?'

"The reality is that my father was accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and spent 21 years in Assad's prisons: 16 years in Tadmor and the rest in the Saydnaya.

"That was the joke, so I told the officer: 'Sir, my father is the branch secretary of the Muslim Brotherhood in Idlib.' I had barely completed my sentence before a punch landed on my face like a bomb, accompanied by a scream: 'Are you making fun of me, you animal?'

"The boss used three horrendous weapons against me: his hands, his feet and his throat. The third weapon was the most violent as it attracted a large number of intelligence agents who rushed into the room and began beating and cursing me, without knowing the reason of course."

Drawing a deep sigh, Yasser continued. "Don't think that I am upset with those who beat me so viciously," he said. "I swear what upset me the most about this incident is the porter who placed the tray containing the coffee aside and started beating me.

"Seriously guys, what I want to understand is what business does a guy whose specialisation is serving tea and coffee have beating people?"

This blog is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.