World

Godfathers and thieves, Part Two: How the Syrian revolution was crowdfunded

By Elizabeth Dickinson 15 September 2015

This is the second of five exclusive extracts relating the story of Mezyan Al Barazi, a Syrian expatriate living and working in the United Arab Emirates, and his efforts to support the revolution in his home country. At turns informative, tragic, and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, Godfathers and Thieves reminds us that the next revolution, like the last, will likely be crowdfunded. By ELIZABETH DICKINSON.

It would take a revolution and more than three decades to undo the damage Mezyan Al Barazi suffered one night in 1977. That was the moment he discovered he was an enemy of the state – the dark hours of the evening before his university exams. At the age of 26, Al Barazi was a diligent student. He had spent the day poring over notes, preparing for his final paper for his agricultural engineering degree from the University of Damascus.

A firm knock rattled his door. He opened it to find a knot of uniformed men with Kalashnikovs, members of Syria’s intelligence services. The men pushed their way inside, telling Al Barazi they needed to search his apartment for illegal weapons. One of Al Barazi’s uncles was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party banned in 1964, after the coup that had brought Syria’s secular Ba’ath party to power. But Al Barazi was not involved in politics – or religion. “They asked me, ‘where do you pray?’” says Al Barazi. “I said, ‘I don’t pray.’”

The armed men scoured his bookshelf looking for religious texts, finding only his copy of War and Peace. “Why don’t you come with us,” said one of the men.

“But I have my final exams tomorrow,” protested Al Barazi.

“Don’t worry about that,” said another.

Al Barazi was brought to a nearby prison, where he spent a cold, sleepless night, forced by the guards to sit and then stand, sit and then stand, until dawn came and he was served a breakfast of olives and bread. Later that morning, he was led to an interrogation room and asked a few innocuous questions, before finally being allowed to leave. The government had kept him, Al Barazi realised, just long enough for him to miss his exams.

Al Barazi’s trouble with the authorities had begun a few months earlier, when he was taking inventory as part of his job as an inspector at a warehouse run by the ministry of agriculture. He had grown up in the lush countryside near the city of Hama, but had come to Damascus to study. What he discovered there disturbed him. Behind the bustle of traders and hum of government a deep rot was spreading. Some of his fellow students had paid for their grades. Others had fallen foul of the government after their teachers reported their political leanings to the intelligence services.

At his job in the ministry, Al Barazi was witness to continuous low-level graft. Farmers bought all their supplies directly from the government, which limited stocks and set prices. His coworkers gamed the system; it was easy to order a little extra fertiliser or a few more nails and sell the excess on the black market. One day while examining the books, Al Barazi uncovered something more significant. Some 2,000 tons of iron were unaccounted for – twice as much as the warehouse was supposed to have in stock.

For Al Barazi, his job as inspector meant keeping the books honest. He investigated and linked the missing iron to a confidante of the ministry of agriculture. But when he presented his claims to his superiors, they brushed him aside. They were clearly unhappy to find him causing trouble where, in their eyes, there had been none. “I re-did the stock taking, and proved them wrong,” Al Barazi recalls. “That’s when they put me under the microscope.”

It was not long after he made his report that members of the intelligence services began dropping by Al Barazi’s apartment. He wasn’t arrested or explicitly threatened. The men would sit with him for casual conversations over tea and Arabic sweets, inquiring about his family, asking about his studies. Sometimes the questions were pointed. Perhaps he would like to work with them? Wouldn’t he like to carry a gun? Was he planning to run away from Syria after graduating?

He didn’t know it then, but Al Barazi was already on his way to exile. He came from a family well-known to Syria’s intelligence services. One of his father’s cousins, a politician named Muhsin al-Barazi, had served two months as prime minister in 1949, before he was executed in a coup. The family had once owned large swathes of rural land between Hama and Homs, but much of it had been nationalised by the Ba’ath regime. By the time Al Barazi was a student in Damascus, all nine of his uncles had fled the country. Businessmen, artists, and dissidents, they were scattered across Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and the US.

The Al Barazi family was not alone: Between 1970 and 2011, President Hafez al-Assad, and his son and successor, Bashar al-Assad, chased hundreds of thousands of middle-class professionals like Al Barazi into exile. They fled one by one, year by year, each with his or her own reason for leaving, his or her own experience of humiliation or obstruction at the hands of the government.

Exile was convenient for both sides. For those fleeing, it was a chance to start anew. For the Assads, it was an easy way to rid themselves of those they found undesirable. They looked on approvingly as their troublemakers and critics departed. Each family that escaped Syria joined previous waves of emigrants. By the time the Arab Spring sent its first sparks across the region in 2011, an estimated 10-million Syrians were living abroad permanently, compared to 23-million still inside the country. Many of the exiles had done well for themselves. Some, like Al Barazi, who had founded a flourishing agricultural supply company in Abu Dhabi, had even accumulated fortunes. Put together, they turned out to be one of the Syrian government’s biggest strategic blunders, a self-imposed brain drain that drove the country’s ambitious professionals abroad, where their resentment was free to grow and compound – along with their means to do something about it.

It took another two years after his arrest for Al Barazi to follow his family members abroad. In the Syrian university system, graduating students were all required to sit exams on the same day. There was no way to make up a missed test, and so Al Barazi had to wait another year before taking them again. But 12 months later, on the eve of the exams, he heard the same knock on the door. Once again, his house was searched. Once again, he was casually interrogated. And once again, he was held in prison overnight – just long enough to miss the tests.

The next year, on his third try, Al Barazi arranged to take the test in an examination centre outside Damascus. He finished the exam as quickly as he could and then, paranoid that the police were waiting at the door, jumped out the classroom window, leaving Syria that day on a flight for Kuwait.

By the time Al Barazi believed in his country again, more than three decades had passed. No longer was he a naive young man fighting the system on his own. He had become the leader of one of the hundreds of networks of Syrian exiles, a diaspora of men and women hounded from their homes, but ready to use every means at their disposal to strike back at the regime that had stolen their country from them decades before. DM

Read Part One here.

Godfathers and Thieves is published by Deca. Download the full story here.

Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Foreign PolicyThe Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, and The National, among other publications. She is the author of the Kindle SingleWho Shot Ahmed, an account of a young videographer shot in cold blood at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring. She is also co-editor of the recent book The Southern Tiger, a narrative memoir by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. She has reported from five continents and speaks French, Spanish, and Krio (Sierra Leone), as well as basic Yoruba and Arabic.

ABOUT DECA

Launched in June 2014, Deca is a journalism cooperative that creates long-form stories about the world to read on mobile devices. The group’s members have authored acclaimed books and published magazine articles in such outlets as Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, GQ, National Geographic, and The New York Times Magazine. Deca’s writers include Pulitzer Prize, National Magazine Award, Livingston Award, Kurt Schork Award, George Polk Award, Michael Kelly Award, and Frontline Club winners and finalists. Learn more at www.decastories.com.

Photo: Syrian beggar children sit at a garbage heap in search of food in Aleppo, Syria, 19 September 2013. EPA/JM LOPEZ.

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