Commentary — June 8, 2011, 8:30 am

The Two Homs

On the ground with critics—and supporters—of Bashar al-Assad’s regime

More than 10,000 people have been arrested in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, in the past two months. I’ve been staying near the souk, and every night I hear the sound of tanks patrolling the streets, machine-gun fire, and soldiers shouting orders. Everything else is quiet: as the Mukhabarat takes another Syrian from his bed, the only response is the silence of hundreds of closed windows. Occasionally teargas fills the night air. In the morning, Homs turns back into a rather boring and conservative industrial city. Where buses loaded with policemen were parked the night before, a single traffic cop stands stretching his arms in the air. Everybody is in denial. “You must have heard too much Al Arabiya or Al Jazeera,” they say. It would be hard to believe one’s own nighttime memories were it not for the thirty tanks parked just outside town and the dozens of militiamen leaning on their worn-out Kalashnikovs.

This report from Homs, site of clashes between protesters and the Syrian military since May 6, was written under a pseudonym in order to ensure the safety of the author.

Qassem ended up in Homs after his brother was arrested at a protest rally in Damascus, one hundred miles to the south. His brother has since been released, but only after being abused. “The usual tortures,” Qassem says, shrugging. “Beating, electroshock, that truck wheel you hang from while they whip you, the German Chair—this last one is a chair you’re tied to, with two metal sticks pushing so hard against your shoulders that your nerves running through the arms sometimes get permanently damaged. Your legs are then tied towards your back; the pain is unbearable for more than ten minutes.” Qassem’s brother was lucky, Qassem explains, because he was left without visible scars—apparently Syrian authorities won’t release prisoners if they bear signs of mistreatment. As for Qassem, they don’t want him for the German Chair; they want to recruit him. “They take you for two weeks, place you in squads of ten men each, and use you as irregular, non-uniformed snipers. They give you a weapon and tell you to shoot. If you don’t shoot, they shoot you … they return you to your family wrapped in a white bedsheet, calling you a martyr and saying it was the terrorists who killed you.” If they ordered him to shoot, Qassem says, he would shoot at his commanders. So he hides, even if there are spies from Assad’s regime everywhere. He sleeps in a different place each night with no plan, no job, no idea when he can return to his university studies. When the authorities came for Qassem but could not find him, they took his father to prison instead.

No community adheres more closely to the business-as-usual ethos than the Christian neighborhood in Homs. Here teenagers chat in cafés where the TVs have sports on twenty-four hours a day; old people smile as if nothing has ever happened here. There are 3,000 Assyriac Catholics and Orthodox Christians here. Most are convinced that the protesters, not Assad’s regime, are the threat. “Terrorists, Sunni Muslims. It’s them creating all this trouble,” says Orhan, a fifty-year-old Assyriac, as he drives past a line of soldiers. “They do it because they are fanatics, they hate the president because he’s not a Sunni like them, he’s an Alawite. What does ‘Alawite’ mean? It means good with Christians. That’s what president Bashar is. He is defending us Christians against these fundamentalists trying to take power in Syria and turn it into a caliphate, may God protect him.” After a protest was violently suppressed in the nearby town of Talkalakh, hundreds of Christian families cheered the soldiers as they returned on the highway to Homs.

Assad is marshaling support among the Christians, but the Alawite are at the heart of the regime’s response to the protests. Their tightly knit community produced the top generals working in the Mukhabarat. Some reports from Talkalakh allege that Alawite residents have carried out executions of other civilians. In Homs, the community is a vulnerable minority who work largely as manual laborers. The government distributed rifles and bullets to young Alawite men with the advice, “Defend your family.” People speak of the same thing happening in villages all over the region.

Fearing a backlash from their fellow citizens, especially Sunni Muslims, the Alawite community is now closing ranks. In coastal villages, checkpoints prevent non-residents from entering. Rumors keep spreading, and pressure is high on Alawite to stand by the Assad regime, whom they regard as saviors who rescued their community from poverty and discrimination. An Alawite opposing the regime is likely to be accused of treason by the rest of his family, and may pay a heavy price for his stance: an average Syrian political activist might be sentenced to five years in prison, but an Alawite activist is likely to serve fifteen years for the same crime. State television broadcasts images of alleged violence against Alawite citizens by protesters, or of “Salafists” setting fire to Alawite-owned shops along the coast. According to antigovernment activists, the fires were really set by groups of young men known as the Shabbiha, on Assad’s orders.

I ask Qassem who the Shabbiha (“shadow”) are. “Shabbiha is how we used to call the gangs making money during the Syrian occupation in Lebanon,” Qassem says, lighting a cigarette. “They used to travel in ghost cars without plates; that’s how they got the name Shabbiha. They would smuggle cars from Lebanon to Syria. The police turned a blind eye, and in return Shabbiha would act as a shadow militia in case of need. . . . Now that soldiers are being killed for refusing to shoot civilians, or for refusing to shoot those running across the Lebanese border as refugees, Shabbiha is definitely more reliable than the army.” But as more people are stuffed in jail, and more protests are organized by relatives who want these prisoners released and returned home, more men are needed to suppress the opposition—and that’s why recruiters here come knocking at the door of young men like Qassem. He won’t even tell me what sect he belongs to.

Before we part ways, Qassem drops two empty bullet casings on the table. “Kalashnikov,” he says. “I picked them in the main street of Homs on Friday, the floor was covered with those after the protest.” Kalashnikovs are rough, cheap guns. It’s the illegal groups, the Shabbiha and the snipers enrolled daily, who use them. “Look at the red one in your left hand, look at the numbers on it, you see? That’s not even Syrian-made, that’s made in U.S.S.R., and Soviet Union was decades ago.” Citizens shooting other citizens with second-hand bullets. “That’s how cheap us people are, for this regime,” grins Qassem as he takes the casings and walks away.

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The Gatekeepers·

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Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

More than any other writer, Baldwin has become the model for black public-intellectual work. The role of the public intellectual is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse. For black intellectuals, that work has revolved around the persistence of white supremacy. Black abolitionists, ministers, and poets theorized freedom and exposed the hypocrisy of American democracy throughout the period of slavery. After emancipation, black colleges began training generations of scholars, writers, and artists who broadened black intellectual life. They helped build movements toward racial justice during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether through pathbreaking journalism, research, or activism.

Bloom, acrylic, ink, wood, and fabric on canvas, by David Shrobe © The artist. Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco
The Vanishing·

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On a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2017, a few months after the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, a group of neighbors gathered at Mar Mattai, a monastery founded in the fourth century. They unloaded baskets of food, and arranged themselves around a long table in a courtyard. A woman named Niser spread out a tablecloth and put down a plate of dolmas. “It’s a way of celebrating that we still exist,” she told me. More people were arriving—children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and distant relations—members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world who had not seen one another for three years.

Overlooking the village of Mergey from the old section of the Mar Mattai Monastery, Mount Maqlub, Iraq. All photographs from Iraq (October 2017) and Jerusalem (March 2018) by Nicole Tung (Detail)
Investigating Hate·

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Around three in the morning on a cold December Sunday, brothers José and Romel Sucuzhañay began to walk home from a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a cloudy night, only a few degrees above freezing, and the houses and stores lining their route wore impassive, nighttime guises—shades drawn, metal grates locked down. Romel had only recently arrived from Ecuador. José, a thirty-­one-year-old father of two, ran a successful real estate agency in the neighborhood. The two had spent the evening eating and drinking at a quinceañera at St. Brigid Church, and afterward, they stopped at a local bar called Christopher’s Palace. They were feeling the alcohol as they headed back to José’s apartment. When they realized that José had left his coat behind in the bar, Romel took off his jacket and draped it around his younger brother’s shoulders. They continued to walk up Bushwick Avenue, swaying a bit, arms around each other for warmth and ballast.

As they approached the corner of Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue, a red SUV stopped at the traffic light. “Check out those faggots!” the driver yelled out the window. José may have said something in reply. Very rapidly, a man jumped out of the passenger side door and smashed José on the head with a bottle, dropping him to the ground. He then turned to attack Romel. As Romel fled from the man down Kossuth, the driver exited the car, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat out of the vehicle, and began to beat José until someone emerged from the back seat and called him off. The driver was walking away when he saw some movement from José, a twitch of his hand or his leg sliding across the pavement—trying to rise, perhaps—and he strode back, straddled him, and raised the bat high in the air. He brought it down on José’s head, again and again, as if he were chopping wood.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae (Detail)
Preservation Acts·

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After eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Bergis Jules found himself worrying not only over the horrors of the present, but also over how little of the present was likely to be preserved for the future. The best reporting on the aftermath in Ferguson was being produced by activists on Twitter, a notoriously ephemeral medium. Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, had the impulse to start saving tweets, but wasn’t sure how. “That whole weekend, watching things unfold, I thought, ‘This is a really amazing historical moment; we should think about capturing it,’ but I was just talking to myself,” he says. The following week, attending a Society of American Archivists conference in Washington, D.C., he voiced his fears en route to drinks at the hotel bar. He caught the ear of Ed Summers, a developer who just so happened to be the author of a Twitter archiving tool—and who promptly programmed it to va­cuum up #Ferguson tweets. Within two weeks, he had amassed more than 13 million.

Three weeks after the shooting, Summers blogged about the archive, which he and Jules were considering making public. Shortly thereafter, they received an inquiry from a data-mining company. When they pulled up the firm’s website, they read that its clients included the Department of Defense and, ominously, “the intelligence community.” What did the company want with the data? And what were the ethical implications of handing it over—perhaps indirectly to law enforcement—when the protesters’ tweets would otherwise evade collection? Using Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API), the code that developers use to call up Twitter data, anyone can sift through tweets that were posted in the past week, but older posts disappear from the API’s search function, even if they still exist out on the web. The data-mining company was too late to nab a swath of the #Ferguson tweets. (Twitter has since unveiled a “premium” API that allows access to older data, for a substantial fee.) Newly mindful of the risks, Jules and Summers waited almost a year to publish their cache.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:


French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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