Editor's note: Fouad Ajami traveled to Turkey with Anderson Cooper to meet Syrian families living in refugee camps after escaping attacks in Syria and fleeing across the border. He shares more of his expertise during a special edition of AC360° at the border of Syria and Turkey at 8 and 10pm ET tonight.
Abu Mohamed extended Anderson Cooper an invitation of hope: he wanted his guest, who had come into his tent on the outskirt of Antakya to chronicle the ordeal of Syria's refugees, to visit him in his beloved home, in Jisr al Shughur. "Please come and see us in fulfillment as you have seen us in our grief." The proud man in his mid 60's whom I had known from earlier visits was apologetic. There were the codes of hospitality from his beloved Syria. He wanted me to render his thoughts in English to the visiting American journalist; he was sure that the truth of his country was not understood in foreign lands.
The regime back home, he said, had depicted the town of Jisr al Shugur, an achingly close agricultural town a little more than a dozen miles away from this tent city of some 1,600 people, as a hotbed of religious fundamentalism and a home for terrorist groups. "Nothing could be further from the truth. We were a peaceful people who tended our work, who loved our country. There was hardly a hunting rifle in Jisr al Shugur. The weapons you can buy in stores, on street corners in American cities, were not available in our town."
The peace of Jisr al Shugur, and the world of his propertied man with a thriving fishery on the banks of the Orontus River, was shattered on June 4, 2011. He is precise about the date. This was the day he became Abu al-Shahadeen (the father of two martyrs).
A demonstration was held in the town, a peaceful demonstration they thought. Freedom was the rallying cry of the protest but the regime struck with its tanks and armor. Two of his nine children were killed, two sons in their mid 30s. One was killed by a sniper, shot in the head, the other by machine gunfire. It had been a hellish time in Jisr al Shughur, the martyred sons could not be buried right away. The freezer was found where the bodies were kept for three days.
Abu Mohamed's youngest daughter, good at computers – she taught that skill in her hometown before the regime's vigilantes ransacked her home and took away her six computers – had on her laptop the images of her fallen brothers and of other victims of the regime's violence. She said that she wanted a montage of her "hometown sorrow." Her father said this was a needed "archive" of what had been done by their own government.
That desire to "immortalize" that chapter of Syria's heartbreak had convinced him to speak to the camera and to the foreign reporter. He had been hesitant at first, he has a son still missing; but he was a storyteller, they were his two sons, his lost world – the fishery, the house of eight rooms, several acres of land – and he wanted to pay tribute to all that.
But there was, still, this message about Syria, "the land of olives and apricots and oranges. The place of refuge for all nations and communities, a blessed place favored by prophets," that he wanted to communicate. The world had forsaken Syria, and he was sure it would have come to the rescue had the foreign powers understood and known his country. That Syria and it's hospitality to strangers and guests he could not share with "Mr. Anderson" and his crew. He offered the hospitality of his tent, an enclosure adorned with a touch of elegance that's the hallmark of his wife, a woman of striking poise, who must have been a commanding figure in the world now lost to them. These were conservative people on the whole, but the journalists and the outsiders were welcomed – after all they might take Syria's story to foreign places.
Grandchildren moved about the tent and they were fussed over as grandchildren are. One boy was named for his grandfather. Another, a 7-month-old infant was special. He was born to the missing son who has never seen him. The grandfather held him to the camera. He wanted for him a normal life back in Jisr al Shugur with his father. He could not be sure of his son's fate, tens of thousands he said are missing in Bashar al-Assad's Syria, but he held on to the hope that his son would return. To "immortalize": this infant was named Ayham, for one of his two martyred uncles. This sojourn in the tents had lasted long, close to a year now. This family had already known one summer in the camps, a particularly harsh winter, and now another summer was upon them.
A lawyer who quietly sat on a cushion in Abu Mohamed's tent and took in the conversation, said that this long period of exile didn't surprise him. He had fled Syria in the summer, he said, but brought with him his winter clothes. He knew the regime, he knew it would not crack overnight, that it would not yield, that Syria was in for a drawn out war.
Abu Mohamed and his kinsman and the other people hurled into this odd existence, now know that visitors from afar have no answers, and no ready salvation for them (an angry artist, a young woman in her late 20s, who in the tight corners of her tent, draws watercolors of her lost town, refused to see us, she had wearied of foreign visitors). Still, there is the urge to tell.
A fear must visit these people often: the dread of forgetting and losing touch with the sacred and beloved past. The familiar world is there, a stone's throw away, but it can't be retrieved. Abu Mohamed, not a particularly sentimental man, gave away the refugees' bitterness. An older brother of his, still in Jisr Shughur, offered to repair the fishery and move in with his children; he asked for Abu Mohamed's permission and it was denied. This was his world, meant to be bequeathed to his own sons. Why should others, even a brother, he asked, get to enjoy what he owned, what he made, when he, in this tent, was a forsaken man?
Fouad Ajami is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His newest book "The Syrian Rebellion" will be published June 6.