One evening in 2012, I talked for hours with Jawdat Said, a Syrian spiritual mystic and author of the first completely nonviolent interpretation of the Koran. His niece, Afra, from the University of Toronto, had recently visited Kensafra, a small town in the north of Syria. Here is a story she shared with me:
A young mother wanted me to meet one of her close friends, who insisted on serving me my last cup of coffee in Syria. She was the wife of a fallen hero, killed by regime forces, and living with her sister-in-law, who also had lost her husband, and raising their children together. Her story distracted me from the beautifully presented coffee, in true Syrian etiquette, despite the modesty and simplicity of the house.
“One time, I saw a huge crowd in front of our house,” she said, “and when I peeked from the window, I saw my 14-year-old son surrounded by the Mukhabarat,’ the infamous Syrian security secret agents.”
She rushed outside and broke through and grabbed her son’s hand tightly and stood facing the agents. “‘Move away, woman!’ 0ne of them screamed into my face, but I was determined to stand still and kept staring into his eyes.”
Juhaida explained how she and her son were trembling, but only from within. “I could feel the strong beating pulse of his little wrist in my hand,” she said. “He felt like a frightened little bird in my hand, but externally we both looked calm.”
One of the agents then moved in closer and brought his rifle up right in her face, “and placed the opening here, right on my neck,” she said, putting her finger on the spot. He then said to her, “if you don’t move away, you know what will happen.”
She was silent, then looked at me and said, “I was willing to die. There was no way I could have let them take my son after they killed my husband.”
Her stillness and defiance made the other agents uneasy and they started pressuring their colleague to back off. “You’re a strong woman,” he told her as he kept the rifle pointed on her neck. “I’m not strong,” Juhaida answered him. Then she added softly, “…It’s from God.” They finally backed off.
I sat speechless and held my head in my hands, overcome with the details of her story, being the mother of a 14-year-old boy myself. Finally I stood up, kissed her head, and told her, “I only read about your kind in books; I never met one in person.”