My 23-year-old son, Jarrah, a tall, intelligent petroleum engineer sent me a message via WhatsApp in April 2014 informing me that he could not stand the international silence while Bashar Al Asaad was massacring the innocent and helpless Syrians. He asked for my forgiveness, blessings and prayers that he would perish a martyr to make me proud. I had not heard from him since.
I have five daughters, and Jarrah, my third child, is my only son. He was a regular son who rebelled, loved his family, his fun and the good things in life. His decision was abrupt and unexpected.
I tried to block his exit from Kuwait to Syria or Saudi as he had taken his Range Rover. It was a 15-hour drive, but he was untraceable at the borders.
“Which infidel would you like to slay?” said Abu Qutaiba, smiling and offering one of two knives to choose from to slit the throat of the trembling middle-aged bald man kneeling in the snow.
Many young men were leaving to join the Free Army, which was made up mainly of troops of deserters from the Syrian Army. We were told that they were protecting the defenceless Syrians from the Asaad’s army. We did not know much about them, but knew that there was a civil war and far too many were being killed. Meanwhile the Russian Bear and American Eagle made it their prolonged, bitter quarrel as the Syrians suffered. Many were dying, but more would die if anyone interfered. So we all sat and waited until they got tired of fighting. But they could not all die, and there were new sides springing out, demanding attention and killing in the name of religion, only we did not know which religion they were representing that spilt blood like it was water on dry lands.
Jarrah’s absence triggered the breast cancer in my dear wife, which had been under control, but was again a life-threatening disease. She was yearning for her son, and it was my duty to bring him home.
The once-victorious, hopeful rebellion was replaced by a worse villain, fighting in the name of God and under the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This was an accumulation of Iraqis and Syrians and anyone that hailed from Islam that joined the forces fighting against Bashar Al Assad. My son had joined them. He was still alive and that was a comfort for me—enough to sustain my candle of hope that burned faintly but unwaveringly in the coldest winter that hit Syria in recorded history.
I had not heard from Jarrah in over a year, during which the new resistance had been swelling in support internationally and growing in power and control locally. It was amusing how they wanted to recreate the golden ages of the an Islamic state that had flourished over a millennium ago. They had taken things to a new extreme, where the ancient laws were reinforced, captured men and women were made slaves, and the word kafir, or infidel, was used too commonly as a valid reason to slit throats, shoot, or burn alive prisoners or even common people they would come across. When I was doing my research I found there were less than 50,000 ISIS fighters, but they created so much havoc they made Genghis Khan’s wars look like a picnic.
I had always been a law-abiding citizen and had never imagined that Jarrah, who had taken after me in his bashful nature, would turn so impulsive and pugnacious and up and join an army of another country. I kissed my daughters and wife and was determined to somehow trek into Syria. I was going to bring back my son Jarrah to his heartbroken mother.
I flew to Turkey where I inquired in the camps about my son with a picture. I repeated my rehearsed lines to anyone who might have seen him. There was another set of lines for me to convince him to come back. I was sure that once he saw me and I showed him the videos of his sisters and mother, he would change his mind and return. I even went thought about drugging him to bring him back.
I had been an employee at Kuwait Petroleum with my son, who had worked in the same building as I did. I was 46 years old, an Arizona State University graduate in mechanical engineering, and after my 25 years of service, I applied for a pension and resigned. My family was taken care of financially, but they were living in fear of receiving a letter from the ministry of Exterior that Jarrah was dead.
I smoked several packs of cigarettes on my journey, hopping from car to truck to van across the Syrian border. The Syrian drivers eyed me with suspicion but were keen on receiving cash from a hitchhiker who shared imported cigarettes. They complained bitterly of the cold winter and the lack of money from tourists and trade. I listened carefully as they spoke about the exodus and how some couldn’t leave for fear of being labeled as traitors or rebels, causing the imprisonment of the remainder of the family, friends and neighbours.
“Once they raped a girl in a mosque and they held a microphone to her mouth so the whole town could hear what they were doing,” one stranger told me. His eyes were glassy and stared into the nothingness that was his future. These faces were the empty shells of souls ignored by the wide world. They were not bitter, just accepting slaves to a system that had broken their spirit.
“I am looking to bring back my son. He’s my only son. His mother is dying and she wants to see him before she dies. Can you please help me?”
The driver slowed down a little, softening, and said, “If you walk in and say that, they will blow you up for daring to invite desertion of a soldier. Use your brain. Bury your heart in the ground and enter undercover as one of them. That’s the only way.” There was truth in this simple carpenter’s idea, and I remembered it as I travelled between villages and towns asking for my son.
I based myself in a flat on the outskirts of Daraa, beyond Hums and Halab, which were both too far from where the attacks were. I needed to be close to the ISIS groups because that was where Jarrah was.
I made friends with these children and they would tell me where to buy groceries, whom to speak to and who to avoid. Two of the children were Louay and Lojain, 8-year-old twins who reminded me of my Noufa. I would tell them stories at night about my children back home and of my brave son Jarrah, who came to Syria because he wanted to help. I always left out the details of which party he ended up with.
Not until the first bombing did it hit me that this was a war and there were no winners or sides. I was asleep in my rented room and woke to the sound of gunshots and yelling. I switched on the light and peered through the window. Then I heard a bomb explode and I fell on my back with broken glass from the window everywhere. I quickly gathered my backpack and hurried down the stairs, only stopping at the entrance with a few scared women all covered in long black robes.
Three men approached us and asked us what our religion was. We all answered Muslims, even the Christian baker’s wife, all covered up in black. This was my chance, so I blurted that I wanted to join them and that I had come all the way from Kuwait for this sole purpose. They were so happy about this that they let the women go and gathered around me. I told them that my son had joined them earlier and I wanted to join them because I was unhappy with the state of Islam now and I came to do my part. There was much talk about martyrdom and how God was on our side. I played along, albeit terrified at the sight of the scars, bleeding cuts and clotted blood on their clothes. I did not have the heart to stand the sight of blood.
I rode back to their camp with them, changing cars at two checkpoints they had captured. They were carefully inspecting my identity and details and were surprisingly up to date with technology. They searched for me on the Internet to match my face, details and all else. Then they emailed their headquarters about me and soon informed me which camp my son was in. This comforted me and scared me at the same time. Dealing with a smart enemy is harder than dealing with misinformed children, as I had thought them to be.
The camp was not a camp; it was a regular village of young men with beards, with the occasional black tent of a woman hurriedly walking down some corner of the street, usually with a basket. There were no televisions, but everyone had a mobile. They would shoot pictures of their victories and post them on YouTube for the world to see. I felt like I was a father who had fallen into Never Land and was feasting with Peter Pan every night, thanking the stars that we had no controlling grownups. The outside world were all pirates and grownups that could never understand them. The mad thing was that they had guns and a whimsical license to kill anything they chose to, including women, old persons and children. Each would boast how many they had killed, and how God was on their side. It was numbing to know that my gentle Jarrah, who use to have a pet cemetery for every pet that died since he was seven, was capable of befriending merciless monsters like these.
The discussion at the coffeehouse, which was heavy with aromatic smell of Turkish coffee, was abuzz everyday with the same topics. The potted plants were beautiful against the backdrop of the white blanket of snow just outside. There was a small group singing sweet religious songs with the gentle patting and rattling of the table and tin cup with a spoon. The frenzy of energy that they would display whenever the jihad topic arose never subsided, with tales dating from 1400 years ago retold again and again and again, only to be cheered like they were immediate victories.
There were Muslims from around the world that had travelled to fight in this war. There was Bader, born Paul, from Scotland; Gabriel, born George, from Argentina; Wael from Libya; and Mazin from Morocco. Everyone had a wife, or more. Most had concubines or slaves in the camp. Women were considered a commodity that was bought and sold in the market where a small group of farmers and sellers brought food and necessities. These men were all friends with Jarrah, but he was away on a mission and expected back shortly.
“Let me kiss your feet, Father!” said a voice bursting with joy.
I turned and saw my son Jarrah, only he seemed dearer, more handsome, and even taller than before. His muscles were more visible, though leaner. Jarrah was smiling ear to ear and hugged me so hard I felt him lift me off my feet and laugh. He asked me repeatedly about his mother, his beloved Noufa, my youngest daughter, and he showed me his house on top of a close hill.
We sat together like old times, discussed books he read, sports, good food and bad cooking, friends and how they react to smart conversations. He was the same Jarrah, with only a few minor scratches and a sharper Arabic accent. I itched to grab his hand and run off to Kuwait, but I was cautious in what I would say. He mentioned how deserters were shot because they would be considered apostates and hung for blasphemy. These shootings were often videoed and sent as warning to all those that dared think of deserting “God’s Army,” as they liked to call themselves.
He insisted I meet with Abu Qutaiba, the leader who was like a father to him and guided the soldiers in this battlefield where “God was testing his subjects”. Jarrah sang songs of praise about how good of a person Abu Qutaiba was and how he was on a straight path like an arrow to truth. Jarrah believed that after capturing Iraq and Syria, ISIS would march into other Arab states and change them all into proper Muslim states. I tried gently and intelligently to tell him that the targeted countries were already Muslim states. Suddenly he began speaking in a most peculiar way. He questioned my religion, my faith, and my loyalties. It was absurd. I had a mind to drug him and leave with him, but I could not carry him drugged from Syria to Kuwait.
“I cannot wait to perish in God’s name, by bomb or by bullet,” he said. “Abu Qutaiba promised me that one day, but he says I am a role model for the others.”
With that I snapped out of my trance of rescuing someone that did not wish to be rescued. He was convinced that he was on a mission and that he was sent to Syria by God to help the entire nation of Islam and the blind world. I felt the knot in my stomach get tighter and knew then and there that he would never leave on his own, and that even if I kidnapped him and imprisoned in my house with all of us trying to talk sense into him, he would have left his soul on the battlefield in Syria.
I struggled to make sense of what had become of him, and he hurried me to join him in prayers in the mosque. After the prayer the Imam sat and spoke to them of the treasures they would have in Heaven for their good deeds, adding that even the children they killed were now birds in Heaven, spared a life of sin by their wrongdoing, infidel parents. The Imam was referring to the mosque filled with men and children they had just bombed a few days earlier.
They showed images of the dead victims of their latest conquest. The footage was of faces that were with me in the alley. Then I saw the clear sweet faces of Lujain and Louay, wide eyed and dead, with their guts bloodied. I could not help but cry silent tears for my little friends, taken before their time. The man next to me asked loudly, “Do you cry for these infidels?”
My son was to my right, staring at me, waiting for a response. I saw everyone reach for their dagger, pistol or rifle, and I panicked.
“I am sorry I did not come sooner to help you. I feel sorry for these innocents that they were born to these kafirs and not to you. You would not allow them to be so wrong about God,” I said, thinking this was smart enough to keep me safe. But clearly it was not. I struggled to think of something more to say that would pat the ego of a heartless assassin. “Allahu Akbar! And may Allah be on the Just side,” I said. I quickly got up and hailed “Allahu Akbar” three times. That pleased them, and they joined me in the cheer.
I realised I was too raw for these young men. Their hearts were harder than stone, and I was a father that could not bear the barbaric actions around me. I wanted to leave, but I heard the deserters were skinned alive and then burned in public. They even had a square in the town called Execution Square where they would torture and slay traitors, deserters and slaves that did not obey.
I was invited to meet the great leader. I was reluctant, but to say no to this invitation would look disrespectful. So it was decided that I would meet with Abu Qutaiba for lunch the next day. I could not sleep that night, haunted by images of all the townspeople I saw captured and killed for no reason.
At noon they were distributing the bounties of war. Money always went to the leader; gold went to the top generals’ wives; and the soldiers got whatever scraps they could hold. When I arrived, they were distributing slaves, most of whom were covered completely, although some had their faces showing. I was offered my pick of the women because I was new. Caught completely off guard, I smiled and said thank you, but I was happily married. I added a comment that my wife would shoot me. They were not amused. It was common practice to take a wife or a slave. Everyone stopped their haggling and started staring, whispering, and then yelling at me:
“Do you fear your wife?”
“Are you even a man?”
“These are only slaves for your pleasure and house.”
“Are you sane?”
“Are you mocking us?”
“What blasphemy is this?”
“Allah allows us four—not counting the slaves!”
I became the spectacle until Jarrah saved the day.
“Brothers, my father is new to the town. Kindly pardon him, for he is unfamiliar of the ways of the Pure World because he has been poisoned by the Democratic and Communist World poison. He has journeyed and left his family behind because he prays and dreams of martyrdom as we all do. So, kindly be patient with him.”
I scuttled towards my son and said, “What am I going to do with a slave in the house? Your mother would rather shoot me than have me take a concubine—this isn’t
a pet cat!”
My son laughed. “Dad, calm down. If you don’t like her, you can return her the next day. She’s just a maid. Chill! And stop making such a fuss; you’re embarrassing yourself by looking so narrow-minded. It’s your right. You earned it. You’re a Muslim; she is a bounty of war; and it’s accepted.”
When my son laughed, it broke the ice. I was funny to them; I was the amusing tourist becoming a jihadist to them. And I never in my wildest dreams imagined the world embracing human trade in broad daylight. This God’s Army would march into villages and kill all men above the age of 12, take slaves any girls aged from 12-21, and shoot the sick, weak, or unattractive. They wasted no time on second thoughts or guilt—all they killed were guilty of being immoral or simply unworthy of sharing the air on this Earth with us. Children were killed because they were the spawn of the devil. There was nothing I could say to these people who were preached to five times a day. They were brainwashed to believe in a system like the Nazis, Zionists, and now Jihadists.
The call of prayer was my only solace, and I went to the mosque to pray. I asked Allah to guide us out of this darkness one way or another. I stayed longer and prayed some more because I felt threatened everywhere in my waking hours and haunted by the faces of the dead children I once knew when I slept. A man of medium build in his late 30s approached me and asked my name. When I said “Abu Jarrah,” he smiled and invited me to his home. He said I reminded him of his father, and I asked after him. He looked down and said, “My father was killed in the war.” He expressed his happiness at meeting me, guided me outside, and said, “Shall we lunch now?”
“My son, my apologies, but I am lunching with your leader, Abu Qutaiba, and it’s our first meeting. Let’s dine some other time or have tea in the coffeehouse,” I said, thinking there might be hope and goodness in these people after all.
“But father, I am Abu Qutaiba!” He smiled with open arms, and held my hand as we went uphill to his home on the hill. “Come, come, we’ve made meat and rice by the best chefs in Damascus. Today is a feast for my dear guest from Kuwait. You will light my house with your blessings. I only wish the fathers of the men here were strong hearted enough like you to join their sons that have cleansed their heart of this finite world and want nothing but Allah’s demands met on his Earth.”
We lunched, and laughed and he had a jolly, kind spirit, but then he would flip to his Mr. Hyde character and turn into a murderer before my eyes, describing how to kill as many infidels as possible. It did not matter what their religion, sect, gender, age or status was; they were body counts waiting to be counted, and the more killed at once, the more the media loved it. And the more the media agencies broadcasted it, the more famous they would to become. They had a message and they wanted the world to know that they were not afraid to kill or be killed.
I began avoiding the gatherings because they often ended up discussing the killings of the day like it was a successful hunting trip. Upon leaving I was followed by a Malaysian fellow who spoke to me in classical Arabic and told me that he was just like me, fooled. He said that he had come to save the Syrians from Assad, upon arrival he saw the wrong and attempted to correct his group. He was pronounced an infidel and was going to be shot. Before his execution, a bomb landed on the group and all were killed save him. He realised that he was trapped with rabid people, who, once they realised you refused their mindset, would regard you as a threat and a traitor.
I could not trust the man, because everyone seemed obsessed with uncovering some kind of threat, and suspicions were accepted as fertile ground for a death warrant. One of the covered slaves was a beautiful boy, found out after they uncovered his head. His shoulder-length hair was hidden in the abaya and hijab. He looked 11 or 12 years old with large bright blue eyes and full, pouty lips. His eyes lured like a woman’s, but his moustache was not shaved, and that gave him away. He was shot in his neck where he stood. His blue eyes darted and his long lashes fluttered as he choked on his own blood.
The trauma shook me. I realised I had to leave.
The next day I was asked to perform an act of loyalty. I was to burn my passport and say a few lines against the capitalist and communist nations of the world as they shot a video. I had no choice but to comply.
When we were home, Jarrah was quiet and constantly on his miswak. He looked preoccupied, and I asked if we could speak about something serious. I told him that his mother was suffering from cancer and that I needed him to come see her. I showed him videos of his sisters telling him that they loved him, missed him and needed him. His eyes softened, but he did not blink.
“I agree that we have to leave,” he said. “Everyone knows that after our faces are shot on video and we are seen ripping and burning our passports that we will be quickly made to disappear or killed.” He almost looked disappointed. I felt so happy that my suffering had not gone for nothing. We would leave at dawn.
We took an old pickup and as we drove past the first checkpoint, I began to cry. We were finally leaving. I still had my international ID and had brought Jarrah’s as well. We were going home, finally after almost two years.
“We will be martyrs yet, father, and I will make you proud,” said Jarrah.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I went to Abu Qutaiba and told him I came to be a hero in Heaven in front of Allah and he owed it to me, and I thirst to drink from the rivers of Heaven and I want to see Allah’s face as a proud and noble martyr. So he granted me my wish, and we are going to bomb the UN peacekeeping corps, where there are military troops. God willing, we will kill over 250 people.” He said this with a stable tone and smiled, saying that we would be together in the same level at Heaven, together.
“This truck is armed with a bomb?” I was trying to calculate my next move.
“As soon as we stop for few minutes, the truck wiring will trigger the bomb. There is enough time for us to pass through the first gate and enter the dormitory tents where there are the maximum number of civilians and soldiers.”
I interrupted Jarrah by throwing myself at him and pushing him out of the driver’s seat. We fell out on the snow, mud and stones. The pickup kept rolling toward a cliff and then disappeared. It did not take more than a few seconds for the bomb to explode down in the valley.
“Are you completely mad?” I shouted at him. “Have you no sense at all?”
“How could you?” he shouted back. “You ruined our plan! I was going to be a martyr!” He was so angry he was shaking.
I blacked out and awoke with a dull headache. I was lying on the cold snow in Execution Square, surrounded by a crowd. I saw many faces I knew, like the Malaysian man, who looked away to avoid eye contact for fear they might connect us. I knew this meant that I was to be executed publicly. I just didn’t know how.
It began to snow gently again, and I thought of my daughters back home. They would have loved to have seen this snow. I searched the crowd for Jarrah. I was worried for him. What if they had already killed him? And then I saw him, standing tall, in dark clothes, next to Abu Qutaiba himself.
Abu Qutaiba came forward and asked, “Who wants to slay this traitor?”
“No one can deny me the honour of slitting his throat,” said Jarrah solemnly.
He yanked his jagged dagger out of his holster, and I shut my eyes. Tears ran down my face as I said, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed was his messenger.”
The last image I had was of my daughters and my dying wife.