Tales From A Syrian Jail: Filmmaker Witnesses The 'Surreal' Of Regime's Cruelty

Orwa Nyrabia
Orwa Nyrabia
Claire Talon

CAIRO – Orwa Nyrabia is looking for an apartment in Cairo for a few months, just enough time to wrap his latest movie a month after being released from a Syrian jail.

Nyrabia was arrested on August 23 in Damascus and held for 22 days. This 35-year-old filmmaker and creator of the renowned Dox Box film festival calls himself a “subtle opponent” of the regime. Movies are what saved him.

“This detention was the biggest fiction of my life,” he says, still amazed at how surreal the experience was: physically unharmed himself, yet witness to horrors suffered by other prisoners around him.

Nyrabia used his fame to help the revolution from the very beginning and believes another activist turned him in under torture. Yet he quickly realized he would be getting special treatment. “When I heard an officer ask, ‘Is that the brilliant filmmaker?’ I knew he'd heard that word on television.”

Outside, an international support campaign was already working on his release. His friends had his Gmail, Skype and Facebook accounts closed in order to prevent other activists from being identified and arrested. “Google, Facebook and others have good arrangements with the resistance.”

Unlike his 80 cellmates pilled up in a 3x7-meter room, he wasn’t tortured and his case moved along fast; his interrogation began as soon as he landed in jail. “Their fantasy is CSI, the TV show. They want to catch spies. They have a lot of imagination. They’re obsessed with a supposed universal conspiracy, they really believe it. They can’t imagine that an activist isn’t a foreign agent. That’s why they pay more attention to foreign ties than what activists actually do on the ground.”

He refers to his jailers as “poor people,” before recalling the time when one of them asked seriously who this “Robert De Niro guy” was in a video pleading for his release and how he knew him. (His arrest prompted several artists including De Niro, Judd Apatow, Michelle Rodriguez to shoot a video called “Free expand=1] Orwa”)

“I wanted to laugh sometimes,” he says.

Fact and fiction

On his computers, regime officers found long lists of medical supplies sent by activists and field hospitals, logs of money sent to families. Nyrabia made up stories and names, mixing reality and fiction so much so that he sometimes got them mixed up. “Sometimes I would tell a true story forgetting it wasn’t fiction. At night, I would repeat imaginary names to my cellmates so I wouldn’t forget them.”

What struck the filmmaker most is how little his jailers knew about the activities of regime opponents. “They had a lot of wrong information, and even when they were right, they weren’t really sure. They don’t know anything about the resistance, they don’t understand how the National Council or the coordination committees work. Their only strategy is to get names through torture. They are looking for 97,000 people. It’s complete anarchy.”

In his cell, out of 80 men, there were two real informants and only three real activists. Ten were simple criminals that had no idea what they were being accused of. But what was really striking was that most of his cellmates (65 out of 80) were soldiers in their twenties without any political conscience who had been held for two, five or seven months, suspected of “thinking about deserting” or accused of “criticizing the shelling of their village.”

For Nyrabia, the confusion stems from the fact that there is no communication among the regime’s four main security entities. Military intelligence, air force intelligence, political security, and state security are even fighting each other for Bashar Al-Assad’s favor.

“Mazen Darwish, a journalist, was arrested eight months ago by air force intelligence officers, who are the worst. We have no idea what happened to him, even though he is much more moderate than I am. There is no logic.”

Nyrabia describes uneducated, tired officers uneasy about their job, complaining they had had no vacation since the beginning of the revolution, and whose obsession with conspiracy blinded them to their own inhumanity. One day, one of the officers got very angry at a Human Rights Watch report accusing the prison of hanging people by their feet for three days. “Here, we always hang them by the hands for three days, never by the feet!” said the officer, excited to have uncovered a “foreign lie.”

Nyrabia recalled that the officer who cuffed him "kept saying that when I left I would say he had been mean to me.”

Western blindness

The general sense of unease brought more violence. At noon, the doctor always started his rounds by hitting sick prisoners. Nyrabia saw his cellmates return broken, with no nails and signs of electric shocks. The lack of sun, rampant humidity, insects and skin diseases were nothing compared to the constant screams of tortured prisoners. At night the screams, mixed with the laughter of drunken officers and an awful smell of sweat emanating from torture rooms, took over the cell through the one and only window. “I will never forget those nights and that smell.”

Nyrabia says he came out of jail even more convinced that the revolution cannot succeed without outside help. For him, the behavior of the West shows complete blindness. “If an Islamist activist needs money to help injured people, he calls Saudi Arabia or Qatar and the next day, there’s money on his account," he says. "But when a non-religious person calls Europe to save the same injured people, it takes the West a month to say "yes," and then they want receipts!"

A liberated Syria will swing toward "those who saved the people in need," Nyrabia explains. "Qatar gives us $55 million in humanitarian aid when the US promises to give us only 15. The West says it is preventing the Islamist danger by not intervening, but the result will be the opposite.”

But Nyrabia believes most of Qatar’s money does not transit by Syrian Islamists. “Qatari money transits through…” He pauses, takes a deep breath and carefully chooses his words “… free-market rightists.” Businessmen? He refuses to elaborate.

Though he is safe, Nyrabia weighs every word to avoid endangering others, and to be able to return to Syria some day. “"Free-market rightists' is enough. And that’s good, it’s too complicated for them, they won’t understand,” he says.

Before returning to Syria, the filmmaker his message to be heard. “One of the miracles of this revolution is that the Syrian diaspora is being brought together through the Internet," he says. "There are hundreds of networks around the world that find ways to transfer money. So why do Western bureaucrats keep flooding the Syrian Red Crescent the Muslim version of the Red Cross with money?” Although this official organization functions according to international law and gives receipts, Nyrabia suspects that it is under the regime’s control and that it sends aid only to pro-Assad regions.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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