Fayetteville’s Syrian revolution activists gathered Sunday night in the living room of Dr. Mohja Kahf, a UA professor of comparative literature and Middle East studies. Laptops glowed before each of the five. Conversation, heard between the click-clack of typing, was an amalgam of English and Arabic.
Bookshelves lined the living-room walls with titles in Arabic, English and French. Islamic calligraphy and geometric designs were equally matched by American furniture - a reflection of Kahf’s multicultural life as a Syrian in the United States.
This summer, Kahf and her 17-year-old daughter went to Turkey to work with Syrian escapees. Before they could spend significant time there, they learned something: Syrian agents had offered 100 million Syrian liras – two million U.S. dollars – for the both of them.
After more trusted sources confirmed the price on their heads, Kahf decided it was time for them to leave.
Before they returned to the United States, however, Kahf saw Syria. She saw it from a roadside in southern Turkey, but she saw it.
Kahf’s grandfather, a member of the Syrian parliament, was exiled from Syria in the late 1960s. Shortly after his departure, Kahf fled the country with her parents in the 1970s. They were tired of living in constant fear of the police. The family sold its belongings and eventually moved to Indiana, deciding it best not to return to Syria under the Ba’athist regime.
Kahf has not been back.
But Kahf’s hopes of someday returning to her homeland were renewed when the Arab Spring began this January. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, and Egyptian protesters were taking to Tahrir Square.
“It was then I knew that Syria would happen,” Kahf said.
Soon enough, protests broke out in the southern city of Deraa in March.
“From that moment, I knew that everything would go into it. My life as I knew it was over,” she said. “This was a call, and a new day had begun. I was and still am willing to give up anything for this.”
In the middle of the group was a low table filled with pistachio cookies, coffee, water, whole-grain chips and candy. Kahf made sure her guests were well-fed throughout the night, continually insisting they have more food or more coffee.
“Sometimes I realize all I’ve eaten that day is one or two of those,” Kahf said, gesturing towards the bowl of fun-size Snickers and Twix bars. “I don’t eat much these days. It’s called the revolution diet plan.”
Toying with a piece of her oilier-than-usual hair, she smiled and sighed, saying that sleep, showers and meals have taken a back seat to opposition work.
“By the time this is over, I will be at my ideal weight,” Kahf said with a chuckle. “It might still be a few months out.”
“I don’t know where she gets the patience,” said Mojahed Ghadban of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, gesturing towards Kahf. “She’s truly an icon of the revolution.”
“Oh, stop,” Kahf laughed modestly from across the room. “You’re too kind.”
Her husband, Dr. Najib Ghadbian, is a member of the Syrian National Council. The council, with members from nearly every sect of Syrian society, gives the opposition a united direction in peaceful revolution. Ghadbian is specifically a member of the 29-strong General Secretariat.
The Syrian National Council has already been recognized as the official Syrian government by Libya and Egypt, and it is poised to aid in the setup of a new government after Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad’s departure.
“You are sitting in a room with the future prime minister of Syria!” said Oubab Khalil, a Syrian friend with a law background. He smiled, shooting a good-natured glance at Ghadbian.
“Don’t you think about it,” Kahf said, though it appeared Ghadbian already knew quite well not to entertain the notion. “The focus of the council is to see to it that the government set up is the best possible; no self-gain.”
One of the Syrian regime’s strategies to denounce the revolution is to say that the United States is orchestrating the opposition. Because of this, the Syrian state media has been giving the Ghadbian family air time – but not for the right reasons.
“The regime’s other line is that this is a U.S. imperialist plot,” Kahf said.
Ghadbian looked up.
“Today was the second time they mentioned me on Syrian state TV, saying I had received money from the U.S. government,” he said, chuckling.
“I saw that,” Kahf laughed. “It said he received between $20,000 and $50,000. I want to know where that money is. I could buy a new car!”
Though both Ghadbian and Kahf work for the cause of the Syrian revolution, their contributions are altogether different.
“I’m more attracted to the grassroots side of this,” Kahf said. “I’m not in any kind of formal group or position. I’m attracted to the grassroots energy and putting out my own energy to do whatever I can to help, and by doing that, I get connected to other people.”
Kahf’s work centers around political prisoners. Released prisoners have testified that they knew the day when their name was brought before the international public eye, because that was the day that they stopped being tortured, Kahf said. When people send letters to the Syrian embassy, to the media or to organizations like Amnesty International, prisoners stand a much better chance of being released.
Kahf uses a blog to humanize and detail the stories of prisoners. Each prisoner comes to life with Kahf’s meticulously researched bios, and each photo puts a face to the name to compel the reader to send a letter.
“What I try to do is different. It’s not just names and dates,” Kahf said. “I do a bio of each person and that person becomes a prism through which to see the struggle in Syria, so more people get involved with the struggle. It’s about getting people to connect with them.”
On the blog below each prisoner bio, Kahf writes out a brief message for readers to copy-paste into an email. Her posts are complete with a list of email addresses to which messages should be sent.
Kahf, in her element, is not a distant activist. She is a world-renowned poet and author and a thinker with editorials published with the likes of CNN, The Guardian and The Washington Post. She is welcoming and enthusiastic, and she doesn’t allow the slightest window of opportunity for one to feel like a stranger. Her demeanor brings to a room what she brings to the Syrian revolution – a relatable, human face.
In addition to her work with political prisoners, Kahf spends time promoting the agenda of non-violence, protecting women’s rights and ensuring non-sectarianism in the transition.
“The Syrian official position on it, to justify shooting protesters and things like that, is saying, ‘These are armed insurgents. They are armed gangs.’ The ‘armed gangs’ is their narrative,” Kahf said. “They say, ‘We are rooting out al-Qaeda.’”
Despite the death toll rising past 3,000 and the regime’s publicity attacks on peaceful protesters, the opposition remains dedicated to non-violence. Kahf publicizes the revolution’s non-violence by connecting journalists with protesters, spreading the word about the protests’ nonviolence.
Along with promoting a non-violent agenda, Kahf works to promote non-sectarianism. While the majority of Syria is Sunni Arab, a significant portion of the population is of Kurdish or Armenian nationality or has Alawite, Druze or Christian religious views. Kahf seeks to publicize the importance of representation for all sects, as well as women’s role in the revolution.
She estimates that two female revolution leaders alone have led more than 40 percent of the opposition.
“I want to be sure that people know the contribution of women to this revolution. I don’t want them to be marginalized in the aftermath,” Kahf said.
Being closer to Syria’s suffering in Turkey over the summer took a toll, and constantly researching prisoners doesn’t help.
“What we also have to address and deal with in our activism is called - my daughter told me about the term for this - vicarious trauma,” Kahf said, “But what we go through is not nearly as bad as what they go through inside, and that leads to the second thing, which is survivor’s guilt. It’s an intense guilt that what we’re feeling is not nearly as bad as what they’re feeling.”
Regardless of the trauma she may be going through, she keeps her attitude upbeat.
“Some of these prisoners are exactly my daughters’ age. Have you looked at the photos on the blog?” Kahf asked. “They’re so cute! I call them my future sons-in-law.”
One of her 30-year-old friends asked if there were any handsome, slightly older men. Kahf told her to take a look.
“Who knows. It could be the next Match.com,” Kahf joked.
Kahf speaks animatedly. Regardless of the gravity of the subject, she manages to keep a sense of humor, much like the Syrian people for whom she fights.
“Syrians are very good at sarcasm,” said Lama Hamoudi, a Syrian doctoral student at the gathering. “There are so many Facebook pages that are sarcastic and are making fun of everything.”
“We have to have a release,” Ghadban said. “Sometimes you find yourself both laughing and crying.”
Kahf’s work takes up any waking hour she does not spend teaching class. It is tedious and tiring, and it has its ups and downs. As she clacks away at her computer, contacting prisoners’ relatives, researching and translating, she never forgets to keep her head up and think of the future, of the day when she can return to Syria, her home.
Shortly after midnight, the group began to gather their things and filter out one by one. Their son, a second grader at a local elementary school, came upstairs rubbing his eyes. It was far past his bedtime, but too exciting a night to sleep. Ghadbian lightheartedly joked with his tired son and told his wife he would put him back to bed.
Kahf sat back down at her computer. The night was young.