I travel with my schoolteacher colleagues from our part of Idleb to the school where we work. The passengers who take the minibus include supporters of the regime, opponents, and the studiously neutral.
On our way out of Idleb, we have to cross through three Syrian government checkpoints and three that are held by rebels. The last of the regime checkpoints is barely two kilometres away from the first opposition one.
I often keep silent when conversations take place with government soldiers at checkpoints. The presence of so many women usually whets their appetite for asking questions, both serious and stupid.
It isn’t as if they don’t have other outlets – it’s common to see soldiers and “shabeeha” paramilitaries accompanied by women. The stories of their sexual conquests have spread beyond the city boundaries and into opposition-held areas. This has made the rebels angry and resentful at all Idleb residents, especially the women. They have responded with several fatwas issued by various factions designating Idleb as a land of blasphemy and its citizens as heretics and unbelievers.
During these bus rides, I have become used to carrying a set of “digital prayer beads” so as to spend the time in prayer and meditation. This is a small plastic device with two buttons and a screen that keeps count of prayer verses.
Once, on our way home from school, we were stopped at a regime checkpoint known as the Conserwa. There was a long line of cars ahead of us. Usually, large numbers of soldiers gather at the head of the column to search vehicles, while a few others disperse along the line to decide what order the cars will go through in.
My colleagues and I were chatting in the bus, and I was sitting in the front row behind the driver, right next to the door. I was deep in conversation, leaning back against the window, when suddenly I heard the door open. One of the checkpoint soldiers approached. It seemed he had been watching us while we’d been sitting in the bus.
He was a young man in his twenties of medium build, with broad shoulders, a light beard and attractive features.
He opened the door and looked at me.
“So, you’re all teachers?” he asked – in an Alawite accent, of course.
My close friend, who was sitting next to me, answered, “Yes, we’re all teachers.” She was a few good years older than me, and married with sons.
He directed his question at me again. “What school do you teach in?”
My friend interjected. “We teach at….” But the man interrupted before she could finish, and again looked directly at me, plainly annoyed that she had answered instead.
“Where are you from? And you, miss, where are you from?”
“We are all from Idleb,” I answered.
“Are you afraid of bullets?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
He got on the bus with his rifle, stood close to me and said, “I’m going to shoot you now and then we’ll see.”
Tension gripped my insides as all eyes – my colleagues’ and the driver’s – turned to me. But I calmed myself enough to show the soldier that I didn’t care, that I wasn’t afraid.
When he saw my reaction, he pulled back his rifle, smiled and said, “I was just kidding with you.”
I didn’t answer. He closed the door and moved a little away from the bus, at which point my colleagues began discussing what had happened.
“Looks like he’s got his eye on you,” one said. “Be careful,” commented another. “Just throw him a word or a look and get him to let us go,” said a third.
I didn’t have time to answer them, as the soldier came back and opened the door again, smiling as he addressed me. “What’s that in your hand?”
“Digital prayer beads,” I said.
“What do you mean digital?” he asked. “Look, these are real prayer beads.” He pulled a colourful set out of his pocket, the beads arrayed in the shape of the state flag of Syria with its two stars. Of course, I didn’t say a word.
“Who are you with?” he asked.
I looked at him, surprised at the mockery in his tone, which I didn’t fully understand. I naturally assumed he was asking me whether I was with the regime or against it. But then he made it clear what he meant – “Please, for the love of all that’s good and holy, won’t you please tell me whether you’re with the Nusra Front or ISIS?”
I didn’t answer, but simply smiled in confusion. He had concluded that I was against the regime. He began jumping around and insisting that I reply.
“May I be struck down dead if I tell anyone else what you answer,” he said. “But for the love of God, give me an answer!”
Dozens of thoughts raced through my head as I considered the wisest thing to say.
“Why is he insisting?” I asked myself. “What will happen if I tell him that I’m totally against ISIS and against most of what Nusra does, but that in my heart of hearts I’m with Ahrar al-Sham [rebel faction] because my soul is fighting alongside with them, even if they can’t be fully trusted? Should I keep silent? But the longer I stay silent, the more he insists, and we’ve already been waiting almost an hour just so he can have a conversation with me. What does he want from me? Is it just infatuation or has he got other intentions? “
I saw fear in the eyes of those around me. Even the driver seemed worried by the man’s questioning.
Should I do what most people do to get rid of someone like him, and tell him I supported the Syrian army and its leader? Of course, this could not happen, not just because it was a lie, but because I would never be able to get the words out. And anyway, it would be impossible for someone like me to come out with something like that.
His voice broke into my thoughts as he addressed the entire bus. “Can’t you intervene and get her to answer me, please?”
The driver gestured to me discreetly in the rear-view mirror, trying to get my attention without the soldier noticing. I looked at him. He pointed his forefinger upward and silently mouthed the words, “With God.”
I understood that this was my answer, so I immediately said, “I’m neither with this side nor with that. I am with God.”
He smiled at me, pleased with my answer. “Fine, you evaded the question and you told me you were with God. So what am I supposed to say to that? Shall I tell you a secret then? But you can’t tell anyone.”
Of course, he didn’t wait for an answer. He drew closer and whispered, “I’m with ISIS,” And he winked at me, a wink laden with many meanings.
The driver intervened, saying, “The lady has answered you. Please let us go; we’re very late.”
The soldier didn’t take his eyes off me as he answered, “Why are you in such a hurry? I’m enjoying the lady’s fine company.”
Suddenly I felt truly afraid. My friend gripped my hand, frightened both by his answer and by the underlying intentions it made so clear. He asked for all our IDs, never shifting his gaze from me. The driver handed them all over, since he always collected them from us whenever we neared a regime checkpoint in case we were asked to show them.
The soldier took them and said, “I’ll be back soon.”
To the driver he said, laughing, “Don’t move, or I swear I’ll shoot you.”
“What should I do?” I whispered in my friend’s ear. “I feel really uneasy. He’s gone way too far.”
“Don’t worry,” she whispered back, “God willing it’ll work out fine and we’ll get away from those bastards somehow.”
The soldier came back with the IDs and began handing them out to their rightful owners, calling out each woman’s name and giving her card back. Of course he left mine until the end. He read my name out and looked at me, smiling. “What a beautiful name, miss,” he said.
Then he gave me my ID, drawing closer as he addressed the others, “I’ve kept you too long for the sake of these eyes. If she says I should let you go, I’ll let you go.”
He had cornered me. What could I say? Should I stoop to his level and ask him to please let us pass? Or say nothing and so prolong our wait, leaving us stuck with him and guaranteeing that he’d try to pursue a conversation with me that I could no longer bear. It was a choice I wouldn’t wish on anybody.
He gave me a wicked look, rife with meaning, and I decided to end the charade then and there with some diplomacy.
“Well, we’re very late,” I said, “and you must have work to do as well.”
“What a diplomatic answer!” he said. “You are very intelligent, miss. Fine, I will consider that a request to be allowed to pass. But we’ll have another date soon, miss! All right, go!”
As the driver started the bus, the soldier said, “I’ll be waiting for you tomorrow morning. Don’t be late.”
Finally we pulled away from the checkpoint. As soon as we were past it, the driver said, “That son of a bitch isn’t going to let you go easy, miss. The best thing to do is to absent yourself from school for a few days.”
I looked at my ID. The soldier had slipped a small piece of paper into the plastic cover. I pulled it out and saw that he’d written his phone number on it, along with the words, “I’m Mohammad, and I’m waiting for your call.”
As I passed it to my friend so she could read it, the driver noticed and realised the soldier had left me a note. That made him all the more insistent that I stay away from school for a few days. One of my colleagues argued against this course of action, saying that if the soldier waited for our bus and didn’t find me on it, he’d know I’d stayed away on purpose and might take it out on everyone else.
In the end, we decided to take another route to school, the eastern road out of Idleb through the countryside. It was both much longer and more costly due to the price of fuel, but it would allow us to avoid the checkpoint and the soldier altogether.
So we took this new route for three days. On the morning of the third day, as my friend and I waited for the bus to school, I got a call on my mobile phone from a strange number. I answered and heard the voice of a young man speaking in an Alawite accent.
“Good morning, miss,” he said. “Where have you been? Why haven’t I seen you around? You haven’t even called me. I swear I’ve missed you.”
I gasped with shock – where had he got my number? How had he got it? And how was I to get rid of him? I hung up without saying a word and turned off my phone.
I told my friend what had happened and she offered to answer when he called back, and speak in an Aleppo accent to fool him into believing he’d got the wrong number. I turned on my phone again and he called back immediately. My friend answered and told him she wasn’t the person he was looking for, that she was from Aleppo and that he’d got the number wrong. Thank God, he was convinced. Just to make sure, I diverted calls from his number to her phone. Sure enough, he did call again.
Had he somehow got to our driver and obtained the number from him? And if not the driver, then how? We discussed what I should do to get rid of him.
When the driver arrived, I asked him about it, making sure that none of my other colleagues overheard and started spreading stories. The driver said he was shocked and insisted he hadn’t given my number to anyone, and hadn’t seen the soldier or passed through that checkpoint since.
We were forced to take the longer road to school for two weeks. Since I was the cause of it, I paid the lion’s share of the extra costs.
After two weeks, the driver suggested I take a day off school so that they could take the old route again and check out the situation. When they passed through the checkpoint they discovered that all the soldiers who’d been there before had been replaced. The driver made sure of this as he handed over a packet of cigarettes to a soldier by way of a bribe. He was assured that the whole platoon based there previously had been transferred to Aleppo.
This meant the danger had passed, at least temporarily. We went back to our usual route, though God only knows what it might have in store for us in the future.