A few days ago, on a hilltop above the Mediterranean city of Latakia, with the sun going down and the whisper of jets – Russian jets, of course – high in the sky, Samah Ismael told the story of her eviction from Raqqa. It is one small tragedy in a million – but it seemed to illustrate much.
This was long before Isis existed, when the Nusra Front – which represented al-Qaeda in those days – was growing in power and when the people living in the little town of al-Sabha on the banks of the Euphrates thought that even then, in 2013, the war which had consumed much of Syria might not touch them. Samah was a 39-year-old government teacher at the Ahmad al-Azawi school and had been happy taking her English classes with 17 and 18 year-olds. Education is free in Syria.
Samah, I should add, is an Alawite, the Shia minority from which Bashar al-Assad comes, although it does not dominate the teaching profession in Syria. She had been living just outside Raqqa for four-and-a-half years. But in March of 2013, she had stayed in the city until 10 at night and noticed that all the government buildings appeared to be empty. There were no police in the streets, no lights in the police station.
Then three days later, just as she was leaving her school after evening class, another teacher, a friend called Ahmad, told her that 8,000 men had come to Raqqa from the east, dressed in black uniforms with guns. Some said they rode in aboard Turkish tanks.
“I cried,” Samah remembers. “It was a very painful moment. I packed my bags. I knew what was to happen. Then at night, they came to my door. There were five young men and an older man who was the owner of the house I lived in. I said cheerfully, ‘Come in, please, take coffee’. The young men were all dressed in black and I knew them. They were my own students.”
Samah knew what was to come next. “Most of the boys were 16 years old. I recognised them at once. Ahmad, Ali… They didn’t say anything impolite to me. They said they didn’t want to hurt me. They said ‘We want you to get out of here because you are not welcome here in your country.’ Their faces were not beautiful as they were before, when they were just students. They were trembling with anger. They were also shy and they would not look into my eyes and they were looking down.
“They were wearing black shirts and jeans and they all had guns. They said that if I did not leave, they would take all the furniture and burn the house down.”
Samah Ismael moved to a neighbour’s house for three days. “No, I was not afraid,” she says brightly. “I thought this might happen but I didn’t care – I could not be afraid. I never was. My students stayed half an hour – no, they were not very good students in the school – and then they left.
“Why wasn’t I afraid? I suppose because this is my country and it was because I was a teacher – their teacher – that they didn’t hurt me. They were all from farming families. There had been government reforms and their families were new farmers with new lands and so the parents were comparatively quite rich. The whole countryside is rich. They grow corn, grapes, cotton...”
After 11 days, Samah boarded a bus to Palmyra – which fell to Isis last year – and then to Homs and then to her family above Latakia where she now feels safe but bored. “I grew up here and there is nothing and I hate this place,” she said.
But it is better than Raqqa today. “Fridays were punishment days after I left. I could still talk to friends for a while on the internet and they told me that the first thing that happened was that women were told to cover themselves. Then the schools were all closed – my school was closed – and the only place where children were taught was at the mosques.”
Samah reflects on the clouds that shadowed her country so quickly. “It happened so suddenly,” she says. “We went to sleep in one state and we woke up in another state. Most of the Nusra are now completely against the Isis and I have this feeling that my students, the ones who told me to leave, are now dead. I’m not sure why. It is a feeling. They didn’t get good marks at school but there had been a very good relationship between me and them.”
Later, Samah agrees that the students also told her that the reason she could not stay was because she was an Alawite – and thus the sectarian curtain brushed aside the more obvious reason for her eviction; that she worked for the government and thus represented the regime which was to be destroyed. At least, that was the idea in 2013. And today?
Raqqa is bombed – by the Americans, by the Russians, by the Syrians, by the Jordanians and the Saudis and just about everybody else in the region. At least, that is what we are supposed to believe, although some messages from residents of Raqqa suggest that much of the bombing is in the imagination of the various powers that claim to be destroying the world’s latest most-hated cult. But will Samah ever go back to teach in the Ahmad al-Azawi school? Can Syria be put back together again? Soon, perhaps sooner than we think, life after Isis and Nusra and all the other outfits will have to be contemplated here.
And if the future of this country – like all the other Arab states – rests on education rather than guns, then how do we account for the friendly but not-very-bright students who turned up in their black shirts with their guns at Samah’s home? Doesn’t education work? March 6, 2013, that was the day they came. Everyone in Syria remembers the day of their eviction.