Bassel: Behind the screens of the Syrian Revolution

By Monique Doppert

This is a preview of the revealing story Bassel: Behind the Screens of the Syrian Revolution. This story is brought to you by Fosfor Publishers to focus attention on an important member of the revolution, who has been held—and at times tortured—by the Syrian army for the last two years. Saturday, March 15 marks the second anniversary of Bassel’s imprisonment, coincidentally also the third ‘anniversary’ of the start of the Syrian revolution itself.

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Bassel checks himself in the mirror once more before leaving the bathroom. His goatee is neatly trimmed, but there’s not much he can do, unfortunately, about the bags under his eyes. Noura has breakfast waiting for him on the kitchen table. Bassel silently tears himself off a piece of bread and dips it in the yogurt. He takes a gulp of coffee and lights his first cigarette.

It’s eleven o’clock when his cell phone rings. Bassel’s wanted in the Damascus neighbourhood of Mezze as soon as possible. It’s not far, but Noura can’t bear the thought of Bassel leaving again. She’s been worried for days. Bassel’s on the street a lot, scarcely sleeps, and is neglecting his health. Once again he’s hardly touched his breakfast. Besides, he promised to take her sick cat, Sissie, to the vet. The route to Mezze is dangerous, with countless checkpoints. Just this morning they heard shots in the distance.

Bassel in better days

But Bassel waves off her objections. He disconnects his cell from the charger and promises he’ll be back soon. Noura, annoyed, reminds him that her mother is coming this afternoon to discuss the design of her wedding dress. Their wedding is just six weeks off.

When Bassel reaches the door, Noura loses it and bursts into tears. Gently but firmly, Bassel tells her he’ll be back in time for her mother’s visit—really. He kisses Noura on her forehead, slides his new Promate headset on his neck, and walks out the door.

That’s the last time Noura saw Bassel free. Later it turns out he was arrested at a checkpoint not far from the corner he’d been called to. There are varying theories as to how he was nabbed. One goes that he was lured to Mezze under false pretenses: the security forces had had him on their radar for a long time and set this trap for him. No, goes another, Bassel was betrayed by a friend who’d been tortured. A third is sure Bassel’s arrest was just dumb luck: the checkpoint picked him out at random, maybe on account of his flashy headset. It was only later, back at the office, that they discovered that he was high on their list of most wanted.

That’s how it is in Damascus: the city is abuzz with half-truths, reports of isolated incidents, and rumours. One thing’s for certain: it’s Wednesday, March 15, 2012. On the day of Bassel’s arrest, the revolution is exactly one year old.

September 2010, a year and a half earlier

It’s ten o’clock, and the day is just getting started in al-Rawda, an up-scale Damascus business district. Honking cars, buses, and taxis jostle for position in the morning traffic jam on busy al-Hamra Street. The aroma of fresh bread and croissants wafts from the coffee shops. Commuters drink their first espressos of the day in the sidewalk cafés.

A lack of street signs and house numbers makes finding an address in Damascus a real adventure. Bassel’s short version of how to get to his office goes like so: “Just past the Blue Tower Hotel, by the Italian hospital Taliani, you take a left. Then the second street on the left, and at the pizzeria make another left into the alley. Our office is in the appartment complex on your right. Ring the bell for Aikilab; sometimes it works. If the front door’s open, walk up to the fourth floor. If the door’s closed, call me; I’ll let you in.”

As usual, Bassel’s the first to arrive at the Aikilab office. The big, high-ceilinged space is as white as snow and minimally furnished. A long work table with orange fiberglass armchairs stands in the middle. A computer screen, from which a mother board and a hard drive dangle like organs from a body, hangs on the wall. Is it art or a geeky joke?

When Bassel and his friend and fellow programmer Daris found the apartment a few months before, they knew at once it was the perfect place. It was centrally located, the rent was reasonable, and the landlord seemed reliable. Bassel named it Aikilab, from the Japanese for “joining spirits.” This was what he had in mind: a space where programmers and artists could meet and work together. He proudly announced the “hackerspace” on Foursquare, Facebook, and Twitter, even mentioning the address—rather imprudently—in a tweet:

HackerSpace Damascus 170 square meters of open space for geeks and hackers to invent space rockets: 5 — Zahrawi Avenue — Rawda — Damascus (6:31 p.m., July 4, 2010)
Hackerspaces are community-operated physical places, where people can meet and work on their projects (12:58 p.m., July 14, 2010)
Aiki lab is a place for sharing, creation, collaboration, research, development, mentoring, and of course, learning. (12:59 p.m., July 14, 2010)

Bassel fills the coffee maker and proceeds to his own workspace, where he can relax for a few minutes with a mug of black coffee and a cigarette before the others arrive. He empties his ashtray and inspects the gadgets on his desk: in the corner, a whitish gray model helicopter he and Daris put together, and next to it, still in the box, a NanoNote, the world’s smallest notebook. Practical it’s not, but Bassel just had to have it so he could try all the functions. For the same reason, he also always owns the the newest smartphone (at the moment the HTC Tattoo) and the latest tablet (from Samsung).

Despite his predilection for technology and computers, the twenty-nine-year-old Bassel is definitely no socially inept nerd. As the son of a famous Palestinian poet and a Syrian insurance agent, he’s had a liberal upbringing. He’s a good-looking guy—with his fashionable goatee—and a ready conversationalist, winning people over quickly with his charm and his humor. He’s also a bit reckless by nature. On vacation with his friends in Beirut, he’s just got to be the fastest on the jet ski. And by way of experiment he leaves his cell phone on in the plane, then sends a tweet after the landing: “Nothing happened.” Laconic, as if he’s disappointed.

Bassel owes his love of technology to an uncle who let him sit behind his computer half an hour a day as a boy. Bassel was immediately hooked and taught himself programming. After high school, he studied computer science in the Latvian capital, Riga, where, for the first time, he met contemporaries with the same interests. Bassel’s stay in Northern Europe was a revelation on another level as well. He could speak freely there, in class as well as in the bar. It was then that he became fluent in English, a rarity among Syrians.

Unfortunately, Bassel had to end his studies prematurely. His father had fallen ill, and because he’d divorced and was living alone, Bassel, like a good Syrian son, returned home to care for him.

Now that he’s back in Syria, Bassel finds the knowledge and freedom he longs for on the Internet. As an advocate of a free and open Net, he’s forming a Syrian branch of Creative Commons (CC), an organisation championing an open form of copyright that makes it simpler for authors to share their work. While earning his living as a Web designer—one of his most prestigious projects is an interactive 3-D travel guide to the historic Syrian city of Palmyra—he also contributes to the Internet browser Firefox and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, both constructed with open-source software. It’s through that work that he comes in contact with the four foreign programmers with whom he founds the software company Fabricatorz. Bassel’s partners live in the United States, Singapore, and Beijing; practically their only contact is via the Internet.

Around ten-thirty, Bassel’s Aikilab office mates begin trickling in. These young programmers, designers, writers, and photographers are predominantly freelancers and work together in groups of varying composition. Bassel doesn’t kid himself: most of them come to Aikilab for the exceptionally good Internet connection. Syrians have had access to the Net since 2000, but a fast connection is rare. Getting connected costs a lot of time and money. Anyone who wants to open an Internet cafe in Damascus needs the permission of five different security agencies. The waiting time is at least a year and a half, and between the paperwork and the bribes you’re soon out twelve thousand dollars. Bassel, on the other hand, had his fast and secure wireless 3-G Internet connection up and running before the white paint on the office walls was dry. If you ask him how he did it so quickly, he smiles and says, “It’s better you don’t know too much.”

Exactly what the regime knows about Aikilab’s activities isn’t clear. Bassel receives anonymous calls warning him that his phone is tapped. He’s also regularly invited to “come have a cup of tea” at the office of Mukhabarat, the feared Syrian intelligence agency, which consists of at least seventeen other agencies of varying size. These have informants in every corner of Syrian society, but their technical know-how is extremely limited. During one of Bassel’s obligatory visits, the head of the agency asks him to give him his cell phone—he’d like to try one of those things himself. Bassel asks for a few hours time, supposedly to buy a replacement phone. That gives him a chance to delete all the relevant data and return the device to its factory settings. On another occasion Bassel sees a security officer type a Web address with an @. It’s all he can do to keep a straight face.

February 2011, thirteen months earlier

“Come on, guys, we’ve gotta do this!” Hadir can barely contain his enthusiasm since Bassel told him about the international Twestival being planned for next week in which Twitter users will gather together to meet one another in 150 cities worldwide. For the actor-poet Hadir it’s a great opportunity to organize something for what he calls the Damascus 400. That’s a group of creative, highly educated twenty- and thirty-somethings who study, party, and have sex together. A Twitter party will definitely appeal to them. “We’ve gotta come together again,” Hadir emphasizes. “Especially now.”

Bassel, too, is up for opening Aikilab for the event. In the fall of 2010, they celebrated Iftar—the breaking of the fast—here. The theme of the evening was “Remix.” It was a great success, and Aikilab was packed with “digital natives” from Damascus and Beirut from eight till late. But office mate Daris reacts more cautiously to the plan, especially when Hadir adds that people would have to bring their own program, photo, or story with them. According to Daris, it’s dangerous to exchange contacts, ideas, and knowledge with strangers so casually: “One wrong word, you know, and you can wind up in jail.”

It’s understandable that the Syrian regime is on its guard. Popular rebellions that led to the departure of political leaders have broken out in various neighbouring countries the past few months. The Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has fled to Saudi Arabia, and his Egyptian counterpart, Mubarak, has had to leave as well. The Syrian state media have hardly mentioned these events, but on social media like Twitter and Facebook they’re the talk of the day—and that hasn’t eluded the security service.

In the end, all the bickering turns out to be for naught, because Bassel is immediately summoned to report to the security service. The agents aren’t as friendly as during earlier visits. They’re not offering him any coffee, and he’s not allowed to smoke. But they do want to know what that Twestival’s all about and who’ll be coming. Bassel assures them it’s strictly a social gathering without any hidden political agenda. But following a brief consultation with their boss, the agents are quite clear: there’s not going to be any Twestival. Not on the scheduled day, not on any other day, and not at any other venue either.

Just how on edge the security forces are is evident a few weeks later during a demonstration of solidarity in front of the Libyan embassy on Abou Roumaneh Street, a chique Embassy Row. Bassel and Hadir are among two hundred demonstrators calling on the Libyan ambassador to leave. “Freedom to the people!” they chant, and “Down with Qaddafi!”

Then someone shouts, “The traitors are the ones who beat up their own people!” Now the security forces are really getting nervous. “Go home, people!” they yell. When that doesn’t help, they begin lashing out at the demonstrators, even striking women, whom they normally spare. Within half an hour the demonstration has been broken up and the sidewalk in front of the embassy is empty.

This is still a preview. Find the whole story of Bassel on Amazon, iTunes or Google Play.