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Adib Shishakly – The Rebel in the Hotel Room: Alia Allana

November 12, 2011

This guest post by ALIA ALLANA, a despatch from Istanbul, is the seventh in Kafila series of ground reports from the Arab Spring. Photos by Alia Allana unless otherwise mentioned

Adib Shishakly’s rebellion starts with a small pin on his blue blazer.

Embellishing the the blue of his jacket, clipped on to the left collar is a flag of Syria not seen since the days following the French mandate. Today the flag flies in the besieged areas of Homs, Hama and Dera’a where the protestors have posed Bashar al Assad’s regime with it’s biggest challenge to date. It’s this very flag, with its three golden stars that was outlawed by the Ba’ath Party, by strong man Hafez al Assad.

For Shishakly the flag that he sees in YouTube videos of Syrian protests has a special significance. He has been promoting it as the flag of the opposition for the past decade. He digs out an email from 2006: that’s when he had proposed the flag to the Kurdish opposition and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, but his rallying had fallen upon deaf ears. The times have changed: the Arab Spring has given him an outlet to channel his desires for a complete overhaul of a system that has been in place for 48 years.

Image from Adib Shishakly's Facebook page

Shishakly is one of the founding members of the Syrian National Council – the body that claims to speak for the protestors on the ground. It has taken days of emailing, countless unanswered phone calls, late night Skype message exchanges and a dubious Saudi number that is seldom answered. The Saudi number is the only real world contact between Shishakly and me. In a late night Skype conversation, he has agreed to meet me. He asked me to come over to the Kempinski Hotel in Istanbul along the Bosphorus.

A news report dated 16 July 2011

On my journey to the Kempinski, I pass by the splendour of the Dolmabache Palace. It’s majestic doors and ornate carvings transport one back to the heydays of the Ottoman Empire. It is a curious choice of venue: the Arab World has not seen such momentous change since the Ottoman Empire crumbled, carved into smaller states. The lobby is busy and I don’t know what he looks like.

I see a towering man with two mobiles in his hand standing next to a large golden table. The table has silver saucers with colorful sweets in it. I walk up to him. “How did you know it was me?” he asks. Shishakly is media shy and has been reluctant to give many interviews. But after all those late nights of waiting for a call, I have painted an image of the opposition and he suits it fine.

In order to make his dream come true, Shishakly leads a double life. He has two mobiles and two business cards. He seldom sleeps in the same hotel for long. He constantly looks over his shoulder to see who is watching him, to see if anyone is listening. One of his business cards, a non-imposing card, with wings on it, designates him as Vice CEO of Rabigh Wings Aviation Academy. His office is based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but he is seldom in his office these days. His work is now second in line to a movement he has dedicated all his energy to. He calls himself “homeless, stateless.” and dreams of a free Syria, a country he left in the 1980s.

Since the uprising in Syria began, hotels have become Shishakly’s home. He travels between Istanbul, Egypt and Lebanon to meet officials and further their understanding of the Syrian National Council. He picks his hotels with meticulous attention to his safety. The Kempinski is housed in the magnificent Ciragin Palace on the banks of the Bosphoros. Past the revolving doors at the entrance a large chandelier is juxtaposed by a metal detector and scanning machine. It was not the regal splendor that bought him here but the tight security.

Security is of paramount importance now. Late in the middle of night, ever since he got more involved with the Syrian uprising, Shishakly receives phone calls from unknown numbers. They threaten him; there have been many people on the other end of the receiver who say they will kill him. The threats have increased over the past few months as the Syrian National Council has morphed into a more organised and accountable body.

“I’m used to it now, I just get on with life,” he says.

We take a walk along the infinity swimming pool. It’s a magical illusion. The sole swimmer in the pool looks like he is swimming in the Bosphorus as the sunsets. But Shishakly doesn’t have time to admire the colours in the sky, he doesn’t marvel at the number of boats and their loud horns as they make their journey from the East to West and back.

He has his interviews with leaders and foreign diplomats in his hotel. During this interview, he spent a large part, checking his Facebook, responding to messages on Skype. His eyes are more often than not glued to his iPad. Seldom does he anticipate good news. It’s stories of regime brutality, tales of death at the hands of pro-government forces that come flooding through.

Image from Adib Shishakly's Facebook page

We sit besides a grand piano and a violin. The noise is loud enough to drown our conversation. Often it is hard to hear him as he talks slowly and softly. Having eyes on his back is something he has learnt from his experiences with the Syrian government where friends and colleagues have been rounded up and tortured for uttering, speaking the wrong sentence.

He did not choose his family name. Adib Shishakly is named after the former President of Syria, the assassinated leader who presided over Syria in 1953-54. That leader, known for this hard handed approach to politics and disdain for political opposition is his grand father. “They call him a tyrant,” he says. He sounds confessional. Like the Assads who now face popular resentment towards their rule, the late Adib Shishakly too had stepped down to avoid escalation, and was assassinated in exile.

The namesake he was named after and the family history played games with the young Shishakly’s mind. He says that a young age he decided to champion the cause for human rights. Shishakly grew up in a privileged world – the political elite in Syria reside in the upper class district of Abourmanei. He recalls the days of dining in restaurants where the Assad clan – both the current President and his feared brother, Maher, head of the notorious Fourth Brigade in Syria – used to frequent. He has dined at tables next to theirs. They have mutual friends who have now picked sides and Raif, a close ally of Maher al Assad, played with Shishakly as a child. As the Syrian National Council started getting public recognition, Shishakly received a phone call from his old friend. It was one of those late night calls. “Raif told me I was misguided,” he says. It was most definitely a threat, he says.

Shishakly is a successful businessman in Saudi Arabia and the US. Over the years, Syria became a tale of his past but the Arab Spring changed all that. It wasn’t until Syria’s youth painted graffiti on the walls in Dera’a or until the protests spread to other cities in Syria, that this part of his life was rekindled

He has a new card now. He slides it across the table and his hand gesture is quick. He’s still scared to openly speak, he’s often fearful of the person he has become. This card has the Syrian flag and an eagle logo. It looks regal. Under his name, it reads Political Activist. This is the life he has been dedicating his time to for the past nine months. Last night he slept two hours and his eyes are puffy, the bags under his eyes tell tales of late nights and worry.

His phone, since the start of our conversation, has constantly been commanding attention. It lights up but it’s not phone calls but updates from Facebook. He puts his head in his hand, more have died today. He’s also got a borderline addiction to his iPad and he constantly switches between the Facebook, Skype and Twitter accounts. It is through this digital world he has come to understand and participate in the revolution: it is here he is active day and night. He lives online. His account activity shows he has had a two-hour break last night. It is also here that the Syrian people are able to mobilise away from the Syrian agents, their spies and watchful eyes.

Adib Shishakly's Facebook page

I ask him about the various different groups to claim to be the opposition. The Syrian opposition has been notoriously fractured. There are at least three groups who speak on their behalf and the Syrian National Council is just one group. The group has gone through pains to organise under a more representative structure and now consists of 230 members. The 29-member secretariat has members form the Muslim Brotherhood, Kurds and other minority groups. The head of the body is Bourhan Ghalioun, the popular Syrian professor based in France.

Adib Shishakly has heard this criticism about his organisation before. The SNC has been slow in formation and even slower in organisation. Different members of its outfit have often given conciliatory remarks and other opposition groups, namely the Syrian National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, working from within Syria has failed to accept the authority of the SNC. Shishakly waves the group off and maintains that they are tools for the Assad government. He also confirms that there will be no dialogue between the two units who claim to represent the Syrian street. “We are the voice of the people,” he says. For affirmation he looks towards the number of calls he receives from Syria, form inside Homs and Hama.

In my visit to Damascus, in a conversation with Bouthaina Shaaban, the advisor to the President, I was told that Bashar al Assad had invited the opposition to the country but they had refused. Bouthaina Shaaban added that the government had issued guarantees to the opposition that they could return out of Syria as free citizens. But for the SNC the government’s promises are hollow.

Shishakly laughs at the prospect of returning. He fears prison and the notorious Shabiha, the undercover police or the regime’s thugs. For him Syria is a shadowy place and stories from Syria are enough to keep away someone like him, who is actively defying the government. He recalls stories of his friends suddenly disappearing, of families with active voices finding dead bodies of their relatives in Hama.

It’s not just fear that paralyses him from acting. Ever since the start of the revolution, protestors on the street have communicated through messages. One of the central forms of communication in Syria is the naming of Friday, the day of protesting. Activists name Fridays and each Friday has a special significance. One Friday was named “The SNC represent us” and the other was “No dialogue with the regime”. The decision to not speak with the regime, Shishakly says, is because of the will of the people. Shishakly also looks at the tide of discontent changing towards Bashar: the protestors started off asking for freedom, then a change of government and now they demand the trial of Bashar al Assad.

For Shishakly, the protestors’ call for “No Dialogue” has fallen to welcoming ears. In the course of our evening, after he has ordered green tea with jasmine he admits wearily that the opposition was slow to mobilise. That too many people have already died and the opposition is only now uniting behind one figurehead. “We are way behind the revolutionaries, we are way behind the street,” he says.

The street does trust him. The Syrian Revolution, unlike the one in Tunisia and Egypt, has been a protracted struggle with the military of Bashar al Assad coming face to face with the protests on the streets. Assad and his cohorts maintain that the uprising is a foreign-funded plot to overthrow the government in order to bring about political change in the Middle East with the ultimate goal of having Israel as the only independent power in the region.

Adib Shishakly shakes his head. He looks me square in the eye. “No matter how poor I was, I would not take a bullet,” he says. He dismisses the government’s allegations of protestors being armed for according to him the uprising is peaceful. In fact according to him, this is a unique uprising, unlike anything seen in the Arab Spring countries.

The protestors have had to organise themselves through channels that the government cannot intercept. Facebook, Twitter and Skype have become platforms that have allowed the grievances to come out. Shishakly fiddles with his iPad and arrives to Skype chat rooms that the people on the Syrian street use to disseminate information.

Access to this private world is guarded with zealousness; not everyone can be trusted. The group’s updates have matured over the past few months; they are more skillful now, he says. The groups have also developed in order to become more location centric: there are coordinators who operate from each city of protests. They contact Shishakly at all times of the day; the lines from the protest stops are less monitored at night. That’s when he gets most phone calls. He says it is his duty to answer: the person on the other line may not be there should he fall prey to a bullet.

Life has changed for him. His Facebook page has nothing but updates on the revolution. “This is no longer a personal channel for me,” he says. There are pictures of dead on the street. His Facebook chat pops up with questions on the revolution. His Skype has contacts that relate merely to the current crisis that has swallowed the country and it’s almost always sad news.

Shishakly’s most trusted informant died two days ago. He says this with stone cold eyes. “People will die,” he says. He talks of how members of the opposition have sent him videos of dragging fellow protestors to bury them away from the government. Should the government find the protestors and identify them, dead or alive, their families will be liable, open to attack.

This is a different sort of revolution because there is no ambulance that waits for the injured. Shishakly has a rare glimpse into how the Syrians mobilise before they take to the streets. There are people who have been tasked with shooting footage of the revolution on their mobiles so that they get aired to the public; there are those who are responsible for being the medical units and all they have are small first aid kits.

At the start of the founding of the SNC, one of the main acts was to provide those on the streets with reinforcements and this has included medical kits and modems. The modems were hugely popular, he explains, because the Syrian government kept shutting down Internet access in Hama, Homs and Dera’a.

More people have died today and the government looks unwilling to budge. The government alleges that the protestors are armed. The SNC maintains that it is committed to a peaceful revolution but he talks of defections from the military. These defected officers, numbering 10 per day, are armed and have formed the Free Syria Army. The Free Syria Army is a group of former army officers who have left the Assad camp and have taken up the cause of the rebels. It is they who possess arms, he explains.

In the convening summit of the SNC, the group decided to pursue regime change through peaceful means; they did not however ask the Free Syria Army to dislodge. When I asked him about high profile officers leaving office, he answered tritely. The regime has not trusted the entire army, they have trusted a small number of people to uphold the current regime and it is they who have vested interested in the survival of the current government. The top leaders are Alawi sympathizers and the people on the street view them as Assad agents. Without the government, they cease to exist and the government ceases to exist without them. The army and the government are in bed together, he says.

Shishakly takes each day as it comes. He doesn’t know where he will be tomorrow because the pace of the revolution cannot be predicted. As the official number of dead reached 3,500 last night, he was confident that this number would bring about change in the Arab League’s decision about whether they are going to suspend Syria’s membership. The Arab League will reach a decision by Saturday. Shishakly has been informed that this Friday will be called the “Free Syrian Arab League Membership”. They hope, and so does Shishakly, that this Friday will have an impact and Syria will be kicked out of the Arab league fraternity. Should this happen, the SNC members are hopeful that the UN will follow suit and enact a harsher decision on Syria.

And until then the people on the streets and the exiled leaders will continue operating as they have done for months through sleepless nights living out a nightmare.

(Alia Allana is our lady of the Arab Spring.)

See also:

Previously in this series by Alia Allana:

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