With a history of imprisonment and persecution, the renowned Syrian translator and human rights activist, together with his family, arrived safely in Stavanger city of refuge in August. While on his way to Norway, Mohammad told his story to a Norwegian journalist, for the project Flukt, a gift book portraying personal stories of people escaping war and atrocities; from the time Norwegians fled the battlefields of the second world war until today's flow of Syrians crossing borders in search of safety and a future. It starts like this:
They appeared like ghosts. He hardly noticed them. Mohammad Habeeb had left the house at six thirty in the morning, he breathed and felt the cold air in his lunges. He was wearing a jacket. It was winter in the Syrian coastal city Latakia. He noticed a heavy layer of clouds covering the rooftops. He was in a hurry. The school where he was teaching was in a village far off. He was about to cross the road when he saw two men standing at a corner across the street. He found it odd. What were they doing there, at this hour? He noted to himself that he should remember their faces. At that same moment, he felt someone grabbing him from behind. He felt his arms handcuffed and saw a green Mitsubishi stopping next to him. The men from the corner leaped towards him. Another man approached from the car and covered his eyes with a blindfold. The men pushed him into the car and started driving.
(From FLUKT, 2015)
A human rights defender, for more than 30 years, Habeeb has been working for democracy, human rights and freedom of expression in Syria. In a country where political opposition and civil rights groups have been held down since the Baath party and Assad took over power, intellectual capacity and peaceful opposition is considered a greater threat than violence to the regime.
Mohammad Habeeb is a poet and a writer, but his writings have been prevented from being published in Syria. Habeeb is one of the most prominent translators in Syria. He has translated a number of well-known literary works from English into Arabic, such as works by T.S. Eliot, José Saramago, James Kelman, Sindiwe Magona, Erich Fromm, Moris Farhi and Carl Gustave Jung.
A life-long struggle for a free Syria
In 1989, Habeeb co-founded the Committee for the Defence of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF), and became the co-editor of the organisation’s underground magazine The Voice of Democracy. The organization was primarily established to repeal Syria’s state of emergency from 1963, when the Baath party came into power in a military coup.
The state of emergency suspended most constitutional protections in Syria. It allowed the authorities to place restrictions on freedoms of individuals with respect to meetings, residence, travel and passage in specific places or at particular times. It allowed them to preventatively arrest anyone suspected of endangering public security and order, to authorise investigation of persons and places, and to delegate any person to perform any of these tasks.
His involvement in CDF, distributing flyers criticising human rights violations and the circumstances surrounding the re-election of Hafez al-Assad, caused Habeeb’s imprisonment.
In 1991, when Habeeb had just become father of a little boy, he was arrested together with a group of other activists. The extract in the beginning describes the event of Habeeb’s sudden arrest outside his home in Latakia. Sentenced by an exceptional court, which lacked the International Standards for Fair Trial, he was a prisoner of conscience for 9 years in one of Assad’s prisons. When they put him in the car and drove to Damascus, he already knew that life had taken another form and taste, which he had to get used to.
- I had read and heard personal stories from inside Al Assad prisons. I had to be ready for all possibilities. With my hands cuffed behind my back, a blindfold on my eyes, and my jacket over my head, I began memorizing and rearranging the stories for my confessions in the interrogations sessions. How to stand all their cruelty and savage ways of torturing to get information, how to save all my colleagues whom they would pretend to know already, but want me to admit their names?
In prison, Habeeb wrote poems, taught other prisoners English, and found creative ways of communicating with the outside world, to inform his family, to continue his political activity, and to stay alive:
- At first, I learned from previous prisoners some common ways to smuggle letters out. Then, when the prison administration, as expected, discovered those ways, we had to create new ones. We made artefacts, handcrafted wooden works, bone works, beads of rosary (made from dates nucleuses, or wood), and gave them to our wives or families as presents. HOWEVER, most of the times we had to bribe the jailers with some works to allow us to pass the rest out.
After his release in 2000, Habeeb lost his civil rights and he could not work or practice any public profession. This did not however stop him from working and continuing his peaceful activities for a democratic Syria. To promote peace and understanding among the people and to prevent the Syrian society from falling apart.
-When one believes in something, one does his best to make it alive and fruitful. Moreover, what we were imprisoned for was still going on. So, I found it was a chance to speak loudly for that, why not, especially since I/we already paid for it.
The Arab Spring – new hopes, new crimes on humanity
In the wake of the Arab spring in 2011, Habeeb co-founded and was a leading member of Maan (Together), a peaceful movement to accompany the Revolution in Syria, and support Syrians’ peaceful demands, from 2011 to 2013. A small victory was achieved by the opposition in 2011, as Assad lifted the state of emergency from 1963. However, this was more of a symbolic act and the bloody crackdown on protesters and non-violent activists has continued. Today, civil society organisations and activists face oppression, torture and death, not only from the government, but also from violent extremist fractions ravaging the country in the wake of the revolution.
-When the Syrian protests started, Assad immediately attacked the protesters. He released criminals, and dangerous fundamentalists, “secretly” providing them with weapons, only to justify any attack against protesters, including peaceful ones. The continual crime, which the Syrian regimes began since the very beginning, is arresting and killing the peaceful Syrian activists. Those veteran and young peaceful activists are supposed to be free and have all possibilities to work and move freely. However, the regime still considers them the most dangerous threat to its power, even more than the terrorists. The regime prevents them from working among people, because they can change peoples’ views and attitude towards the regime and its policy. The simplest axiom is, had they not been able to do anything, to make a difference, the regime would not have arrested and killed them.
Due to his previous imprisonment, continued critical writings and his constant calls for a peaceful change in the country, Habeeb automatically came under the Syrian regime’s watch list. Living in the government friendly city of Latakia was very unsafe for the family. Habeeb’s family subsisted not only under threat from government soldiers, but also IS and other militias. Too risky to stay in their own house, they moved around, staying at different locations, at the mercy of friends and family.
-As all other activists, and public opponents, I was threatened to be arrested at any time, and that might mean death - as happened to most peaceful activists since 2011-on. Moreover, living in an area known for supporting the regime, it was a very critical situation. As they all knew my political views and deeds, I became their prey, and they began abusing me in all possible ways. They even sent their children to damage and corrupt my car. In addition, ISIS rockets and bombs targeted the area itself, and life became a real danger.
In 2013, pressure got too high and conditions for living and working were impossible. Habeeb contacted ICORN for a way out, for the safety and future of his family, and to continue his work from a safe place.
-Actually, Syria is witnessing the worst black comedy throughout the history of revolutions, and wars as well. All fighters in Syria, including the regime, are investing in the Syrians blood and lives. The international players send ammunitions, weapons, money and plans to their mercenaries in the battlefield, and go to Geneva to negotiate the future of Syria. Unfortunately, for them the crisis in Syria has not reached the climax yet. This means more deaths between the Syrians, more destruction and more migration and refugees. Syrians are suffering more and more short cuts in all their needs. Money, Food, electricity, gas, petrol and above all safety and peace. No one is safe there. Death may come from all fighting parties, and people have to accept it as it comes. Nonetheless, they sleep on the dream that tomorrow may be better.
Living and working
In 2015, Habeeb was granted ICORN residency in Stavanger and arrived safely in the city in August together with his family. He has already participated in Kapittel – Stavanger’s festival for literature and freedom of expression where he shared his perspective on the situation in Syria with a large public.
Habeeb holds a Bachelor of Arts from the English Department of Tishreen University in Lattakia in Syria, and has over ten years experience as translator and interpreter of Arabic-English/English-Arabic within the fields of literature and ideas. He worked as a school teacher in Syria, teaching writing and translation techniques for junior university students. His own writings have been prevented from being published in Syria.
During the past ten years, Habeeb has been working as a freelance translator, and continues to conducts research, translations and drafting campaigns for Reprieve, a UK based charity organisation. Habeeb is a member the Arab Syrian Writers Union (a society for translators), and an editor and advisor to a publishing house in Latakia. He still believes that literature and cultural communities could the power to change. If they had the chance.
-In any country ruled by dictatorship, one cannot speak about a power of change from inside any community there. This goes for the literary community in Syria due to the regime’s dominance over it. Therefore, one cannot count on it as a collective power. Nonetheless, if one looks at the literary scene in Syria, one see a lot of veteran figures and new ones in all fields of literature-not to mention those who are outside Syria because of the war or even before. Had those literati had the chance and the freedom of expression, most of them would be effective, and they might make a difference in the situation.
In Stavanger, Habeeb will build a bridge between the Norwegian and Arabic literature. He has already decided on the first title to translate into Arabic. -I will represent Syria, the nation (not the regime), as it should be represented wherever Syrians go and live.