Syria: When I Saw My Forcibly Disappeared Friend on YouTube

Malath Alzoubi
Syrian Journalist

Bassel would take me into Damascus’ side streets and alleys to “secret” restaurants and shops selling the best pies, sweets and shawarma. I would never have tasted them otherwise. He was arrested in 2013 and never heard from again. Until I saw him on YouTube…

A few days ago, a friend and journalist colleague in Sweden sent me a link to a YouTube video accompanied by the short phrase: “I thought this was your voice.”

Uploaded on September 16, 2020, the video was a news report about the Sarouja neighborhood in the old city of Damascus. My friend’s comment was referencing how the person doing the voice over sounded like me, to which I responded with the joke: “it doesn’t sound that great, but it’s not as bad as my voice.” However, before I finished the first minute of the video, which was barely two minutes long, I was tongue-tied and my fingers froze. In a scene not exceeding 5 seconds I saw my friend Bassel Tabakh, sitting on a low chair, trying to get something out of his jeans’ pocket.

There is of course nothing really exceptional about those 5 seconds, with the exception of one essential detail: Bassel and his younger brother Zaher forcibly disappeared on March 12, 2013. They were arbitrarily arrested at their home in the town of Jaramana by the Regime. They were not given a warrant, as the court allows the regime forces to arrest anyone without explaining why. The family has not known where they were nor what happened to them since the date of their arrest.

Bassel grew up in Damascus, though his family hails from Aleppo. I got to know him during my freshman year at the Faculty of English Literature at Damascus University and it was not long before he became my closest friend for about two years. He was my guide through the capital which always mesmerized me. We would go around the city by foot or take the mini buses known as “saravis.”

Through Basil, his family, and our mutual friends, I would see a part of what remains of the middle class in the country’s largest cities: a regional and sectarian mix of young people, who grew up in the capital, although most of their families hailed from other governorates: from Deir ez-Zor in the east to Tartous in the west, and from Aleppo in the north to As-Suwayda in the south.

In almost every major neighborhood of Damascus, Bassel knew which shawarma restaurants were the best, and his choices were always based on finding a balance between three factors: That the quality of the restaurant and the flavor of its shawarma be excellent, that it be suitable for human consumption (and that its customers do leave in ambulances as soon as they finish their meals), and that its prices were acceptable enough at least to ensure enough cash left for our return to our homes. He would take me down a side street here, or an alley there, to show me a little restaurant or a “secret” shop selling pies or sweets or foods that I would otherwise not have tasted ever.

With Bassel, and others, we also had a walking team that organized camping trips or went around roaming on foot. I saw a lot of Syria through activities that varied from spending a night near the Bani Qahtan Castle in the coastal mountains or taking a trip to Jabal Al-Zawiya near Idlib or walking in the snow of Zabadani near Damascus .

I probably would not have seen many of these areas had it not been for my friend, who invited me to join this team, which included university professors, engineers, students, journalists and artists. He was critical towards the regime’s policies, at the least the economic ones, before the positions of the opposition were divided after the outbreak of the protests between silence and disassociation.

Bassel and I would spend many hours in the theaters of Damascus, such as the Al-Hamra, the Qabbani and the circular theater, generally watching bad works, which we would mock for hours. We would see films from all over the world during the Damascus Film Festival, and little by little, plays, films, artistic performances and concerts after the opening of the Opera House. For free at first, and later at nominal prices.

Bassel was talented. He had a taste for music, which he had inherited from his father, Amo Abu Hashem, a professional musician. He was a violinist. Basil told me how his father had a promising youth, how he played with some of Aleppo’s most famous singers, and how he ended up hardly finding a job at a time when a poor musician like Hadi Parsley was turned into a star. He was presented in the media as a “musician,” before he became deputy head of the Syrian Artists Syndicate.

Thanks to Bassel, I listened to many different colors of music, some of which I had not heard before. As for him, he taught himself to play the oud with remarkable diligence, trying to offer something different. But Bassel’s talent was not limited to music. Nor his persistence. At the start of our third year in university, not earlier than that, he made a decision that at the time seemed an adventure with uncalculated consequences: to apply for high school exams again with the aim of studying art at the College of Fine Arts. This meant, that Bassel had to abandon his studies after he had gotten more than halfway through because the laws did not allow for combining two majors at the same time, knowing that his potential enrollment in the Faculty of Arts was not guaranteed.

But he achieved a good grade point average in high school, passed the drawing examination for admission to college, an examination that, of course, was marked by heavy fees that Bassel did not possess. However, he possessed a passion that led him to join a training course in drawing techniques at the Adham Ismail Center for Fine Arts of the Ministry of Culture for months, before succeeding at his new high school and passing the admission exam at the College of Fine Arts. He graduated within four years, shortly before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution.

But Bassel, who sought to experiment in music and contemporary art, and made such bold decisions in his personal and professional life, did not possess the same courage in other matters. I remember how, during our freshman year in college, he was mesmerized by a quiet, red-haired girl. And it seemed that he had caught her eye too.

Yet Bassel was not brave in this regard. Approaching her and starting a conversation required many months of encouragement, urging him and supporting him. I cannot remember today what happened to their relationship and what came of it.

I continued watching the video, dumbfounded and speechless, and after another 30 seconds or so, Bassel appeared again, this time sitting alone with a cigarette in hand.

Only then I realized that the video was old and dated back to a time before his arrest. It is the recent upload date on YouTube that confused me. Bassel reappeared on a third occasion in the video, this time sitting with a friend, who was also a member of our walking team.

Basil has been absent for more than nine years.

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