"From 1997 to 2002, I worked for ICARDA (the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) in Syria. I was stationed at their headquarters near Aleppo. I was roughly 24 years old and this was my first real job.
I studied Visual Anthropology in Leiden and before I started my studies, I was a "club kid" at Club Veronica. We were on television for 20 minutes, every month. Super cool, but I wanted more. I wanted to travel. I wanted to go to Africa. Africa and movies, that was it. That's why I went studying Visual Anthropology in Leiden, the only place that still offered this kind of film studies in the Netherlands. My graduation project was in a refugee camp in Sudan. And for this, I had learned some Arabic. After graduating, I was offered a job in Syria in 1997. This was still in the time of the old regime, that of Hafez al-Assad.
The first two years, I had a very nice job as a 'communication officer', and I set up a database of photography and videos for a project on biodiversity in the region. The following three years, I worked as anthropologist renovating Roman water tunnel systems throughout the country. And filming this. It was great.
The International Centre (ICARDA) where I worked, was the only centre where many other foreigners worked in Aleppo at the time. Most Westerners all worked and lived in Damascus. For the first year, we lived a suburb where other expats lived. I found it very boring and wanted something different. After two years, we moved to the old city centre. Very nice, with a courtyard and a beautiful citrus tree in the middle. Right next to the citadel. It was fantastic, we had a beautiful roof terrace and a clear view of the citadel. Our lovely neighbour, Um Nezjded turned out to be a the best Arabic teacher for me, for the language, cooking, basically everything, for the local news. She knew everything about the neighbourhood. She was the radio of the neighbourhood !
In the month before Ramadan, you have a month called Shabaan. There is a day called “Nus Shabaan” half-way in this month, which is when people exchange food with neighbours and family. So Um Nezjded came to us with a huge amount of Aleppan food. And we thought ... uhm OK, what should we do now? We started baking pancakes and we still had some chocolate sprinkles (Hagelslag) left over, so we were able to give her a little bit of the Netherlands in return. She loved it.
Aleppo had the largest Souk of the Arab World and it was a the biggest UNESCO inner city project. It was wonderful. You could get lost in it. Just walk and enjoy the fragrances, herbs and food.
I still remember the last 'elections' for Hafez al Assad in 1999. We had a car from ICARDA and it had UN license plates. We couldn't park the car near our house, there was no place in those little streets, so we always parked a little further outside the neighbourhood. It was actually very cosy as we walked through the neighbourhood every day, talking to the neighbours, stopping to drink some coffee or tea, this is how I learned to speak fluently.
We arrived at our car one day and someone had pasted a big poster of Hafez al-Assad on our car because of the ‘elections’. My husband said right away, "This is not going to happen, I'm not going to drive around with a poster of the president on our car! " so he started tearing the poster off of the car. Immediately I noticed 'white socks' on the corners of the streets, this is how we called the “not-so-secret” police, the mukhabarat. They were the secret service agents, with their black shoes, white socks, black pants and sunglasses. They weren't very 'secret', to say the least. So I told my husband, "Leave the poster for now, let's just drive to the car workshop and I'll ask someone there to remove it". Nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, dared to remove the poster from our car. So what could we do now? Because we really weren't going to drive around with this poster. In the end, we got a replacement car. Because nobody dared to take the poster off. It was only a year later, after Hafez died and the inaugural speech of Bashar, his son, that the national poster policy was somewhat relaxed. Then we asked the same person at the car workshop. “Now, I can take the poster off !”, he said.
It was really "The Lives of Others" in that time. All foreigners were surveilled. When I called the Netherlands from our home, I sometimes heard a click on the other side of the line and said to my mother, "You know someone is listening in on us", and she would answer "Well, they can't understand any Dutch, can they?" But they recorded just about everything. And you learn to live with it. If you have nothing to hide, then it's OK. But there is always this awareness of someone tracking you. It can be scary.
That fear that people lived with every day, you could see it when something like the poster story happened. Absolutely nobody dared to remove it. People were literally scared to death. They knew what happened if they defied the dictator. It was because of the prison system that already existed back then. Everybody knew about Tadmor (Palmyra), it was hell. It's a place where people would disappear. Saydnaya was the same story. In the Lonely Planet it's a beautiful monastery that was featured as a tourist attraction like Palmyra, but Saydnaya is also the Saydnaya prison, where they hanged 13000 people over the past four years. If you don't know about the prisons, you won't even know about its existence when you are there. As a tourist, you won't see it as these places. You will see the beautiful ruins of Palmyra and the magic monastery of Saydnaya. But the Syrians know otherwise, these places have very dark meanings for them. That schizophrenic duality always prevails. They lived in a 'pretend world', you play a theatre role or you'd end up in prison. You had to shut up, never talk about politics, nothing. Then you survive.
The fact that you are constantly being watched, puts you under pressure. As a foreigner in Aleppo, you stand out. I was in a neighbourhood that was quite conservative. There were a number of people who had fled from Hama, after the 1982 massacre, to that neighbourhood. So they were constantly under the watchful eye of the mukhabarat. And when Hafez al-Assad died, the big question was what would happen in that neighbourhood. It was a very conservative Sunni neighbourhood. Women who were completely veiled. But despite that conservative character of the area, we were taken in by the neighbours, like family. I do think, it would have been different, had I been just a single woman and not a married one.
The weddings in spring were really fun. They were held in big halls in the city, near Sabah Bahraat. I was invited once by my neighbours. And at such a wedding, you could see what was hiding under those black robes. During the parties there were only women so the moment everybody was inside, the robes got off and you could see very short dresses. There, I saw the other side of the story.
On the outside, the neighbourhood was very conservative, but with these kinds of weddings and parties, you saw that there was also another side. And it's very special to experience something like that. Those parties were fun, the women laughed, danced and there was delicious food. You can find more about that other side in the book 'Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie'. You could buy the most unbelievable lingerie sets in Syria. And that wasn't done secretly, you could simply buy it in a store. Most of the customers buying lingerie were these conservative women !
It was fun. People were very warm and very social. A very warm society, yet you constantly felt that fear like a sword of Damocles. We had a Kurdish lady who helped us clean our house. Something had happened for which the police came to our home. Immediately they started to accuse her son and I could see the fear on her face. Kurds were suppressed in that time. They weren't even allowed to speak their own language.Palestinians were also suppressed, they had no citizenship or passport. There was a special 'Palestine Branch', specifically for interrogating and torturing Palestinians. In general any Syrian who was openly critical of the regime was in danger. It was very different for us, if something would happen, we might be deported, but for Syrians, it was a very different story. It would be prison.
What many people don't know is that, for example, torture techniques in Syrian prisons match those of the Nazis. They use electricity, pulling out fingernails, suspending people and worse. Alois Brunner, an ex-SS officer who lived for years in Damascus, he developed the torture technique that is called "The German Chair". Brunner escaped via Egypt to Damascus after the second world war, and was not only protected by the Syrian government, but had also advised them in the field of nazi "interrogation techniques". Everybody in Syria knows what the German chair means.
It wasn't difficult to live there as a Western woman. A Western woman didn't need to walk around veiled and there was no major harassment on the streets. It was more politically strict. There was no Islamic law. But there was segregation, for example, I had a Christian friend who lived in the Christian neighbourhood (‘Aziziyeh) and he would never let his daughters walk to our neighbourhood alone. It was also quite anti-semitic, not extremely, but enough. Jews were never mentioned. People just didn't talk about it. As if Jews were not part of Syrian history. Whilst they are very much so. The Synagogue in Aleppo is very important in Judaic history because it guarded the Aleppo Codex, the oldest known tora roll in the world. Aleppo is called Haleb (Milk) because Abraham milked his cows on the place where the citadel is located. The historic Jewish community in Aleppo no longer exists. Most of them went to Brooklyn.
There is not a single Syrian culture, it is a mixture of different kinds of cultures, religions and ethnic groups, and that's how it always used to be. They were proud of that diversity. But there were tensions among the different groups, and you could see the regime playing in on thus. People were played out against each other and it was obvious that the top positions in the country were always in the hands of the Alawites. That was determined by the Assad family that ruled the country and the economy. It was like a mafia. As a result, 60% of the economy flowed right back in some form to the Assad family.
In 2000, there was hope that Bashar Al Assad and his wife could change things, but that hope disappeared quickly. Asma’a Al Assad was taken in like a kind of Syrian 'Lady Di'. Following the model Queen Nour of Jordan. They set up a foundation, the Syria Trust, a so-called FLONGO (First Lady Organised NGO) but it turned out to be for appearance, than that the foundation would bring about change or development for the countryside. The rural people were neglected. It was still a dictatorship. For ten years, people kept hoping for reform and the promised change, but there was little change. With the revolution, dignity, honour and a kind of spirit came out like a genie in a bottle, people heard their own voice for the first time, that's something you can't put back. In 2014, I visited the areas of Aleppo province which are under the control of the opposition and people told me they smelled freedom and now know what it is. But most of my friends from east Aleppo city have been forcibly displaced and live in the country side since the end of 2016. They are so extremely tired of the bombs and the battle. They live in tents and they really won't go back to life under the Assad regime.
I think my name has maybe been blacklisted by the Assad regime. I have published quite a lot over the years against Assad, and I helped Syrian opposition activists, so I am quite sure the regime knows about me and what I do. I didn’t check my name at the border but I won't be trying to cross to Assad controlled areas for a while. When there is peace in Syria, I will take the first flight and visit!"