The final installment of the series on George Sabra in Qatar’s al-Watan newspaper was published on Saturday, 17 November, 2012 (Arabic text here). As acting president of the Syrian National Coalition he recently called upon the Free Syrian Army to save Qusayr from being recaptured by the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies. Meanwhile, the Syrian National Coalition is meeting in Istanbul to decide on its response to the US-Russian-backed call for peace talks with the regime, which it has previously rejected in calling for the ousting of the regime as a precondition for talks, and to choose the next president to succeed Mu’adh al-Khatib, since Sabra’s position is only acting (temporary) president of the Coalition.
Here is my English translation of the al-Watan article:
Tales of George Sabra (4)
by Ahmad Mansur
George Sabra continues his tales, saying, “During the period when I was arrested after the outbreak of the revolution in Syria – and I have been arrested twice, once for a month and once for two months, as I have already indicated – the prison was full of all parts of Syrian society, accused of participating in the revolution, and the majority of them were ordinary people. And because we do not mingle with the ordinary people in normal life, we are ignorant of the valuable metal in them, and I was taken by surprise with the level of morality, humanity, and courage, and the bravery and valor which belonged to these ordinary people among the uneducated. And I was taken by surprise with their humane character when they find someone to lead and direct them.
“Our number in the ward was three hundred and fifty prisoners, and we had one bathroom. You can imagine that with this number of prisoners using one bathroom, they were standing in a long line and registering their names so that they could get a turn simply to wash their faces or to go to the bathroom. And the ward’s capacity was only a few dozen people, so we were stuck together and could hardly move from the force of the overcrowding. And I was like them when I wanted to go to the bathroom, I would completely surprise those who were ahead of me, and one of them would shout, ‘Make way for the professor, you guys!” Then they all with generosity and agreement and preference were allowing me to bypass the queue, and all of them offer me respect and appreciation. And I still remember that in my life I never thought that three hundred and fifty people could exist in this narrow space and use one bathroom. And despite this they were accommodating one another.
“I remember that when I was convicted this past September, 2011, on the charge of trying to found an Islamic emirate in Qatana, and I am actually a Christian from the Communist Party, my family was attending the trial from the beginning of the day until its end, and they observed the presence of three people who were attending the court in a continual manner. At first they believed they were from the security forces belonging to the regime. Then my brother asked them after one of the sessions, ‘Do you have someone inside being tried?’ They said to him, ‘Yes, Mr. George Sabra.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you know Mr. George?’ They said to him, ‘We know him, but he does not know us.’ So he said to them, ‘I am his brother.’ So they insisted on taking my brother with them to their homes, and they were from a nearby village named Kanakir, and all of them were Sunni Muslims.
“I remember that when I came out of prison, there came women all wearing the veil and with them were men all bearded, and they insisted to me that they should take me to their homes. This revolution has embodied the national unity in Syria in a deep and unprecedented way. It is true that the ‘Alawites have made a deep and large problem between them and Syrian society, but the rest of the sectors of the people and specifically the Muslims and the Christians have held together in what they share in an unprecedented way. Just as the churches have been a target for bombing and destruction from the ‘Alawite regime, so the mosques have likewise been a target. It has demolished dozens of mosques and churches which reflect the historical, cultural, religious, and social identity of Syrian society for thousands of years, and it is as if the regime is not only killing people and terrifying them, but it is also wiping out the historical and social identity of Syria and its people. This is one of the greatest crimes in history.”
I asked George Sabra about the strangest thing which happened to him during his time in prison, and he said, “The prison was full of ordinary young men, and I had discovered the inherent metal of these people. When one of them learned that my charge was the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Qatana although I am a Christian, he was in a state of confusion. And when he had been around me in the prison he frequently approached me and his astonishment was continual that I was not a Muslim. And twenty days into our knowing each other, he came with the simplicity and boldness and good-heartedness of ordinary people, and he said to me, ‘Sir, I am amazed. How I could have been with you twenty days and not been able to bring you into Islam, so that you would become a Muslim?’ So I laughed and said to him, ‘You remain Muslim and I will remain Christian so that this national revolution may continue in which the whole people has risen up.’ Our relationship remained good and we did not stop laughing. And when they summoned me to release me after international and internal pressure, the young man came up to me in a hurry and said, ‘Reasonable master George, you are about to leave prison before our Lord should guide you to arise and pray two rak’as!’ [Ed. note: a rak’a is a ritual prostration in Islamic prayer.]
“These are the hearts of the Syrians, whom everyone used to believe that the injustice which has been inflicted upon them for decades had killed in them courage, valor, self-sacrifice, and the fight for freedom.
In this final installment, there are some very important details. He paints a picture of the naturally noble Syrian people which has, one and all, risen up against the tyrant. It is certainly true that the Syrian Civil War is the greatest uprising in Syria against the Assad regime. Sabra is at pains to present a Syrian people united in virtue, and specifically united across the sectarian lines which are being emphasized by jihadi rebel groups and Syrian state media. This non-sectarian paradise is no doubt conjured for the benefit of potential Western backers, for whom a sectarian civil war is a grim specter. The reference to the destruction of historical monuments, even before the minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque fell late last month, is also probably intended to evoke Western outrage against the regime.
Nevertheless, these accounts do not necessary reflect well on Sabra himself, as they reveal his classism and lack of prior connection with “ordinary uneducated people.” Sabra also engages in his own sectarianism, blaming the ‘Alawites as a whole rather than the Assad regime (indeed, labeling it “the ‘Alawite regime”) for any sectarian tensions. It is true that most ‘Alawites have sided with Bashar al-Assad, but a pre-revolution fear of post-revolution sectarian reprisals from other sectors of Syrian society is no doubt part of the calculus for many of them. Rather than attempting to woo the ‘Alawites away from Assad, Sabra here seems content to emphasize the ‘Alawite-Sunni Muslim sectarian divide in order to downplay the Muslim-Christian divide which is rather more dangerous to him personally.
Nor does he quite succeed in dispelling all fears of Muslim-Christian sectarian hostility. There is no reason to doubt the stories he tells of being the recipient of kindness and hospitality from Sunni Muslims, but his final anecdote about the “confused” Muslim in prison with him was probably a relatively tense moment, despite or perhaps indicated by the report of laughter. Sabra as a non-Muslim could not respond with any negative statement about Islam in order to explain his allegiance to a different religion without jeopardizing his politics and perhaps his physical safety, depending on the views of the other people in the room. Notice that he entirely dodges the issue by postponing any changes of religion until after the revolution is successful. He was probably not as entirely at ease as his narration presents it.
I hope this series of articles on George Sabra has supplemented the scant data available in English online with additional information, in his own words, indicating his character, some of his background, and his contentions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. This additional information will, I hope, allow non-Arabic readers to form a more accurate and nuanced picture of the Syrian Christian who is currently president of two of the more important rebel organizations in the Syrian Civil War, both the Syrian National Council and the Syrian National Coalition.