Wednesday, 9 August 2017
On Cloth Scraps, Syrian Names Are Immortalized in Tomato Sauce and Blood
'Under the clinical white lights of a Maryland conservation center on Tuesday, Mansour Omari carefully laid out five scraps of worn material that have traveled within the collar of his shirt — past Syrian government forces and across oceans — covered in blood and rust, and in the fading names of the disappeared.
A human-rights activist, fighting for freedom of speech and chronicling the missing, Mr. Omari was arrested in February 2012 in his Damascus office and went on to spend about a year in a series of prisons, including nine months in a brutal facility under the supervision of Maher al-Assad, the brother of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
It was in that fetid underground jail that Mr. Omari and four of his fellow inmates set out to record the names of all 82 prisoners there, in the hope of informing their families and documenting the atrocities.
“When I was inside, I saw myself, what I was documenting,” he said. “I saw it firsthand. I felt it was my duty, actually.”
The resulting lists, which included the prisoners’ contact details, were sewn into the collar and cuffs of a shirt and smuggled out by Mr. Omari, who was the first among the group to be released.
The scraps of material are now being lent to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for an exhibition in Washington.
Back in that Syrian prison, with ruthless government guards watching over them, Mr. Omari and his friends had set about quietly improvising writing materials: Small panels of fabric were cut carefully from the backs of their shirts. Broken chicken bones were used as pens. And when the tomato sauce from their rations proved too thin for makeshift ink, the friends used blood from their ailing gums mixed with flakes of rust from the prison’s iron bars.
“We did it almost secretly. We didn’t want other people to know because there is a danger that some of them would tell the general,” Mr. Omari, 37, said, explaining how groups of cellmates form close friendships in the confined quarters.
“We were going to some groups, sitting with them, asking for their names,” he added.
Conservationists at the museum are preparing to study the fabric and are researching how best to preserve it. The chief conservator, Jane E. Klinger, said her team was looking to construct containers to hold the documents — perhaps from plexiglass fitted with ultraviolet lights — which have so far been buried within a notebook Mr. Omari bought at the civilian prison to which he was moved in late 2012.
“That’s a very good solution for a lay person because they’re protected, flat, there’s an amount of cushioning,” she said, using white gloves and small metal tools to look through Mr. Omari’s notebook.
On Tuesday at the museum’s David and Fela Shapell Family Collections, Conservation and Research Center, about an hour’s drive from Washington, Mr. Omari unveiled the names of the prisoners to a small group of conservationists.
Flipping through the notebook’s worn pages, he revealed memories, all dated carefully on the top of every page.
Scribbled neatly on the book’s tattered front are the words “la dolce vita,” or “the good life.”
“I don’t take it out so much,” he said in slow, hushed English. “It’s so emotional for me when I see it.”
“I was writing it for myself, trying to see that life is beautiful even after all that happened,” he added.
Some pages are filled with Arabic, lessons in journalism and poetry that Mr. Omari taught an illiterate prisoner. There are also lines of basic English — “She knows her nose is big” — as part of the language instruction he provided for others.
“You are in a place that you have all the time. You have nothing. You are doing nothing. You have nothing to do. So we had a lot of activities,” he said, explaining how inmates created “televisions” by holding up a sheet and taking turns to perform before it.
“I convinced people. We are detained. We don’t know how long we will be there,” he added. “But when you are released, if you have a language, that will help you.”
Mr. Omari, who now lives in Sweden, estimates about 100,000 people have been held by government forces in Syria, where half the population is thought to have been displaced since the war began more than six years ago.
Scraps of documentation are slowly emerging, including letters from inmates and more names of missing people, as well as photographs smuggled out of the country by a Syrian police photographer that show widespread torture.
Mr. Omari was arrested for his contact with foreign entities, among other things. And though the reasons for his release remain unclear, he says pressure from overseas is likely to have contributed to it.
This week, the family of Bassel Khartabil, another well-known activist, shared news that he was executed in 2015 shortly after being imprisoned.
Along with trying to share stories of the atrocities that are occurring in the Syrian war, Mr. Omari is calling on foreign powers to intervene in the conflict. He says that much of the public shares his view.
“They hate so much Obama because he drew a red line, and he didn’t interfere,” he said of former President Barack Obama. “They hate Obama so much, really.”
While President Trump’s decision to launch a missile strike in Syria in response to a chemical weapon attack in April was met with some criticism overseas, Mr. Omari said that among the Syrian public, “almost everybody was happy.” '