THE WRITING IS ON THE WALL
ANTI-REGIME ACTIVIST TAREK ALGORHANI TALKS ABOUT FIGHTING GUNS WITH CANS AND TAGS
An anonymous activist who participates in the graffiti movement.
When Tarek Algorhani walked out of a Syrian prison in June 2011, he had no idea that a revolution had erupted in his country—or that it had ignited over a cause he had been thrown in jail nearly six years for championing: inalienable human rights.
In November 2005, Tarek and eight other bloggers founded Al Domary, a political site that used cartoons and other drawings to criticize the Syrian government and demand an end to the Assad regime. It quickly became one of the most popular anti-regime sites in the country. The Al Domary crew successfully used masked IP addresses and pseudonyms to evade the Syrian secret police until, three months after the site’s launch, one of their bloggers was arrested, tortured, and forced to give up the location and identities of his comrades. The authorities shut down the site, confiscated their computers, and destroyed all files related to the operation. In February 2006, the bloggers were convicted of treason and each sentenced to five years, except for Tarek, who received nine because the authorities considered him to be the site’s mastermind.
Tarek was sent to Sednaya, a political prison 14 miles north of Damascus, where his jailers subjected him to marathon torture sessions. They stuffed him inside a tire, spun him around for hours, and beat him so badly he couldn’t walk. “We had prisoners who were moved from Abu Ghraib to Sednaya. They would cry at night, saying, ‘I want to go back to Abu Ghraib,’” he said.
The dark prison cells were filthy, and some of the inmates’ wounds became so infected that their legs had to be amputated. Escape was impossible; even if someone managed to sneak out, the surrounding desert was seeded with land mines.
Five and a half years into his sentence, Tarek was pardoned for reasons he still doesn’t understand. He returned to Damascus and discovered that a series of anti-regime demonstrations had begun. The thought of going back to prison didn’t stop him from joining the movement, and he returned to agitation in no time, teaching activists how to shoot videos and upload them to YouTube. He kept detailed lists of the missing and killed to send to human rights groups, and established contacts to get first aid to anyone injured.
Barely six months passed before Tarek once again became a wanted man—his name had been flagged at security checkpoints, and he was listed as an enemy of the state on official records. In January, he fled to Tunisia and began another human-rights internet project—this one centered around tagging anti-regime graffiti throughout the streets of Syria. In mid-October I called him up to ask how the fight was going.
A paper stencil against a wall in Syria that reads: “The Martyr Ahmed Asham.”
VICE: What prompted you to use graffiti to push back against the regime?
Tarek Alghorani: The revolution in Syria started because of graffiti. A small group of boys from Daraa watched the Egyptian and Tunisian revolution on TV, and they spray-painted the slogan “the people want the regime to fall.” The Mukhabarat, the secret police, arrested them, tortured them, ripped out their fingernails, and that’s when the rest of the country broke out in protests. At the beginning of the revolution, whenever people assembled, there were only a few of them. The police and security forces could easily split them up with no trace left behind. That’s where the idea of drawings came in. Even if the police came in and dispersed people, anyone walking by later would know, “There was a protest here, revolutionaries were here.” It’s a stamp, a mark. And it’s difficult for the police, because they get tired. Every time they would clean up a wall, something else would appear.
What role do you play in this graffiti movement?
In the beginning, activists would just quickly spray the walls with words and phrases like “freedom” or “down with the regime,” like the kids from Daraa, but it was rushed. I wanted to introduce an element of art to it, something to commemorate the martyrs we have lost in the revolution. Our goal is to use art to voice our concerns. In April, I started uploading videos on YouTube of how to spray-paint walls and put stencil drawings on Facebook for graffiti artists to use.