From Self-harm to “Jihadist”
Al Hayat- The voice of the muezzin (caller for the prayer) from the Harbah mosque in Bab al-Tabaneh called for al-Asr (afternoon) prayer. Abu Bakr set aside the box of vegetables he was carrying, cleaned his hands from the soil sticking to them with the tip of his shirt, excused himself from his boss, and went to pray. The mosque is very close to the green market where Abu Bakr works as a porter. He said he chose his mosque for its passionate and anti-establishment sermons. Like the rest of his generation who suffer from severe poverty– especially those at the northern outskirts of Tripoli–Abu Bakr earns his livelihood from menial jobs. He carries vegetable boxes from farmers’ trucks to his boss’s shop. That day, Abu Bakr didn’t work a full shift; hence, he did not earn his LL20, 000 daily wage in full. Instead, he accomplished a praiseworthy “noble mission” that was worth sacrificing a whole working day, as he put it. With a couple of “devout youths,” Abu Bakr acted on the advice given to him by the Imam of the mosque; who called for “replacing the flags of infidels with flags of the prophet.” They got to work, distributing black flags of “the One and Only God” to all the houses hoisting the flags of countries competing for the World Cup.
Abu Bakr said that the black flags; which soon covered all the muddy and miserable alleys, complemented the “heartbreaking incident” that occurred a few days ago (the slaying of Sheikh Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi). Moreover, “these flags are far better than the flags of infidels” said Abu Bakr. It is unthinkable that the local youth continue to support countries which kill Muslims in Iraq and/or Palestine. Nothing can persuade this 23-year old young man to believe that Brazil, Argentina or any other country taking part in the World Cup, are not co-conspirators to the war in Iraq. Perhaps the only time that Abu Bakr allowed himself to think about the World Cup was when he felt joy over the loss of the Iranian team to the Mexicans. It was an occasion to hit back at “those who fired shots, in certain areas, celebrating Abu Mus’ab’s death.”
Abu Bakr’s devoutness is still fresh. A year before, he made up his mind– he would pray, fast and follow the Salafi movement as a way to wash away all his past transgressions. He believes that his religious extremism will help him heal quickly and make up for his early lapses. He recalls how he turned to alcohol, drugs and self mutilation. His body still bears scars from razor blades and cigarette burns, or sizzling iron knives. The Nazi Swastika symbol and other tattoos brace his arms, legs and other parts he did not reveal. Abu Bakr describes that part of his life as a normal transition from childhood to adulthood, consistent with the culture of his neighborhood. A visitor to the busy market can quickly point out any young man who does not have scars or appalling tattoos on his arms, legs, or sometimes on his face. It is a complex and disturbed relationship with the body that can only be explained as a form of sadism or aggression against oneself and/or others. Whenever Abu Bakr tells a story of a wound or burn, he brings up memories of some sweetheart his folks prevented him from dating. He talked to her from the openings of the pipelines running between the sixth floor, where he lives, and the fourth, where she resides. He might also recall an old mate, who was jailed for firing an unlicensed gun, or he goes back to retelling the story of those long days he wasted on the streets, jobless and without a bite to eat. The young man used to meet with his friends to cut themselves– mostly when they were high and under the influence of the emotive love songs of Kazem al-Saher and Hani Shaker. The ritual of cutting began when one member of the group cut himself “for the goodwill of this man or woman,” in order to be shortly joined by the rest of the clique. Abu Saddam says when he gets furious; nothing calms him down except the sight of his own blood. Abu Bakr recalls one night when he was extremely bored, the house was quiet and everyone was in bed, he went to the kitchen, grabbed a knife, heated it up and started to burn his leg, “to amuse himself by himself” as he put it. His mother woke up to the smell of something smoldering and, seeing what she saw, she immediately passed out. Once she regained consciousness, she kicked her son out of the house.
The feeling of unease, mixed with bitterness and resentment, is common to most of al-Tabaneh’s populace, who live according to the tempo of the vegetable market and the mechanics’ workshops. The impoverished and overpopulated neighborhood does not give its residents any reason to be temperate or not to be frustrated. It has its own set of norms sketched out by the bullies who enforce it—psychologically or through the use of arms—on merchants or porters. These groups concede to the will of the bullies, in return for protection of their lives and property. There is a well-established internal dynamic which does not depend on the two sides signing a particular code of conduct, rather it consists of paying protection money or paying in-kind through gifts such as cell-phone cards, auto parts or services that please the “futuwah” (youth gangs) and fend off their wrath. The futuwah, according to the logic of this market, does not act out of evil intention, but out of gallantry and chivalry. His tough, brawny physique is not his alone, but for him it is a common asset of the neighborhood which should benefit from it and help keep it safe. It is a big responsibility in a densely populated area, yet at the same time an isolated quarter that is separated from the northern city by the Abu Ali River, and surrounded by Al-Alawiyyin Mountain, where the latter’s residents feel a sense of blood revenge towards the al-Tabaneh community.
Al-Tabaneh, a 3-square km area, was forsaken as a result of its long resistance to Syrian troops. Tripoli was declared to have “surrendered” only after al-Tabaneh fighters laid down their arms following fierce street battles between the Syrians and the Islamic Unity Movement. In the early eighties, the area witnessed a series of massacres, during which 1500 members of the movement were killed. The generations following the resistance, were punished due to an absence of almost all government services, except for the security forces, throughout the Syrian mandate. Today, Al-Tabaneh consists of 55,000 people over twenty-one years of age, according to voter registration records. This means that the sheer number of youths that inhabit its alleys are absent from any official or unofficial statistics or record keeping. These people have no access to government facilities, like hospitals or schools, except for two primary schools, from which its students regularly escape to the streets.
Abu Bakr is part of this milieu, where religious fanaticism mixes with delinquency– in the same way drinking water mixes with the sewers’ rusty pipelines. Abu Bakr, like most of his generation, lost his father at a very early age, during the massacres of the eighties. He grew up breeding animosity towards his father’s and uncles’ killers. He was still not even ten years old when he was forced to search for a way to survive. Since the females who impose their rule on the tight spaces that they call homes, the males of the family are forced into the street. The “feminine” rule does not conform to the ways of manhood, which liberates the latter from any sort of restraint. Mothers, sisters, and wives, who sometimes live under the same roof, have complete control within those small rooms. Control in terms of cleanliness, religious commitment and housekeeping chores that ranges from laundry and cooking to skin and body care. These daily rituals do not welcome the male members of the family, despite how young they may be. Not to mention that these women are financially dependent on the income of the male members of the family.
In those small houses, the rooms are divided in such a way that married sons have a priority for the bedrooms. For instance, 15 people live in Alaa’s home; this number includes sons, daughters, sisters-in-law and grandsons. The apartment’s two bedrooms were set aside for the newly-wed sons. The rest of the family is scattered in the living room or in corridors, or even on the balcony in the summertime. Sometimes, when the teens spend a few nights in prison, their brothers and sisters would happily occupy their sleeping spots. Alaa’s mother received her share of the war’s atrocities. A bullet mark is still visible on her forehead. She lost her eye and some of her sense of balance. She recalls how her children kept secret the detention of one of their brothers, telling her he came home while she was sleeping. She could do nothing else but believe them, recalling: “We were too many, and I could not count them every night.”
Today, a considerable number have already left home, leaving behind seven, including the mother, the single daughters and one son with his wife. The newly married couple moved into the mother’s room. The young bride, around seventeen years old smartened it up, applied a new coat of paint and redecorated the walls with colorful posters of pop stars Nancy Ajram and Amro Diab next to the golden-plated Koranic verses.
The balcony is sheltered from the curious eyes of passers with shutters that open only during sunset. It is restricted to the males, the mother, and the sister-in-law. Unmarried girls are not allowed to open them unless escorted by one of their brothers.
These houses are exceptionally clean and neat despite the signs of poverty which are clearly visible on the walls and furniture. The ragged chairs and shaved off wallpaper hanging down on the window shutters; do not hold back the women in charge of the house to give cleanliness special care, and sometimes overdoing it. The smell of homemade soap coming from the laundry lines in Alaa’s house, the aroma of incense which throws away grudge and flies, and even their light perfumes inside the house, cast off any doubt that the house might in any way not be clean.
However, this entire obsession with cleanliness disappears the moment you step onto the doorsill down the street. There you feel the slippery ground under your feet that results from the running water mixed with dirt, grass and the sickening smell of sewers.
The streets grabbed Abu Bakr when he was only ten years old. He worked at a mechanic’s workshop. There he was introduced to the kind of paint remover used by mechanics to soften or remove automobile paint, and with it, life’s uncertainties
He started with a couple of his peers to sniff the paint remover every night after the workshop closed. They applied a few drops on a piece of cloth and sniffed it until they went into a trance. This paint remover is relatively affordable for workers of low economic resources like Abu Bakr. Furthermore, it is considered to be legal, and available to them through their work. Most of the time, the workshop’s owner sends them to buy it themselves. Pointing with his forefinger to his forehead, Abu Bakr describes the dazzling effect of that substance which “goes deep into your head and erodes it from within.” He remembers when he was young and had his first shot of alcohol. “I was twelve then,” he said. My buddies dared me, so I drank the entire bottle in one swig.” He won the dare, and his status rose among the other youngsters. Eventually, he earned the title of a tough guy– a title that grew with him until he himself became a “futuwah”, living off intimidating the market vendors and bullying them to paying him protection money. Each week he paid a “visit” or two to a jail cell or a police station. At that time, which sounds very distant now, Abu Bakr was known by his first name, Omar. Later on, when he became devout, he chose his nickname Abu Bakr (after one of the prophets apostles), to distinguish himself from folks who used such names that demonstrated their might and authority. For example Abul Ghadab, Abul Zaman or Abu Saddam. His religious fervor went well with a beard and a cloak. It also went well with a new name, a clean reputation and a girl whose parents approved marriage; and most importantly, it meant power and authority emanating from serenity rather than fear.
Before his spiritual transformation, and proceeding the “polish remover” period, he used drugs. Khoder Khasseh—a name that promotes the allusion of a job as a lettuce seller, given that Khassah means lettuce—is to blame for promoting drugs among the neighborhood’s youngsters. Khoder remembers when he stole the sedatives his mother used to take and mixed them with alcohol. In no time, he became addicted. Due to the fact he was known to be a “futuwah” many of his mates copied him.
Yet, Abu Bakr recounts that his first experience with drugs was in prison. He explains how after being arrested during a street upheaval, he flew off the handle, screaming and banging his head on the wall,.A prison guard gave him some kind of sedative, and then another and another. Upon his release, he went straight to a drug store and got himself a box “ benzexol” at a cheap price of LL5,000 for 101 capsules. Soon, he found himself caught in the vicious circle of “pilling” (from pills) and mutilation.
Abu Bakr is nothing but a living example of an entire generation of al-Tabaneh orphans, left by the Syrian rule. They were brought up by young helpless mothers (so to say). Furthermore, they shared certain life experiences that led them to become sons of the same “da’wa” (sermons and religious mission). They are not typically city dwellers, but descendants of remote villages and towns in Akkar and Dinniyeh. Tripoli kept them outside the village since they were a shame on the elegant quarters of the city. The latter city was eager to wipe them out of its collective memory.
What eased their feeling of having no ties to a village or city, was running away from all kinship and social hierarchies. They chose a form of “in-house” solidarity among themselves. The first thing they set free was their names, which reminded them of their non-existent families. They preferred a nickname suggestive of power and domination. If this was not the case, they decided to be called by a name that was reminiscent of their job rather than their family surname. Khoder Khasseh, the lettuce seller, is a good example. There are also other examples such Akhu Khasseh (brother Lettuce) and Umm Khasseh (Mother Lettuce). If one would like to add respect to her name, one would call her Umm al-Abed Khasseh (Mother of al-Abed Lettuce)- a name pertaining to her eldest son, Abed.
Those youngsters embraced their poverty and praised it as a source of pride and self-esteem. To them, it is clear proof of their unwavering stand against collaborating with the security forces, who were known to recruit undercover agents and informants by illusions of money and power. They recount how the authorities tried to engage them in these hateful activities, through force or persuasion. They might detain some youngsters on some minor charge, only with the intent of releasing him later and giving him some money, a mobile phone and a telephone number to call “if he needs anything”. The hunt for this youth would begin two days later when his handlers hear no news from their informer. Accorfding to this culture, a real man one who turns down all these enticements and turns his back on the state.
Al-Tabaneh youth draw a distinction between the security forces and the army, and they base their assessment on the logic of force itself. When the army deploys in the streets “people are filled with terror and shops close for the day.” Abu Maryam remarked, “were we not fearless, they would not have needed force to confront us.” Moreover, “an army troop cannot be bought off with a LL20,000 bill,” boasts another. “On the other hand,” he adds, “the security forces would close their eyes to a fight, however fierce it might get, if it did not stretch outside al-Tabaneh. No one living outside ever heard of the two young men who were killed a week ago, and their case was “closed.”
Cutting themselves and marking their bodies does not stamp out the persistent urge to excise their internalized violence by transforming it into flowing blood or permanent scars. It is an act of allegiance and a means of affiliation within this group of despondent where each individual derives his strength from the collective entity.
A sense of acceptance and security amongst members of the group is reflected in the manner in which they sit, and even in the way they talk. Speech impediments, common among these youngsters, disappear when they engage in conversation with each other that occur on a street corner, or inside the barber shop.
In the absence of any logic guiding the life of that group, extremist religious sermons had a receptive audience and a supportive milieu. The mosques’ imams presented their religious project as a form of reformation directed towards the minds of lost youth. Thus, they presented themselves as the only salvation from the dangers and harsh realities of life on the streets, as they become the image of a lost father– an ideal they never had the chance to meet. When Sheikh Omar who was released in the al-Dinniyeh Case, and who is only 27, speaks to a youngster who cuts himself, he warns him that what he did is forbidden in Islam (haram), and that his body is not private property, rather, it is God’s. The helpless teen listens to him, then pulls himself together and surrenders his body to the Lord.
The religious discours has made the Islamic brotherhood stronger than blood ties, and this is precisely what these youths desperately need– in particular, those who grew up without a well established family or who were not from a highborn breed. Thus, the Muslim in Iraq, Palestine, and now Somalia, has become a true brother to them and they would passionately rush to his help when needed In addition, this rhetoric translates their innermost yearning for revenge on a society and a state that has mistreated them. Their initial attraction to this religiosity derived from an environment that valued and appreciated violence. With time, this became a quick-lighting fuel when their violence was painted with a political dye.
While many like Abu Bakr broke free from drugs “futuwah” and mutilation, their deep remorse created yet another kind of extremism. They never forgot the days of “futuwah” which still bears its scars on their bodies and on their souls. But, what drives them in the present time, and deepens their religious beliefs, is the idea that one day paradise shall be granted to them, in the same manner that it was allegedly granted to “their martyr” Abu Mus’ab, a “futuwah” of his neighborhood– just like them.