Saturday afternoon – May 2013, I receive the latest report from my contact in the UN; Ayn al-Tineh has been taken over by radical religious militias who massacred the men of the town, dumping their bodies in a mass grave and took 300 young women and girls as slaves; that’s correct, not hostages, slaves!
I reached for my laptop and opened the photo album documenting my visit to Ain al-Tineh in 2011; the memories I had stored away of Ayn al-Tineh reclaimed my consciousness, I felt a sudden shortness of breath and tears that had not shed since the revolution started gushed.
Ayn al-Tineh is a magical place in northwestern Syria located east of Latakia. It is situated on a limestone spur in the northern an-Nusayriyah Mountains. It derives its name from a spring that flows under the nearby Citadel of Salah Ed-Din, also called the Citadel of Zion.
To get to Ayn al-Tineh we drove an hour from the mediterranean seaside town of Latakia up into the mountains and through valleys. We drove along orchards and farms lush green and aromatic. Towards the end of our drive, the scenery became breathtaking; distant views of the glistening mediterranean, green dense forests, clear streams and virtually no civilization.
The Citadel stood as a reminder of the amazing achievements past generations had in this rugged terrain. The only transportation medium consistently running since the time it was built are the resilient brown mountain donkeys that looked more fit and well nurtured than any other donkies I’d ever seen. Our guide, a Ayn al-Tineh native, said “contrary to the bad reputation donkeys have in the Middle East, ours are particularly smart. They are sent on errands to deliver goods to neighboring farms, which they perform efficiently and effectively.”
We stopped to greet our guide’s father, Abu Salem, an elderly man in his 80s who was sat up on a metal frame running wires for grape vines to wind through while his son was beseeching him to come down and let him do it. Abu Salem joked that if was going to get done right, he had to do it and asked his son to give him a hand to get him down. He greeted us and asked us to follow him up the street to have tea at his neighbor’s home.
We drove up behind the two men, stopped the car and met Abu Adnan who insisted on us having breakfast with him and his family. He directed us to a side street shed housing a clay oven “Tannour”, a preparation table and a wooden dinning table and chairs.
Within minutes of our arrival, Abu Adnan’s daughter appeared with her mom carrying platters of dough and sauces. His son Adnan brought a pot of hot tea and a plate of fresh mint and mayramieh collected from their front yard. Um Adnan proceeded to knead the dough, cover it with the pepper, cheese, thyme and meat sauces and place it on the Tannour. The aromas were divine, paralleled only by the scenery of orchards and blue mountain sky.
Abu Salem gave us an oral history of Ayn Al-Tineh as we feasted on the assortment of homemade “Manaesh bi zaatar, flefleh, jibneh and lahmeh” served with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs. The lines on his face spoke volumes of his experience; the look in his eyes was probably as fierce as it had ever been. A decorated war veteran, who shielded Assad Sr. from three assassination attempts and survived the shrapnels of two bombs.
“God divides his fortunes evenly”, said Abu Salem as he drew on a cigarette he just rolled and lit. “We live in the most beautiful part of Syria, land we can farm, crisp fresh air we breath; but we are an economically poor community and have been for decades. When I was 16, I received a letter from the army inviting me to join for a stipend of 5 Syrian pounds per month. At that time, it was a fortune for me, so much so, that I literally kissed my mother’s hand, and ran out the door with the clothes on my back down to the nearest bus stop that would take me to Damascus. All the men in our community did the same given the opportunity.”
“Tell me about the Aloyat sect, how different or similar is it to Sunnis or Shias?” I asked, knowing full well that Ain Al-Tineh is in the heart of the Aloyat mountain range and wanting to hear an explanation of the sect from one of its own. Abu Salem inhaled and spoke in Quranic verses “We created you tribes and peoples to know one another and commune, the best among you in the eyes of God is the Taqi (one who guards his senses and actions from ill and harm to himself or others.”
He proceeded to say, “you probably heard this from your grandfather and others of his generation, we didn’t know the difference between muslim, christian and jew and certainly didn’t care. Some of us were preoccupied with getting basic life necessities, while others were rallied by the greater fight against colonial powers who invaded our lands and stole our resources. To stop and consider our religious practices as a dividing point would have been as absurd as me questioning your humanity. We prayed together, even if we didn’t understand the prayers, worked shoulder to shoulder and celebrated all holidays. We named each other’s kids after our prophets and saints and took oath under each other’s Gods. We intermarried, except when a family was known for its poor social conduct; no one wants to marry into a family of misers.”
When I asked him what he thought of the government today a sad look took over his face. “This is not what my generation fought for; the last time I set foot in Damascus, I visited the cronies in power and gave them a piece of my mind. I warned them that if they continue along the path they’re on, they are doomed, and sadly they will take many innocent lives with them.” Abu Salem lost two of his six sons; a pharmacist and a soldier defending civilians in the Golan Heights; both shot in the head. Abu Salem and his wife survived the Ain Al Tineh massacre, both are in deep mourning.