A man I barely knew was killed in a place I knew so well. Though we were mere acquaintances not friends, I remember him perfectly: tall, pale skin, groomed mustache, jet-black hair and piercing blue eyes. I remember he was always sharply dressed in a freshly pressed shirt and I remember his eyes were so pale, they seemed transparent. We moved in the same social circles for years and passed by each other from time to time. When our eyes met there was a flash of recognition, a nod of a head, a hint of a courteous yet fake smile, and then we would go our separate ways. After I heard about his death on December 5, I read what his friends posted about him on Facebook. He was described over and over as kind and gentle. I realized years too late that what I had mistaken as prying intensity and aloofness had just been reservation and shyness.
He was at a cafe in an affluent neighborhood of Aleppo. La Rose was a stylish hangout where people would go to drink coffee, smoke arghileh and socialize from dusk until dawn on the sidewalk terrace overlooking the busy boulevard that cut through the western part of the city. It was a place to see and be seen. It was a place where nothing more harmful than social gossip was ever exchanged between people.
Now it is a place where unknown assailants brazenly stop their car in front of a regime checkpoint to shoot a group of men in a cafe. They opened fire, returned to their car, and drove away.
Samer Kayali was an architect, a husband, and a father. He was a private man who had quietly supported the opposition as his friends told me afterwards. He was sitting with his cousin Ala’ Kayali, Morocco’s honorary consul, and the well-known judge, Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals, Mahmoud al-Beibi, who had built a reputation in the last months for easing the release of detained protesters, reportedly reduced fines to token amounts, according to a prominent lawyer in Aleppo. The three men were killed and three others were wounded in the shooting.
Samer is dead. Another number added to the thousands of dead. Yet another man who will be referred to in the future as one of the ones we lost in the dark years when Syrians senselessly killed each other in cold blood. In the years when Syrians stopped seeing each other.
How do you tell the story of a revolution? Through the stories of the people. These are our Syrian stories. The faces of our people — dead and alive, fighting and sacrificing — are the faces of Syria. Their defiant stories broke free from the “official,” suffocating narrative of Assad’s Syria. Their faces, in sharp focus, finally appear after years of a blurry existence. Before, our faces were nothing but masks that we wore out of terror. Before, our faces were reflective surfaces mirroring what was allowed and what was expected of us: silence. The leader’s face towered over us, his thugs listened in on us, and his brutality touched every Syrian who dared to question his dominating narrative.
This space will be a place to explore our stories in their triumph and their pain, in victories and loss, in history and memory. To listen to the voices and to see the faces of Syria after forty-two years of being silenced and erased. A symphony of voices that mourns what we have lost and imagines how we must rebuild our torn country. The stories remind us why we must never forget and why we must never stop seeing each other.
Once we stop seeing each other as Syrians, people get gunned down in cafes.
Samer is dead. These words pound in my head days after hearing the news. I wonder if he was sitting on the same chair I had sat on last summer. I wonder if he was looking out on the streets we walked on hundreds of times. I weep for this man I never knew and over the place I knew so well. I weep for his wife and his four young children. I weep because I wish, just once, I had smiled a more genuine smile and just once, I had said, Hello.
I wish I had seen him.