Mahmoud Abu Misto was born in 1943 in the city of Al-Zabadani in the Rif Dimashq province His family was poor and subsisted on agriculture. Society at the time was quite regressive, conflicts and problems sprung up among various groups of people that often resulted in deaths when feuds ignited between two different families. As a result of this, Mahmoud and his family ended up moving to Saida in Lebanon for two years until things grew calmer in the area.
When they returned to Al-Zabadani, Mahmoud’s family were forced to take up residence in his aunt’s orchard. They worked the fields for one of the local landowning families and lived in a single room built by Mahmoud’s father out of stone and brick.
“Most families lived in abject poverty, subsisting on dates,” says Mahmoud, “and the number of well-off people could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
“Social relations between the Muslim residents and the Christians, who made up about a quarter of the population, were quite good,” he continues. “People visited one another and attended one another’s gatherings and intermarried without difficulty. Everyone spoke the same special dialect that was hard for outsiders to decipher. Neighborhoods in the area were divided according to different extended families. Each family had its own particular neighborhood.”
Al-Zabadani acted as a center for the surrounding area. It had a government complex that housed the courthouses and the residence of the provincial governor and was famous for its cultivation of vegetables and fruits, particularly apples.
The city’s residents, however, suffered from repressive measures and security constraints, because of the presence of an educated group of people who were aware of both their rights and duties as citizens. They were vocal in criticizing the successive regimes that had taken over rule of the country, beginning with Shukri al-Quwatli, to Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled when Egypt and Syria united under the banner of the United Arab Republic. Nasser followed the same repressive policies pursued by al-Quwatli, establishing what was known as the “Second Office” for the purpose of spying and informing on people.
“That educated class in Al-Zabadani,” says Mahmoud, “as well as some members of the Baath Party—this was during the early days of the Party, when it was still honest and uncorrupted—began holding secret gatherings in which they criticized the ruling parties. In 1969, the Baath Party began taking on a sectarian bent as more and more people from the Alawite sect were recruited into the army. The Party fragmented from the inside into a rightist faction and a leftist one, and people began taking positions against it and against the events that were happening in the country at the time, electing not to join the Party.”
Mahmoud’s way of thinking aligned more with the rightist current of the Baath Party, which sought to unite all the Arab nations together under a nationalist leadership. The left wing of the Party, on the Syrian side, was led by the Qataris, who worked independently without consulting with the nationalist leadership. It was the leftwing current that subsequently took over the country’s rule, made up of people from the Alawite sect under the leadership of Hafez al-Assad, who was at the time the Minister of Defense. He mounted a military coup to oust President Amin al-Hafiz from power and jailed him along with a group of his loyalists, as he had tried to eject a number of leftist Party officers from the government.
Mahmoud threw himself into political activity, still working on the side of the Party’s right wing current. He met and talked with left wing Party members, which led to his name being placed on a wanted list. He was forced to move to Lebanon until a pardon was issued for the former president Amin al-Hafiz. The latter was released from jail and, along with a number of other nationalist leaders, held a nationalist conference in Lebanon in 1968.
One of the goals of that conference was to mount a coup in Iraq, an effort which indeed came to fruition. On the heels of the successful coup, Mahmoud, along with about 300 fellow Syrians, traveled to Iraq as a supporting force, in accordance with directives from the nationalist leadership, who sent them to undergo military training in Iraq.
All of them had been chosen for their educational and military qualifications, and the goal of the training was to re-unite the divided Baath Party and to have a force strong enough to overthrow it should the need arise. This was a time when President Hafez al-Assad had not yet cultivated any international relationships, and removing him from power was still a possibility.
After four months of training, the organization Mahmoud belonged to was discovered and its leaders all jailed in Syria. Conflicts broke out between all the recruits, who were divided between those who joined the Iraqi Army and those who worked under the nationalist leadership. Mahmoud decided the best course of action would be to return to Lebanon so he could turn his attention to his family and his parents. From Lebanon, Mahmoud sneaked into Al-Zabadani where he was captured and arrested at the beginning of 1970. He denied all the charges, and some of the precautions he took, such as burning his passport, led to his release after a mere fifteen days, at a time when his peers were being sentenced to ten years.
“After being released, I promised myself never to involve myself in political activity anymore,” says Mahmoud, “out of fear of the government’s intelligence apparatus. And that’s what I did. I went back to my normal life, I married my brother’s widow and adopted his children because I felt that this was my duty before society. I kept my stint in Iraq a secret, telling only my wife and later, my children.”
Mahmoud remained under the scrutiny of the security apparatus, a result of suspicions aroused by his previous involvement in the rightwing faction of the Baath Party. Questions about the truth of his travel to Iraq and his military training there continued to swirl around him, which led him to continue moving between Lebanon and Al-Zabadani for a number of years.
In 1980, Mahmoud traveled to Saudi Arabia in search of some financial security. After two years of working there, he managed to save enough money to buy a piece of land, which he saw as the fruit of his labors. He took care of it and built a cement well in order to irrigate it. The success of his project led many of the residents around him to take the same steps, working to maintain and exploit plots they had neglected. But the harassment by security forces began anew, and questions arose about his possible involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Al-Zabadani and Bloudan were both areas that witnessed a lot of development,” says Mahmoud, “with a construction boom as of 1982 that led to many tourists choosing to summer there. Cafes, hotels and restaurants opened up to cater to the new influx of arrivals to the area.”