For the first ten years of his life, Omar Jibaiy had only ever met his father through the bars of a prison cell. He was just 45 days old when his father, the artist Ghassan Jibaiy, was arrested in 1982 for his political activity.
Omar continued to visit his father, first at Tadmor Prison, then at Saydnaya Prison, accompanying his mother over the course of ten years. He was so young he couldn’t quite grasp the significance of his father's imprisonment, or, how painful those visits were. He saw the visits to the prison as joyful excursions, getting to stop at rest stops in Tadmor (Palmyra) and receiving gifts and little handmade pieces from his father, who always welcomed him with a bright smile, his whole demeanor an embodiment of the image of the ideal father, the image his mother had continually reinforced for Omar during the years his father spent in prison.
Omar grew up in the Rakn al-Dine neighborhood, also referred to as Kikiya, in Damascus, and spent holidays at his maternal grandmother’s house in Sweida. He received a lot of support and acceptance from the surrounding community, who saw him as ‘the son of the heroic prisoner.’ Likewise, he received a lot of sympathy at school when the subject of his father’s arrest came up. His mother devoted all her love and care to raising her son, sacrificing much for his sake so they could manage to live on her meager salary, supplemented by some help from the extended family.
Ghassan Jibaiy was released from prison in 1992, and was welcomed with jubilant celebration by family, neighbors and acquaintances alike. In the midst of all that joy, Omar felt suddenly plagued by strange feelings at the advent of this new person into his life, a person he hadn’t really communicated with before. Problems began to arise as a result of Omar being unable to adapt to his father’s presence. The relationship got so bad between them at one point that they cut off all contact for a period of time.
“I never knew the meaning of separating from one’s father,” says Omar, “but I tasted the bitterness and pain of reunion after an absence of ten years.”
After his release, Ghassan went back to his work as a playwright, working on a number of plays and TV series, including “Al-Ouasaj,” in collaboration with the director Najda Anzur, and in which a fifteen-year-old Omar also had a role.
Omar studied at the Higher Institute for the Dramatic Arts, but he never tried to capitalize on his father’s famous name, as he felt it was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, his father was very well-known in the artistic circles, but among people who had no real power. On the other hand, official government authorities refused to work with him because of the fact that his father was a former political prisoner. Omar worked on building a name for himself on his own, taking a job as a producer for children’s shows for the Al-Jazeera channel in Qatar, where he lived for about three years.
Omar traveled to Qatar without his father’s knowledge, and didn’t communicate with him the entire time he was there. Their relationship remained non-existent until Omar began attending therapy sessions, which helped him begin to understand himself better and analyze the reasons behind the problematic relationship with his father. To start to repair it, he offered his father an apology.
Omar then returned to Damascus and took up a job at a television station there for a short while, moving on to a position at an NGO working on a program called ‘Building a Cultural Map for Syria’. Omar describes it as an important initiative designed to preserve culture and disseminate it through almost all of the less culturally active Syrian provinces, with the exception of Damascus and Aleppo.
In April 2010, Omar began his obligatory military service, in conscription round no. 120, which has become the most infamous military round after the outbreak of war in Syria, as most of its members are now permanent army conscripts. Omar was therefore forced to desert the army and flee to Lebanon.
“I consider myself a displaced person,” says Omar, “not a dissident, because what’s happening now is no longer a revolution. It has become an armed conflict and struggle over power.”