Jaber Hassan Al Choufi

Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Syrian Histories,
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Interview Location: Turkey
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Jaber Al Choufi was born in 1947 in the village of Sama al-Bardan in rural Damascus. He says that his grandfather was the mayor of the town of Salkhad, but conflicts and violent incidents caused him to leave the town with a few relatives, and head towards Sama al-Bardan to rebuild this Roman archaeological village that contained many old monuments and sculptures.

Moving between many communities and regions provided Jaber with rich experience. He went to middle school in the city of Sweida, then moved the city of Homs, where he stayed 4 years to study in a teacher training institute. Then, he was employed as a teacher in Al-Raqqa governorate, where he stayed around 4 years before heading off to teach Arabic Literature in the University of Aleppo, from which he graduated in 1974.

Jaber says, “I think the most important experience in my life was studying in the city of Homs, where around 1,200 students from different Syrian governorates gathered at the teacher training institute. This experience broadened my horizons and opened my eyes to the diversity in Syrian society, contributing to my personality and consciousness.

After graduating from the teacher training institute in Homs, Jaber was employed as an elementary teacher in one of the villages of Al-Raqqa governorate. He recalls the poor infrastructure of the schools in these rural areas where a single mudroom housed 6 classes with students of different ages. He says, “Life in Al-Raqqa in the late 1960s was overcoming what was called feudalism. In my opinion, agrarian reform had a negative impact on people because it divided property into small parts that weren’t sufficient for the owners. Instead of improving agriculture in the direction of capitalism, the reform completely fragmented it. It failed to liberate peasants from feudalism.”

Jaber studied Arabic Literature at the University of Aleppo, then taught in several high schools in different districts of Aleppo, which he became very emotionally attached to. He felt a deep humanitarian connection with Aleppo’s society. Jaber was a member of the Communist Party at the time, about which he says, “The Communist Party had a strong presence at the beginning of President Hafez al-Assad’s rule, but split due his interference that weakened parties by restricting their activities and linking some of them to what was called the National Progressive Front in 1973. These parties joined the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party, agreeing to an article stating that it led state and society. This weakened them, especially during the 1980s when the country witnessed a power struggle with the Fighting Vanguard group. This hard and unfortunate period caused Assad to tighten his security grip on the country and abolish any remaining political and trade union activity.”

Jaber lived in a state of anxiety during that period. On one hand, he didn’t find himself on the side of the government, and on the other, he wasn’t on the side of the groups who adopted security and military activity as a way to oppose the government. He says, “During that period, we represented the independent part of Syria that wanted the country to improve at all levels. That is why I didn’t want to get involved in taking sides between the government and the

opposition.”

According to Jaber, the Fighting Vanguard, with its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, didn’t find popular support in Aleppo society. People weren’t ready to accept the religious radicalization that the Vanguard represented despite street protests and demonstrations in Aleppo by groups unrelated to the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the Syrian Democratic People's Party, a faction of the Communist Party whose members paid a heavy price for their rebellion against the regime. Many of them were imprisoned for years, while others were tortured to death in prisons and detention centers.

Jaber quit political activity and withdrew from the Communist Party. He started becoming aware of mistakes resulting from engagement in Socialist Party activities, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and socialism in the early 1990s. He realized that this system, which he and his friends viewed as an icon of socialism and hope for the poor, was merely a bureaucratic organization. Consequently, he rethought his political experience and assessed the state of democracy. He says, “When I quit the Communist Party, I told a few of my friends that the party bore historical responsibility for the absence of democracy in society and political life in general. We had to start a new phase of work and democratic activity because socialism and justice were nonexistent in the absence of democracy.”

After spending 20 years in Aleppo, Jaber returned to the governorate of Sweida in the early 1990s, where he continued teaching for a year then resigned with the intention of leaving Syria. However, he found himself prohibited from getting a passport, so moved to Lebanon in 1995, where he worked as a teacher in a private school for 7 years. Later, he went back to Syria and worked in a civil society organization involved in defending democracy and human rights. He continued working with the organization until 2007, when he was arrested for having participated in 2005 in the so-called “Damascus Declaration”, which proposed a document emphasizing the need to move from a totalitarian system to a democratic one. The document was not implemented, nor was the conference held until late 2007, when it was organized by the 163-member National Council of the Damascus Declaration. “It hadn’t even been a week since the closing statement of the conference was published online when I was arrested along with 11 people who were leaders or supporters of the conference,” Jaber says.

Jaber spent two and a half years in Adra prison, where he was accommodated alongside prisoners who had committed moral crimes such as rape, while his friends were housed with homicide and theft offenders. The intention was to insult them by treating them as political prisoners.

Jaber was released in 2010. He returned to Sweida and became politically active through weekly visits to Damascus, where he met with friends from the Secretary General of the Damascus Declaration. Together, they published a statement shortly before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution addressing the Syrian youth in messages and recommendations, warning them not to be swept along by sectarian tendencies. The statement was issued when they realized that revolution was inevitable, especially after the events of the so-called Arab Spring reached Egypt.