Anti-regime activist Tarek Algorhani talks about fighting guns with cans and tags

When Tarek Algorhani walked out of a Syrian prison in June 2011, he had no idea that a revolution had erupted in his country – or that it had ignited over a cause he had been thrown in jail nearly six years for championing: inalienable human rights.

In November 2005, Tarek and eight other bloggers founded Al Domary, a political site that used cartoons and other drawings to criticise the Syrian government and demand an end to the Assad regime. It quickly became one of the most popular anti-regime sites in the country. The Al Domary crew successfully used masked IP addresses and pseudonyms to evade the Syrian secret police until, three months after the site’s launch, one of their bloggers was arrested, tortured and forced to give up the location and identities of his comrades. The authorities shut down the site, confiscated their computers and destroyed all files related to the operation. In February 2006, the bloggers were convicted of treason and each sentenced to five years, except for Tarek, who received nine because the authorities considered him to be the site’s mastermind.

Tarek was sent to Sednaya, a political prison 14 miles north of Damascus, where his jailers subjected him to marathon torture sessions. They stuffed him inside a tire, spun him around for hours and beat him so badly he couldn’t walk. “We had prisoners who were moved from Abu Ghraib to Sednaya. They would cry at night, saying, ‘I want to go back to Abu Ghraib,’” he said.

The dark prison cells were filthy, and some of the inmates’ wounds became so infected that their legs had to be amputated. Escape was impossible; even if someone managed to sneak out, the surrounding desert was seeded with land mines.

Five and a half years into his sentence, Tarek was pardoned for reasons he still doesn’t understand. He returned to Damascus and discovered that a series of anti-regime demonstrations had begun. The thought of going back to prison didn’t stop him from joining the movement, and he returned to agitation in no time, teaching activists how to shoot videos and upload them to YouTube. He kept detailed lists of the missing and killed to send to human rights groups and established contacts to get first aid to anyone injured.

Barely six months passed before Tarek once again became a wanted man – his name had been flagged at security checkpoints, and he was listed as an enemy of the state on official records. In January, he fled to Tunisia and began another human-rights internet project – this one centered around tagging anti-regime graffiti throughout the streets of Syria. In mid-October I called him up to ask how the fight was going.

What prompted you to use graffiti to push back against the regime?

Tarek Alghorani: The revolution in Syria started because of graffiti. A small group of boys from Daraa watched the Egyptian and Tunisian revolution on TV, and they spray-painted the slogan “the people want the regime to fall.” The Mukhabarat, the secret police, arrested them, tortured them, ripped out their fingernails and that’s when the rest of the country broke out in protests. At the beginning of the revolution, whenever people assembled, there were only a few of them. The police and security forces could easily split them up with no trace left behind. That’s where the idea of drawings came in. Even if the police came in and dispersed people, anyone walking by later would know, “There was a protest here, revolutionaries were here.” It’s a stamp, a mark. And it’s difficult for the police, because they get tired. Every time they would clean up a wall, something else would appear.

What role do you play in this graffiti movement?

In the beginning, activists would just quickly spray the walls with words and phrases like “freedom” or “down with the regime”, like the kids from Daraa, but it was rushed. I wanted to introduce an element of art to it, something to commemorate the martyrs we have lost in the revolution. Our goal is to use art to voice our concerns. In April, I started uploading videos on YouTube of how to spray-paint walls and put stencil drawings on Facebook for graffiti artists to use.

What happens if the security forces or the Mukhabarat catch you tagging walls?

The best possible scenario is that they kill you on the spot. If they detain you, you’ll go to political prison where you’re tortured and will eventually die a slower, more painful death. You’ll die either way, but dying immediately while you’re tagging something is definitely preferable to losing your mind while getting tortured.

How many people have died over graffiti?

They killed Nour Hatem Zahra, who was known as Al Ragel al Bakeheh, or Spray Man. He was like Spider-Man or Batman. They killed him while he was tagging. People know about Nour’s death, because his family publicised how he died and held a funeral for him, saying, “Our son died for this cause.” That’s not always the case. Some graffiti artists who died, their families didn’t want to release their name or even hold a funeral for them. They’re scared the security forces could come after them. We think there are about 15 graffiti artists who have died for this cause so far in our particular movement. I have those names, but I don’t want to release them. It’s not up to me.

What exactly are these families scared of?

If a family holds a funeral, it’s like they’re proud or happy, so the security forces will then consider them a threat to national security.

What about your family? What’s happening with them?

My parents joined the first protests – from the very beginning, when I was still in prison. They’re still in Syria, but I have to maintain my distance. I try to call them every 15 days or so, but we keep the conversations short. They’re scared that they’re under surveillance.

Do all of the artists work exclusively in spray paint?

We also have Al Ragal al Dahan, the Paint Men, who are the artists in Syria who use actual paint and brushes. They paint larger murals, like big Syrian flags or full portraits of the martyrs who’ve died in the movement. There are more spray men, because they have stencils. They come quickly and spray their stencils on the wall so the security forces don’t catch them.

Are there any women graffiti writers?

Yes. We have Al Mar’a al Behkaha, Spray Women.

During the protests in Egypt, it was really dangerous for women. Some were getting sexually assaulted. Do you know whether the Spray Women experience that?

When we have women drawing on the walls, we usually take extra precautions to take care of them. As far as I know, none of the women tagging within our movement have experienced any sexual harassment since we take care of one another. We take care of the women just as much as we take care of the men.

What’s the best piece of graffiti you’ve seen?

It was a picture of a lock with members of the Syrian security forces inside it. You’d see it on storefronts or in alleys.

Many of the people who are anti-regime are also very religious. Do the stencils or any of the drawings promote religion?

We’re secular and religion is a touchy subject right now. We believe in a peaceful movement and in condemning the use of weapons.

What did graffiti look like in Syria before the revolution?

It wasn’t graffiti. It was mostly pictures of Assad. All the drawings on the walls in Syria were promoting the current government or regime. Sometimes you’d see giant paintings of the Syrian flag with government slogans underneath it.

What role do you think graffiti will have after the revolution?

I think that the revolution will continue, even if Bashar falls from power and the current regime ends. There are a lot of things we want and need and I don’t think graffiti will die. People may not write about Assad, but they will write about everything from human rights to social issues and express their desires that way. And the drawings of the martyrs will always be there, so people won’t forget them.