Photographer Who Vowed To Stay, Flees Violence In Syria
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And let's turn now to a Syrian photographer who's been living under and documenting his town under siege by the government. He has spoken to us occasionally over the last year under a pseudonym, Saeed al-Batal, even as his town Douma, outside Damascus, was being nearly destroyed. Food, water, hope all have been in desperately short supply. Aerial bombings had become a normal event. And when we couldn't reach him over this past couple of months, we were pretty worried. Then came a text from Beirut.
Hello, hello? Saeed, this is Renee Montagne.
SAEED AL-BATAL: Hello, how are you?
MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. How are you?
AL-BATAL: Good - better than good.
MONTAGNE: As it turned out, he had joined the exodus out of Syria, a journey he had vowed never to make.
You had said not only was it very dangerous to try and get out of Syria but also that you didn't want to leave. You had been under siege for so long, but this was where you belonged. What changed?
AL-BATAL: Well, hearing about it, get the idea into your head. I cannot say that it got worse, but it's the same for four and a half years, like you are under lottery of death every day, every week or so you come to a near death and you continue to another month or two, then you lose your house, then you find a new house and you lose your house again.
MONTAGNE: Although I do wonder when you did though get to Beirut, I had this idea that it would be a little like going from black-and-white to color in the sense there'd be so much going on. Is there an aspect of being in Beirut that you're recognizing from your previous life and feeling kind of good about it?
AL-BATAL: What I'm doing is trying to understand how to function in this reality because, like, all of what I've been used to do and helped me survive - I had tools - I have to put it aside for some now and get back to this society, the consumer society, you know, where there's 24-7 markets and where you have to get a steady job. There is nothing like what you see in the movies or hear in the tales as (unintelligible). I know it's not really more normal to miss war, but, like, it's normal to miss the way that you used to live.
MONTAGNE: I wonder about the smallest, smallest things if maybe there's some, you know, happiness of the moment to be found in something as simple as being able to eat an orange?
AL-BATAL: Yeah, when you eat your first orange, your first apple, your first banana - but in time, those first - and when I think about it, I think the need makes you understand what you really, really need to survive. After four years of not being inside a supermarket, now in a way supermarket have a million options. And somehow, a million options is like zero.
MONTAGNE: Do you sleep now?
AL-BATAL: I sleep, actually.
MONTAGNE: You do?
AL-BATAL: While I sleep here in Beirut, there is something I consider good, which is that the airport is near where I'm staying. We have a lot of airplanes traveling around, you know? And in a way, every day I still wake on the sounds of airplanes (laughter).
MONTAGNE: Only now they're not bombing you.
AL-BATAL: Yeah, but in a way that's something good.
MONTAGNE: Of course, I know you as Saeed al-Batal and our listeners do. But as we've said, that is a name you've chosen to give us because in Douma you couldn't tell us your name. Can you tell us your real name now?
AL-BATAL: I can tell you that my first name is true. But my second no, I cannot tell you because I still have families inside Syria. And second because I don't think it's about names, and I don't think that if you know the name, if you know the face that will change in the end - not just me.
MONTAGNE: Well, I for one am happy to hear that we have been calling you by your right name.
MONTAGNE: That's a nice thing.
AL-BATAL: ...So am I.
MONTAGNE: And that is Syrian photographer and filmmaker Saeed al-Batal, speaking to us now for the first time from Beirut. Thank you for staying in touch.
AL-BATAL: Thank you so much for caring.
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