I didn’t hear the news about Hajji Marea’s death until well after the event, although I had an inkling that it had happened. On the day he died in an airstrike in Aleppo I was 100km north, in the Kurdish region of Syria with patchy internet and phone signal. When I managed to get onto Facebook for a few brief minutes I saw that many of my Syrian friends had changed their profile photos to pictures of Hajji Marea. In Syria, that’s always a sign that something bad has happened.
By the time I got back to Turkey, newspapers and blogs were full of tributes to the leader of the Liwa al-Tawhid, the largest, and for a long time the most powerful, rebel brigade in Syria. It was too late to do a piece of my own – by that time I was five days too late.
But I feel that I need to write something about Hajji Marea, but not because, as some journalists have claimed, his death will be of any great significance to the eventual outcome of the Syrian war. It’s a personal urge. Hajji Marea was the first rebel leader I interviewed in Syria, and the piece I wrote about him – ‘Tea With Hajji Marea’ – was one of my first big exclusives for my newspaper.
I met him in February at the Tawhid’s base in Aleppo. It was 11 o’clock at night, and we had been waiting for for him over an hour in an underground room, listening to the relentless shelling in a nearby quarter of the city. The war in Aleppo was going full pelt. Hajji Marea was a busy man.
I was nervous. I was expecting to meet an imposing military man with serious hostilities towards the West. When he walked in I was confronted with a slight, smiling guy in casual clothes. I was instantly disarmed.
I liked him. He seemed shy and modest, and he didn’t stop smiling throughout the interview. He said that when the war was over he wanted to go and live on an island with his wife and young son, away from all the attention that had been thrust upon him. It was his family that I thought of first when I heard the news about his death.
But it is impossible to separate Hajji Marea from the rebel group that he led, which, in the months after the interview, I grew gradually more cynical about.
It’s no secret that the Tawhid is an Islamist group that has drawn much of its support, at least in the past, from the Muslim Brotherhood. They are usually described as a ‘moderate Islamist’ group, which – in comparison to the al-Qaeda aligned Jabhat al Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Sham – they are.
But moderate is a relative term. The more time I spent with the Tawhid, the more irritated I became at the strict code of Islamic behaviour they forced on me, an atheist journalist. On the streets of Aleppo, a multi faith city in a multi faith country, I was ordered by them to wear the headscarf. They said it was to show ‘respect for the people’. It wasn’t. Usually, when I entered ordinary people’s homes in Aleppo, the first thing they did was to tell me that I could take off the headscarf if I wanted to. This was all about respect for the Tawhid.
One day in May, as I was waiting at the Tawhid’s base in a baking hot car with an agonising headache for an interview that never materialised, growing gradually more furious at being ordered to wear an uncomfortable symbol of someone else’s faith, I ripped the headscarf off my head. “Fuck this,” I muttered to myself.
I will never forget the looks I got from the surly fighters who were hanging around the base. Several times I heard them whisper between themselves, ‘Sahafiya’ – ‘Journalist’. To their credit, no-one actually approached me and told me to put it back on, but I could feel the intense hostility.
More troubling, however, was the Tawhid’s and Hajji Marea’s willingness to accept the presence of Jabhat al Nusra in the city, and to fight alongside them on the front lines. The radical Islamist group’s base was right next door to the Tawhid’s, and in recent months it has been reported that they kept their hostages – foreign journalists and aid workers – in a building that the Tawhid shared with them. Hajji Marea never, publicly at least, protested at their increasingly worrying behaviour.
Members of the Tawhid, too, have been accused of committing similar crimes – of stealing and kidnapping for money in the areas they control. “Some of the Tawhid’s brigades are arseholes,” one fixer told me. If true, then maybe Hajji Marea was never really the strong and powerful leader he was so often portrayed to be.
By chance, I had spoken to a lot of people about the Tawhid Brigade while I was in the Kurdish region. It was they who had first entered the city of Ras al Ain and snatched it from the regime’s control. The city’s Kurdish residents apparently felt much the same as I did about them – they resented being told that their women had to cover their heads, and that they couldn’t drink alcohol. This was not the behaviour they expected from men who claimed to be fighting for freedom.
In August, the last time I visited Aleppo, the road outside the Tawhid’s base had been freshly tarmac-ed and a promenade of flag poles had been erected, leading up to the heavily guarded entrance. “We call it the UN,” laughed my fixer. And this just metres away from water mains burst open by falling artillery and schools and homes obliterated in the fighting.
I always felt uncomfortable with the Tawhid’s sense of their own self importance, and with the widespread hero worshipping of Hajji Marea. So many of the Middle East’s problems stem from its history of strong man politics and authoritarian rule. If this revolution is going to be in any way successful in the far off future, that is exactly what people need to break away from. When men are treated like Gods they tend to start acting like them too. The problem is that men are fallible.
The Tawhid’s power has waned in Aleppo since I interviewed Hajji Marea. Jabhat al Nusra, the group he said he was happy to fight alongside – have grown to eclipse them. And now even they seem moderate in comparison to ISIS, the latest and most brutal Islamist group to have entered Syria. If the Tawhid now falls apart it will make little difference to the war – the dynamics have moved on. But Hajji Marea’s death is sad and symbolic in a different way because he, like so many other Syrians who will never be written about in the newspapers, was ultimately just an ordinary man who found himself in the most extraordinary of circumstances. In that sense, there are thousands of others like him.