Georges is 20 years old, with a contagious smile and a footballer’s haircut. No different to any of the thousands of 20-year-old Georges in the world, then. But this Georges was born and grew up in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State since June 2013*. As his family had always lived in Raqqa and didn’t want to lose everything they owned, they stayed in Raqqa. For a year and a half. Then they finally left.
Raqqa is a very beautiful river town – founded by Alexander the Great – on the Euphrates.
Georges, his tone unchanged, tells us that in Raqqa, he saw a market where Yazidi women were being sold. They were chained together by their ankles and wrists. One of his neighbours, new to the area, a member of Daesh, bought one. They went to choose her, he and his life. Afterwards, Georges saw her: she would hang out the washing on the balcony every day.
Geroges explains that in Raqqa, he didn’t go to an Armenian school, but to a government one. There, they were all mixed together. No one called him an Armenian or a Shiite. No one cared about that kind of thing.
He carries on: when they arrived, the Daesh men rounded up all the Christians, telling them, “Either you leave, or you convert, or you pay the Jizyah (Christian tax)”. His father didn’t have a choice; he opted to pay the Jizyah. First, they destroyed the Shiite mosques. The Shiites fled, or were killed. The Christians weren’t killed, except, of course, those enlisted in the federal army: they were decapitated, or worse (as for what could be worse than decapitation, I didn’t ask).
Georges loves Raqqa. It’s his dream to return some day. To start life there again. When Daesh has gone.
Georges insists that it’s not the people of Raqqa who are Daesh. It’s the strangers, those who came and forced themselves on the town. The citizens of Raqqa didn’t want any of it. A girl from Brussels, I’d always thought that the terrorism we feared came from Raqqa. That everything was Raqqa’s fault. And there, before me, was a guy from Raqqa who was telling me that those madmen in Raqqa had in fact come from my home coundtry, my home continent.
Finally, I asked Georges, “And where are your parents?” He responded, “My mother and father are in Raqqa. They went to pay their Jizyah. They’ll be back tomorrow”.
Before, Raqqa for me had been synonymous with decapitations, Yazidi slaves and women who were beaten because under their burqa, they were wearing shoes that weren’t completely black. Now, when I hear the name ‘Raqqa’, I think of Alexander the Great, of Georges’s smile, and I fear for his mother, who could well be in the city, there to pay her monthly Jizyah.
Photos: Kamichli. Dec. 2015. Marie
*Between 2011 and 2013, in the context of the Syrian civil war, the town experienced many skirmishes between the Syrian government (lead by Bachar El Assad) and the rebels of Jabhat al-Nosra (which claims to be Al Qaeda). In March 2013, Raqqa was the first large city to fall into the hands of the Al Nostra rebels. In June of the same year, the city passed under the rule of the Daesh Islamists, who made it their capital.
Why highlight the difference between Al Nosra and Daesh? Because they are no longer aligned. Although founded by Al Qaeda, Daesh is carrying out a fratricidal war against Al Nosra. This is perhaps because both come from Salafist ideology. Al Qaeda preaches a global jihad so as to restore the caliphate, and Daesh wants to establish the caliphate before exporting global jihad. Or maybe because they’re both mad. Mad about God, mad about power, mad full stop, and they make war against everyone because they’re mad.
*The Jizyah is the tax ‘per head’ that non-Muslim adult males have to pay. In exchange for this tax, non-Muslims can demand the protection of the Muslim sovereign against exterior aggressions, are exempted from military service and from the Muslim duty to pay the Islamic tax.
This finds its justification in the Quran, in Surah 9:29: “Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture – [fight] until they give the Jizyah willingly while they are humbled.”