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Syria's revolution of love

By Mohja Kahf, Special to CNN
  • News reports of Syria's protests leave out the joy and hope of the Syrian people, says Mohja Kahf
  • After 48 years of brutality, the Syrian people have reached a tipping point, she says
  • Syria's decades-old democracy movement is nonviolent and has secular and leftist roots
  • Kahf: The movement is uniting Syrians despite their religious and cultural differences

Editor's note: Mohja Kahf, author of the novel "The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf," is a poet and associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas.

(CNN) -- Missing from mainstream coverage of Syria's uprising: love, hope and the gleam in the eyes of Syrian people awake as never before. Easily dismissed as quixotic by the jaded, this incredible florescence will see the revolution through.

Syrians have been brutalized beyond imagination for 48 years by the Baath regime. Now the people have reached a tipping point. For seven weeks they've been protesting -- despite a government crackdown involving mass arrests and hundreds of deaths -- for freedom and regime change.

Ever speak to an abused child who has no idea that it is not normal to live abused? To a battered wife trapped in the despair of "I can never get away?" This is the despair in which Syrians have lived, one in which my parents decided not to raise their children. They left Syria in 1971, when I was 3.

For the brave ones who never left the land, to break out of this malaise now, in 2011, and to begin the journey from victimhood to survivorship is painful, bewildering, transformative and joyous. What teaches a generation that grew up internalizing the rationales of an abusive regime to know to ask for freedoms it has never experienced? Being human.

What teaches Syrians to seek these rights nonviolently and with civil society as a goal? Two things. One is 50 years of an indigenous tradition of nonviolence. The second is a decades-old democracy movement with secular and leftist roots that experienced a brief blooming during the 2001 Damascus Spring before being pushed back underground. It gave rise to Syria's first internal opposition coalition, the Damascus Declaration, in 2005.

My mother learned about nonviolent social change and personal spiritual transformation from Laila Said on Mount Qasyun, overlooking Damascus, in the mid-1960s. Laila, who died in 2005, was an influential speaker and peace activist. If there were a Syrian "I Love the 1970s" TV program, Laila Said would feature in it as one of the cultural icons of the era.

"You'd take the micro-bus as far as it could go up the mountain," my mother told me recently, "then you'd get out and walk up the little stone staircase to her house."

Her smile, her humility, her genuine love for people are three things my mother remembers vividly about Laila.

Teachings of the Islamic nonviolence movement draw upon the Quran, Christ, Gandhi and an eclectic global medley of self-empowerment philosophies -- finally, I understand why my mother is always passing self-help booklets to me. At Laila's wedding, which bucked tradition, the bride handed guests a self-authored treatise instead of the usual frou-frou memento. Forty-seven years later, without pausing to search her memory, my mother told me that the title of this treatise was "How to Become an Effective Human Being."

Laila's essay was about personal transformation from an enslaved human being to someone empowered to effect change on the surrounding environment. This is the theme of the Syrian revolution of 2011.

Laila Said, her renowned scholar brother Jawdat Said (now 80 years old) and other proponents of nonviolent social change influenced people of the next Syrian generation in their travels from Damascus to their Circassian home village of Bir Ajam in the far south, and to north Syria, where Laila's marriage ties took her, becoming beloved to a generation of people across Syria -- people such as the Daran doctor Mohammad Ammar. Ammar, in his turn, reminded a rally of youthful protesters in Jasem on April 26 that nonviolence teaches an openness to negotiation.

He was arrested a few days later by the regime, according to Radwan Ziadeh, director of of the Damascus Center for Human Rights in Washington.

His activist daughter, my young friend Maimouna Ammar, a classic Daran beauty with her father's green eyes, is seven months pregnant with the fourth generation of Syria's nonviolent social change movement. Maimouna's father, her husband, Osama Nassar, and her friend Dana Jawabra are all in prison now, and her brother Suheib only recently released.

Maimouna's neighborhood in the Damascus suburbs is under frequent tank and sniper attack by regime forces. Mamun Bayram, a dentist married to Jawdat Said's daughter Kawthar, was imprisoned this week, along with many other advocates of nonviolent social change in Syria.

Yet the gentleness and love this movement generates, an antidote to the poisonous regime culture of thought police and brutality, will see the revolution through, along with the more hardboiled pro-democracy activists in Syria's cities, who are inspired more by having seen what nonviolent protest achieved this year in Tunisia and Egypt.

With the speed of time-lapse photography catching roses from bud to bloom, Syrians are forging new values with old roots, reaching out in new friendships, bonding in new loyalties that cross barricades and unite north with south, Alawites with Sunnis, Christians, Shias, and Druze. Syrians, who have lived a nightmare that seemed to have no exit, are looking each other in the eye and saying, "I love you; let's get out of this."

Maimouna's unborn daughter will know a new Syria.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mohja Kahf.