Curiosity and desire drove young Syrian Haya El Ali, 26, to befriend the Islamic State’s (IS) all female brigade in her hometown of Raqqa. She was driven by dissatisfaction with what had become the new daily reality in the city after its fall into the hands of IS. So she decided to say “no” in her own way.
She put on the niqab, hid a camera in her purse and roamed the streets of her hometown recording scenes that were beamed to the world and forced her into exile in France, where she now lives after receiving death threats.
Ali’s journey intersected that of Lyana Saleh, a Syrian reporter working for France 24, who, jointly with Claire Billet, produced a documentary about Ali titled “The Rebel from Raqqa.”
In the film, images that Ali took in Raqqa are mixed with scenes shot by Saleh and Billet of the rebel’s daily life in Paris since taking refuge there.
Ali now lives at the House of Journalists, which is sponsored by a foundation that helps members of the press who were oppressed in their countries. Among the emotional footage taken by Ali is that of a demonstration calling for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad and IS’ departure. A young girl features in the film part because her father was summoned for investigation by IS a month earlier, and never returned home. The girl cries and repeats that she misses him dearly.
Another scene shows Ali walking down a street, wearing the black dress that covers her from head to toe. A taxi driver stops to admonish her because her niqab did not adequately hide her features; she replies by apologizing and thanking him for his remark.
Another scene takes place in one of Raqqa’s Internet cafes, where a young veiled woman is seen chatting in French with her family through Skype, telling them that returning to France and seeking exile in Paris is out of the question.
Ali lives in a room overlooking a cemetery; this is no cause for joy, as it constantly reminds her of the dead who fall every day in her home country. Some solace fills her life when her friend Mohamed comes to visit from Germany. Mohamed chose to leave Syria out of fear that the war there would transform him, as it did others, into an executioner. But, contrary to Ali, Mohamed tries to adjust to life in exile and looks forward to a new future, despite memories that force him to sometimes recall the painful past.
Ali seems unwilling, perhaps even unable to adjust, and is constantly torn by her desire to return to Syria, despite her knowledge that such a goal might be difficult to attain. Her family has taken refuge in Turkey, and she surrendered her Syrian passport to the French department responsible for managing the affairs of political refugees.
Ali slowly and sadly flipped through the pages of her passport prior to handing it over; it is the last remaining Syrian document in her possession: a summary of her identity, roots and upbringing. Abandoning it forces her to face a new and unknown future.
France 24 airs the documentary Saturday, on the four-year anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian conflict, and at a time when the number of refugees has topped 2 million — each of them, like Ali and Mohamed, with a sad and bitter story about their country, war and immigration.
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