NS Christmas campaign: Show your solidarity for Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman

The Egyptian activist was beaten by soldiers as she tried to come to a woman's aid during last year's protests in Tahrir Square.

It was the quest for freedom, justice and democracy which spurred thousands, like Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman to protest in the streets of Cairo and elsewhere across Egypt last year.

Determined to dwell in a country based on human rights and democracy, ordinary men and women gathered in Tahrir Square to call for the overthrow of President Mubarak and for a new regime across Egypt. 

For many Egyptians, including Azza, the demise of President Mubarak provided a sense of relief and the promise of the beginning of a more just and fair society.

It is tragic then to see how the recent actions of current ruler, President Morsi have compelled thousands of Egyptians to return to Tahrir Square once again to reiterate demands for the freedoms for which they so bitterly fought last year.

Azza is one of the thousands who suffered at the hands of the security forces in Egypt last year. In spite of her own physical and emotional trauma she has returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to fight again.

On 17 December 2011 – exactly one year ago - Azza was brutally attacked by soldiers in Egypt. She was in Tahrir Square when she saw soldiers attacking another woman – stripping her of her clothes and beating her.

Immediately, Azza and a few other demonstrators rushed to the woman and tried to carry her away from the attacking soldiers.

Enraged, the soldiers turned their fury towards Azza. They beat her so viciously that she fell to the ground unconscious. Azza ended up with her skull fractured in two places, and she now suffers from severe memory loss as a result.  

She is still waiting for justice from the authorities for this violent attack.

Today Azza fights two battles. On one hand, Azza still demands justice and democracy for Egypt. On the other she is also fighting for justice in her own case.

As one of the cases featured in Amnesty’s Write for Rights Campaign, Azza’s case has already received attention from several quarters including Dame Vivienne Westwood. 

“Empathy is what makes us human,” Vivienne Westwood tell us in a new Amnesty film (see below).

She later told us, “The bravery shown by Azza Suleiman who dared to stand up for another woman who was being beaten, and paid a heavy price in doing so, is both awe-inspiring and humbling.”

Show your empathy by taking action for Azza at www.amnesty.org.uk/azza

Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman is still fighting for democracy in Egypt and also justice in her own case.

Eulette Ewart is a press officer for Amnesty International UK.  Follow Amnesty's media team on Twitter @newsfromamnesty.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle