The one possession I’ve kept with me since my high school days in Saudi Arabia has been my Sony FM-medium-shortwave radio. Having spent almost my entire life in the Middle East, my radio has always been essential to me when news was limited, censored or in the case of Syria, I was cut off from the very infrastructure of a modern society (you know, things like electricity and communications).
During the first Gulf War, my radio helped me keep up to date on all the news, and bypass the censored and sanitized local news sources. During my university days in Jordan, it helped me keep up with the BBC’s coverage of football matches.
And during the Syrian Army’s assault on my neighborhood of Inshaat in February 2012, it was my one and only source of news on the mayhem going on in my very neighborhood.
In 1990, my family and I lived in Dhahran in Eastern Saudi Arabia, and in the lead up to the first Gulf War, getting reliable, unbiased and unfiltered news was very challenging. Heck, Saudi media hadn’t even reported Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait until three days after the fact. This was in the days before satellite receivers became common place, and 24 hour news satellite channels were a dime a dozen. The only thing on television was what we could get on our TV antenna; local Saudi channels, the Aramco (the Saudi government owned oil company) channel, and weather permitting, Bahraini channels. Sometimes we’d get a glimpse of the Emirati channels.
And so on my birthday, my dad got me a Sony 12-band radio, and told me to listen to any and all English language stations that I could pick up, and figure out what was going on with the politics and military build ups. You just had to walk the streets of Dammam and see all the American soldiers to know that George Bush senior was serious as hell.
At the time, the American military had their own news and entertainment radio station on the FM band, as did Bahrain, the UAE and Aramco (although why Aramco devoted so much bloody time to country music was something I could never figure out). The medium and shortwave bands were an even bigger bonanza of English language channels. The BBC, Voice of America, Russians, Israelis, Kuwaiti exiles, and pro-Saddam collaborators in Kuwait, and even North Koreans all had English language broadcasts to the Middle East on some frequency or another. I found it very interesting that the Israelis were as obsessed with gas masks and protection as we were in Saudi.
When the war finally started in January 1991, and Saddam started lobbing his Scuds at us, dramatic alerts would come on on television and the radio in the event of missile attacks. Gas masks were not to be used unless an announcement was made during those alerts (I guess they waited to see if people started dropping dead from sarin gas to warn the rest of us). I almost never turned off my radio, and soon learned the value of keeping stockpiles of alkaline batteries on hand. Zinc carbon batteries just couldn’t cut it.
When I went to Jordan for university studies, I took my radio with me. A satellite dish was beyond my means in the mid 90s, Jordanian TV’s programming was very feeble (one Christmas their holiday programming consisted of just four episodes of Mr Bean), and I didn’t understand a word of Hebrew to enjoy Israeli TV.
And so my radio became my primary source of entertainment when I wasn’t playing computer games. I continued to enjoy the BBC’s weekly comedies, dramas and daily news programs that I had learned to love as a teenager in Saudi. And their coverage of the English league’s football matches was superb.
Fast forward to 2011, and I finally had a home to call my own, in a lovely neighborhood called Inshaat in the Syrian city of Homs. It had a big garden, and the finishings were amazing. The neighborhood was well serviced with brand new supermarkets. And miracle of miracles, I actually managed to obtain an ADSL line in just one month. In Syria, that’s nothing short of miraculous. I was in heaven.
I was also, it turned out, in the worst possible place to be in Syria at that time. I moved into my new home in February 2011, and in March some kids in the southern city of Dar’a got out some spray cans and dissed El Presidente. That was the start of the Syrian Revolution, and against all expectations, my home city of Homs became known as the Capital of the Syrian Revolution. Talk about shitty timing.
In February 2012, the regime finally got tired of hearing El Presidente’s long-dead daddy being cursed at in nightly demonstrations, and decided it was time to emulate said daddy, and unleash the full force of the army on the population. Inshaat was the first neighborhood the army targeted.
For a week, I was trapped in my home, while artillery shells fell, tanks rumbled through the streets, and at night street to street fighting raged in the neighborhood. The regime had cut off electricity, mobile phone coverage, land lines and the Internet to the area. The only way anyone was going to know what was going on outside their homes was if they stuck their head out.
Unless, they were like me, and had a perfectly functional and very versatile 12-band Sony radio, with enough alkaline batteries to see me through several nuclear winters. The regime had cut off the electricity? Eat medium wave radio frequencies, bitches.
I hadn’t really expected to get much specific news on my radio about the army’s assault. I was pleasantly surprised. The BBC’s Paul Woods was in Baba Amr, the neighborhood adjacent to Inshaat, and his reports were very specific. At one point he noted that he’d seen pictures of T-72 main battle tanks near a playground. I knew exactly which playground he meant, and it killed the mad idea I had of making a midnight dash for safety to Tarablous Road.
When I wasn’t listening to the news, my radio helped me take my mind off things at night. The army would stop its shelling at around sunset, and when it got dark, every sound outside seemed to me to be ominous. It’s strange the kind of things someone enjoys when their activities are severely limited. I took to listening to an Egyptian Christian religious channel.
After a week, the army had secured its hold on Inshaat, and allowed its populace to leave, providing they didn’t take anything with them, and left the doors to their homes open, said instructions being communicated through loudspeakers on trucks. Everyone ignored these basic instructions, and families and neighbors pilled into whatever cars that hadn’t been crushed by the army’s tanks, loaded their belongings into suitcases, and headed out. I was the last to leave my street, and took out a suitcase and a backpack, my beloved radio firmly lodged between my jumpers. And out of spite, I locked the door to my house. That’ll show em.
In Tartous, being on the coast and so close to Lebanon meant I had a wide range of entertaining FM stations to choose from. Sadly, by this time, shortwave radio services the world over had been severely curtailed. The BBC had scaled back its English language Middle East broadcast service to just a few hours a day. In the rest of the world, Internet radio may have made the old fashioned radio obsolete, but in a country like Syria, where the Internet was liable to be cut off everytime El Presidente got a bad rumbling in his stomach, my 20 year old Sony radio was still very much relevant.
We live in a nasty world. A world of disasters, both natural and man-made. When the infrastructure on which we depend fails us, we have to resort to backup systems. And when a society has been reduced to bare bone existence, there is nothing more dependable than a radio and a packet of alkaline batteries. Life has taught me never to go anywhere in the world without having both close by.
Aboud Dandachi is a certified IT systems architect and Syrian activist now living in Istanbul. His eBook, “The Doctor, the Eye Doctor and Me” compares the modern-day Syrian civil conflict with plot lines found in the British television drama Doctor Who. His post, “My Beloved Twenty-Year-Old Radio,” originally appeared on his blog in November 2013 (archive version here) and has been re-published here with his permission.