It happened on a Tuesday, in the summer of 2001. The staff was fully alert and the outlets were impeccably clean. The shelves were organized and the goods were neatly lined. Everything was fully prepared to welcome “the Master” (al Ustaz) who was coming to the Damascus Duty-Free outlet, at the Damascus International Airport, to chair a meeting he holds twice a month there.
My beard was neat, my shoes had a mirror shoe shine that could not be missed, and my suit was elegant to commensurate with the event. This was our custom during his visits. At the time of his bimonthly visits, and despite the fact that I did not deal directly with him, I had always felt nervous, sweating all over my body and almost choked by my tie which I was not used to putting on.
As usual, “the Master” sneaked in like a ghost from the warehouse through a product and goods lift. But he neither entered the administrative offices nor roamed around the sales hall, where we all stood in respect, just like chess pieces, but instead headed directly to the main office.
Two of his companions led the duty-free warehouse keeper to that main office, to stand in his “presence”. “The Master” quietly asked about some goods that had been damaged, but the employee denied everything. A dreadful silence fell over the place for seconds that felt like a thousand years. Then in front of a group of his senior staff members, “the Master” took off his fancy Patek Philippe watch, his gray jacket, rolled up his sleeves and started beating the scrawny employee until his face bled.
I have always felt like I was working in an intelligence branch. But on that day I became certain that I was working in Mr. Makhlouf’s slaughterhouse.
Beginning in 1997, Rami rented the Damascus Duty-Free―an area of 1,100 square meters―for one million SYP ($20,000) a year. He used to collect this amount of money from its sales in a single shift on a bad working day, apart from the various smuggling operations that he used to facilitate to the members of the Air Intelligence Service and the General Directorate of Customs. Moreover, the contract was renewed every five years. Given the wide difference between the profits of Damascus Duty Free under Rami’s management and the profits of GOTA (General Organization for Trade and Distribution) managed by his father―Mohammed Makhlouf―in the 1970s, Rami Makhlouf has been able to gain increased access to invest more spaces inside the premises of Damascus airport and other Syrian airports and Syrian border points without disclosure of the value of these contracts.
Mr. Makhlouf doesn’t like the title of “the teacher” as it exclusively belongs to “Mr. President” Bashar al-Assad. It seems that he tried to go by using “the Master” title to distance himself from the military, especially since it’s known in the army that the title of “the master” equates with “the donkey.”
Mr. Makhlouf imitates the late president Hafez al-Assad; he interlocks his fingers during his speech, in which he strives to speak as calmly as he can, so he slows his pace once and speeds it up another. When he sits on a couch, he rests his arms and relaxes his palms but doesn’t cross his legs. However, he doesn’t follow al-Assad, the father, in putting on a tie or shaving his beard completely. And apart from his brother, Ihab, who likes putting on a “T-shirt” and jeans, the entire team had to put on ties all day.
I recalled the “investigation” incident when I saw “the Master” in his rare appearance in the recent video footage. His physical appearance changed significantly but he wasn’t faking anything. His tone of voice, which gets loud and low to vary between politeness and threatening, is still the same. But his hand gestures were different from what I was used to. He seemed so influenced by the way President Bashar al-Assad speaks, especially in the last part of moving his hands in the air.
Everybody avoids his anger, which comes with a calm tone after a short silence then follows with a higher pitch and a sharp look that can break a wall. At that point everyone becomes really intense and his anger reaches everyone, starting from his brother Ihab, who acts like his right hand, to the CEO Sami Mualla, the strongest personality among those around him, the Irish Donal Maggie, the Director- General of Damascus Duty Free Shops, and even to the lowest worker at the airport. Despite not hearing an offensive word from him, he used to surprise us with his hysterical screaming coming from a distance after a quiet conversation with someone.
The workers’ team could not get used to facing the personal insults, just looking back at them in disdain meant a penalty, especially because he is surrounded by accompanying elements who give the sense of someone who has just woken up to find himself on an absurd stage with the angel of death standing right in front of him.
Unfortunately for the Market’s warehouse keeper, he discovered during the semi-annual inventory that there are excess goods. These goods were two dozens of “teddy bears” not exceeding $30. Because of his deep fear, the accountant, who came from Douma in the eastern countryside of Damascus, worked hard to destroy them, and threw them in the garbage. One of the porters saw the crime and informed the officials.
Because of that, more than 20 companions of Rami took turns to bring warehouse workers in one by one to the meeting room to be “interrogated”. There was a table in the one-window room which Ihab was accustomed to use while working. This room also had an office desk for Donal Maggie and an image of a huge ship hanging on one of the walls behind a luxurious wooden table for Sami Mualla, a relative of the “Master’s wife”.
What distinguishes Rami Makhlouf’s companies from the other companies is the absence of any political symbols related to the state, the “Ba’ath” leaders or pictures of the presidents, father and son, or even pictures of the late Basil al-Assad, whom the family members look up to, and follow his example, except for “the Master” (al Ustaz). This political absence almost convinced me many times that I was working for a real institution outside the borders of “Assad’s Syria”.
Makhlouf initially interrogated the assistant warehouse keeper who voluntarily pleaded guilty. When it was the keeper’s turn, he was confronted with that evidence. When he denied the charges, “the Master” turned into a boxer and started to beat the poor forty-year-old employee. A few hours later, the criminal was deported to the “security detachment”. It was a confidential detachment where there are military components and civilian users responsible for protecting “the Master’s” house in the Al-Maliki neighborhood. The warehouse keeper remained there for 15 days, during which he was tortured, as we came to know more than one month later. Then he was fired from work and his fate was unknown. Rather, no one dared to speak about his matter, even in a whisper. His assistant became a delegate until another warehouse keeper was appointed.
I think that “the Master” wanted to intimidate his employees who witnessed the sadistic interrogation, starting from Ihab and Sami and ending with Donal Maggie who came from the company “Aer Rianta International”, which had been running the Damascus Duty Free Shops since 1997.
I imagine fear drawn on the warehouse keeper’s face, who was already known to be a coward. His fearful features must have resembled those of Rami Makhlouf in his two video footages. This employee believed that he was innocent and he committed no mistake to be punished. As the popular saying goes, “Every extremity is a fault”. He was afraid that “the Master” would kill him so he destroyed the excess goods. If he was a “thief”, he would have stolen precious things like gold, alcoholic drinks, cigarettes or luxurious perfumes, not some “Teddy bears”. But the forbidden “sin” according to “the Master” is to dare to take something belonging to “him”, when he was a “servant of trust” as he said, and “that (His) Grace Is (entirely) in his hand, To bestow it on Whomsoever He wills”.
What made me tell you this story today is the injustice which Rami Makhlouf spoke about. I do not feel that by telling that story I may increase the anger of the oppressed, because they have already reached the peak of discontent and there is no place for greater anger.