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Syria rebels' aliases grow into new personalities

At the hair salon on her wedding day, a fellow bride turned to Tuqaa Afash and asked who her fiance was.

"Abdulkareem Laila," Afash said, expecting that in the tight-knit village on the outskirts of Aleppo, the woman would recognize his name.

"I don't know him," the woman said.

Afash tried again. "Abu Firas," she said.

"You're Abu Firas' fiancee?" the woman asked excitedly, as if referring to a celebrity. "Everyone was wondering who his fiancee would be. The girls were gossiping about it at school."

Her fiance was no longer Abdulkareem, the quiet young man who couldn't find a job after graduating and spent months traveling from village to village as a freelance sociology teacher.

Now he was Abu Firas, spokesman for the Islamic Front, one of the largest rebel groups in Syria, meeting with top-level commanders, visiting front lines and disseminating news about the opposition in the hope of showing that the "revolution" is not over.

For Syrian activists and rebels such as Abu Firas, the noms de guerre they adopted at the beginning of the uprising in 2011 out of fear of the country's notorious intelligence service have eclipsed not just their real names but also much of their former identities — even as they now live beyond the reach of the Syrian secret police.

Just as the conflict has stagnated, so too have they become stuck in these personas, unable to return to their previous lives or otherwise move on from a war that has left Syrians struggling to adapt to their new reality.

Even his mother, Khadija, now calls him Abu Firas, correcting herself with a smile when she occasionally refers to him by his given name.

Afash, who is now his wife, said, "It's like they have two personalities."


It was six months into the Syrian uprising, a time when the conflict was marked by protests and not battles. Abu Firas was at an Internet cafe uploading cellphone videos from that day's demonstrations.

Suddenly security officers pulled up outside. He slipped out just as they were about to raid the cafe but, in his haste, left his ID card behind. On his way home to Anadan he skirted government checkpoints, fearful that his name was already on the wanted list. That night he chose his "activist name."

"We considered many options; this was the most musical-sounding," said Abu Firas, now 28.

Other than liking the rhythm of the name, which means "father of Firas," he said it was also different from any name in his extended family, thus avoiding the risk that any similarity would bring.

In early 2012, when he began appearing on TV, in effect placing himself on a government hit list, he continued using the nom de guerre. By that point, the name had already become well known among Syrians and international viewers of pan-Arab satellite channels.

"If I came out under my real name, that former persona, Abu Firas, would die," he said. "I worked months to establish that name and to be known as a trusted source in Aleppo."

In an uprising that has failed to create any enduring political figures or leaders, these media activists have become the stars of the opposition. Whereas Abu Firas' townspeople never knew the boy next door, they have gotten to know him as a voice of a revolution gone awry.

His mother isn't sure what to think of the changes in her son.

"Abdulkareem's personality was that he used to go to the mosque and he used to teach," she said. "Now he's Abu Firas, I don't know ..." her voice cracked suddenly and she stopped speaking, instead throwing her hands up.

She looked down at her lap. The war has taken away her shy son Abdulkareem, named after her father. And then there are the more permanent losses: Her older son, Mamoon, was killed late last year in a clash with government forces.

Abu Firas shakes his head when asked whether he would name his son Firas. He plans to name him after his fallen brother.


"Qusai was born from a tragedy and deprivation, from a revolution, from death, from chemical weapons and siege," said Qusai Zakarya, an activist from the town of Muadhamiya, on the outskirts of Damascus. "So he has a strong presence inside me. It's not just a nickname."

Zakarya, 28, whose real name is Kassem Eid, created his alias in 2011 by combining the names of a beloved uncle and an actor who starred in a Syrian soap opera considered groundbreaking in its portrayal of Syrian corruption.

But it wasn't until the summer of 2013, after a chemical weapons attack on Muadhamiya and other Damascus suburbs, that the nom de guerre took over his identity. One of the few residents fluent in English, he accompanied a United Nations team investigating the Muadhamiya attack. Soon he became the voice of the town, especially as a government-imposed siege began to claim the lives of residents.

This year, he was finally able to leave Syria, but the new identity has remained with him.

America's U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, used his testimony under the name Qusai Zakarya to explain her vote in the Security Council to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court. Under that name, he has also appeared as part of a U.N. panel about life under siege and has met with diplomats from the United States, France, Britain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

He traveled across America on a speaking tour, during which he had trouble checking into hotels because his reservations were under his nom de guerre but he presented identification with his real name.

"It's like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," he said, also comparing it to the Hulk and his alter ego, Bruce Banner. "Sometimes I have to wonder, am I thinking as Qusai or as Kassem?"

As a young man in Damascus, he was a romantic who liked to play soccer and listen to music. He used to binge-watch "Man v. Food" and follow that with episodes of binge-eating shawarma and sweets.

As Qusai Zakarya, he is far from the obscurity, and simple pleasures, of his previous life.

"If you Google Qusai you find hundreds of pages," he said. "If you Google Kassem you find nothing."


Tony al-Taieb speaks of his two names in the third person, as if he is watching the identities fight for dominance over a host body.

Like others, the media activist used his real name in the first few months of the uprising, believing it would be a speedy affair like those in Egypt and Tunisia. But as it became clear that it would be a prolonged struggle — and he started receiving death threats on Facebook — he chose an alias.

The 23-year-old, who comes from a prominent and wealthy Aleppo family with multiple business interests, likes to bandy about words such as "marketing" and "branding," even when speaking of war. He crafted his pseudonym with much the same approach.

A Sunni Muslim whose real name is Qusai Hayani, he chose the name Tony in hopes of encouraging his many Christian friends to join the opposition. Taieb was the surname of a protagonist in an Egyptian film, "I Want My Rights," that came out after that country's uprising.

"Qusai lived a really fancy life with lots of luxuries and being spoiled," he said. "Tony lived a poor life in a war zone under constant threat."

Living in opposition-held areas of Aleppo, he inhabited the persona of Tony al-Taieb fully, only briefly slipping back to his former self in rare visits to his family in one of the city's toniest neighborhoods. But when he left Syria to establish a base for his media company in neighboring Turkey, he was confronted with the need to reconcile the identities.

"It's like a piece of shrapnel in your mind that keeps bothering you: 'Who am I?'" he said, sitting at a Starbucks and alternating between coffee and a cigarette. "This shrapnel came when I came to Gaziantep and things began reminding me of my old life: the fancy life, the girls, the bright lights, things that had nothing to do with my life of destruction, my life as Tony."

Even as he insists he has made peace with his dual identities, saying that "Qusai and Tony are the same person," he continues to struggle with who he is. As a founder and CEO of the Syrian Media Group, which oversees various opposition news services and radio stations, he is Tony al-Taieb on his business cards.

"That's it — Tony," he said, unprompted. "I've become Tony."

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