Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Wheel

As a teenager I used to enjoy reading science fiction, but two books in particular have always held a special place in my heart, these are the first and last books in Brian Aldiss' Helliconia Trilogy (my school in Damascus only had the first, and I found the last one in a bookshop there that's now been closed for many years). They tell the story of a planet where the seasons last a thousand years, and where winter is dominated by a strange alien race, whilst the summer is ruled by the humans (this was way before Game of Thrones). In the final book, Helliconia Winter, one of the characters joined a special kind of monastery prison in the mountains which was a wheel of stone cells that rotated through the rock as it was pushed by inmates. The wheel only spun one way, and was so large that each cell only opened once every ten years. To me it was such an unsettling, yet deeply fascinating idea, to toil away alone in the darkness for ten years, cut off from the world you knew and with only your thoughts to keep you company, and then to emerge into the daylight, reborn. There was something deeply philosophical about it.


When I left Syria for the first time in 1998 I imagined myself going into that stone wheel, and I visualised it often through many difficult times. I did emerge, ironically almost ten years later exactly, but I couldn't have imagined that fate would cast me out again as the home I loved descended into madness. Or that this time the family and friends that I wanted to be with would be scattered even further away. Now I'm back in that same wheel, pushing away in the darkness, and it's worse than going in the first time, because you know what it's going to be like. I think to myself, there's no use cursing, pleading, crying or feeling angry. We are where we are, and we have to keep pushing or nobody gets out. We, all of us, are in that wheel, pushing away in the darkness of our individual cells.
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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

"What is Happiness?" An Essay by a Syrian Girl called Sana

Last week I had the privilege to serve Syrian children in Reyhanli with the Karam Foundation's "Zeitouna Program". This is my third time volunteering with this remarkable program, and in each time, my workshops have been focused on trying to draw out the individual in each child, to try and encourage them to create their own space through writing and in doing so, perhaps ease a bit of the pressure that they must be feeling. For all the difficulties I encountered in getting there, be it the hell of flying Turkish Airways and dealing with their infernal customer service, to worrying about, and actually being, questioned at the airport upon my return by the British police (who were very polite and professional on both occasions), I feel the effort was worth it.

After four years of war and exile, I think the hardest thing many Syrian children are suffering from, apart from loss and physical hardship, is the struggle to be recognised as an individual and to remain one. The aid agencies come and go, and many of them look upon Syrian children as objects to be photographed or pitied. For their parents, stressed as they might be, they might be seen as a burden or a nuisance, while for the many militias within the country, both regime and anti-regime, they are seen as ideological vessels to be indoctrinated and trained for war, a corruption of everything that is pure and good about childhood.

During my week in Reyhanli, I wanted to gain the attention of the children by running a writing competition for the most beautifully written essay. The topic was disarmingly simple, and yet very complicated, "What is Happiness?" and the answers that I got were remarkable. I spent the whole of last Wednesday night, after a day of workshops with the children, marking papers, and the more I read, the more I caught glimmers of complex, intelligent and warm human beings who had a fountain of emotion and love to share with the world. A lot of the students wrote what they thought I wanted to read, but some, a rare few, broke out of the mould and the writing they gave me was beautiful and startlingly original. The one essay that took my breath away was written by an eighth grade Syrian girl called Sana, and she was one of the recipients of the beautiful journals and Parker fountain pens that were the prize of each of the four winners. All I want to do is share her essay here for posterity, so that the world knows what a Syrian child, caught up in events that are so much bigger than her, thinks and feels. I'll leave the conclusions to you, the reader. Here is my translation of Sana's essay:

What is Happiness? 

Happiness takes on a different meaning for each individual in society. My happiness is to live on Mars alone, away from all creatures both rational and non-rational...

For example, I would like to lie down on the dusty red earth of that planet and imagine that I am travelling into space. I am pulled towards a mixture of bright lights at a great speed until they envelope me completely. I find myself in a different world entirely, and the planets here are different from those in our solar system. One planet looks like a large plate of candy and another looks like a mobile phone, but I am especially drawn by the beauty of a planet in the shape of a drawing feather. I go there, and when I land on its surface I see tall people who look like us, but they have no mouths or noses, or even ears. They only have eyes and their society draws. Some draw on walls, others on paper, and everybody draws in the streets.

Now I get up and go to a place that is hidden from the sun and write a brief summary of what I've imagined on a piece of paper - just some thoughts. I then write these thoughts as a story on another piece of paper, and when I finish writing my hand aches and my head hurts from thinking about how to structure the story and what its style should be like, as well as from getting new ideas and removing silly ones...I lie down once more and in a few minutes I am seeing strange dreams. For example, I dream that I have woken up from sleep and found myself in a place that has no colour apart from white. I am frightened by this place, and take a step back, only to find that the place I trod on has sprouted grass. Gradually, all the white space transforms into a forest from where I placed my foot. 

This is a fantasy forest that has no harmful creatures or plants, like the Venus fly trap or any other poisonous plants. It is a forest filled with flowers and green grass and trees that have strange, delicious fruit that is round in shape and woodpeckers flying in the sky or perched on the branches. I remain asleep until the next day and nobody disturbs me.

This life is happiness in itself for me...It might be a dream that I will always dream or a dream that I can one day accomplish, and I don't know if I will be able to reach it or if I will fail. I'll settle for the fact that it's just a dream, but I know that I will try to reach for it.

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

It's All "Unfortunate"

Welcome to the Middle East, where the only monsters are the ones you bring with you. In the primordial past, in a time before writing became prevalent, maybe our ancestors were trying to make sense of the world and so they created stories that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. They told their children that existence was a phenomenal struggle between good and evil, and ever since then we have been cursed to live that same story over and over. It's like we have something ingrained within us, and we want to believe. The dictators know that we want to believe, and they feed that story continuously. They give us stories about foreigners coming to kill us, stories about Jews dominating the world, stories about other tribes that can never be trusted no matter how long you have dealt with them. But the dictators are above these stories of good and evil. They stoke the fires, and the region burns long after they are gone.

When I talk to a liar - a person who supports the dictators - they tell me that we should stop looking at the dictator's actions as good and evil. They tell me that this is not a useful way of understanding things and that we should try to see things from their perspective. The question that begs itself, today as well as four years ago, is why? Why do we need to see things from the perspective of an Assad or a Mubarak or a Saddam or a Gaddafi? Is it so that we can understand that they are just acting out of fear? That they are forced to behave this way? Or maybe it is that they believe they are locked in a never ending struggle with the great enemy abroad? With imperialism or the Great Satan? If so, how is that different to just explaining things as a battle of good versus evil?

When I read through my list of news articles each day (reading is a strong word, I mostly skim through them nowadays), I group the stories into positive and negative: ISIS lose - good; regime loses - good; civilian casualties - bad. It's unconscious, because there are things that I care for more than others. I feel, internally, a great anger at the sight of barrel bombs being dropped on Syrian towns and cities, as is the case when I watch the victims of the regime's chemical attacks. I want it to stop, I hope it'll stop. A part of me can't accept that something like this can go on without a judgment being called, without a punishment being meted out to the responsible party. I want there to be a hell for the dictators and their followers. I hope that a "good" side will win. I want the side that waves the green, white and black flag to win. I still believe they represent the best - albeit imperfect-  hope for this wretched country and whatever is left of it. Does that mean I am locked into a narrative of good versus evil?

Fine, maybe I am. The dictator's apologist tells me, "Look, there you go again! You're talking in terms of good versus evil! We'll never get anywhere that way". And again I'm puzzled. What on earth does he want? What is it that the dictator's apologist is really asking of me? Does he want me to stop using the words, "Good" and "Evil"? Or does he want me to stop labelling the actions as good and evil? That's it, the latter. I think he wants me to stop judging the actions. Perhaps, and here I am thinking for them, they would like me to label these events that we hear trickling out of Syria as "unfortunate". The word unfortunate takes the sting out of describing the action. They want me to say unfortunate because fortune is a concept that is beholden to no man - that popular saying, "Fortune is a fickle mistress" and all that. It basically boils down to the fact that there are these winds of fortune that blow in the world, and sometimes they are what we desire, and other times they are not. And when they are not, the dictator's apologist reasons, then we should label them as unfortunate.

Therefore, it is "unfortunate' that the dictator had to listen to the advisors who told him that a firm hand was needed, and unfortunate that the dictator's men were told to fire at unarmed civilians or else they themselves would be shot. It is "unfortunate" that when shooting and tanks and artillery and aerial bombardment didn't work as effectively as they liked that somebody decided to load chemicals into a bomb and to fire these at civilian areas that had "unfortunately" decided they didn't want a dictator to rule them anymore. This is the neutral ground that the dictator's apologist wants us to meet on. The sting has to go, the victim's condition is "unfortunate" and perhaps something can be done about that later, much later. But for now, we don't need to point fingers. After all, one series of unfortunate events let to another series of unfortunate events, and since everybody has blood on their hands, then nobody must pass judgment.

This is the same logic a ten year old uses when they've been told off about something. The child will try to remove the blame by pointing the finger elsewhere, "Everybody else is doing it", or "he told me to do it". And that kind of argument has been used over and over, but not by children, but by dictators and by the people who follow them. These were grown men and women who did - what did you like to call it Mr Dictator apologist? - "unfortunate" things. They did these unfortunate things over and over until somebody stopped them and put them in front of everybody and asked them why they did what they did. And over and over, they used the same arguments as guilty children. Isn't that curious? That dictators and the people who follow them cannot give a grown up, reasonable and rational answer to why they caused these "unfortunate" incidents to occur?

They could argue that if they did not do what they did, that others would have, that this is the way of the world. And I would say you are right, it is the way of the world. We cannot hope to change and eliminate all war, all greed, and all murder from our world. You could say that there is something in the human being, innate, that calls for this. That it has been this way since the time that Cain killed Abel. But then, I would ask of you, aren't you taking us back to the stories of good and evil? You have told me not to use the words good and evil, and yet you come back and tell me that all these bad things I spoke of are in our nature as humans. And would that not mean that all the good things in the world, like honesty, charity, and love, are also parts of human nature, and that the mixtures of these things are such that some people have more of one part and less of the other, and others the opposite? And if so, I ask of you, apologist to dictators, what do you think you are doing when you support a man who does the things that he does to stay in power? You've taken us around in a big circle and we are back to where we began, although we do have a clearer understanding of good and evil.

Evil is not something that exists abstract from human actions, it is our judgment on the actions of other human beings. We call earthquakes, diseases, and floods "unfortunate", we call the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the Cambodian Genocide, "evil". They are evil because these horrible things were thought up and acted upon by men and women - normal, average, even likeable, but they were men and women nonetheless, not monsters. Other people, not saints, not angels, pronounced judgment on the actions of these men and women to hold them accountable. The battle of good versus evil is not something metaphysical, it is not some abstract superstition that is being battled out in the heavens, but of this earth - of our flesh and blood. The "battle" of good versus evil is our struggle with what it means to be human, and the harder you try to escape it, the more embroiled in it you become.

You don't want me to use the word "evil" for certain actions because you won't be able to face yourself in the mirror. If you're going to be ugly you want the whole world to be ugly. If you can't have something you'll burn it before anybody else does. That is what it all boils down to, and that is why you're not a man, but a spoilt child that needs a good smacking. You and your dictator.

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Friday, April 17, 2015

This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be - James Stockdale

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Nothing

It's so peaceful here right now. I've eaten my dinner, watched a few episodes of the West Wing on Netflix, and am lying in bed, listening to the ticking of the clock. I'm bored. Yet in a few weeks I will be back in Reyhanli, back to sit with Syrian refugee students who come from a very different reality. They are the lucky ones, in a sense, because they escaped from a strange, dark world that frightens me. I don't pretend to understand it, unlike many people. I am not interested in experiencing it either. Not directly, anyway, but I will be asking them to write about it and in that way they will be taking me into that dark heart with them. We will talk about things for a bit, discuss what they've written and pretend we'll all be going home next year and make tearful promises. We might even attempt to make sense of all this.

Then, when the course ends, I will most likely be back on this same bed. I will have watched something mildly interesting, eaten, and then fallen asleep after trying to read. Then I will post a few messages from my phone and listen to the ticking of the clock.

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

I just saw a picture on Twitter of the school Assad barrel bombed today. It showed the dusty corpse of a teacher* still sitting upright in her chair. She was headless.

* I'd earlier written that the headless corpse was a student's. Like many things I guess I was wrong about that too. Good night.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015