Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Monday, March 16, 2015


Recently I had this visceral, almost unexplainable urge, to get away from a lot of things and reconnect with a distant past that I feel has almost disappeared. I flew to Milan to meet an 82 year old great uncle, who has been living there for over forty years. Walking out of the arrivals door I met I found kindly old man in a sports coat waiting for me. He was wearing a hat with the side perched lopsided over his ear, and a velvet scarf tied around his neck and tucked regally underneath his shirt - an amazing person who I was very fortunate to meet and sit down with. He was genuinely curious about my sudden decision to drop by and visit him, and I said that all I wanted was for him to tell me stories. It was a desire that was very human, almost childish, and there was something very comforting about acknowledging that. To me, it is fascinating to hear about things that happened before I existed, and to have a picture of that painted in my mind by the words of somebody who had actually been there.

I got to hear about my late grandmother, and about how hard her life was after she got married and had eight kids. They weren't poor, but times were hard often and she used to have to sow her children's underclothes and also their "Eid" clothes by hand, buying cloth from different places in the city. Apparently she was really good and people always wanted to know where she bought the clothes from. My great uncle was still a school boy during the Second World War, and his father, my great grandfather, used to have a coffee shop near the "Ma'arad" area - where the famous Damascus Expo would always take place. Their old house was behind where the Four Seasons Hotel currently is. The coffee shop was called "Ahwet al Ma'arad" - "قهوة المعرض". Apart from coffee and nargilehs my great-grandfather also used to sell Coca-Cola and sodas, and had a merry-go-round in front of the coffee shop for kids to pay and use. He was an eccentric who was married dozens of times, and left a string of wives from Istanbul to Cairo and also had a brilliant mind for business.

By the end of the Second World War, my great uncle told me, there was virtually no petrol to be had anywhere in Damascus. No buses or cars ran, and it was very difficult to get around. It was at that time that my great grandfather Nazmi decided to construct a cane cart that could seat about nine people and have it drawn by one horse. He used to charge people a franc for the journey from the Rabweh all the way to Victoria bridge, and eventually people in Damascus started to call it the "Igry Igry" cart, Egyptian colloquial for "Run, Run!". Other people imitated him, but they always had to use two horses instead of one, and that was because they hadn't used cane to build the cart. As a result, their carts were heavier, so they needed the extra horse to get the same people, and obviously that meant they didn't get the same profit. A good thing for him while it lasted.

He was also very blunt and had a plain-speaking manner that made me laugh. Apparently one time my father told him of his dream to be an electrician. My great grandfather calmly took a puff of his nargileh and asked my father, "What's the difference between a Watt and an Ampere?". My father replied that he didn't know, so he was told piss off. Apparently that ended his dream of being an electrical engineer.

There were other stories too, like when the British army arrived to Damascus with the Free French forces to push out the Vichy forces. There had been heavy fighting on the Yaafour road to Damascus, and my great uncle remembered seeing the bodies of Vichy French soldiers from a distance, slumped by the roadside with their rifles still in their arms. He also remembered how the insistence of the Syrian nationalists for independence after the Free French arrived led to greater tensions. His father had sensed there was going to be trouble and had taken him by motorcycle to Zahleh, Lebanon, for a few days. He turned out to be writing and while they were away the Free French had surrounded the Syrian Parliament building in Damascus, killing all the Parliamentary guard and taking the members of Parliament prisoner. He arrived back when it was over, and saw the bodies of the Syrian guards bloated and black in the sunlight, nobody had been able to move them till much later.

He went to school at the Tajhiz al Awal (First Preparatory), which is today that big school behind the Four Seasons hotel on your way to Victoria bridge. Apparently the French had built it as some kind of exhibition/amusement area during the presidency of Taj al Husseini, whom I'd never even heard of. He said that in those days, the students would try to organise protests and usually the French got wind of that and would surround the school all day until the protest fizzled and the students were usually allowed out to go home for the night. On some days the students would throw stones at the French from the school rooftop but he said the French never fired back at the students. Senegalese soldiers would be taken off to hospital with head wounds and were probably not very impressed with them. He remembers being chased by a French soldier after joining a protest that had gotten out of the school once, and had managed to dash through the trees in the park, nimbly missing the soldier. He told me he had been far more frightened about his father finding out about his joining a protest. That made me smile because I thought to myself that some things never change about Syrian parents. 

During the war the first commercial flights from Damascus to Beirut were run. A ticket cost about ten liras, which, back then, was about a seventh of a government employee's monthly wages. At six in the morning a taxi picked them up from their home and taken to the Mazzeh airport (which was still civilian back then) and flown to Beirut. They were then returned back to Damascus that very evening, and he thought that was the most amazing thing as they'd never done that before.

That evening I listened to my great uncle talking about the Damascus of his time, a Damascus of beyks and sheikhs and the old families. It wasn't perfect, but it sounded a lot better than what it is today. Back then there was a certain sense of pride in being Syrian and a sense of hope for the future. We drank more coffee and talked about other things, but I sat and looked at this gentle old man and it occurred to me how much I missed a Damascus and a Syria that I've never even seen. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

"You Cannot Stay Here"

The harder I try to hold on to things the faster they seem to slip away. There seems to be this kind of invisible current that is pulling us off into different directions, like stars hurtling away from each other at unbelievable speeds. In space the distances involved are so vast that the movements appear minuscule, and we think we are being stationary but that isn't true. We all have this kind of yearning inside us, to get back to some kind of home. A place of origin. Paradise. Maybe it's part of our subconscious, to always seek the safety and familiarity of the womb from which we came. But we can't go back. We are moving away from home as steadily as the hour hands on a clock with a blank face. Some of us move to ruin, others to plenty, and others are destined to die in a strange land, plucked off this earth in the spring of our youth and without the slightest sympathy for the life we could have lived. I sigh heavily at the sheer scale and monstrosity of it all. We are so powerless.

I want to go back to Syria. I want to have a home there, and to have the life I dreamed of for myself and my family. It is true that I might - one day - visit it again. This nightmare might finally end, but it feels as if the die has been cast and many of us have already been jolted onto a new track. This is a permanent change, and it is a frightening thought because we don't know where this track leads, and what will happen to us. The destinies of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Syrians have been scattered apart like shooting stars from the explosions of the last four years. I feel afraid. I think of leaving behind the land where my grandparents are buried, of the colour of the soil and the warmth of the sun on my face as I breathed in the air of that land. I think of strange people who will walk past their tombstones in the years to come and they won't feel anything when they read the names. These people will not care about what happened on this earth, and about all the things that passed before them.

When I was young I was taught the story of how Abraham and his family moved beyond the grazing areas of their tribe. He had to set off alone to new pastures, to new lands, because he simply couldn't stay anymore. I wonder what he felt like as he moved away into the unknown, leaving behind everything that he knew. The Middle East back then wasn't what it is today. It was a vaster, emptier place. He must have felt very lonely, very worried, as he picked his way through the wilderness. In Arabic we call Abraham, "al Awah". In its simplest translation it means the one who says, "Oh!" or "Ah!" a lot, as if sighing. It implies a man with a sensitive and tender heart, one who feels the suffering of existence and the burden that life places on us. And when he had given up hope of having any children, it is told that the angels came down to see him, and that they said to him his children will be as numerous as the stars he could see in the sky above. I once saw the night sky over Syria when all the lights went out, it took my breath away and I realised how small, how insignificant I was in front of this universe. If we were all snuffed out in an instant nobody would even notice, and yet we live on.

We are some of those stars, the children of Abraham, and through no fault of our own we are being forced to go down the same difficult and uncertain journey. It started when we stood up for what we believed in. We couldn't stay the way we were. Something had to change. We were so frightened, and we are still frightened, but we keep moving. The graves of my forefathers are cold, their bones rest and their souls say to me, "you cannot stay here", but I don't know where to go, or what to do when I get there. It is tempting and feels liberating to stop struggling against the current, to let it carry me. In the distance people who are dear to me are still kicking, they call to me and I call back for now. But soon we will all have to face the silence and emptiness alone.


Friday, January 30, 2015

Somebody Interviewed Assad. Chill out.

Many people I know were quick to jump on Jonathan Tepperman's throat because he interviewed Assad. The interview itself was remarked upon widely for the insane comments that Assad made, completely divorced from reality and quite clearly an attempt to portray himself as a reasonable, sensible man that the West can do business with against ISIS. The result of this interview, however, was very different; Assad simply came across as deluded or a pathological liar, something that was confirmed by Tepperman himself when asked about his impressions of that man. So the crisis is averted and we can all stop beating ourselves into a social media frenzy.

There's a strong tendency amongst Syrians supporting the revolution for group think, and we need to stop that. It doesn't help our case, it doesn't help Syrians, and it just alienates people who might be trying to help us in their own way. Not everybody needs to have exactly the same view. We don't all need to have the same friends, talk the same way, and use the same language. I myself find plenty of pro-revolution Syrians who use ridiculous terminology and say the stupidest things when referring to the Syrian conflict and I bite my tongue and shut up because it's negative and counter-productive. That's the price I've agreed to pay for supporting freedom of speech in Syria, I'm learning to deal with the fact that stupid people will say things and other people will agree with them sometimes. We all just have to have believe in each other a bit more. I want Assad's regime to be dismantled, and while I do worry that the world is forgetting us and that it might even forget about the horrible things that his dictatorship has done to Syria, I also know it is enough that I won't forget.


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"In effect, the Syrian revolution is a monster"

Four years on and the commentary and perceptions surrounding Syria continue to be mired in childish perceptions and hopes. We think, as Syrians living abroad, and supporting the revolution, that we have an historic opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and all that we saw wrong with Syrian societies. Perhaps, but that is unlikely. The Syria that will emerge from this will be deeply conservative, deeply Islamic, and mired in conspiracy theories and ignorance. Any future government will be paranoid, paralysed, or both, owing to the nature of the divisions that we have been subjected to as a country. In fact, the Syrian state as a project is likely to be dead, and herein lies the strength of the Islamic State's vision, if nothing else, because it so far offers the only other terrifying alternative to Assad. This does not mean the Islamic State must not be resisted, simply that it must be understood, because it is tapping into something that is at the core of what makes Syria.

We think if we sing some songs, write some banners, play some games with children, and blog or intellectualise ourselves into a frenzy, that we have played our part in the revolution, but in truth the honeymoon stage of the Syrian revolution ended less than a year after it started. Yes, many activists kept trying to keep the myth of the Syrian revolution's idealistic phase alive, but they paid the price for this naiveté, most often with their lives. Recently a rumour, as yet unconfirmed, spread that a popular figure of the Syrian revolution, Abdel Baset Sarout (a former football player), had joined the ranks of ISIS (either out of desperation or conviction) and the news sent shockwaves through Syrian activists who had held him up as the best of Syria's revolution. It felt like a trust had been betrayed, but this was because we do not know where Sarout comes from. The Syria he lives and breathes in, that he sees, is alien to us, and even after four years we have only seen glimpses of it.

I once blogged that I believed there were two Syrias: one that was relatively modern, secular and aspired to lifestyles like the West; and another that was Eastern, Other, and Islamic. This other half, more than half in fact, is the Syria where people speak Arabic, think Arabic, and where tradition, religion, and tribal links are far more important than wearing jeans and owning an iPhone. We, and I count myself as one of them, pretended that this other Syria wasn't important, or that we ourselves came from it, but we didn't, not by a long shot. We talked about Palestine, anti-imperialism and national sovereignty as if we knew something, as if we ourselves were Syrian, but what we failed to acknowledge is that we were a thin peel, irrelevant, when push came to shove. In hindsight we were almost comical, but we had money and middle to upper class status so we thought we were all there was to the country.

Silly young Syrians, like myself, studying in foreign universities, talked revolution, Fanon and Malcolm X while fetishising the Palestinian struggle for years but we did not create this revolution, expect it, or want it. The people who created it came from the beating heart of Syria - from it's backbone and 'dark' interior. These were the people who were uncorrupted by city life and proximity to the regime, and whose sense of moral outrage was not diluted by comfortable living. They are Syria's greatest strength but also it's weakness, because the revolutions they unleash, when they come, result in a terrible reckoning that will not be recovered from easily. In effect, the Syrian revolution is a monster, or something akin to a force of nature, that was triggered by the corrupt and inept rule of a brutal dictatorship. One could even say that the Assad regime created the Syrian revolution, and it could not have been anything other than what it was - something many of us can have trouble accepting.

The pro-regime Syrians are rightly terrified of what will come, because they understand this dark heart of the country and tried for over forty years to repress it, and whoever runs ISIS recognises it, and they have tapped into it with startling effect. But pro-revolution Syrians mostly do not. Certainly not the generation of Syrians that have lived in the West most of their lives. They are sometimes allowed to help with aid and foreign advocacy because this dark heart of Syria, this "Avicennan"-style essence, without which there would be no Syria, will tolerate them, and needs all the help it can get, but "foreign" Syrians (again for lack of a better word) with their rubber independence day flag bracelets are spectators. We, as "foreign" Syrians, scratch our heads in puzzlement as to why the West is not coming to help our revolution, why they won't listen to us, and I suspect this is mainly because we ourselves do not know our country, though we claim to come from it.

We're also puzzled as to why our fellow Syrians mock our calls for respecting human rights and international law, and this is fundamentally down to our own failure to articulate, without condescension, an authentically Syrian translation of human rights, one that merges seamlessly with the traditions and religions that we instead deride and view as an inconvenience. If we try to know this Syria and step out of our ivory towers, if we get to know its pulse and it's language then, maybe, we will have a chance at building something and helping when the storm blows over. And we can then listen and understand and try to explain to the world what Syrians have been dying to say.


Friday, December 05, 2014

This is killing me...

You're looking at the picture of a dead man. He's surrounded by men who will watch as he is killed and they will feel nothing. He's the enemy, and for them that's enough that he die. But look at his face.  He's a boy. He's terrified, and he is feeling something I wouldn't wish on anybody, utter hopelessness. I can't look at this and not feel something stab in my chest. I don't want to talk about how he is a regime soldier, or about how maybe he did terrible things, or that maybe he didn't. Some will say that after four years he had a choice to make, but that's not our call to make. I don't think any man deserves an end like this, without trial, without dignity. When we give a human being his dignity, we are preserving our own, and when we pronounce a just sentence on a man for the actions he's done, only then do we do that with the righteousness of good and free people who have had an enormous responsibility thrust in their arms. The fact that evil men have thrust us all into this mess and made us suffer horribly is no excuse. And the fact that I haven't suffered like this is no excuse for me not to speak up when something is horribly wrong.

This, this is not human, not right. Somewhere out there this boy had a mother who once caressed his hair and loved him and raised him, and is probably waiting for his next phone call to tell her he is safe and not to worry. But that's what all mothers do, they worry. Today, tomorrow, somewhere in Syria, she is going to get horrible news, and I hope to God she never sees this picture.

Monday, November 03, 2014

By Air Mail "Par Avion"

I can't remember the last time my family sat down at the dinner table all together. Even before the revolution it was as if some invisible force was conspiring to send us on divergent paths. The long days when nothing seemed to happen, when we kept seeing each other every day and took each other for granted, when we had the luxury of arguing with each other over things that don't even matter anymore. Those days appear to have vanished in a puff of smoke. Can you honestly even remember what the arguments were for? What it was that had annoyed us all so much that we would walk off muttering under our breath?

When I remember Damascus I remember the hot sun beating down on us, glinting from the chrome of a dozen parked cars we would walk by. The outside world was somewhere that swallowed people whole. I'd hear stories of relatives who travelled abroad and never came back, who had settled and forgotten. Others returned, and when they did they had lovely things with them, and they spoke of a wondrous world with clean streets and markets where you could buy anything you want. And my friends and I would sigh and think of that big wide world, with its marvels, and wonder when we would ever be able to go out there and make our mark. In Syria nothing ever happened. The days merged, one after the other. We would lie down on our pillows at the end of the day, stripped to undershorts because it is so hot, and listen to the curtains as they slid and rustled in a stray night breeze. The sound of a distant television from the neighbours or the music of a car as it drove past our building, crystal clear for a moment before the night swallowed it again. The days moved on, jokes were made, arguments had, groceries bought, television watched, and visits made. But nothing changed.

I wonder sometimes if any of it was ever real. What would I tell younger Syrians who have never lived there, who had never experienced that timeless state of existence? Perhaps I can tell them it was a waste of time, that we were living a lie because we lived under a tyranny. But that would be a lie. The dictatorship had nothing to do with that magical world we inhabited, where we carried on our small lives and the news was something we watched on television, not lived. That magic came from somewhere else, from family and friends and neighbours, from sharing both the good and bad times, of standing with each other when somebody passed, and asking about one another and about how we were doing. I would tell younger Syrians that our home had a morning and evening rota of guests who would pop in for a quick coffee.

N would come visit us on her afternoon break from work in a nearby office, she was a lovely soft-spoken woman with short cropped hair and the gentlest gaze that I can remember to this day. She would sit and talk to my grandmother and aunt about life and diets and things they had seen on the television. After that we would have M, who would hobble up the steps and then set her massive body down in the middle of our large sofa, taking it over. You could hear her voice from the other end of the street. The other N would also visit us, usually in the evening. She had a laugh like a cackle and whenever she was over we would all laugh a lot. Then there was L, she lived with her brother on the same street, in the building next to us. Her thing was reading the coffee cup. After drinking the bitter black coffee the cups would be overturned on the saucers and left to dry for a few minutes. Then each person would bring her their coffee cup and she would start reading it for them. I was always fascinated by what she claimed to see in them, and whenever I looked I saw a strange patchwork of shapes and patterns left by the dried coffee deposit at the bottom of the cups. At the end she would ask the owner of the cup to stick their thumb in the bottom and suck the coffee off it. That was like "sealing the deal" for this bizarre ritual.

And that was how news of the world reached us, from people who always visited. The door was always open, the coffee was always on the stove, and conversation welcomed. Even the arrival of satellite television didn't change this social aspect. We were always in contact with each other, always talking to each other and exchanging stories and news. That was real, it happened. Those people existed even if we are now scattered to the four corners of the earth. But as I said earlier there was always this invisible force that was sending us on different paths. It started with relations and distant relatives, then uncles, aunts, cousins, and soon ourselves. That last sleepless night before the ride to the airport that we all get. All of a sudden the bravado and excitement of seeing the world isn't as appealing as it was in the daylight. You realise that you are leaving - all this...and it was valuable, it had meaning to us. These dilapidated houses and crowded streets, you realised that you are going to miss them. Then the final goodbye at the airport. Everybody is standing there, you kiss them all, hug them, say you will call. They ask that Allah protect you and guide you. Then it's time to go. You turn around and head for that big door, that invisible line beyond which you can't return from. But you turn back and look, and wave. You keep doing this, walking a bit, looking back. You want to see if they are still there, waiting for you to disappear. They are smiling, and you'd do anything to be standing with them there.

And that's how you remember them, that last glance. Even if nowadays it's a lot easier to speak on Skype and email and Viber. In the old days you had to buy a phone card and call using special phone  numbers, earlier still you had to go to phone centres and buy minutes to call abroad. Or you wrote letters and sent them in those light blue "Par Avion" envelopes with the dark blue and red outlines. And slowly you get used to that life abroad. You make new friends, settle. You visit, but it's not the same. The people waiting at the airport aren't exactly the same as the ones who said goodbye to you. People have moved on without you, and with each visit one less person is there, sometimes replaced by a new person, sometimes not. You get bad news on the phone, one other person you never imagined life without has now vanished. And eventually you realise that nobody you know is left. If you go back now it is a city of strangers. Different people now walk the streets of your memories, and it is you who is the stranger.