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.


Saturday, November 01, 2014

Changing a World

For the past three years I've been doing a lot of soul searching and trying to come to terms with the tragedy that is unfolding in front of the world. I don't pretend to have all the answers, and the truth be told I'm more frustrated at my own impotence than with the world's inaction. When I was younger I always thought I could change the world and that nothing was impossible if I put my mind to it. I know now that this is not really the way life works. First you need to have the right background, socially and financially. Then you need to have the right connections. Finally, and most importantly, you need to have the right passport. You learn quickly that life is about learning where the walls are, and where you stand in relation to everybody else. You might be walking down the same street as another, possibly go to the same class in school, but you could be living in totally different worlds.

We had that in Syria. We lived in different worlds and we were strangers to each other. The school I went to had a lot of rich children and as I grew up I realised that not everybody had problems paying the fees as we did, or have to buy their groceries on tab and be gently reminded whenever it got too big. One time I accidentally broke the glass to our classroom door and the school wanted me to pay the 800 Syrian pounds to have it replaced. The whole class was told that the window won't be replaced until I paid for it, and so I faced the daily terror of coming to school each morning and being asked by friends why my family wouldn't pay that money. And when they did and the glass was finally replaced I happened to be shutting the door when it cracked a second time. I don't remember if I had to pay again, because the glass obviously wasn't installed properly, but at the time it felt to me that if lightning were to strike anybody twice then it would be me.

Then there was that fateful day when I was told by my parents that we won't be going to the school because there was a "mix-up". The days turned into weeks, months, and then years, and I stopped answering the phone when friends called. I secretly opened a letter from the school my parents had hid and found out it was because we hadn't paid the fees. But I kept on pretending to believe them for a long time. I'd meet some friends occasionally, but generally I'd had enough. I couldn't pretend to be in the same circles and hang out carefree in the pizza parlours and spend my allowance like my friends because I didn't have an allowance and because even taking a taxi to get to where they were meeting was something I had to think long and hard about. And then there were the 'other' problems at home that made me feel even more isolated from my friends, because they all seemed so well adjusted when I'd visit their homes, problems that I couldn't even start talking to anybody about at the time. So I chose to be alone, and I sat and watched the world go by each day from our balcony, and imagined a life where I can get away from it all, where all our problems would be solved and I would be able to afford a PC and loads of music CD's and be able to go to school and study something wonderful and creative and meet new friends and have a life and get a great job and - dare I even think it - meet a nice girl and get married one day. I day-dreamed a lot because there was nothing left to do, and when I left Syria for the first time in 1998 I was still a dreamer, with no idea of how I was going to do anything and no idea what I really wanted. I did get to study, I did get many jobs, and I'm typing this post on a shiny new iMac that the younger me would only have dreamed about. These are quiet, small victories for me that I secretly savour, though something I suspect many of my old school friends would still find hard understanding.

When I went to Reyhanli to volunteer at the Salaam school last December and then again in June I was struck by the fact that I was going back to a proper school for the first time since I was fifteen and I was meeting students who are the same age I was then, though I don't remember looking anywhere near as young. It was an intense rush for me because I'd spent over two decades trying hard to forget these things. Those weeks were all about the children, but I got so much more in return. It felt like a waterfall of emotion, and I was coming to terms with memories such as the broken window and the grocery tab that kept growing and growing and the long months and years outside school, things I hadn't even thought about till then. I was standing in a room full of children who had exactly the same worries and insecurities, and who were going through the exact same thing I was. And they were all looking at me expecting I-don't-know-what, and some of them would cry saying they felt they had no future and that the world had abandoned them and they were missing out on a real life. Maybe it was fate, but I did something then I had never done before, I told the class that I had to leave school just like them. A girl raised her hand and asked me why, and I could feel them all look at me intently. I paused for a split-second and told her it was because my daddy didn't have the money to pay the school fees. The class was silent, I suppose it must have sounded odd to them that this guy coming from abroad should have had the same problems as they did. I told them everything, and in doing that I remembered, and I came to terms with these things myself, a process that is still going on now.

I told the children that I used to be afraid about the future as well, and about having my life slip away while the world moved on. I told them how I used to feel embarrassed to see friends in the street because I didn't want to tell them that I wasn't going to school anymore, and then I told them that it took me a long time to go back to university and to study but I did it in the end; that it wasn't going to be easy, but that whenever I thought the doors of the world were closed on me a small portal would open for me somewhere, call it karma or the universe or kismet. And I told them that each one of them had a portal just for them, a chance, however small, and that they could take it if they kept their eyes open. I told them that they'd each have their time, and that one day they will look back on these days and think about what they went through and that they'd even feel a bit nostalgic. Their eyes were a little bit wider as I told them all this. And I knew then why I was really volunteering there, and why sitting with these children and spending time with them was so important.

When the week was over and we all said goodbye I couldn't help but feel that maybe there was a reason I had to go through all those difficulties myself, I mean, none of these children were even born when I left school and left Syria. Somehow we shared a common experience, and I was able to reach out to them from across all those years to tell each and every one of them that it will be alright, and mean it, because I knew that the universe provides for us all in its own strange way. I know now that we can't change everything or erase what's already happened, but if we pay attention to life closely enough, and if we want to, we can try to change somebody's world for the better.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

US Strikes In Syria

Since 2011 Assad has progressively escalated his war against the Syrian people. His regime set the daily killing quotas, they escalated from small arms fire to tanks, cannon, rockets and airplanes. As the days turned into weeks and the months turned into years we were subjected to the same diatribe demanding that innocent unarmed people die for the principles of those watching them from a thousand miles away. Anybody who thought otherwise was dismissed as a warmonger. The chemical attacks came, and still the world did nothing. Then ISIS emerged, it almost overran the north of Syria before the Free Syrian Army along with Jabhat al Nusra pushed it out, and it went on to overrun most of Iraq. Then the world took notice but that was only because ISIS were about to commit the mother of all massacres against the Azidis of Iraq. Nobody complained about the airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. Today those airstrikes began in Syria, and like earthworms after the rain the people who were silent before have now appeared and are able to speak.

Now they wring their hands in anguish. They pray for Syria. They wish there was another way. They worry about the innocents whose lives would be lost if the US led strikes against Syria materialised. Maybe to them a death by a US made bomb is a far worse fate than being killed by a Russian made one. So they shake their heads, "No, this won't do at all. It is one thing to watch a country bleed white over the course of three years, but to have the United States cauterise the cancer that is ISIS immediately, well that's just outrageous".

There's only one reason why the United States is bombing ISIS in northern Syria, and that's because the Assad regime gunned down innocent protesters in 2011. In his first speech after the protests in Deraa, and when his regime could no longer pretend like nothing was happening, he ranted and raved about a terrorism that didn't exist in Syria yet. He warned, no he threatened, that Syria will turn into another Afghanistan. He abandoned the north east of Syria, he struck oil deals with ISIS, he deliberately avoided bombing their headquarters whilst raining his wrath on the parts of Syria in control by the Free Syrian Army. His army obliterated parts of Homs, and eviscerated Aleppo, in a scorched earth policy that his soldiers spray-paint christened as "Assad or this country burns". If there is anybody who holds the moral blame for all that has befallen Syrians since then, it is this bankrupt regime and its Russian and Iranian backers.

Syrians have had three years of this murder. Three years of his apologists using smoke and mirrors and every trick in the book to paralyse the international community and prevent it from doing anything about the barrel bombs and the chlorine bombs dropping on the heads of civilians. Again and again the spectre of Iraq is raised, not so that anybody can learn anything, but to frighten anyone from action, however much needed, to help Syrians. The anti-imperialist camp must, at any cost, oppose intervention in Syria and they are pathologically incapable of comprehending its necessity. Others will get on to the moral high horse and say that strikes on Syria will lead to innocent lives being lost. Of course, they don't seem to mind much that the very next day those lives could be lost either by an overzealous ISIS fanatic enforcing his apocalyptic vision of a utopian society, or that death could come by Assad's barrel bombs or rocket attacks or air strikes. No, for that they can only offer the potential victims a lot of moral anguish, hand wringing and anxiety as they are crushed between Assad and ISIS. Heaven forbid that anybody interfere, that anybody try to do something.

Last year many of those same people cheered with joy that strikes against the Assad regime were averted after he used chemical weapons against the Syrian people. Since then the death toll in Syria has risen to over 200,000. But they have nothing to say about that. They've been too busy spending the last year basking in the warm glow of their own self righteousness. Since then Assad and his Shiite allies have managed to push back the Free Syrian Army (without ever challenging ISIS seriously) and ISIS has emerged from a fringe lunatic group to a lunatic messianic state controlling an area larger than the size of England. The non-interventionists are responsible for this turn of events, and they are responsible for the rise of ISIS. They offered no solutions, only obstacles. They don't have a position you can criticise. They just insist that nobody have a position either, that Syrians die for the principles of somebody else; somebody who can rubber-stamp the revolution and say, "Yes, you're a bonafide revolution and we approve of you", and say to them, "We will sing your praises in post-graduate Middle East courses across the Western world for all time, and write books about your sacrifices". 

The fact is non-interventionists have no right to talk about who may or may not get hurt in Syria, to pretend to be concerned for the innocent, and they have no right to hold the moral high ground after the debacle we've seen in Syria for the last twelve months. This is a disaster, step aside and let someone do something about it.  


Saturday, September 20, 2014


Time is so short, yet the days go by so very long...
A seed dropped in the desert, thirsty for your rain.

Hold my face in your hands.
Let this tired loser rest...


Friday, September 12, 2014

I Review The Week

I don't know where this week went. It's Friday - yes, another Friday - and all I can think of is that President Obama said something about striking ISIS, but not completely. And then the Syrian regime and Iran and Russia aren't happy even about the not completely bit. But they want him to, just not in Syria. Or is that not without the regime's permission? Yes, it was.

I read somewhere that more Syrians died. Somebody shared a video of bodies washing up on the beach in Tunisia. It looked like a beautiful sunny day. And those bodies just lying face down as the water rushes past them and then back into the sea. Black, some brown. All doomed, all lost, the victims of our collective failure to build proper countries for ourselves. They don't have a future anymore. And here's the thing, there are hundreds and thousands of people willing to take that same journey across a sea to countries that don't want them, where their future is uncertain. They'll do it, and I don't blame them. Because at least they get a chance. Where they're coming from, there is no chance. No hope of a steady job, sending your kids to school, a car, a house, a chance to save some money and maybe go on a nice holiday every now and then. Where they come from the schools and hospitals and universities are falling apart. Everybody is out to get what they can. And then there are the rich people who drive around and tut-tut at the poverty and backwardness of their compatriots. It's the same god-damn model in every third world country. Of course privileged first and second generation third worlders living in the West love the poverty and wretchedness of the third world. Their sociology degrees need a subject matter and what better than the unwilling subjects of their interminable interviews and research papers. All very important of course. It's very important to get the voice of these people out there - with the author's name, of course.

Where was I? Yes, the week in review. What else do I remember? I'm sure there is some important anniversary of a horrible massacre that I've forgotten, or that somebody famous died. Robin Williams passed away, but that was a few weeks ago. No, my memory at this instant draws a blank. All those books I've read, all those intelligent conversations I had with people and wanted to have, it all means didley squat right now. I've got loads of people on my timeline in Facebook and Twitter who tweet and write about the same stuff I used to as an undergraduate. I'm so tired of it all. Yet another book review or must-read article about Palestine and the "Resistance" but now we have Syria too. Syria's revolution is whatever you want it to be. You want it to be a secular class struggle for the domination of the towering heights of the economy, of the means of production? You got it. Maybe you'd like it to be about gender and the breaking of ancient historical and religious shackles. Go for it. Oh and look there's another guy quoting Gramsci. Well done, man. Another actually admits to reading the Hanna Battatu book about the Baath party. That's hours and hours of your life that you won't get back. Hashtag, retweet, look how profound this Edward Said quote is. Mmmm...profound indeed. Let's not mention that he ignored the gassing of the Kurds.

Then there are all the quirky musical tastes I see. What's the name of that Latin American singer? Ah yes, Manu Chao. That one. Very nice to say you like her music, but it's another thing entirely to listen to it. I'm told you have to speak Spanish to fully appreciate it. I guess that's true. And look, there's yet another girl getting in touch with her Arabic and Islamic roots. Yet more pictures of minarets, Islamic patterns, and "this is true Islam" style articles. And of course there's the angry guy who has beef to grind with "The White Man" and he uses that term like he knows what he's talking about. And of course he does, he's read many books on the subject and has worked up his outrage by attending countless vigils and demonstrations. He's probably got a sticker on his iMac to express that too. Go for it, buddy. Fight the Man. And when somebody dies there's that whole "Rest in Power" thing. Why rest in power? When did this become a thing? I feel I have nothing in common with these people.

But wait, I was reviewing the week. There's something about Scotland. Something about Khamenei being sick in the hospital. I'm not one to gloat, sickness and death reach us all and I've never liked cheap shots. Ah, I knew there was something I was forgetting. Syrian refugees were getting beaten up in the streets in Lebanon by Hezbullah fan-boys. Because that's what rabid mobs of fascists do. Their leadership is never to blame, oh no. But somehow, the pack gets the signal that such behaviour will be acceptable to a certain limit, and they rush off baying for blood. To think I used to respect this ideology and what it represented. I cringe and feel ashamed but I guess we've all been young and stupid. And yesterday was September 11th. I remember when it happened I was in a very different phase in my life. I got home and saw the news coverage properly for the first time, and I had to go up to my room and put my head under the pillow to drown out the noise because I couldn't handle the enormity of it all. I still can't.

Then there's ISIS, IS, or ISIL, depending on who you ask. Everybody seems to want to do something about them, but nobody wants to be that person. They're awful, the pictures of what they do to people who cross them are terrible. And yes, there's something even more sinister and frightening about them than even the regime. I know better than to succumb to that sentiment, but I think for a moment about what average people who don't know the Middle East would think. It's like something out of the darkest part of our past, primeval and frightening. I think what makes it scary for us is that ISIS is holding up a picture of what the world would look like without the international agreements, norms and conventions that we love bashing; a world without the recognised consensus that we know as the "international community". Some people can't wait for the apocalypse. They cheerlead Russia, Assad or Iran for their upholding principles of national sovereignty. And yet those principles are upheld in a manner that demands their abolition.

I've been reading a book, Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. I'm halfway through and it's incredible. Since Syria descended into armageddon I've been reading more (much more than usual) about the Second World War, about the Holocaust, and about the rise of the Nazis. I've also been fascinated with the totalitarianism of Stalin's Communism. The parallels are striking. Fallada paints us a picture of life in Nazi Berlin and it's like somebody picked up those same people in the story and put them in Syria, Russia or Iran today.  The Otto Quangel's, the Inspector Escheriches, the Enno Kluges, all of them. We find today the opportunist, the fanatic believer in the Cause, the indifferent, and then those few people who care enough to make a stand and are pulverised into dust because they're too weak to stand up to the bullies. It makes me think how I used to admire Hassan Nasrallah's oratory, and if you understand Arabic you can be mesmerised by it. When I see short clips of Hitler swooning with passion, his eyes fluttering as he holds his chest and releases it, I sense the same mechanics at play here, and what a person living then might have felt listening to him. It's frightening because I understand its seductiveness now, and to think of all the horrible things that happened as a result of people letting down their guard, of letting the wrong people into power, is just too much to bear. What's even more frightening is that this slide into madness seems inevitable. We aren't even staring into the abyss anymore, we've fallen into it but nobody seems to realise it yet.

I can't think of anything else that's important to write about this week. It's not because I don't care, it's just because I'm so tired. I'm going to go back to my book and see what happens to Otto. I'm still holding out hope that they never catch him, and that maybe one of his postcards reaches somebody decent. Maybe that's all it takes, to have that one solitary person who doesn't let the madness affect them. Solzhenitsyn once said let the Lie dominate the entire world, but not through you. That sounds about right in times like this.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Life After Theory

I felt a sense of sorrow seeing the Syrian regime soldiers being herded into the desert by ISIS. They were stripped of their uniforms and weapons. In the video they looked naked and weak. It wasn't without a sense of irony that I recalled similar videos of Syrian civilians being herded off a bus, naked, hands tied and blindfolded as they were rushed off to whatever horrors lay in store for them. But I can't bring myself to mock. I can't look at a human being getting degraded in that way and not feeling something. Isn't that why this whole affair kicked off? Wasn't our outrage and horror at the way protesters were being treated the reason why we all broke the fear barrier and spoke out?

I can feel empathy for the regime soldiers, though perhaps less for the hardcore of the regime itself, and I'm free to do so. There is nobody compelling me to, and I feel no worry about holding my opinion, which is something that a pro-regime Syrian could never do. They can feel outrage only for certain victims, certain injustices, and certain types of suffering. And now that this ISIS has reared its head, what? Do we abandon everything as a hopeless dilemma? As a choice between two barbarisms? Between bearded and non-bearded butchers and torturers? No, I choose instead to believe in our decency and kind heartedness. Since the start of the Syrian revolution I've felt a resurgent humanism in my thinking and understanding and it tugs away at my feelings constantly. I know I'm not alone. It's there if you look for it within every Syrian person who took the difficult and frightening first steps to stand up for what they believe in and say no to injustice. We had to overcome obstacles at every level to do that and anybody who hasn't gone through that wouldn't understand. Instead they would hide behind lofty talk of geo-politics and "great games". But the dusty narratives about colonialism, post-colonialism, occupation and liberation are no longer relevant, if they ever were. There is something stronger, more powerful than all of that, and it's something I choose to believe in.