Saturday, April 08, 2017

My Thoughts on the US Airstrike against Assad

There is something that is happening right now, something that most people aren't talking about, either because they haven't noticed it yet or, like the Syrian regime, they are ignoring and at the same time trying to kill it. Emerging from the cinders of a country, Syrians are developing a common sense of identity and a new way of looking at the world. They are, in effect, becoming a new country. Whether it is a new Syria is a different question. The old country, with its corrupt Baathist-socialist legacy and the politicisation of all aspects of life and the corresponding ideological baggage, is now giving way to a country where being an exile underpins your sense of national identity, and necessitates pragmatism.

These Syrians don't need expensive post-grad diplomas and degrees in journalism and international relations to understand that the US strike was in their interest, even if the motives behind it were not. These are the same Syrians who celebrated the election victories of the AKP and President Erdogan in Turkey, and who breathed a collective sigh of relief when the coup attempt against President Erdogan failed, or who cheer on when the Israeli Airforce attacks the Assad regime and its Hezbullah allies.

When Syrians take these positions, they are not interested in domestic Turkish or American entanglements and they are not interested in tying the Syrian revolution with the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. They are interested solely in dealing with the dictator whose family has had its boot on their necks for the past forty years. They are, in effect, expressing as Syrians a nascent national interest, their national interest. We should probably listen to what these people have to say, instead of ignoring them or trying to change their point of view.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Mr "Fake News"

There are a lot of things that rile me about Bashar al Assad, but none more than his manner when speaking to members of the press. In a recent interview with Michael Isikoff, from Yahoo News, he sat like a well behaved school boy, ready to respond to all the questions he was given. In what could have been a curveball, Isikoff called Assad's bluff when he was asked, "Do you have a picture?" Isikoff did. When he saw the picture, he asked Isikoff if he knew who those people in the picture were, if he knew where it was taken, and whether it had been photoshopped. He had the temerity to chide the interviewer for not "verifying" a picture before presenting it in front of an audience, and that kind of sums up Assad's approach to all interviews. It's clear that he's coached, that he's been drilled endlessly on how to answer all the difficult questions, that he's done his 'homework'. And he does so with all the clinical precision of his supposed training as an ophthalmologist. He uses the latest buzzword, "fake news" in one of his answers, and sidesteps completely the fact that there, in his hand, he was holding a picture showing the handiwork of the regime his father bequeathed to him. In his hand he saw his own countrymen, other Syrians, innocent people, who had been rounded up and processed in the industrial torture and murder machine that works in the shadows, away from mobile footage and, unlike ISIS, doesn't need flashy production values. There is no audience for the handiwork done in Assad's prisons. There are only numbers and quotas, as we saw in the recent Amnesty report stating that over thirteen thousand Syrians had been murdered in the regime's prisons since 2011.

This is the 'new' type of politics that is being unleashed on the world. It's the same old politics we saw in the dirtiest days and nights of the Cold War, but with an additional twist. It is packaged slickly for a consumerist society that can have everything it wants except freedom. This is the technocratic, dictatorial nightmare world of the Putins, of the "Chinese Way" that Assad once admired, the tech-savvy world of the Iranian Ayatollah's who can ruthlessly crush a protest movement and match it point for point on internet savvy and tech know-how. In this cowardly new world, politics is theatre, even more so than anything the most corrupt and inept Western democracy could ever come up with. There are play-actors for every role, from President to opposition figure or intellectual. Everybody can act their role perfectly. The only thing wrong with all of this is that none of it is real. Assad is not a real president. Syria does not have real elections. There is no real army, no real police, not even a real education system. It is a country of cardboard cut-outs that set the background scenery for an even bigger national myth of greatness and resistance to anti-imperialism. In this backwards, clumsy and childish impersonation of a functioning country, a tall lanky man sits atop a pyramid of violence, murder and lies, and tells the world that everything is fine, and that the problem isn't with him, but with it.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Just want to "Be"

The world is so big, and yet these days it seems so small. Everywhere you go you need papers. Little bits of information that say where you have to be, who you are, what you do. We're supposed to be defined into little easy boxes that can be checked off. Some of the boxes are OK, acceptable. Others, not so much. But the worst thing to be, I think, is nothing. To not have a box that can be checked. Then the man behind the counter at the airport, or the checkpoint, or the harbour office, or whatever else kind of barrier is out there, scratches his chin and hums and haws. He makes some calls, asks some questions. A superior is needed. Someone to think for him. Someone who will take the responsibility because the uniform he wears isn't supposed to represent competence, only authority. You're an irregular, an abnormality, an undesirable, and so you're a problem. Not the stinking world, not the man in the uniform, not the clueless person typing up your life into a form on a computer and then telling you that you're not good enough, no, none of that. You are the problem.

Papers, papers, everywhere. Today they're electronic. We just fill out little forms, wait for the hour glass to stop spinning, and then we get a decision that's going to shape our lives forever. You can't click back, you can't undo anything. That's it. Your name has gotten on the wrong list. No explanation, no answers, no reason. You're done for, Mister. I'm sick, sick, sick of it. It's dehumanising. It's impersonal. It screams against every instinct inside of me. I feel like a gorilla rattling the bars of a prison he can't understand.

All my life, growing up as someone who doesn't "fit" any of the boxes, who doesn't have an easy answer to simple questions like "where are you from?", I've felt like I need to worry about what people will think about me, about how they see me. Every action I do feels like something I need to think about and be able to explain. Would it give off the wrong meaning? Would the fact that the one time I decide to grow a beard again, simply for the hell of it, mark me in the wrong circles as an Islamist? Or would the fact that I want to go out with my friends and have a good time, that I kiss a woman I'm not married to passionately mean I'm not Muslim enough? Or maybe that I'm an acceptable type of Muslim?

I don't want to go to a mosque on Friday and listen to a shit sermon. I don't want to go to prayers with anyone. I don't want to stand with anyone. I'll read the Quran when I want, if I want. If I pray, I'll pray alone. If I drink alcohol or don't eat halal meat, then I'm not interested in your raised eyebrows. I don't want your judgments or approval. I don't want your questions. I'm not here to satisfy anybody's curiosity. Fuck you. It's my business. Can I not just exist without being judged and having my every move watched? Is it too much to ask to just be left alone? To be able to get on a plane without a worry and be with the people I care about? Or travel and see the world when I want to? To be part of humanity? To be able to say what I want without fear of - something? To think what I want to think? Feel how I want to feel? Make my own mistakes? Is that too much to ask? Do I have to constantly be expected to pick sides? Do I need people to constantly be speaking for me? Deciding what's best for me? Deciding how it is that things will be? Can I not just be a human being? Is it too much to ask to just Be?


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Somewhere, Sometime...

When the tragedies keep piling up it's easy to think that they are all a series of disconnected events, happening in a void and without any connection. But the misfortunes, the horrors, the calamities, stretch into the past like beads on a string. Hindsight is treated like a dirty word, but I find myself wondering whether all these people who had been walking about their daily lives six years ago wouldn't still be here if things had turned out differently. If, instead of shooting people, Assad said he was going to reform the country, if he said there would be elections at some level, if he stopped the brutality, the torture, maybe even the corruption, that so many had rose up against, then many of these people would be with us today.

This morning I find myself thinking about Hamza al Khatib, about a man I saw in a video clip with his jaw blown off by a sniper, about Marie Colvin, about the Russian and Turkish pilots who had been shot down, about Anthony Shadid, about Father Paulo, about Mustafa Shadoud and Ghiath Mater, and even about the Russian ambassador, and about countless others. All of them would be alive today, all of them would be with their families and loved ones instead of under the ground. And all for what? For power? For money? For history? It's so ugly and futile, so exhausting to try and grasp for reasons blindly. Everything's just a big nothingness, and it swallows us all in the end.

When this is over, and it will be, I fear for those who are left. For the bitterness and anger and the broken lives that are going to be left behind. Maybe some of us can hold on to an idea of what it meant like to be Syrian and live a normal life. To remind others of the simple pleasures of friendship over a meal and a drink. Of an afternoon coffee. Of a late night spent talking, and smoking a nargeeleh while playing card games. Of concerts in a park. Of busy and crowded markets. Of love at first sight from a fleeting glimpse through the crowd. Of the worry of exams and the joy of a summer free from school. All these things we had once, and I hope we find again. Somewhere and sometime when this is over.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Enjoy the Show

There's something voyeuristic about the way people are talking about Aleppo. All of a sudden the city has become a hot topic, and people want to hear about the suffering and anguish that "normal" people are going through. They want every sigh, and every tear, to be recorded and shared, and reshared, and retweeted. They want the sad emoticons on Facebook to pile up. They want real emotion, real drama. In short, they want to be entertained and the people of Aleppo are stars in their own terrifying movie.

Nobody cared for Aleppo for three years. Nobody was interested in something so depressing and horrid, but all of a sudden it's hot news. All of a sudden the news people want to interview the victims, and want to hear the explosions and gunfire. Now, after three years, they want moving images and pictures of the same ruins that were there last year, and the year before that. It's the same place, and the same people, but overnight, now that we know that this tragedy could be ending soon, we realise just how much we're going to miss it.

The point about Aleppo seems not to be that there are real people suffering at the hands of a dictatorship that is backed by one of the most deadly airforces in the world. It's not that we care about genuine reform in Syria, or about the children of Aleppo. It's that people will miss the show. Aleppo is a long running drama series that is now coming to a close. You might not have watched all the episodes, but you kept tabs on what was happening and could safely drop in and out of the story whenever it was convenient for you. Now that the network is about to axe the show, and the finale is finally upon us, everybody is pulling up their chairs, heating up the popcorn and watching the drama unfold live. So, World, get your popcorn ready, take your phone off the hook, and enjoy the show.


Monday, October 17, 2016

One Day In Damascus Airport

I remember arriving with my mother and brothers at Damascus airport sometime in the early nineties. It was a horribly depressing place. My mother was dealing with some paper work so I sat on our luggage, staring at people as they went by. There was a boy who spoke English with an American accent. I think his parents were dealing with paperwork too. We love paperwork in Syria. Without it, things would simply work, and that wouldn't do. No, paperwork kept the illusion of order, and discipline.

The boy was running around behind the columns playing some sort of game. Then he turned and yelled to his parents. They looked back to see what the matter was, and he was pointing at the floor and laughing. "There's kaka. There's kaka on the floor" he said. "Well leave it alone and come here" they replied.

He was right. Earlier, I'd noticed as we passed that there was a piece of shit behind one of the pillars. I suppose it's something strange when I think about it today, but that's one of the things you got used to seeing in Syria back then. 

There was also an Indian woman with her two children who was trying to find her way through the bureaucracy. She asked a porter for directions but he continually ignored her and walked on. "Excuse me," she insisted, "Hello? Could you tell me..." 

"Sorry!" he finally bellowed at her in his Syrian accented English. People turned to look for a fraction of a second and then everybody went about their business. The woman stood there with a stunned look on her face. He said it like it was the only word he knew, and it probably was. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the poor woman, for how embarrassed, shocked, and sad she must have felt to be yelled at like that in front of her two children. This was supposed to be an international airport. I was half tempted to get up and apologise to her, but when you're a kid you just stare dumbly at things that are happening because you're not sure about what you've just seen. 

We got the paperwork sorted and left, and that was our first day in Syria for the summer holidays. There was "kaka" behind a pillar and a poor Indian woman being yelled at by a porter who couldn't speak English. 

Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Most Beautiful City I'll Never See

Once, before the bad days, I had the chance to visit Aleppo and I never took it, something that I now bitterly regret. Perhaps one day, when this is all past us, and by some miraculous coincidence, I may walk through its narrow streets and think back to these days. But it wouldn't be the same city. The stones might get put back together again in a bastardised version of what it once was, but I'll always know this isn't the same place. There'll be a spiritual scar that will take a long time to heal. One day there will be a generation of people who will have forgotten about all this, about us, and about what we saw and felt, and the suffering of this time will simply be a paragraph in a book. Something that happened a long time ago, but faded from the collective memory because the present pushes with it a thousand little problems that are more important than the memory of a time from before their grandparents - from our present. 

I know that what's in the past will stay in the past, but as I sat on a train today thousands of miles away I thought of this city, of the space it occupies in my mind, and of chances not taken. I felt myself taken back to that internal world where people who are long gone still live. That place I can only visit unexpectedly. When I sit with a group of people my mind sometimes drifts far away. It doesn't take much. A word, a smell, a phrase, and I'm transported there, to that place nobody can reach. I call it the Dream Place. And while everyone carries on talking, I nod and politely pretend to listen to them, while my feet wander through the streets of a far away city. I'm on the train, and now I'm in the Dream Place. Things were easier back then, before the bad times, when I could get on a big bus, not like the "microbuses" in Damascus, and put my headphones on to listen to music as the driver hurtles dangerously through the traffic. I close my eyes and try to ignore the uncomfortable seats and the dryness of my throat from the air conditioning. Every now and then, I would look out of the window and see the landscape slowly change from city to suburb and then to the odd village or town. They flash by in a series of images as we move from the familiar to the unfamiliar. I close my eyes again. The journey goes by mercifully fast. I'm in Aleppo now and my cousin greets me. I know that I am still in Syria but it is both familiar and alien to me. The delicate Aleppine accent, so strange to me and yet so exotic, fills my ears. It is as if the people of this city want to make a statement. We are here, they say, and this is our city and it has always been here and always will be. 

I'm tired but I hunger for more and the city beckons. The sun is setting and I lose myself in the narrow streets of the old town. I enter the covered bazaar and the lights are on for all the shops now. Their owners welcome me, spreading their arms over a thousand and one containers of brightly coloured spices and herbs and grains. In other stores, roll upon roll of delicate fabrics fit for a princess are spread out for all to see. Copper pots, pans and plates hang from the walls as a man taps delicate words of magic into yet another addition to his stock. The smell of cardamom and freshly ground coffee fills my nostrils. I breathe in the air of the market, drinking it into my soul. It is the scent of life, of a city that has seen a thousand generations wander through these same streets. Near an overflowing green bin the bored street cats yawn and stretch idly, hoping to catch scraps from the food hawkers and passers-by.

Other shops have sweets on display, baklawa and mabroomeh and countless pistachioed delights that I can't even begin to name, all arranged in rows and circles and spirals. Packaged and ready for all occasions in gold and silver ribboned boxes. Sacks of purple skinned Aleppo pistachios are laid out before me as I walk on. I love all this, the city's wonder, it's confidence, the warmth of the people. My long gone relative insists we go to the citadel, and I stare at the narrow path leading to its gate. From the ramparts, I feel the gentle breeze of the land and I know what it is as I did when it sighed in my face once in Antakia, in another life and another place, and it's the smell of home and love and gentle long nights pining for someone who will never know. Of the ache of love for the sake of love. And it's where I want to be and where I am right now, in this dream place, real even though I know it's not because it's in my heart. 

The city lights twinkle amber and green all around me from the dark, and a call to prayer echoes across the night. I think of all the people who have stood on these walls over the centuries, right at this spot, and I feel a connection with them. Did their heart flutter in their chests in the same way? We wander through the winding streets again, leaving the citadel behind. The city sleeps now and I walk alone. Even the street cats have disappeared. Then, out of the corner of my eye, there is a movement. An Aleppine princess, combing her long red hair in front of a mirror, sits delicately by an open window. She doesn't know that I'm watching, and I don't know how, but I know it's a beautiful ivory comb she holds in her delicate white hands, with mother of pearl on the handle. I stand in the gloom, afraid to breathe for fear it would startle her, afraid, perhaps, to wake up from my Dream Place and leave this wonderful daydream. My eyes burn with anguish and longing. Wishing I could be part of this picture, part of this world. To not be a stranger anymore, always looking in from the outside, cursed to forever watch from afar. The princess gets up and walks away from the window and the lights go out. I stand alone again, bathed in the orange street light, and the moment has passed, forever a secret known only to me. 

The sound of loud thuds hurts my ears and the ground shakes beneath my feet, but there's nowhere for me to hide. I see images of the same market I'd passed through earlier, but it is a ruin, smouldering, burnt by some unseen calamity. The citadel's lights are off and it's walls stare down menacingly over us all. I look around but there is nobody about, and in the sky thunder claps loudly though there are no clouds. The street cats hiss at me from a corner, driven mad by fear, and a stench of dust and decay fills the once fragrant air. There is no breeze here, no happiness or welcome, only a dead, stale nothing. Terrified, I look up to the window again, looking for my Aleppine princess, but the window frame is hanging loosely by one flimsy hinge, its glass broken, and I can tell, again without knowing why, that the house is now empty.