Thursday, July 24, 2014

No Cheers for the Golden Boy

When some things are broken they can never be put back together again. I sit here and think about how I got here, how things went off on a tangent, and my heart still has trouble accepting everything. It's Ramadan again and I'm supposed to be feeling spiritually rejuvenated after - what is it? - twenty six days. Instead I feel an emptiness inside that gnaws at me. People say we can all move on with time, but I can't, my problem is I remember things. I remember details that nobody else does, and when I remember them they become alive. I keep thinking back to the end of 2009. I had finished a disastrous relationship and had come down to Damascus to be introduced to a wonderful girl. She was wonderful, believe me. The family were ecstatic for me and we had a wonderful engagement party. Everybody looked at us and saw we would make a great couple. I was starting a law course and even though I was still a student I felt like the world was full of promise. It was going to be my Damascene wedding, the one I would have liked to have, with all my family and loved ones around me, and everybody was cheering for me, I was the golden boy. The only problem was that inside I was dying, screaming, and nobody could hear. Something was broken and - though I didn't know it at the time - I needed time to heal, to mend. I pretended everything was alright until the world started to crash down on me.

You never think it will happen to you till it does. It's not a nice feeling to find out that you're the guy who disappointed everyone, who let everybody down. I let the poor girl down too, and I hated myself for it. On the flight out of Syria I said to myself I never wanted to come back to this god-damn country again. I did start to reconsider, but a year later my grandmother was dead. I walked back into a house she had been in only twenty four hours earlier. Everything still had her scent and I volunteered to sleep in her bedroom because we didn't have enough space and everybody else felt uncomfortable about saying so. So I slept in her bed and thought of her and how she looked after us when we were younger and what she was like and how I will always remember her. I stayed in Damascus for two weeks and then decided to stay an extra week to keep my mother company, so that the house wouldn't empty all of a sudden. It was a decision I didn't regret. A week after I flew back to London the first protests started to appear. Within weeks protests were spreading from Deraa to Homs. Our world came crashing down.

People started to leave, more and more Facebook statuses were reaching me from the cities of the world. We were leaving our city and our homes, and reality started to sink in. This was real, unchangeable, irreversible. It was the stuff of life, and it wasn't what I thought it would be. I thought I had all the time in the world and I was so wrong. My second grandmother died, other relatives died or left the country, that girl eventually got engaged, and then she got married. And I know for a fact she waited, but like I said I thought I had all the time in the world. She's in the Emirates now and I wish her all the best. The revolution wasn't over in seventeen days, it wasn't over in a year, or even two. There's not going to be a Damascus wedding, no family cheering for the golden boy. There'll be no ticker tape parade for us boys and girls who wanted to change the world. Now the houses are empty, the lights are off and we are scattered to all four corners of the earth like so much ash.


"Give us back our dead"

I watched the return of the coffins to the Netherlands closely. There was a solemn procession of cars, flags at half mast, crowds of people giving their respect, piles of flowers along the route. The newspaper headlines screamed at Putin, "Give us back our dead". World governments united in their condemnation and made it clear in no uncertain terms that the tyrant of Moscow had gone too far. After the indignity and outrage suffered by the victims of flight MH17 the almost flawless processions organised by the Dutch were the least anybody could do for them. It's about respect and love for the dead. They might not care, but for the families it must have meant a lot. I know if I was mourning somebody the idea that the whole world is mourning with me, caring for my loss, would be some comfort however little. Now we wait while DNA analysis takes place to painstakingly identify the passengers of that ill-fated flight. That's what countries with self-respect and dignity do for their dead. Especially when they die in such a horrible way.

But for Syrians there is none of that. Syria is a country with no self-respect and no dignity. There was no unanimous decision to refrain from showing our dead on the news, naked for the world to see. Nobody dipped their flag half mast in the capitals of the world, there is no painstaking DNA analysis to identify our dead, to give them respect, wash their bodies, and pray over them. We will have no time to mourn, no time to remember. There will be no coroners report to establish how each of us died. No next of kin will be notified with a letter. No flags will be at half-mast. We are the cursed, the unwanted.

A distant relative of mine died under torture a year ago - or was it two? - and his family have not been given his body back. They will never get his body back. He was murdered by his own government, tortured to death, denounced by his own flesh and blood. The young man had flown down from America to see his family, he was arrested, I don't know how. Nobody ever saw him again. His father is a wreck, his mother screamed at the man responsible for daring to come to the boy's wake. How did he die? What happened to him? Nobody would tell them. Then the world saw the "industrial scale" murder factories that Assad is running. They saw the warehouses with emaciated naked bodies piled together neatly, catalogued and photographed. My relative's parents must have seen them as well. They must have thought, somewhere in that assembly line of death is our son. But his country doesn't care about him, and so the world doesn't care about him. We have a jackal for a president who laughs at them and at the families of his victims every day on the television and there isn't a god-damn thing anybody can or will do about it.

Even in death the world is divided between the "haves and have-nots". The haves are treated with dignity and respect when they die, the have-nots are wrapped in a sheet of plastic - if they are lucky - and dumped into a hastily dug hole. We want to mourn our dead, we deserve to wash their bodies, to sprinkle rosewater on them, to wrap them in the white burial shroud, to pray for them. All those mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, and sisters deserve this after all the horrors they've seen. Give us back our dead and leave us in our grief.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

I Remember...

My mind wanders back to the old days sometimes. I don't want it to but it happens. Faces, names, places, things that happened. The images rush into my mind without any specific order. The way the light shines off a surface, a sound in a tunnel, the musty smell of old stone. All turn my mind back to an older time, a simpler time. At one point I caught myself seeing the places in the news as just that, abstract places. I almost forgot, just for an instant, that I lived there. That the streets were alive with our laughter and sighs. The forgotten rendezvous points on a corner in Shaalan street, or old man Shehadeh's grocery store. Before the revolution his picture was already fading in the sunlight as it hung above his son sitting at the cashier's desk but I remember how he would sit on his chair outside the shop, dosing in the sunlight with his hands clasped together just under his belly. I also remember Station 1 and Station 2, and that pizza festooned with olives and peppers. People don't remember that there was a Station 2, but there was. I remember the high counter that I couldn't see beyond. I remember my half-uncle standing there, leaning his elbow on the top of that counter waiting for our order. He was a handsome young man and he used to show off his muscles to us. I was named after him.

I remember the old Moka store with its rows of beautiful cakes and ice creams and tarts in their amazing colours. There was a clothes store opposite it called Hindam, it was one of the finest clothes stores in Damascus at one point. Then there is the landmark supermarket, Nora. It used to be one of my favourite places, I would go there to buy a new Tintin comic, or to buy a Lego or Playmobil play-set. For a supermarket they had everything. I would hide behind my aunt as the old owner, a kindly old man with a snowy white moustache, rest his soul, would ask me about my mother and grandmother and ask me to say hello.

Opposite from our building today there is a marble coated monstrosity of a building that took over ten years to complete. Before it there had been a one story old bungalow. It was for a family we knew, their son was a friend of my father and he died when he accidentally touched a live electric wire that had fallen into a puddle on their roof. I never met him but I heard the story and it fascinated me. That there was a young man who used to live in that house a long time before I did and that he was no more.

Opposite that house, before it moved to the next street, was a stationary store whose owner would always call me Dada. As in, "how are you Dada? That'll be five liras Dada". A gentle man with gentle eyes. He managed to save up enough money and buy a bigger store but he remembered us. We used to buy all our things for school from him and then his son took over and started to help with the store.

And what can I say of Johnny Salem, one of the best video rental stores in Shaalan. The old crooner used to be a wedding singer and he would sometimes break out in song, Italian or French, whilst I browsed for yet another movie to watch. I was about fourteen when his brother died and I paid him my respects when I heard. His eyes were red-rimmed as he sat behind the counter wearing a brown shirt. He had a big nose. He thanked me and smiled. I must have seen every film in his library. In 2011 I saw a video on Youtube where unarmed protesters were beaten up by Assad's thugs. A girl was being dragged off screaming. The shuttered front of his shop appeared briefly near the end of the video and I felt a lump rise in my throat.

I also remember when the shopkeepers in our street first got together to hang brightly coloured lights in the shapes of flowers across the street. It must have been around 1991 or '92, after the big snow. Before then the streets outside the Shaalan used to be very residential. You used to be able to walk on the pavements and there were windows open for people who lived in the basements. You could look inside and see an old guy in his vest watching TV. The streets weren't that filthy yet and the odd car would still park on the street where cars are supposed to.

In the middle of our street somebody had parked a tan and yellow VW camper van for what seemed since the dawn of time. It had never moved and to my knowledge I've never seen it driven. It disappeared one day, when nobody was looking, and nobody thought anything more of it.

Then there was the old widower who had a parrot on his first floor balcony. The green parrot would always whistle and sing early each morning, and he'd bring it in when the noon sun started to get too hot. Once, I think, I recall being allowed to go visit him and see the parrot. It was so long ago that I can't be sure it even happened, but I remember vaguely seeing that tiny balcony with the green wooden shutters from the inside, and seeing our own balcony from it. I saw the parrot and waved back at my grandmother from there.

Other memories flash past. My other grandparents lived at the other end of the street. They had a long flight of steps that was exhausting to climb up. When we got to the top the light from the sky-light would shine down and we would see different plants in tin pots on the steps. People used those more than clay pots because they were cheaper. We would go into my grandparent's house and then look back at our other grandmother's balcony, tiny in the distance. We would wave at them and marvel at how high up this balcony was, and how small everybody on the street seemed. In the kitchen there was a wooden clown hanging on the wall, you pulled a string and his arms and legs jiggled up and down in a bizarre dance. I've never liked clowns much and he looked a bit creepy. But my absolute favourite was the grandfather clock. It would tick-tock and I enjoyed hearing it chime away each hour. Coming to that house and ordering pizza from Station 2 - the small one that's now closed - was always a treat.

Finally there was the exquisite Zenbarakji - in my opinion the finest sweet shop in all of Damascus if not Syria. I remember what it used to be like before the brothers expanded the store. One of them had strange red marks all over his face and he frightened me, but I knew he was the nicest. The other brother was bookish, with a tidy moustache and gold rimmed glasses. I remember the mirrors, mirros facing mirrors and mirrors on the ceiling. They fascinated me. They had tubs and tubs of different sweets wrapped in shiny paper, turkish delight in dozens of varieties, boxes of chocolates, gold or silver plated trinkets with little bags of sugar coated almonds, boxes of pistachio mabroumeh, baklawah and a hundred different types of tasty desserts, ready to be boxed up and stringed so that we can take them home or give as a gift to somebody we were visiting. They also sold freshly ground coffee and that smell, mixed with the flavour of cardamom, are what remind me of Syria the most wherever I am.

I'm sitting alone now in an empty house thousands of miles and a lifetime away from all of that. Many of the people I've just written about are now dead and a lot of the shops have closed. They were the small people, little, with little worries. People who just wanted to get by and see their children grow up and become doctors and lawyers and successful and happy. They had feuds and quarrels, but deep down they still loved one another. Somebody told me that's all dead. That those sights and sounds and smells are no more. But if that were true why do they still rush at at me when I least expect it? Why won't my heart believe what they say?

The next time you see Syria on the news be gentle and think a little of these places and these people who are long dead. That's not just any place, it was my home.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Forty Years in the Desert

When I volunteered with the Zeitouna program for displaced Syrian refugee kids in Reyhanli, one of the questions which knocked the wind out of me came from a tearful girl who had shared her writing with the class. It was a beautiful, emotional journal entry about her last day in Syria written straight from the heart. When she finished reading this the girl started to cry and asked me why nobody was interested in developing or recognising all the talents that they had. Seeing her cry broke my heart and really affected me and I was going to tell her that everything will be alright, and that things will work out. But I didn't. Something hardened in me and I ended up telling her that more than likely nobody is going to come, that life was going to get harder and that they were going to have to nurture their talents on their own because nobody is going to give them a chance.

Maybe I was wrong, maybe that was too harsh, but it was true. The class bell rang and I had to leave to my next workshop. A week later and I'm still thinking about that girl and all the students and children of Syria. They're not going to get a chance. Some have been luckier than others, but they have a very difficult and cruel world to face. Maybe it is too early for them to have seen all this, maybe it should never have happened this way, but it has, and they've been laid with a terrible burden. They are paying for the sins of their fathers, for decades of complacence and acquiescence to injustice and repression. Some of those children will probably go astray and do terrible things because of the hurt they've seen and suffered, but some of them will survive and do something. They will forget us all and move on. Maybe they will salvage something out of all of this, when Assad is gone and the country tries to heal. When that day comes it will be all up to them.

There is a Quranic story about the Israelites leaving Egypt. They disobeyed Moses and worshipped the Golden Calf when he went up the mountain. For that they were cursed to wander for forty years in the desert. This meant that none of the original exiles could ever see the promised land. Moses wandered with them too. Sometimes I feel that we too are cursed to never see our homes again, we followed Assad and joined in his corruption and lies for too long. Maybe this is the price we will have to pay.


Monday, June 23, 2014

"Where is the good? In the will. Where is the evil? In the will. Where is neither of them? In those things that are independent of the will."


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Self Reflection

We don't know how the future will see what we did here. Whether we were right, or whether we will even succeed in building the life that we want. I felt despair, sadness and longing, but I didn't let myself get swept by events this time - even though a lot of people did. I didn't lose my head. I didn't let the craziness get to me. Somebody has to stay sane to remind everybody what it's like. I hope that somebody was me.


A Split Second

The courtyard is chaotic because the children are on their break. I am sitting on the floor leaning against the wall. The bell rings and they are all climbing up the steps in front of me to get to their classroom. Amidst the chaos just one girl stands out for a split second. She has the most wonderful smile I have ever seen in my life. I didn't have my phone out to take a picture. It was as if for a split second there was light only on this one little girl and her pigtails. She's a little older than a toddler. Then she vanished back in the crowd. I closed my eyes to rest them for a few seconds before going to the next of my workshops.


"This won't take a minute"

They asked me if I have a moment and I said yes. I walked with the dentists to one of the classes and the kids were sitting "jalseh si7iyeh" - a healthy stance - behind their desks. I was asked to put on a fresh pair of rubber gloves for each child and then to apply fluoride coating to their teeth after the dentist had examined them. I remember that their teeth were so small.



I have a mental image of a pretty girl with light brown hair wearing a white and blue dress. She's skipping with her friend and her ponytail bounces up and down with each step. She was in my journal writing class and I hope that some of the exercises I gave her might have sparked an interest in writing.

Later we are on the bus driving back to the hotel. I'm tired and thirsty, I forgot to take a bottle of water from the caretakers fridge before we leave. It's hot and dusty. I look out of the window, ignoring the chatter of my colleagues and looking forward to dipping into the cool pool in our mediocre hotel. I see the girl walking past the local Turkish graveyard on her way home. The blue and white of her dress stand out vividly from the dusty drab streets and the hard faces of other pedestrians. She is making her way daintily down from the high pavement and is looking to cross the street. I sit up in my seat and peer out of the window, I tap my hands on it but we've already moved on. We drive away and she is still looking to cross the road. A delicate flower in the middle of a drab dusty town in the middle of nowhere.

The next day I see her in the school courtyard. She smiles and recognises me. I say to her that I saw her going home the other day and she nods her head. I ask her name. She says it is Walaa. I think to myself what a coincidence it is that her name is the same as that other girl I met in Atmeh camp last December. They are almost the same age. They are both wonderful, both full of life. I've left them there. One is somewhere in a refugee camp in Syria, the other is somewhere in a border town in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a region that is going nowhere, in a maelstrom. They are lost in a sea of desperate humanity.


Obama the Fantasist

President Obama said it is a fantasy to have believed that the Syrian rebels could ever have hoped to defeat Assad's army. He's right. There's never been a revolution in history that started with a hope in hell of succeeding. Not one. Have a look in the history books. They all started from an impulse of utter desperation and misery. Revolutions erupt because of a failure in government. When businesses fail they go bankrupt, but when governments fail they are either replaced democratically or, as in the case of despotisms, removed by force. People don't go out and willingly face the weapons of a deranged army because they feel like it. They do it because they are desperate and have nothing left to lose. And when members of the army start to defect and fight against their former commanders and governments, you know that you have the nucleus of a serious rebellion.

Nobody asked for America's permission before they started the protests against Assad. They went out on the streets because it was the right thing to do, and because they rightfully expected that you cannot run a modern country with an educated population like a medieval fiefdom anymore. The only person who didn't realise that is Assad. He thinks he's clever because he's held on to power this long whilst reducing the country to a cinder, he's not. And neither is Obama when he says something as ridiculous as that the Free Syrian rebels never had a chance of succeeding. The real miracle is that they have survived so long in spite of everybody in the world hoping they would just curl up and die quietly. To think the Syrian people are going to do that is the real fantasy.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Reyhanli Diaries

You spend a week with displaced Syrian children and it gives you an insight into the Syrian crisis that is a million times better than anything Assad's enthusiasts in the West can come up with. Child after child says the same thing, airplanes bombing their villages. Mothers, fathers, uncles and cousins killed by Assad's snipers. Hunger, cold, fatigue. Fear and uncertainty as they cross fields and mountains to get to the relative safety of Turkey, and then a quick dash past the Turkish gendarmes and their patrol cars as they crawl down and then up the three metre ditches that have been dug along the border to prevent diesel smuggling from Syria, where it's cheaper.

This was the second time I had been invited by the Zeitouna program for displaced Syrian refugee kids to run my workshop. Unlike last December, the children in this camp were mostly special cases and they were doing an intensive summer school program. A lot of these children hadn't been in a proper school for over a year. I noticed that a higher number of the school children didn't want me to read their diary entries than in December. When they did the stories were heart-wrenching. Their memories were about death, destruction and loss. They were nothing you'd want a ten year old boy or girl to ever have to know. But that is the reality that they and millions of other Syrians have had to face. Beneath the smiling cheerful facade and the noise of the playground everybody in the Salam school carries a terrible burden. That includes the teachers, who have the double burden of trying to help the children live a normal life whilst also carrying their own problems. One teacher told me of how he was held by the security services for over a month with regular beatings and interrogation. He had to hang from the ceiling by his wrists, with his toes barely touching the floor. He was kept like this for three days with no food or water or toilet breaks, and he was beaten by a thick cable. When he'd faint they would chuck a bucket of water on him and he would lick his lips to try and quench his thirst. When they took him down he couldn't feel his hands for hours and thought he had lost their use forever.

After that they made him hold his hands out so that they can hit him with the cables. He was told he would be hit forty times, and that each time he flinched and tried to pull his arms back they would add another five. The final count was ninety and his hands were hit so hard that his finger nails came off. When they finally released him he had lost forty kilograms out of ninety. The judge he was presented to ordered him to tell people that he had been on vacation all this time. He escaped to Turkey as soon as he had the chance.

There is something perverse in hearing about the obscene celebrations in Assad's areas that have been going non-stop since his sham elections, and the suffering these children told me about. I ask the girls in one class to write about the happiest day in their lives, and most of them don't want to do that. They want to write about the saddest day in their lives. At first I'm adamant that they not do that, but then I give in. I tell them they can write about the saddest day in their lives if that's what they want. They say they do. Then they volunteer to read to the class. They were so hungry to tell somebody - anybody - about what happened to them, and the realisation dawned on me that this was how they wanted to unburden themselves of this big weight on their chests. Far from bringing up painful memories, I felt as if we were giving each other the chance to release pent up hurt and anguish. One of the girls started reading her journal entry, and she started talking about how her cousin was killed fighting for the Free Syrian Army, and then how, a few days later, her uncle was also shot by a sniper. I was looking at the other students in the room and was also tired so I then stared out of the window. Then I realised she had stopped talking. I looked at her and she was quietly sobbing. The other students looked down, nobody said a word. Then one girl said, "May he rest in peace", and I repeated that too. She sobbed, and then carried on reading, sharing her heartache with us in the room. It was a moment of commiseration for us all where we acknowledged our common humanity. We were grieving together. And when I think about it now maybe that is what the girls of that 12th grade really needed, somebody to grieve with and listen to how much they had been hurt.

I asked another girl in the 9th grade to write about her last day in Syria and what she saw. She didn't talk about planes bombing them, or about losing loved ones. She was a bubbly cheerful girl with a pink hejab and I liked her. She was one of my favourite students in the class. Then she started reading to us how she and her family were crossing cornfields and ditches to get to the safety of Turkey. I thought she was fine and she was smiling. Halfway through she started to sob and I choked up. She would give that beautiful smile and then start sobbing in between, as if the memory of her displacement was too much to bear and she was doing everything possible to keep up the facade of a happy girl in her early teens. I almost cried in front of everybody but I kept a straight face. My eyes burned.

The stories came non-stop and it's only now, a few days after I have come back, that I can write a little about this past week. It was beautiful, human and warm to be with the children and the teachers, and we all said tearful goodbyes on the final day. One boy came back to hug me three times, and I could feel his chest heave as he cried. I patted him on the back and whispered to him to stay strong and be patient. Inside I was dying. Last week, just briefly, we all shared something wonderful. Maybe in times of war that can make all the difference.


Thursday, June 05, 2014


I do wonder what it would have been like today in Assad's house. Was he waiting anxiously by his phone with Asma holding his hand and the children being told to keep quiet by their nanny? Did his personal aide walk in with a letter on a gold tray to inform his "Excellency" that he has won the election? Did his opponents in the race call to congratulate him, as gentlemen?

What did Assad do when he heard? Did he pump his fists into the air in triumph? Maybe he was happy to be over and done with all that campaigning and being on the road to win the Syrian people's vote? Maybe he sat back in his chair, closed his eyes and smiled. Maybe he thanked his wife, his staff and everybody else who made this dream a reality then told everybody to get to work like a Syrian version of the West Wing. Or then again, maybe not. In fact, he doesn't give a damn.