Saturday, April 18, 2015

It's All "Unfortunate"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, April 17, 2015

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


Tuesday, April 14, 2015


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

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


Sunday, April 12, 2015

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

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


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.