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.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Protest

We are about to reach Trafalgar Square. The day started off cloudy but by the time we arrived to the protest the sun was beating down on us through a patch of blue sky that had been emptied of clouds. Dozens of green, white and black flags - the flags of the Syrian revolution - waved and rippled in the breeze. When we got there we saw a man in a werewolf mask posing with some people and their camera. He had a placard and it said something about Assad the killer who used chemical weapons on his own people. He had ketchup smeared on his hands - that was supposed to be blood. A small group of people stood dejectedly, listening to people making statements through loudspeakers. There was a woman who regularly appears at the London protests with two crutches, I don't know who she is, and she had placards with pictures of dead Syrian babies hanging from her neck on her front and back. She looked like a walking billboard that hobbled from place to place. Her whole manner reminded me of the beggar women in front of the Friday mosque, after prayers, waiting for the more charitable worshippers to drop some alms and save their eternal souls. The group formed a semi-circle around the speakers, and placards and Syrian flags were being held up, not facing outwards, but inwards. It seemed to sum up the whole mentality of the protest. Every now and then one of these Syrian dinosaurs would take a picture with their smart phone, the whole thing seemed an exercise in vanity. Garish, cringeworthy photographs of dead Syrian children were festooned everywhere.

A man held the microphone and started addressing the small gathering while bewildered tourists looked on at us. He said things about chemical weapons, about butchers and about savagery, all with the most appalling English. He pantomimed some story about a child that had lost his parents, again in the most awful English, perhaps expecting that he was tugging on the heart-strings of the listeners and passersby. Instead it was off-putting and would have bordered on the comical were the subject matter not so serious. It was a silly performance and the people standing there were starting to get tired. Thinking to energise the crowd he started to chant some of the tired and stale slogans that have been copied wholesale from pro-Palestine demonstrations, "Free, Free Syria!", "From the river to the sea, Syria, Syria will be free!", and the utterly uninspiring and unimaginative, "Syria, Syria don't you cry, we will never let you die!". These were empty and hollow chants that most of us were too tired or disinterested to repeat. Then a young Syrian dressed like Tony Montana with a white shirt, wide collar, and a velvet black blazer, all with slicked back hair to complete the Mediterranean-villager-in-the-big-city-for-the-first-time look, started to do a version of the Syrian "Arada" but in English, and it was cringeworthy. More tired chanting, more terrible English. Walking around the small space we had cleared was the man who had been pantomiming earlier, egging people on as if he was managing a rock concert. The whole exercise was uninspiring and left us feeling deflated and underwhelmed.

There is a generation or type of Syrian that might be living in England, but has never left Syria, and has never grasped that their way of viewing things, and what they take for granted, might not be shared by the people they now live amongst. That talking about paradise, angels, virgins in heaven, and children floating up to God, does not really make an impact with a largely secular society that views most religion - and especially Islam - with a mixture of distrust and distaste. The peculiar way this older generation portrayed the suffering of the Syrian people was a cringeworthy and pitiful affair, undignified and cheap, as if the world had to be begged to do something about the carnage in Syria as an act of charity than the international, legal, and moral obligation that it really is.

We were then told that we would be marching to 10 Downing Street to observe a minute's silence for the victims of the chemical attack. The man picked up the microphone and began yelling angry chants through the amplifier at an uncomfortable volume. The crowds avoided us while we cringed with each yell. We walked past the horse guards and even the horses were getting panicky. Somebody eventually lowered the volume, thankfully. We passed a group of people who were protesting the war on Gaza. Cheers of "Free, Free Palestine" drew a response from the walkers on the other side, and several people there decided to join us, many looked at us indifferently. A naive air of camaraderie sprouted for a brief moment between the two lost causes, and then we moved on. We stood in front of 10 Downing Street and the man stood on a small wall and spent ten minutes shouting at people through the microphone to prepare for the minute's silence. Eventually we managed it. When it was done we put down the placards and everybody hurried off, eager to be done with this business. Next year I expect we will find fewer people commemorating this awful anniversary, if at all.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014


It's a solitary business, watching the news come and go like ships in a harbour. Each story comes from somewhere, it's all the buzz for a few hours, and then it sails away and is soon forgotten. We sit in this harbour of dreams, each of us perched in our corner, waiting for salvation - for that ship that will bring us the good tidings - but none ever comes. The seagulls float above us mocking us with their cries. They can see far into the horizon, and they tell us to despair, that our long lost loves will never come, that those who left us have forgotten us and are too busy to write. So we settle into the drudgery of every day life. We wake up every day and go to work, sometimes one of us meets the other in the street and we nod at each other silently. At night we have our meals, bathe, and put ourselves to bed. We dream dreams that we won't remember, sleeping in fits and starts. The dreams that make us jolt upright are quickly forgotten as we sink back into oblivion. And in the morning we awake. That's all there is. Sometimes we don't sleep that well. Then it's a slow march through the day as we try to focus on work, try to get the shopping done, try to remember appointments and promises and obligations. Keeping in touch with distant loved ones becomes more and more of a chore.

It's as if time is slowly turning us into the gnarled old trees that we walk past in the streets without noticing. Maybe those trees are really the people that everybody forgot about. Is it possible, I wonder, to slowly sink into a state of not caring, not feeling, not remembering? To decide one day to stop moving as you walk down the path of life? You stare on with unseeing eyes. Your skin turns to bark, your feet dig deep in the ground and spread their roots. Slowly leaves cover your tired head from the sun and the rain and the wind. Birds would come and settle on your branches, and lovers would carve their names on your body, hoping to be remembered forever. And then a child on a tricycle would speed ahead of his parents as they walk past, hopeful and full of life, and neither of you would notice the other or think anything of it.

Another ship sales into the harbour, and the watchers stand up, their eyes wide and full of expectation, only to turn them down again in disappointment as it disembarks again. No journey home, no good news, no letters from loved ones. So the watchers sit back down and drink their tea or coffee or whiskey. As they walk back home that evening, another watcher stops walking down a path, his eyes fixed to the distance at something only he can see. His limbs stop stirring and another tree is born. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

It's Always About Assad

No, Hassan Nasrallah. This isn't about ISIS, it isn't about radical takfirism. It isn't even about the global conspiracy against your precious resistance. This is about a man who kills people so that he can stay in power. You don't want us to talk about the one thing that has led us down this road, the one thing you closed your eyes to when the first protests were in the streets of Homs.

I watched you on the television set three years ago when you told us that you had asked "your people" in Homs about what was happening and they said nothing was happening. You looked surprised at the stories coming out of Syria, as if you were being told about a country like Thailand, not the country that has been the lifeline to your military machine for the past two decades. Where was ISIS back then? Where was Jabhat al Nusra in June 2011? They didn't exist. Their leaders were only just being released from the prisons of your backer and best friend. Don't ask us to forget or ignore what this is about. This isn't about the ghosts you are fighting in your head, this is about Assad. It has always been about Assad.


Monday, August 11, 2014


Today the world is looking at the struggle for power in Baghdad, will Maliki stay or go. Will he fight or run? Who will come next. The day before it was about the American giant finally awakening from his slumber to swat at some flies in the desert, blowing up some pick up trucks and a few useless bases before the wrong kind of ethnic group is massacred in the Middle East. And before that it was about the Israeli war against Gaza, about how Egypt and Saudi Arabia were complicit in a coup de grâce against Hamas. At the same time the world held its breath as tens of thousands of Yazidis were beseiged on a mountain called Sinjar somewhere in the desert between Syria and Iraq. And before that it was about how ISIS was attacking Lebanon, threatening the sovereignty of a state that doesn't know the meaning of the word. And still before that the news was telling the world about how the soldiers of the Islamic state were about to overrun Iraq.

But if you follow this horrible chain of events, if you reverse back like you could in the old days with VCR's, you would see the dead rising from the ground. You would see babies on hospital beds start to breath again, and then put back in the stomachs of mothers that are alive again. Houses and buildings would assemble themselves as if by magic. Fires would implode into themselves and disappear into the tiny puffs of smoke that they started from. Planes would land that had once been in the sky and their deadly payload would be taken back to warehouses across the world. Why do we need to do that? Why do we need to think about what it would be like to rewind all of this? To what beginning are we trying to get to? It's to the one thing that is missing from the news, the one thing that no world leader - and especially President Obama - wants to tackle seriously. The one issue that everybody hopes will go away, because they want it to be too complicated for them to get involved in. If it were too simple then that would mean they must do something about it, and doing something about it involves an effort on their part, an effort they don't want to make.

So the lies are piled up, the complications are piled on top of each other like a pile of corpses, the bombs are taken out of the warehouses and loaded onto the planes, the tanks and the missile launchers fire their deadly payloads in a puff of smoke and the houses and buildings come tumbling down. The pregnant mother dies and then her baby is cut out of her stomach so that it can die a few days later too, so that it can stop breathing on a hospital bed. Those who were once living and breathing drop back down to the ground again. All for the satisfaction of a multitude of digital eyes that together form a single eye for a greedy fly, feeding on the garbage and the human misery. This is the fly that walks unhindered on the lips of a man whose head has been cut off and propped up neatly on his once moving chest by a boy who can barely read but has now been raised on hate and who holds a fury for an enemy he doesn't understand and he's fighting a war that he can't win and that exists only in all of our heads. And the liar sits on his stolen throne in Damascus and licks his lips. Isn't this good? he thinks to himself. Isn't all this just marvellous?


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Here War is Simple

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking. Dachau.
W.H. Auden


Thursday, July 31, 2014

"It's bigger than all of us"

You sit there and look at the man who pretends to be neutral. He sips his tea and sits confidently, his aura taking over the whole living room. He's confident with his arguments, and why shouldn't he be? He believes in them utterly and he knows you can never beat them because they don't make any sense. So we talk politics. We talk Syria, and we talk about a three year nightmare that we didn't ask for but for which everybody blames us.

"Stop asking me what my opinion is on all of this" he says, sounding irritated. He takes a drag of his cigarette confidently like the Arabian incarnation of the long-dead Marlborough man. "This is bigger than you and me. It's bigger than all of us. This is a game of nations, you hear me? What are we in front of the fate of nations"

He shakes his head and sips more of the tea.

"I just thank God I don't have to make these kinds of decisions, because politics is a dirty game and you need to be a particular kind of person. You're coming to me with your arguments about right and wrong, with emotion. Politics is a 'zero emotion zone'". He says that last bit slowly and deliberately, almost spelling it out. He seems quite proud of that statement, as if it's a profound philosophy that only the enlightened would understand.

"You know, you were warned this would all happen" he goes on. "Don't say nobody warned you. At the beginning you all thought it would be over in a few weeks. What did you think was going to happen? This is the real deal".

"Besides, where are all these friends who said they would help you? That's right, the ones who told you to go out on the streets" he says.

He thinks somebody paid those people to go out on the streets and obliterate their lives. What else could that sentence mean? He dusts off more ash from the cigarette, takes another drag, and rests it in the ashtray.

"Anyway, the country is going to take fifty years, if ever, before we are able to rebuild. Forget it, Syria is finished. We are finished" he says. He's shifted now, from a kind of realist politics to one of grim depression. He's gone from a man with no opinion to a very definitive understanding of what's happened, and he knows exactly who to blame. But as he said earlier, "this is bigger than all of us" - just not too big for him to insult our intelligence and make grandiose pronouncements on politics, philosophy and the destiny of nations.