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.


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.