Monday, August 01, 2016

Balance

Sometimes I feel ragged and used up, like yesterday's newspaper. It's Monday. The time is 18:43. I'm sitting in a cafe because I can't sit at home and listen to the quiet. I can't watch a movie like I do every night and escape from it all. I can't sit and listen to the crushing silence. I look at the last five years, the last seven years, the last ten years, and think to myself, "My God, has it been that long? Where did all that time go?" It didn't go anywhere. It sticks with me, time. It's right here. I can feel the clock hands ticking, and I might think things are moving, but really it's always been just me and the thoughts in my head.

This weekend I took the Yorkshire Three Peak challenge. It's a twenty four mile march across three mountain peaks that has to be done in under twelve hours. I did it, and it was hard. When I finished I was shaking all over, and my body felt broken, but inside I felt good. For a day I was able to switch off the thoughts in my head and to move on. To let things go and focus on the moment I am in. There was no mobile signal, no news for me to follow. It is as if there was no revolution or war or suffering anywhere in the world, and in the moments where I paused to catch my breath, I looked around me and there was nobody for as far as my eyes could see.

For the first time in years I was surrounded by total silence. There was no bird song, no wind blowing, and it was as if I was all alone in the universe. Such a simple act, a simple journey, that took me farther away from myself, and yet closer to who I am, than anything I'd felt before. I was so happy, I hunger for it still, as I type this. I sit and think about that real world, about that place where it is just you, stripped of everything that isn't important, and the path ahead, and I look forward to walking it again.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Luggage

I've had this blog for ten years. TEN years. People have lived and died in this time, and whole countries born or erased forever. I suppose I should use this time to reflect over who I've become, and how I've changed. I know I have, I need only leaf through the pages of the early years, when I would vent and attack and rant for causes that are long dead, people that were never that important, and problems that existed only in my head.

 It's funny, now that I think about it, how much this blog shaped my life. It went from something I doodled amateurish scribbles on into my sanctuary from the world. Hidden between its pages are countless loves, disappointments, and heartbreaks. I wanted it to be some kind of online political hotspot, to be a place where my analysis of the world could finally be appreciated. I think it did the opposite. With every word I typed, it seeped a little of my confidence in what I was saying until the certainty drained out of it. But perhaps the biggest change was the terrible blow of losing a home. I still can't accept that, or grasp the enormity of the past five years.

Inside me, there is a part that has never moved on, that still expects everything to go back exactly as it was before. I think it will never leave me, and I will carry it with me always. I might have children one day, and they'll ask me things, but how can I tell them about people that have long vanished, and a life that is so alien to them? It is as if one person was with me in a room, and then they walked out, and someone else walks in and asks me what happened and who had been in the room before them.

They both inhabit the same space, but are destined never to meet. This strikes me as something sad. My mind is filled with sights and sounds and colours and experiences. Countless memories and thoughts swim through it of this first time, the "before". And yet, for those who will walk into this room later, I have only words. I can try to explain to them, to paint a picture as best as I can, but the dead and absent cannot speak through me, they stay silent.

It's a little bit like love. The faces change over the years, and sometimes they ask me about who came before. I lie and say no one, and my lips brush her's. My hand runs a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and we laugh because she doesn't believe me and I know that. And I look at her face and I marvel, memorizing the lines and each birthmark, and the way her hair is brushed, and what her eyes are like up close. Then the room is empty again, but a little bit of them remains in your head, and it's not something you can ever share or bring out again. You just carry it around with you like so much extra luggage.




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Monday, July 11, 2016

Baby Steps

I've forgotten what it's like to blog. The clue should have come to me from the  name, a blog is a "weblog", and it's supposed to be a place where I ponder my thoughts about what's going on. At some point I lost sight of that, and the resulting paralysis has gone from weeks to months to years. I'll have to take baby steps again, to relearn things that I once knew and start applying them again. In a way, that's a bit like Syria. Sure, we like to pretend we have a five thousand or ten thousand year old civilization and culture, but really we're infants on the global stage. None of us has a clue what we're doing so we just stumble about and feel our way through the darkness, looking for a light switch.

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Saturday, May 07, 2016

Uncomfortably Numb...

Last week a Russian orchestra was playing a concert in Palmyra. In a grotesque pantomime, Putin sent his forces into Syria to prop up a clown against the enemy he helped to create. Celebrating a victory against a foe they didn't even fight, the Russians celebrated with pomp and fanfare. There, amidst the ancient ruins, notes of classical music rang out triumphantly. It was meant to symbolize the victory of civilization over barbarism, of light over darkness, and yet across large parts of Syria, especially in those that the Russian planes dropped their bombs, darkness reigns.

Men in white helmets are obliterated as they desperately try to save the people the Russians are "saving" from barbarism. The helmet doesn't mean anything, really. It's a symbol, like a uniform. It's a comforting illusion in times of stability, to think that the person represents something. But in Syria it becomes tragic in its futility. There is no infrastructure behind the men wearing white helmets, no vengeful government that can protect them from abuse. They're like ancient tribesmen who enter a battle against modern armies wearing only magical amulets, thinking they will be protected. It's all very depressing when you think about it.

Being Syrian is like being an unwilling actor in a play that repeats forever. You think you are going somewhere for a quiet coffee, and as soon as people realize where you are from, a reaction is inevitable. "Oh, I'm so sorry" they'd say. Or there is always the, "I can't imagine how you feel". And I just want to reply, "Actually I feel perfectly fine". But that won't do.

Instead I nod my head in a move that's been rehearsed a thousand times. Sometimes I shrug my shoulder for variety. I give out a sigh and say stoically, "What can you do?", but inside, I'm just screaming for the conversation to move on. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to keep saying the same things over and over. I've said everything I have to say, I don't have anything more to give you. There is no inside story, no more tragedy that can be spoken about. My bank of emotion is spent and it's not giving out any overdrafts.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ghosts

As my plane flew to Syria, I remember that I was looking out of the window and saw the sky turning from blue to a reddish haze, before melding into the purple of early night. The plane's wings glinted golden from the sun behind us. I was reading the autobiography of Carl Gustav Jung. I remember that I enjoyed it, and was glad to have it distract me from thinking about the reason for this trip.


Three years later, I am on a microbus in no-man's land. This is the first time I am going to set foot in the country since it all started. For some reason I start to cough continually. My throat feels like a sandpit and I have trouble swallowing. I look out the window and I see the dusty red earth of Turkey and northern Syria melding, black stones scattered across. There is a deserted farm house in the land between the borders. Its roof is long gone, the stone walls bare and falling apart. I try hard to suppress the cough but it's no use. My friend pats me on the back, hoping it'd help. It doesn't. I feel better when we get out and walk to the checkpoint. 

There are several men with machine guns at the checkpoint, and a man in a black mask checks my friend's rucksack. The man in the mask is very polite, explaining calmly that they need to make sure nobody smuggles weapons across the border. They find nothing and wave us through, thanking us for our cooperation. There is a boy sitting on the back of a pick-up truck with a bored expression on his face. He's smoking and on his lap lies a machine gun.

Decades before, I am on the balcony of my grandfather's villa. The sun is setting and I see the golden orb start dipping below the horizon. For the first time in my life I see an enormous flock of birds in the sky. I'd never seen so many before. They move as if animated by one will, like the bee swarms I saw in cartoons. They fly as if into the sunset. 

I remember having a crush on a girl in Damascus. It is one of those hopeless infatuations you have when you are still thirteen. It was the first time of many more to come that I would stay up all night thinking of somebody, wondering if she thought of me, reading into every gesture, every look, every word her lips pronounced. My mind's eye would replay our brief encounter, and think of all the things I could have or should have said. The days and months are measured by the number of mentions I'd hear of her name. When I left Syria, I was still young enough to dream of coming back to Damascus one day, of opening a computer shop, marrying her, and living happily ever after.

There is a smell to Damascus that I would recognise anywhere. It is a smell of old stone, earth, and humidity, with undertones of garbage. Even human bodies smell different there: a muskier scent mixed with the sourness of sweat. These are strange things to remember. The city has a lot of cats. I remember a yellow cat with one eye. A pigeon with a gnarled, stubby foot.

In another memory, I am in a taxi. I look out of the window, and I see an old woman in traditional garb hobbling towards the street, looking towards the oncoming traffic. She's just lifted her face veil to get a good look at something, and I'm shocked at what I see. Her jaw hangs like a bag of skin, an elongated gaping mouth dangles. In an instant we have moved on and she vanishes in the distance.

Strange, silly memories flash in my mind from a vanished life. Hovering around me like friendly ghosts.
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Saturday, February 06, 2016

Being Syrian

A few days ago I was having coffee with a Syrian friend and we were talking about how someone can like Syria but not like to spend too much time with Syrians. It's a serious question, because it does raise questions like what on earth are we writing for? What is the Syria that we're dreaming about and trying to create, and who are we? I don't know anymore. I live miles away from anything, and as a matter of principle I try not to get too involved in the byzantine politics of Syrian activism in London. We all know, or at least some of us do, that we're against the Syrian government, that we hate Assad, and that his regime and its Baath party are probably the greatest calamity to befall the region since 1918 - no, I'm not exaggerating. But, what else is there that we have in common? The Kurds in the North are doing their own thing, the Islamists now own the revolution, Syria's upper classes want to keep their head stuck in the sand, and the poor are too busy drowning or starving while getting shot at and bombed to think about tomorrow.

Who do I really identify with? And with most, if not all, family now outside the country or thinking of leaving, what is there left for me there? I know I'm not crazy, that I'm not alone in thinking this. It's one thing being an exile who has never lived in Syria, to pine over something you've never seen because of the stories your parents tell you, but for someone who lived it and breathed it, and who knows that it's now all gone - truly gone - what is there? Whoever wins in this, be it Assad or the rebels, I know that me and my "kind" will not be accepted. It doesn't matter what any of us said and wrote and did during this awful period, when the rebuilding begins, we will be strangers. People might smile at us politely, but that's about it. We are going to become relics of the same past we tried to bury.

I don't know what it means to be Syrian anymore, and when I think about it, I doubt that I ever did. Syria was never *my* country. I lived there for a while, I visited during the summer vacations, I had a life there once, a long time ago, but what does that all mean? Does that make me Syrian? Or is it that my parents are Syrian? When the Syrian revolution started I had no idea so many people existed there, that there were so many towns and villages and places that I'd never even heard of. This disconnect that I feel cuts me to the core, making me doubt everything I thought I knew about myself, about the world around me, and about life in general. Some Syrians say that they only have Allah because the world has deserted them. If He's all we have left, then after five years I can safely say that he's as indifferent as the world we condemn.

I don't know where I'm going with all of this, and that pretty much sums up the whole damn situation in Syria as well. It's all so goddamn awful and ugly right now. I don't recognize the place from the pictures and videos that I see, and even the people I thought I knew are not what they seemed. I don't know anything, so I think right now the best thing for me to do would be to go out for a walk and get myself another hot cup of coffee.

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Friday, January 15, 2016

Why Not?

Switzerland joins Denmark in confiscating the assets of refugees. Why not? Go ahead, take everything. From Damascus to Berlin, the journey of a Syrian refugee, or any refugee, is to be exploited thoroughly. The road to sanctuary, dignity and self respect as a human being lies through a gauntlet of lies, abuse and degradation. Syrians have to debase themselves utterly before they are worthy of pity. Why not? It starts from home. It starts from a country where you are fleeced as soon as you start trying to make a living. As early as you can remember you are taught in Syria that to get by you have to bribe somebody. Nothing is impossible, and when something isn't working properly, be it a university exam that you just can't seem to pass, to a job or work transaction that seems to never progress, it's all about finding the man at the choke point, the man who wants a favour.

In the days when Syrians could, only just, travel the world and return back, they were greeted by the fat security officials at the airport who would single a suitable "victim", someone with a Syrian passport, of course. It wouldn't do to show somebody with a real passport, a human being's passport, how barbaric we are. No, that wouldn't do at all. But a Syrian or Arab is OK, because he could be exploited.

"Have you any presents for us?" the official would ask, rubbing his hands. If you don't understand what he means, he'll make you understand. He'll um and ah, at the things in your suitcase. "Oh this wouldn't do at all. Oh this might need to be taxed. Oh this might be banned under the new security regulations", he'd say. Then, out of sheer frustration, you would pay him. Something, anything. Cigarettes would do, anything. Just pay so you can be on your way.

You leave the stable called Syria behind, and you get people smugglers, you get corrupt soldiers on the border. If you aren't driving an expensive car and look average, border police make you wait in the sun and keep you "in line" while beating you with rubber hoses - that's what they did on the border crossings to Lebanon by the way. You make it somewhere else, like Turkey, and you pay somebody to find you a flat, you pay them extra, just a place, any place. They raise the prices. If somebody else pays them more, you get turfed out. Then you have to pay money for visas, for transport, for "arrangements". It might pay off, it might not. You might end up as fish food in the sea, or your body turns into a leaky bag of skin and fluids after you suffocate in a refrigerator in wheels somewhere on a motorway in Austria.

Why not? Let's exploit Syrians, everybody else has. These refugees are "rich", "they have money". They are all "coming to rape European women" after all. Besides, they have diseases, they "hide terrorists" amongst each other. Why not? Fleece them. Maybe next Europe can start putting refugees in specially walled off compounds, and force them to wear special badges - no, badges won't do, it'll be special identity cards or papers. To mark them as special, to watch, to keep an eye on. Why not? A people with no home, no sanctuary, no respect or dignity even from their own, why should anybody else respect them? Why not also force Syrians - because that's what the word 'refugee' has become synonymous with - to walk barefoot across Europe, wearing sack cloth and with ash on their heads? That way everyone can be sure that they really are desperate and worthy of assistance.

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