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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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Dreams of a Silly Boy...

I want to think of a future with you. I wish there was no silence between us. That we could just sit and talk like we did before all this. I wish we could be foolish again, to dream our silly dreams and plan for the future and imagine what it will be like. There, a beautiful table, the one you liked. Here, a lovely picture to hang. We would have a balcony, or maybe a garden. We would have plants and flowers everywhere, and their scents would fill the cool evening air. We'd eat fruit, and drink coffee, and have guests come to visit us. You'd play that bad music you like and I would lie to you and say it's 'fab'. We'd listen to the water trickle down from a fountain - did I tell you I wanted a fountain? I'm sorry, my love, I was going to tell you. Just like I was going to tell you a lot of things. Maybe I would have made it a surprise. Maybe you would have surprised me? Oh, it's been so long since I've had a nice surprise, since somebody has done that for me.


We knew life wasn't going to be easy, and we'd nod our heads when the old people told us how things would be hard. Did they think we're fools? We'd laugh at them, of course, and at all the silly people who didn't understand us. We'd work hard, and get tired, but we'd be happy. Like that David Bowie song, we'd be heroes, you and me, baby. Then, at the end of the day, when we lay on our bed and the gentle breeze cooled hot skin as it danced lazily through the sheer curtains, we'd tell each other how much we loved each other, and how we wouldn't have it any other way. Nothing in the world would have mattered in that future. Before everything changed and the dark clouds covered everything. Stay where you are. Don't come here, where it's unpleasant and horrid. Stay in my dreams and in the future we wanted. I'll come and find you, no matter where we end up or who we become...
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Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Solitary Confinement

I sometimes wonder if any of it was real. When was it? A lifetime ago? A hundred lifetimes ago? What difference does it make. All I have is this now, far from you, stretching in front of me for as far as my eyes could see. The past is just a clotted lump that forms in my chest, only to disappear a short while later, leaving me empty and hollow. The future, just a narcotic that makes me think things will work out, that they have to work out. I know they won't, but I make myself believe that, "maybe, maybe around the next corner it will be different". But there is only this now, a prison with bars of silence. I'm guilty, serving a life sentence for a crime I was born to commit.

The clock ticks away on the wall, the days of the year fall past me, one after the other, and I'm still here, waiting for life to begin, waiting for that voice to reach out to me across time and space. I meet friends who feel the same, we talk a while, discuss things. We feel the same way, that life is on hold. We're away from harm, but we're condemned to exist, like lifeless hulks floating aimlessly over the ocean. Nobody takes pity on us enough to sink us along with our delusions. That seems so cruel and perverse.

I sit and wait for that divine spark that I was sure guided all things, but He's not there. He's not taking calls right now. Prayers are a mechanical motion, empty, without meaning. It's like sending emails to a mailbox that nobody will ever check. You know that, but you keep sending them anyway. How could I have been so certain about things when I was younger? That I knew certain things absolutely and felt as much with every fibre of my being. Now I'm just exhausted, too indifferent to be angry, too jaded to think that life can mean anything, that there is somehow some purpose that animates us all and draws us to it. There is only this pile of dirt, and millions upon millions of ants fighting and dying over it every day. Still the now surrounds me, clinging like the scent of cheap perfume and the guilt from a dirty tryst.

You leave home for so long that when you come back nobody knows you. We're strangers from each other, we speak different tongues, and when we see each other in the street we cross to the other side, as if yesterday never happened, and we had never met, and never spoken together or laughed. We just pop our collars up as protection from the wind and the rain, and carry on walking, wrestling our demons.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Passing

In my mind, 2011 will always be the year that my grandmother died, not the year of the revolution. After that, everything changed, and change hurts. We lose so much when it happens. Things that I couldn't imagine living without were lost forever. How could somebody I'd only spoken to a few days ago not be there when I call anymore? How could they have been breathing in the same room I stand in a day later and now be no more? The first night is always the hardest because you know that one of your own is not in the house, not in bed, sleeping, warm, where they should be. It hurts because you know that they are out there, in the cold earth. It's not natural. It's not supposed to happen, not to somebody you love. The senses scream outrage at this transgression even though you know that it is the "way of the world" and we are told that "God wills it". After she died everything came apart so quickly, like prayer beads scattering when the string breaks.

Yesterday another relative of the older generation passed away and Damascus feels cold and empty. On hearing the news last night, my mother said, "Everybody I know is going away. I feel alone". That word, alone, sums up all our lives right now. If and when we go back home, us exiles, who will still be there? Who will we tell our stories to? Who will tell us of what it was like? The safety net of having elders is being pulled away and our own mortality stares us in the face. It brings with it the chilling realization that it will be our time next, that it will be our turn to listen to the stories of the younger generation, to watch patiently as they make their own mistakes, and then to quietly fade away. It's such a terrible thing to feel lonely.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Talking Descartes with Syrian Refugee Children

There are a lot of things people might go and teach to Syrian refugee children in Turkey, but philosophy isn't usually one of them. In spite of doing an MA in Philosophy at Birkbeck years ago, I felt hopelessly unqualified for the task at hand. In fact, I wasn't even sure what I was planning to accomplish. Tightly holding my copy of Peter Worley's, "The If Machine: Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom" I travelled to Reyhanli, near the border with Syria, to meet the seven hundred and fifty children of the Ruwwad school as part of a volunteer program with the Karam Foundation. Housed in a commercial part of the town, the school was really a converted office that took over a whole floor, with a massive indoor hallway that the children could dash around in during their break. The classrooms were small and cramped, windows were optional, and going to the toilets was a horrifying experience. Sure, I thought, we could talk philosophy here, I mean how hard would it be once we got the discussion going? Harder than I thought, I would later discover.

Owing to the ongoing war in Syria, Reyhanli is full of Syrians, and as they don't speak any Turkish, Arabic language schools have sprouted up to provide some form of education for the community. The children themselves come from a variety of backgrounds, but the fact that they are even in a school meant they were some of the lucky ones. For a lot of Syrian refugee families, life is too wretched and hard right now for them to worry about sending the children to school.

I started off my first sessions by hurriedly introducing myself to the classroom and, while apologising for my child-like Arabic handwriting, deliberately mis-spelling philosophy. Turning around, I could see some of the children already chuckling. I'd wanted to get the children to relax and so instead of "falsafa" I wrote down "fasfasa", which literally means farting about. I'd do a mock cringe and apologise when one of the students laughingly pointed out the error, and then correct the word. In explaining philosophy, I used the duck-rabbit picture Wittgenstein liked, and they sort of got my point about being able to see things differently in philosophy.

Right, I'd ask as I turned around, who has heard of philosophy? I'm greeted with total silence, but only a few of the children would raise their hands. In the Middle East, parents usually scold their children when they try to get clever or give cheeky answers, telling them to "stop philosophising". It's basically an insult for someone who is being pedantic. None of them ventured to explain what they knew, but they all nodded and grinned when I explained how I thought they'd heard the term. So far we seemed to be on to a good start. Prior to the class, I'd written a few study cards for the topic of the day, and I thought it would be a brilliant idea to start the children on one of the exercises mentioned in Worley's book, the story of the "Chair". I started off by asking the children what they thought the chair was, they looked at me like I was crazy. "It's a chair" one of them would say, and I'd say OK, we'll see by the end of the session. As it turned out, this lesson was much tougher to get across to the children than I expected. I tried to ask open questions and trigger a bit of controversy but they would only smile back at me nervously, unsure of what I was expecting.  They just didn't seem to "get" where we were going with this, and their answers were cautious and flat. If the more outspoken children used a particular answer, the next dozen children would all raise their hands and then say the same thing.

In Worley's book, he recommends that the children all sit in a circle in order to promote discussion. As soon as I saw the state of the classrooms I knew that this would be impossible. There were forty children crammed into the room, all facing one direction, and all used to only one type of teaching and to rote learning. Furthermore, the teacher, a kindly older man, stayed on, ostensibly to help "control" the classrooms. I was too polite to ask him to leave and that turned out to be a mistake. As I tried to get the children to respond to the story before each "discussion", he would helpfully repeat what I said, sternly asking the children to sit up straight and "think carefully, then answer the Teacher's question!". I cringed inwardly. This was not going to work, and I was conscious of Worley's recommendation to avoid "leading" the children to the answers they might think I want to hear. The same kind of problems occurred in the other grades, and by the end of the first day, my head was reeling and my confidence was in tatters. I began to have serious doubts about whether this was going to work. After all, my previous three volunteering trips with Karam were about running a "writing" workshop that I'd slowly built up through experience. This was totally outside my comfort zone, and I'd even picked the exercises to match all the ages for the classes. The book had made it seem so easy, and yet when it came to trying to have a philosophical discussion about our perception of objects, my mind seemed to draw a blank. There just didn't seem to be any feedback.

Steeling my nerves, I decided to follow through the next day, as planned, with the next subject. This time, I threw politeness out of the window and point blank asked the teachers to leave me with the children. "No", I'd reply, "I'll manage to control them fine. Sit this one out, go have a coffee and I'll see you in forty minutes. Thank you." I closed the door and put on my "theatrical" hat. Building up the story with suspense and dramatic pauses, I finally managed to get the children's attention and told them the story of the Ring of Gyges, transliterating his name in Arabic on the whiteboard. I stopped and stared at the classroom. "What would you do if you were walking home tonight, after school, and found this ring in the street? What would you do?" I asked them.

At first, they all answered uniformly that they would do good and "help people". Very nice, I thought, but this isn't what we're here for. I could tell some of the boys were grinning mischievously. I walked up to one of them and asked him what he was really thinking. After seeing my enthusiastic acting, and enactment of the story, I felt like I'd broken the teacher/student barrier, and earned their cautious trust. "Well, sir, are you saying that nobody would know if I did something? Or catch me?"

I nodded and waited. "Well, I'd be in paradise. I'd go and smack the people I don't like and get myself a fast car and all the things I'd want!"

From here, we got the ball rolling. The story "clicked" in the student's minds far better than my "chair" story, and I felt like this was something they could relate with. A lot of the children in all four grades said they would use the ring to go and "kill Bashar al Assad" and I chuckled at that. I hadn't wanted to bring Syria up in the workshops, but, as I would later find out, this was not only inevitable, but extremely useful. The girls were not so ready to accept the idea of actions without consequences. Within minutes, the first girl brought up the A-word, Allah.

"Even if no body sees you, Allah sees everything, and He will punish us for any wrong we do", she explained. OK, this was getting interesting, and I was aware the whole class was listening intently. Here, I used Worley's "If" machine, and it turned out invaluable. In Arabic, "If" translated directly doesn't quite carry the same meaning, in my opinion, so I used the word "Iftirad" - which can be loosely translated as "Assume". I'm not an expert on this stuff, but I know enough Arabic to know when a word works and it doesn't. I also quite liked the idea of being the first to introduce Worley's "If Machine" to Syrian students as the "If-tirad Machine". So I asked her, "If Allah said that anybody who wears this ring can do whatever they want, what would you do with it?". She thought for a minute, and then replied that "yes but I would still know I did those things, and I'd be punishing myself". A tough, but evasive answer. We ran out of time sooner than I expected, but we did get to ponder briefly Socrates' question of why somebody should do good even if they suffer. Not many had heard of him, so telling them a bit about ancient Greece and how he'd been put to death for basically being "annoying" was the first time many of them had heard about the classical world. Still, I felt that the discussion rolled a lot easier from here, and though the children were still talking mainly to me rather than each other, I felt a lot more confident by the end of the second day that things were going to work out.

The third workshop I carried out with them proved to be much more successful. The children, even the older ones in grades six and seven, all remembered the story of Gyges and the magical ring and were now interested to hear my next "story". I introduced them to the old fable of the frog and the scorpion, and now the children were starting to get active. Differences of opinion were starting to emerge, and even the bashful children were feeling more confident in voicing their opinion. Even the 'rebels', sitting in the back wanted to have a say in the matter. I was now rolling with it, so I complicated the story by substituting it with people, again with appropriate theatrical flair. From here, the classes started to take a life of their own, but the discussion still wasn't as active as I'd have liked. We talked about human nature and whether it was fixed, and asked for a show of hands to see what the children thought, then I told them what Schopenhauer, Sartre, and Aristotle thought. Surprisingly, most of the children changed their mind when they heard of Aristotle's idea (which I mentioned last) that "habit" was what shaped our character. They nodded their little heads sensibly and asked to be moved to "his" side. Schopenhauer had a few die hard supporters who remained adamant that people can never change.

During my discussion with one of the grades, and through no prompting from me, the subject of "good" and "bad" people came up. I asked the children whether they thought people were inherently good or bad, and they all, unanimously, said that people are bad, and that given half a chance everybody would take advantage of you. After seeing war, exile and a hard life in a border town in the middle of nowhere, these children all had a firm idea of what human nature was essentially like. I took the chance to talk about Thomas Hobbes and his view that the life of man was "nasty, brutish and short". The children shrugged indifferently. I felt at the time that maybe I hadn't explained properly, and that that's why they weren't that interested in discussing this idea further. It's only now, as I recall that class and sit writing about my experience, that I realise why that was the case. To them, this Hobbes chap wasn't saying anything profound or controversial, it was just life. That this is the world they live in (at this very moment), that it's all they know, is unsettling to me. It might as well be a million miles away from the brightly lit lecture halls in London where I read my masters.

On our final day, all the stops were pulled. My final "story" was the "Identity Parade" question: A criminal takes a pill to wipe his memory and gains a new identity, but the police arrest this new person who is law abiding and nice, and want him to go to prison for the crimes of the previous personality. The discussions were getting surprisingly sophisticated, and the children were starting to disagree with each other openly. Here, a fundamental problem with the size of the classes got the better of me, they were too big, and I went hoarse trying to make myself heard and to get the children to speak in turn. I watched with some amusement as one of the formerly disruptive boys turned around to a mate of his who was chattering in the background and told him to shut up because he wanted to listen to the discussion.

The discussion was flowing so smoothly that I had just enough time to broach the topic of identity, and that moved us nicely to Descartes and his famous thought experiment, "I think therefore I am". I doodled a stick man with arms and legs outstretched, closed eyes and closed mouth, and wrote the phrase in Arabic after I'd acted out the thought experiment to them. At this stage, one really needs to have been in the room to see the light come up in their eyes. For some of the children, I could see them staring at me thoughtfully as they pondered the implications of what I was trying to explain. Then I gave them the counter argument from Locke, at the risk of being slightly more controversial. At this stage, the teachers were asking to sit in the classes, and seemed very interested in the topics we were covering.

On the final two days, an unexpected challenge came up. I was asked to do a workshop with the ninth grade, older boys and girls. So far, my style was geared more towards children. How would the Identity Parade go down? My "Frog and Scorpion" workshop went down quietly, unlike with the younger grades, and again I had to overcome the uncomfortable silences and uncertainty about what we were trying to do. I felt like they hadn't been impressed with our earlier encounter. Sweating nervously, I walked into their class for the last workshop of the week. It was showtime.

To my surprise, they were now fascinated with what I had to say. It turns out my little whirlwind tour of philosophy in the Arabic and Islamic world, and its Greek origins, had fascinated them. The discussion kicked off in ernest, and the students started vigorously debating their ideas about whether the man should go to prison or not. What did it mean to be one person and then another? When was it right to ascribe the blame for something? In what conditions? What would they do if they were that person? The points flowed effortlessly and with little guidance from me. As I started to wind down the class, I noticed that many of the students were of the opinion that the "new" person in the Identity Parade story should not be punished for the previous personality's actions.

"OK", I asked them "now imagine that the person who did those crimes was Bashar al Assad, and that he'd taken a pill and was now a completely different person with no recollection of his previous crimes". The class literally erupted as most of the students said no, several making cutting gestures across their necks saying that they would still execute him. "Why not?" I asked them. I hadn't planned on this little twist, but it just came to mind, and it seemed so right. Many sat back silently and didn't have an answer, but I could tell they were pondering the question extremely seriously now. Some of the students started arguing bitterly with each other about whether the thought experiment still applied. With this small question, I concluded the class and explained to the students that philosophy was about asking the hard questions, the unsettling ones, that challenged our view of what was right and wrong, and that this is why it was as important today as it was two thousand years ago. I think I was talking mainly to myself at that point, because I walked out of that class with unexpectedly new insights about what philosophy meant.

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Sunday, September 06, 2015

What Once Was

I think of the kind of upbringing I had, one that I doubt my children will ever know. There was always a confidence in knowing that you come from a country, that you have your own home and community and people who know you. Even when you travelled abroad, you knew that you were living a story that was being told by your friends and family back home, and you listened to their stories and together we all weaved that wondrous tapestry of life. My relationship to Syria has three phases. During my childhood, it was that magical, mysterious place where I would go to spend my summer holidays. The second phase had its difficulties, but being a teenager in Syria had a charm that I'm still nostalgic for. It was that quiet place I wanted to escape, where nothing ever happened, and the days were long and balmy and sunny. We would wait for the sun to go down and then watch the people flitting between the brightly lit shops of the Shaalan market area. We knew the shopkeepers, they knew us. We also knew all our neighbours, and we would constantly be saying hello to different people as we walked the five minutes to the grocer. I remember being annoyed with that, and sometimes taking a longer route to avoid having to keep saying hello. If only I could walk that same route and say hello to those same people. I'd rush up to them and give them a hug and a kiss and smile brightly as I greet them. If only.

There was the other phase, the one where I waited nine years before I came back again. I'd been away for so long that I'd given up hope of ever coming back. Memories flooded in with the sights, sounds and smells of my old neighbourhood. The home that had seen three of my family's generations grow up in opened its arms and embraced me with no questions asked and no rebuke. I was home, and I experienced a security and love that I had been without for so long that I'd forgotten how much I miss it. On the other side of that neighbourhood was my other grandparents' house. They've both passed now, but I still remember them waving to me from far off, on their second floor balcony. Their balcony had a green awning that would shelter them from the sun and also give them privacy. When I would sit on their balcony in the evening, it felt like a safe little hideout from where we could watch the world below, surrounded by dozens of plants in their little containers. In between both grandparents houses there were friends and families that we knew and visited, of all religions and backgrounds.

That was the world I inhabited. It was a little cocoon of safety, surrounded by friends and family who lived in concentric circles around Damascus which, I was later to discover when I went out into the world, is really a very small city; a small city for little people with small problems but big hearts. Yes, there was a dictator, but the bad things in the world seemed so far away, and somehow we all managed to live and get by and have a good time. Maybe I'm being naive, and maybe things weren't that rosy and it's only because I was young that I saw things that way, but I still believe that's what happened, that's what life was like. If only we'd known what was to come, we would have seen more of each other and spent more time together. All those people and places are gone now, and I know things can never be the same again, but I'm glad we all lived those moments together.

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