Monday, November 23, 2015


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.


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.


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.


Thursday, September 03, 2015

Can the last person out of Syria please turn off the lights?

It took a dead baby for the world to notice. Wait, I thought it took seventy refugees suffocating in a refrigerator with wheels for the world to notice? Or was it the pictures of babies floating face down in the water that did it? I thought we were at the tipping point when chemical weapons were dropped on the Damascus Ghouta in 2013, and politicians in the Western world wobbled their lower lips as they made their speeches denouncing Assad and calling for accountability. I don't buy it, and I'm not getting swept away with the optimism and emotion. A few thousand refugees let in through the net aren't going to fix this problem or make it go away. The refugee problem is mainly a Syrian refugee problem, and it stems from a dictator who continues to use barrel bomb attacks to depopulate towns and villages. Syrians aren't fleeing because of Jabhat al Nusra or even ISIS. They're fleeing because they can't live safely in their towns and villages when there is a constant fear of airstrikes and barrel bombs - the most barbaric of indiscriminate weapons.

I've spoken to people in Syria, and they've told me they could put up with the odd mortar shell, sniper or tank fire. They could even put up with living in IS areas or living with Jabhat al Nusra, just about, but not a weapon that can flatten an entire building, turning it into a tomb for those unlucky enough to be trapped alive beneath it. Those who come to rescue any survivors become themselves victims with the regime's "double tap" method, where a second barrel bomb is thrown down to get rid of the survivors. It's diabolical, it's perverse, and it is contrary to all morality and logic. This is what's driving people to risk their lives and everything they have for a better one abroad.

The West lacks the political will to do anything while Assad's allies back him to the hilt. Yes, foreign fighters have done a lot to undermine the Syrian revolution, but that pales in comparison to the material support given to Assad by Iran and Russia. It took two years for the Assad regime to realise that President Obama is actually doing everything he could *not* to touch Syria, and after that the Russians threw him a lifeline, a way out, from the corner of red lines that he'd talked himself into. The disarmament deal that was supposed to "punish" the Assad regime really just gave him a green light to use all other weapons to brutalise the Syrian people, including his airforce, which is nowhere to be seen whenever Israel conducts its airstrikes inside Syria.

Today Prime Minister Cameron might grudgingly agree to allow a few thousand more Syrian refugees into the United Kingdom, as will Europe, but what will the world do in six months? In a year? How long will these band-aid fixes continue to be applied while everybody shirks their international obligations and does nothing to stop the slaughter in Syria? By doing something, I'm not talking about the meaningless term "political solution", but taking hard action to stop a dictator's regime from tearing the entire Mediterranean apart so that he can stay on his throne. Sorry, the picture of a dead baby, however heart breaking, is not enough to sway the world's conscience into action. People will keep risking their lives in the hope of safety and a better life, it's human nature.

Made up of bloated corpses, blood, guts, stale semen, decayed food, sweat and petrol fumes, there is a stink rising from our Arab countries, and the world just wants to pinch its nose. The only thing this poor baby might have done is to awaken the fetid consciences of the Arab bourgeoisies, as they tweet their heartbreak over social media from across the Arab world's glittering capitals. To them, I say shukran for your condolences and your Arabian hospitality. Oh, and can the last person out of Syria please turn off the lights?


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Pan-Arabists and the Iran "deal"

The Pan-Arabists of the Middle East are celebrating the US-Iranian deal along with all the Progressives of the world. Every spin is being put on this deal to make it look like a guarantee for peace in our time, that somehow the Iranian regime's desire for a nuclear bomb has been curbed. In exchange, however, the world has offered Syria to Iran on a platter. We're told by reasonable people that of course, "no deal is perfect". What they won't say is that the "imperfect" bits are Syria, and that the millions of people who can't go home anymore, and the hundreds of thousands who have died in the last four years, are directly a result of Tehran's actions.

I didn't always used to think like this. You're reading the blog of a bitter and disillusioned man who once cheered for Hassan Nasrallah during the 2006 war and believed that Tehran's 'Axis of Resistance' was the region's only hope. I changed my mind because Syrians were being murdered by the thousands, their legitimate claims dismissed, and their uprising brushed off as a terrorist uprising by a tinpot dictator who would not have survived had it not been for the help of Tehran and Hezbullah. The pan-Arabists were blasé about the news. We were brutalised and the world did nothing. We were tortured, and the world did nothing. We were starved, and the world did nothing. The world looked away when Syria started.

Whilst I write this I am thinking about a young Syrian boy I shook hands with in Turkey. Well, we didn't shake hands. He shook my hands, I shook the stump of his arm because his hands were blown off by a Syrian regime missile strike. The Iranian deal means more bombs, more bullets, and more militias will be sent to Assad, and the easing of sanctions means more money will be used to prop up his economy and keep him in power. That's why I'm not enthusiastic about the deal with Iran. That's why I'm angry and biased. I don't know, maybe I'm not thinking straight; I'm too 'emotional'.

I'm sorry that Syrians are inconvenient, that we're not being killed by the right type of enemy for you people. I'm sorry we haven't received your stamp of approval. Pan-Arabists are cheering a deal with Iran, because, as they keep reminding us, Israel is the real enemy; Palestine the real goal. Never mind the untold misery, guts and excrement that we are being forced to crawl through in the name of this mythical liberation that hovers on our horizon like a promised paradise for the wretched of the world. Syria is "complicated". Syrians are only to be felt "sorry for", like the victims of some flood or an earthquake. From your glass towers in Dubai you intellectual pan-Arabists can toast a deal with Iran, and celebrate the fact that nothing has been allowed to deviate your attention from the lofty goal of "liberating Palestine".


Saturday, July 11, 2015


I can't write. My thoughts are scattered as my attention jumps from one story to another. I read into people's comments on social media to the n-th degree. I know - not even sure how - where they are coming from when they make a statement about some subject, and that's when I start to wrestle with ghosts. Start is probably the wrong word. My paralysis is because I am trying to reach the start point, the firm ground from which I can begin pointing out where everything started to go wrong. I read praise for a long serving foreign minister who has just passed away. The only discernible legacy I can make out is that "he was there". He didn't do much, but he was around to see stuff happen. So we clap for him because we don't know what politics is. The only thing we know is mediocrity, so we applaud it as an accomplishment.

On the same note we have the Pied Piper of the Middle East claiming that "the road to Jerusalem" passes through the towns and cities of Syria. Where do I start with that? I've spent the last hour typing and then deleting pages of nonsense on how wrong, how inconsistent, and how hypocritical that man's statements were. A liar celebrating a day which is a lie, for a cause which is dead, to a people who are merely animated husks. Why should that bother me? Who was I trying to reach? I can't honestly say.

We don't even realise that the Middle East is dead, that there existed before all this noise pollution a region that had a very different view of the world, of its place in it, and a hope for the future that the soldiers killed. We think we have inherited something, but in reality we are all squatters in the mansions of people long gone. We dress up with the clothes they left behind, dine in their halls, and pretend to understand the books in their libraries or the art on their walls, like children play-acting at being adults, but we don't get it. We have no idea.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Wheel

As a teenager I used to enjoy reading science fiction, but two books in particular have always held a special place in my heart, these are the first and last books in Brian Aldiss' Helliconia Trilogy (my school in Damascus only had the first, and I found the last one in a bookshop there that's now been closed for many years). They tell the story of a planet where the seasons last a thousand years, and where winter is dominated by a strange alien race, whilst the summer is ruled by the humans (this was way before Game of Thrones). In the final book, Helliconia Winter, one of the characters joined a special kind of monastery prison in the mountains which was a wheel of stone cells that rotated through the rock as it was pushed by inmates. The wheel only spun one way, and was so large that each cell only opened once every ten years. To me it was such an unsettling, yet deeply fascinating idea, to toil away alone in the darkness for ten years, cut off from the world you knew and with only your thoughts to keep you company, and then to emerge into the daylight, reborn. There was something deeply philosophical about it.

When I left Syria for the first time in 1998 I imagined myself going into that stone wheel, and I visualised it often through many difficult times. I did emerge, ironically almost ten years later exactly, but I couldn't have imagined that fate would cast me out again as the home I loved descended into madness. Or that this time the family and friends that I wanted to be with would be scattered even further away. Now I'm back in that same wheel, pushing away in the darkness, and it's worse than going in the first time, because you know what it's going to be like. I think to myself, there's no use cursing, pleading, crying or feeling angry. We are where we are, and we have to keep pushing or nobody gets out. We, all of us, are in that wheel, pushing away in the darkness of our individual cells.