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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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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