October 12, 2013
I have tried hard for the last two and a half years to stay in Syria. It was important for me as a writer to stay in the country and live the events I was writing about, and it was doubly important for me as a man of culture to live among the people I belong to, like they live, trying to understand their concerns. I wanted to stay not because I was doing something invaluable, but because that was my place which I could not replace. I wished to see Syria change after spending half a century of my age watching it immune to change.
To stay in the country demanded great efforts from me in order to avoid falling in the sinister hands of the Assadi regime. After two and a half years of the Revolution I was compelled to also leave Damascus where I had lived for twelve years, the last two years of them in hiding. I was smuggled out of Damascus to the suburbs (gouta), then after 100 days I set out to Raqaa, the city where I had spent my childhood and teen age years and where my brothers live or those left of them. The journey to Raqqa was extremely hard, not because it took 19 days of travelling in the sweltering heat of the summer amid considerable dangers, but because even before the journey had ended and during the several stages it took, I was becoming aware that my destination and the last expanse of my journey were falling gradually under the influence of the State of Iraq and the Levant ( Daesh داعش ), this name which invokes the specters of the figures of horror, the ghouls, of our childhood. A few days before leaving Ghouta, it came to my knowledge that the ghoul captured and imprisoned my brother Ahmad. Then at Ruhaiba in Qalamoun, while I was trying to get news of my brother Ahamad, I also knew that my second younger brother Firas was captured by them too.
The journey lost its meaning for me, never the less, I had to proceed with it. I needed to come to the end of a hard journey which was only made bearable by the company of some defecting young men and a cameraman friend who was recording some stages of our journey. As the trip neared its completion, my interest in it waned and the prospect of the journey’s end lost its thrill.
In Raqqa, I spent two months and a half in hiding without succeeding in getting one piece of information about my brother Firas. Nothing could be worse than this. Therefore, instead of celebrating my arrival at Raqqa, I had to keep in hiding in my own liberated city, watching strangers oppress it and rule the fates of its people, confiscating public property, destroying a statue of Haroun Al-Rasheed or desecrating a church; taking people into custody where they disappeared in their prisons. All the prisoners were rebel political activists while none of them was chosen from the regime’s previous loyalists or shabiha. With the exception of this flagrant oppression of the people, their property and symbols, the new rulers have shown no sign of the spirit of public responsibility which is supposed to be the duty of those who are in power.
I wished to stay in Raqqa for the longest possible time to understand why events had taken this turn and to form an idea about the new leaders. I was able to collect some useful information but not as much as I had wished because I was not able to explore the city’s streets and listen to the people tell me their stories, not to mention holding interviews with the Emirs of the State of Iraq and the Levant and their mujahideen.
Not to walk in the streets of Raqqa in autumn? This is not an adequate reason for leaving, yet it is quite important on its own for me. At the onset of the Revolution, I used to say jokingly to my friends: I wish to topple the regime so as to get a passport. I wanted a passport to feel free and to travel where I wished. Today I leave behind comrades who will carry the struggle on. Our presence together inside the country used to give us courage and the strength to continue. I do not feel bitter, but I am a little angry. I realize how impossible our situation has become, yet notwithstanding, I feel that whenever I am able to understand something or shed light on another, I believe I am taming the brutal multi- headed monster which wants to keep us in darkness, without the right to speak up, and not desiring but what it desires.
What frightens me most now is not to be able to understand the world outside Syria and for things to lose their clarity for me. I used to understand things Syrian. Syria was my country. I do not know exactly what I am going to do in exile. I always felt ill at ease with this word. It seems to me to be making a mockery of the people still inside the country. Perhaps its meaning will change and expand to include the whole of our terrible experience: the experience of uprootedness, seeking asylum, dispersion then eventually the hope of return. I do not know exactly what I am going to do, but I am now part of this massive Syrian exodus and the dream of return, although it feels right now as an amputation.
This is our country which is all that we have. I know that there is no other country that can be as merciful to us as this terrible country.
the radishes are at ground level
For a long time it’s been too late for a happy ending in Syria. The longer this process continues, the less we can hope for.
How do you fight a monster without becoming a monster? How, particularly when the monster’s chief strategy is to make a monster of you? How, when the world’s most powerful storytellers depict you as a monster? How, when monsters hiding behind human facades walk by blindly as you are tortured, raped, humiliated, maimed, murdered?
I don’t really know. I’d welcome a reading list, if anyone has one.
I know this monster must be fought, even if we become monsters while fighting it. I know we must fight both internally and externally. I know the greater and lesser jihads must be fought simultaneously.
At some point, somehow, this stage will be replaced by another. Most probably that stage like this one will be bumbled through blindly. Human beings seldom or never achieve control over their larger social movements. Still, it’s pleasant to imagine that Syrians will be able to defuse the sectarian tensions which have existed at least since ibn Taymiyyeh, which were immeasurably exacerbated by Sykes-Picot and the French occupation’s construction of an ‘army of minorities’, and then set afire by Assad’s gang and its allies. It’s good to hope too that a new constitution will guard against any party, clique or ideological police imposing its straitjacket on the plural people.
Beyond religion and politics, environmental factors should also be taken into account.
It’s interesting to note that Jared Diamond’s three factors of civilisational collapse (deforestation, soil erosion, water management problems) have been present in Syria since late Ottoman times, and rampant in the last couple of decades. People my age who grew up in Damascus remember that in their childhoods the Ghouta still consisted of orchards and streams, that summer temperatures almost never climbed above the mid to high thirties. Wasn’t Damascus the city the Prophet refused to enter, fearing to sin by imagining himself prematurely in paradise? The dicatorship’s corruption (anyone with connections or money could build in the green zone) put paid to that. Stupidly grand development schemes repeated the pattern all over the country (Lake Assad, like Lake Nasser, was an environmental and social disaster – see Omar Amiralay’s film A Flood in Ba‘ath Land – a wonderful exercise in quiet irony). People’s lack of control over the public space meant they were alienated from it, and threw black plastic bags all over it (this explains the discrepancy between people’s spotlessly clean homes and the filth in the streets outside). Over the decade before the revolution erupted, a million climate change refugees, according to the UN, left the desertifying north east for the impoverished outskirts of Dera’a, Homs, Damascus and Aleppo. This, combined with the effects of Bashaar’s crony capitalism, provides the backdrop to the uprising. The revolutions to the west, and the monster’s extreme violence, provided the spark.
in Atmeh camp
When the next stage comes, every Syrian city (except two, Tartus and Lattakia – but they may well be burnt in the near future) will have to be rebuilt.
Rebuilding them to incorporate gardens for food security is an excellent idea, and surely not so difficult. All it requires is a return to tradition and a rejection of recent perversions. Damascus and Hama already incorporate fields into the inner city. Go back 40 years and the interconnection of agriculture and urbanity was much more evident.
In Atmeh camp I found refugees who’d lost everything growing herbs around their tents. At Hamood’s house in Kafranbul, where I spent a night, a rocket had punctured a wall. Beneath the damage, Hamood pointed to his flourishing radishes. His face lit up in repeatable wonder as he showed me these leaves. Despite the destruction, the people are planting seeds.
Here’s Permaculture Arabia’s website. In a region facing an imminent thirst crisis, you’d think there’d be more inerest in this. Whoever inherits Syria (please God, let that be the people themselves) needs to think about this very hard.