All our stories are the same

The doorbell rings. The women rise to receive Nour’s mother, clad in black, in the hall. Pleasantries. 

“Prepare yourself,” Adnan whispers.

Nour’s mother lived most of her life on the outskirts of Aleppo. Since fleeing to Turkey, she has been working as a dish washer in a NGO’s small Kilis office, earning 500 Turkish Lira [172 USD at the time, 140USD today] a month. This is low even by the abysmal standards of  Syrians in Turkey. 

“Just a small amount — she is not taking a typical Turkish salary,”  Walad’s daughter Samar, a field officer working out of that office, explains.

“I tried to help her with the card for cash assistance, but I didn’t get it. Someone at the office said that if we have a new project, we will be able to help her.”

How did you come to Turkey?

“All our stories are the same. We all left because of the regime. They attacked our house one day, the regime, randomly. At first, we rented a house in A’zaz city, for one month. Then we decided to escape to Turkey.”

“We all come here without having work opportunities, unless you have a career. I am taking care of the house, just cleaning and spending.”

The sitting room is full of rumours. One is that a new deal between Turkey and the European Union, looming, will furnish an additional 500,000 Syrian refugees with cash assistance cards.”

“But if the Turkish find us with these new cards,” Samar’s mother says, “they will kill us.”

“The local Turks here,” she continues, “they saw me with the NGO’s current card in the grocery store one day. And they shouted, ‘You need ten Bashars, not only one!’ They didn’t know that this money was coming from foreigners, that is wasn’t taken from the Turkish government or Turkish people.”

Kilis’ urban Syrians have similar complaints about NGOs as those in Gaziantep. That those operating in the area are easily misled. That they do not always reach the most squalid neighbourhoods. That for example, certain households pack neighbourhood kids into their home before assessment visitations, thereby claiming to shelter more mouths, in order to receive more assistance. Nour’s mother continued. 

My daughter came after us. She was nine months pregnant. After a hard way, she finally arrived. She gave birth here in Kilis.

Her husband had a friend in Germany. And the friend was always calling her husband, saying, ‘Come come come, we can get you a job here.’ But she didn’t accept this idea. She told him she didn’t want to go. Her husband decided to go to Germany by the sea.

And my daughter went with him, even though she didn’t accept this idea, because she had no choice. They sunk in the sea. She had brought her two children, and her newborn sank with her.

The older son came back to Kilis with his father. Her husband gave me this child and went again to Germany. We hear he is getting married there. I am living with the rest of my family. I have three sons and four daughters — but now only three daughters.

Another of my daughters is married, but her husband went back to Syria. They have a child, so we are taking care of her as well. I don’t know the real story about Nour. We are just guessing. My daughter’s husband, he said they didn’t sink by accident — he said they sank in the Greek islands, that this traffic police saw them and started to attack the boat.

He said it was so wavy — not even the cup of tea could stay still the boat was shaking in the waves. They asked the women and the child to not go on the police boat, the Greek police asked. So when the women and child went out [from the hull to the deck], they asked please let us come in— our boat is sinking. But they didn’t accept — they just let it sink.

And the police attacked — they made a hole in the boat. After a while another boat came, maybe they are the same — they came to take care of the others, dead or alive. Mostly the men survived because they are stronger. The boat was overfull.

The Turkish coast guard picked up the survivors — and recovered the bodies. A greater degree of certainty can be attached to this; the two bodies were delivered by Turkish authorities to Kilis.

You can say that we were lucky to get this story. It is better to have just a part of the story, because not every Syrian who dies mysteriously gets their story told. I don’t like telling it again. I don’t share it with anyone and I don’t like to remember.

But because I trust you and because Samar asks, I tell it to you. They found the bodies; they were all young girls. Eleven young girls — all of them dead and the small children as well.

I cried a lot. She was my oldest daughter and was my friend too. And when she died I was shouting at her husband, for she died because of him.

They brought her body; she is here in Kilis now. They found her easily, because she was on the boat’s inside. When they found the boat she was taking care of her son, like this [she cradles the invisible with both arms]. We put them in the same coffin.

Nour — my daughter’s name means the sun, like the light, the one who gives the light to you. And her name is like her beauty. She was my most beautiful daughter. She was studying Arabic literature, in her first year.

She took care of her brother and sister when she was young. She was a very good girl. She was the mother of her brother and sister, more than me.

Usually at Eid, if we didn’t have something to buy for the family, she would say, ‘Give to my brother and sister, not me.’

The Shell by Mustafa Khalifa

The Shell is somehow very important and unknown. In a media landscape full of stories on Syria and opinions and panels and angles and infographics — this book, well known in the Arabic world and famous in Syria had trouble finding a publishing house in English and has received basically zero English press. I have been shopping the following review for five months now without success.


Musa, a Syrian in Paris, resolves to return home and direct films. A beautiful woman, Suzanne, urges him not to go. But his “isn’t just empty romanticism, it’s a genuine feeling.”

Arrested at the airport, he spends the majority of a fourteen year detention in the Assad regime’s “Desert Prison” — Tadmur or Palmyra. 

The narration that follows in Mustafa Khalifa’s Al Qawqaa (2006), published as The Shell (Paul Starkey trans.) just this year, is admirably empty of both romance and sentiment. Sentiment tempts writers, but here presumes the reader needs instruction on reacting to cruel and unusual punishments, summary executions, controlled starvations, and eight gallows, repeatedly used.

An inscription, “In retaliation there is life for you, men possessed of minds!” (Qur’an 2:179) meets Musa at Tadmur’s gates. The full passage argues understanding life— its guarantee of death, Allah’s design of existence whole — motivates god-fearing and righteousness.

But Musa finds neither, confessing his Christian atheism during torture. Then to another inmate. This costs him “several years of total isolation, and treatment like that accorded to insects, if not worse!”

Ostracised within captivity, the narrator peers into the prison yard — under a blanket, his shell — through a hole known only to him. He witnesses hangings frequent enough to keep pace with Assad’s security apparatus, “at a time when hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood detainees were coming in every day.”

“The new [guards] were always reluctant to take hold of the whip or the cane,” Musa reports.

“[T]heir beatings would be light and uncertain.”

Hangings “would make them vomit.” But this never lasts.

As in Capote’s In Cold Blood, Khalifa ostensibly retells a nonfiction quiver empty. We begin knowing the alleged crime, the length of the imprisonment, and, as certainly as we know the Clutters are murdered brutally, that the narrator will live to become a memoirist. But, as in Capote’s feat, the quality of Khalifa’s description whisks foreknowledge from the reading experience.

The publisher’s blurb makes mention of Solzhenitsyn. Wiesel’s Night is another natural comparison, Tadmur being a hell — “Every few days one or more people would be killed as the food was brought into the dormitories.” — impossible without human collaboration.

Possessing The Shell meant imprisonment in Assad’s Syria; literature seldom is such a portal to the places it describes. Students at University of Aleppo shared digit copies nonetheless. Download, read five pages, delete, repeat. Many describe their readings as political awakenings.

The Capote analogy breaks across both Musa’s innocence and the unmeasured distance between Khalifa the author (detained 1979-80, 1982-94) and Musa the narrator (1980-94). Apolitical Musa is pulled under by a thrashing, paranoid leviathan, while Khalifa himself was politically active, allegedly once a member of the revolutionary Communist Action Party.

An unsympathetic, crass, or merely unconscious reader could cast the device of an artificial backstory onto coals like subterfuge and revelation and agenda. This line of dismissal nearly always furthers a presumption all too familiar to Syrians — that of a virtuous strong and a slippery weak as the ontological order of things. 

The French translation states La Coquille (2007, Stéphanie Dujols trans.) “constitue un témoignage romancé” — constitutes a romantic (or romanticised) testimony. We are not told where the borders of contrivance lie, thus dissemblers can everywhere attend doubt. However thin such soot, power is served at the expense of truth and reconciliation.

But corroboration withers assertions from the armchairs. And, from exile, corroboration — that these things really did happened in Tadmur — springs forth.

Musa remembers “the sergeants…spent a significant part of their time catching mice, cockroaches, and tortoises, and forcing the prisoners to swallow them.” While interned in Syria’s Adra prison, Dr Jalal Nofal, a political activist, met a Tadmur survivor forced to swallow a small injured live bird. 

Khalifa rarely paints those who shun Musa as virtuous. But in describing the punishing of night whisperers, his account matches others’ exactly. “[I]f a sick or elderly man had been ‘noted’ by the guards,’ then one of the fedayeen (“strong and physically fit young men”) would take the place of the sick man and receive the five hundred lashes.”

Muhammed, another survivor, unconnected and interviewed privately, also entered Tadmur (“my kidnapping I say”) in 1980. He was sixteen at that time and was judged innocent two years later.

“The same court had over many years delivered innocent verdicts on prisoners arrested by mistake who were actually still children,” The Shell explains. But “[the court] did not have the right to release an innocent man… the first and second dormitories were known even to the police as ‘the innocent dormitories.’” Muhammed was finally released in 1991.

Musa, freed after fourteen years, has lost “the capacity for astonishment.” Wandering, he finds his former muse, Damascus, “covered in a layer of fine yellow dust.” The nightmare follows him, reminding him, in a devastating finale, that his waking freedom is both real and the nightmare still.

Adventures in Understanding the Other

Toronto —

There is a barbershop with Arabic signage that only takes cash in my sister’s neighbourhood. As I waited on the couch for my turn — is that Turkish I hear? —

Mehmet the barber turns out to be an old man from Konya. And after I butchered some Turkish — his eyes wide enough to ask me twice where I was actually from  — he was quick to get into the nitty gritty of my experiences in Gaziantep.

And of course the question came up — the question every Erdogan supporter asks every suspected non-Erdogan supporter — “What do you think of Erdogan?” I think this was around the time I was baring my throat.

I mulled — some might say hesitated — “But completely openly! Really be honest.” His insistence on this was earnest.

“I think he is  dangerous man,” I said. “Anyone with so much power in one country is dangerous. Maybe he was different when he was mayor of Istanbul, but now he has maybe changed.”

“Was that the wrong answer?” I smiled. The length of the ensuing pause told me it was.

“No! It was the right answer,” Mehmet grinned. “Because it was your right answer.”

I felt my next line was relatively incontrovertible — “You know they have locked up a number of journalists and closed many press outlets?”

“Well if they got arrested, they were not doing a good job in those cases.”

It was from there — after he said something I could not have disagreed with more —  we found common ground.

When an attack happens in Turkey, it is a spectacle — and when it is in London it hits home.

And “when the event suits their story, they are there with their cameras every day,” Mehmet said in reference to the Gezi Park protests.

That was a political movement a few years ago that had absolutely nothing to do with his political sensibilities — he came to Canada in 1994, the year many protesters would have been born.

He brought up the London attacks, how they have dominated the coverage ceaselessly. Meanwhile the US has destroyed Afghanistan and Iraq. And everyone in the west is getting a pass on both. These are all linked phenomena that inform his worldview (and it would be a fantasy effort to try to disentangle them).

And so I left — çok teşekkürler efendim baba thinking this is how these people get alienated. It is not just a disservice to the dead when Kurdish children in Gaziantep get killed by a Daesh suicide bomb that their photos don’t appear on BBC or CNN’s 24 hour fear watch —  like those poor concert-goers in Manchester — it is a very effective way to reinforce the distrust of the thinking people on the other side. Most people never even heard of the Gaziantep suicide bomb.

Mehmet’s reasons for supporting Erdogan has a lot to do with death and the destruction of Syria, of Iraq, of Afghanistan and his worries about Turkey. We spoke about the coup attempt of course. And you can argue that is misplaced (congratulations). But he has reasons — that is what is not meditated upon, most anti-Erdogan thinkers would leap to see him as someone who is politically manipulable, nothing more.

Outside of Iraq and Syria, Daesh has arguably done its worst in Turkey the past two years. The under-service of this reinforces the sort of division these same western media outlets present as a factual description of the world — that those like Mehmet are reactionaries who favour strongmen because they are somehow backwards.

The truth is those outside the western periphery are more likely to view every dead child as having equal value. If for the simple reason they remember the rocket attack down the street and they see coverage of Paris and Brussels on the news. The reverse isn’t true.

from Foreign Affairs

An overwhelming majority of those we surveyed—close to 90 percent—embraced the idea of returning to Syria when the war is over. These interviews thus provide a rare glimpse into the views of those who consider themselves part of the country’s future

This is curious.

This glimpse isn’t rare — nor is it really a glimpse. There are millions of Syrian refugees around the world and any one of them will tell you they want to go back as soon as is possible.

I can’t say why people use language like this. I can speculate it is because they feel it is necessary for the readership to swallow the conclusion or to justify the breadth of their investigation (if they hadn’t discovered something surprising ((which they didn’t)), would it have been worth surveying so many people?). It is written a bit like clickbait… they discovered something secret or hidden.

I don’t  understand why this is always framed as surprising or counterintuitive. Syrians want to go back to Syria because they are Syrians. The desire to return and settle/resettle in their own country should be the assumption, but in the marketplace of ideas this has to be continually re-established.

I feel this whole article is incredibly repetitious of what is known but bills it as discovered or novel. I don’t know what to make of it.

only 0.5 percent of people said they supported Assad.

We also already knew this.

More from Yassin al-Haj Saleh

This interview is some seven months old, but it is still highly relevant today to understanding the way in which western people speak about Syria:

I don’t expect much out of the international left, but I thought they would understand our situation and see us as a people who were struggling against a very despotic, very corrupt, and very sectarian regime. I thought they would see us and side with us. What I found, unfortunately, is that most people on the left know absolutely nothing about Syria. They know nothing of its history, political economy, or contemporary circumstances, and they don’t see us.

In America, the leftists are against the establishment in their own country. In a way, they thought that the U.S. establishment was siding with the Syrian revolution — something that is completely false and an utter lie — and for this reason they have stood against us. And this applies to leftists almost everywhere in the world. They are obsessed with the White House and the establishment powers of their own countries.

A bit also to highlight, about the differences between theory and practice:

The experience of prison transformed me and my ideas about the world. In many ways, it was an emancipatory experience. I developed the belief that to protect our fundamental values of justice, freedom, human dignity, and equality, we had to change our concepts and theories. The Soviet Union had fallen and many changes were occurring in the world. My comrades who refused to change, those who adhered to their old methods and tools, found themselves in a position of leaving their values behind. This is one reason why many leftists today are against the Syrian revolution — because they adhere to the dead letter of their beliefs, rather than the living struggle of the people for justice.



Depopulated Narratives

There is an important article out this month from Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, handily translated into great English by Yaaser Azzayyaa.

It addresses a pervasive toxicity running through nearly all English discourse on matters Syrian. That being: when people speak about Syria in English they never concern themselves with Syrians. They don’t reference Syrian voices. Maybe as anecdotes of the experiential, but almost never as authoritative. It would be difficult to improve on the hyperlinked article. It is better than accurate and precise.

a German, a Brit, or an American activist would argue with a Syrian over what is really happening in Syria. It looks like they know more about the cause than Syrians themselves. We are denied “epistemological agency,” that is, our competence in providing the most informed facts and nuanced analysis about our country. Either there is no value to what we say, or we are confined to lesser domains of knowledge, turned into mere sources for quotations that a Western journalist or scholar can add to the knowledge he produces. They may accept us as sources of some basic information, and may refer to something we, natives, said in order to sound authentic, but rarely do they draw on our analysis. This hierarchy of knowledge is very widespread and remains under-criticized in the West.



Sitting on the Thames last week (that is to say, sitting privileged), taking a couple pints with a veteran journalist who has more bylines in real newspapers than there are flimsy posts on this website, he mentioned that usually, after he outlines the project being attempted (and failed) here, the curiosity of his audience almost always lies with the author, not the topic.

That is to say Syria is merely the buzzword by which a fellow white person piques their interest.

This is the norm, not an unruly exception. A huge portion of westerners consume Syria related content with the purpose of appearing sympathetic should the opportunity to do so present itself. They want both to be considered informed and to consider themselves informed. Solidarity has nothing to do with it, actually.

I used to pooh-pooh such people on the basis that truth wasn’t their highest value. But as disturbing and destructive as such casual epistemological approaches can be, a far more troublesome realisation has slowly washed over me. That human solidarity is completely absent from both the hierarchy of their present needs and the hierarchy of their desired needs.

In theory these people consider the Syrian catastrophe real. If you ask them, of course they will tell you as much. But if you were to look at the manner in which they engage with it, you would observe someone for whom the catastrophe is virtual. It is a simulated object.

There is another western propensity that wants to understand the human disaster in terms of how the geopolitical chess board now stands (also analysed by Saleh). Every event has ramifications for states with various histories, alliances, interests, influences, and power relations. And again the purpose of keeping up with the events, for them, is to know how such an event will affect ephemeralities — Russia’s relationship with America, Israeli leadership’s assessment of Erdogan’s sphere of influence, and endlessly so forth.

I notice two things about this.

First, there is nothing actionable at the end of their investigation. Knowing is the end in of itself. They can reflect more accurately on the great game in which they will never possess any agency. In almost every case, confessing to agency otherwise is an incredible delusion of grandeur. And knowing is also far away. You will memorise the complete book of modern chess openings in shorter order — thus time passes and so did your opportunity to do something for an actual person.

Second, the actors discussed have access to violence, whether its Russia, Hezbollah, Assad, the YPG, or Daesh. And therefore in choosing such focus these information consumers participate in the most base, depopulated narrative.

One that makes no real mention of something — let’s call it the enormity — that some half a million people have been killed for no reason. That something on the order of ten million have been displaced. For nothing. That twenty million people are and have been living in constant dread that any day now they will get horrifying news about their family or friends on Whatsapp. For no purpose. To no end. With no possible comeuppance or rectification.

Meanwhile the opportunities to be in solidarity with Syrians is effectively endless. It is actually easy to do something to help. But people opt to invest time in making sure their words are chosen carefully, that they don’t embarrass themselves.

As a friend and I settled on last night, there is a big difference between appearing as you should, a polite person in polite society, being nice to others, and being in human solidarity.

The difference between this niceness/politeness and solidarity is like the difference between the heavens and the earth, actually.

Black in Bosphorus Review of Books

The Bosphorus Review of Books, an English bi-monthly centred in Istanbul, came out with its third issue May 1st, and my piece, Black, can be found there:

My son must go to check on my daughter, to find her. My daughter called to say she was trapped and cannot go out, the plane is in the sky, ‘Please open a way to take me out of this place.’

The husband of my daughter, he was imprisoned by the regime at the time. So my son was the only one to rescue her. And he went to this place and brought her out, even though it was difficult.

He saw all of these people killed on the way. He saw pieces of people everywhere along the road. After he saw all of these people dying and in pieces on the ground, he decided to go to the Free Syrian Army.

I told him ‘Please, don’t go.’