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Reviewing Samar Yazbek

I had the fortune and opportunity to write a review of Samar Yazbek’s A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution for Syria Untold.

The author takes coffee with regime-loyal couples by day and revolutionaries by night. She interviews a student protestor, then an illiterate fisherman. Each speaks at their length. The latter tells her, “We want them to leave us alone so we can live our lives, nothing more than that.” The diary fills with places and dates, the sizes of demonstrations and the methods of their suppression, the initials of the surviving and the names of the dead. She fights insomnia with Xanax.

Check out the full review here.

In Gaziantep the weather is practically balmy, the sun still beating back the chill as November gets late. But it sets early.

I am disappointed that friends here refuse group appointments because they are distrustful and grudge-bearing. I see them individually, a mixed bag of resignation and getting on with it.

A large, ongoing NGO exodus began this year, much of it unwilling. Others have set exit dates for their projects to ‘wrap up’ without conclusions. All those offices of people who never cared to learn Turkish. All those offices whose impact was better than nothing. Nearly all Syrians remain.

I see how many of the foreigners still act. They don’t get close to Syrians. When they hear someone is Syrian, their ears don’t perk up. They distance themselves with politeness. They associate with themselves. I never understood why these people came here. The most obvious explanation — that this was the best job offer on their table — that they came reluctantly — it doesn’t fully satisfy me, but I find no other explanation. The worst offenders are long gone.

And this site, with its dozens of readers. They say fail fast and often and over and over again. It will soon be thirty months since I first came to Gaziantep. And I sit here, with sporadic energy, feeling I have failed slow and once and for all.

 

But maybe there is still time.

…to Finland from Greece from Deir al-Zor

Last time I was in Athens I met the young man from this post. 

He finally got news he was being resettled in Finland a few months ago.

He says things are better there, but that he has not learned any Finnish yet.

One main complaint of his after being ‘temporarily’ in Greece for two years was that the EU resettlement plan was a lottery, so he did not know to where he would be relocated, and hence, what language he could start learning in preparation — two years of limbo, he didn’t invest in Greek and obviously not in Finnish (though his English improved). Safe to say, if he picked up a couple phrasebooks in the bookstore, or watched some youtube videos… none of them had much to do with Finnish.

I was introduced to the work of Hein de Haas at the beginning of this year by a friend here in Athens. She has a lot of experience working with refugees in Africa and the Middle East, among other places.

Over dinner some essential points were restated.

1) We are not living in an age of unprecedented migration (just look at the numbers).

2) Europe is not being invaded, particularly because refugees and migrants stay close to home. This is a silly trope that seems to be repeated by left, right, and middle everywhere, with the difference that some say compassion is the answer and some say send them back. But the premise is mistaken.

By far the majority of Syrian refugees are in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan — refugees take refuge overwhelmingly in neighbouring countries. And this is to some degree by choice: in Gaziantep many people have family, farms, businesses, spirit in northern Syria and they already feel sufficiently displaced. One family I know, when asked about Canada, said Canada is like the moon. “We’ve already come so far.” (They had come less than 400km). A tailor in Antep likes to remind me “we can smell the breath of Syria from here.” South Turkey is also culturally close to Syria, in Antakya (though not Gaziantep as much) people speak Arabic.

3) Development aid is no panacea to migration, the opposite is true.  This point hasn’t come up in this space that much yet, but it is important. The truly impoverished people living in squalor never get to the West. It is the middle classes of places like Nigeria, Syria, Haiti, Pakistan, and Bangladesh who end up migrating because mobility and migration require capital.

So, when the EU commits to funding development in Libya or Turkey or anywhere, in an effort to better the lives of the people whom it refuses, they are not creating a ‘stay’ factor or stymying a ‘push factor’, such that people will be more likely to stay Turkey or Libya, because it is more developed or is developing at a faster pace. Effective development widens a country’s middle class, a certain proportion of which then migrates. The more educated and better off the middle class, the more mobility they exhibit.

Why would the EU fund development then, under the auspices of reducing migration?

One answer suggested to me last night is that the EU has to justify policies of sending people back to places where those people don’t and won’t have a full slate of human rights; and human rights is of course something the EU supposedly stands for.

An accessible introduction to Hein de Haas’ work can be found here.

 

We Need Our Imaginings Confirmed

The title of a recent Global News article

How chocolate-selling Syrian-refugee family defied skeptics, made their dream in Canada

This Syrian-refugee family did not defy sketpics — another phrase overspilled on the English language from the reservoir of cliché by ESPN athlete profiles and puff pieces everywhere. The article indicates they may have been too busy: fleeing their country, surviving in a refugee camp, traveling to Canada, beginning chocolate production.

Neither did this Syrian family make or realise their dream in Canada. Narratives such as this are foisted upon us over and over. A constant implication of those who promote them assume Canada is better than Syria for Syrians. Their arguments, if not nebulous, rely either on proof by induction or by GDP. These from the same enthusiasm as “America is the greatest country in the world.”

I have yet to meet a Syrian who had not wanted, had not planned, to stay in Syria. Their dreams involved Syria. Those dreams became nightmares. And if they avoided the barrel bombs, escaped detention, skirted checkpoints, and were sprung from limbo by lottery, they came to Canada. This is a reprieve, a refuge. You don’t wake up from a nightmare in paradise. You wake up in a cold sweat.

It’s called Peace By Chocolate. And you can follow them on Facebook,” Trudeau told world leaders in New York.

Not exactly perfunctory — an everyman’s bootstraps and gumption — to have a Prime Minister doing your social media advertising at the United Nations.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of Syrians. But don’t take my word for it.

Check out Wendy Pearlman’s We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled, or Janine di Giovanni’s The Morning they Came For Us, or Alia Malek’s The Home that was our Country.

In Saleem Haddad’s Guapa, despite the protagonist being a closeted gay man, at-risk of communal and sanctioned government violence, readers still understand his ideal life involves being in Damascus. If you really need an anglo angle, Diana Darke makes her case for buying a house in Damascus and moving there in My House in Damascus.

Musa, the protagonist in Mustafa Khalifa’s The Shell, chooses to go back to Syria from Paris! If you’ve followed Samar Yazbek’s works, you’ll find her expressing similar sentiments. It is not just the rural or the working classes, whom I have interviewed across Turkey and in parts of Europe, it is Syrians from all classes, all educational achievements, who yearn for Syria.

I am inclined to believe that Canadians’ misunderstanding of this is parochial guesswork; an unexamined assumption. I don’t think anything particularly nefarious is going on in the average Canadians’ assumptions. But the outgrowth of these base assumptions can be (have been) hurtful in their personal interactions with Syrians and wrongheaded when it comes to policies local and national.

The best piece I have read this year on the topic is here, written by a Turkish writer whom fled following the coup attempt and resulting purge. The tremendous writing besides, the key matter is that she is right. Refugees who come to Canada should be free to exhibit the full spectrum of human condition, including anger, disillusion, sarcasm, bitterness, and ennui. When they act or react in unexpected ways, this is an opportunity for the observer to learn something.

On the other hand, when they are chastised or singled out for behaving in human ways on account that they should be humble and/or grateful simply because of their refugee status, an ignorant dynamic is being introduced. Someone even told my friend the other day that she should be proud to be a refugee. Proud her fellow citizens are at the bottom of the Mediterranean? Proud her country lays in rubble? Proud some of the children who survived sieges and gas attacks have missed five years of school? Proud of a label she wishes to cast off but that someone in her new country is determined she, the Syrian, bear and embrace against her will because she, the Canadian, says so? This is paternalism of the worst kind. This pride is a sin.

The truth is that Canada is a second option for Syrians. And that’s okay — there is nothing wrong or insulting about that. We can still help them and we can try to understand where they are coming from. Many have nowhere to go back to. The Greene family is such a case. The war is not winding down in their province; their home village remains under daily ariel bombardment. They have nowhere else to go.  I am fundraising to bring them to Canada here and personally matching all donations up to $1,000 made before October 1st.

 

 

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 happen 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.