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.

4 thoughts on “Depopulated Narratives

  1. Hmm. There’s a conflict in my mind between complaining that most people in the world aren’t really aware of what is occurring in Syria (and by extension don’t care) which is what a lot of this blog is about, but then also criticizing those who actually do make the effort to know (in whatever inadequate ways that they do that — and I don’t think there’s anything surprising that people get interested in a topic b/c they are interested in the mind of the person writing about it. I am more interested in what you say about Turkey / Syria than I would be otherwise because you are writing about it, you liked my blog at some point, and what I read made me think you’re smart. Or a more mundane example — I’d never have read a book about Everest exploration had Jon Krakuer not written Into the Wild, which interested me, got me to read his Everest books, and then got me interested in the Everest problem more generally. That I haven’t become an activist on behalf of Sherpa people isn’t really his fault ).

    I think it’s pretty inescapable to conclude that only the people who do make the effort to know (whether or not they are morally defensible) can become people who do things that ameliorate the situation. I also don’t think it’s that easy to know what to do — beyond donating to relief organizations or pressuring one’s elected representatives to push for action on the issue, which is what a lot of people who “know” but not in the way you would prefer seem to be doing (at least from what I can observe).


    1. Hey Servetus, I appreciate that you frequent this space, you’re one of the handful who I notice coming back and interacting regularly. Forgive me for this, but I don’t know who in the real world your handle corresponds to. The name seems familiar but I can’t seem to put a finger on it.

      Near the end of your comment you mention to my mind the worst two things one can do to ‘help.’ If one is in Europe or in Canada there are Syrians everywhere. It isn’t hard to go meet some and show them some hospitality and in so doing, solidarity. Donating money to an organisation is a particularly inefficient and ineffectual method, the expansion of that statement will have to come another day.

      My main point is that Syrians are just people, it turns out. After pinching nearly a thousand of them, this is what I’ve concluded. So imagine people you knew who had their lives upended. Would you donate money to some organisation with slick advertising? Would you phone some nobody backbencher? Most people would go find some of those affected out in the real world and do what good neighbours would do for them. Ask them what they need to get their lives back on track and help as possible. There are basically zero Syrians I have met who are looking to become additionally dependent. In lieu of this ‘getting out there’ some people might read up on the calamatity that befell their neighbours. This I really recommend. I am not presupposing you haven’t, but just knowing the Hama massacre happened in 1982, knowing Hafez took control of the country in 1970, and so forth, this will actually help a great deal, in my view, somehow. Perhaps it is because the level of disinformation is so thick that I feel like education of that very basic form has merits. Maybe it is because a great many Syrians I interact with are impressed when I come up with the right answer to an offhand trivia question.

      To address the start of your comment, yes, my tone isn’t always ideal. But the issues discussed so eloquently by the Al-Haj Saleh article are much bigger. The line about them being interested in me I know comes off as a bit cheap, but it is both frustrating and it points to a simple vulgar truth, that most people don’t have an instinct for solidarity. And if they do there is some gap — that’s why I think they process the conflict as if it were virtual. If you have means, energy, and knowledge — all three of those things together — but aren’t lending a hand, something is amiss. There are plenty with only two of those or fewer, and fair enough. There is something genuinely horrifying about the way Syrians themselves are absent from the dialogues of the anglosphere. It is omnipresent absence. So the best place to start is to kick the habit. Because these people aren’t asking for ‘us’ or anyone else to solve their problems for them. They have ideas, skills, and knowledge. But are ignored nearly everywhere and when they aren’t they are commodified. Anyways, an insufficient answer I am sure, but it is late.


      1. This pseudonym doesn’t correspond to my real name; I blog about something unrelated to my real life concerns. I’m in the U.S., in a rural area where there are scarcely non-white people (<1% population), let alone Syrians. There are a few refugees here; as far as I can tell they seem to come from Somalia. However, the only relief organization that resettles refugees in my area requires volunteers to be Christian (I am not). I am a former professor who has occasionally had to cover the history of the modern Middle East in lectures; I have been reading the international news since about 1977. Currently, for international news, I read the New York Times, the FAZ, SZ, Le Monde, and I follow the BBC. I wouldn't say I am hugely familiar with the history of the conflict but unfortunately I only read European languages (not Arabic, Turkish, Farsi, etc.) I donate to two refugee organizations — Refugee Kitchen Calais (because people there have been starving since the flattening of "the Jungle") and Save the Children Syria (because I understand them to be providing resources to children who have lost their homes). I have also called my elected representatives several times to urge them to do what they can to hasten the cure the conflict and/or to allow more refugees into the U.S. more quickly. I am somewhat aware; I don't read everything; I don't think there's anything else that is currently in my power that I could do.

        It's not that I object to reading news sources by Syrians; on the contrary. I just think that it is rare that a reader would make a jump directly to doing so. I'm a realist and I've been an educator for several decades; that is not how most people's intellects work. Most people start with the familiar and work toward the unfamiliar. Essentially, your argument would more or less obviate the writing for your own blog since I understand that you are not a Syrian.


  2. I more or less agree with that (that this blog isn’t too necessary). Syrian writers, Samara Yazbek, Mustafa Khalifa, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Leila al-Shami, and the above mentioned Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, all have writings in English and my work and writings pales in comparison. They would not be so unknown to English readers were it not for the power structure Al-Haj Saleh outlines, which seems undergirded by some sort of continuation of the belief that Syrian intellectuals and democrats are unsophisticated. The question is, why do editors prefer their Syrian content from Robert Fisk or Patrick Cockburn and their imitators? The reasons don’t all need to conspire nefariously — editors at The Independent I would bet (were I a betting man) are intellectually and physically lazy.


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