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.