Despite the international community's lacklustre response, Syrians are responding to the destruction of their country resiliently—and with desperate black humourby / September 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Syrians. I hated the deceptive simplicity of that word. We were 23 million people. Soldiers and fighters. Revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The torturer and the victim. How could one word encompass us all?”
Syria’s democratic revolution is defeated, the country destroyed, and what follows will not resemble peace. Assad’s throne has been saved, but at the price of Syrian social cohesion and regional stability. Secondary and tertiary conflicts now bloom—Sunni-Shia, Turkish-Kurdish, Israeli-Iranian—while refugee flows and terror attacks have infected our politics in Europe. Syria will continue to demand our engagement, and not only for the sake of its vast human tragedy.
Escorted by Russian bombers and Iranian militia, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has regained control of key parts of the Syrian heartland in recent months. In its wake come deportations, mass arrests, torture and field executions. Secure in its impunity, the regime has begun issuing death certificates for the tens of thousands murdered in detention since 2011. Against this backdrop, Vladimir Putin has called for the regime’s “normalisation,” and in the run-up to the Helsinki summit in July, it seems that he won Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu’s acquiescence.
Of the expanding shelf of Syria books, the most explanatory (or least ideological) tend to start from the diverse experiences of Syrians themselves. Four recently published books do just that, in very different ways.
Both chronologically and socially, The Home That Was Our Country, by Syrian-American journalist Alia Malek, has the widest focus. It begins with the First World War, when half a million Syrians died of famine, and survivors of the Armenian genocide arrived from Turkey. The author’s great-grandfather Abdeljawwad, a landowner and entrepreneur, sheltered one Armenian refugee before participating in the 1920s uprising against the French. The mandate brought martial law, aerial bombardment, and an army dominated by the small Alawi sect—theologically at odds with Sunni Islam—from which Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and ruler of Syria for 30 years, would later emerge. Abdeljawwad, by turns generous and manipulative, was a Christian, school founder and womaniser.
Every character here is complex. After grandmother Salma—a heavy smoker called “sister of men”—moved to multicultural Damascus, the fates of her relatives and neighbours illustrate the declining fortunes of society at large. An imperfect post-colonial democracy was succeeded by coups and counter-coups, then the one-party Ba’athist state, and finally, in 1970, Hafez al-Assad’s one-man party. People (including Salma’s brother) disappeared for the slightest dissidence. Their relatives feared asking too many questions. Religious coexistence, once a given, strained under the mutual fear and suspicion built into the new dispensation. Infrastructural stagnation accompanied seeping moral corruption: “If people disregarded anyone’s welfare but their own, it was in part because the state made Syrians feel that everyone was on his or her own; people were being pitted against one another.”
Conditions at home convinced her parents to live in America, but Malek herself stayed in Damascus for long stretches as an adult, reporting clandestinely on Assad’s disastrous crony-capitalist reforms in the early 2000s, while reclaiming grandmother Salma’s house from an immovable lodger. When the revolution erupted in 2011, some around her participated openly or covertly, while others sunk into Stockholm syndrome—adopting their oppressor’s world-view.
Initially Malek ascribes this to an inferiority complex—Syrians thinking they are incapable of democracy. Later she understands that willed belief in propaganda may serve as an escape from “the simultaneous shame of living under such a regime and of looking away—of being both a victim and a bystander,” and realises that many already understood that “the regime would work to unleash [violent] forces without a second thought.”
In this nuanced, intelligent account of Syria’s intricate social fabric and its slow unravelling, micro and macrocosm, family and state, events can illumine each other with a subtle metaphorical force. Salma’s condition after a stroke, “alive in a dead body, waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen,” suggests the whole country before 2011, as well as the hundreds of thousands languishing in Assad’s prisons right now.
Rania Abouzeid’s No Turning Back contains a long, painfully gripping description of a two-year passage through these nightmarish jails. The victim is Suleiman, a businessman from Rastan. This town near Homs, once a source of army officers, was called “the second Qardaha,” a Sunni version of the Assads’ (Alawi) village. But in 2011, signalling the collapse of the cross-sect Ba’athist alliance, it became an early base for the fledgling Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Suleiman never held a weapon, but joined, recorded and uploaded protests. He also worked with the co-ordination committees—anonymous activist cells—to shelter defected soldiers. As “the seeds of a grassroots civil society,” the committees are Assad’s primary target, and the apparent reason for Suleiman’s arrest.
He suffered hunger, extreme temperatures and torture. Eventually released (when his father paid a bribe), he was immediately rearrested—“a body cycled in perpetuity through a labyrinth of suffering.” Released after further bribes, he survived to recount his story from Germany.
Vowing “not to talk over people who can speak for themselves,” Abouzeid closely follows, and contextualises, her informants. A seasoned war-correspondent, she is strongest on the armed resistance, and more specifically its degeneration. At the start, the FSA militias were “just local men banding together” by family or neighbourhood. These “men of words and weapons” concentrated on defending their communities. By September 2012, however, swathes of northern Syria were de facto “liberated.” But a hoped-for no-fly zone never materialised, military stalemate set in, and rebels squabbled over supplies. Worse, “political money and foreign agendas split rebel ranks, even as those [donor] states urged the men on the ground to unite.”
Abouzeid correctly states that “classism, rather than sectarianism, was a stronger revolutionary driver for many opponents” of the regime. But Assad’s scorched-earth-from-the-sky, as well as lawlessness, presented enormous opportunities for tightly-disciplined Sunni extremists. Men like Mohamad, who grew up in Jisr al-Shughour, an Idlib town punished through the 1980s for its Muslim Brotherhood sympathies. Mohamad’s childhood memories include soldiers murdering the neighbours and stripping old ladies naked in the street—and in June 2011, after months of repression, Jisr al-Shughour saw the country’s first serious outbreak of violence. The first mass displacement followed, as thousands—including Abouzeid—fled Assad’s vengeance.
In the previous decade the regime had funnelled Salafi-jihadists to American-occupied Iraq. Those who returned were imprisoned. Mohamed, arrested in his teens for reading al-Qaeda texts, soon joined them. Early in 2011, as protests swelled, he and hundreds of other jihadists were released. Assad was deliberately helping create an opposition which would terrify key Syrian constituencies into loyalty, while ensuring the international community would turn a blind eye to his crimes. Once back home, Mohamad promptly prepared for war. Abouzeid’s reportage—tracing Mohamad’s career with (the al-Qaeda-linked) Nusra, and Nusra’s conflict with Islamic State (IS)—humanises this deeply-compromised character by placing him in a family, a community, and a long-term cycle of violence and vengeance.
Abouzeid admits telling—inevitably—only “a fraction of the story.” Yet her focus on fighters at the expense of the civilian revolution occasionally weakens an otherwise excellent account. When protesters drive Nusra from Saraqeb in July 2017, for instance, their resistance appears to arrive out of the blue. But the town, long a stronghold of civic activism, elected a local council in the same month. At the time of writing, at least, 118 councils survive in Idlib province, and hundreds more in the surviving liberated pockets.
Not only are Syrians capable of democracy, they are actually practising it, despite the war. When this rarely-mentioned information enters the frame, the endless rhythm of violence no longer seems inevitable. Nor do the strong-man “solutions” of western “realists” seem relevant.
The first strongman Marwan Hisham escaped was his father. His Brothers of the Gun stresses the revolution’s generational aspect, the youthful rejection of a society in which “it was forbidden to aspire.” Sent from a severe upbringing in Raqqa—“a poor uneducated city, lagging behind”—to an Islamic boarding school, Hisham was subjected to interchangeable religious and nationalist rhetoric involving “chest-puffing, militaristic cultishness, saccharine exaltation of sacrifice” and “pseudo-scientific pomp.”
His irreverent tone swoops from anger at the superstitious passivity of people who “lacked all desire to change,” through euphoric appreciation of the “generosity and participatory ethos” of Raqqa’s liberation, to a bitter cynicism when liberation turns sour.
Punctuated by air-raids, Raqqa’s interval between tyrannies witnessed an unequal civil struggle between democrats and Islamist-authoritarians—alongside battles between jihadists—until the fiercest won. “Our people used religiosity as a tranquiliser,” Hisham complains. As the anxiety increased, so did the dose. And after the IS takeover, US and then Russian bombers pummelled the city.
Hisham bought a satellite dish and opened a cyber café, which attracts Raqqa’s multinational jihad-tourists. Their snooty stupidity is recounted with desperate black humour. By this telling, ignorance and trauma are the twin bases of their intolerance. By now Hisham was tweeting about life under IS, and soon started working with US artist Molly Crabapple. She drew his photographs, he provided words. This distinctively beautiful book came from their collaboration.
It makes great reading, at once raw and stylish. Yet the exuberant scorn which animates it can sometimes oversimplify. “I had counted on the majority to defy [jihadist] aggression,” Hisham writes, “but instead they remained silent at best and complicit at worst.” This is inaccurate. Having defeated Raqqa’s rebels, IS faced “White Shroud” tribal resistance and a host of activist and media groups.
Further afield, non-authoritarian Islamist brands also flourished. In the Damascene suburb Daraya, for instance, influenced by “liberal Islamist” Jawdat Said, activists like Ghayth Matar promoted self-organisation and non-violence. The regime killed Matar under torture.
Daraya’s neighbouring community, Moadamiya, “surrounded by fields of flowers and olive groves,” and populated by “simple, loving people” is the setting of Kassem Eid’s powerful memoir My Country. This is the most tightly-focused of the books—a first-person, eyewitness account written with alternating love and fury.
Eid is a working-class Palestinian-Syrian, one of 11 children. His awareness of the regime’s sectarian misrule was implanted early, when his mother warned him not to play “beyond the railway” where Alawi military families live. Nevertheless Eid formed a friendship with one Alawi boy, Majed, who later became a fighter pilot.
One of Eid’s brothers disappeared (note the repetition—most Syrian families guard a similar story). Eid himself is attacked seemingly at random. Harassment, intimidation and impoverishment were the everyday indignities of a “country of no opportunity.”
When the 2011 protests broke out, they called for nothing more than “a Syria where human life and dignity are respected.” Soon soldiers were deploying roadblocks and raping women they dragged from taxis. Cars exploded; snipers picked off pall-bearers. Those who could, left. Others sold their jewellery to buy Kalashnikovs. Eid himself bribed military contacts to smuggle in medicine and food.
The army committed several massacres before enforcing the regime’s “Kneel or Starve” absolute siege. With characteristic insistence on setting the terms, Eid chose to go on hunger strike. By then—when he could access the internet, the generators fuelled by nail-polish remover—he was a media activist. He didn’t hold a weapon until the aftermath of the August 2013 sarin attacks when, surrounded by choking victims, he finally took one up.
Eid escaped to Lebanon, then America. Impressed by the Syrian-American lobby, he was otherwise depressed. He’d assumed “the murder of civilians agitating for democracy” would spur a serious political response, but realised “when confronted with obvious and unspeakable evil, the world will do everything in its power to look away.”
This lack of international engagement, more than inherent backwardness, condemns Syrians to the dictator-terrorist binary, and everyone to further war. When Moadamiya finally succumbed (in October 2016), thousands were deported to camps. Millions more are exiled. Palestinians have been dreaming of (and fighting for) return for seven decades. How long will it take today’s Syrians?