Part 1: The Citadel
Al a’aqel zeena. “The mind is decoration”—or the mind is what makes one beautiful. I didn’t know it at the time, but those words on that shirt referencing a wartime radio play by the Lebanese artist I was about to see performing at the Damascus Citadel would perfectly summarize my sense of Syria for years to come.
I’ve only ever had pleasant feelings in Syria, a place so close yet so distant, so foreign. I grew up in a country where you learned very quickly to stiffen up when a Syrian soldier was addressing you. My very first lesson in parental fallibility involved such a figure sitting on my suitcase; I knew he’d break the etch-a-sketch I’d just brought back with me from Cyprus but no amount of pleading would get my mother to avenge me. “Shhhhhhh” became the watchword until 2005, when these shadowy figures finally left.
And yet, Syria itself would always be good to me. It was good when my uncle almost married one of their own; a beautiful soul living in a beautiful home laid out around a central courtyard with a traditional Damascene fountain in the middle. I’d never seen anything so pleasant, & when my mother yelled at me for touching the water, a kind voice comforted me & reminded her that that’s why the water’s there.
Syria was good to me when I didn’t need my mother there; after hanging out with Rim, we made plans to come back to see Ziad. I don’t recall why my Lebanese friend was a no-show, but when I found myself alone in the middle of nowhere, another kind Damascene soul came to drive me around. She’d brought her laptop with her to work at traffic lights & in between landmarks. I don’t even remember her name.
What I do remember was her mind—so weary, so sharp. She told me about what it was like to grow up in a regime like theirs. She surprised me with stories of a Lebanese paramilitary commander that some would call a terrorist. She spoke like a woman in love; they’d shared coffee together—she said his mind was weary and sharp, too. He always sat with his back against a wall.
It had been five or six months since he was assassinated.
Later that night, I took a taxi to the Fardoss Hotel, where one of Rim’s friends had told me he owned a nightclub. I showed up, name dropped, and was treated like royalty; a greenhorn from Beirut welcomed with open arms, open mind… and open bar.
I don’t know what saddens me most about Syria as I write these words. There are things you can imagine, and one thing I know for certain: I took Syria for granted.
I think we all did.
Part 2: The Axis
Growing up in the Middle East means adapting to cognitive dissonance. This might translate to fanatic certainty or it may mean sarcastic noncommittal—sometimes both at the same time. I’ve oscillated between these poles too, but my saving grace has been a life that’s made comfortable generalities less possible or tenable for long. The story I heard about “Hajj Radwan” in Damascus was not an outlier; it extended the teachable disquiet I’d been experiencing for five years. Uncomfortable stories about children cowering in fear as invading forces attempted a massacre—“that’s why I’m with the General!” Surprising stories of allegiance to religious militants from nihilist metalheads who would surely be called deviants back home—“I don’t agree with their beliefs but I respect the Resistance!” I was lucky to be discombobulated. My decisions were tested by undecidability, my sense of self complexified by proxy & in person.
It was sad to see the Syrian War forcing us into new encampments.
When it was time to leave NYC, I couldn’t go back to Beirut, because Israel had destroyed the airport. After taking refuge in Syria with friends, I was itching to get back home for reasons I may share another day. But for the purposes of this story—this reflection on beautiful complexity—let’s cut to a dark alley in Dahyeh, where a militiaman was prodding my chest with the nozzle of his rifle.
Nawar had called me earlier that night as he & his brother drove across the Syrian border; I’d left a couple of days before them with no idea when the July War would end, so it was exciting to realize that maybe it was actually over—maybe we could live life again. That’s how we ended up in the pitch black of that summer’s ground zero, the smell of death still in the air. I don’t know what we were thinking.
Our interrogation’s a fun story I tell all the time, though I kept it secret for a whole year. They’d asked us to & I took things like that seriously, at the time. And that’s the point I’m trying to make: these were the good guys—that idea was lodged in my brain all summer & it’s what kept me collected that night.
The eventual war in Syria would shake my faith in that idea, but I still have that night as an unassailable truth. They could have killed us—thrown us among the rubble. Instead, they lectured us about the dangers of all the alcohol they’d seen in my photos from NYC.
My interrogator even said he commended my parents for how they raised me.
I don’t know about you, but I prefer to live in this complexity. I’m grateful for it. The bad guys can be good; the good guys can be bad—“What can be said about Abraham’s relation to God can be said about my relation without relation to every other (one) as every (bit) other [tout autre comme tout autre], in particular to my neighbor or my loved ones who are as inaccessible to me, as secret and transcendent as Jahweh.” (Derrida)
Part 3: The Dust
Today is Ash Wednesday. This morning, the people depart in silence. Lent has begun.
The imposition of ashes on our foreheads will mark this final reflection on the Syria I’ve known but also failed to know. The words preached this morning are scattered amongst my recollections like the tears mingled with the wine of the true penitent.
Today we are co-conspirators—when we marched for freedom but booed when we saw faces we assumed were yours, as they smiled and waved to us from their scaffolding up high; when we looked at the numbers and worried about our resources when you came to us for aid, as you brightened up our cafes & helped our buses run on time; when we reduced you to the symbolism of our own preoccupations, to be for or against you, to be one another’s friend or one another’s foe. It sort of mattered, but it didn’t really—not for you.
“And if it was our fault, would saying sorry be enough?”
In 2011, we found our voice, echoing the call we heard ringing across North Africa. But when you found your voice too, we stopped chanting in unison. I saw with my own eyes how quickly we broke rank as soon as any sign was raised in support of your cause. This was not the first time I’ve seen my comrades split in two; it will not be the last, and “reconciliation can only be offered by the one who was wronged.”
Today, the preacher asked us to do “something different, something desperate” this Lenten season. “More engagement, more connection, more work.” I struggle to think of what this might mean for you. I pray we haven’t run out of ideas.