Dreaming of a vanished Syria

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

“A lot of Syrians are indulging in a nostalgia that requires a lot of denial,” says Syrian-American author Alia Malek. “This is why I’m a student of history, not to live in a fantasy but to learn why and how we are where we are today.”

Alia Malek

Wednesday 9 August 2017

Alia Malek, the Syrian-American writer, journalist and civil rights lawyer is the author of the new book The Home that was Our Country. This extremely important book about the homeland of her parents, to which she moved at the start of the revolution, which rapidly escalated into a multi-frontal war, recounts a (hi)story that is at once personal,  through Malek’s family and her grandmother’s house in Damascus, and collective, documenting a century of political, social, geostrategic and ethnic upheaval which have shaped the tragic reality which Syria is currently experiencing. The Home that was Our Country is simply a masterpiece and a must-read for anybody who wishes to understand Syria and the Syrians beyond the headlines and media cliches.

Boštjan: Does Syria still exist? And if so, what is Syria, where is Syria, who is Syria? What is the difference between your Syria and the Syria of today?

Alia: They’re in many ways the same Syria. The same brutal regime has been in power since before I was born. Foreign powers/conflicts are still being played out in Syria. Personally, my relationship with Syria has always been defined by my separation from it – and I’m still separated from it.

Of course before, many Syrians believed Bashar [al-Assad] might be different than his father – he looked modern, had a beautiful wife, seemed interested in opening Syria up to the rest of the world. I think now, it’s become clear that those were just appearances. At the same time, if before people used to not believe the regime or its propaganda, or would participate in the forced cult of the Assads with an eye roll, without real conviction, there are now people who are true believers.

What has changed and will take work to repair is that I think many Syrians genuinely believed in their ability to co-exist across sect and ethnicity, and defined their belonging in some sense as ‘Syrians’ – even if the state, in practice, did differentiate between Syrians. For example, by overtly discriminating against Kurds; by favouring many Alawites or Ba’athists or others with the right wasta [connections]; by precluding non-Muslim Syrians from being president, according to the Constitution. But then anyone who wasn’t an Assadist was precluded, so people maybe didn’t see that one as a real problem. Now I think, regrettably, and because of a concerted regime effort to kill solidarity amongst Syrians and to foster suspicion of each other, that belief in co-existence has frayed and I hear people say, “It was all a lie.” Too many Syrians are believing that what the regime or certain opponents of the regime are telling them is the ‘truth’ about their fellow Syrians (as Sunnis, as Christians, as Alawites, as Shiites, as Kurds), ignoring their long joint history and their individual experiences.

How well did Syrian know their country and their compatriots? Was their homeland a foreign land to them?

Another major change that I think is relevant is that the nature of living under a totalitarian regime, where there is no free exchange of ideas, speech, press, etc., kept Syrians from each other. Our interactions were polite but didn’t touch on anything that could flag us as not submitting to the regime’s rule. The newspapers didn’t cover debates in the legislature, [thereby] allowing us to hear the concerns of people living a different reality than our own, because it wasn’t really a representative democracy. There weren’t domestic documentaries produced about the struggles of farmers in the face of the terrible drought. There was no honest conversation about differing religious or political philosophies. And as it were, the lives of city-dwellers were quite different from those of rural agricultural workers; for example, while living in the city meant an exposure to a heterogeneous population, village demographics were much more homogeneous. The lives of the elite were also quite different than those of the shrinking middle class and different from those of the poor. Whereas under Hafez [al-Assad], everyone was suffering together, under Bashar and neo-liberal policies and festering corruption, new classes emerged and class differences generally became more pronounced. So how much did we each know about other Syrians? But today, with the massive migrations and displacements, Syrians who would have never met – separated by geography or class or provincialism/cosmopolitanism or religious observance, etc. – have now met each other, are now interacting with each other, are now getting to know much more about their fellow Syrians and the country they shared than they might have before.

When was the last time you were in Syria?

May 2013.

How do you see the role of the international community in the Syrian story – especially the active role of Russia and the active-passive role of the United States?

Has the US been passive? I don’t think so. It’s been intervening through both action and non-action in Syria for years now. As have many other players, including Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

I think the problem with the international community is the questions they were asking from the start led them to actions that might be considered ‘rational’ responses to those questions – however and unfortunately, I think they were the wrong questions to be asking.

For the US, Turkey, Europe, and Saudi Arabia, it was, “How do we affect regime change?” And for the Iranians it was, “How do we keep our stooge in power and secure our influence in Syria and our land corridor to Hizbullah and the Mediterranean?” For the Russians, “How do we reboot the Cold War era détente and keep a friendly stooge in Damascus?”

No one was asking, “How do we enable a Syria that will become a secure and safe country for all its citizens, where regardless of sect or ethnicity or gender or political persuasion, everyone’s rights are equal and protected and where individuals can realise their potential?” Most probably because those actors didn’t actually care about Syria for Syrians, of course. But if they did, and did ask that question, their actions or non-actions would have been very different.

As for the US’s actions specifically – I believe Obama and his administration failed Syria. Arming militias to confront a state military, one that was from the start backed by Iran and then later Russia, was setting them up to lose. And it provided the Syrian regime with the moral murkiness it desired, to be able to say it was confronting an armed, foreign-funded insurgency, not it’s own people asking merely for inclusion in their self-governance – an obviously morally sound demand.

For its part, the regime was releasing criminals from its prisons, particularly those who it itself had purposely allowed to go into Iraq to practise jihad against the Americans after the US invaded Iraq, while simultaneously arresting and disrupting (often secular) civil society activists and dissidents, and arresting regular peaceful civilians who began by demonstrating for reform and an end to corruption – not even regime change.

Meanwhile, did the US pressure its NATO ally Turkey to close its border to all the foreign fighters who wanted to find meaning or paradise or whatever in Syria? Did it pressure its ally Saudi Arabia to stop funding fighters who prescribed to its version of Islam? Did the US in its negotiations with Iran (that allowed Iran back into the world system – much desired by the Iranian regime) ask for anything in return on Syria; that Iran stop propping up Assad as his regime was the main cancer, of which ISIS, et al, were symptoms?

Obama was confronting Putin over Crimea and sanctions were imposed. Why not condition lifting of those sanctions to some extent on actions in Syria?

The point is, if Syrians’ well being were ever the centre of the conversation, rather than geo-political jockeying, then a deal needed to be made. And the US was already at the negotiating table with Iran and had leverage with Russia. There’s much more available in our toolkit of international relations than just bombing and arming. Diplomacy seems to be a tool only applied to the people whose lives we value, and it is clear that no one valued Syrian, Arab or Muslim lives.

How do you see the near future?

Dark.

You also covered the refugee crisis. How do you, as a daughter of immigrant parents, see Europe’s brutal treatment of the suffering Syrian people?

Well, it’s a constant reminder of the vagaries of fate. My mother, pregnant with me, was able to fly on a plane to the US. And when it became clear it was better for us to stay in the US, our parents raised us to contribute to American society. And contribute we did. So when American politicians scream about keeping Syrians out, it’s incredibly frustrating because it implies we aren’t already here. Part of our invisibility is because the US teaches a version of its history that doesn’t reflect its true diversity (dynamics I was exploring in my first book). As for Europe, I saw the extremes of humanity while covering this refugee crisis. I saw yes, brutality, but also amazing generosity and empathy. I think the massive movement of people is forcing us to ask questions of ourselves globally – and I’m very much committed to covering and exploring these issues in the coming years.

What was – and is – the driving force behind your writing? When did you decide to write a book?

In many ways, I came to journalism after a lifetime of being Arab and being the subject of journalism. Ever since I was a child, I was frustrated with the way we were represented. I remember the New York Times calling my parents house when I was a 13-year-old asking if we wanted a subscription and I yelled at them about their terrible coverage of the Palestinian struggle. I was the same age as many of the kids who were taking to the street in 1987 to confront the Israeli military in the Occupied Territories.

I decided to become a civil rights lawyer in the US to counter one of the consequences of that simplistic journalism – prejudice and discrimination. But after 9/11, I began to think I needed to be more active in putting out journalism that was more complex, nuanced, and that centred on Arabs, rather than putting them in the background to stories about geopolitics.

With my Syria book, I wanted to make sure Syrian voices were captured and the richness of our history and culture relayed. After it came out, many Syrians began reaching out to me to ask for advice as they began to preserve their families’ histories, as I did for mine in my book. That made me so happy. Because there’s this effort for Syrian history to be about the Assads only or ISIS. If my writing was in many ways a corrective, it now feels also like resistance, by saying that normal Syrians are Syria.

What is left of your first memories of Syria?

They’re still there! And many of them are in the book. And since the book has come out, I’ve heard from so many Syrians of different generations that validate that those memories were real and shared.

How to build a new society? Three generations are deeply traumatised. War is ongoing and there is no peace in sight. The country is in ruins. Millions of children are not going to schools … Where – and how – to start?  

That’s going to be the challenge. I think what must happen is that there has to be justice for all the victims – whether they were victimised by the regime or parties opposed to the regime – and accountability for those who committed these crimes, whether the regime or opposed to the regime. Any new Syria needs to have a meaningful concept of citizenship. No matter our religion, sect, gender, or ethnicity, we must be equal citizens of a Syria where our rights are all equally protected. While each conflict has its specificity, regrettably, human history does repeat itself. We need to look at other post-conflict societies to see which have been successful and viable and why and why not. I dread the likelihood that we will repeat the mistakes of other countries, like Lebanon, rather than learning from them.

Your book – with its strong narrative and several layers of storytelling – reminded me of Rafik Schami’s The Dark Side of Love and also of Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone, two beautiful and also tragic books full of nostalgia and cravings for the world as it once was. But was it really? Don’t we all – not just people in the Middle East – just miss the youth, the hopes, the idealism, the promising energy?      

First of all, thank you for such flattering comparisons.

To your main point, I think nostalgia is a tricky emotion. It can mess with your head; it can lead one to ignore the flaws of an era and it can also make one obsessive about recreating something that can’t be recreated or alternatively passive, resolved to thinking that once past, certain things can never be attained again.

I think past eras of Syria had some wonderful realities, even as they were complex, complicated, and sometimes by accident. I know Anthony and I shared a fascination for certain elements of life under the Ottoman Empire. At one point, it was vast and allowed many different peoples to see themselves as part of something much bigger than just their ethnic or religious or nation-state identities. I think both of us mourn the shrinking of identities, of how much less broadly we imagine and position our belonging. That richness and diversity was also, unfortunately, used to help undo the empire – and there are many lessons as to why that happened.

I also miss the days before massive Saudi meddling and its concerted effort to change the culture of what was Bilad al-Sham [the Levant]. Similarly, I pine for the days before Iran sought to confront its rival Saudi Arabia for regional hegemony.

I think given the current situation, a lot of Syrians are indulging in a nostalgia that requires a lot of denial. This is why I’m a student of history, not to live in a fantasy but to learn why and how we are where we are today and what it might tell us about how to build a new Syria.

Where are you now, what are you working on?

New York city for now, though that could change as I think more interesting things are happening across Europe, at this moment of massive migrations and the questions they raise. I also think that one of the few ways to break through the apathy or disinterest or whatever surrounding people and Syria is through great storytelling. So I’m exploring formats of telling stories that I’ve never used before, beyond journalism.

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