This piece was written as a meditation and reflection. As an Iraqi whose family, country, and personal identity has been torn apart and besieged by experiences of sectarianism, brutality, and US neo-colonialism, I have found great solace in the events of the Arab Spring. Syria, possibly more so than any other country, has made me stop and reflect for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is a place I have traveled to, and whose people I love. I have many friends who are Syrians, or who live in Syria, of all stripes and backgrounds. Some support the FSA (Free Syrian Army), while others do not. Secondly, it is a place where the current events have divided the people of the Middle East in a stunning, and, at times, saddening way. For the record, I will say I have absolutely no affiliation with any group, organisation, or political body, and that I do not espouse any political agendas. This essay was written as a serious reflection on the events that have unfolded in Syria since March 2011.
I’m in a restaurant on South Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. It’s late Ramadan, and from where I am seated, I can see a gas station and the flashing red lights of a crosswalk. Cars speed by as we sit and eat. Across from me, beyond the plates of meats and spiced foods spread across our table, are four of my dearest friends: a writer, two painters and an activist. We talk and jostle over ideas about Western and Eastern art. The mores and sublimations of both bring us to a standstill. Then, one of the painters mentions Syria. The other painter sighs. ‘I know too much about war to romanticise any revolution. God willing it will end soon’. The activist laughs, ‘No one wants it to end. It’s here because people want war’.
As they speak, I look up and stare into the face of the young Ethiopian woman serving us. It occurs to me that she is quite stunning and elegant. Her deeply set eyes, her wrists, and her sleek bones dazzle me. I tell this to the group of friends with whom I am dining. All agree she is beautiful. ‘And she knows it,’ the activist admits. ‘She knows she is beautiful’.
I feel a connection and an affinity to her, and the place from which she comes. I wonder about this affinity with my friends. ‘Why are we attracted to certain places, peoples and movements?’ I say these words, and none of the responses suffice in answering my question. I wonder, if I set my gaze upon her, and study her features like a painter must, if her beauty would somehow be lost.
That evening, after a quiet drive home, my mind again wanders and begins thinking about the Syrian medical student who had been shot a few days ago. I think of the witnesses of the FSA executions, the voices for freedom, the Local Committees in Syria and Lebanon, the Christian and Alawites supporting the Syrian uprising, and those opposing it. I think of the competing narratives about this war and the cynicism around its true nature, and of those who would cast dark aspersions about the reasons for the uprising itself. I arrive exhausted, the crashing and colliding of ideas and voices, written words and images coming from Syria still there in my head. I’d been writing about Syria to myself in solitude and to others for months, even risking old and new friendships over my beliefs about Syrian freedom.
Earlier, over our Ramadan dinner in Berkeley, my own sister confided in me that she was considering joining the FSA. At the time, I looked at her in stunned silence.
Why did all these voices come to me in the first place? Maybe to populate the shadows of my dreams, or to quicken the mental mathematics and bending that goes on in our minds until our hearts are silenced
Exhausted from weeks of constant reading, writing, interviews and newsgathering, I need to quiet my mind and set my focus elsewhere. I am not going to be able to write about Syria like this, nor can I work on my novel on Baghdad. I need mental silence, tranquility. ‘Tomorrow,’ I tell myself, ‘you will write about Syria’. And so, to take a break, I pull out a book by Frantz Fanon and begin reading. As I read, from the page, Fanon’s words jump out at me. Right there from the page in the book in my hands his words grab hold of me and ring out from the core of my doubts. He disproves man’s limits and sets out in plain sight humanity’s interminable destructiveness. I am fully inhaling at once the ember fumes of sulfur and the hot effleurage of palm fat and rose that Fanon offered. As I read, I begin to see a direct connection in his writing to the fancied voices and narratives about Syria, many of which I was fighting against. In this moment, those cluttering and clucking voices grow quiet.
Voices of Antimony
All these voices, and the places they whisper about in patterns are meant to illuminate or darken: ‘Iraq,’ they grimace. ‘Egypt and Tunis but no, not Syria.’ Shouts of ‘proxy war, tainted money, crooked lies,’ flee from me. The crowding in my head ceases to grow thicker. My mind mellows, and I can hear the voices slip off into emptiness …
Why did all these voices come to me in the first place? Maybe to populate the shadows of my dreams, or to quicken the mental mathematics and bending that goes on in our minds until our hearts are silenced.
Then, one voice comes like light. It speaks to me.
‘So what then? In moments of upheaval should we not speak of our heart’s secrets, of our dearest identity?’ the voice asks me. Then she continues to speak to me …
But before I relate this conversation, let me say that unlike Fanon, I am not a black man. Just like Fanon, I believe in a revolution. I am an Iraqi. I am a Sunni. I am Shi’a. I am Moslowi and Baghdadi. My great granduncle stood by Ataturk (his best friend and greatest enemy, say the Turks) and my grandmother cursed the British in Arabic. Men in my family came from Mosul to Baghdad to record musicians from far off tribes who sang in languages and dialects that were neither their shared tongue nor foreign. Mohamed Arif, my grandfather and founder of ChakmakchiPhon, recorded Iraqi voices; the voices of male and female singers who brought their music to Baghdad, recording songs in Kurdish as well as in the many dialects of Iraqi Arabic. Turkmens and Assyrians, too, were recorded. Their music is held up as a testament to an idea. It is important to me because my grandfather’s idea about Iraqis led him to record the music of his countrymen. Back then, they were all somehow Iraqi without yearning to be. They just were.
And so when I sit back from Fanon I ponder this term:
Sunni Muslim member of the FSA
And this one:
And this one:
And this one:
Am I supposed to believe these mean anything? After all, I know better. I know people from Homs, from Damascus, from Halb. These terms are useless to me.
So, I think of about the stories people are selling me. I think about how small, flat, and unbecoming to my own truth as an Iraqi the story of the Sunni FSA fighter is. He is called an ‘agitator’. I prefer ‘revolutionary’. That is my bias and my belief. I would explain why, but I prefer for the voice — the one that I mentioned to you before — to speak for me.
Who knows if it was that a Homsi heart skipped a beat, or if a memory of 1982 began burning deeper? Most likely, it was last week’s indignity or this week’s division biting at them that led them to let their tongues speak
This voice tells me about a terrible story of the Sunni Muslim who appears accompanied by his bright-eyed cousin, Sectarianism. However, for some, the ‘Sunni Salafist’ (a false term used when talking about Syrian revolution, in my book) has a different calling. ‘His religion has nothing to do with his calling for a new Government, for freedom, for unity, and for security. His prayer is not your prayer.’ This is what the voice tells me. Many believe him a fool’s heal. Others say, ‘he has no right!’ Others say, ‘it is the only right he has left: revolt’. Doing so, he is either damned, or left to fight alone until no other option but intervention exists. The cynicism I feel grows even greater.
But I abandon this feeling in favour of the only real question that remains: ‘Why? Why did Syrians rise up?’ I ask the voice.
‘How can you ask this in all seriousness?’ comes the reply.
And then, I am reminded of our recent battles and victories in Egypt and in Tunis and that they saw it, too. By ‘our’, I mean the lovers of freedom. By ‘they’, I mean our Syrian brothers who know no freedom. Historians call this a ‘demonstration effect’. Syrians call it the skipping of a heartbeat. Syrians saw our friends doing it before their own eyes, just as we did. The pixels on Syrian television sets, the images on the screens, and the beams coming in from satellites tell the story. Who knows if it was that a Homsi heart skipped a beat, or if a memory of 1982 began burning deeper? Most likely, it was last week’s indignity or this week’s division biting at them that led them to let their tongues speak. ‘They spoke from the heart,’ the voice says.
Of course, some hearts never return. Once they are removed, they are gone forever. Others leave echoes. Ask the children of Hama, of Homs, of Deir ez-Zhor.
The voice reminds me of the young American poets who wrote for them – for Syrians: ‘The dates will read like obituaries’.
A Change Now
President, Prime Minister, and Colonel gone. Say it again, Mubarak gone. Egyptians and Tunisians with the hierarchy of technology at their fingertips and beyond them, the armed tanks of unity. But not so for Libyan skies. Warplanes arrived from the US, France, and Italy, even.
‘Which shot rang out more clearly?’ I ask. ‘Was it Egypt’s? Egyptians in Egypt writing on pages words that recriminated against a video of proof? Was it the smell of Tunisian self-emulsification or the stunning thunder of Tahrir?’
‘Who brought down the Syrian heart?’ I scream. ‘Who weighed upon Syrian minds? Was it Libya or was it Baghdad?’
‘Possibly both, but they did something different in Syria. Something no one can blame them for,’ the voice tells me.
Finally, I say to myself that I will let the voice free. If a Syrian could speak here, she would remind you that not all Syrians come from abroad. Not all come from Hama and Homs. She is sure of it. She would tell you, that along with her brothers, she stood up for freedom.
Ask the Kurds. Ask others who believe in their Damascus Rose – the filmmaker, the traveler, the Western-eyed Easterner, who, had he been given the right hand to do so, might have romanced the world. She would say they love him still. Kind martyr, Bassel Shahade — the boy-man film student who left his Fulbright in 2012 to see Syria, to love Homs. He was shot dead for it.
So where does Bassel’s fault lie? In Iraq, you say?
Syria Is Not You
‘Syria will not be Iraq,’ she tells me, ‘because Syrians want unity’. She, at least, wants unity as she takes all Syrians with a promise to lead them towards something more free, more humane, like the street corner bakery, the counter top at the butcher shop, the tables holding up pots, glasses over saucers full of minted chai where men chatter and aunts sing to newborn nieces and nephews.
‘Iraq was a model of clay set down in America’s image,’ she says, ‘but does that make Syria the same? Along with the model we find, the so-called expert has returned, has suddenly made his own comeback, and has lifted away the rags he wore in Abu Ghraib. From the depths of that, he returns!’
Yes, Abu Ghraib.
‘But he has also returned from a land where no man speaks to another unlike him,’ she recriminates.
‘The expert – he is wearing four or five different tunics, and a dozen suits of European design, cut to his size in North American and Israeli tastes. The suit he wears is later buried under the sands in Anatolia, and re-sewn together in a diplomatic chamber or newsroom, neither different nor the same. And oh, if he could only woo the ‘Sino-Russian contempt’ he so conveniently abhors. Oh, if he were only able to do that!’ she bellows.
‘The Nasserites, anti-Salafists, even the online Wahhabi fear, the chatter, hiccups, jerks, rounds, solids, all melt off from the root of the issue, the thing we are talking about. It’s not Al-Qaeda!’
One man’s civil war is another’s rose born from a longing for the local rule of self, for hillsides in harmony, desert plains in peace, for a Euphrates that does not require the washing of a tyrant’s blood, nor the tear-covered shrouds of mothers bathing their wounded sons and daughters
The screams I hear are louder now. They are deeper now. There are children crying under her outspread arms; and old men, shot at from the rooftops, dream in shrouded silence beneath her feet.
‘None of this – neither Iraq, nor the so-called experts – matters. Not a Wahhabi or an Iranian bounty count. These are all people with misgivings in mind, bent on clouding the real reason Syrians are imagining a new Syria. We want a different Syria. Different from Iraq, of which we are painfully aware. Free from the salivations of empire and the bloody hands of a tyrant’s son! We believe in all Syrians. We love them all,’ she begs me to believe her.
How can I not?
A Battle. An Imagined Syria
So, I sit back, thinking, pondering. I know now.
She speaks to me. ‘It’s an uprising. Theirs and ours. And for what? What? One man’s civil war is another’s rose born from a longing for the local rule of self, for hillsides in harmony, desert plains in peace, for a Euphrates that does not require the washing of a tyrant’s blood, nor the tear-covered shrouds of mothers bathing their wounded sons and daughters. A revolt for freedom’.
‘What else is left?’ I ask. Sincerely, I am confused. ‘What other path can you take?’
A coy smile, pained and damp, spreads across her lips. ‘Freedom is only called a catastrophe when freedom fails. When it is made a bastard. Once again, failure smacks of something as cold and as unsavory as the empire did when we were once buried beneath the imperial gaze. Before they departed, what were we but the bastards, the incompetent natives, the original forlorn common species of imperial origin? So, to not fight for freedom is to ignore our scars. And yet, all we do is stare at our scars’.
‘Now, what is left but our imagination?’ She walks out of my mind, and she hands my heart a single rose.
‘To one and all, I say, hold on to this rose. Pass over its thorns, I beg of you. Find its petals, and with it brew a rose tea at midnight and remember Baniyas, Latakia, Baida, Homs, and Deir ez-Zor. We are at a loss, but we must stand strong for this one thought:
Syria will be free’.
And so, I echo in silent screams:
For even I, in my unlit atheist hours, know
God is great, truly.
What action now must we take to set it straight? What are our possibilities beyond catastrophe? Can we imagine them now? These questions ring in my head, until one question begins to ring true.
This is the question I pose to all people:
How can the Syrian community imagine freedom and Syria’s safe return to all Syrians so that Syria can become one community of the many? To answer this question, I offer you this thought by another writer. One whose will inspired me to write to you all tonight, who shook from my mind the trapped voice of a Syrian imagining her people’s freedom. The book is sitting on my desk as I type this. The lines stare out at me:
Man is not only the potential for self-consciousness or negation. If it be true that consciousness is transcendental, we must also realise that this transcendence is obsessed with the issue of love and understanding. Man is a ‘yes’ resonating from cosmic harmonies. Uprooted, dispersed, dazed, and doomed to watch as the truths he has elaborated vanish one by one, he must stop projecting his antimony into the world – Frantz Fanton
Mohamed Chakmakchi is an Iraqi writer, actor, and teacher. His writing focuses on the struggles people encounter when faced with great losses, as well as human imagination and creativity. Mohamed graduated with degrees in Spanish and German literature, and studied towards an M.A. at NYU's Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies.
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