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My Cousin Joined ISIS

In Istanbul, Maria Khwaja Bazi recounts a Syrian refugee’s story, whose cousin joined the Islamic State. 

Full disclosure: I’m too lazy to do my hair. There’s a lovely salon overlooking Istanbul’s Taksim Square where, for only about $6.75, Khalid will blow out my hair into the kind of Kardashian waves I can only dream of achieving at home.

Last Sunday, my husband came along to sip on Turkish tea and yell over the hair dryer to Khalid, who occasionally put down the brush to gesticulate wildly. “Daesh,” said Khalid, stabbing the air for emphasis. My husband put down his tea and looked more serious, nodding along to Khalid’s flurry of Arabic.

“What’s he talking about?” I said. I had only caught the word Daesh, a name used by Arabic news media for the Islamic State (aka ISIS).

“I asked him about ISIS,” my husband said.

That morning, we had both seen photos of Muath al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot who was burned alive by ISIS militants. Over eggs and oatmeal, we both blearily wondered where this caricature of darkness and Orientalist stereotypes came from and how they could do things that were so unabashedly barbaric. Who was funding them? Why were so many Muslim youth and converts agreeing with their apocalyptic vision? In hushed voices, we both asked how they could call themselves “Islamic” when most of the people they have killed are Muslim. We are both relatively devout Muslims, as is Khalid.

“He says that no one knows where these people came from,” my husband said, translating the Arabic haltingly. “He says no one in Syria understands how they have so much money and power or what they are doing.”

Khalid is a Syrian refugee living in Turkey. He is 30 years old, speaks elegant Syrian Arabic and owned a salon in his past life. Now, he goes about his business with a humor that I find envious, all things considered. He met my eyes in the mirror and sighed.

“He says his cousin joined them.”

“What?” I squeaked. “Why would he do that?” My husband translated, looking both concerned and uncomfortable.

“He says that he had to — they took over the village and asked people to prove they were Sunnis. Anyone who couldn’t recite parts of the Quran properly or didn’t know the shahadah [Islamic declaration of faith] properly was shot. Anyone who didn’t join was shot. His cousin was an engineer before the war.”

I looked up at Khalid, who turned the hair dryer back on and murmured a few more sentences.

“He says the cousin escaped with his family. They are in Turkey now, but they are in hiding because if Daesh finds them they will kill him for leaving,” my husband translated, his brows furrowing as he took in what Khalid had said.

Living in Turkey, watching Syrian children in broken sandals beg for money, our family lives the news. Even some of the blissfully unaware adolescents at the school I work for have begun chattering about ISIS. We have all watched it rise from the ashes of Iraq and Syria, like some kind of mutated Godzilla, and begin it’s “Reign of Terror.”

No doubt about it, it’s scary. However, watching the coverage of ISIS on American (and European) news reminds me of the crippling fear and paranoia best demonstrated in Harry Potter books. It’s as though we have finally met a PR-savvy version of Voldemort who, rather than evaporating people with a PG green light, sends you body parts like a perverted serial killer. And we, the global public and Americans, in particular, swoon and sigh and carry on so convincingly — it seems we are the real victims.

Meanwhile, Khalid calmly styles my hair while his cousin is hiding somewhere in southern Turkey with his toddler and his wife.

If ISIS is a terrorist group with slick videos, is it not somewhat ironic that we are all terrified? Should we not refuse to watch its nauseating crimes and, instead, unite in memory of the people who are actually victimized? If I were more cynical, I would wonder if American news outlets are in league with the gun lobby.

Instead of alerts and guns and conjecture, should we not take more responsibility for our government and its holding up of Middle Eastern dictators who, by the way, also burned people alive? Or our political decisions, which have created not one, but two monsters we cannot contain? Or our drones program, which kills civilians quite regularly and is consistently pointed to as a catalyst for radicalization?

Rather than arguing on cable television, should we not unite in the service of an entire generation of Syrian and Iraqi children? Unless, of course, those children don’t matter because they are Muslim? Or, just more generally, brown?

Although he is, of course, not a poster child, Khalid’s resilience while helplessly watching his country being ripped apart is humbling. His unwillingness to cower or point fingers is a glaring lesson to not only Western media, but to the rest of us. This week, smiling shyly, he told us he had met a beautiful Syrian woman he wanted to marry as soon as he found a better-paying job. His willingness to look forward, even with nothing, astonishes me.

In Turkey, a local proverb says the stallions fight, but it is the grass that is crushed. The banners of our newspapers say ISIS in capital letters but the Syrians (and Iraqis and Libyans and others) drowning in the Mediterranean to escape war? They are footnotes, their countries and their stories crushed beneath our fear-mongering and political posturing unless a gracious celebrity reminds us otherwise.

Khalid, meanwhile, tears up if you ask him about the past. He remembers his village in the gloaming: prayer calls and flowers and tea in the afternoons. “It was the most beautiful country in the world,” he said to us, quietly untangling my hair. “I just want to go home again.”

*[Khalid is a pseudonym.] 

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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Thomas Koch / Shutterstock.com