“Without our voices, we have no choices. And without choices, we could be stuck forever in violence.”A reflection on discussions with Syrians in and outside of Syria. This is the last of a two part series. Read part one here.
“Children are a source for learning; their spontaneous actions, unlimited imagination, and open hearts can bring joy, but can also break hearts. I see so much fear mixed with questions, excitement mixed with doubt, and creativity mixed with resiliency.” Amal goes on to say that she has been listening to children’s dialogues carefully and trying to discern how they process the war around them through their games. She reflects on one episode when Ibtisam (three-years-old) and Sana (five-years-old) are playing. They play joyfully; falling and rising until they hear the sound of a bomb from nearby resonate in the apartment. They look at one another and try to find an explanation, trying to see if they may go on playing. Sana tried to calm Ibtisam down by saying: “Don’t worry habibti (meaning ‘sweetie’), it is only a sound. It could be a thunder only!” They continue to play; Amal compares this process to “a flower cut from the tree and put in a new vase; it can live, but it changes.”
In the “Beethoven Frieze” that Gustav Klimt created for the Vienna Secession building in 1902, he depicted human desire for joy in a tempestuous and anguished world. It passes through images of madness, illness, lust, depravity, and death before a knight appears to offer hope to the suffering. This sojourn ends in contentment via love and companionship, and even brotherhood, in the embrace of “The Kiss for the Whole World.” In 1907, Klimt’s depiction of “Der Kuss” expounded upon this idea of global, limitless love. Who will be the knight in the Syrian Civil War? When I discussed this idea with Amal and Alaa, the more pertinent question came up of “how?” How will Syria come out of this ordeal and, as Azzam asked, “how [can] the whole world…be interested in art…[while] two hundred people are killed every day in Syria”?
A New Normal
Alaa’s brother had wanted to join our first phone call, but the scheduled time was too late; he had already promised to meet a friend and needed to return home in Damascus during daylight hours. “Nothing happens in the night anymore. It is too dangerous.” Alaa’s mother was nearly kidnapped a few months ago. She took the family automobile into town for a meeting and was stopped by the army. At least three men got in the car and told her to drive. Alaa explains that this is how many kidnappings begin. He sighs: “They were nice guys I guess, because they didn’t take her and as my mother is not so young, they might have beaten her, but thankfully they did not.” Now Alaa’s brother and mother avoid taking their car if other transport is possible and have created a code phrase. If one of them feels that kidnapping is imminent, a call is placed and the code message stated. They live in a neighborhood called Dumar in Damascus. “I mean, it’s no Beverly Hills. But right now, if someone sees that you are from there, you become a target for kidnapping.”
“Things were normal in Damascus until about a year ago,” says Alaa. By this point in our conversation, I realize that his interpretation of normal has been tainted by the fact that things like car bombs in front of one’s house are “normal” occurrences. His brother continued to attend his private university for training as a dentist in the suburbs of Damascus. “The students tried to stage quite a few actions in support of opposition to Assad’s government in the early days, but they were usually found out by an informant. There [were] spies everywhere before the conflict, but especially now.”
A Resilient University Student Body
Alaa’s brother wanted him to tell me about one action whereby the students placed MP3 players and portable speakers all around the campus, and simultaneously turned them all on to play revolution tunes. I reflect that this is similar to a flash mob; but then I realize that a flash mob may get a university student in the UK or USA suspended but not killed in cold blood. This is serious business; even the least serious actions carry the potential of the heaviest consequences.
When the road between Damascus and Daraa became inundated with National Army checkpoints and subsequently shootings and bombings by insurgents occurred, the International University for Science & Technology had to be closed temporarily. During that time, the students took the initiative to set up make-shift places to study. Some classes now take place in make-shift trailers, and others in hotel ballrooms or old gymnasiums. With tools like Facebook, the students who are no longer able to travel to the classes can have access to notes that the others students, like Alaa’s brother, type up and broadcast via social media.
Where Jihad May Have Gone Wrong
I listen patiently, trying to push away my own pre-conceived notions, as Alaa explains the meaning of jihad and his understanding of what has gone wrong in the system. “The definition of the word jihad is to do one’s best to deliver the message of God. But because of poverty and brainwashing, those who are acting in the name of jihad are taking the last and most desperate step as a starting point: to kill.”
He explains that during his childhood in both Syria and Saudi Arabia, there were many sources of informal education that worked to instill hate for those outside Islam, simply because they were outside. “But then you travel and you get access to outside reading materials, and you see that people are just people. I have many Christian and Jewish friends, here in the UAE.” In fact, it is a Jewish friend from college that first put me in contact with Alaa. I tell him that I am Jewish and American.
We continue the interview, but he suddenly interrupts; he just wants to make sure that I understand that he knows that “Jews are not Israel; Americans are not America. Just like I am not Syria.” I have been curious about his faultless American accent throughout the entire phone call, so I finally inquire at this point whether he had been to an American or British school. He laughs heartily and says: “My favorite TV shows are Friends, Seinfeld and the Simpsons; in fact, I have a small figure of Homer [Simpson] to help me remember how much the guy has helped me.”
Should the Outside World Come into Syria?
My time speaking with Alaa goes too quickly; he has helped me understand the underlying tensions in Syria between seemingly similar groups. The difficult part is asking him what he thinks will happen to his mother, to his brother, to his friends. In a tone that signifies he has given this topic a lot of thought, he flatly explains that whenever another country intervenes, the invaded country’s culture and economics changes forever. He states that the United States should definitely not enter Syria; for everyone’s good. And popular opinion in the US is very much against such an invasion. “The USA, and along with it much of Europe, is automatically unpopular in Syria because of their support of Israel, among other factors.” He does say that he can understand Israel’s position and that if roles were reversed, Syria would do the same. “We are their direct neighbors, and they have the right to protect themselves.”
I probe a bit further about the growing humanitarian crisis. It is obvious that neither of us have a sufficient answer and then he jokes: “Well, maybe they would let in the Swedish.” As we continue our conversation, Alaa comes to the perspective that someone will need to come into the country sooner than later, but “this should be an international group, perhaps under the UN banner that is at least supposed to be focused on humanitarian needs of civilian Syrians. But yes, it seems that we need something and someone.” Before it gets to that point, he hopes that his brother and mother will take their opportunity to leave Syria. “They hold a privilege about which most Syrians in Syria at the moment can only dream [of]; I just wonder when things will get to the point that they do so.” His brother is currently translating his dental school transcripts to Spanish.
Can the Conflict be Solved From Within Syria?
Amal is very gracious. On May 4, I am on Skype with her when a car bomb goes off ten-minutes walking distance from her house. We continue on; my shock and fear seem to outweigh that of Amal. I am worried about her well-being and she is thanking me for taking the time to write our article. The ironies of this world.
When Amal is asked if she supports a specific faction of the rebel groups, she becomes quite philosophical. “There are Syrians who support each group because they are blinded by emotion. But in a way, in the end, it may not be about ‘who is right,’ but rather ‘what is right' since what’s happening is affecting all of us, especially a generation of children who will grow up scared, angry, and confused.”
Amal agrees with Alaa’s assertion that the US should not come in and discusses her opinion that Iraq is not better off today and, in addition, that the loss of American lives is foolish. “Humanitarian actions would be welcome, but not invasion. Or if there is a group that could help mediate discussion, that would also be welcome. There is so much to do; so many ways to bring understanding, but first it needs to be quiet. And I think that quiet has to come from within Syria, but I don’t know how.” She goes on to say that she is skeptical about the existence of chemical warfare. “Things are not good, so I imagine that it would have already been used if it existed.”
Amal tells me that saving even one life is of great importance. I respond, quoting from the Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” She quietly says, “Our prophet said the same. We really are thinking same.”
I do not know when I will next meet Amal in person, but perhaps in Beirut or closer to my home base of London. All I know is that I look forward to giving her a hug and thanking her for sharing her stories and insights with me; for trusting me.
I have always wanted to see Dubai, so I mention this fact to Alaa. Immediately, he says: “No, no, now is not the time.” And I think, what in the world? What now? Then with a laugh, he clarifies: “Right now, it is like 50 degrees Celsius, you can’t go outside walking. Come in November, when it is cooler.” Well, maybe I will visit; I do hope that we will meet in person one day.
I am functionally illiterate in a few languages, so I think – why not start with some Arabic? My pronunciation has some way to go, but Alaa gets me to a point where my pronunciation of “thank you” in Arabic is nearly correct. I would like to say shukran (thank you) to both Amal and Alaa for sharing their thoughts and stories with me; I only hope that I have done them justice in the presentation.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Image: Copyright © Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved