All the Syrians You Will Meet!
I begin with the Syrians I met in ‘the wilderness of North America’, an evocative term once used by Malcom X.
Jude is a Syrian woman who was born in Damascus. She is a Presbyterian Christian who taught at one of the prestigious international schools in Damascus. Around mid-2011, Jude realized that something very ugly had happened to her country. The regime wanted her to believe a certain narrative: that her Sunni Muslim friends whom she had known for decades constituted an existential threat against her. It was a narrative that she felt was being pushed on her daily and systematically. This was long before ISIS, and even long before the FSA (or Free Syrian Army) was heard of.
“We were still in the phase of peaceful protests, we were still in the phase when Muslims and Christians were marching together, and they wanted me to believe that only the regime can guarantee my safety and the safety of my family.”
By 2013, Jude and her family had resettled in California. Today, when Syria is brought up, she says in a lowered voice, almost by reflex, though she is well aware that no one in Anahiem cares about her political views on Syria:
“History will record that the worse thing this regime did wasn’t using force; everyone when cornered uses force. The worse thing this regime did was the way it purposely turned us against each other. It will take a century for Syria to recover from these wounds.”
An entirely different perspective is shared by none other than Jude’s sister, Lara. Lara, in fact, tries to interrupt Jude several times. Her point is simple:
“Sunnis can’t be trusted. They did all the things the government said they did and more! And had the government not crushed them, they would have returned Syria to the dark ages.”
I remind Lara that the regime doesn’t use the term ‘Sunnis’ to describe the opposition. This time Jude interrupts,
“They may not use the term, but we all know who they mean.”
Let’s move on to Europe.
Ahmad lives (or perhaps lived, I have lost contact with him for some time) in Germany. He was twenty when he arrived in Berlin — one of the Syrians who arrived in Lesbos, a Greek island, by boat, and then later travelled his way northwest into Germany. Ahmad would speak beautifully about all the academic and professional dreams he wanted to accomplish, about how much he respected the West, how much he admired Germany which he felt had treated him exceptionally well. But when Syria would come up, a different Ahmad would start to speak, an Ahmad adamant at revenge. He would say such things to me as:
“I will never forgive what this regime has done. Even if I am 80, and I have an opportunity to get my revenge from this regime, I will not hesitate.”
As Ahmad spoke, I would recall stories of how an angry Syrian followed Adib al-Shishakli, once president of Syria, all the way to Ceres, a small municipality in the Brazilian highlands. Nawaf Ghazali [often incorrectly spelled Ghazaleh], who had lost his mother and sister as a result of Shishakli’s bombardment of Jabal al-Druz, approached the ex-president as he crossed a bridge between Ceres and Rialma, and shot him five times. Just how many Nawafs were produced over the last 6 years, only God knows!
But perhaps the most peculiar Syrian I have met is Imad, who lives in Manchester. To Imad, everything that has transpired in Syria over the last five years is the result of an American-Israeli conspiracy. The regime, and in particular its army, are fighting for Syria’s unity and integrity against those funded by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The irony is that Imad left Syria even before 2011 because he couldn’t stand the corruption. He had the option to leave because he had a British passport. Another Syrian who happens to be sitting with us reminds him that it was against corruption that his fellow Syrians started protesting in March 2011. But Imad is relentless:
“They were nothing other than American agents and Wahabis.”
The kindest Imad is willing to describe them as is “simpletons who were deceived by a grand ‘cosmic conspiracy’.”
A few minutes later in the conversation, Imad finds it perfectly appropriate to talk about how regime checkpoints are blackmailing the population, how nothing can be done in Syria without paying bribes to officials. At no point is the irony captured by him, just as much as at no point is it lost on me.
In London, I met Sami, an older Syrian who reminded me somewhat of my father. He spoke of how none of this was necessary, of how it could all have been avoided, of how tragic it all was. He sees the opposition as mostly to blame because “they kept provoking the beast until it came after them.”
But regardless of what he would share with me, he always seemed to return to one particular point, his fear of where Syria is headed:
“No one seems to understand how close we are to being irreversibly broken as a country. Some say we have already seen the worse. I don’t believe this to be true. I believe that unless a miracle takes place, the worse is yet to come.”
Hasan met me in Paris over coffee not too long ago. Hasan is an Alawite from the beautiful town of Draikish. He appears to have studied history because he was constantly making historical references.
“You [he referred to me as somehow representative of all of Syria’s Sunnis] have been ruling us and oppressing us since the Fatimids were overthrown in 1170. That’s 800 years, my friend. And if you think we are willing to let go of Syria to be oppressed all over again, you are as wrong as an Omar in Qom.”
My attempt to remind him that even Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, named one of his sons Omar is easily dismissed.
“You mean ʿUmar al-Atraf, well he wasn’t the type of son that any father would be proud of nor an Omar you should bring up!
Had I known then about ʿUmar al-Ashraf, the son of Ali, Zayn al-ʿAbidin, I would have brought him up since he is regarded very highly by Sunnis and Shi‘is alike, but all of this is clearly a digression. The point isn’t how much Hasan didn’t like my name, the point rather is that he was also very angry.
Syrians are angry, and their anger is based on fear. Fear of each other, fear of the regime, fear of the opposition, fear of what is, and fear of what will be. This fear is manifested in various ways, at times subtle, at times forthright, at times rationalized, and at times barely coherent. But it is there, and it has become the trademark of Syrians post-2011.
The words of Yoda come back to me:
*/Dr. Omar Imady was born in Damascus. He is presently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.