When you’re shoved from the right, look to the left …
As we approach the seventh anniversary of the Syrian Uprising, I am reminded of a story I once heard from my late Damascene Sufi teacher, Shaikh Bashir al-Bani (1911–2008). The story is about a man who was trying to concentrate on his tawaf (circumambulation of the Ka’ba) during the Hajj pilgrimage. As is required from men during this ritual, he wore only two white towels, one around his waist, another around his shoulders, and a special leather belt with an pouch attached in which he kept his valuables. As he walked around this ancient monument of Islam, a child suddenly shoved him from his right side. Mindful that he should control his anger during Hajj, the man continued his tawaf in silence. Yet, with each time he circulated the Ka’ba this rude and abrupt act was repeated, filling him with anger and totally distracting him from his spiritual experience. His eyes were fixated on his right side in the hope that he could somehow avoid the child when he made his next sudden move. After a while, the exhausted man decided to take a rest. When his hand reached for his belt he realized that the pouch, situated on his left side, had been cleverly cut off by another accomplice as he was being shoved from the right by the child. Al-Bani would end the story with this line:
“When you are shoved from the right, look to the left … the real story isn’t where the noise is, and dramatic events are rarely what they initially seem to be …”
The way in which the Syrian Uprising is interacted with today is far more about ISIS, the PYD, Turkish or Iranian geopolitical concerns than it is about Syrians suffering. This ultimate distraction, the intrusive child of al-Bani’s story, has successfully distracted all the major players, and most interested observers, from the daily killing, from those still imprisoned and tortured, from the homeless and the refugees and, perhaps most importantly, from the maimed and psychologically traumatized new generation of Syrians being constantly manufactured amidst the rubble and refugee camps.
The distraction is not only very effective, it has a way of demanding attention when it suspects our focus may shift elsewhere. When we appear to be on the verge of becoming numb to an individual beheading, we are confronted with scenes of collective beheading, and when those lose their magical effect, cages are produced and people are burned alive. Subsequently, the story shifts to Raqqa, and from there to Aleppo and today to Afrin. Everything about the Syrian Uprising now seems to be at odds with what it was first expected to be. This process begins with the very name I still find myself using, perhaps as some form of stubborn expression of faith: ‘uprising’. Civil war, if not wars, seems far more accurate today, and yet still somehow difficult to use. Nor is this anymore about how far the regime can go, how radical the opposition fighters can become, or how much, and how long, the world can ignore a tragedy of this magnitude. ‘Indefinitely’ seems to be the applicable word here.
Almost every major event from March 2011 until today was initially regarded as pointing in one direction only for an overwhelmingly different redefinition to take place. Scenes of peaceful protesters sharing flowers and water with army soldiers around Damascus are replaced with scenes of armed ‘moderate’ fighters, which are subsequently replaced by scenes of radical fighters, who are in turn eclipsed with the rise of ISIS by scenes out of a medieval horror story. Scenes of officials trying to speak to peaceful protesters are replaced by scenes of triumphant soldiers from the Syrian army, which are systematically replaced by scenes of members of Shi’ite militias proudly proclaiming victories over the ‘enemies of the Prophet’s family’. Again ‘indefinitely’ seems to be the key word with regards to how many times events in Syria can mutate into something else, something not initially expected, something invariably worse.
My mother, who along with my father still lives in Damascus, writes a daily journal which she sends to close friends and family members. Though she mostly shares trivial events, such as how they spend their day and whom they happened to see, every now and then she allows herself to let go and say a few things about the sounds, the fighter jets, the checkpoints, and the suffocating cloud of depression which hovers over Damascus. And if there is one thing that comes out clearly from her journal, it is how utterly undistracted she is. Nothing anyone can do has distracted her from the very simple fact that Syrians are suffering and that, seven years later, there has still not been one adamant attempt by anyone to stop this.
*/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.