(with, of course, all due respect to mr. e e cummings)

Sunday, March 31, 2013


I've noticed the past couple of years that the parts of the Christian calendar I like best are Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday.  As I've become more and more aware of how endlessly dark and heavy life can be sometimes, these are the times that have made the most sense to me, because they're the occasions that are sanctified for sitting in darkness, waiting and keeping vigil in the face of the great and terrifying unknown.

As we made it yet again this year into the Easter season, I put on my hair ribbon, trekked out to church, and thought the whole time about an Easter two years ago.  I had arrived home from Aleppo the day before and was completely empty.  My stock of tears had been overdrawn during our last-minute farewell dinner and the two-day journey back home to Georgia, which left me with only brief impressions of different airports and my companions from the semester, the only people I didn't have to explain myself to, disappearing one by one by one as they reached their homes.  I didn't realize it until today, but we must have left on Good Friday, a hurried 6 am flight.

Easter morning, 2011: I wore...something.  I went to church and sat in the balcony, listening dully as people chatted about their new dresses and brunch plans.  As the introit began, the little grey amount of self I had left trickled down to zero and I snuck out the back, plod-sprinting for the women's restroom past a concerned conglomerate blur of choir lady faces.  They sent a friend in after me.  Everything else is, fortunately, mental fuzz.

Easter season 2012, I posted on Facebook that my heart had broken a year ago for Syria and I hoped it would never mend.  I want to amend that now.  Now, here is my hope, my stubborn creed for Easter:

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace."  Ecclesiastes 3:1

There is a time for cradling your broken heart close; a time for holding it up for the world to see and perhaps learn from; a time for painfully and painstakingly sewing it back together; and a time for raising your head up once more.  Each of these times is important and equal in value.  Recently, I've begun to really remember who I was, what I did and loved and dreamed, before going to Syria.  I've begun timidly to introduce that girl to the one who brought home her own tomb on Good Friday 2011, to see if maybe they can be friends.  I've begun to peep sideways at myself without feeling shame for becoming whole in a new, though still scarred way, without condemning the hours not spent worrying about Syria.

Easter 2013, I stake claim to that confusing and confused text of Ecclesiastes.  It's no less of a conscious and teeth-gritted action than my acts of faith ever are.  But I read those words for today, that there is a time and season for everything under heaven, and that they turn and return, together making a whole that we cannot help but claim.  The time to break down and the time to build up are mine.  Good Friday and Easter are mine.  I will not refuse the gifts of either.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

We are not super

  I just got done "talking" on Facebook with a friend in Syria who I haven't talked to in ages, even in the online sense.  He recently had a brush with death thanks to a bomb that fell on his family's house, and he told me how glad he was to have had my prayers and to hear from me.  And finally, finally, it was enough to knock my at least a little ways out of my protective crouch where Syria is concerned.  I told him what I've been figuring out over the past months: that I haven't been talking to the people I care about in Syria for rather selfish reasons.

   First off, my Arabic is still not so good.  I still sound like an overly formal four-year-old.  My ego doesn't like this, especially when I can so easily compare my own language use with those of my peers on Facebook and in the classroom.  Why can't I finally just sound like a human, especially when my typed words are all I have to communicate with?

   Secondly, I keep feeling like my own life is silly and small next to the lives my friends are leading in Syria.  What can you say to someone who was wounded in a bombing on his rural village?  Surely I can't tell him how happy I am to be engaged, surely I can't complain about classes, surely I can't tell him about the three layers I need in order to venture outside of my apartment in this weather.  Because neither my joys nor my trials are as important as his, so how could I bring any of my life up in conversation without seeming petty?

   And that's where my friend's response caught me up short in the middle of this pity party.  I told him these reasons, and then some of these petty-seeming milestones...and he was-- and I quote/translate-- so so so so happy to hear my news.

   To hear my news?

   Because what I'd been forgetting in my ardent self-effacement was that it wasn't the grand politics of Syria that I fell in love with.  It was neither politicians not armies for whom I marched or prayed or wrote, it was specific people in all the everyday details of their lives and the silly little things that we had shared-- hugs or trips to the dentist or keyrings or music videos or green onions or whatever.  These were what made Syria worth all the hours I spent thinking about it, brooding over it, crying about it, singing about it.  They are what makes any place, any person, special and important.

   And if I am honest with myself in saying that these tiny details are what make life what it is, and carry all of its value, then I'm not being honest when I assume that people in Syria only care about bombs now.  I'm the one who was slipping into that, not them.

   I read an article recently about the bombings in Gaza which argued that the really truly important thing there was not geopolitical superpowers or tactical advances and retreats, but a little girl doing her homework by the single light of a neon lamp and wanting to go outside and play.  I think the author's onto something there.  Because if you cut out the tiny things that really matter to people, then you leave them not human anymore: either you craft them in your mind into an infallible superhero or a godforsaken super-villain, but either way, not a human being like whoever you are.  Which is really a bad choice, because I think eventually that humanity is all we have left to hold us one to another, and sometimes we forget what it looks like.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Whispering Ghosts

  I caught myself thinking over the past weeks how different my time in Morocco is from my time in Syria, how much more muted my experience here is, thinking maybe it was cultural or maybe it had to do with the lack of pending revolution here.  To me, Morocco felt a lot more like America or Europe, full of people who worry about dating or grocery shopping instead of whether the mukhabarat are listening at the door and plotting against their family because of the sins of the earlier generations.  I was comfortable.  When people asked whether my friends in Syria were well, I would say, "I think so."
  Last night I spoke with one of these friends from Syria, though, the young woman who came to my aid when I was sick, who taught me about her outlook on religion and dress and relationships, who covered up in public and danced to Michael Jackson in private. 
  She's now in Turkey with some members of her family, having fled her home, her studies, her teaching position, and all her possessions because of military incursions.  She fled a situation in which she feared for her life, with rumors of rape and memories of the destruction of her house snapping around her heels.  Her brothers joined the resistance and she will not return to the country until after the fall of the regime, fearing that she would be kidnapped by government forces or shabiha.

  I huddled over my laptop for about two hours, forcing my mind through the lines of Arabic text that appeared on my Skype window one after another.  "You've seen the videos on YouTube," she wrote, "but we live those videos, we see them with our eyes."

  And I am ashamed of it but I miss the cocoon of ignorance, of knowing what was going on but not connecting it to the faces and names I know.  Even now, I find myself grasping for wisps of it, trying to pull them back over myself to stay warm and sedated.  I'll listen to music, I'll watch happy YouTube videos, I'll do a crossword, anything to distract myself and anchor myself in the reality that is my compound in Morocco.  Anything to pretend that a short Skype conversation or Facebook thread every couple of months is communication enough for me to truthfully say, "I keep up with my friends in Syria and they're doing fine."  "Alhamdulilah," they always say, "God be praised."  It's the stock answer to, "How are you?"  Alhamdulillah.  I am alive, life continues.  It could and does mean anything/nothing.
  And with the bombings yesterday of major Syrian officials, I come once more face to face with the unyielding truth that I can see no future for my lovely adopted country that does not involve wading through blood.  Everything has changed there, and I find myself in a situation in which people cheer for death for some as the quickest way to life for others.  I find myself with fewer and fewer heroes.
   I should have known that the imprint of my time in Syria could not subside quietly into fond memories and kind notes sent sporadically over the Internet.  The ghosts come whispering about sorrow and panic and guilt once more as they did upon my initial return to the US, no matter how hard I try to cover my ears-- and I do try.

  I'm not sure what I'm driving at here.  I suppose I would just ask you all, if you have a moment, to think about my friend in Turkey, to think about how fragile our equilibrium is, to tear a strip off your own cocoon if you can.  All I could offer her when we spoke last night were my sympathy and tears...offer up what you can.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Itha kunta fi almaghreb...

    I've heard it from several people now: "Itha kunta fi almaghreb, fa la tastaghreb."  If you're in Morocco, don't be surprised by anything-- anything is possible.  It was an idea that we always expressed in Syria with "Ahlan bi Suria" ("Welcome to Syria") and honestly, it was a little more appropriate there than here.  Generally speaking, we have a schedule here according to which things happen.  There have been very few surprise holidays, trips, or guest speakers, and as I mentioned earlier, we live in the lap of comparative luxury, so there is little in the way of shocks in the way of living conditions.

    To give you some idea of how things go day to day here, maybe I'll just give you a brief tour.

    On the macro level, I am living and studying in Tangier (Tanja), at the northern edge of the African continent and the western edge of the Arabic/Islamic "world."  It seems to me that Tangier is more like the Casablanca of Hollywood than the real Casablanca is.  Back in its heyday, Tangier was the destination of choice for carousing Americans and Europeans seeking release from social norms.  Oddly enough, the international zone of Tangier, governed by a committee of representatives from European nations, provided a perfect place for that.  Today, you still see traces of British, Spanish, and French influence in Tangier.  Most signs and menus are in French (with perhaps Arabic underneath) and most Tanjawi people (Tangerines?) speak the local dialect of Arabic (darija), French and Spanish to varying degrees, and a smattering of English and even German.  The language of the Moroccan interior is much more "pure" Arabic, but Tangier's proximity to Spain and history of occupation makes it unique in its degree of integration of languages and cultures.  Besides the Moroccans who live here, you can find a sizable minority of West Africans who either are trying or have tried to get to Europe, as well as a fading representation of the older generation of Europeans who knew Tangier when.

    As I think I mentioned earlier, my center of operations is the ritzy-ish American School in Tangier, which is apparently very expensive to attend as a student.  We're somewhat of a compound a la Saudi Arabian oil companies, with green grass and palm trees surrounded by a gated wall beyond which is a residential neighborhood.  Last weekend, I went out exploring by myself for the first time in the city and am now proud of my ability to navigate at least some of the small streets and alleys in the neighborhood of the school.  Our neighborhood is called Ain Qatiyut ("Kitty Oasis," I think).  (I'm not joking about the translation.)  One of my favorite landmarks is the malbana nearby, which is something like a deli and at which a young man works who apparently has made friends with CLS students in the past and is eager to do so again.  Another favorite is a maktaba (bookstore) that reminds of Capitol Hill Books in DC: tomes line the walls up to the ceiling, and I very slowly and badly discussed my favorite Syrian poet with the shopkeeper.  I'm finding that the most famous Arabic-language poets are something like rock stars in the Middle East/North Africa-- everyone knows them and loves at least one.

    Anyway, that's probably more introduction to the city than you ever wanted, but the upshot is...itha kunta fi almaghreb...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

There's no place like [insert place here]

     So, yes, I'm off on a voyage again!  This time, I'm in Tangier, Morocco, studying standard and Moroccan Arabic with the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program of the State Department.  We're finally here and settled after a long and eventful journey that included an unexpected day and night spent in Casablanca, which someone told me is the largest and most quickly-growing city in Morocco.
    In our orientation, we were told that Tangier is known as "CLS Club Med," and with good reason: we are housed on the campus of the American School in Tangier, a green and grassy space complete with cafeteria, air conditioned dorms, computer room, palm trees, and, yes, chlorinated swimming pool.  A cool Mediterranean breeze whisks through campus all day.  It reminds me of southern France, with good reason-- we are located just on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea from Spain.
     But this is one of my blog posts, and so it can't contain too much information before I turn to introspection.  One of my major challenges right now is to get past bringing Syria into everything.  As obnoxious as I felt in school mentioning "But when I was studying in Syria...," it feels even worse but even more natural here.  My semester in Syria is really my only reference point for comparison to my time here in Tangier.  So as I wrestled my suitcases around the Casablanca public train system, I thought to myself that people in Syria would have helped me more.  As I try to get my bearings on how to navigate Tangier, I think that Aleppo was more pedestrian-friendly and laid out in more comprehensible neighborhoods.  On the other hand, as I amble into the cafeteria for my piping-hot nutritious lunch, I think about the many spaghetti-or-Ramen-meals I made in Syria with the malfunctioning stove and one dented pot.
     Because I am neither hungry nor grumpy at the moment, I think many of these differences can be traced to Aleppo and Tangier's different experiences with tourism and international exchange.  The University of Aleppo's housing was less luxurious because we were the first group of Americans, or indeed Westerners, to stay there en masse with our different standards.  It was easier to practice Arabic in Aleppo because, among other reasons, there was no major language intrusion upon the Arabic spoken-- no French, Spanish, or English.  I was an exotic source of excitement and welcome in Aleppo because there were very few Westerners there indeed and even fewer Americans, as opposed to Tangier, which is as close to Europe as I mentioned before and played host to swathes of bohemian Americans and Europeans in the past.
    So, resolved:  Tangier is not Aleppo.  I will try not to expect it to be Aleppo, and to temper my fond memories of Aleppo with a dose of realism.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

On simplicity

            On a recent visit to a friend who was with me in Syria, I heard stories that don’t make the media, the kind of stories that clench my stomach with fear of civil war: trash left on the doorstep of members of the Alawite minority to which Pres. Assad belongs; notes tacked to Alawite doors threatening death if the families living there don’t abandon their homes within the week.  Stories that sound like Iraq.

            I have, of course, heard the stories of others in Syria.  Stories of teenagers arrested and tortured by police, of children shot, of homes shelled by military agents, of university students failing their graduation exams because they were in jail until the day before their tests.  I’ve heard rumors of military shooting deserters and even using rape as a weapon against civilians.  I’ve heard and read the pleas of members of the Christian minority for the West to support Assad, regardless of his methods, because they fear the alternative is Islamic rule, chaos, bloodshed, and the end of the religious minorities of the region.

            And because I was there, because I lived in Syria among Alawites and Sunnis and Christians and even Kurds, I know that none of them are blood-crazed fanatics longing secretly to ethnically cleanse their neighbors.  While all of the assertions of Syrian tolerance and loving-kindness toward others may not be true, a great many of them are.  The main interests of the Syrians I know are as follows: high heels with rhinestones, getting a degree so they can afford to open a small business and raise a family, persuading their girlfriend’s father to like them, going out to dinner, going camping, buying new pants, supporting their family, and drinking coffee and tea.  It seems unnecessary, but I’ll state it clearly: Syrians are humans, made of and desiring and fearing much the same things as Americans or anyone else.

That’s why the situations there is so complex, and so hard. 

It would be so simple if all of the opposition members were peaceful philosophers devoted to ideals of equality and democracy—as some of them are.  Instead, some of them engage in violence, and some of them threaten their neighbors. 

It would be so simple if all of the Alawites were power-hungry sycophants of the government—as some of them are.  Instead, some of them are families who never considered politics at all, thinking instead about art or engineering or fashion until the current crisis arose.

It would be so simple if all of the non-Alawites were oppressed and yearned for freedom.  Instead, some of them are terrified at the thought of losing what protection they have under the current government.  It is one thing to trust the opposition from here to live up to the ideals its members have espoused; it is another to bet your own life and, even more, those of your children, on their trustworthiness.

No matter what happens in the months and even years to come, people will be hurt.  Trust will be damaged, livelihoods will be lost, families will be torn, lives will be stolen.  The situation in Syria, the cycles of outcry and repression and blood and outcry again, have gone on too long to be tidily ended either by an opposition victory or by an erasure of the movement by the government.  There is no longer any good option, if there ever was one.  It’s not fair, but then again maybe it never was.

All I can ask of you now is that you remember the messy humanness of the world.  Nations and parties and armies are only individuals and families who are given or who adopt labels.  Simplifying this fact makes things easier for those far away, but can kill those people on the ground.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Valuating the Truth

Somebody asked me the other day whether Syrians who voice support for their current government really do like it.  I had to say and still have to say that I don't know.  I'm not there, but even more than that, when I was there, I didn't know.  It's probably a mix, like anything else.

The thing about an environment in which you don't know who to believe or who is listening is that it cheapens the truth.

Syrians grow up with the knowledge that the Western superpowers are not that hot on them and don't share many of their national goals-- the return of the Golan, for one.  In addition, Western media sources don't have the cultural background, connections, and sometimes even the linguistic skills that local ones do.  This is a serious problem in a context where connections (wasta) are everything.  The bottom line is, too, that most media are banned in Syria.  So much for Syrians believing what the Western media reports.

Then there's the Syrian official state media source, Sana.  I think it is safe to say that everyone is aware, at the very least, that Sana comes from a difference point of view than does the BBC or AFP.  Maybe Sana reports the absolute gospel truth, fact for fact.  Maybe it doesn't.  But given the choice between repeating what Sana says, be it even that there is no poverty in Syria, and repeating what alien sources say, what kind of choice is that?  You may mistrust both.  Both probably misrepresent events in one way or another, whether on purpose or not.  But repeating the reports of one flags you as suspicious and repeating the other makes you and your family safe.  It may even get you promoted.  So what's to choose?

On one level, it doesn't matter if what you're saying is true, because it won't be either way.  It doesn't even matter if you believe what you repeat.  It only matters that you don't needlessly endanger yourself or the people you love.  Remember this when you wonder why people everywhere don't speak out on behalf of the oppressed.

This is why the courage shown by those who speak or act out in Syria and in similar situations around the world is so shocking and amazing: it's illogical.  It's pinning your hopes on the fact that the truth is attainable and worth attaining, even if you don't know where it is or if anyone else is after it, too.  It's rejecting all the half-truths that offer support and striking out into darkness in hopes of something better being within your grasp before you are lost.  It's declaring that you deserve a third choice.  Ultimately, it's rejecting the paradigm of despair and fear that tells you that truth is for safe people somewhere else, while you are best suited only to getting by.