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Syria Diary: Return to Aleppo "The Opposite of Silence" (Hanano)

Since late June, Amal Hanano has been writing for Jadaliyya of her return to Aleppo in Syria --- this is the 12th and final installment of the diary:

There is always a certain acclimation period needed when moving from east to west or west to east, a few days to re-situate yourself. It disguises itself as jet lag, but it is more of a re-calibration of your inner compass. This time, my resetting lasted for weeks not days. The phone kept ringing, from family and friends in the U.S. making sure I was okay and asking endless details. I had to say, ma fi shi, so many times it irritated me. Even non-Arabs were shocked when they found out I had gone back, and my response was like a broken record, “Where I was, in Aleppo, there was nothing happening.” “Oh,” was their relieved but slightly disappointed reply. Tell me about it.

My few short weeks in Syria had felt like months, yet I returned to an America unchanged. Everything around me felt tired: tired tastes, tired radio, tired news about corrupt media moguls and dead pop stars, tired politics and an exhausted economy, a tired, mad world occupied with vampires and wizards. I was tired, living in black and white, any color existed only in this journal, and it was quickly fading. I lived through my words, extending my trip line by line, fighting, as always, against letting go.

I was disconnected from the Syrian-American community around me, the ones who could not go back this summer, the ones from Homs, Hama, Latakia, and Daraa. The ones who flew to D.C. for protests, drafted petitions, and posted videos on Facebook every five minutes. There was a split between us, they labeled me as the girl from Aleppo, the land of greedy merchants and silent masses. I expected the sentiment, but felt resentful and defensive at their hypocrisy. In their eyes, I was much closer to the silent Aleppo elite than I would like to admit. But in mine, they were acting like victims while living in their posh suburban bubbles. They demand Syrian ambassador, Imad Moustafa’s resignation now, but conveniently forget that they were honored to rub shoulders with him a few short years ago. And so, I came back to be treated as an outsider once more. In Aleppo I was a mundasseh, an infiltrator, and in America, I was apathetic.

I wondered if this confusion I felt about home and belonging, was not exclusively my own, as I had always believed. Have we all lost the sense of what home is, or what it should be? Are we searching for an elusive, utopian place that didn’t exist? Anthony Shadid wrote in my favorite article about the Arab Spring: “Across the region, the Arab revolution has inspired a rethinking of identity, even as older notions of self hang like a specter over the revolts’ success. In its most pristine, the revolution feels transnational, as demands of justice, freedom and dignity are expressed in a technology-driven globalism.” He believes a driving factor of the regional uprisings is what he calls a search for “a new sense of self.” Why are we searching for a new sense of self? When did we lose our selves? How did we let our selves slip away? It is sad, but the reality is for decades, all Syrians, there or here, by the sheer force of our brutal history, were robbed of our true selves.

This summer I was exposed to new realities and images, like the fact that I know people on the streets of Homs would scream for women on balconies to throw them cans of cola because it cools the burn of tear gas; or that I know exactly what a man looks like, still alive, struggling to breathe with half of his face missing; or that I know how a exploded human skull unfolds in sharp triangulations into a flat surface like a papier-mâché balloon which has burst open; or that I know what a dead toddler girl looks like after being shot in the eye while fleeing in her father’s car away from a burning Latakia; or that I know what a mother sounds like asshe says goodbye to her son, pharmacist Jamal al-Mufti after he died under torture. Those things I wish I never needed to know, see, or hear, but I did.

Other stories reinforced my pride and awe of my people, like the nightly takbeerat of defiance across Syrian cities and villages, chanted by women behind shaded windows, our modern mashrabiehs, the wooden lattices of traditional Arab homes, designed to allow the flow of air inside while protecting its privacy from the unwelcome gaze of the street, these shades now allow the chants of dissent to flow out to fill the space of the street while protecting those inside from bullets. Their chants are led by a few brave souls walking with a loudspeaker, breaking up every few Allahu akbars with a taunting yalli ma bi sharik ma fi namoos, he who doesn’t participate doesn’t have a conscience. That short sentence is the essence, what the entire revolution, its success or failure, boils down to, the existence of our conscience or its absence manifested in silence. And as someone dear to me often says, silence, not hate, is “the opposite of love.” Being silent against injustice is the opposite of having a conscience.

This summer, I was able to completely shed previous beliefs that had been slowly unraveling for years. Growing up in Syria, you learn to keep your eyes down when you walk in the street to avoid the catcalls, lewd remarks, and hissing that every girl is subjected to by men and boys. Keep your eyes down, your ears shut, and ignore. But after becoming old enough that I could care less (or perhaps should care more) about these harmless yet annoying practices, I began not only looking up but straight into the eyes of these men on the street. I saw them for the first time, there was pure pain in their idle desperation; they were doomed in the graveyard of dreams. Now, I watched them everyday on my laptop screen. Their painful beauty is unparalleled; they are driven by their conscience, driven by their belief in death before humiliation.

There are some who argue that technology did not play as big role as its media hype, that the revolutions would have happened on their own, like they have for centuries. While that may be true, there is an undeniable role of social media that activated and sustained the Arab Spring. In Egypt, it organized and rallied the masses. In Syria, it is our eyes and ears, our defense against the gags of silence we were forced to wear for forty years. Facebook, formerly a world of mundane, self-centered utterances, is now the social network of sadness, a place to witness our dead and count their bodies, to name our Fridays and “like” pages of martyrs. It is a cemetery of friendships and fertile ground to plant new alliances. Someone I met on Twitter, told me that he imagined Amal to be a woman in her 60s who wore hijab, both facts not true. I wondered why he would think that, until I caught myself imagining someone I was tweeting as somebody exactly like me, and that wasn’t true either. We project onto people the characteristics we would assume to be comfortable with in our real social world rather the virtual one. But the reality is we are so different, yet the same. It takes the mask of fake names and invented handles, to realize our principles and beliefs are so much closer than what separates us in class, religion, and ethnicity, than the sectarianism that the regime is desperate to feed us. True friendships, have nothing to do with your “real” social background, in fact, I learned the hard way, it is the first thing to disappear when the things that really matter in life are questioned.

After my Syrian YouTube detox, I watch each video with special care, I think about the people behind the cameras, the ones I now know if they are caught, they will never be released. They risk their lives to record the truth. They crowd together in smoky basements and spend hours uploading the videos over impossibly slow connections. And even in the basements they are not safe, like 28-year-old Adnan Abd Eldayem from Homs, who was shot in the head outside Omar bin al-Khattab Mosque after a night spent uploading. These videos have become our evidence, the ones the regime’s PR machines say are fabricated, are photoshopped, are lifted from other wars, from other cities; the ones which Western journalists must preface with the liability-protecting, offensive words “unable to verify.” These videos are Syria’s rays of light. Hafez concealed us in absolute darkness, but small cameras, smart phones, YouTube, and fearless thousands who press “record,” assured his son will not.

So, the Arab Spring of hope bloomed into a summer of blood, and now summer is fading into a tragic fall while the Ramadan moon slowly disappears. But before the end, a few words about the beginning, the fifteen young children from Daraa, our brave Bouazizis, who dared dream a bigger dream for all of Syria when in March, they wrote on their school walls, “the people want to topple the regime.” Possibly the truest words any Syrian child has written in 48 years. They were imprisoned, tortured, their fingernails pulled out, while their desperate parents begged for their children to be released. (And one child, Ahmad Abazid, until this day, still remains missing.) Their crime? Writing the words they had heard for weeks on television sets, echoed in Tunisia and Egypt, words they heard whispered by their parents behind closed doors and sealed windows. They knew the fake smiles they had to put on at school did not match these words. They knew Syria was no longer a place for acting “as if.” They refused to live in the world of “as if.” So they brought the words out of the dark, marking the stone walls forever. These beautiful children, our courageous heroes, sparked a revolution.

My journal ends here, the same place where the flowery compositions of my youth ended. When I wrote in Arabic. When we wrote words we did not understand, words we were forced to interpret the way they wanted. Words we spit out like parrots to please a teacher, for a high mark on a paper. When we wrote the verses of al-Shabbi, for a dramatic, emotional ending, manipulating our teachers and ourselves. Today’s children will remember these words in another context, the true context they were written for almost a hundred years ago. The words we wrote in blue ink, they write with the blood of their fathers and brothers, with the bitter tears of their mothers and sisters. They write as the whispers of the vanished and the spirits of the dead guide their small hands. They write as the chants and the songs swirl in protective clouds around them. They write, their words sharper than swords, while they face tear gas and bullets.

Al-Shabbi’s “One day, the people will...” is no longer about an abstract past, or an unknown future; not to fight enemies we no longer have, or enemies who do not exist. His once elusive “one day” is today. And for the victorious people of Libya it was yesterday. Destiny is written with blood, on shrouds wrapping charred and tortured bodies, across a landscape of destruction. And as the poet promised, destiny must respond, the night must brighten, the chains must break.

A final message from the great-grandchildren of Ibrahim Hanano, the grandchildren of Riyad al-Turk, the children of Bara Sarraj, the brothers and sisters of Tal al-MallouhiIbrahim Kashoush and Rami Nakhle, the mothers and fathers of Hamza al-Khateeb and Oula Jiblawi, to all of those who have murdered, mutilated, tortured, raped, imprisoned, humiliated, and terrified the Syrian people, and to all of you who still say the Syrian people must be ruled by a ruthless tyrant, who still believe they are not “ready” for freedom: Listen.

Every drop of blood, every tear, every chant, every video, every tweet, every word, is the sound of another chain irreversibly breaking, one by one. The clanging, ringing sounds are louder than the guns and tanks, because they are the opposite of hate, the opposite of oppression, the opposite of silence. They are the sounds of truth, of justice, of love. They are the sounds of ourselves breaking free.

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