Each cry from Syria is for you
The whole world can follow the atrocities in Syria. We have been able to do that for more than a year. The only thing that seems impossible is to find political means to put an end the killings. The situation is of course unbearable for those who gets glimpses of the situation through friends and relatives, who themselves may be in danger. The Syrian writer Manhal al-Sarraj puts words on this predicament of anguish.
When I consider the terror under which the Syrian people are living, my mind is emptied of political concepts. I follow the news broadcasts with astonishment. The Syrian issue has been laid wide open to subjective interpretation, and I think of it as my responsibility.
But with such a burden of feeling! All I do is check that my mother, my sister, my second sister, my brother, and their children, are alive. When I hear that they are, I thank God.
Whenever I see pictures of the slaughter, the killing or the torture on my screen, I rush to press the delete button. I have to remove the image from my sight. Neither my will nor my imagination can bear these scenes. I don’t want to write about them so as not to hurt the reader.
A film of a child, an infant under a year old, crawling out from the rubble of the bombing, glancing from side to side, and howling in panic. A sense of humiliation invades me. How can it be that children are crying for help but no one responds to their calls? I feel that the atoms of the air are weeping. Yet all I can do in Stockholm is put on sports shoes, open the door, and run … I run panting with tears and a desire to shout slogans. At a certain point I decide to resist the pain, to hold on. So I come home and I force myself. I listen to eastern music, and I summon up imagined happiness.
When I consider the last year, I find that life has been unnatural. Still I try to resist and to not lose my balance. I struggle, bitterly, for neutrality in my writing.
I have been writing for 18 years. What I feel this year is that we haven’t achieved anything. What does it mean to offer novels and prose while we witness massacre following after massacre?
If I had more courage, if the other too had more courage, if we all had more courage—our situation would not be so bad. I suppose that it is my fear—and his fear, and our fear—which reduces us to this low level of human dignity. Yet at the same time I feel that the reason is not only fear, but also that our enemy is strange and complex in his hatred, and no one knows how much daring and courage will be required to face this hatred.
This enemy kills, slashes, tortures, and rapes. He does only this; he does it easily; he does it incessantly. The people can do no more than bury their dead. Yet they do not stoop to the enemy’s level and commit such criminal acts. If some young men have taken to arms, they have done so by force of circumstance, because of the severity of the situation, and not as a result of previous determination or plan.
I try to find a behaviour that may be useful with this enemy, I do not find, we no longer know how to face him.
While I would advise to undergo, I do not know how to give in. I do not know how to be brave! How do we manage it! What is this enemy? What are his purposes? He does not hesitate to slaughter children with a knife.
I don’t understand what the meaning of demonstration now, one year of demonstration. Does not the world understand that Syrian people are angry?
I observe the people of the earth, their faces filled with love and kindness. We love all the people in the world and we wish the best for all of them. Why then does the world not come to rescue us? Why doesn’t it stop the manufacture and export of weapons to our tormentors?
As I was writing these words I learnt, via a telephone call from Hama, that my mother has been hospitalised after suffering a massive heart attack. My mother and all of our family witnessed the massacres in Hama between 1980 and 1982. We remember particularly the slaughter of 1982, when the Syrian army levelled entire neighbourhoods and killed thousands of innocent people and buried them where they still lie, in mass graves.
When the revolution and repression began in 2011, my mother lost part of her memory. Sometimes when I call Hama and talk to her, she calls me by another name.
My sister forgot to tell me about my mother’s ill health because she was affected by the difficulties they faced on the way to the hospital, a threat at every moment, although the distance between the house and the hospital is only two streets.
Roads, cities, hell ...
A letter arrived from my sister’s son asking me to ask his mother to not send him to school. He was too scared to go. He’d heard that children were being kidnapped and their fingers were being cut off.
This is happening in certain areas of Syria. In other areas of the same country stability prevails, and the people are enriched by stolen money, and many families took the initiative on the very first day of the protests to send their men to attack and threaten and kill protesters. According to their behaviour, the two groups—the oppressed and the oppressors—can’t be classified as citizens of the same country.
I follow every article and every comment, and my disappointment only increases. Some intellectuals in Syria are serving those who profit from this current situation, either because they are threatened or exhausted. The politicians do not illuminate anything. The media neither properly informs the citizens nor is able to help a single victim at the moment of need.
I write a new Facebook status, hoping that it will soak up a drop of someone’s hatred. But immediately a text appears opposing mine, preaching death, urging blood and war and martyrdom. Then I read that my city is under bombardment. It makes me believe that writing hurts people rather than benefitting them, and that we should therefore remain silent; but when I am silent, I believe our silence allows the ugliness to spread, it allows the criminal to continue killing his victim. So I come to the conclusion that we must not be silent. And my thoughts continue to cycle.
A friend is arrested. I hesitate. Should I send a greeting to reassure them? No, perhaps my gesture will add to his suffering, so I should take refuge in silence; but then I think that by being silent I’m leaving my friend to face his difficulties alone, without the support of those who care for him. It’s a vicious circle of thought and anxiety—and I know we are drowned in a sea of pain and humiliation, a sea perhaps mixed with a great deal of illusion.
Each minute a victim falls, or a victim is flogged, or an old man is humiliated, or a child is slaughtered; and I feel at every moment that each appeal for help addresses me, that each attack is aimed at me. I feel that they address me personally, although I am an ordinary person, and perhaps nobody there thinks of me.
If Syria’s trees and birds could talk they would be crying for help too. The ancient ruins, the houses, the livestock, the soil itself are suffering as the population suffers.
I know how to write and how to take care of my son, but these acts don’t save a single life in my homeland. I have no connections with ministers or heads of state or politicians, neither here nor there. In any case, I don’t understand why the United Nations and the Security Council and the human rights institutions were established if they can do nothing to save men, women and children who have been subjected to an organised slaughter for over 380 days.
I make calls here and there to work out what reception I might meet if I travel to Syria. It is my right to be in Syria, to be in my home and my father’s home. I am invaded by a desire to be there which resembles the insistent desires of my son when something takes his fancy. I become locked in my desire. Then a negative answer arrives from my family. They are surprised by my urgency and consider my desire trivial. They tell me to thank God that I am safe. They tell me the situation prevents them from searching for me if the security service arrests me at the airport, that it would be difficult to find me among the different intelligence branches. They tell me the roads are very dangerous, that they can’t even reach the airport to meet me.
Now, as I reread what I have written, my feeling is that of a little girl who expresses her, who wrote and writes and plans to write. Her weapons are words. Meanwhile the regime in this girl’s homeland determinedly treads the same path it has trod for decades, a path which first misleads the people, then tortures and kills them, and finally holds all of humanity in contempt.
Manhal al-Sarraj is a Syrian novelist based in Sweden. Her first novel, As the River Must, considers the Hama massacre of 1982, and is banned in Syria.