It’s a feeling I had never felt before, and took me by surprise. I wonder how I can make other people understand, people who have never seen a building die. Part of the feeling may come from the memories associated with the building; it’s the memory that cries and you feel those tears course throughout your blood. So maybe I can talk forever and you will never understand.
Aunt H just gave birth to a baby boy in Damascus, and my mom is happy. This is the first child for her youngest sister, and we’re all happy in the way that tired people are happy. No, I cannot think about being tired – I’m grateful that my aunt has something to be joyous about. Babies, with their tiny fists, are hope for the future especially when the present is painful.
I now have five new cousins that I’ve never met, four of them having grown up in the war. One day (or maybe never) I will go back to Homs with my parents to see the remainder of my family and I cannot even imagine looking at them in the face. I am so sorry Aunt M, of what you must worry about every time little J and H leave the house. Last time we spoke, your voice was 100 years older than I remembered it.
Back in the suburbs, my mom is quick to add, “can’t wait till you have kids” every chance she can, because she is a traditional family values kind of person, and because she is my mom. The idea of having children is so far from my mind, but there is a conversation that I always imagine. If and or when I have a daughter, she’ll ask me “What happened?”, and I’ll know what she’s referring to. We’ll sit down and I’ll tell her the most stunning story I know.
We’ll talk about terrorism, about how Al Qaeda terrorists crashed planes into New York City in the name of Islam and how the world changed. She’ll hear about the ten years of bigotry feeding the idea of the dumb, violent, oppressed Arabs who hated democracy and feel the goosebumps her mother felt when TV screens were filled with waves of Egyptians marching for civil rights.
Then there comes the part in the story where she’ll realize that, despite the idea that human rights and dignity are inherent within each individual and do not need permission to be expressed, the reality is: those in power will not give it up without a fight. The Syrians declared their desire for civil rights and were met with state sponsored guns.
I’ll tell my daughter how words are just air, but sometimes with the will to move waves of people or create illusions potent enough to poison the mind. The Assads understood the importance of words when they labeled Syria as a secular democracy wore suits and kept their faces clean-shaven. They wore suits as an entire generation was killed during the 1982 massacre in Hama, and they wore suits as barrel bombs drop on the city of Aleppo in 2014.
You may have heard that the United Nations stopped counting the death toll in Syria on January 7th, 2014 because the work was too dangerous. More likely, the United Nations stopped counting the death toll because the Syrians who were doing that work — documenting the martyrs and human rights abuses with the Violations Documentation Center —were kidnapped on December 9th, 2013. The kidnapping of Syrian revolutionary lawyers and poets Razan Zeitouna, Samira alkhalil, Wael Hamada, and Nazem Hammadi in the liberated town of Douma was a major setback for the revolution. If non-violent revolutionaries cannot work with protection of the local militia in areas where Assad’s army are not in control, then the Revolution itself is under attack.
Syria existed under an Orwellian dictatorship for the past 40 years, and people like Zeitouna, Al-Khailil, Hamada, and Hammadi were apart of the undercurrent organizing, resisting, and documenting state crimes for well over two decades. The Syrian regime caked its exterior with attractive labels like “secular” and “democracy” while underneath the make-up were the diseased pustules of an oppressive regime: a secret police that sewed distrust amongst civilians and punished even private remarks criticizing the government, a president who inherited his throne and won elections by 99.7%, and an entire generation of missing Syrian’s snatched in the ‘80s roundup of possible intellectual enemies to the state. The fervor to which the government kept a clamp on independent thinking climaxed in 1982 with the month long massacre in Hama where the military indiscriminately killed between 10,000 and 40,000 people in response to some civilians organizing their own political beliefs. While western intellectuals will later explain the first 8 months of the Syrian Revolution as some sort of imperialist conspiracy, Syrians themselves had been waiting and ready to voice their dissent en masse for decades.
In an Orwellian reality, it is a radical act to speak publicly, as human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouna did. Her work in Syria focused on defending political prisoners, and in 2001 she founded the Human Rights Association in Syria. When the popular grassroots movement for human dignity and civil freedoms swept Syria in 2011, Zeitouna co-founded the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an organization with chapters all across Syria that work to document human rights abuses and distribute humanitarian aid. An unwavering force, Zeitouna snuck herself into Ghouta after the August 2013 sarin gas attacks to gather evidence for documentation, and can be seen here giving testimony in English on living under siege in Douma. Zeitouna recognized the Assad regime as the main aggressor responsible for perpetrating terrorism in Syria, but also worked to document human rights abuses committed by the opposition. She made a point to educate as many members of the armed opposition as possible about International human rights law in an effort to curb abuse.
In an Orwellian society, it is a radical act to organize against the political party of the state, like Samira alKhalil did. During Hafez Assad’s reign, AlKhalil was active in the ‘Damascus Declaration’ and ‘Revival of Civil Society’, salons of Syrian intellectuals who boldly challenged political discourse at the time. For her involvement, alKhalil was imprisoned for four years from 1987-1991, spending time in Syria’s most notorious prisons. Alkhalil worked alongside Zeitouna in the Violations Documentation Center, separated from her husband in exile Yasin al Haj Saleh.
Nazem Hammadi and Wael Hammade worked with Zeitouna and Alkhalil in the Violations documentation Center, focusing on facilitating humanitarian relief between the Local Co-ordinating Committees. Relief work is inherently stressful and dangerous— one relief worker said “If you go to sleep at the end of the day happy, you’re not doing your job right”. Very often, relief workers like Hammade and Hammadi are targets and die in the line of work.
The work of Douma4 carries on the spirit of the Syrian Revolution, and their kidnapping is a signal that the revolution is under attack. Jaysh-al-Islam, a non-FSA milita group, has control of Douma. Their leader, Zahran Alloush, is therefore responsible to answer the question: Where are Razan, Samira, Wael, and Nazem, and why couldn’t you ensure their protection? Join Amnesty International and people of conscience around the world in tweeting at him “Where are the #Douma4, @Zahran1970?”
My heart aches, and they give me a pill.
I ask them instead, to please shrink the Atlantic.
I didn’t think that, at age 17, while hugging my Syrian grandmother goodbye, that the next time I would enter Syria would be at age 22 and through a refugee camp. I travelled there this past March to work on a humanitarian relief project and to make connections with workers on the ground; the journey was as much personal as it was work-related. Those five days marked a change in how I understood international power relations, the political nature of human existence within a state, and the construction of privilege.
For the first year of the Syrian revolution, I watched, powerless. I was the only Syrian-American in my social circles and didn’t have a support network. In hindsight, I should have immediately sought out a support network, a team, to keep up with the news and work on projects together. The first step to being politically active is joining the conversation, but finding the American conversation on Syria was difficult. There would be no mainstream conversation to join until Obama was forced to act on his Red Line policy in August 2013.
Eventually, after months of asking around, I connected with Yisser online. She in turn connected me with other activists on Facebook, and a few months later, 17 of us planned a relief project to deliver aid inside Syria. In a little over one week, we were able to fund-raise $105,000 online with Syrian Sunrise Foundation, a registered non-profit. At the Syrian-Turkish border, we partnered with Watan NGO to help us allocate our money, mostly towards food baskets and one development project. We were going to work with Qah Refugee Camp, and distribute food in Jarjanaz, Kafranbel, and Aleppo city.
The Syrian borders are congested with tents. I saw more refugee camps than I can name. Refugee camps are spontaneous cities that emerge without an infrastructure or economy whose residents are more or less impoverished. We invested money towards a sewer in Qah to prevent the spread of water-borne diseases. Driving through the various refugee camps, you will see the occasional UNHCR-stamped tent. It’s bewildering how the UN has invested time, money, and media to raise the alarm about the refugee crisis while members of its Security Council protect Bashar al Assad from being sent to the International Criminal Court: we live in a world that will hand out charity but withhold justice.
At Qah, I played with the children and spoke with the women, and was ashamed that I could not offer more than just my company and promises to write about them in the media (which I later fulfilled in an online photo story and article). With just my Biology degree, I was unskilled and couldn’t offer something useful, like medical care. Everyone knew we had travelled long distances to be there and expected us to be powerful or influential people. My taking up their airspace only benefitted us, the North Americans, who wanted to ensure the honesty of the relief delivery system. In a way, it was like walking in on domestic violence….and just watching and handing the victim a blanket instead of calling the police.
Americans feel a disconnect with Syria because the Obama administration sidelined the issue and made Syria appear irrelevant to the average American. Many Americans forget that the United States has a seat on the UN Security Council which is blocking political justice for Syrians. When the August 21 sarin gas attacks happened, Obama abdicated his responsibility as commander in chief to the uninformed, indifferent American population. Suddenly, Syria was relevant, and a frenzy ensued as 300 million people tried to catch up on 2.5 years of revolution in 2.5 weeks. They failed.
Children, who are simple and innocent by nature, speak of death in Syria. One million of Syria’s refugees are children while five million are in desperate need of assistance according to UNICEF. The UN estimates 1 million people are at risk of starvation. Eight million Syrians have lost their homes, and everyone has a story about death. “We were walking in a protest and both my cousins on either side of me fell to the ground, shot dead by a sniper”, a relief worker told me. Conservative estimates say 120,000 people have died in Syria, and thousands more are missing or are being tortured in detention. The residents of opposition strongholds of Ghouta, Moadamiyah, Yarmouk Palestinian camp, and Douma are imprisoned in their own neighborhoods by the Assad regime’s medieval siege policy — no food, water, or medicine goes in and no one gets out.
Individual health within the state is often at the mercy of state policy, a reality evident in Syria and true for all citizens on Earth. The Assad regime responded to populist demands for reform with disproportionate force, as many Youtube videos of bleeding and dead civilians will attest. When the people persisted, the regime escalated, bombing bakeries, hospitals, schools, and homes, destroying Syria in an effort to save its rule. Lack of food takes its toll on the body while bombs take their toll on the mind. When the regime drops SCUD missiles, TNT barrels, thermal bombs, and cluster bombs, they always seem to land on civilians and never on Al Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting to control parts of the country. Yet it’s the Al Qaeda groups, much like roadkill, who generate morbid fascination thanks to a decade of fear-mongering from the Bush administration in its fallacious post-9/11 “Global War on Terror.”
On my third night in Syria, I slept under rocket shelling in Kafranbel. On my fourth day, I had a nervous breakdown in Aleppo. Everybody I met was wounded in some way by the war, and open to sharing their stories. And every young child reminded me of my cousins, every young man of my uncles, and every old woman of my grandmother, all of whom were a few cities away and inaccessible to me. These moments added to the well of emotional distress I carry privately with me to this day.
In America, I would write op-eds, organize political and educational events, and donate money to Syria, but it didn’t stop the violence. I became acutely aware of “first-world culture” and our privileges as American citizens. I realized how two groups I used to be apart of, the “do-good” and “life-enthusiast” sub-cultures, are failed attempts by the privileged to both “save the world” and grasp the full extent of “living”. Furthermore, the “radical activism” sub-culture has its own problems practicing the very ideas they preach, particularly in recognizing intersectionality and creating safe spaces (many advocates for Syria have been shunned by the political Left and Pro-Palestinian organizations). Deconstructing privilege, pushing past our isolationist xenophobia, and developing an intersectional view of the human condition will be necessary to grasp as we strive for a more balanced world.
As I began to see how political structures create and perpetuate violence, I quietly committed myself to becoming a doctor. There is a chance that by the time I’m a practicing doctor, the violence in Syria will have stopped. But unless a major shift in political and social values occurs, there will continue to be casualties at the intersection of health and human rights.
Some people have a few recurring dreams they never forget. My mother likes to talk about dreams and has a book in Arabic that interprets their meanings. We have a few family stories of how so-and-so predicted this-and-that through their dreams, and it’s something that I thought was very entertaining but nothing more.
Mine was a short, intense dream: I was in Syria, alone and in front of my great-grandmother’s house in the Insha’at neighborhood. My heart would begin to panic as I realized her building was damaged from the “War”, that I was alone, and I didn’t know where my family was (were they alive?!)—and then I would wake up and tell myself it was just a dream and that war would not happen in Syria. I was 15.
Now I’m 23, the Insha’at neighborhood has been under relentless bombardment by the Assad regime for some countless months now—I don’t even know. Somethings my memory blurs and I don’t want to think about. Other things are sharp in my mind.
I do know that in Spring 2011, a boy had his brains shot out by the Syrian government for attending a peaceful protest. I know that the Syrian Army shoves rats up the vaginas of detained women. I know the besieged areas are starving and know that 10 children froze to death this winter. I know of a girl my age that is in detention and subject to torture— and I know that when her dad saw her, he went home and died of a heart attack the next day. I know that a son brought home a flashlight he found on the street, and it exploded when the father used it. I know that in a country of 17 million people, 8 million are displaced.
I know that 1 million people are starving because the Assad regime has not opened up safe humanitarian corridors into the country. This means that organizations like The United Nations cannot deliver aid to people inside the country.
I know that Syria has tested the meaning of “solidarity” and “allyship”, amongst the political Left, Pro-Palestinian activists, intersectional feminists, human rights activists, and especially amongst Syrian-Americans.
This nightmare is worse than anyone could have ever imagined, ever. Anyone following the Syrian Revolution will see it is a true revolution demanded by the people, and rejected by the Assad regime and the UN Security Council. It’s open-season for abuse when a Revolution is denied by the world.
The UN calls Syria “the worst humanitarian crisis of our time” not because of body count, but because of the safety net spun by Russia, China, and Iran to protect the Assad regime from repercussions, placing Syria in trajectory that will be like nothing we have seen. They call it the worst humanitarian crisis of our times because they see where it is going.
A common myth that is pervasive and usually goes unchallenged is that we should all be “colorblind”, with the idea that if we don’t think about the skin color of our neighbor then we are anti-racist. This idea is false: indeed since color does exist why should we champion colorblindness? The acceptance of colorblindness as a response to dealing with racism is the worst bandaid: it is a false remedy that enables the disease. Color-blindess enables cultural appropriation: the idea that anyone can wear or do anything cultural without context.
This past weekend, I saw a girl draped in giant black cloth in such a way that only her eyes were showing. I was not in Saudi Arabia or Iran; I was at a white hipster costume party in Austin, Texas. I immediately knew what she was supposed to be: the generic, ever-present image of an oppressed Muslim woman in a “burqa”.
As a post 9/11 Muslim American woman with a grandmother, handful of Aunts, and cousins who practice wearing the niqab [the black strip of fabric that covers half the face below the nose], I did not hesitate before I went to confront her. While I may not wear the niqab because I don’t believe it’s obligatory, it is a symbol that Non-muslims have used to belittle Muslim women and generate serious misunderstanding around Muslim gender expressions
She told me that she was dressed as a woman in a burqa to generate discussion, even though she was not an expert on Islam. “But I have read a few articles and I do know that women choose to wear it sometimes, and other times they are forced to.” When I kept pointing out that she was not an expert on Islam, she came up with a solution: “I’ll point people over to you if they have any questions.”
As I mentioned before, my grandmother practices wearing the niqab. I love and miss my grandmother dearly, but I cannot see her: she lives in the besieged city of Homs, Syria. The Syrian people have endured titanic hardship in standing up to their oppressive government, and the International Community has failed in their duty to support the values of human rights and secular democracy championed by civilian Revolutionaries.
Concurrently, the American people have overwhelmingly failed to feel compassion for the Syrian people. When Syria became national dialogue in late August following the Sarin Gas attack, many people said this was a Muslim problem for Muslims to deal with. Quantitative factors are telling as well: Unicef raised 70 million dollars for the Haiti disaster in 5 weeks, while only raising a paltry 4 million dollars for Syria in over 130 weeks.
And now we are back, full-circle to the girl wearing the “burqa” as acostume.She is self-admittedly not able to educate people on Muslim veiling traditions, and is perpetuating the idea of the “Othered” Middle Eastern Muslim. I am insulted. This is not the same as dressing up as a doctor for Halloween.
The running joke is that hipster culture loves irony. The irony is that if we start the camera focused on the girl wearing a burqa, bobbing her head along to the folk music with an Indio beer in one hand, and zoom out to see the apathy towards Muslims facing starvation, SCUD missiles, drone strikes, TNT barrels, Apartheid, and systemic rape…well, the music stops playing pretty quickly and we would all stand sober.
My friends had been socializing a distance off, and watching my confrontation with the burqa girl. One friend came over and told me to let it go and so that we could have fun. “What she is doing is not okay, and you’re not going to convince her of anything”. Feeling defeated, I reluctantly let it go, and went to see my friends. As we chatted, I watched the feathers of a Native American headdress bobbing through the crowd.
What we say and wear in public is political. Our voice and our silence adds a vote to what we deem as acceptable and unacceptable in society. In this way, it is obligatory to vocalize ourselves against all forms of bigotry and ignorance and to support reasonable voices. To do this requires diligence, patience, and understanding — the latter of which cannot be acquired through colorblindess or costumes.
Originally published here as “The Burqa is not your Halloween Costume”.