We stand at a very interesting point in history. Our silence means we are complicit in supporting the oppressor. Before you tag me as a voyeur of tragedy, know where I come from and why I speak what I speak.
I have spent more than half my life in west Asia, which I call my maternal home. My allegiance to that part of the world is very strong. I became politically conscious for the first time over there, when I asked my mother why people there were dressed differently from us and her reply left an indelible mark on the way I would see the world.
She said, “It doesn’t matter, they’re human too. Just like us.” Those words stuck to a two-year-old far longer than they should have.
Years later, that particular chapter of life reopened inside a closed classroom, which I thought was a space for dissent and discussion. I sat there, in a privileged classroom with a white teacher talking about the blind spots in third world feminism. I wanted to undertake a project on the media representation of Arab women, which I thought was reimposing a model of hegemonic cultural subjugation. The world had to know what my mother told me when I was two, and in that moment, the world was that classroom. I forgot a very basic fact. Not everyone was my mother.
Not everybody came from a place where they saw humanity as a common thread. Instead, the threat of ghettoisation from the rest of the world to the Arab voice was paramount. In a class of 60, I scored the lowest, for reasons only best known to my white teacher. Probably the project I had embarked on was ‘too ambitious’.
But the world wouldn’t stop for me. It was reeling with the Syrian War and I had little time to waste. I could stay in my echo chamber or make a conscious effort to get out of it and resonate the words I needed to say out loud. My journey taught me a few things about the nature of human life and its obsession with capitalist games of greed, fuelled by hate.
It took me exactly one year and countless conversations with 78 displaced refugees from the Syrian territory, and a lot of trips to west Asia to come up with the findings for my book – “Becoming Assiya: The Story of The Children of War”.
Today, there’s apparently an unprecedented support for Donald Trump’s inimical bombing of whatever is left of Syrian lands. I look back on what I found during my time researching for the book and hope that my voice will circulate beyond an echo chamber and help people reach some level of inner probing.
The Syrian War has been an inferno-like event, with trouble from all sides. In order to understand what’s really happening, we need to really break this event down and understand some history. It is impossible for anybody commenting upon the war to look at it in isolation. You need an informed understanding of the Arab Spring, and the heavy ‘no’ it declared against state-sponsored authoritarianism. But as is the problem with any proletarian revolution, it was easier to bring down one oppressive system than to think of what should replace it. Long periods of political vacuum invited foreign turbulence. Here, one must ask why.
According to Kenneth Waltz’s theory of ‘the balance of power’, there needed to be a workable balance between the Allied and Axis powers for global peace. But this was not the case when the USSR and the USA emerged as the two dominant superpowers after World War II. There was a sharp ideological tussle between Russian socialism and American McCarthyism, which had an irrational fear of communism.
In due course, the petty game of thrones between the two stretched towards west Asia, which was standing the aftershocks of revolution. West Asia was every capitalist regime’s dream. It was a hotbed of oil, the driving force behind the American Dollar.
After subsequent wars in Kuwait, Iran, Libya & Egypt garbed under the pretence of ‘benevolence’ and riddance from ‘dictators’, Syria was on target. The Assad regime was supported by Russia. An irrational fear of WMDs and the presence of ‘oppressive fundamentalist Islam’ on the American side, made the US intervene.
The justifications provided for the organised loot of the once peaceful region of Darraya, where heavy markets flourished, were morally grounded in a rhetoric of xenophobia and hate, making it possible to dehumanise targets. It has now become Syria’s largest burial ground.
All of this was happening at lightning speed and led to the rise of one of the world’s worst terrorist organisations – ISIS. But one must question whether its rise was a direct result of religious fundamentalism or years of militant actions by the international community. I am no apologist for the heinous crimes it has committed, but as one of my Syrian friends, who is no longer alive, remarked, “Hate is a breeding ground for hate. You cannot expect to grow roses in filth and human blood.”
Another issue that the global community is guilty of is ‘social entrepreneurship’. The vitriolic pull of this do-good syndrome sometimes leads to a systematic annihilation of Arab voices. Rubaab (name changed), a refugee stranded on Lesvos who migrated to London, recounts not being able to speak at a rally because the British knew better than her about Syria. Arab people are mostly absent from western media’s depiction of war, and the limelight is always on white journalists, who no doubt eye the Pulitzer. All the reportage done reduces violent deaths to fancy statistics, making a grand spectacle of the world’s worst tragedy.
If this makes any difference, what I learnt from my insights into the matter was that the world doesn’t want your ‘philanthropic’ opinion on a matter that has seen more shellings than mornings, but neither does it want your silence. What you can do, instead of sharing WhatsApp videos is file petitions, send funds to relief organisations, donate to the UN/Red Cross and find out how your country’s government is responding to the tragedy. The time to collectivise is now, and not to sympathise and forget.