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Who speaks for Syria?

We who are Syria’s neighbors, among whom so many of Syria’s victims have sought shelter, owe it to them — and to ourselves — to speak honestly and without shame about this singularly Arab tragedy. In so doing, we must create space for our Syrian sisters and brothers to lift their voices above those of others.

A Syrian child sits near an informal camp for Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, near the village of Jib Janin, eastern Lebanon, April 14, 2016. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

A Syrian child sits near an informal camp for Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, near the village of Jib Janin, eastern Lebanon, April 14, 2016. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Khalil, the produce vendor, is producing a map, on a cardboard scrap, that tells of cherries. Sourced from points north, they are sweeter, he tells me, because they are darker. But I want to know how: how did Syrian cherries end up, fresh and firm, in a closet-sized stall, in a country that is not Syria? This, after all, is Amman in August—in the fifth summer since—and the borders north of here have long since been sealed.

The cherries’ journey is the subject of said map. But almost as soon as he sketches it, the vendor, scrawling beneath a stare, discards it into a cardboard box teeming with husks and wax paper. When I ask him why, he looks puzzled. If he knew the answer to that question, “they” might not have discarded any of it—the Damascene souks, the tells of Aleppo—like so much bruised fruit.

There is a problem here. In ordinary conversations, the people closest to Syria’s tragedy can seem the ones least able to explain it. Ask for an opinion on what caused this mess, and you’re likely to hear something oblique, even evasive. And that evasiveness, with the body count mounting, is making impossible any talk of solutions. Worse, it is leaving the conversation about what comes next to those least invested in the outcome.

The most invested, to be sure, have the most to lose. In Aleppo, for example, where hospitals have been repeatedly and deliberately targeted and more than a hundred children killed since the last week of September, opinions on whether the United States should intervene may differ significantly from those recently put forth by English-language media outlets in the west. And so what if they do? It should go without saying, but let us be clear: if Syria’s citizens hold a different opinion on how best to liberate their children from fear, they need neither the interest nor the imprimatur of western “analysts” in its pursuit.

A Syrian refugee woman with her 25-day-old daughter, at an International Rescue Committee (IRC) clinic in Ramtha, near the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan. The baby was born in Jordan after their home was bombed in Syria. (Russell Watkins/Department for International Development)

A Syrian refugee woman with her 25-day-old daughter, at an International Rescue Committee (IRC) clinic in Ramtha, near the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan. The baby was born in Jordan after their home was bombed in Syria. (Russell Watkins/Department for International Development)

If anything, the only responsibility of the victimized is to articulate a common platform—clearly, unapologetically, forcefully—to the world. But that articulation need not fall to the victims alone. In fact, history is rife with examples of manifestos born in exile, informed by the interplay of ideas that can exist beyond the immediacy of conflict. Ali Shariati, the Iranian sociologist whose works lent intellectual rigor in an era of early American interventionism, wrote from Paris, where he was involved with the Algerian liberation movement. Antoun Saadeh, founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, launched the “New Syria” newspaper in Brazil.

Though history has rightly tested—and, in some cases, debunked—their ideas in ways they might not have predicted, what these and other thinkers had in common was a “space” within which to develop them and, crucially, an inseverable link—by birth or by patrimony—to the places about which they wrote. Yet with some 25 percent of Syria’s population now refugees, most of its would-be proponents in exile exist in spaces marked by ambivalence or an insouciant sense of fatalism—as if Syria’s undoing were somehow pre-ordained and not the sum of mortal acts.

In Amman, I want to ask the cherry vendor: who are they? Who is responsible for Syria’s ferment? But I can barely think the question before he slips into another kind of evasion—nostalgia. This time, he is recalling daily shipments of fruit from the Syria that once was. The trucks, he says, they would line up, every morning, like the buses downtown. The buses would shuttle people to neighboring Arab capitals; the trucks would carry a taste of Syrian soil…. Syrian soil, he says again, drifting. It’s now the color of cherries. Soiled the color of these damned cherries.

Frustrated, I buy a half-kilo’s worth and make my way home. Home these days is Amman—200 kilometers to Iraq’s Karameh border crossing, half as much to Syria’s Dara’a, half again to Jericho. East, north, and west, this capital city is flanked by impossibility. And if the Middle East’s fires are foreground, Amman is a kind of vanishing point, lending depth to the scene—and a presumed sense of perspective.

But what is this perspective? With Syrian refugees numbering one in five of Jordan’s residents, with Jordanian schools doubling shifts to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Syrian children, with municipal services stretched and the economy straining, surely Amman’s cabs, cafes, and barber shops are stirring with opinions on how to quell the cataclysm next door. All the more because so many here know Syria not in the abstract, but intimately. They used to vacation there, convalesce there, even live there. Many of my own family, for example, are among them. But even they will not indulge me in a conversation about solutions.

Instead, the conversations are timid, as if ensconced in shame. When my father fled Damascus for Amman, he brought with him a five-piece bedroom set, custom-built by a carpenter in Saqba, a town just east of the Syrian capital. Some months later, when the headboard came unhinged, my father couldn’t help but laugh. “Alhamdulillah,” he said to God and me. “It’s under warranty.”

Syrian refugees march toward the border between Hungary and Serbia, September 15, 2015. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Syrian refugees march toward the border between Hungary and Serbia, September 15, 2015. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

In Syria.

Syria is no punch line, to be sure. But if there is a joke here, it is on us. Most nights, my family and I sit in my father’s living room and watch the horrors unfold, lately from Aleppo. When the broadcast wraps, one of my aunts will shake her head and repeat what has become a familiar Arabic refrain for observers of this slaughter:

“May God curse the one who caused this.”

It is a farcical construct. Have we no opinion on the matter? Does agency belong to God alone, no matter our proximity or our will? Is this fecklessness or fear, this inability to name? I fear we are vendors all, producing packaged phrases to explain away the things we cannot say. We are moved by the killing of children—by the hundreds in Aleppo alone—but unlike, say, Gaza, we seem content to leave Syria bereft of someone or something to blame.

This is a dangerous delusion. If Syria is too complicated to suss, then we have no business being black and white about other calamities, Gaza included. But what applied to Gaza surely applies to Syria all the same: no flag or fight justifies the killing of innocents, especially children. When that principle is muffled by anything else, surely we are all to blame.

Some would say this is illusion, that no principle could make the killing stop, that political solutions alone can blunt the bluster of those who kill. But lasting political solutions are grounded in what is right, not what is expedient. While expediency may be the purview of Western politicians and pundits, we who are Syria’s neighbors, among whom so many of Syria’s victims have sought shelter, owe it to them—and to ourselves—to speak honestly, lucidly, and without shame about this singularly Arab tragedy. And in so doing, we must create space for our Syrian sisters and brothers to lift their voices above the prognostications of others.

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    1. Bernie X

      The question shouldn’t be, ‘Who speaks for Syria?’

      The question should be, ‘Who is Syria speaking to?’

      Syria should be speaking to the Arabs, that is, the Saudis and Hezbollah, who are both stoking this war.

      Reply to Comment
    2. i_like_ike52

      The writer dances around the question of who is responsible for the Syrian tragedy. To his credit, he doesn’t blame Israel, or the British and French (Sykes-Picot) but he won’t point out that it is Iran, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, HIZBULLAH and Russia who are feeding the killing machine. Tragically, Arab/Muslims butchering each other is simply not a matter of interest for the rest of the Arab/Muslim world. While we can say that Arabs can not freely protest in the Middle East due to the authoritarian nature of the regimes in the area, but why don’t we see protests in places like Paris, London or New York where there are large Muslim populations and total freedom to protest. We don’t see anything. We can only conclude THEY DON’T CARE IF THEIR BROTHER MUSLIMS ARE BUTCHERING EACH OTHER. We also don’t hear calls to boycott Russia or Saudi Arabia or the others. Simple, total apathy.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Ike it is most interesting and revealing this consistent line you plug about how “those Arab Muslims don’t care about each other why should we care about the Palestinians?” The subtext and the sleight of hand of yours here takes half a dozen steps to take apart:

        1. Jews all over the world are a close knit unitary tribe and ethnic clan and a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. And Jewishness trumps all. 2. “The Arabs” and/or “The Muslims” all over the world are the exact same kind of close knit unitary tribe and ethnic-religious entity and an Arab is an Arab is an Arab. And Arabness (or Muslimness) trumps all. 3. There is no such thing as a Palestinian. An Arab is an Arab is an Arab. 4 The conflict in Palestine is nothing but the war of the Jews and the Arabs. Human rights, shmuman rights. It’s my tribe against yours to the death. 5. “The Arabs” and “The Muslims” don’t care about each other like any good tribalists ought to, since they are all basically the same tribe, despite their massive, complex national and cultural diversity and differentiation. They are poor tribalists, lacking tribal self-respect, unlike us Jews, who are first rate tribalists. Because “The Arabs” should be just like “The Jews” as Ike sees them. 6. So, because “The Arabs” and The Muslims” fail to conform to Ike’s hallucinatory, racist, tribe-obsessed stereotype of who they are, Ike’s hallucinatory, racist, tribe-obsessed stereotype is not at fault, it is they, the Arabs and the Muslims who are morally at fault. They are not behaving like Ike thinks Jews would. And since a Jew is a Jew is a Jew and an Arab is an Arab is an Arab, Ike wins. And of course, the occupation does not exist and it’s a good thing anyway, so there.

        Reply to Comment
        • AJwe

          Straw man alert!

          Either that, or Ben is feverish and his hatred of Jews shows in his babble.

          Reply to Comment
        • AJew

          “the Arabs and the Muslims who are morally at fault. They are not behaving like Ike thinks Jews would. And since a Jew is a Jew is a Jew and an Arab is an Arab is an Arab”

          This is Ben’s view of how Ike (Zionists) think.

          Of course, all it reveals is how Ben thinks. He views Jews as primitive and tribal while he views Arabs and Muslims as universalists and humanists who don’t have a tribal mentality.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I always marvel at your ability to muddle things and get them so hopelessly mixed up.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            Ben says I muddle things up. Did I muddle this statement of Ben’s up which he made on another thread?

            “Judaism is tribal and exclusive not inclusive.”

            Nah, I didn’t. Ben did make the above statement. Now watch Ben rush to deny that he is an antisemite and accuse me of antisimitizing (whatever that means).

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            What’s wrong with what I wrote? It’s simply true. Incontestably true. I’m not going to walk or run to deny anything. All I have to do is supply the context and your fake outrage and manufactured complaint goes up in smoke. Poof!:

            And yes, you are, so predictably it is a cliché, engaging in anti-Semitizing. I have the self confidence that comes from knowing I am neither a self-hating Jew nor an anti-Semite, so you can’t intimidate me. Too bad for you. See my last comment on Sept. 21 on the page I link to.

            Eva Illouz, talking plainly about what so many of us understandably find too uncomfortable to talk about. I agree, it’s a tough subject, but avoiding it won’t help:
            “In Israel the rabbinate has played an increasingly powerful role in transforming nationality into a quasi-racial definition, reserved only for a group that meets clear biological requirements (conversion processes are so difficult and humiliating that they are de facto a politics whose purpose is to dissuade non-Jews from joining the Jewish people, thus reinforcing the biological view that a Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother). It is not by chance that religious people in Israel are spearheading racist views….”

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            “What’s wrong with what I wrote?”

            Simply put, the hatred towards Israel and Jews oozes out of everything that Ben writes.

            One does not know where to start to prove how one sided and simply wrong when Ben calls Judaism a tribal religion. But here is one example of how wrong he is:

            Anyone can google “the Noahide Laws”. They will find that according to Judaism, righteous gentiles will go to heaven. Compare and contrast that to Islam which says that only Muslims can go to heaven.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            And since brought up Eva Illouz, it is worth pointing out again that Ben habitually picks and chooses what to quote from left wing Jews who are self critical (of Israel). Here is what else Eva Illouz says about Israel:

            “Israel is not Nazi (it does not want to conquer the world and has not industrialized its oppression of Palestinians), it is not fascist (Israel has several parties competing for power and a free press); and it is not overseeing a system of South African-style apartheid. (Apartheid was not part of a military conflict, whereas the very group that Israel oppresses and segregates, the Palestinians, are also engaged through a system of regional alliances in a military conflict with Israel through its identification with self-declared enemies of Israel as Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, Lebanon”

            But Ben wouldn’t be caught dead quoting her on that. In fact, he disagrees with her when someone like me brings this issue up. Ben deliberately cherry picks the worst things said about Israel. Is that a sign of obsessive hatred or not?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Not at all. I don’t disagree with anything of what Illouz writes here. This is not black and white. There are proto-fascist strains that gather strength in Israel. It’s complex. Naftali Bennet is arguably fascist. Ayalet Shaked too. In their intentions and goals. Zehava Gal On and Ayman Odeh obviously are not. It’s a spectrum. And South Africa is one example of apartheid, not exhaustive of the category, and it is Israel-including-the-territories-it-occupies that is in many important ways an apartheid state, not an Israel that would be side by side in peace with a Palestinian state that included the West Bank with swaps and East Jerusalem or a shared international city of Jerusalem and an agreed upon solution to the refugee situation. It’s all in the API as a starting point and framework for negotiations.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Ok, look, there is in a specific sense literally a half-truth in what you are saying. And it’s an important even crucial distinction. I should have been more explicit and careful. I readily agree that calling Judaism “tribal and exclusionary” *could* and *has* been used to convey a shade of anti-Semitism. I did not mean it that way. I should be more precise. I thought I had conveyed as much when I wrote “it does not remove the point as regards practices on the ground . . . That’s OK, and it would be just what it is and of little consequence except that the same exclusivist zealotry fuels a ruthless, race-based, supremacist occupation regime . . . .” But I see that I did not convey it. Fair enough. So I do not think that Judaism is inherently and only tribal and exclusive. The truth is richer and more complicated. In fact, it is both an open, belief-oriented religion and a closed religion. That is, is closed in that one is Jewish by birth and specifically by matrilineal descent no matter what one personally believes, and at the same time Judaism does not welcome but accepts converts. (And no question, Judaism probably was more welcoming of converts or even proselytizing centuries ago, and many centuries of vicious persecution forced it to become wary and protective and less open to converts simply as a means of preservation and any group similarly persecuted and forced into ghettoes would understandably have evolved in similar ways.) So I correct myself and say that what I mean to say is that the Judaism that the state of Israel and its rabbinate now enforce and exploit politically–in the precise sense explicated by Illouz–is in current practice tribal and exclusive. I am not intent on casting aspersions by the way on closed religions per se, or the partial closedness of Judaism per se–other religions are closed and to a greater degree. Hinduism for example is inherently involved with all these hereditary castes that are inherently closed. A really bad and anachronistic idea if you ask me. There are really bad and anachronistic aspects of Islam too, obviously. I have read that some Native American religions are closed, for example the religions of the Hopi and the Inuit peoples. That in order to be a member of their religion they insist one must be born a Hopi or an Inuit. So I have read. And as I say, Judaism is more subtle and complex in being both open and closed. I’m with Eva Illouz. Illouz is saying something important and relevant and it cannot be dismissed as anti-Semitism. Grapple with Illouz not the straw man of me. Wow. We actually had a productive go-around this time, Gustav, crossed the bar into actual dialogue. Imagine that. Despite your constantly calling me egregious names. I put up with so much.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            “I put up with so much”

            Poor Ben, Ben the martyr. He spends all his time making negative comments about the Jewish religion and Israel which he tries to talk it down with spin after a few uncomfortable facts are mentioned him which even he can’t overlook. Never mind, he will keep.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            “The current practice (conversions in Israel) is tribal and exclusive”

            No it isn’t it is just that Judasism’s philosophy is to make sure that prospective converts are really sure about their intention to convert to Judaism and that they are doing it for genuine reasons.

            For the record:

            “According to the ministry, 5,671 people successfully converted in 2013, compared to 4,312 in 2012, although much of the increase was from the Ethiopian community and not the target community from the former Soviet Union.”

            Nothing tribal about conversions in such large numbers.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Baladi Akka 1948

      I don’t know who speaks for the Syrians, but it’s certainly not Western egocentric guys like Max Blumenthal who knows no Arabic, probably never set foot in Syria, and who instead of condemming the genocidal regime wrote a disgusting article about the White Helmets, the heroes who are risking their lives in Aleppo to save others while he’s playing revolutionary from behing his lap top.

      Yassin al-Haj Saleh, the Syrian political dissident, who spent many years in Tadmor (Palmyre) prison, said some very good things about “Syria and the Left” a while back (on the net), and Elias Khoury, the Lebanese writer and activist, wrote a great comment on “Palestine, Syria and our blindness” in French in the excellent OrientXXI online magazine (the original text in Arabic is linked)
      Syria, Palestine, one people, same fight against tyranny.

      Reply to Comment
    4. i_like_ike52

      Ben-Thanks for clearing that up. I know understand. Since anti-tribalist, “progressive” univeralists like yourself, Obama, the Jewish Voice for Peace and others are apathetic about the slaughter going on in Syria, then the Arabs/Muslims (i.e. those who are not cheering on one side or the other) are justified in being just as apathetic. Got it. Presumably all you guys would also be apathetic if they turned their guns on us as well (G-d forbid). Not your problem. Fine.

      BTW-You obviously know nothing about Islam and Pan-Arabism, both of which say that members of the group ARE brothers “who love one another”, and are one big, happy family, not just a conglomeration of people.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        We’ll note that you side stepped the whole issue with your meaningless distractions about “apathy” followed by the predictable bully applying to be the victim. What baloney. “Islam and Pan-Arabism” defines “The Arab-Muslims”? You mean like Orthodox Judaism defines “The Jews”? Oh, but Jews are different, they are individual human beings worthy of infinite consideration, Not Arabs though. I do get it.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Lewis from Afula

      Who speaks for Syria?
      The Syrians do not exist. What you’ve got is a disparate bunch of people -some Kurds, some Sunni Muslem Arabs, some Turkmens, some Druze, some Alawites and some Christians – each hate each other.

      “Syria” is a myth as “Palestine” is a myth. In both cases, the entity needs to dismantle itself entirely and become something compatible with historical reality. The alternative is eternal bloodshed.

      Reply to Comment
      • Duh

        That’s some deep philosophical thinking. Seriously though, you could write this stinkbomb about the United States or any “multi-cultural” state if you wanted.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Robert

      We should try to love all on our planet and the planet itself.
      If we don’t we are in big, big trouble.
      Paris climate change conference resolution is the last chance for our planet’s environment and for us all.

      Reply to Comment
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