Saadallah Wannous and the war on stories
In a souk in the center of Damascus, a crowd has gathered. In the center of the crowd stands a man dressed in rags, a child huddling close to him. Word has spread that he is a refugee from Aleppo. “Were you there?” asks a man in the crowd. The stranger nods. “What have you left behind?” asks the man. The stranger replies: “Starvation and horror.” Another voice in the crowd asks: “What has become of Aleppo?”
“Nothing remains standing but towers of skulls,” says the man.
I started my Arabic lessons with Mazen in early 2007. Twice a week, I would take the microbus from my home in the center of Damascus to Yarmouk Camp, five miles south of the city center. I’d get off by the hospital, cross the busy main road, head past the corner store, walk down an alleyway, and take a short and winding path to the high metal gate of Mazen’s house. If the weather was good, we would sit at a table in Mazen’s small courtyard, crowded in by climbing plants and hanging laundry. Other days we would sit inside his one-room flat, surrounded by his vast library: the hundreds of books, journals, plays, and multivolume dictionaries that covered his walls.
Munamnamat Tarikhiya, which is best translated as Historical Miniatures, was the first reading assignment Mazen gave me. Written by Saadallah Wannous, a contemporary Syrian writer, it is a play set in Damascus in 1401, when the armies of the Turco-Mongol leader Tamerlane are heading toward the city. The armies have reached as far as Hama, leaving a trail of destruction behind them, and it will be only a matter of days before they arrive in Damascus. The sultan and his army are absent, having left the city to deal with an uprising in Egypt, and there is panic among the remaining political leaders and religious authorities.
The towers of severed heads in Aleppo, Mazen told me, were a Tamerlane trademark. There was a logic to these massacres; the news of a city’s destruction would soon spread, leaving the wider population terrified into submission. But Tamerlane did not kill everybody in the city. The finest artists and artisans were often spared the slaughter and sent to Samarkand, the imperial capital. There they would set to work decorating Tamerlane’s palaces, painting pictures of his victories and paying tribute to his glory.
I had come to Mazen on the recommendation of a friend of a friend. I had already been studying Arabic in Syria for a month or two, having arrived with a grasp of basic grammar and a well-thumbed notebook full of verb tables and vocabulary. I had chosen Damascus as a destination after an internet search. It was, said the forums, one of the best places to learn: cheaper than Cairo, safer than Sana’a, less boring than Amman. Most important, a good proportion of its population spoke little English, unlike in Beirut, where a single withering look from a trilingual hipster was enough to crush the confidence of the keenest beginner.
In my first few weeks in Damascus, my fascination with the language had been matched only by the frustration it caused me. I loved its guttural sounds and dark consonants, the strange contortions of throat and tongue it demanded. I enjoyed its logic, at once alien and intuitive, by which skeletal root verbs could be pulled apart and manipulated to create countless other words, connected in a web of meanings. But with my first few teachers, most lessons had been a joyless trudge through endless rules, abstract exercises, and awesomely dull vignettes in formal Arabic with titles like “What’s in My Fridge?”
When I started classes with Mazen, I warmed to him immediately: his calmness, his unfussy English sprinkled liberally with Arabic, his graying ponytail, his faintly roguish smile. Mazen was never hurried. Each class was started with a pot of tea, punctuated by the refilling of his nargile water pipe, and perfumed with clouds of sweet tobacco smoke.
It took me a little longer to come around to his teaching methods. I had recently started working part-time as an English teacher at the British Council, where each lesson I taught was preceded by a nervous frenzy of lesson planning and scissor work. But Mazen was so laid-back about our lessons that I was never entirely sure if he had been expecting me. More than once I turned up to find him with a friend, deep in smoke and conversation, and had to sit for a while until the discussion reached a natural end.
Our classes quickly fell into a routine. He set a reading as homework, and in the next class we discussed it line by line, moving between the local Arabic dialect and English as my comprehension allowed. It struck me on starting the first page of Historical Miniatures that Mazen had terribly misjudged my Arabic ability. I was ready for a challenge, but this was real literature, wildly above my level of comprehension. At first I attempted to decipher it word for word, a tedious shuffle between dictionary and text, but eventually I left the dictionary and read on regardless, surrendering to incomprehension, tracing tentative stories through the fog of the unknown.
It was in the lessons themselves that the text came alive. I would scribble vocabulary as Mazen talked me through each scene. We sometimes talked about interesting grammatical features, conjugated notable verbs. More often, though, our conversation took off on tangents. He would tell me about the history surrounding the stories, about myths and legends that they recalled, about the lives of their writers and the forces that shaped their work. The magic of Mazen’s lessons did not lie in complicated lesson plans: Mazen was a great teacher because he was a great storyteller.
Early on, I got into the habit of wandering around the neighborhood after my lesson. After two hours of picking scenes of mounting dread out of a dense tangle of words, I was grateful to emerge into the midday sunlight of Yarmouk Camp. After a morning lesson, I would walk down the busy main street and find a place to eat. Some days it was falafel or mana’eesh pastries, other days the dizzy sugar rush of hot, cheesy nabulsia. I would get out my notebook as I ate and flick through the pages of obscure and impractical vocabulary the lesson had provided.
I had only visited Yarmouk Camp once before my lessons with Mazen. People had told me about this vast Palestinian refugee camp on the southern edge of Damascus, and I had expected a ramshackle, desperate place. I did not expect the bustling city streets that I found that evening, the modern buildings and plate-glass facades, the carnival colors of the clothes shops and candy-floss stands, the beauty salons and the restaurants. A couple walked hand in hand, two popcorn-munching kids trailing behind them. In the café where I sat down to drink, groups of teenage girls and boys had staked out their respective territories and were eyeing each other from a distance to a sound track of Egyptian pop music. Yarmouk Camp could not have been less camp-like.
Mazen explained that it had started life as a city of tents when Palestinian refugees first settled there in 1956, but generations of Syrian Palestinians had turned Yarmouk into a commercial and cultural hub. While many of Yarmouk’s residents were poor, Syrian Palestinians had few restrictions placed on their property or professions, unlike Palestinians in Lebanon, and a sizable middle class had emerged. Many Syrians had also made Yarmouk their home. It was a place born of exile and displacement, but it felt as vibrant as any city.
The Silk Weaver
A small house within the city walls. A young couple, Marwan and Khadija, are arguing. They have heard the news of the approaching armies and are discussing the choice that lies ahead of them. Khadija wants to stay. “I’d rather be with our own people and meet our fate together than beg on some foreign street. We’ll lose everything if we go. The house, your workshop and loom.” But for Marwan, the uncertainty of flight is preferable to the certainty of violence and destruction if they stay. He has heard of the savagery in Aleppo. He is a silk weaver, not a soldier, and the prospect of taking up arms against Tamerlane’s armies seems absurd and suicidal. The argument goes back and forth until Khadija takes Marwan by the hand. ‘‘I’m tired of all this argument and hesitation,” she says. “Since dawn we’ve been torturing ourselves. If you’ve made your decision, let’s just leave. The bags are already packed. Go and pray. I’ll get dressed.”
Marwan holds on to Khadija, whispering words of adoration, pleading with her to come back to the bedroom: “Just let me taste your sweet honey before we leave.” Khadija wriggles out of his embrace: “Not now, Marwan!” She starts dragging bags to the front door. “Look, are we leaving or not?” Moments later, there is a knock at the door. It is Khadija’s brother Ahmed. He tells them that the city gates have been locked. All travel is forbidden. The palace guard has been ordered to fortify the citadel and arm all men of military age. They have missed their last chance to leave.
It was Mazen who first told me that the title Munamnamat Tarikhiya refers to the tiny, exquisitely detailed paintings produced by the royal courts of the Mongol, Persian, and Mughal empires. These miniatures often portrayed legendary warriors, great battles between good and evil; like 13th-century Hollywood blockbusters, they told glorified, gung ho versions of history. They existed to entertain the imperial rulers and their subjects but also served to validate the imperial rule and celebrate the conquest of other peoples.
Wannous, said Mazen, wanted to play with this convention. He chose a setting straight out of these victors’ narratives but passed over the buff men lopping off heads, the battles, the imperial pomp and ceremony. Instead, he portrayed the people usually left outside the frame of history. The quiet silk weaver and his wife. The refugee girl who cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy to escape exploitation. The trader finding ways to discreetly profit from war. The religious leaders, united in their pious public rhetoric, each picking out his own private compromise among convictions, self-interest, and fear.
What struck me about the first few scenes of the play was the domestic detail and the vivid humanity of the characters. They lived lives as we do: uncertain, impulsive, hopeful, afraid. In such an epic setting, typically reserved for grand struggles between historical forces, this intimate normality seemed unusual.
I liked Marwan in particular. He seemed a contented sort, blessed with a wife he loved, a craft he was devoted to, a workshop, and a steady income. And then news breaks of Tamerlane’s approach, the streets fill with fiery talk of the glories of martyrdom and the duties of waging jihad against the invaders — and Marwan just can’t get into it. I liked that, faced with his decision, he wanted nothing more than to go back to bed with Khadija. This may have been in a spirit of carpe diem, but it seemed to me like desperation: the act of love as dissociation or denial. As if, in the arms of his wife, he could stop the unfolding of time for a moment, could halt the approaching hordes in their tracks.
After a few weeks of classes, Mazen invited me to my first Thursday gathering. Every Thursday, I learned, Mazen cooked for a crowd and invited people over. I eventually lost count of the number of Thursday nights I spent at Mazen’s place, many of them long after my own teaching turned full-time and my lessons with him petered out. No two evenings were the same; the one constant was his magnificent Palestinian cooking. Some nights there would be just a handful of guests around the courtyard table. Other nights were raucous and crowded, people packed cross-legged on the floor, perched on the arms of chairs, jostling shoulder-to-shoulder in the tiny kitchen. Sometimes there would be dancing or sing-alongs, stretching into the early hours. A few times we watched films beamed onto the wall by a borrowed projector.
In my head, Syrian society had been a spectrum running from my liberal student on one end to my conservative one on the other.Tweet
I was always amazed, and a little perplexed, by Mazen’s unflagging commitment to these extravagant weekly gatherings, which he attended to with an almost religious devotion. But he seemed energized by the crowd, the cocktail of languages, the unlikely mix of nationalities and ages and backgrounds, and he hosted with a preternatural grace. One moment he would be seated in a circle telling stories, and the next he was disappearing into the kitchen and emerging, miraculously, with trays of food: lentil mujaddarah piled high with crispy onion, lamb, and eggplant maqloubeh; home-fried potatoes; bowls of sautéed chard topped with nuts.
Delicious food aside, these evenings were almost as valuable to my education as our classes. Some nights, I settled into easy English conversation with fellow foreigners: a rotating crowd of Arabic students, academics, and journalists from every conceivable corner of Europe, America, and Asia. Other nights, determined to push myself, I would gravitate toward the Arabic speakers in the room. There were regulars from Yarmouk and Damascus, and they were largely a young, bohemian crowd, people with various day jobs who were poets, painters, or filmmakers by night. I didn’t speak a lot but tried to tune in to the falling cadences of their conversations, clutching at threads of meaning, grinning at half-understood jokes. With time, one or two of these people became my friends, and their friendship helped me refine the crude understanding of Syrian society I had developed during those early months in Damascus.
My work as an English teacher in the British Council meant my day-to-day experience of Syrian society was largely restricted to those who could afford the fees — members of the upper middle class and the elite. In a conversation class once, a student, her curly hair tumbling over a designer top, had spoken in faintly American-accented English about the social ills that held Syria back: the patriarchal culture that limited opportunities for women, the trend toward religious conservatism. On the other side of the classroom, I heard a student in an overcoat and white hijab muttering under her breath to her partner, “Estaghfar Allah” — “God forgive her.”
Ruham was one of the friends I met through Mazen; she was hoping to improve her English for work, so we agreed to meet regularly for a language exchange. She worked in a textile factory. She was the daughter of a Syrian writer exiled abroad. And she outdid my cosmopolitan student in her fierce belief in women’s rights and the need for societal change. Unlike her, though, Ruham had never been to Europe and had no aspirations to live there. She had none of the strange anglophilia that afflicted so many of my students. Her bookshelves were (besides a bit of García Márquez and Allende) full of novels by Arabic authors.
Bas was another friend I met at Mazen’s. A musician and artist born and raised in Yarmouk Camp, he was a staunch secularist, though Muslim by background, with little time for organized religion. Bas was also a walking archive of Arabic folk songs — Palestinian, Jordanian, Iraqi — and would sing them when we gathered, explaining the meanings of the words and the tales they told.
The people who frequented Mazen’s parties were of course still a limited sample of the population. Many identified as leftists, and they were generally educated and middle-class, if not rich, and secular, if not irreligious. But hovering around the edges of their conversations, hearing stories about their lives and catching the names of unknown poets, artists, and singers, had a decentering, disorienting effect on me. In my head, Syrian society had been a spectrum running from my liberal student on one end to my conservative one on the other. What defined the liberal one, it had seemed to me, was her relationship to Western culture: her twice-yearly shopping trips to Paris and London, her often-expressed love of Oprah Winfrey and Chris de Burgh. But Ruham and Bas were rooted in Arabic culture every bit as much as my conservative student was. They were interested in the West inasmuch as they were interested in the world, but it was clear that they did not orbit around it, either in resentment or in aspiration.
In a corner of the Omayyad Mosque, the religious leaders of Damascus gather to discuss the impending siege. “If we do not speak with one voice, corruption and chaos will reign over the people,” says Sheikh al-Tadhli, the leader of the ulema. “If our intentions are pure, then our hearts will be united,” replies ibn al-Nabulsi. “Our intentions are pure, insha’Allah,” says Sheikh al-Tadhli. “Insha’Allah,” they all repeat in unison.
After discussing the defense of the city, Sheikh al-Tadhli asks whether there are any outstanding issues. “There remains the question of Jama-laddine ibn al-Sharaiji,” says ibn al-Nabulsi. A man is led into the hall, dragging heavy chains from his ankles, a guard following close behind holding a sackful of books. Jamaladdine, a religious scholar, stands charged with heresy and the distribution of sacrilegious texts. He argues that people make their own fate, they write their own history. In the eyes of the ulema, this challenges the belief, central to their strict orthodoxy, that our fate is preordained and we must submit to it without question.
Sheikh al-Tadhli asks Jamaladdine whether he denies fate. “God has endowed us with minds to think, reflect, and draw lessons from what we see and hear,” says Jamaladdine. “Do you not know that argument in religion is sedition?” says Sheikh al-Tadhli. He orders the guard to take Jamaladdine to the dungeon and beat him. The ulema light a fire in a font in the middle of the hall and throw Jamaladdine’s books into the flames.
There was, Mazen told me, a lot of Saadallah Wannous in the character of Jamaladdine. Beginning with his first plays, written in the late 1960s, Wannous had gained a reputation as a rebel, a freethinker, and a breaker of taboos. Though his work was exported around the Arab world to much acclaim, some of his greatest plays were never allowed to be performed inside Syria. For several years, there was a ban on the mention of his name in state media, and the mufti of Aleppo raised a fatwa against him for his scandalous portrayal of religious authorities.
Did Mazen tell me all this? Or did I learn it in the obsessive googling of Wannous I did after reading him for the first time? Probably a bit of both. All I remember for sure is that Mazen told me enough to give me a fascination with Wannous, a sense of him as an intense and inspired figure, his body of work emerging from the crucible of a tormented life. It was not until later that I discovered Omar Amiralay’s elegiac film on Wannous, Ali Ali ’Ajil Naji al-Anezi’s brilliant PhD thesis on his life and work, and Thanassis Cambanis’s writing on the impact of his theater, among other texts, and started to fill in the gaps.
Wannous’s work, I learned, falls into two periods. His early period consists of political satires, fables of good against evil, of justice against corruption. But by the late ’70s he was struggling with a growing sense of futility as a writer. He lived in a country that faced regional military defeat and increasing tyranny and inequality within its own borders. He had intended his plays to be revolutionary, to spark dialogue and social change, but felt hemmed in by his own artistic limitations, by state censorship, and by the disinterest of audiences. “The serious playwright cannot write,” he said in an interview at the time, “if he discovers his theater is useless.”
Wannous became more and more depressed. In 1977, on the day of Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel, he attempted suicide by taking an overdose of pills. He survived, but his depression did not lift. In the ten years after his suicide attempt, he wrote nothing. The ’80s did little to lift his spirits, with the Lebanese Civil War raging next door, Assad’s massacres in Hama, and the wider crackdown on Syrian opposition. Wannous, though, was far from idle. “During the long period of silence, full of despair, I spent most of my time in reading and contemplation,” he said in an interview. “I had to continue to confront the questions of this painful history.”
In his thesis, al-Anezi explains how Wannous emerged from this period of darkness a different writer. Whereas his early plays were didactic and full of righteous ire, his late plays remained politically engaged but had none of the same certainty. Instead, they picked apart the human complexity behind a historical moment. The Rape is a play that explores the Israel-Palestine conflict, and it contains Israeli characters portrayed as real people, even sympathetic ones. At a time when the Syrian media refused to admit Israel’s existence (except as the black cloud of evil known as the Zionist Entity), this was controversial, earning Wannous accusations of Zionist sympathies.
In writing the fragmented vignettes of Historical Miniatures, Wannous expressed his intention to create “a crowd of human beings . . . to cover these characters with flesh and blood and create for them a language, position, and interest.” In the dissident scholar Jamaladdine, Wannous created a character who reflected his own belief in the necessity of freethinking and reason. But Jamaladdine’s accuser, Sheikh al-Tadhli, is no pantomime villain. He shows himself to be a principled man, steadfast and selfless while other ulema give in to corruption and betrayal. Another major character, ibn Khaldoun, is a figure known throughout the Arab world as a great intellectual and a beacon of rationalism. But as the terrible events of the play unfold, it is his so-called scientific objectivity that allows him to turn a blind eye to acts of incredible cruelty.
Not long after Wannous broke his silence, he was dealt another blow. He was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer of the larynx. The doctors gave him a year to live. This apparent death sentence, however, marked the beginning of a period of intense productivity. Wannous would live another five years and write another six plays. Many say he wrote his best work during this time. Clearly, awareness of his impending death gave him a sense of urgency. But many suggest it also had a liberating effect. His work had been held back by a fear of overstepping the mark: many other writers had gone too far and been silenced by prison or enforced exile. After his diagnosis, he felt he had nothing left to lose.
I was returning from an afternoon lesson one May day in 2007, wandering back through the old city from the microbus stop, when I heard the thump of loud music coming from Bab Touma square. In the preceding weeks I had already seen the city change. The referendum — yes or no to eight more years of President Bashar al-Assad — was approaching. One by one, commercial billboards were replaced with pictures of the president. There were canvas banners on public buildings, with slogans in man-size font: WE LOVE YOU, LEADER OF THE HOMELAND! YES! WE’RE ALL WITH YOU! As the referendum got closer, marquees had been erected in public squares around the capital.
As I walked toward the music, the song became clearer. It was the familiar referendum theme song played at speaker-busting volume — a skittering pop beat, a polished orchestral hook, and the unmistakable words of the chorus: “Minhebbek!” “We love you, we love you, WE LOVE YOU!” In the square, large presidential portraits overlooked the referendum tent. I looked in as I walked past. There were women serving tea from giant urns, families sitting on plastic seats, and, across the front of the tent, a line of people dancing debke, hands linked in a stepping, jumping semicircle. At the entrance to the tent, a woman in a pantsuit and thick makeup was rallying passersby, encouraging them to join in. I stood and watched with uneasy fascination as the curling line of the debke got longer.
I had learned about the debke on my first day in Syria. After arriving in Aleppo on a Turkish bus the night before, I had visited the great mosque, gotten happily lost in the labyrinth of the old market, and then joined forces with an elderly German couple to explore the ancient citadel that loomed over the city center. At the highest point of the citadel, we came across a group of young people dancing to music blaring from tiny portable speakers, the girls in jeans and colorful hijabs, the guys with short hair waxed into stiff peaks. They greeted us and, in broken English, told us about the debke, a dance of celebration known to all Syrians. They persuaded us to join in, taking our hands and leading us around, tracing wide circles in sideways strides as we struggled to keep pace. At the regular step and kick, which came as a surprise to us each time, the elderly Germans and I would fall into a slapstick of flailing legs, triggering explosions of laughter from the others.
It was the surreal highlight of a happy day. Looking back, the whole day seems like a scaled-down model of the three years to come: a charmed wandering across the surface of Syrian life, nourished by great food and chance encounters, tutored by countless small embarrassments, cushioned by the privilege of a British passport and an expat salary. The signs of a dictatorship — the presidential portraits, the leather-jacketed security men, the off-limits areas of conversation — were impossible to ignore. But my Syrian friends seemed bright, open-minded, and irreverent. None of them resembled cowed, brainwashed subjects of a totalitarian state. “The regime can be cruel,” a Syrian colleague once told me, “but as long as people stay out of politics, they are left to get on with their lives.” Most days this line was not difficult to believe.
Watching the referendum debke, though, was one of the moments when I realized how little I understood. I could comprehend people voting “yes,” grudgingly or even wholeheartedly: the president was, on the face of it, widely admired. But this dance of gratitude seemed so undignified. Not even the most devoted supporter could have doubted that the referendum was a farce: the maniacal repetition of the theme song, the ridiculous slogans, the conspicuous absence of a “no” campaign. What led intelligent men and women to dance debke in honor of a president who forced such absurdities on his people?
I continued my lessons with Mazen, my Arabic slowly improving. After the first few scenes of Historical Miniatures, we moved on to other texts. We read a few newspaper articles and poems before starting another book, Tigers on the Tenth Day, a collection of dark, magical fables by the Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer. In the title story, a tiger is taken from the freedom of the jungle and put in a cage. On the first day, the tiger refuses all his keepers’ demands with stubborn pride. The tiger, he says, takes orders from no one. On the second day, they ask him to admit that he is hungry. He admits this, since it is true, and he is rewarded with meat. On the third day, they ask him to stop pacing around the cage. He thinks for a moment. It is hardly worth going hungry to refuse such a trivial request, reasons the tiger; he stands still, and they give him meat. But on the next day he is asked to mew like a cat, on the next day to bray like a donkey, on the next day to applaud a speech made up of empty rhetoric that he does not understand. The next day the meat is replaced by grass, but still he reluctantly indulges their stupid requests. What else can he do? And on the tenth day, in case anyone missed the metaphor, the tiger becomes a citizen and the cage a city.
The next text we studied was a story by Abdel Rahman Munif, a Saudi author, about a young political prisoner in an invented country. The man is kept in isolation and tortured. After some time, he is taken to a room where a man offers him freedom in return for signing a document. The prisoner refuses, and he is taken back to his cell. The isolation continues, punctuated with interrogations and torture. Later, he is taken to the room again, and the same deal is offered. Again he refuses; again he is returned to his cell. The process goes on until one day, worn down, he relents and signs the paper.
It was a terrible time, he said, but it was also an education.Tweet
The following day, the prisoner is free to leave. He walks the streets, reunites with his family, but the man they see is a stranger: wary, unresponsive, joyless. We learn that the price of his freedom was an agreement to cooperate as an informer, to file reports on those around him, to act as the eyes and ears of the regime. The physical incarceration is exchanged for one less visible but every bit as real.
Though these stories had much to say about Syria, we never spoke about Mazen’s experience of life under the Assad regime, about the truths that lay behind the fictions. I had gathered that Mazen was not fond of the regime, but it seemed inappropriate to push for details. But during one class, I noticed that Mazen was moving with a painful stiffness. He told me that his back had been acting up again. I asked him what the problem was, and he said it was an old injury from when he was in prison. In the ’80s, he told me, at the time of the uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, he was jailed after being falsely accused of belonging to the Communist Party. He was barely out of college at the time, but he would spend half of his twenties locked up. It was a terrible time, he said, but it was also an education. He worked in the kitchen and learned how to feed a crowd. He read everything he could get his hands on: history books, the Qur’an and the Bible, poetry and ancient mythology.
And the injury? I asked. It was a time, he said, when the interrogation and torture seemed endless. One day, he left the interrogation room convinced that he could not go on. He was being taken back to his cell when he seized the chance. As he passed an open window, he pushed past the guard and jumped. He fell three stories and broke his back. It healed OK, Mazen said, but it still gave him trouble from time to time. The lesson continued, and Mazen did not speak again about his prison education.
At the time, the stories we read seemed to me a means to an end, grueling exercises for the tender muscles of my developing Arabic. Only more recently have I wondered what it might feel like to read them as someone living under the Assad regime. A story, at its best, can make us feel less alone; it can be a portal into the most intimate corners of another human consciousness. This is the thrill of my favorite stories. That lightning bolt of connection when a writer nails a familiar feeling in words. That reminder of the obvious but startling fact that every other human on the planet has an inner life like me, feels hope and pain and that same faint ache when the evening sun lights the streets a certain way. This is a pleasure, at times a consolation, like a kiss or a conversation. But in a state ruled by violence and fear, what kind of subversive potential might these stories take on? Thinking back to the referendum debke, I remember my surprise at the shamelessness and subservience of it all, the contrast with the critical intelligence of the Syrians I knew. In her book Ambiguities of Domination, Lisa Wedeen puts her finger on the strange shabbiness of the Assad regime, how it resembles, to the untrained eye, a cut-price Stalinism: most of the terror, a fraction of the ideology, and a cult of personality that seemed half-assed, at times almost comical. This was not, she says, simply a product of the vanity of an incompetent dictator: it was a finely tuned machine. The absurdity of the regime’s propaganda and public rituals was central to their purpose.
What power does a dictator really hold, she asks, if his subjects obey him out of their own free will and honest conviction? This is no power at all; it is simply a happy alignment of the will of the people and the leader, and who knows how quickly it might change. But to say things that you know to be ridiculous and untrue, to willingly participate in a ritual that is obviously a farce — this is the ultimate act of submission. Wedeen quotes Stephen Greenblatt on Richard III: “The point is not that anyone is deceived by the charade, but that everyone is forced either to participate, or to watch it silently.”
Wedeen talks of how, under the rule of Hafez al-Assad, Syrians learned from a young age to live this divided existence, a habit she refers to as acting “as if.” This is far from the experience of brainwashing; one’s mind can remain critical, questioning, rebellious. But it protests in isolation, in silent opposition to the body and the tongue. A crowd of supporters may hide a great number of critical minds, but each one is atomized and alone. They are united only in their silence.
Perhaps what hung over the referendum debke, then, was neither fear nor brainwashed devotion but the peculiar aloneness of acting “as if.” I cannot presume to know the beliefs of the dancers, and it is clear Assad does not lack genuinely fervent supporters. But it is safe to say that every dancer knew the deal. This dance of celebration and community, its clasped hands and shared steps, had been co-opted into a lonely theater of obedience. The stories that I studied with Mazen did not openly challenge the regime or present an alternative political program. But they broke down, albeit in a fleeting, piecemeal way, the psychic isolation that was so central to the regime’s power.
Wannous, too, knew the power of stories in a state that imposed such dissonance between inner and outer life, and he believed in the power of theater in particular. In a talk in 1996, he spoke of the way theater, like literature, helps us connect with one another and deepens our sense of a shared humanity. Theater, he believed, could even go beyond this by modeling dialogue and debate, allowing the consideration of multiple viewpoints and complex truths. All this, Wannous believed, was good practice for the kind of civic engagement and responsibility that formed the foundations of a healthy society. But he had no illusions.
Though he was a controversial figure and his plays were sometimes banned, Wannous lived freely in Damascus, tolerated by the regime and employed by the Ministry of Culture. “My very existence is propaganda,” he said in a late interview. He knew that his freedom was a measure of his impotence in the eyes of the regime. For all their subversive potential, his plays did not reach the masses. They remained toothless indulgences for well-fed urban intellectuals, written in classical Arabic and performed for small audiences. His work could, however, bring prestige to Syrian culture on the world stage. His freedom to write would look like a sign of the regime’s benevolence and patronage of the arts. Meanwhile, the security forces dealt mercilessly with any genuine threats to the regime’s domination of civic life.
The Eleventh Day
By now, the story is well known: in February 2011, a group of children in Dera’a, unpracticed in acting “as if,” were detained for writing anti-regime graffiti on a wall and signing it with their own names. The demonstrations that followed, attended by angry relatives and neighbors of the detained children, were met with regime bullets and mass arrests. In the following months, a spiral of outraged protest and escalating regime violence hemorrhaged into open war.
As activists coordinated protests and nonviolent resistance, continuing regime massacres led to a growing number of defections from the military. The Free Syrian Army, whose initial aim was to protect civilians from regime violence, was formed by officers who’d defected. Meanwhile, the regime’s response moved from torture and gunfire to shelling and the leveling of entire neighborhoods.
Nowadays, the scale of the destruction makes it easy to forget what was remarkable about those early days of the uprising. But even as the country descended into war, there were glimpses of something that resembled Wannous’s dream of Syria: a place of civil society, social justice, and open debate.
When the first demonstrations took place, I had been back in the UK for more than a year. I saw a distant, fragmented revolution playing out on Facebook as posts and videos from Syrian friends appeared, drifting along in the banal stream of babies, memes, and bachelorette-party photos that made up my newsfeed. Some Syrian friends remained silent or nonpartisan; everyone knew Facebook was not safe from the secret police. But others talked about demonstrations, arrests, and massacres with an urgency and boldness that I had never seen before.
Some wrote posts in support of Dera’a and its martyrs. Others posted and responded to informal opinion polls on the questions facing Syria: Do you think that there would be a civil war if the regime fell? Will the removal of emergency law make any difference? Friends of friends wrote lengthy notes giving their interpretations of events and their ideas about what should be done, and heated discussions took place in the comments. Others, of course, stepped up their support of the regime, changing their profile pictures to a presidential portrait, arguing that the protests were a foreign plot to destabilize Syria. There was polarization from the start, but there was also debate about topics previously impossible to discuss.
A friend posted videos of various demonstrations. One, from Homs, was breathtaking to watch. You could see ripples of energy move through the vast crowd, viewed from a distance, as the masses clapped, chanted, and pogoed in unison. When the camera zoomed in on people’s faces, what was most striking, more than the anger and defiance, was the joy. Another video captured this same celebratory mood as a group of men danced a debke, the crowd singing “Yalla erhal ya Bashar!” — “O Bashar, go away!” The videos took me back to the manufactured celebration in the referendum tent. These protests felt like its polar opposite: explosions of righteous and reckless emotion.
What was behind this exhilaration, so intense it seemed to obliterate people’s well-founded fear of death or detainment? It could have been the hope that real change was possible, or the thrill of togetherness: the masses, kept atomized and silent for decades, finally finding one voice. But perhaps there was also a unity of a private, internal kind: the feeling when your mind, tongue, and body, after years of enforced separation, come together to work as one, falling into alignment with the force of nuclear fusion.
As the situation worsened — the mass slaughter of women and children in Houla, the flattening of Bab ’Amro in Homs, the rise of jihadist groups such as Al Nusra Front — more videos and posts appeared. For every scene of violence that was shared, there were videos of poetry readings at demonstrations, of the satiric puppets of Masasit Mati, of the songs of the football star turned revolutionary singer Abdul Baset al-Saroot. People shared testimonies, books in PDF: guides to being a citizen journalist, to surviving the trauma of torture. Syrians were making their own history, refusing to submit to fate.
Fragments of Yarmouk
In the first year of the uprising, Yarmouk Camp remained quiet. The leaders of the camp were keen to remain neutral, aware of their vulnerability as stateless refugees, still guests in the country after nearly sixty years. But with the heavy regime bombardment of neighboring areas, the arrival of thousands of refugees, and the arming of pro-regime factions within the camp, Yarmouk was dragged inexorably into war. In December 2012, MIG jets bombed the camp, hitting a mosque housing Syrian families from surrounding areas who had fled their homes. Shortly after, opposition groups under the banner of the Free Syrian Army wrested control of the camp from the pro-Assad faction, and the long siege of Yarmouk began.
It was around this time that videos from Radd Fa’al, or “Reaction,” a Yarmouk-based sketch-comedy group, started appearing in my newsfeed. One of their main stars and writers was Hassan, an old friend of Bas’s, the musician I knew from Mazen’s. The sketches were shot with a cinematic flair, propelled by music, quick cuts, and sudden costume changes. Hassan was an endlessly watchable presence: tousle-haired and handsome, in various stages of beardiness, he had a goofy, exuberant energy. Many of the sketches went over my head, but this hardly mattered, because Hassan’s tone of amused exasperation and laid-back Yarmouk accent took me back to those evenings at Mazen’s house: the music and laughter, the half-grasped conversations.
The sketches, on first viewing, seem unrevolutionary. There is no fiery rhetoric and little overt satire; they simply point out the peculiarities of life in a town that is rapidly becoming a war zone. In one sketch Hassan talks about the childhood games that could be rediscovered in the hours of darkness caused by power cuts. In another sketch, “Taghtiyah,” or “Coverage,” the camera follows Hassan on a dramatic morning mission to reach a certain spot on a nondescript street: the one place in the whole of Yarmouk Camp where there was still mobile-phone reception. When he arrives, he takes out his phone and calls a friend living abroad. “So Abu Hmeid, when are you coming back?” he says. “Yeah, come, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Hassan talks with Abu Hmeid about the timing of the electricity outages and how to work around them. He jokes about beards: how if you want to return to Yarmouk, you’ll have to shave your beard off to pass through the regime-controlled side, then wait for it to grow back before sneaking into the much hairier opposition zone. In between these tips, Hassan has snatches of conversation with passersby. One man asks whether there are still snipers up ahead. “Just stay close to the wall and keep moving straight on,” Hassan shouts as he walks past.
As with Wannous’s domestic vignettes in Historical Miniatures, it was the mundanity of this conversation that brought the scene home to me. As difficult as it is to imagine living in such fear, I know very well the sound of two men talking about everything except their actual feelings. I am good at this game: the blokey nonchalance, the downplaying and bravado that don’t fool anyone. Hassan’s jokey conversation may have been an attempt at reassurance, at keeping spirits up, or just the well-worn banter of old friends. In these grim circumstances, though, it seemed there was a note of defiance in the way he joked: a determination to assert his humanity over the helpless animal terror imposed by this stupid war.
The casual tone is kept up almost to the end, when Abu Hmeid asks after the old gang. “The guys are great,” Hassan says. “No, Abood’s in Rome now. Mahmoud’s in Beirut. Ali’s in Khan al-Sheikh. Ahmed?” A moment of silence, and Hassan leans against the wall. “Yeah, yeah, I can hear you . . . ” When Hassan’s reply comes — “Al ’umr ilak, ’aish enta,” the words spoken to those who have lost a friend or loved one — it is clear that Ahmed is dead. May the years be yours, may you live. The screen turns black, a dedication appears — “To the memory of Ahmed Kousa” — and we know that the scene is no invention.
Later, I spoke with Bas about this sketch; he had moved to London by then, having married an English woman. He told me Ahmed was an old friend of the Radd Fa’al crew and had worked as a volunteer for a humanitarian organization active in the camps. He had been smuggling bread and medicine into the besieged camp when he was shot dead by a regime sniper.
When the war first reached Yarmouk, explained Bas, there had been a surge in community work to meet the growing need. Hassan and many of his friends had thrown themselves into various projects. It started with the groups who provided food and shelter to the refugees displaced from nearby neighborhoods. As municipal services stopped functioning, other groups formed to collect rubbish and provide rudimentary emergency services. Voluntary ambulance crews were formed to attend the scenes of bombings and airstrikes. Some people taught first-aid courses. Others formed groups to rehabilitate the injured. Hassan and his friends put on clown shows for refugee kids staying in local schools.
In late 2013, the siege by Assad’s forces intensified. The first reports of starvation started coming out of Yarmouk. Every now and then, the grinning face of a friend’s profile picture on Facebook would become a black square, a sign of mourning for a friend or loved one, or a massacre large enough to stand out from the steady bleed of daily bombing. On these days, in statuses and in comments, people invoked God in timeworn phrases because there were no other words. There is no strength or help but in God. We come from God, and to him we return. One afternoon in December 2013, my newsfeed filled with black squares again, and the pictures posted showed the smiling face of Hassan. In the shared statuses, a familiar phrase: “maat taht al ta’dhiib” — “died under torture.”
Hassan had been detained with his wife at a regime checkpoint on the outskirts of Yarmouk. His wife was released hours later. Hassan was taken to the nearby headquarters of Military Intelligence. No one heard anything for several weeks. On December 17, Hassan’s parents received a phone call from a man from Military Intelligence who told them that their son was dead.
Hassan’s final days are almost impossible to imagine, though this is not uncharted territory — there are Human Rights Watch reports that describe in detail the systematic sadism of the regime’s torture centers: injured prisoners kept thirty to a cell, prisoners tortured to death in vicious and inventive ways. There is, however, something even harder to comprehend than Hassan’s suffering: the fact that the man who killed him, who lacerated his skin and broke his bones, has a life and a consciousness outside this savagery. Did he kiss his children the day that Hassan died at his hands? Did he listen to Fairouz that morning as he ate his breakfast and think about something other than murder?
This kind of work will attract some true psychopaths, unburdened by the pain of others. But pulling fingernails, burning with acid, or dropping TNT barrels from helicopters onto busy neighborhoods — these things do not come naturally to most of us. We need something else. It helps to be scared, to be persuaded of the suicidal futility of saying no. But to do these things and live with ourselves, we need a good story.
In Syria, the two dominant narratives share a tone of psychotic certainty that has risen to a genocidal pitch. Like the military epics painted in the imperial miniatures, these stories transform a crowd of individuals into an undifferentiated mass, stripped of humanity, plucked and trussed like turkeys, their slaughter inevitable and unquestionable.
In the story told by the pro-regime media, the so-called revolution was a plot by international jihadis to wrest control of a country of peaceful coexistence, wipe out minorities, and establish a barbaric Islamic state. The Syrian Army is engaged in a heroic battle to cleanse the country of these terrorists and restore order. It is a war on germs, rats, and cannibals.
In the story told by the jihadi groups that have come to dominate the opposition and by the hard-line Sunni sheikhs who deliver tirades over Saudi satellite channels, Syria is an artificial state carved out by European powers and ruled for forty years by a vicious Alawi elite that has brutally subjugated the “true” Muslim majority. There is now a genocidal war against the Muslims, ignored or tacitly supported by the West. There can be no peace until the nusayris and their collaborators are wiped out. It is a war on infidels, cockroaches, and apostates.
Both of these stories contain some truths. Both justify endless killing. Where is acting “as if” in all this? It seems unlikely that any Syrians believe the regime media tells the whole truth. The videos of captured deserters being forced, between blows, to repeat the perverse shahada “There is no God but Bashar” show that the regime still prioritizes humiliation over persuasion. As the war grinds on, though, the absolutist narratives of both sides become self-fulfilling; each act of escalating brutality by one side validates and justifies the other.
The War on Stories
I sat with Bas in his London flat, and we watched Hassan’s videos, pausing every now and then as Bas explained the slang and local references. In between sketches, we talked about Hassan’s life. He told me Hassan had been a playwright for years before he started making sketches. He said that, when Hassan and his wife were stopped and detained at the checkpoint, they had been trying to leave Yarmouk for good. After much discussion, they had finally made up their minds to get out.
Why, I asked, was Hassan targeted by the regime? He was a YouTube comedian, not a revolutionary, and was, on the face of it, a gentle, observational one — more Jerry Seinfeld than Bill Hicks. First, Bas told me, you don’t have to be a YouTube star or a revolutionary to be killed by the regime. People in Yarmouk have been tortured to death for a lot less, he said, often seemingly at random. But he did believe that Hassan was targeted for his work.
The Radd Fa’al sketches were an attempt…to make a connection with the world outside.Tweet
State-media reports of Yarmouk at the time painted a picture of a town taken over by savage, cannibalistic terrorists. Citizens were rarely mentioned, and when they were, they were voiceless and pitiful: helpless hostages to terrorism. With most of Yarmouk’s residents reduced to vermin, the military operation could take on the straightforward logic of pest control.
Bas explained how the Radd Fa’al sketches were an attempt, through all the disconnect and terror of war, to make a connection with the world outside. “These videos reminded us that there were still people in the camps not bearing arms, people just trying to live,” said Bas. “I think the regime fears civil activists like the guys from Radd Fa’al more than it fears gunmen. These are the ones that can counter the regime’s narrative, and tell the world that the people being killed are civilians.”
The targeting of civil activists, explained Bas, was nothing new. Some of the first casualties were those who sought change through culture and nonviolence. “In 2011, there were demonstrations in the suburb of Daraya, and the army was sent in to respond. There was a man, Ghiyath Matar, who turned up to demonstrations and handed out bottled water and flowers to the soldiers. Every day he would turn up and do the same thing. You can see him on YouTube — many people shared the videos. In September 2011, he was arrested and tortured to death. There was Ibrahim Qashoush, who wrote the revolutionary debke song ‘Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar.’ In the early days of the revolution this song was sung all over Syria. Soon after, he was found dead. They had cut out his vocal cords.”
A famous slogan of the regime thugs known as the shabiha is “Assad aw nahraq al balad,” meaning “Assad, or we burn the country.” This slogan, sprayed on the walls of the neighborhoods that they target, is a succinct summary of Assad’s game plan over the past four years. The massacres, starvation sieges, and Scud missiles send a simple message to restive populations: the only alternative to Assad is hell on earth. The rise of ISIS in the east of Syria, largely unimpeded by regime forces, has strengthened this narrative: What better propaganda for the regime than ISIS’s nihilistic savagery? Perhaps a more insidious threat to the regime was anyone who told a different story, exposing the deception of its propaganda and raising the possibility of an Assad-free future that was something other than apocalyptic.
The last sketch that Hassan made was, Bas believed, the one that led to his death. While his previous videos had undermined the regime line implicitly, in “’Ala hawa al hisaar,” or “About the Siege,” he criticized its narrative more directly. Leila Khaled, a veteran figure of Palestinian resistance, had just spoken at a conference in Istanbul, throwing her support behind the regime and dismissing the opposition in Yarmouk as a group of foreign terrorists. “There are Afghans now, in Yarmouk Camp!” she had said. In the first part of his sketch, Hassan mocked her blind certainty, her casual parroting of the regime line. But then he admitted that he had come across foreign fighters in Yarmouk. A scene plays out, apparently based on real experience, where Hassan gives a bearded foreigner with stilted Arabic directions to the front line, just as he might have pointed a tourist to the Omayyad Mosque a few years before.
Yarmouk was in chaos at the time, Bas explained. There were extremists and some foreign mujahideen, but there were also many locals drawn to opposition militias by regime violence, and countless families with nowhere else to go. There were people who were disappeared by regime forces, but others who were arrested or killed by opposition groups. There were doctors and volunteers who worked all hours to save casualties, as well as looters and criminals exploiting the chaos. In his final months in Yarmouk, Bas said, Hassan had also been detained by opposition militias.
The Death of Jamaladdine
Seven years had passed since I started reading Historical Miniatures, but I had never gotten around to reading it to the end. In early 2014, after the bombardment of Yarmouk, the months of siege and starvation, the images of biblical catastrophe, I picked up the play again. At first, I read to remember my mornings with Mazen, a nostalgia that felt uneasy, even indecent, while such suffering continued in those same streets. But as I read, I gained a growing sense of the resonance of Wannous’s words. These fragments belonged to the present as much as to ancient history.
The finale of the play, it turns out, is as horrible as it was reasonable to expect. Tamerlane’s hordes arrive in Damascus and overrun the city, slaughtering its people and setting fire to their houses. The citadel holds out under siege for a while but falls as members of the old regime desert to join Tamerlane. The city burns, and the river Barada runs red with blood.
In the very last scene, we return to Jamaladdine, the maverick cleric who challenged the religious authorities. Nailed to a crucifix in the smoldering ruins of the city, he addresses the crowd that has gathered around him. “I am Sheikh Jamaladdine al-Sharaiji,” he shouts, “who believed in the importance of using the mind instead of parroting and copying. I believed that God, the most just, does not ordain weakness and humiliation for his servants.”
Before the invasion, Sheikh al-Tadhli had imprisoned Jamaladdine for heresy, for his claim that man had free will and was not resigned to a predetermined fate. When Tamerlane took control of the citadel, an imam informed him of Jamaladdine’s alleged crime. Instead of being freed as a prisoner of the vanquished regime, Jamaladdine was sentenced to be flogged and then crucified. “I am shocked by their unity on my case,” he cries to the crowd, “in spite of the war and bloodshed that had divided them.”
In his thesis about Wannous, it is clear al-Anezi sees this startling, almost sacrilegious ending as a little grandiose. Wannous saw himself in the figure of Jamaladdine, and al-Anezi suggests that the scene thus amounts to a kind of messianic fantasy of martyrdom. After the catastrophe of the last four years, though, it doesn’t feel so overblown. Jamaladdine’s fate foretells the experience of so many of Syria’s civil revolutionaries since 2011.
In December 2013, Samira al-Khalil and Razan Zaitouneh, human rights activists and survivors of Assad’s jails, were imprisoned by the Army of Islam militia in Douma and have been held ever since. Father Paolo, a Jesuit priest and champion of coexistence from Deir Mar Musa monastery, was kidnapped by ISIS in Raqqa in 2013; nothing more has been heard of him. Raed Fares, one of the activists behind the revolutionary banners and cartoons of Kafranbel, survived an assassination attempt by opposition gunmen in early 2014. Those who have fought for reason and dialogue in Syria have found themselves, like Jamaladdine, caught between two tyrannies. Both sides, locked in a symbiosis of destruction, are intent on silencing any story besides their own.
In late 2014, I called Mazen on Skype. I had been meaning to call for a long time but kept putting it off. After all that had happened in Yarmouk, the usual conventions of catching up seemed utterly inadequate. But the voice I heard, of course, sounded like the same old Mazen. He told me he had left Syria two years previously, leaving all his possessions in his Yarmouk flat, intending to come back. Then the situation got worse. For a while, friends still in Yarmouk would occasionally check on the flat. One time, they found that an armed group was occupying it and holes had been knocked in the walls to shoot from. Shortly afterward, they found it abandoned. All his books had been burned. “Why would they do that?” I asked, and for a split second had visions of a Wannousian scene: bearded extremists stumbling across the books, denouncing them as heretical texts and burning them in a big pile. “For warmth,” said Mazen. “It was winter, and the siege had been going on for months.”
He told me he was well, living in Istanbul and teaching Arabic at a university. We chatted briefly, exchanging news of mutual friends. He was working full time at the university but in his free time helped run Al Dar, an organization that provides education for Syrian and Palestinian children living in Istanbul. Some mutual friends based in Istanbul had set up Hamisch, an organization that promotes Syrian culture and art, putting on talks, workshops, and exhibitions. Its name, meaning “margin” in Arabic, could not have been more apt. Mazen still regularly cooked for a crowd. He often had guests staying in his flat — homeless Palestinians and Syrians fleeing the war — and they would eat meals together, taking turns at cooking and debating whose freekeh or fetteh was the best.
I had made the decision to learn Arabic in the years following the war on Iraq, curious to know firsthand this part of the world that seemed so maligned and misrepresented in Western media. I returned to the UK at the end of 2009 with a sense of purpose. When people asked me about Syria, I would tell them of the historical sites, of the fine food, and most of all of the richness and diversity of Syrian society. “It’s not like you think,” I would say, and tell people how tolerant Syrians were, how warm and welcoming despite the regional tensions and the tyranny of their government. I would watch series like 24 and Homeland and express smug outrage on Facebook about the inaccuracies and lazy Orientalism: the “Iraqi” villains played by actors with Pakistani names and terrible Arabic; the scenes supposedly set in the center of Beirut but resembling an Afghan village, with donkeys and burkas where the mopeds and miniskirts should be.
Now, in eastern Syria, bearded Pakistanis with terrible Arabic call for jihad on camera, and modern, diverse cities are turned into ruins. Reality seems to have caught up with bad TV. One of the only places you hear talk of tolerance and diversity is in regime propaganda, its secular rhetoric a fig leaf for vicious sectarianism. Many people in the West, it seems, look on with horror and pity but no particular surprise. What else to expect in this benighted corner of the world, which knows nothing but violence and hatred? It is difficult to communicate the depth of what has been lost: the culture of hope and possibility that preceded the descent into hell.
One of Saadallah Wannous’s most quoted phrases comes from a speech he gave in the last year of his life. Contemplating the challenges faced by the Arab world — the stranglehold of tyranny, the widening gaps between rich and poor, the marginalization of culture — he concluded with the words “Enona mahkoomiin bil’amal.” “We are condemned to hope” is a common translation, but “sentenced to hope” seems more fitting, like a life sentence handed down by an indifferent magistrate. This is a heavy kind of hope, one that precludes fatalism and inaction, even while it guarantees nothing but struggle. In 2011, as Thanassis Cambanis noted in an article on Wannous for the Boston Globe, protesters in Damascus marched with this slogan on a banner, but it has taken four years to reveal the full implications of the words.
The Radd Fa’al crew has continued making videos since Hassan’s death, though surviving members are now scattered around the world. In “Blue,” a short film shared on YouTube in October 2014, Abo Gabi, a musician from Yarmouk now living in exile, talks over a patchy Skype connection to his old friend Ayham, a pianist and composer who remains in the camp.
The video opens to long shots of Yarmouk’s main shopping streets. Nearly all the shops are shuttered, and shell-damaged buildings trail loose cables and twisted iron. A few figures walk through a faint haze of dust, passing overturned cars and rubble, stepping over the litter gathered like snowdrifts at the sides of the road.
In a later shot, Ayham is sitting at a piano on top of a large metal baggage trolley. Both piano and pianist are wheeled through the streets of Yarmouk by a group of men as small children toddle after them, their mothers following close behind. Having stopped in front of a concrete building with a gaping upper floor, the men are gathered, arms linked around shoulders, as Ayham leads them in song.
This is Firqat Shabab Yarmouk, the Yarmouk choir whose street performances, widely shared on YouTube and Facebook, have documented the destruction left by the siege. The words they sing are as bitterly satiric as they are sad. “Delegations come and go, delegations spin in circles, they bring promises and promises while the people die. What is it with these days?” There is a ragged joy and audacity to their performances, even as the camera roves over the ruins. Halfway through a song, their voices are interrupted by the piercing crack of mortar fire. One or two of the singers look behind them for a moment, then turn back and keep singing.
How do you keep living when death is ever present, when everything you know is torn apart? Some will seek strength and togetherness in the fanatical certainty of the extremisms that occupy the country. Some, through necessity or exhaustion, will return like prodigal sons to the charade of acting “as if” and perform whichever dance the men with guns demand. Some, despite everything, will continue to live in hope.
Or something like it. In “Blue,” Ayham tells Abo Gabi, “I can’t think of anything but music. . . . What is the future? That’s a nasty question. What is tomorrow? I don’t know. So instead I think about my songs.”
Eight months later, Yarmouk’s suffering has not relented. The shelling and barrel bombs have continued unabated, and the starvation siege has now claimed at least two hundred lives. The extremist Al Nusra Front increased their control of the camp throughout 2014, carrying out executions in the main square in December. In April, ISIS entered Yarmouk in coordination with Al Nusra. A number of civil activists and humanitarian workers, threats to ISIS’s monopoly on food and medical aid, have been assassinated.
In his recent videos, Ayham appears without singers and without piano. In one, he sits in a field in front of a row of cinder-block buildings with his Yamaha keyboard. The words of the first song, he explains, were written by Mahmoud, whom he describes as a “great, lost friend.” Mahmoud was one of the singers who appeared in “Blue,” and according to reports on Facebook and Twitter he was taken by the regime several months ago. Halfway through the third song, Ayham’s keyboard cuts out. It only has seven minutes’ worth of battery power. But he keeps on padding the silent keys and singing until the end.