What happens to your mother is not your concern!
The cruelties and abuses taking place today in Syria defy all comprehension. Perhaps not even literature, or the language itself, is sufficient to be able to depict what is happening. But how then can we tell the rest of the world about it, asks Syrian writer Omar Kaddour.
It was one month before I left Syria, my home country. I was walking down the main road in my neighborhood when I heard a girl yelling at a man “Let go of my mother. Leave my mother alone.” She was speaking to man wearing a camouflage military uniform with an overall appearance of the regime's Shabiha. The man screamed back in anger “What happens to your mother is not your concern!” He repeated it again “What happens to your mother is not your concern!”
A lot of people outside Syria will find this Shabih's phrase very difficult to understand. He was persistently condemning the girls concern for her mother and her attempts to save her. I myself was astonished at this degree of insolence. I thought of the universal works of literature about the cruelty of dictatorships, but I could not find such a case, where a girl's bond with her mother is objectionable.
Upon recalling the literature of cruelty I thought to myself that the atrocities committed against us and what we see with our own eyes will be very difficult to put down on paper in a poem or a novel. This much cruelty is more than enough to break the rules of literature. As much as writing seems like an urgent need to us, the end result might look more like a form of narration free from all artistic rules. Syrians need to speak, and speak, and speak, as a form of therapy. Novel and poetry and similar literary texts might come later on when this brutal violence we're being subjected to stops.
I would have preferred to read the conversation between the girl and this Shabih in some kind of novel. I would have preferred to consider it a product of the imagination of a novelist or a storyteller. But, as it I heard it happen with my own ears, it broke the link between reality and imagination. Every now and then I remember that scene and it occurs to me that we are living in a profoundly cruel novel not in real life. Real life has t o be different than this. In real life, this girl should be walking with her mother in peace. In real life she should not be displaced from her home, somewhere heavily bombed by the regime's aircrafts. In real life, the bond between a mother and her daughter should be one of the fundamental truths of life, not something to be disapproved of.
What's more appropriate is for that girl and me to have met as characters in a novel. As a fictional character, I would also remember that time when I stopped seeing my mother for a long time because she lives in another town being bombed every day and we couldn't exchange normal visits like a mother and son. And this Shabih would be waiting to show his disapproval of my mother coming to visit me telling her “What happens to your son is not your concern!”
In another scene, a few days after I left Syria, I was talking to my eight-month old daughter via Skype, and when she was about to fall sleep I began to lull her and sing her the usual lullabies while she kept closing her eyes and opening them again to look at the screen and smile. Missing her was not my only reason for this, but I feared my child might, with time, forget my face or the sound of my voice. What I used to say to her was of little importance. What was really important was for her to see me and hear my voice as if I was still with her.
The night I left, my child was, for the first time, refusing to sleep and kept crying incessantly. When I picked her up she kept grabbing my shirt collar, clinging to it, so I won't put her down to sleep. It was as if she had mysteriously sensed that I was leaving in a few hours. In ordinary travel occasions, or in different circumstances, I would have abandoned the idea of travelling all together. But, at that moment I had to get it together and overcome my emotions. A father's natural vulnerability to his daughter was forbidden, and for certain, I could not take her with me in this intricate exodus adventure.
Almost a year after the break of the revolution, remaining in place was getting too dangerous. It wasn't just that the country had turned into a warzone, but I was living in a territory still controlled by the regime, and the Shabiha used to raid homes to enumerate residents searching for those opposing the regime.
I had to leave for good. There was extreme difficulty in both situations: leaving for territories not controlled by the regime, or remaining, in hiding, and suffering the ever-present possibility of being discovered by the intelligence. The opposition fighters had taken control of some areas very close to where I lived, but getting to these areas had become impossible due to the siege the regime has forced upon these territories.
I was able to obtain a fake ID with a different name. Only my picture was true. I started living under a different name. I had to get used to the idea that I'm not me, I'm someone else. Every time I left the house I had to remind myself that I have a different name, a different family name and I come from a different area. My safety required having that fake person belong to an area well known for its support of the regime.
With time, I too, got used to the idea that I am not I. My connection to the real me was a risk. My pictures online as an opposing writer were a threat to me. A neighbour might catch on the absolute resemblance. My relationship with myself became a source of confusion. The writer in me puts me in jeopardy. And the connection between myself and others, including my family, might cause them trouble they don't need. I started feeling like a burden to others and myself.
In the George Orwell novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, children were being trained to report their parent to the intelligence authorities. That was what Orwell's imagination had come up with in the year 1948 when he wrote the novel. At that time the world had just gotten rid of Nazism and was still straining under the weight of Stalinism. Only now, writing these lines, I remembered the children of Orwell's novel. The rest of the novel does not amaze Syrians anymore. We have tried forms of oppression and brutality Orwell could have never thought of. The Shabih's disapproval of the girl's connection to her mother did not come from George Orwell's world, nor did it come from that advanced dictatorship, but, the Shabih had realized with his brutal common sense that his success in mission requires him to oppress the mother while the daughter watched without the smallest incentive to object. In prisons, or even when the regime forces raid the homes of the rebels, the leaders tell their subordinates to rape the women in front of their chained—to augment the humiliation—fathers, brothers or husbands. It is not only a matter of human dignity here, but their exact aim is to strip the people from their natural feelings towards their loved ones. They want to crush the most intimate forms of the human connection.
Killing young children in front of their opposing parents is also a common form of punishment. The punishment is to become a danger to your closest family members whose only fault is their kinship to you.
The direct result of this anomalous situation is that many of us sacrifice their feelings for the sake of protecting their loved ones. We try to keep them away from ourselves, and from the harm that might come to them for being close to us.
Maybe, when this nightmare is over, we will write stories and novels of sons who have forgotten being sons, of mothers only remember motherhood when crying for their massacred children.
Maybe, we will write stories, very realistic to us but will leave the world astonished at what they believe to be our cruel imagination.
We come from a very long horror film the world has not seen or doesn't want to see, but we are its heroes and victims at the same time. Maybe, the world will not believe us when we tell stories of the monsters we have lived with. They will say we're exaggerating when we speak of the skeletons of tens of thousands of detainees killed under torture—so far.
We, the inhabitants of a planet called Syria, will prove to other peoples that the cruelty literature they have known is nothing but a small joke comparing to the reality we live in. We are the residents of the dictator's brutal imagination.