Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Damascus and the dissonance between memories and reality

It's been more than a year since I've blogged, which I'm bummed about. Acknowledging the year gap makes me reflect on what inspires me to write and what are the conditions in my life that facilitate writing. I spent most of the last year in the U.S., which is a bit unusual for me in recent years. I was finishing grad school in Indiana and then staying at my parents' place in Auburn, soaking up my family and my stomping grounds, waiting for my next gig to start. In September, I transitioned from human rights/solidarity work to international development and humanitarian aid. That initially took me to Egypt and now I'm in Turkey for the next two months, lending a hand to our response to the Syrian refugee/IDP (internally-displaced persons) crisis, and then heading back to Egypt.

That was simply an attempt to explain my year silence. Now to the subject at hand...


The war in Syria has been breaking my heart for the last two and a half years. In early 2009, I spent three months in Damascus studying colloquial Arabic. It was a mere three months, but I developed an attraction to the place that I'm unable to fully articulate. Jerusalem was great, Amman was alright, but Damascus captured me. It was uniquely Arab, had a beautiful old city, huge markets with domed ceilings, a beautiful ice cream shop with pistachio ice cream, beautiful mosques, a minibus transportation network that was impossible to figure out but incredibly alluring to explore. There were places to drink and dance, Turkish-style bathrooms where it was perfectly acceptable for men to get pampered, and the city was perfectly walkable. I could go on, but you get it, I loved it. I always tell everyone it's one of my favorite cities.

But my memories of Damascus, and Syria in general, are locked in time. I developed my opinions of Damascus during, what my colleague called, "the golden age." Even though I am routinely reading news about the slow destruction of Syria it hasn't really changed my image of Damascus. If it came up in a conversation tonight, I'd speak in the present tense about how remarkable Damascus is. However, speaking with Syrian friends and being around Syrian colleagues, makes me reconsider the tense in which I'll speak about Syria and Damascus.

"I was in Damascus in 2009, studying Arabic. I loved it. Damascus....was (is?!?!?) amazing."

Do I change the tense of the verb? Do I let them change Syria from a place that is amazing into a place that was, formerly, amazing, or do I do it for them?

When I find out someone is Syrian, I want to share that I lived in Syria and loved the time I spent in their country. Often it's our most notable shared experience, something we could chat about over dinner. But lauding the beauties of Damascus seems insensitive, and must make someone feel like, "yeah, we all felt that way, it's just not like that anymore, you haven't seen what Syria became, you don't get it." And I don't. I can't picture al-Yarmouk camp, where many Palestinian refugees reside in Damascus, completely destroyed due to the battles between the regime and the resistance. When I think of al-Yarmouk I remember the tall apartment buildings and narrow alleyways connecting to the main street which ran through the middle of the camp. I think of my close friends who grew up in the camp, the same friends who first brought me to al-Yarmouk and showed me around. I know that those close friends had to leave the camp, their families were forced to other parts of Damascus, to Lebanon, to Sweden, to Algeria. But my memories are made-up of their smiles, the beautiful lights of the mosques, and the friendly shopkeepers.

Damascus in March 2009

I don't know where I'm going with all of this. It's not exactly stream of consciousness because I've been trying to make sense of this tension between memories and reality and what responsibility I have to those living the reality. What do you do with your great, positive memories of something that has become much more tragic.

I don't want to be a memory imperialist and push my glorious short-term memories of a place that I developed as a visitor and as a foreigner. My memories are real and they're my own, but they exist side-by-side the real, lived experience of people who have seen the horror of war and repression, and the physical and spiritual destruction of parts of their homeland.

I suppose that tension is a microcosm of what war is. It's painful because we knew the beauty of the place, we knew the tolerant and inclusive relations between people; and now we're acutely aware of the dissonance between what this place once was and what it is now. Even harder, we see the pockmarked road that we'll have to travel to rebuild the place into something that resembles what it once was.  

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