Dear Cruelest Month: Spring Isn’t Arab


Once upon a time we lay in bed trying to imagine what shelling sounded like.

We being me and the man I loved. Ah, those early days of my Orientalism and our naïvete.

It was winter,2012, and I had started sleeping in the storage space above my kitchen. It was the only place in my high-ceilinged apartment small enough to hold heat through the daily two-hour power cuts. That was not bad for power cuts; that was Damascus in a relatively quiescent neighborhood. Protesting areas got six or eight hour blackouts. Those with resident ministers never even flickered.

I lived midway up the city’s biggest hill, called Mount Qassioun, in four shabby rooms with walls thick enough that I could make do with sweaters–until a heavy January snowfall tore trees and power lines down across the hillside, punishment not from the government but from the sky itself. After two freezing days I dragged my mattress upstairs and got used to waking in a close dull space.

Then snowmelt made creeks down the tilted maze of streets zigzagging around Sufi cemeteries and old holy places of retreat that waves of migrating villagers had long since engulfed in lingerie, vegetable, and pirated DVD shops. By then the shelling had reached the capital, first as sieges along the outskirts and skirmishes in pockets in the center. By the time Damascus’ famous jasmine began flowering, the army had started firing nightly from the top of Mount Qassioun, not fast but methodically, night after night, at the suburbs to the south. Then shelling was not imaginary, or intriguing, and we learned to sleep through, or around, those actual booms.

What I want to go back to, because it feels so incongruous now, is that time three years and a month or so ago, when we knew what was coming, and it hadn’t yet arrived. Looking back, what surprises me is not the line we crossed, from ignorance to knowing. It is how incurious we became once we’d crossed it. I mean: anticipation is an act of imagination. Acceptance, adaptation, resignation—whatever you want to call how humans internalize their real environments—is not. And so lived-through conflict deadens.

So what, though.

So when protests first broke out—in Tunis, remember, as the burned street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi was laid to rest—there was a collective drawing-in of breath, a shared asking, in hope or fear, what next? In Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates, in all those countries where commander-in-chief is a hereditary title, where the sons had taken over their father’s palaces, to flocking applause, or were about to, it seemed that the pattern of fait accompli had been broken.

We were naïve, yes.

For what has happened is that the pattern shivered and held. Though in some places—Libya, for example—it has born twins, with two supreme leaders, each ruling over half of the old fiefdom. In Tunis the new president was a minister in the old regime—but at least he was fairly elected. In Egypt the military regime is back, by a force we can’t call a coup, for if we did, we couldn’t legally fund them. And this month we went back to paying that military its full cut. Saudi Arabia has continued to strong-arm Bahrain, flog its bloggers and buy our bombers—and to use them in Yemen, where, despite the appearance of some new drama, the fact is that the ousted president, himself a Houthi, has allied himself with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels to take revenge on his people for kicking him out. And since they took Aden—he’s baaack. As an archipelago of our military bases, the Emirates never left our pocket, while in Iraq we’ve given up the pretense of supporting democracy and are openly allied with Shia militias we once fought. The same militias that are shoring up Assad’s estates in Syria, who must see our bombing of their enemies as auspicious.

The people want, the people chanted—then let them want, and more and more desperately while they’re at it. That’s what’s happened. And whose fault is it?

As in the burst housing bubble here at home, it is the ordinary people who lost the most—here their houses, there their countries and often their lives—who are blamed for the calculated destruction of their chances. Those credulous, needy—or perhaps shrewd, murderous, essentially fanatical and therefore uncivilizable—people brought it on themselves. So says the bloody amnesia of the nightly news, which neglects to mention that after four years of hemming and hawing about freedom, money and weapons are still flowing into the same old hands.

(And where else can we put them? Give those guys a butter knife and they start sawing off heads.)

And so the Arab Spring, that gauzy butterfly of democratic twinges, that shy young my-fair-lady of untutored songs to liberty that produced so many many images of children weeping hopefully on their face paint, turned out to be a mere interlude between stagings of the same old ogre puppets lapping up blood. It’s evident to anyone watching this show that the Arabs don’t deserve spring—since for them time manifestly doesn’t pass. Like Persephone, they made a wrong move when they should have kept still and hungry, and for this they must pay by remaining in the land of the dead, who keep piling up around their doorsteps.

Meanwhile, it is spring here and there. In northwestern Syria the olive trees have put out new leaves like so many tenacious moths fanning themselves in the light. Unfarmable orchards are flowering again over red earth corrugated by tank treads. I know because now we–me and that same man, now my husband–lie in bed and watch YouTube videos of tanks shelling through them. Now it is not the violence that startles but the beauty of the season itself, streaming over battlefields. We watch the latest clashes near Idlib City, seized in early April by the Nusra Front and now being pulverized (more!) by regime bombs.

Eriha, the nearby town where regime forces have regrouped to, my now-husband tells me, is famous for its cherries.

We type “cherry blossoms” into the search box on YouTube and come up with dozens of clips of Japanese cherry trees. We watch them, montages of wide belling trees freighted with blossoms. And imagine Eriha.

Jennifer MacKenzie teaches English and journalism at Lehman College, CUNY, and her first book of poems, My Not-My Soldier, was released by Fence Books' Modern Poets Series in 2014. Recent poems and essays can also be found in Fence, Drunken Boat, the Near East Quarterly, and the Kenyon Review online.