I’m a secret: let me start with that. I’ve stayed one through the outbreak of an uprising and through our departure, Maalik’s and mine, from the war it became.
At first we hid our relationship from everyone: my friends, his friends, our families, our landlord, and the Syrian secret police. Though they were probably the first ones to figure it out, since how many text messages about the scent of gardenias do you send to your Platonic friends?
Two and a half years on, Maalik’s family is the last to know, and I don’t know now whether to be displeased or relieved. After Jesus told the story of the Romanian I thought, all bets are off.
Jesus is our unexpected guest, a Ramadan event. The day before that month of fasting starts, word reaches Maalik that someone from Lattakia, his home city, has fetched up here. A friend of his sister, a sailor, he’s been forced off his ship a month early by a shoulder injury. Nothing to do but go home—except that since his employers haven’t deigned to pay him, he’s stuck broke in a cheap hotel room he can’t afford.
The prospect of having a visitor from home, even through an unwelcome twist of his fate, is exciting. Maalik and I left Syria at month 19 of its increasingly bloody insurrection. Now in month 29, it recently ranked 19th on a Foreign Policy list of failed states: above Uganda, below Burundi. Once neglected by the Western press, it is now famous for great and increasing misery.
I want, perversely, for this to stay secret too. What can you know of anyone’s life inside a notorious disaster? Refugee crisis, political crisis, a Vegas of calamity. White geysers of dust raised by shelling, vast sums of aid money touted by UN spokespeople, children staring from the doorways of tents. “Is your boyfriend a refugee?” my Turkish students ask me, then keep their faces politely attentive as they wait for me to finish hedging.
What do I know about Syria? I sometimes ask myself. For three and a half years in its capital, I made a living from the new cool of English. Assad Jr., the blue-eyed Mac user, had thrown open the Syrian economy when he inherited the presidency in 2000. Five years later he christened the result a “socialist market economy”, and by the time I arrived to learn Arabic in spring of 2009, that economy was going full throttle, with all the fairness and transparency normally associated with mafia systems.
With colonies of satellite dishes drawing the fantastic manna of Nilesat down through even the poorest, furthest roofs, it was clearly no longer necessary for Syrians to defend their country’s status as the last bastion of Arabism by warding off foreign languages along with foreign products. In this updated version of Arab socialism, money was suddenly visible, an irruption of Prada, sushi, and lattes out of a brown swath of cactus fields and concrete tenements, and its first language was English—another expensive accessory.
So at a private language school whose course on the proper use of American and British slang was legendary, I taught TOEFL preparation to engineering and med students who hoped a high score would be their ticket out, and wrote a steady stream of articles for magazines with names like “Happynings”, about galleries and fancy shops, “women in media”, and an ephemeral ban on smoking. All passed through censors’ hands without comment.
Under that happyning surface were layers of other information, and histories you were privy to only if you or a close relative had either lived through them or worked in the security forces. In the latter case, such knowledge gave you a tacit, fear-based gravitas; in the former, it constituted a liability. To be friends with an ex-political prisoner, for instance, was to have your phone tapped, as Maalik’s was. When this friend came over to play clips of videos smuggled out of prisons, I was not allowed to watch.
Likewise, to be friends with a foreigner was to rub elbows with a presumed spy, so I was also initially not allowed to call Maalik or his friends or send them text messages, since all my email and phone communications were assumed to be monitored. For a Syrian to have a foreigner’s name saved in his cell phone was reason enough for a summons to interrogation at one of the many security branch buildings across the city–not that a reason was ever necessary, Maalik kept reminding me.
There were 15 or 16 branches of these forces, each headed by a wealthy contender for political clout and fed by local informants on every block who often worked for multiple branches as they vied for income and promotion. In that ecosystem, where suspicion provided a semi-living wage, everything touching on danger had a pseudonym: prison was “your aunt’s house”, the president was simply “he”, and in Maalik’s cell phone, my number was eventually saved under the Arabic name “Sidra”.
Because just as the lid was coming off that language, in reckless, hemmed-in fits and starts, Maalik and I found ourselves more than neighbors, and my first reaction was to deny it even to myself. This is not real, I told myself about the man bringing me potted plants, cooking me elaborate meals, and forcing me to participate in a spring cleaning of my dusty, high-ceilinged apartment.
After a few months, though, that unreality had taken on distinctly tangible forms. A garden of jasmine and roses had replaced the three brittle plants that had died on my back terrace because didn’t feel like watering them. Rice that I cooked had a taste. Eggplant—I discovered that I love eggplant. When my parents and then friends started asking with increasing urgency why I was still in Syria, when most foreigners, and then most embassies, had left, I replied, “I love my garden”—which wasn’t of course the whole truth.
I knew Damascus was a bubble, I believed this bubble to be fundamentally unjust, and I continued to live in and off it, watering my plants and listening to the stray crack of bullets nightly. It took a year for the war in the countryside—one-sided at first, the army against protesting villagers, who responded to invasion and occupation with armed resistance—to come within my earshot.
Distant rumbles I first mistook for spring thunder were artillery shelling the rebellious southern and eastern suburbs. A single deep boom early in the morning meant a car bomb had gone off beside some governmental site. If it was really loud, Maalik and I would run out onto our terrace to see if we could spot the gray cloud before it dispersed. By summer 2012, helicopters had been deployed above the city to support various sieges, mostly little transport choppers jerry-rigged to carry rockets. They made slow circles all day in the heat above the cluttered drab brown buildings, occasionally firing little orange blips that were hard to discern against the pale bright sky, but as night fell you could see the tracer lines clearly, and kids would gather on the streets and point out the bright streaks.
“Is it beautiful? Is it beautiful?” Maalik half-yelled at me the night the army started shelling from above our house. I was sitting in bed writing. (He suspected me, mostly correctly, of taking constant notes on his country’s devolution.) His family’s villages in the north had been under shelling for months—that summer his father’s house would be half-destroyed by a stray round—and he didn’t have it in him to say, “This isn’t real”.
Instead he imagined every possible outcome from every possible angle, and his flair for strategy only served to embellish each painful labyrinth in greater detail. He tried to get me to leave through various stratagems, including threatening to report me as a spy, which he also couldn’t bring himself to go through with, and I inured myself to the nightly booms.
Finally in mid-September 2012, Maalik declared that we were leaving the following Wednesday. I argued for Saturday and lost. On our taxi ride out, as we coasted around the central roundabout, the opera house and national library sliding past for the last time, a gray smear hung vertically in the southern sky, a thin trace of the shelling pulverizing the working class suburbs to the south and east. The far end of the booms’ trajectories. Then we were gone.
Here in Turkey, the small privations of that life are forgettable. Here cooking gas, gasoline, and water don’t run out, and the electricity stays on. We ghost through the rainy blur of winter in an unfamiliar city, and in April, Maalik sends money to bring his younger brother Qais the twenty-six hours by bus from Lattakia on the Mediterranean coast to our half-basement flat in Istanbul.
Just shy of twenty, all wiry angles topped by a wry, grandfatherly smirk, Qais perks up at the women in short-shorts crowding Istiklal Street, then sinks into a long disconsolate hibernation, punctuated by insomniac bouts of Facebook. At least he’s not arrested or dead, I tell myself, passing his ashtrays.
The approach of Ramadan in Turkey crystallizes his and Maalik’s alienation. Where are the special breads and juices, and the women who can produce the requisite heaped platters of food? News of Jesus’ distress turns the tables slightly, making Maalik and Qais potential rescuers instead of unemployed exiles.
On the first night of Ramadan, after duly photographing our first Iftar meal and messaging the pictures to Maalik’s family, we set off to find the waylaid Jesus. From the bus stop we scurry across a dark, empty highway lined with sleek white tour buses and through a warren of seedy, table-lined streets clacking with scores of backgammon matches to reach his cheap hotel.
This Jesus is a veteran seaman, not a large man, but trim, nearly clean-shaven, somewhere in his forties, with blue eyes and the features of a wary Al Pacino. He seems quietly stunned, and cradles his injured left arm to his ribs. We tramp with him up to the top floor of one of the innumerable tea houses, which is done up for Ramadan with a garish pink and purple paisley tent. In the dubious shelter of this circus effect, Jesus complains about his weasely employers, then relates the other disappointment he’s nursing.
Days earlier, he was drinking tea in a similar café when two Saudis sat down at the next table. In times past, Saudi tourists were a kind of summer cash crop in Syria, descending on the country to buy gaudy handicrafts, alcohol, and often enough, young women, whom they married for a few months for the sake of everyone’s soul. Now that holy war has become the main investment opportunity in Syria, the marriage business has dried up—at least in the former resort towns, now mostly under siege, though there are many brides to be found in the sprawling refugee camps.
But in an unintelligible land, Saudis were fellow Arabs with whom Jesus could lament, commiserate, and swap stories. He greeted the two men eagerly, introducing himself as Syrian. In reply, one of them drew a five-lira bill (about three dollars) from his pocket and dropped it on Jesus’s table. Jesus’s only recourse was to withdraw a fifty-lira bill from his wallet–a rash gesture, as it amounted to nearly all his available assets–and toss it onto the Saudis’ table.
“I’m not asking for money,” Jesus exclaimed. “I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Okay, okay,” the man muttered in English, cutting the conversation off at its abject start.
On the second day of Ramadan, I come home from work to find Jesus, Maalik, and Qais sitting on the back steps, vaguely matching in short-sleeved plaid shirts, whiling away the last of their 17-hour fast by enumerating the current staggering prices of refrigerators, meat, and bread in Syria. Turkish versus Syrian price comparisons is another sideshow.
But always their talk returns to the sea. What size house you could buy after working for two months as a captain. How much money a tricky crew can embezzle by playing with the fueling log. How maritime insurance companies calculate compensation for a shipwreck (by the weight of the sunk iron). How many ships total there are in the world. How many in Syria, in the possession of Syrians: they start listing family names.
Jesus is the expert, reeling off wages: that of an uneducated seaman and of an educated one, of a captain, a first mate, and the local pilot who must, under maritime law, be the one to steer an arriving ship into port: that guy makes a killing. But on the long stretches of ocean between berths, newer ships are steered automatically, by CD.
“Soon we will all be replaced by CDs,” Jesus adds wryly.
For Qais, Jesus is a visitor from a world to which he longs for admittance. Qais’s dream is to follow another of his older brothers out to sea. Though this brother made a shrewd detour in 2011, deserting ship sans passport, and is now an asylee in a small, orderly EU member state.
Like him, Qais studied maritime engineering–this is how the two-year vocational course translates into English—and dreams of traversing the globe in a vessel he can keep running with his own know-how. But the Syrian shipping business shrank as the revolution picked up steam, and after receiving his laminated course certificates, he could find no ship to take him.
In Istanbul, he rouses himself from speechlessness only to enumerate kinds of sea-faring knowledge. At a café overlooking the Bosphorus, he displays “SOS” for us unbidden, using a Morse code phone app he’s installed on his phone, the distress signal flashing out across lit bridges. He skips most of the Turkish classes Maalik enrolls him in: the language of the sea is of course English. Which he has gleaned from Eminem videos.
I am from ten miles north of the Eight Mile Road Eminem made famous, the ring road demarcating inner-city Detroit from its suburbs. I always feel dishonest telling people I’m from the same city as Eminem, since in fact I’m from a place that disowned its existence. Even when I try, it is hard for me to explain the charged glee I feel listening to Eminem exclaim, “White America! I could be one of your kids! White America, little Eric looks just like this!”
I am from exactly the White America that Eminem isn’t, though our neighborhoods are only a dozen miles apart. Growing up on Bloomcrest Drive in Bloomfield Hills in floral-themed suburbia, I didn’t know there was a semi-abandoned city 15 minutes to the south. Until I turned 16, when I inherited my late grandfather’s Cadillac, a silver two-door V-6 Coupe de Ville that got 11 miles to the gallon, and was forbidden from driving there.
My world was the McMansions and strip malls lining Squirrel, Maple, Lone Pine and Orchard Lake Roads, where I felt like a misfit because I had a nineteenth century vocabulary (due to my voracious reading of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Lucy Maud Montgomery, the only books we had in quantity) and Cadillac rather than a forest green Jeep Cherokee, the de rigueur first car for juniors at my prep school (it was Mitt Romney’s prep school, after all.)
I had no idea that the vast lawns that made trick-or-treating a dreary slog were the result of a long civil rights battle in which one side had opted to flee into a vacuous grid of divided highways and cul-de-sacs. Even now, each time I hear Eminem name it—“White America!”—I feel a great relief that it has a definite name and circumference and is not, as I assumed growing up, the only thing there is.
I don’t know whether, had I been born into a different family, Bloomfield Hills could have felt like an idyll; I only know that due to many other factors besides the race and class history of Middle America, I was wordlessly miserable there. Thanks to my mother, who successfully managed to get my father to pay for 13 years of prep school (“it’s the only kindergarten with a half day, and she’s small for her age, she needs a nap in the afternoon”), I was extremely well-educated, even before heading east for a small, liberal arts school that I chose out of the rough dozen we visited because it alone lacked a central quad, an architectural feature that to me signaled the continuing reign of preppie lockstep.
Then and for years after, books were not an alternative reality for me, they were reality, full stop, allowing me to tell myself that my physical surroundings (and self for that matter) weren’t “real”. The only downside of this was that I disenfranchised my experience of pretty much everything other than books, leaving me with the persistent feeling that everyone else was “from somewhere” and I was not.
People from small towns—even people in songs about small towns, as I discovered when I experimentally moved to a small town in the Pacific Northwest for its superior reality and started listening to country music—work hard to leave them, and that hard work makes them (at least in country music) heroes. I, on the other hand, was from a privileged enclave that pictured itself as a pastoral version of the American Dream, making me not a hero but a weirdo for wanting to leave it, and a spoiled one at that. No matter that that dream was provincial, materialist, racist, and dying from the loss of jobs to a globalized economy. Did I have a better dream? I did not—I just had the primitive conviction that the official line about anything was probably false, and an immense appetite for whatever was most “different”, which in my biased calculus made it the most “real”.
When I got to Damascus, although I was unquestionably a foreigner there, Syrians’ utilitarian schizophrenia with regard to their political reality made a visceral kind of sense to me. It was close enough to my old prep-school imperative to “be nice”–look harmless, obliging, and obedient to the status quo while suppressing every negative—though in Syria, of course, the underlying “unreality” was something totally else.
In Syria, too, I could never hope to fully assimilate, only meet people partway in a mutual acknowledgement of differences, and permitting myself to stop trying to fit in was liberating. When Maalik met me, he found another odd bird who didn’t ask him to choose between his warring identities (Sunni Muslim vs. Baathist Arab, city-loving academic vs. mountain redneck), but instead took vicarious pleasure in all of them. For this, I guess, he put up with my endless hunger for stories about his childhood village and his family donkey, Abu Na’if, and my disinclination toward housework.
I also discovered along the way that there is only so far I can go towards that middle-ground accommodation, and it’s often a shorter distance than I imagine. Like on the second day of Ramadan in Istanbul when Maalik calls to ask my permission to host Jesus in our house. He will of course have to be sworn to secrecy: Maalik’s family back home cannot know that he’s living in sin with an American. Nevertheless, my instinct to lobby for their approval, almost entirely thwarted by Maalik, kicks in full gear. I want to impress this family friend as a proper, well-raised infidel at least.
So I hastily purchase a long, cheap floral print dress on my way home—exactly the sort of thing western tourists imagine is kosher in Muslim countries, which is why you see a lot of them wandering around the Middle East looking like a lost tribe of frumpy flower children. In my mind, my new Ramadan dress says “conservative Muslim-esque woman”, when in fact it screams “knock-off Laura Ashley”, the prom and bar/bat mitzvah brand of my youth. Being one-size-fits-all, it is also so baggy that it covers my toes and needs a third of the waist taken in with safety pins.
“Have you become Selafi?” Maalik asks, eyeing the dress with amusement.
Selafis, in case you don’t know, are to Islam approximately what the Amish are to Christianity, minus the pacifism. At least, both are anti-modernist literalists who espouse the holy Word as God’s direct, unfiltered injunction, and thus reject many modern technologies as impediments to right living. In Iraq, under Selafi rule, this included a ban on ice cream, while in Somalia, samosas were outlawed, allegedly for resembling the Christian Holy Trinity.
Happily for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, Selafis also reject political parties; thus the Gulf has been supporting them against the Muslim Brotherhood in both Egypt and Syria, where it is becoming easier to renounce modern technology as more of it is blown to bits. And so Maalik’s cousins in the mountain villages behind Lattakia—the Sunni villages, at least–have grown beards, renounced alcohol and pot, and taken up arms against the Syrian regime in the name of God—which rapidly came to mean the god of Saudi, Wahhabi Islam.
Maalik tracks their metamorphoses via Facebook, scanning battalion photos and video clips for the faces of guys he grew up with. (“Battalion” here means a few dozen men from the same area.) The longer the beards, Maalik says, the more liberal the funding. He likes to add that there was no mosque in his village until 2008, and when an out-of-towner built it, only tourists from the city used it.
In fact, the mountains he grew up in have been home to a tenacious patchwork of sects and ethnicities for centuries. Until the nineties, the lack of decent roads made the landscape nearly impassable, creating a perfect haven for whoever wanted to be left alone. Christians of various denominations, Armenians and Alawis fleeing persecution, ethnic Turkomen left over from Ottoman times. One set of Maalik’s grandparents acquired a string of villages under the Ottoman bashas, which they later lost to the land redistribution effected by the Baath Party when it came to power in the sixties. Maalik likes to joke that he grew up a redneck because of the party, but he is also a Baathist. What identity besides Arab, he argues, could accommodate the Christians, the Druze, the Ismailis and Alawis all living within Syria’s borders?
An inveterate student of history, Maalik is constantly amazed by my ignorance. Among his brothers, he’s the odd son out in his quest for academic knowledge. As the only male interested in such, he was allowed to leave home to pursue it, but his desire is nevertheless inexplicable to his family, who could not understand his stubborn insistence on turning his back on that great provider, the sea.
“It’s the same in my city!” exclaims my friend Suhail when I mention Lattakia’s collective seaward bias. His city is Tartous, the next city of any size to the south and the site of Russia’s only Mediterranean submarine base. “No one goes to school there; people only want to work at sea.”
Indeed, he recalls, when he told his grandmother–“a very special person,” he adds, smiling at the recollection–that he wanted to go off to university to study accounting, she couldn’t place the term.
“Sea accounting?” she asked doubtfully. “You want to be a sea accountant?” To any marine profession she would give her blessing.
“No, grandma, not sea accounting. Just regular accounting,” Suhail said. And this, for several years, she scowled upon–until he had proven that a living could also be made from landlubber figuring.
Sea accounting: more than just a nonexistent profession, it is the mechanism that dictates that the unfamiliar must be bent out of its own shape to be encompassed by the known, contorted in order to be fitted into an identifiable model; it therefore remains unrecognizable and unassimilable on its own terms. Sea accounting maintains the status quo by labeling innovation as anathema.
In the first days of the revolution, when he was detained for protesting, Suhail met the same dynamic of incomprehension in the security forces charged with punishing him. They couldn’t understand what he was opposing.
“They were really confused,” he says. “They kept asking us, ‘What is this? Who are you against?’ They thought we must have a personal problem with someone in the regime–or that we were pro-Israel. That was the only thing they could imagine opposition meant: supporting Israel.”
Bassel, a poet and Suhail’s beatific comrade in exile, says his father, also from a village behind Tartous, was just the same. “He thought I had a personal problem with Bashar,” he says, giggling and shaking his head, making his black curls bounce. “‘He has blue eyes, he is tall and smart, what could you have against him? Come on, get over it’,” he recalls his father begging.
This cult of personality, Suhail says, “was the whole problem with protest in Syria before the revolution. Everything was understood in personal terms. But to criticize the whole regime, the total system–no one could imagine that.”
Suhail and Bassel are Alawi, the same sect as the president and his ruling circle and its core base of support. Precisely because they are recognizably so, they were able to organize resistance in places Sunni activists never could have entered. Bassel’s last act of treason was to smuggle blood bags out of a public hospital. In government hospitals, wounded protestors once admitted were often killed. So underground clinics and field hospitals were set up to treat them, using medical supplies perilously smuggled either in from abroad or out of state-run institutions. Perilous since the unlicensed possession of such supplies—de facto evidence of supporting terrorist traitors–was a crime against the state.
When he was stopped by security on the road out, Bassel chose to run for it rather than face certain arrest and torture. Luckily for him, the bullets they fired missed him, though they hit his accomplice. At length, Bassel’s bewildered father was able to smuggle him out of the country, still mourning his son’s incomprehensible politics.
Suhail’s luck was worse. His attempted escape from a similar tight spot resulted in a fractured femur, and he’s endured multiple rounds of arrest and torture. To the majority of Alawis, who have remained staunchly pro-regime, he and Bassel are traitors.
“They are good people,” Bassel insists of the villagers he grew up with. “If you were in trouble, they would help you.” But, he adds matter-of-factly, if he returns to his hometown, his neighbors will try to kill him.
Faced with this home front, he and Suhail have embraced its equal and opposite reaction, the extremists next door. “Who in Syria opposed the whole system more completely than the extremists, the Nusra Front and other Selafis?” he asks grinning.
I am astonished. Nusra, now openly allied with Al-Qaida, preaches and practices the killing of Alawis as heretics. But these two anarchists, God bless them, have embraced their whole-heartedness. For absolutist problems, absolutist solutions.
“This revolution is rural, sprung from the countryside. And there is no one more radically homegrown, more committed to turning things upside down, inside out, on an individual basis, than Nusra,” Bassel too declares, beaming over a beer in downtown Cairo. “I don’t support their platform–of course I don’t want an Islamic State–but as for their radicalism, I am for it.”
But what about the Alawis, increasingly cornered in their loyalty to Bashar?
“They need to bleed until they become Syrian,” he says serenely.
“They need to be slaughtered,” Jesus grumbles. “They” being Alawis. In the third year of insurrection, “they need to be slaughtered” has become a catchphrase, a refrain: bidon dbh in Arabic.
“We’re going to slaughter them,” my friend Khaled’s cousin declares blithely when he shows up one night for tea and water-pipe.
“We used to be good friends, and everything was friendly between us; we didn’t care about who was what,” Khaled’s bride-to-be confides. She, Khaled and his cousin are all also from Lattakia. “Now I wouldn’t get into a car with them. Who knows?–they might rape me.”
Khaled beside her sits nodding his agreement. His mother is Alawi; his father fought her cousins–literally, with his fists–for several years to win her hand. At Khaled’s wedding, I meet a young woman who sheds her headscarf and robe in the all-female sitting room while confiding to me that she’s just started wearing them.
She is Alawi, her husband Sunni, and the scarf, she says matter-of-factly, is important to them. After trying for seven years to get her father’s permission to marry, they gave up and eloped to Turkey. On the bus to Turkey she met Khaled’s bride, who was fleeing to avoid arrest for working with opposition media.
And how is her family reacting? I ask.
She smiles. “My mother is fine with it. My father and brother are very angry. Now they are trying–to cool down.”
Which brings me back to Jesus’ Romanian.
Who was she? A woman he loved. The reason he speaks Romanian–really an easy language, he insists when I disagree. He tried for three years to convince his family to let him marry her.
Later, Maalik explains their probable calculus. A foreigner, from Eastern Europe so she must be poor, and where did they meet? Probably a bar. If so, she’s a whore.
“Marry her if you want,” his father told him finally, “but don’t come back to Syria if you do.”
Jesus, in due course, married a cousin instead, fathered two children and gave them incomprehensible names. His first child’s name he found in a dictionary—because, he explains when I ask, “there are so many Mahmouds in my family already.” His second child’s name is Romanian.
The flat totality of this consensus—no to variance from the norm, close ranks around the known, its status quo—forms a shoal my foreigner thinking snags against, then frets endlessly. Us versus them. The greater the duress that “we” is under, the greater the sanctity that “us” accumulates, eventually becoming diamond of adversarial identities, harder than any other history around it.
I was never such a we—or to the degree I was, I shunned it. Slummed away from it in hippie getup and bad-mouthed it. Perhaps hipster culture is the result of this collective anti-we—ultimately another version of an exclusive us. In any case, wasn’t I from a place whose white-bread uniformity was built on flight as opposed to fight, fear in the form of massive overpasses and divided highways cutting off our lawns from “their” encroachment?
In Syria the infrastructure of division was also the regime’s strongest institution: the security forces, which gave no ground to peaceful challenge. Their raison de etre was the effacement of challenge, so how could they do otherwise? When the challenge came, their response was a simple equation: to any protest, add slaughter. Massacres of families, whole blocks en masse, with knives, crowbars, and other blunt instruments, simply for being residents of opposition areas.
Sunni areas. They are killing us. Who are “they”? Presumably Alawis, the president’s minions–ergo, bidon dbh.
Though there are also Sunni informers, Qais points out on the third night of Ramadan. Dirt poor, doing it for the money.
Jesus nods agreement, recalls a neighbor who waved 27 fleeing protestors into his house, helped them to hide in his upstairs rooms, then called the police. I have 27 terrorists here, come and get them.
And now, he adds quietly, Al-Qaida. “They’re killing the Sunnis. They blow up a building, kill 100 innocent people to get one informer.” Qais says nothing. Despite the contradictions, he is comfortable with the broad outlines of his we—we Sunnis.
Maalik views Syrian sects and their relations differently than his brother. His years at the great mixing (though not melting) pot of Damascus’ public university have left him with friends from every Syrian sect and province, from Afreen to Deir Ezzour, Dera’a to Salimiya and Sweida. But there too, he was by choice something of an enigma. After all, a Syrian from Afreen is most likely Kurdish; from Salimiya, Ismaili; from Deir Ezzour and Dera’a, Sunni, and from Sweida, Druze. But a guy from Lattakia—could be Alawi, could be Sunni, could be something totally else.
In Syria, a person’s sectarian background is the elephant in the room: it is considered extremely rude to ask about it outright, and yet everyone wants to know it. In most cases, it can be solved for indirectly, with two questions: what’s your name and where are you from, since a person’s first and last names cross-indexed with village of provenance generally give away his sect.
Maalik’s home village, however, has a Christian name—a holdover from the time before many of its residents converted to Islam. His surname is not even Arabic, making his ancestors possibly Turkish, possibly Greek. His first name is typically Sunni, but by flattening one vowel he can make it a “generic” one common across all religions. He is thus impervious to the usual line of questioning, and when anyone starts down it, he delights in leading his questioner on a wild goose chase.
When he returned to Syria in May for a brief translation job, Maalik told several people–from a taxi driver to a sheikh–that he was Alawi. In response, the sheikh asked his full name and then, when Maalik pronounced it correctly, laughed at the impossibility. The taxi driver replied earnestly, “We are all Syrians, we are all brothers. But don’t tell anyone else, they might not understand.”
For fear of such misunderstanding, Suhail doesn’t dare enter Syria on his own ID. He uses someone else’s, installs satellite dishes in opposition areas without comment, and returns with marvelous and grotesque stories.
There is the one about the man who makes home-made missiles for use by local militants. He had no way of knowing what the range of his products was, so he made test versions–hollow, lacking explosives–and wrote his name, address, and phone number on the side of each, along with a request that anyone who found the missile tube should contact him with its location.
Then there is the battalion from Idleb province in the north that decided before launching a siege on a regime-held airport to make its own protective red herring. Before commencing fire on the enemy, they labeled all their missiles “made in Aleppo”–knowing that some opposition-held section of that city would be shelled in retribution, far from them.
True or not, Suhail’s stories make a small vent of laughter in a claustrophobic reality defined by precarity. The revolution has shattered as it spread. Allegiance is to what can be defended, and that shrinks and shifts with every skirmish, creating a risible series of territorial boundaries that inevitably fissure. It has been impossible to fix opposition in a stable form or framework. In practice, opposition is a violent competition for money, weapons, fighters and grimly won ground. So antagonisms multiply and the war goes fractal, a kaleidoscope of fault-lines that only produce more of the same.
Opposition has become sea opposition, foiling the internal logic of the system that produced it, embodying its own irreconcilable, self-destructive differences. It reminds me of an old German prayer to the patron saint of fire, which I quote to Suhail.
“Holy Saint Fleurian, protect our house from fires. Burn others.”
Suhail’s eyes light up and he laughs heartily. “Yes, that’s it! That’s it exactly!”
“It’s the end of the world,” another friend from rural Lattakia told me earnestly. Two of his brothers have been killed fighting the regime, and he hopes to be the third martyr among his siblings. “If you saw all the blood–of little children, what was their sin?–you would believe it.”
In these apocalyptic times, killing humans in the manner of sanctified butchery has become a common practice on the part of many militias. They are not killing humans, they are killing pigs, dogs. Maalik favors a Tunisian sheikh who says, Go ahead and cut someone’s throat if you’re going to, but please don’t say God is great while doing so. This same thinker also suggests that if you’ll get angry when hungry, don’t fast during Ramadan.
“He would be killed if he went to Syria,” Maalik observes resignedly. After so much human sacrifice, tolerance now smacks of impiety. “Pig,” he says, making eyes at me, cheering himself up with teasing. “Cute pig. My uncle used to call my aunt ‘pig’,” he adds as an afterthought. “In the sense of dirty.”
It is the day that Jesus is to return home, we are sitting on our sofas in what would be a farewell luncheon except that everyone but me is fasting. On the eve of our guest’s departure, I finally get up the courage to ask about his name. In full knowledge that I am violating etiquette, I ask: “Is it strange that your name is Jesus?” And when he doesn’t understand the question: “I mean, you are Muslim, and your name is Jesus. Is that unusual, at all?”
I can feel Maalik cringing inwardly beside me, but Jesus is unruffled. “We have all the prophets’ names in my family,” he replies mildly. “My brother is Moses.
Maalik is still bleary and worried from a bad dream he woke from that morning. He and his mother were back in his childhood village and on the run, trying to escape an impending massacre. “But we were in the village, not the city. Why the village?” he asked the walls of our Istanbul bedroom. The village is Sunni, the city, mixed. Why would his would-be killers come from his own hometown?
It is three weeks before the “Battle for Lattakia” begins with the capture by a well-organized Islamist coalition of a dozen Alawi villages. They proclaim it the overture to the main act in which they swoop down and liberate the city of Lattakia itself. After another week, the government retakes all the villages, with three or four hundred civilians killed in the process. Tit-for-tat stalemate is now standard operating procedure.
“And now the killing will begin in the villages,” Maalik declares on the first day of fighting, arranging silverware on our table to depict the disposition of forces along ridgelines. “And the next massacre will be in Lattakia,” he adds with a bitter smirk, tallying up the predictable counter-reaction. “And maybe my family will be among those killed.”
I was a secret. At least I thought I was. Maalik too believed he’d successfully hidden our relationship from his family, even after we’d emigrated from Istanbul to New York, gotten married, and set up house there.
Shortly after we’d signed the lease for our apartment, I was next to him in bed when his mother, during one of their regular phone conversations, suddenly asked, “How’s Jennifer?”
“She’s—fine.” I couldn’t hear the question but I could tell from his slightly strangled tone of voice that something was up. “I might see her soon.”
“Enough lying,” his mother replied. “We know everything.”
The collapse of his carefully protected segregation of love from kin was a shock to Maalik. But the terrible reckoning he’d feared never materialized. Far from rejecting me, or him, his family gave us their blessing. It helped that our friends from Lattakia all gave me good reviews. Qais pronounced me “better than 100 Sunni girls.”
In the six months since Maalik’s mother “outted us” as married, the rivalries between various Islamist militias have become increasingly bloody wars in their own right. More and more Syrians are dying in their cross-fire, while others are starving to death inside regime sieges of dozens of opposition-held areas, since maintaining a food blockade is even cheaper and easier than dropping improvised “barrel bombs”–oil barrels, dynamite, and scrap metal.
Beside those deaths, I’ve come to think of my obsession with sectarianism as a Western fetish of difference, a minor footnote to generalized viciousness that permits no exceptionalism. Or else it is the realization of an old Syrian joke in which the president decides to snuff the issue of sectarianism with a public declaration.
“There’s no sectarianism in Syria,” he announces to his assembled subjects. “We’re all of us Alawi.”
Here in New York too we have Syrian friends, a few newbies, most old hands at America. Our friend Khudr hosts occasional gatherings in his apartment just below Penn Station, a little glass corner 23 floors up where we eat Thai take-out and Syrian sweets brought over from Brooklyn, smoke water-pipe and cigarettes, drink wine, coffee and matte, and talk endlessly about religion, history, and family. Everyone pretty much knows everyone else’s politics and so mostly avoid discussing them, because they run the gamut.
Like Suhail, Khudr is from Tartous, a leftist by sensibility and Alawi by birth. After his other guests leave, he and Maalik review the revolution’s shortfalls and excesses, retracing the stations of their disappointment. When it feels to me like too much backseat criticism, I interrupt.
“If I were from there, from those mountains, I would be Selafi,” I insist. “They were more efficient, they won more than the moderate groups.” No one responds; it is as if I’ve drunkenly offered to walk on water. The thought of me joining a Selafi battalion is ludicrous.
I wander over to the window, cracked to let out smoke, and look down at the empty lit maze of streets. In the middle distance, through the spaces between buildings, the river is visible, another flat gray expanse like a vaster swath of concrete. It is spring, though it’s hard to tell from this angle. Is it imaginable from a green Syrian mountainside, our life here? What am I doing here? I am a sea accountant.
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.