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September 4, 2017
Khaled Khalifa: “Living in a void: Life in Damascus after the exodus”

Khaled Khalifa: “Living in a void: Life in Damascus after the exodus”

This piece is taken from Refugees Worldwide, an anthology of writing commissioned as part of a project run by the International Literature Festival Berlin. Published in The Guardian on August 22, 2017

My sister, whom I haven’t seen for more than two years, told me she was going to cross the sea in a rubber dinghy. She hung up, not wanting to hear what I thought. She merely said something profound and sentimental and entrusted her three children to my care in the event that she drowned. A few minutes later I tried to call the unfamiliar Turkish number back, but the phone had been turned off. Hundreds of images from our childhood flooded my memory. It’s not easy to say goodbye to half a century of your life and wait for someone you love to drown.My fingers and toes felt cold and my head empty, and I didn’t feel able to argue anyway. What can one offer a woman who has lost her home and everything she owns and, not wanting to lose her children too, carried them off into exile to seek a safe haven in Turkey? Things are not easy for a woman like her there. She looks like millions of other Syrian women and does not have any special skills. All that’s left is the hope of asylum, even if it requires crossing the sea in a rubber dinghy. It’s as if she’s trying to tell me something I know already – that the sea is Syrians’ only hope.

Maybe it was luck that saved my sister. She didn’t drown, and she found friends to help her in Greece and in the other countries she passed through. She certainly didn’t talk about unpleasant experiences with traffickers fleecing her out of what little money she had or leaving her destitute in an airport waiting room. In any case, she eventually reached her destination, and in Denmark found another group of friends who could provide support. Some of her fellow adventurers had drowned in scenes of unimaginable horror. Death may take many forms, but the bleakest and blackest of them all is death by drowning, which is a complete denial of everything the human body stands for. The drowned body becomes food for the fishes of the sea, and dissolves like salt in a bowl of water.

In the days that followed, I received similar messages from my younger brother, who had left his home in Aleppo and gone to Mersin in southern Turkey. From there, he left his family and sailed alone, embarking on an arduous journey that took him from Greece to Italy and finally to Sweden. Then came an endless stream of phone calls from friends and close relatives, such as my cousins, all telling me they were about to set sail. I no longer asked for details of the journey or discussed it with them. I wished them a safe trip and asked them to put our minds at rest when they arrived safely. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are still thinking along the same lines. In coffee shops in Turkish towns and cities, they exchange the telephone numbers of traffickers and information about the best routes. They post about these things on Facebook, sometimes even in open forums (…)

Most of my friends have left the country and are now refugees. All I can do is look for the names of the missing and the drowned and track my friends’ new addresses. Whenever a boat sinks, I find myself spinning like a madman, desperately searching for information, for lists of the drowned and any details about them – which towns or villages they were from, their family names, pictures of them. Again, in 2015, I went through the same hysterical search for the faces of detained friends among the photographs of the dead leaked from the regime’s prisons by the anonymous military photographer known as “Caesar”. I examined those faces on the off-chance that I might find among them any of the dozens of missing friends about whom we know nothing: no news, no messages passed on by word of mouth; no one has seen them or has any information about them. When I thought I recognised someone, I tried to remember other details about them – a mole on the cheek or a scar on the knee. But it was pointless. Looking for drowned or dead people and waiting for detainees to return is an act of absurdity, one matched only by the act of living in towns awaiting their turn to be destroyed.

The throngs of people leaving continued, so much so that in 2013 and 2014 we held communal farewell parties for friends departing for the unknown. We no longer debated the options or offered them our experience of cities we knew. Leaving the country became an epidemic that swept our lives. Places began to empty of their usual customers. Everything was changing very rapidly. The streets of the city were deserted, the windows were dark and telephones weren’t answered. Everything suggested imminent disaster. Everyone sensed it. I started to suffer from an overwhelming sense of loss; I felt I was losing all my friends and there was nothing I could do about it. Just like everyone else left inside the country, I was busy staying alive. We no longer thought about who would leave. The question had changed to “When are you going to leave?” or “Why are you still here?” For the first time, we had a taste of mass dispersion.

At first I didn’t believe they wouldn’t all come back. I thought their departure would be temporary. But after six years of this war, I’ve arranged my life around those people’s absences. The gap they left has been filled by another gap: I used to think about what they might look like now, wherever they might be, but I no longer do so. People like me, who live with characters they invent on paper, and who celebrate imagination, do not like to feel impotent. So I’ve become more attached to my life here, and have started to worry about being infected by the plague of displacement that has struck the city. I ask myself whether I would stay here if my house was destroyed. I don’t have an easy answer, but recently I’ve begun to come to terms with the idea. Yes, I would remain – but why? I don’t know, or perhaps I’m embarrassed by the knowledge that I simply want to cling to a place that has a smell I know well.

Ultimately, these are the delusions of a solitary writer – one who no longer has anything to lose, having observed, at length, Syrians attempting to win back their country, then losing everything. It’s as if the price Syrians must pay to recover their freedom and dignity includes every last stone, tree, nook and cranny, so that Syrians cannot, in fact, win back their country from the clutches of the dictatorship. They have lived in the shadow of that dictatorship for 50 years, during which time they’ve invented endless ways to resist it and coexist with its decay – at the very least by holding their tongues and waiting, defending a civic culture that is thousands of years old (…)

Even if the refugees in the Turkish camps seem to be better off, the magnitude of the problems they face cannot be ignored, especially when it comes to schooling: a whole generation of Syrian children will be deprived of education. The situation is better for the lucky ones whose boats have not sunk, and who have managed to reach countries in Europe that are sympathetic towards refugees, such as Germany and France. But in general, it’s impossible to imagine how bad conditions are for the great mass of refugees, such as those who live in the Zaatari camp in Jordan, and how deprived they are of their most basic human rights. On top of that there is the constant threat that the borders will be closed in the face of people fleeing the continuing war.

But one must also remember that, for the past 50 years, Syria has been a country that expels its own citizens. For the past 50 years, the regimes of President Hafez al-Assad and his son and successor, Bashar, have ruled with violent repression and denied the people their most basic human rights; they have turned Syria into a kingdom of fear and dread, from which people wanted to flee. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians live in the Gulf states, while millions more are acquiring their higher education in Europe and the US, and will live out their lives there. Some people say there are 10,000 Syrian doctors in France alone, and a similar number in the US and other countries.

The regime has not only driven these talented people into exile, but has also pursued them in their places of refuge. It has planted suspicion among them, threatened them through family members still living in Syria, deprived them of the chance to visit their mother country, and thwarted persistent efforts by exiled Syrians to find out about one another and form pressure groups in the countries where they now live. Emigrant and exiled Syrians have always seemed to be in a sorry state compared to other groups who have been through the same experience but were able to hold together, support each other and help propagate their original culture.

Translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright. This piece is taken from Refugees Worldwide, an anthology of writing commissioned as part of a project run by the International Literature Festival Berlin. A pre-purchase crowdfunding campaign has been set up by Ragpicker Press to cover printing costs for the English-language edition. The book will be published on 7 September and proceeds will be donated to Refugees International.