Syria: eating chocolate in gardening gloves


I’ve just spent two-and-a-half days in blazing sunshine at St Andrews, attending the Syrian Studies Centre’s biennial conference on Syria. I learned a lot, met some very interesting people, and was thoroughly depressed. Quite why I was depressed was summed up for me on the last morning by a speaker who said that he was conscious that the conference had not really succeeded in linking the two levels – the high level, strategic, conflict-resolving, power-sharing international level, and the people-on-the-ground level, the Syrians who are suffering abominably and endlessly in Syria or in exile. I’m not sure that the gap is culpable, and both levels were well represented, but it does highlight for me the terrible difficulty of keeping in mind the individual – the suffering, puzzled, desperate human being – when examining the moveable elements at a high level. How will Russia play its interests in Ukraine against those in Syria? Will Iran trade its land-bridge to Hizbollah via Damascus? Will the Assad regime acknowledge stalemate, and what will it do if it does? Will the Saudis even allow the Iranians to the table? And how does all this affect the distraught lawyer from Raqqah who was speaking on the screen as I left the conference on Friday, telling of the killing of his friends, the sacking of his office and his own torture by the regime – and of his brother’s execution by Daech.

It seemed to me, too, that there are two very different dramas playing out. On the ground, millions of Syrians are either in exile, sometimes well-heeled, more often desperately penurious (and many dying in the attempt to become exiles); or facing unimaginably bloody horrors at home, in places that were once safe. High above them in the empyrean, strategists try to work out the next move in the game of three-dimensional chess that might, just conceivably, help Syria inch towards a fragile peace, of some provisional and deeply unsatisfactory kind. Assad has got to be part of it, the Iranians and Russians have got to support it and be paid off with compromise. Well, as one speaker said with guarded desperation, of course an end to the violence is the overriding aim for everybody.

And of course this is true. An end to the obscene killing of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the enforced exile of millions is the most important short-term aim of all. The problem is that I didn’t hear much in St Andrews that made me optimistic that it is close. Or even in the middle-distance. Several eminent people of great integrity, closely involved in what passes for a peace process, on behalf of the UN, the EU, and individual European states, all talked eloquently of the problems. So did several impressive academics, closely involved in the porous borderland where academic conflict resolution bleeds into practical conflict resolution, men who spend patient hours, weeks, years trying to make infinitesimal degrees of progress towards a solution that may well, as they are all clear, be unattainable, and at best is still a long way off. I am lost in admiration for the commitment, the knowledge and the skill.

But as one of the experts in peace-negotiation and stabilisation said, after much talk of ‘an exhausted stalemate,’ the problem is not so much reaching one (which we probably have) but persuading both sides to acknowledge it at the same time. This seemed to me a rather gloomy conclusion to a conference called Syria: Moving beyond the Stalemate.

It isn’t possible to summarize a rich and complex tapestry of presentations and conversations, except to say that one risked becoming a little seasick in the tumbling between the two levels. Analysis of the possible strategic positions taken by the big outside players – Iran, Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia – without which there cannot be peace, sat alongside fascinating insights into just how local government is being jury-rigged from scraps of the ancien regime and ad hoc sharia courts, and how much the form of such improvisation depends on exactly wher you are looking. In this vein, most interesting was a young scholar called Fouad Gehad Marei, whose talk, Governing in the Meanwhile, looked at this bottom-up governance-bodging through a year in Aleppo, and the brief phenomenon of the United Judicial Council which for a time administered pretty decent justice. But striking here is the time-lag inherent in scholarship: the UJC is two years gone, and however fascinating, isn’t dispensing justice today. In several talks about rebel factions, we ran up against the fact that the research had been done before the rise of ISIS, so that variants of “And then of course there’s ISIS but I’m not going to talk about them,” were all too frequent. Without in any sense doing down the quality of the work, the actual urgency of Syria’s plight made me feel a bit like a player in that old children’s party game where you have to cut and eat a large bar of chocolate with a knife and fork while wearing gardening gloves.

In between, there were some exceptional talks. The most fascinating of all was Dawn Chatty’s exploration of the history of migration in Syria, the way in which Syria has been a country of refugees since Ottoman times and before. She spoke of massive flows of refugees in the 19th century from the Ottoman borderlands, of Jews, Christians, Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians and Caucasians. She explained the punctilious and surprisingly ‘modern’ Ottoman Immigration Commission set up in 1860 to manage immigration, and the French approach to citizenship and political division. And then onto this canvas she painted the very diferent migration  experiences of Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Clear above all is the fact that the refugee experience in Turkey is significantly better than elsewhere – that something of the old Ottoman code still shapes attitudes, with NGOs supporting refugees, temporary protection, shelter, healthcare and the right to apply for work permits. In Lebanon and Jordan the experience is less good, and Prof Chatty speculated that the cultural and social closeness of refugees with the people of those two countries makes for friction, while the greater difference, as well as (possibly) sufi-driven open-handedness, make Turkey a markedly less hostile destination. Other interesting papers dealt with the Kurds, the Alawis and the way nasheeds have developed and been used by jihadis in Syrian contexts to generate emotional empathy and attachment. Its author, Moutaz al-Khedar, came out with the obvious-but-surprising observation that singing, according to jihadi texts, really is heresy – haram – but is authorised for the strictly pragmatic reason that it works. Just like, as he said disarmingly, suicide.

The last morning saw a panel – which included Fouad Marei and Rana Jawad – on Alternative Governance and Voices. A bit of a rag-bag, it nonetheless came closest to shining a light on the real predicament of Syrians. Alexa Firat talked of the founding of the literary journal Awraq, in the midst of war, and its brave attempt to shape thinking for and about Syria’s future. Joshka Wessels looked at video activism, and while perhaps necessarily a little inconclusive, gave glimpses into the braveries, defiances and fears of those who are determined to witness (though not addressing the slew of false witness that is so routinely also borne, and which makes understanding events on the ground such a treacherous puzzle). This gave a sense of life’s continuing despite the surrounding madness – of people planning ahead for a future that they can only dimly see, but which they imagine, though tremulously, often with greater confidence than their politicians and those negotiating far above their heads.

What I missed was a sense of creativity, of actually touching the stuff of imagination. Amongst the books on the bookstands outside the conference were piles of works on politics and international relations, Syrian history, jihadism and military theory. But I didn’t see a single novel, play or book of poetry. Yes, it was an academic conference, but it was also much more, and would have benefitted greatly from a reading or two from, even by, Syrian writers. The closest we got was a small pile of Critical Muslim’s excellent volume 11, Syria, with its splendid mélange of creative writing and sterner analysis.

I’d have loved to see a film, too, and there are many Syrian possibilities, of course. Because of its British Council links (the Council helped to fund it) I thought of the wonderful film Queens of Syria, recently shown in London and Brussels as part of the Council’s Syria: Third Space exhibition. It is a documentary, but a documentary of a rather special kind, following a re-interpretative production by Georgina Paget of Euripides’s Trojan Women, acted entirely by women refugees from Syria, now in Jordan. None had ever acted before, and they didn’t find it easy. All were afraid. “Many of the women only decided to show their faces on the last day of filming; this is an example of the reality of negotiating with fear,” the film’s director, Yasmin Fedda is reported as saying.

The resonance of Euripides down the centuries is extraordinary, and like the Trojan women gazing on lost Troy and lost lives, one of the Syrian actresses says “We were all queens in our own houses. It is like us: we lost everything.” Art, after all, helps us say things that are otherwise very difficult, sometimes impossible, to say. As one actress said, “Since I started this project, my life has been renewed.”


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