In memory of the assassinated Syrian journalists Dr. Orouba Barakat and her daughter Halla Barakat, who once said, “Exile is not something I created for myself. But it is something I can still create from, until the day I die, in honor of those who died so that I could be standing here, in front of you, free.” 1
If you want to piss me off, ask me when I last went to Syria.
I cannot go to Syria; I cannot go to Syria; I cannot go to Syria. For a lifetime, I cannot go to Syria. Born in Syria to Syrian parents, I did not create the conditions that have resulted in my never being able to set foot in Syria so long as the Baathist dictatorship rules. My parents became exiles when I was a child, so I became an exile as a child. I cannot go to Syria.
I cannot go to Syria, and my Syrian authenticity is questioned by U.S. “progressives” who support the regime in Syria. I cannot go to Syria, and my authenticity to speak as a Syrian is questioned by some of the Syrians inside Syria who participate in the Syrian Revolution to protest the regime, which bars me from going to Syria for a lifetime. If these Syrians were forced to leave Syria with their children, if they were exiled by the regime for a lifetime, what do they think their children would be one day, but me? And will these new exiled Syrians question their children’s authenticity to speak as Syrians about Syrian experiences, a lifetime from now?
If you’re a friend and want to show how little you know me, ask me when I was last in Syria. Show surprise when I say it was the 1970s.
My family, with its array of moderate Islamist leanings, dissents against the Assad regime. I dissent from my family’s particular type of dissent, but I still dissent against the Assad regime, and I still stand by my family members’ right to dissent without having their existence threatened. At least these folks to whom I am related and with whom I disagree with so much got one thing right: The Assad regime is a police state dictatorship guilty of atrocities. Because the regime brutally punishes the exercise of freedom of speech and regards direct criticism of the president as criminal, because its security apparatus has immunity and the power to override any pretense at due process or rule of law, none of us can go to Syria.
Syria began this decade with a population of twenty-three million—but with seventeen million more in diaspora. I wonder how many of us seventeen million are exiles.
I resent my Syrian friends and relatives who go to Syria. Syrians call it “going down to Shaam.” “We’re going down to Shaam this summer” trips off their tongues, “Nazleen a’l shaam.” I get it, they’re not in any trouble with the regime and they still have the ability to visit home, so why wouldn’t they? I still wonder, What have they had to deaden inside themselves to ignore the routinized torture of prisoners and the normalized pain of people living under a brutal dictatorship? Then I think, How judgmental are you being, Mohja?
Somehow, I never resented my Syrian relatives who live inside Syria for visiting me as a child. But part of me judges them too—what have they had to shrink inside themselves to endure, to survive there? Look, cut that out, I tell myself; I love them and they risked something to visit my family.
I resent my American friends who go on Syria excursions when they know I can’t. Some of them have gone to study at institutes and, ultimately, I am sure, have benefitted the regime, which gets a cut of everything. Why aren’t they in solidarity with me, and with every Syrian the regime hates so much that it deprives them of home soil under their feet?
I resent my non-Syrian professional colleagues such as those I meet in the Syrian Studies Association, who come and go to Syria on professional trips. Don’t they know the fucking dictatorship allows no freedom of speech for Syrian intellectuals such as the leftist Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who remained in an Assad prison for sixteen years, while these academics have gone about being, some of them at least, regime apologists?
Maybe it isn’t so black and white, I tell myself; let me look and listen for a while; maybe they went to do research that could one day help human rights in Syria, or could help to rebuild Syrian culture on a healthier footing than with the thick fog of fear, suspicion, and resentment that has permeated the country under the Assads. Some of them do, I’m sure. Still, after a few newsletters and correspondences, and a meeting or two sitting around a table listening to several of my professional colleagues offer scholarly apologism for a brutal regime, I’ve had enough; I leave the Syrian Studies Association.
Around 2000, I am busy creating a new course, a special topics seminar on Syrian literature. For research, I travel to Quebec in the dead of winter to attend the Musée de Civilisations’ special exhibit on Syria to see artifacts on loan from the National Museums in Damascus and Aleppo. I salivate over objects I will probably never get to see in their original settings: bas reliefs of Assyrians on a chariot and of an early Christian girl on a tomb, busts of Palmyra women in their jeweled headdresses. I come home from Quebec and write a children’s play on Palmyra’s Queen Zenobia, which my daughters and their friends perform in a local park that summer. I read Hanna Batatu’s thick tome on Syrian demographics and politics, and Lisa Wedeen’s book on the cult of the Baathist leader and what it did to warp Syrian culture. Nizar Qabbani’s poetry sets me on fire, as does Muhammad al-Maghout’s, and I devour Zakaria Tamer’s astonishing, surrealistic fiction, and Ghada al-Samman’s, which is so Syrian in its dark humor— Syrian exiles, Syrian exiles. All these are part of my research for the course but also profoundly part of my life, and that’s why I created the course: to understand why, and how, and what, Syria had been, and might be.
I build the course around a panel I have organized on Syrian literature at the Middle Eastern Studies Association conference in Washington, D.C., in which I present a paper about how none of Syria’s great authors treat the 1982 Hama massacre directly, and how self-censorship for survival produces strange gaps in Syrian cultural production.
A woman stands up after the panelists finish presenting to the audience of forty people, and asserts, “There was no Hama massacre.”
“What?” I exclaim.
“There were some criminals assassinating people, and the regime protected the people. That’s all it was. No massacre.”
I almost think I’ve heard her wrong. Because I cannot go to Syria, it is my first encounter, in the flesh, with head-spinning Syrian regime doublespeak. “What the—what—what?” I sputter. “How dare you deny the blood that was shed. People died. How dare you—” An older Egyptian man glances up with shock—at me. What in hell is going on here?
My co-panelist, a graduate student on Fulbright from Syria, whispers to me, “Do you know who she is?” She pushes a note toward me. She’s Bouthaina Shaaban— Assad’s translator at Camp David.
My other co-panelist, a major scholar, knows exactly who Bouthaina is, having worked with her both during Bouthaina’s spell as a guest researcher at the scholar’s university, and when the scholar was doing her research in Syria.
Neither co-panelist responds. Not a whisper. Which, for the vulnerable graduate student, is utterly understandable—the terms of her Fulbright scholarship require that she return and “serve” in a Syrian institution. If she speaks out, she will not be able to go to Syria without risking prison, torture. Even just by her being on a panel with me where regime atrocities are mentioned, she is in jeopardy. And the major scholar later gives me some explanation about needing Bouthaina’s good graces to get a visa in order to finish a book she is writing.
I look around the room, expecting many other attendees to stand up, scandalized by the enormity of Bouthaina’s massacre denial. Not a puff, not a word. I wonder if I’ve gone through a looking glass and entered a wonder-world where it is some horrifying Opposite Day. Heavy silence. For a second I doubt—am I living in a massacre narrative that only exists inside a Syrian dissident narrative? But wait, no, there is the fact of the massacre—I knew people who died in it, real people.
Then a Lebanese academic, my former professor, stands up. “Of course there was a Hama massacre. It was huge. It was committed by the government. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed. And this is just a typical Syrian state denial of it,” she says. She pours out facts and analysis for several minutes, demolishing Bouthaina’s ghastly massacre denial. Restoring reality to the room.
Minutes after the panel disperses, Bouthaina comes over to the graduate student panelist, lays a hand on her arm, and inquires, “When are you returning to Syria to fulfill your scholarship obligation?” The student quakes, and rightly so. Bouthaina is issuing a threat. She is saying, in language anyone from a police state dictatorship understands, “I am reporting you.” That student, now a professor, has never returned to Syria.
Hafez al-Assad, the dictator who created the conditions that bar me from going to Syria, dies in 2000 and is succeeded by his dictator son Bashar. There is talk of amnesty and a lot of Syrians who have never been able to go back to Syria start going back. I wonder if I could go back. Then I remember my stand with Bouthaina at the conference. She has been promoted by Bashar to be minister of expatriate affairs.
During the years when Bashar allows some exiles to return, I am at the grocery store in one of the oil-rich Gulf states with an elder Syrian relative. “Don’t look now,” Aunty whispers to me, “but there’s Um Flan.” Um Flan ducks down in the pickles and olives aisle, trying to avoid us. Um Flan hasn’t been able to meet the eye of any other Syrian in town ever since her husband ended their family’s exile and managed to return to Syria. How did he, a wanted dissident, make good with the regime? He went to the embassy and humbly begged to write a confession, most likely naming his associates, because you had to give them what they wanted to go back. And then you had to pay weekly visits and inform them some more. So he turned in his friends. They would be people with relatives who still lived in Syria, of course, vulnerable to the reach of the regime, who would now be disappeared by its brutal security forces. He betrayed his prior principled opposition to the regime in order to be able to summer in Syria again. He and his wife were pariahs among Syrian exiles now.
My cousin goes to Syria. My cousin who is just like me, with a lifetime outside, visits Syria sometime in the early 2000s. She is not an activist or someone who has ever formally taken a stand against the regime and then reneged on it. Her I can forgive for going to Syria, because I loot her of all her Syria images when she returns, and they concern an overlapping set of family memories I need back. Like a locust swarm I pluck her clean, I make her give it all to me, every street she has trod. Before she’d gone, she had her name checked on “the list” at the Syrian embassy in D.C. They told her my father was still “on the list,” and would be detained by the Assad regime should he ever set foot in Syria “or even countries adjacent to Syria,” hinting at Lebanon, where Syrian regime authorities also have pull. Certainly any of his children landing in Syria would be taking a big risk. I consider going to Syria anyway, then I think of my children.
Banah, my younger daughter, is in the second grade. Her school, with an all-white faculty and a smattering of Black and brown children, boasts of its “diversity.” Every single girl in my daughter’s class is in the Girl Scout troop. My daughter begs to join.
When I register my daughter, the troop leader says to me in a certain tone, “The Girl Scout Promise mentions God, you know.”
Guess what, I’ve been a Girl Scout myself. I still have my frayed laminated copy of the “Girl Scout Promise” from my girlhood. My elder daughter was a Girl Scout a few years earlier, at a troop across town.
At first I don’t connect what the troop leader says to the fact that we are living in post 9/11 America.
She goes on, “We meet in a church.” Again with that strange tone. The church in question is right around the corner from my house. Convenient.
“I’m not sure if you’d have a problem with that.” She wants me to have a problem with it.
She is unwelcoming me.
I put the tone aside. There are many bigger post-9/11 tensions in the air, and I have not yet begun to process the smaller ones.
During Banah’s first year in the troop, I help out with the international fair exhibit on France, teaching the girls to perform “Un, Deux, Trois Soleil.” The troop leader, who adores France and decorates her home in “French Provencal style,” appreciates my help. The next year, when she requests suggestions for a country they could “do” for the international fair, I volunteer Syria. I go around my house gathering mosaic boxes, which my children call “Syria boxes.” With some of their tiny wood inlay pieces warping, the boxes are just about all my children have of Syria by way of physical artifacts. Amman is the closest my children have ever been to Syria, the closest they are likely ever to be in my lifetime.
The troop leader approaches me in the school parking lot, where all the parents and girls have gathered before we drive to the mountains for the troop’s Saturday camp.
“Some of the other mothers are concerned about your suggestion that the troop do a Syria booth for the Girl Scout’s annual international fair,” she says. The other mothers gather around her. “I don’t know if you know this, but the Girl Scouts is a patriotic organization,” she continues.
It seems like such a non sequitur. I haven’t put together what she means.
“Syria is on the State Department list. It’s an Axis of Evil country,” she says.
“I have no intention of celebrating Assad’s government with the booth at the fair,” I say. “That’s not what Syria is all about. To me, Syria is—is—”
How am I to explain? That I cannot go to Syria. That I have nothing left after all these years to show my children of Syria except a few broken-down mosaic boxes. That I want to manufacture Syria-related memories for my daughter by having her make a lame-ass Syria booth in Girl Scouts. That I’ve interviewed my parents over the years about the street where we lived, about what snacks the peddlers sold (‘irk sus and boiled nuts), and about family members I don’t know because they would never be able to come here and we would never be able to go there. How am I to explain, even to myself, why I pore over maps of Damascus trying to find the streets my parents named in the new shape of the city? Tongue-tied, I have flashes of memories of men and women speaking the horrors of the Hama massacre, their faces obscured on VHS tapes I helped translate into English as a teen in the 1980s. This woman thinks I am endorsing Assad’s Syria? The state Syria of the massacre-denying Bouthaina Shaaban, Syrian regime doublespeak, chest-thumping official Syrian discourse about “resistance” against U.S. imperialism and Zionist expansion? How the hell am I supposed to explain Syria, my Syria, to a bunch of white women in a school parking lot in Fayetteville, Arkansas, five minutes before a Girl Scout camping trip?
I back away. It feels like a scene out of eighth grade when the popular girls bunch up in the hallway and say something obliquely ugly, and you can’t think of an answer on the spot, but think of a really good one when it’s way too late. I scramble into my car to hold back tears, hating myself for letting it all get to me. How would the troop leader know anything else about Syria, anyway? It isn’t her fault. I try to let it go.
“Are you okay?” asks the mother of one of Banah’s friends, bending to peer through my car window.
“No,” I say.
I take my little girl to that camp, because her heart is set on it. You can’t do that to a child, take away something you promised, without a damn good reason, and in that moment I’m not sure that denying her the camp wouldn’t be more about my hurt feelings than her needs. So you allow your child to be around people who look askance at her because of her origin and religious affiliation, and you watch your child look up to those people. Because their disdain goes over her second-grade head. Or does it?
After the camp, I write a note to the troop leader withdrawing my daughter from their troop and telling her why. Because you also can’t subject a child to people who look askance at her for where she comes from, not when you can help it. The troop leader writes back a long letter explaining that she is not a bigot.
“I bet she thinks she’s not racist because she’s been to France,” Banah says a few years later, nailing it.
Over a decade later, the Syrian Revolution begins as an unarmed grassroots protest movement uniting Syrians across religious affiliation and ethnicity. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians find it in themselves to express dissent against the regime at last, astounding me and overturning any resentment I harbored about Syrians who stayed home. A road to Syria opens up for me for the first time in my life. I begin imagining an actual return to Syria, a really real, real one. I go to southern Turkey to see what I can do for Syrian refugees—years before the media starts paying attention to Syrian refugees. I get close enough to see Syria across grain fields. My life divides into time before that moment and after. I feel ready to give up my house, my job. My life, if it comes to it. The young nonviolent protesters are ready to risk everything; why shouldn’t I? I have prepared for a lifetime for this life-changing moment.
The Syrian Revolution starts, and my right to speak as a Syrian about Syrian conditions gets questioned by white people in the United States—by some people of color, too, but mostly by white people—who have never been to Syria but seem to know better than Syrians what it is all about. It’s about Iraq, most of them seem to think, unable or unwilling to distinguish one Arab country from another. Or it’s all about U.S. geopolitics. Just never about Syria itself, or Syrians, our bodies, our lived experiences. “But you haven’t been there in years, right?” progressive U.S. peace activists say, denying massacres in Syria. Progressive U.S. pundits dismiss Syrian exiles as regime-haters. Well of-fucking-course we are. We are right to hate a police state dictatorship. I’m sorry that the lives of Syrians exiled by a brutal regime are not authentic enough for their scrutiny, but that doesn’t make the regime any less a brutal dictatorship. Such “progressives” would rather give the regime a pass, and mock exiles who condemn the regime for being exiles who condemn the regime. Syrian exiles are not the Syrians who have suffered under bombs and been starved and sarin gassed, so who needs to hear from us? I not only understand but support prioritizing the narratives of Syrians inside Syria—but meanwhile, go ahead and publish work by any white man or woman who ever lifted a leg in Syria.
The Syrian Revolution starts, and I begin attending conferences of Syrian opposition—mostly suits trying to make politics out of the enormous risks taken by the protestors on the ground. Then I meet some of these protesters who escaped on foot from Syria, and I want to do anything that will help them be heard over the “Syrian opposition” politicos. Some of them immediately recognize and respect the solidarity and bitterness of a Syrian sister-dissident. Still, others ask, “How long since you’ve been to Syria?” I am tongue-tied. I cannot go to Syria. All my life I have been living in Syria nonetheless.