Translated from Arabic into English by Rana Issa, 7 June 2015
I still find it difficult to reconcile myself to the word exile. I used to observe it with the eyes of a prisoner, then with the eyes of a ‘citizen’ living in Syria. It seemed to be far less cruel than the experiences of the Syrians; or a synonym from the lexicon of the middle class intellectuals who became separated from the social and political conflicts in their country, and so invented something to complain about. This thing is exile. Even today, the difficulty continues, because I am, like other Syrians I will cite as examples below, torn between the condition of exile and the destroyed country. We live “outside”, but “inside” we have loved ones that are enduring a much crueler fate than ours: kidnapping, detention, and disappearance.
In an earlier time, exile was better than prison, and often less cruel than living within the country itself. In their own land, the Syrians were “exiled,” without political rights, legal security, or independent cultural life, and their social life hardly extended beyond family relations. And they were exposed to daily molestations from a ruling junta that combines sordidness, greed, decadence and cruelty. They safeguarded their humanity as much they could. They safeguarded pleasant margins and spaces that they inhabited. But they also internalized political conditions of excessive injustice that prevented them from expressing the truth about almost every important case. It is not only that most of us have not lived a political life, but we also have not lived a moral life. Not only were we forbidden from doing what we believed in, but also many of us were forced to do the opposite of what we believed in.
Therefore, the word “exile” seemed to me, until the beginning of the revolution, indeed until my exit from Syria, closer to mocking those who remained in the country. Perhaps for the same reason, and because the “country” was closer to a jail, Syrians do not seem to have used the concept of exile or even reflected on it, even though many have lived this experience for decades, or throughout their lives—the concept does not represent an experience that Syrians can identify with.
Today, there are over 4 million Syrians that are refugees outside of Syria. Are they exiled? Rather they are refugees that have managed to escape with their lives. Their identity is formed not through their distant lives where they look behind them, rather it is formed at border crossings, as they transgress other nations, and become dispossessed, traveling and being driven far away. Some were unable to travel, or their luck failed them, inside this time. My friend Ismail Al-Hamidh was preparing slowly with his family to leave Raqqa. He did not estimate that he was in danger over and above the indiscriminate bombing by the regime’s airplanes. Daesh kidnapped him on 2 November 2013. His is a story shared by many, including my wife Samira AlKhalil. We made plans that she joins me in Raqqa, then in some “exile” when Raqqa showed itself not to be a viable “country” for us.
Exile is not the condition of those whose lives are destroyed: those who live in refugee camps, and could have died from hunger outside those places. Exile is not the condition for Zubaida, Ismail Al-Hamidh’s wife, and her children (in France today, after Turkey) nor is it the condition of Ghadir, my brother Firas’s wife, and her son Ibrahim (in Turkey). These people are forced to live outside their country, but their hearts remain inside with the kidnapped, of whose fate they know nothing.
Nor do I identify the notion of exile in myself, while Samira is kidnapped and forcibly disappeared inside. I do not know how to name this condition, but it is much crueler than exile, jail, and anything else that I had experienced previously.
Uprootedness remains a continuing Syrian experience. On the inside there is war, murder, and torture. These are experiences that make the autonomy of exile impossible, and renders us unable to think we are just exiles. Even so, from now on, exile is the condition of many Syrian men and women, whose lives were not as destroyed, and they live all over the world’s nations. Their personal experiences become more and more centered about living outside and looking back and inside—that is around “exile”—and not around uprootedness, travel, and crossing over.
I find this new experience harshly difficult to control. It lacks an anchoring point that facilitates its containment and management. It also lacks signs of how to endure such a life. Perhaps this is what is cruelest in this experience. This feeling is of being ripped out, with no location or coordinates to navigate the world. You feel your destiny gushing out without control. Being torn out of the country and the consequent wandering may not be the worst about the experience of exile. What is worse is the difficulty of building a private place that can function as a point of departure and return. This is what makes the condition of uprootedness final and absolute. It could be that the motherland is this private place known everywhere as “house.” We develop it as a concept through leaving it and coming back to it.
And yet, it seems that we can cultivate an antidote against the poison of this experience.
Its first element is friendship. This has been a particular source of support to me from the moment I met friends in Turkey that I had known from Damascus. Friends eliminate the foreignness of the place and supply necessary signposts for movement. They reduce its identity as exile and they help us to build our identities and our roles—and our lives in general—in new and challenging conditions.
The other effective antidote against the fragmentation of our lives is work. I cannot stop working. It helps me endure my life in anxious circumstances. It supplies at the same time a bridge that connects me to the country. The writing labor and the work with partners in the framework of public work are acts that connect me with other Syrians, and with our lives before the rupture that is represented by refugee status. And as such it is an attempt to build a nation where we are. Writing in particular was my identity in Syria, not just a job that paid the bills, but a method to explain the world and to navigate in it, indeed for being in the world: a chosen nation. Because of writing and because of living from it, I have not suffered the problems of most exiles. I took writing with me, as work and nation.
The third antidote is to learn the language of the country of exile. Not only because “learning the language of a people secures you against their evils” as an old, paranoid Arab saying goes, but because learning the language is tantamount to friendship. It helps to decipher the new world and removes its foreignness. It facilitates its inhabitance, thereby also removes its description as exile. I admit that I have fallen short on this level. I have not learned Turkish in any methodical way, as if I resist considering my chosen exile, and it is indeed chosen, a temporary and alternative nation. English partially solves the problem. For today it is the common language of strangers.
The fourth antidote is the home. A few weeks ago a young writer who left Syria two and half years ago after a cruel detention experience, told me that she spent a difficult year in Beirut. Her soul was torn and her mind unsettled. Yet she lived independently, in a private house afterwards, and her life became more fruitful, and she became more accepting of her new life. I moved to a private home a short while after arriving in Istanbul. I work there, and it provides me with a private life that is essential to me. This private space to converse with the self assist in calmly accepting the new experiences. Are these houses homes? In this life of travel we only have houses that we labor to turn into homes. The warmth of home can be suffocating, and yet it is worse to be without a home, or to be cast out of our homes.
I believe that the cruelest in the experience of forced migration is the loss of home—this private region that represents life and allows one to digest his experiences. This is the condition of a large majority of Syrians. The loss of home is tied to the loss of the central point, with the cutting of ties with a social and natural environment as well as with a great rupture in memory. When our home in Raqqa was occupied by Daesh, my sister Raf’a pronounced this occupation as a theft of our memories. The home is the form memory takes, as we leave it we return to it, our memories pulsate with journeys of arrival and departure to its corners, its secrets, in our lives in it, and to the present. Nostalgia is connected to homes in the sense of the places of intimacy and privacy. It emerges from what pulls us—the people of the house—to each other and what distinguishes us from others. I cannot complain much on that level. Samira and I did not own such a house in Syria. We had a house where we lived for seven continuous years. Before that we had two houses that we lived in for shorter periods. Since she was kidnapped, a year and four months ago, Samira became my memory’s reference, my lost home, and my cause.
When I was in the country, I became accustomed to say that I do not have private reasons to complain or general reasons to be contented. What changed after the revolution, and the destruction we were exposed to, is not connected to complaint and contentment alone. Rather I no longer have that which is private. The private became political and the political private. This is the same thing always and for everyone. But it is multiplied here and very pressing. After Samira’s kidnapping, and before that my brother Firas, and between them many dear friends, there was no longer any private space. This erasure of what is private is a good label for the forcibly displaced, whether they were aware of the political aspects of their lives or not.
From my side I accept this condition. I want the political to be formed through its sensitivity to the condition of persons and their choices and the catastrophes of their lives. It must be human.
This text was read in Toulouse, on 9 April 2015 in an evening organized by Toulouse Syrie Solidarité.