Objective Brits, Subjective Syrians

6 December, 2021
Art by Diana Al-Hadid, “Down­pour Over Hooked Motif” 2021, poly­mer gyp­sum, fiber­glass, steel, plas­ter, gold leaf, pig­ment, 42 x 54 x 3 1/2 in/106.6 x 137 x 8.9 cm (pho­to Aashish Chan­dra) & “Wit­ness” 2021, poly­mer gyp­sum, fiber­glass, steel, plaster,(leaf pend­ing), pig­ment, 61 1/2 x 48 x 5 1/2 in/156 x 122 x 14 cm (pho­to Daniel Terna).

 

This is Part II of Rana Had­dad’s Syr­ia Through British Eyes.

What a British per­son imag­ined Syr­ia or the Mid­dle East to be, what he or she thought about us Syr­i­ans with­out ever hav­ing set foot there, was still more impor­tant than what I or peo­ple like me thought. We were sub­jec­tive, but their opin­ions were objec­tive. That was the message.

 

Rana Haddad

 

When I moved to Eng­land with my fam­i­ly in 1985, it was a shock to real­ize that the way we Syr­i­ans saw our­selves was not how the world saw us. School chil­dren asked me if we rode camels back home. Most peo­ple sim­ply had no idea where Syr­ia was or who Syr­i­ans were. On the rare occa­sion that I heard the name Syr­ia men­tioned on British tele­vi­sion or oth­er media, it was always in the con­text of some dread­ful event. 

For exam­ple, there was the break­ing of diplo­mat­ic ties between Syr­ia and the UK in 1986 due to the bomb­ing of El-Al flight 016. My Dutch and Armen­ian mater­nal grand­par­ents, who lived in Eng­land at the time, tried to per­suade me to give up my Syr­i­an pass­port, to put that iden­ti­ty behind me.

“You are not Syr­i­an, you are Dutch and Eng­lish,” they insisted.

Am I? I won­dered. Was it real­ly pos­si­ble to delete near­ly 16 years of life in Syr­ia, to erase all my mem­o­ries and impres­sions of that beau­ti­ful land and peo­ple, and to replace them with images from tele­vi­sion screens in my adopt­ed country?

In A Room of One’s Own (1929) Vir­ginia Woolf asserts: “Women have served all these cen­turies as look­ing-glass­es pos­sess­ing the mag­ic and deli­cious pow­er of reflect­ing the fig­ure of man at twice its nat­ur­al size.” It took me many years to under­stand that what men had done to women for cen­turies, the West had done to the East, and for sim­i­lar rea­sons — not in order to reach any objec­tive truth, but to feel bet­ter about itself.

The East did not always reflect the West back to itself at twice its size, but some­times ten times so.

In my thir­ties I land­ed a job with the BBC as a free­lance jour­nal­ist. I worked with them for more than 12 years and over that time some­thing extra­or­di­nary became grad­u­al­ly more appar­ent to me. Time and time again, before com­mis­sion­ing a sto­ry, the edi­tor would write down its con­tents-to-be — includ­ing the con­clu­sions. Accord­ing­ly, my job as researcher or pro­duc­er was no more than to find footage, or proof for said sto­ry,  often com­mis­sioned by an edi­tor who had nev­er set foot in the Mid­dle East, and whose sole source of infor­ma­tion was Google, and only in Eng­lish. If the sto­ry on the ground did not “fit,” the footage was reject­ed dur­ing the edit­ing process. Thus one piece after anoth­er was pro­duced, telling and re-telling to the audi­ence the same rigid sto­ry they were expect­ing to hear, but with increas­ing­ly gory or trag­ic details. The details in high demand were always those that would elic­it from the audi­ence feel­ings of con­cern, des­per­a­tion and pity, and also an inescapable smug­ness. When I tried my hard­est to fight for more nuance to be added, or for dif­fer­ent, less one-dimen­sion­al sto­ries to be com­mis­sioned, I would hit a wall. And in the end I gave up and aban­doned this frus­trat­ing profession.

Dur­ing all those years, I was slow­ly writ­ing a nov­el set in Syr­ia that I had begun work­ing on at least eight or so years before the war that erupt­ed in 2011. The book was cheeky, fun­ny and satir­i­cal, but it was also about a character’s quest for her des­tiny. My epony­mous char­ac­ter Dun­ya Noor was not a vic­tim but a hero­ine. I found a lit­er­ary agent soon after hav­ing writ­ten only three chap­ters. But when she sent my first draft to pub­lish­ers, I hit the same wall I had encoun­tered in jour­nal­ism. Pub­lish­ers were not able to see how a sto­ry like that set in a coun­try no one had heard of, in “Syr­ia,” would find a read­er­ship. They loved the writ­ing and style but I was told that had the nov­el been set in India or Pak­istan or some oth­er for­mer British colony then it would have been more mar­ketable. There was no Syr­i­an com­mu­ni­ty in the UK at the time, as Syr­ia was not a for­mer British colony. “You should’ve writ­ten the nov­el in French,” I was told.

For all intents and pur­pos­es dur­ing those decades before the war, Syr­ia did not exist, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Anglos­phere. Or it exist­ed as a foot­note. Labels such as “Axis of Evil” were bandied about. I was still strug­gling with the con­tin­ued cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance of hear­ing about my coun­try in a way that did not square up with what I knew. I began to won­der whether I had hal­lu­ci­nat­ed my entire child­hood. How could what I remem­bered be true when all I heard about Syr­ia was the opposite?

“Nolli’s Orders” by Diana Al-Hadid, 2012, steel, poly­mer gyp­sum, fiber­glass, wood, foam, paint, 156 x 264 x 228 in/670.6 x 579.1 x 309.9 cm (pho­to Den­nis Harvey).

What I heard or saw or was pre­sent­ed with (in a repet­i­tive loop) did not fit even minute­ly with my own expe­ri­ence of Syr­ia, nor with the expe­ri­ences of count­less oth­er Syr­i­ans who had lived there, even those who had left and returned for hol­i­days. Nor did it square with the few west­ern tourists who had gone off the beat­en track and vis­it­ed this extra­or­di­nar­i­ly beau­ti­ful and exquis­ite coun­try, so dif­fi­cult to describe in only a few sen­tences. That beau­ty and unique nature were hid­den behind a hos­tile or dis­mis­sive bar­ri­er based on an intense and ancient mis­un­der­stand­ing which could only be described as hos­til­i­ty, whose ori­gins I nev­er quite understood. 

Many years lat­er when I was ready to send anoth­er draft of my nov­el The Unex­pect­ed Love Objects of Dun­ya Noor to pub­lish­ers, the war in Syr­ia had begun. This sto­ry, which was set in Syr­ia from the 1970s to the ‘90s, was reject­ed a sec­ond time by pub­lish­ers because it was con­sid­ered too fun­ny for a nov­el set in Syr­ia. I was told that read­ers would be offend­ed at so much laugh­ter and a sto­ry focused on the quest for the mean­ing of love and one’s destiny

Such a sto­ry was not what the pub­lic want­ed to read, I was told. It was sug­gest­ed that I rewrite the book with style and con­tent sim­i­lar to The Kite Run­ner, turn­ing Dun­ya Noor from the hero­ine that she is into a trag­ic vic­tim of some sort. Instead of pro­vok­ing laugh­ter, she should elic­it tears. This was need­ed for the book to fit into any sto­ry­line the pub­lish­er expect­ed of Syr­ia. Any­thing out­side that expec­ta­tion some­how did not belong in the can­non of Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture in Eng­lish. Those edi­tors had nev­er spent time in the Lev­ant, let alone in Syria.

Did they believe that Syr­i­ans don’t laugh, that they are not sar­cas­tic? Do Syr­i­ans not con­tem­plate art and love? Do they not have dreams, quests and des­tinies besides the ones forced upon them by west­ern jour­nal­ists and historians?

I was told to for­get about my unre­al­is­tic Syr­i­an nov­el and to work on my sec­ond nov­el which was going to be set in Lon­don. In Lon­don you can tell all sorts of sto­ries … about war, about love, fun­ny sto­ries, trag­ic sto­ries. But if I were to write a sto­ry set in Syr­ia then it must be very much a trag­ic sto­ry and a dark sto­ry, or else it would not fit. But when I looked into my own truth, I found it hard to write a trag­ic sto­ry about Syr­ia. I was forced to make a choice: either being true to my own expe­ri­ences in Syr­ia, reflect­ing that in writ­ing and con­se­quent­ly being ignored in the West as an author, or fol­low­ing the trend of telling tales of suf­fer­ing and woe to an audi­ence hun­gry for such tales, espe­cial­ly when they came from the part of the world where I was born and raised.

Cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance reigned supreme. Was I crazy to see Syr­ia in this light, and to remem­ber it dif­fer­ent­ly from how it was pre­sent­ed to me in west­ern media out­lets? Even pub­lish­ers with lit­tle to no expe­ri­ence in Syr­ia seemed to know more than I did.

Diana Al-Hadid, “Blue­print” 2017, Mono­type, 38 1/2 × 32 in/97.8 × 81.3 cm

Had I been watch­ing TV in Beirut, Dubai or in Dam­as­cus,  I might have seen all the usu­al dark cur­rent affairs sto­ries about Syr­ia, but not only that.  I would also be watch­ing come­dies, and see­ing singers, artists, pro­fes­sors, busi­ness peo­ple, design­ers and film­mak­ers from Syr­ia. I’d be going to restau­rants, meet­ing peo­ple and lis­ten­ing to their con­ver­sa­tions, learn­ing about their lives. My pic­ture of Syr­ia would bear no resem­blance to what I saw on British or Amer­i­can, or even Ger­man or Dutch TV.

So I decid­ed my book would tell my sto­ry of Syr­ia, not the sto­ry the pub­lish­ers want­ed to hear. What you’ve been hear­ing about Syr­ia over the past ten years is a sin­gle sto­ry, only one sto­ry or even half a sto­ry repeat­ed over and over again until it became a rigid fact that over­shad­owed all oth­ers. The sound­track to Syr­ia has become that of bul­lets and bombs, set against images of flat­tened cities and an exo­dus of bib­li­cal proportions.

Before that sto­ry of bombs and exo­dus began, what did you hear about Syr­ia? I bet noth­ing of much depth or significance.

Telling only one sto­ry about any­thing is not sim­ply lazy, it is dan­ger­ous. Why? Because by telling that one sto­ry,  you take part in mak­ing your­self igno­rant. You dig your­self into a hole where you only see things with a nar­row per­spec­tive, and you make your­self inca­pable of act­ing in the most suc­cess­ful way, because you are dan­ger­ous­ly out of touch with real­i­ty, and you also jus­ti­fy your actions and your lack of action.

It’s dan­ger­ous to tell only one sto­ry about Syr­ia, the sto­ry of war.

My nov­el was final­ly pub­lished in 2018 by the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Cairo Press’ imprint, Hoopoe Fic­tion. The sole British news­pa­per review, in the dai­ly Inde­pen­dent and its i‑news, was accom­pa­nied by a pho­to of refugees walk­ing on a beach in Greece. There were sound­bites bandied about describ­ing my nov­el as set “in war-torn Syr­ia.” But my nov­el was set 40 years ear­li­er, dur­ing long decades when there was no war in Syr­ia and the con­cept of Syr­i­an refugees did not even exist. Before its own war, Syr­ia had pro­vid­ed refuge for Iraqis, Lebanese, Pales­tini­ans and before them Arme­ni­ans and Greeks.

What a British per­son imag­ined Syr­ia or the Mid­dle East to be, what he or she thought about us Syr­i­ans with­out ever hav­ing set foot there, was still more impor­tant than what I or peo­ple like had to say. We were sub­jec­tive, but their opin­ions were objec­tive. That was the message.

Life is com­prised of many atti­tudes and moods. Fic­tion and oth­er forms of expres­sion must give voice to all of them, remind­ing us that life goes on regard­less of cir­cum­stances. The British also lived through a war, in fact two major world wars, and before that, a good num­ber of wars in the 19th cen­tu­ry and ear­li­er.  Yet they do not see them­selves as vic­tims of war, but rather as heroes and as peo­ple who can and do overcome.

Before all the changes that took place in the mod­ern era, the British did not live in a func­tion­al democ­ra­cy. Yet this does not mean that before all those changes, every­thing that ever occurred in Britain  was of no val­ue, that the British had no cul­ture, no laugh­ter, no love, no hap­pi­ness. Shake­speare wrote all his plays and poems dur­ing an era of tyranny. 

In Italy, Leonar­do Da Vin­ci pro­duced his genius art­work dur­ing the era of the mur­der­ous Medicis. The same is true with Voltaire in France before the Rev­o­lu­tion. The exam­ples are end­less. So why do the British accord this priv­i­lege of nuance to them­selves and to the Euro­pean cul­tures around them, but not to oth­er nations with whom they have a long his­to­ry of a pow­er imbal­ance? Can the cause of this be pure unpar­al­leled objec­tiv­i­ty, or some­thing else a lit­tle more irrational?


Born in Alep­po, Syr­ia, in 1981,  artist Diana Al-Hadid grew up in the Amer­i­can Mid­west. She received an M.F.A. from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty in 2005 and attend­ed the pres­ti­gious Skowhe­gan School of Paint­ing and Sculp­ture in 2007. Work­ing from her stu­dio in Brook­lyn, Al-Hadid is known for a prac­tice that spans media and scale, and exam­ines the his­tor­i­cal frame­works and per­spec­tives that shape our mate­r­i­al and cul­tur­al assumptions.

When the Oth­er is por­trayed as dif­fer­ent from our­selves, whether by acci­dent or intent,  we dehu­man­ise him or her. You can laugh or cry, you can be coura­geous and over­come, but the Oth­er is always monot­o­ne, always oppressed, always trag­ic. It is you who becomes the sav­ior, often, it seems, by launch­ing jus­ti­fied bombs always pre­sent­ed as some sort of gift or favor to the lucky nations on their receiv­ing end.

This dan­ger­ous nar­ra­tive has been going on and abused in rather glar­ing ways for too long! And as a side-note, these pro­lif­ic bombs remind me of the fol­low­ing sce­nario: a woman and her chil­dren are being beat­en up by her hus­band in a ter­raced house in the east Lon­don dis­trict of Hack­ney, where the police can­not gain access to help them. So they con­tact mil­i­tary offi­cials who dis­patch a heli­copter and bomb the house, killing not only the abu­sive man but also his wife and chil­dren, as well as the neigh­bors. After this suc­cess­ful “res­cue oper­a­tion,” the mil­i­tary turns over the house and land to their devel­op­er friends, who build new homes and enrich gov­ern­ment cof­fers sig­nif­i­cant­ly. Mean­while they con­tin­ue to feel rather pleased with them­selves for hav­ing saved the woman and her chil­dren from the vio­lent hus­band, and they secret­ly wish them a good life in heaven.

I used to say to some of my col­leagues at the BBC: imag­ine if one day Chi­na becomes the glob­al super­pow­er, and the voice of the media is no longer in Eng­lish but in Man­darin. Imag­ine that Chi­nese reporters come to Eng­land and cov­er only a cer­tain type of sto­ry from a spe­cif­ic point of view, and com­mis­sion books about Eng­land that only sup­port their media cov­er­age and their for­eign pol­i­cy stance. How would you feel? How would you feel if Chi­na also hap­pened to have bombed parts of Europe and had a his­to­ry of exploit­ing Euro­peans and caus­ing chaos for eco­nom­ic gain, as well as installing dictators?

How would you feel if the peo­ple who bombed your coun­tries, and had vest­ed inter­ests in the wars that had been waged there since the Mid­dle Ages, were the ones who wrote the books about your home­land and told your sto­ry their way? They would thus make it look as if some­how all the chaos was sole­ly your fault and that you had brought it upon your­selves sin­gle-hand­ed­ly. And it would appear as if their only involve­ment in your part of the world was that of a rather saint­ly inno­cent, bum­bling savior?

When the truth was any­thing but.

In a way, the West is putting itself and its own peo­ple at a huge dis­ad­van­tage by refus­ing to under­stand oth­ers or to see them as they are, while those oth­ers under­stand west­ern peo­ples so well, and are keen and open to learn­ing from them. A Syr­i­an per­son (for the sake of argu­ment) who speaks Ara­bic and Eng­lish flu­ent­ly, and under­stands both East and West com­pre­hen­sive­ly, is able to see the world with two pairs of eyes. As a result, he or she has access to so much more cul­ture, knowl­edge and life skills than an aver­age west­ern per­son. They are learn­ing from you, but you are not learn­ing from them. They know they have things to learn, but you are not aware of all that you could be learn­ing that is lack­ing in your cul­ture and soci­ety, things that for­eign­ers can see but you can­not. Think of that dis­ad­van­tage and its consequences.

Syr­i­ans do have some­thing to bring to you, a gift of some­thing your cul­ture lost some time ago, a deep­er aware­ness of what life and even love are all about. And at the same time, they also have some­thing to learn from you, the gift of a kind of free­dom they have nev­er had.

What Syr­i­ans like me would like the world to know is that Syr­ia is its peo­ple and its cul­ture, Syr­ia is not its dic­ta­tors, nor its invaders, nor those who cov­et that land and who are will­ing to kill its peo­ple so that they can get their hands on it. Syr­ia will sur­vive all this, and will out­grow it, just as it has many oth­er tragedies in its long his­to­ry of destruc­tion, fol­lowed always and con­sis­tent­ly by res­ur­rec­tion. This is not only a land of death but also of con­tin­u­al rebirth and cre­ation. We mustn’t for­get this fact of his­to­ry. Mean­while, only art and cre­ation will show the way to a brighter future. We can­not cre­ate the future if we for­get our past, and for­get who we tru­ly are. And remem­ber that Syr­i­ans do not see them­selves the way west­ern TV screens or news­pa­pers por­tray them. They know who they are, even if oth­ers don’t.

On a final note, this poignant African proverb comes to mind, “Until the lion learns how to write, every sto­ry will glo­ri­fy the hunter.”

 

2011Bashar al-AssadDamascusLatakiaLondonSyrian revolution

Rana Haddad grew up in Latakia in Syria, moved to the UK as a teenager, and read English Literature at Cambridge University. She lived in London and worked as a journalist for the BBC, Channel 4, and other broadcasters. Rana has also published poetry and is currently mostly based in Athens. The Unexpected Love Objects of Dunya Noor, her first novel, was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize and selected as MTV Arabia Book of the Month. She is now working on a novel set in London that will portray England in a way it has never been portrayed before. She tweets @SyrianMoustache.

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