The Children of the Revolution

I finally broke into the prison,
I found my place in the chain.
Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows,
all the brave young men
they’re waiting now to see a signal
which some killer will be lighting for pay.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture,
you whom I cannot betray.
Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution

The Syrian civil war broke lose in March 2011, two months after the events in Tahrir Square, and one month after the fall of Mubarak.

Amidst the tumult and media hype of the Arab Spring, it was as if the distant drums had suddenly hit the volume switch. In the dusty border town  of Dara’a, just north of Jordan, local kids wrote on a wall: “The people want the regime to fall”. The words had been repeated from Tunisia to Egypt, from Yemen to Bahrain. It was the cry of the revolution. The local governor decided to come down hard. The young people, all under 17, were thrown in jail. The punishment stunned the town, and suddenly, Syria, progressive, diverse, proud, beautiful, but authoritarian Syria greeted the misnamed Arab Spring.

The young men’s families and friends weren’t having any of it. It is said that in broad daylight, dozens of young men pelted a poster of a smiling President Bashar Assad; a statue of the Bashar’s  late father and predecessor Hafiz Assad was demolished; and official buildings, including the HQ of ruling Ba’ath Party’ and the governor’s office, were destroyed. “There is no fear, there is no fear, after today there is no fear!” hundreds of men chanted in shaky mobile-phone footage.

Over that weekend, security forces opened fire on marchers. This was the regime’s well tried negotiating technique. But Assad responded immediately, sending a high-ranking delegation to deliver his condolences to the families of the dead. The governor was sacked, and the boys released.

So far, so “I mentioned the war but I think I got away with it” But the die had been cast. The demonstrators made demands the regime was unwilling or unable to meet. And the rest is tragedy.

I am not about to retell the story of the Syrian revolution. It is still being written, and as yet, there is no ending. Only more blood. As I write, well over three hundred thousand souls have perished (soon, it will overtake the butchers bill of the Spanish and American Civil Wars), and tens of thousands have disappeared into prisons and oubliez. Millions have been displaced within the country; millions have sought shelter in neighbouring countries; and at least eight hundred thousand have taken to the roads of Central Europe.

But I will quixotically hark back to just before events reached the fork in the road, to when there was an outside chance that Syria could avoid the chaos and carnage that was besetting other children of an Arab Spring that was turning into a bitter winter.

Back to the days before The Fall when pundits were asking whether Bashar would be Hammersmith Man, reflecting his former career as a successful ophthalmologist in London, and his glamorous, cosmopolitan, former merchant banker wife, or Hama Man, recalling his father’s crackdown on an Islamist rising in Hama in 1982, in which uncounted tens of thousand are believed to have perished. We discovered very soon whom he was destined to become.

To the days before The Fall, before the revolution became weaponized and islamized, and demonstrators danced together in the streets, earning the intifada the short lived sobriquet ‘the Dabke Revolution’, named for the circle folk dance popular throughout the Middle East and the Balkans.

image

The days before the slaughters began. First by the forces of regime, led by Bashar’s brutal brother Maher and his notorious Fourth Armoured Division. Then by the thuggish Alawi militia – the Shabiha, or “ghosts” or “shadows”, a double-edged meaning alluding to their underworld origin and methods, and also to the fact that they literally turned people into ghosts. And then, in reciprocal ferocity, by opposition militias that grew and proliferated, fought and died, divided, and divided again, and embraced a jihadi creed, sowing the dragon’s teeth that evolved into Jabhat an Nusra and Da’esh.

The days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. When the picture that is the featured image of this blog was first published in Al Jazeera in early 2011, I was both enchanted and inspired. I immediately started using it, with acknowledgements, in my publications and postings. When more and more of these images appeared, I used them too. But I was becoming a tad suspicious. The lasses looked too clean, too cute, and indeed, many actually looked alike. The photographers’ daughters, perhaps, or those of friends. Were they for-real or where they posed? I guess I will never find out.

Needlessly to say, as the rebellion morphed into harrowing civil war, such images disappeared, and in their place, we saw destruction and carnage, and the broken bodies of little girls and boys slain by bomb and bullet, hardship and hunger. Now, as families were forced to abandon their homes and make their way to the borders, and thence, into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and finally, into Europe, we see children staggering on dusty roads, carried piggy back by exhausted fathers, pushed in strollers, scorched by the sun, soaked by the rain, and frozen by the snow. And we see little Aylan on his golden beach, a Kurdish toddler now a symbol of all the drowned babies of the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.

Photogenic children no more. Just victims, survivors, lost souls.

I fought in the old revolution
on the side of the ghost and the King.
Of course I was very young
and I thought that we were winning;
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
as they carry the bodies away.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture…
you whom I cannot betray.

See also, Bombs and Babies

Children of the Revolution

On a personal note, we were last in Syria in March 2009, and whilst visiting the famed Roman amphitheater at Bosra, just northeast of Dera’a, we had the pleasure of the company of a crowd of Syrian school children. They treated us like visiting celebrities and sang us a song of welcome. It is saddening to look at these pictures now, and wonder where these children are now.

Bosra Bosra 2

 

Bosra

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Hejira

You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line
Joni Mitchell, Hejira

People’ll tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you’ll never really know
Where some have found their paradise
Other’s just come to harm
Oh Amelia it was just a false alarm
Joni Mitchell, Amelia

How sweet it is to learn new things – to walk new streets, to look through new windows. Working lately as a volunteer with the Humanitarian Settlement Services progrmme,  I have had that opportunity. The HSS’ mission is to assist newly arrived refugees to settle in Australia, participate in our way of life,  access services available to us all, and to develop the skills and knowledge needed to begin a new life in our country. The  following  pieces recall two days in my volunteer life. They are a sequel of sorts, and indeed, a happy ending to my recent post No Going Home in which I endeavored to imagine the refugee journey.  

Hejira is an Arabic word that commemorates specifically  the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622.  But it also refers to any emigration or flight, and this is the context here.

Arrival

I wait at our tiny  airport for an Afghani family coming to Australia from a refugee camp on the Pakistani border. They have come here straight from Iran with but a short transit in Sydney. The plane is a little QANTAS Dash 8, and the passengers walk down the gangplank. The day is hot. Young girls in short shorts and skivvies disembark, and young men in shorts, tees and thongs (the sandals, that is). There a few suited businessmen, and retirees in nondescript array.

Our new arrivals are last off. Mum and two teenage sons. She wears a hijab and Iranian dress,, and the boys, jeans and tee shirts. They step onto the hot tarmac and walk, tired and nervous, to the arrivals lounge. We are with the welcoming party – a family of Afghanis who settled here a short while ago, two young girls, their mother and their auntie. They too are dressed in salwar kameez – they came here from a  camp in Pakistan. The ladies dwelt there for twelve years, and the girls were born there.

A young Hazara serves as our interpreter. She is dressed like a fashionable Iranian muhajibabe in simple and smart attire – for it is indeed Iran that she and he family sought shelter from the Afghan storm. She is eighteen, and arrived with her mother and siblings two years ago. Her English is excellent – she wants to be an interpreter, and is working towards that goal at TAFE. And this is the thing. These folk have all come here on 204 visas for women at risk, the sole carers of dependent families. Their husbands are either dead or decamped in Afghanistan or in the border camps.

And then there are we three Aussies. The tireless Humanitarian Settlement Service caseworker, a lady from community services who wanted to witness an arrival, and myself, working for the HSS as a volunteer, likewise bearing witness to what is quite a powerful scene.

The meeting and the greeting is done with salaams, embraces (the Afghanis) and handshakes (we locals). The first minutes in their new home in the sun. I help the lads load the suitcases on to the bus, and my work done, I bid them all “khoda hafez” and take my leave. They are driven off to their new digs, an Afghan meal, the first of much paperwork, and then sleep.

But not before they are taken to the headland, from where they will view the Pacific Ocean to the east, hills covered in banana plantations to the west, and beyond them, below the cloudless blue sky, the blue-green foothills of the Great Dividing Range. On the other side, far to the northwest, their landlocked, shattered  home is 11,353 kilometers away.

Moving

Our mission today is to move a Hazara family from their first, interim dwelling, to a permanent home on the other side of town. A mother with four children. Three of these are at school today, and the eldest, a sparky eleven year old, has stayed home to help mom move house and help us with translation. Although she has been in Australia for just six months, her English is astonishing. She later tells me she can speak five Afghan languages, Urdu, and a bit of Hindi. Nothing is going to hold this one back.

Their bags and boxes are ready, and these fill the bus. So off we all go to their new home. Two Afghani neighbours greet us on  arrival, with two young girls and a tiny boy. Three ethnic groups, three languages, and two religions, and they are getting along famously.

“Why do you think that is?” asks the caseworker. “Because there are no men around”. No men. No controllers. No patriarchy. No rules. No tribes. No prejudice.

 In Sydney, in Melbourne, with the larger Afghan and Muslim communities, with the mosques and madrassas, imams and ideologies, the self-appointed and self-perpetuating mullahs and muftis, male control would be asserted, with their restrictive rules and regimentation. All the old baggage that was left behind would be brought in and unpacked – the tribal loyalties and enmities, the specious theological diktats on dress and demeanor, form and function. And the patriarchy.

But not here, in this northern, sea-side town. Just women doing their best to get along and make the new life work for themselves and their children.

What will the future hold for these women taken out of their homes, their culture, their society, and asked to craft a new life and identity for themselves and their children in a new and strange land? How will they go with the language and with life in general? Will they make new friends, find rewarding work, and “fit in”,  or will they cling to their old lives, lonely and isolated, their children the sole interface between themselves and the world?

I wonder about the young girls – and particularly the bright and outward-going ones I have met. Will they build successful school and professional careers? Will they make long and lasting friendships with their Australian and other peers?  Will they let go the costumes, conventions, and constrictions of their parents’ culture?

I wonder about the young boys, and the young men whom I greeted at the airport. How will they fare in their matriarchal domestic world? How will they adjust to their new life here with all its challenges and temptations?

If they remain in this regional city, who will be their role models? Will they become more Australian than Afghani as they grow up and mature among their north coast peers? Will they complete their education, and find work in an area with a very high level of youth unemployment? Or will they be isolated and lonely, dislocated and discontented? Will they assume their old culture’s patriarchal role and demand their mothers and sisters subject themselves to the son’s authority as head of the family, and impose restrictions their movements and morality, demeanor and dress?

Will they be drawn to the capital cities with their diverse Muslim communities. And into which circle will they be drawn? To the moderate ones who just want to get on with their lives in an Aussie world, to the pious and unassuming who see jihad as an internal spiritual quest, to the criminal and bikie gangs that we hear so much about, or to the radical proselytizers who view our culture and values as anathema to the word and will of God?

All this is in the future, and as these folk might say, in Gods hands. But in reality, it is in their’s and their’s alone. But I am glad to have been able to play a small part in setting these new arrivals on their path.

see also: No Going Home 

 

A Window on a Gone World

London, back in the day. What wonders dwelt within. I recall here but a few. The old church of St. Bartolph-Without, which turned up in later days in a bad Dracula movie. The churchyard of St. Paul’s, a haven for summer’s day lunch-timing. Green Park in spring sunshine as the lily white skin of England divests for primavera. Berkeley Square, where the fabled nightingale sang, and where Clive of India, his mind curdled by corruption and conscience, and haunted by guilt and ghosts, cut his own throat.

Read more in  Tabula Rasa – Poems of Paul Hemphill, Volume One

My first political excursion. The CND Aldermaston March reaches London, 1966

My first political excursion. The CND Aldermaston March reaches London, 1966

CND

See also The Spirit of ’45  and Something About London.

 

 

No Going Home

Lebanese American BBC Journalist Kim Ghattas says it best:

I often get asked why my family never left or more pointedly, why my parents kept us there, dodging sniper fire on the way to school and back. The answer is this: We stayed because leaving is hard. Becoming refugees meant leaving our lives, our identity, and our dignity behindNo ones first instinct is to leave. Their first choice is usually to hold on to the comforting familiarity of home; when that becomes impossible, you leave for another safer area within the country. Then you leave for a neighboring country, so you can return as soon as possible or even keep an eye on your property while youre away. Only when the walls are closing in and the horizon is total darkness do you give up and leave everything you have ever known behind, lock the door to your home, and walk away.                                                                                                         

Kim Ghittas, The Sad Fading Away of the Refugee Crisis, Foreign Policy 19th October 2015                

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
Somali poet Warsan Shire, Home

A million spaces in the earth to fill, here’s a generation waiting still – we’ve got year after year to kill, but there’s no going home. Steve Knightley, Exile

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing, through the graves the wind is blowing, freedom soon will come;  then we’ll come from the shadows. Leonard Cohen, The Partisan 

I pity the poor immigrant whose strength is spent in vain, whose heaven is like ironsides, whose tears are like rain.  Bob Dylan, I Pity the Poor Immigrant

Just imagine…

Millions are on the move, and you are one of them.

What if you had to leave behind everything that you hold dear. Your identity, culture, language, faith. Your loved ones, perhaps, your friends, your play-mates.

What would YOU do if you had but a short while to gather a few things together and run, leaving your whole life behind? What would you try and take with you? Then you wash up, literally and figuratively, on foreign shores – in border refugee camps, dusty border towns or urban slums. And there you stay, with other fans of thousands in like dire straits, until one day, you are selected for humanitarian settlement in a strange land at the other end of the earth.

That day may never come, so, impatient, frustrated, desperate, you use your family’s savings to pay smugglers who prowl the camps and the port cities, and you take to the seas in frail boats. You might only have enough money for one passage, so you go on ahead and hope to send for your kin once you have reached safe haven.

And you may be one of fortunate ones who make it – not one those cast ashore, lifeless flotsam and jetsam like baby Aylan on his golden beach. And one of tens of thousands in a river of desperate endeavour, you walk the long miles of the highways of Eastern Europe to a German sanctuary. Or else, you are parked in a hot and hostile makeshift camp somewhere near the Tropic of Capricorn.

Just imagine…

You have fled the terror of the warlords and the militias, the holy warriors and the ethnic cleansers. You discover that the border camps of Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Afghanistan, Thailand, and Malaysia, Kenya and Namibia have their own ecology of hardship and handouts, rape and robbery, beatings and bribes, illness and neglect, cursory treatment by overworked aid workers, and shake-downs by the criminals that thrive in these places. There, you and yours attempt to rebuild a semblance of a life-before amidst the tents and the shanties, in the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold. A mosque to pray in, a school for the children, games of football or backgammon for idle menfolk. Try to keep the children fed and warm and free of mortal illness. Try to keep the spirit alive in a time of anxiety, confusion, and empty hopelessness.

Zaatari-refugee-camp 3 July 2013

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan July 2013

Just imagine…

You are one of the lucky few selected for settlement in the fabled ‘west’. New lands, under foreign skies, so far away, it might as well be the moon. You now dwell among strangers. You neither speak their language nor comprehend their ways or their foreign gods. You have no friends or family to call on in time of need. You must rebuild the basic buildings blocks of a normal life – where even the idea of a normal life has now changed utterly. The houses, the streets, the shops, the money even – are all new. The things you took for granted are no longer there, and in their place are new ways and means. New systems and processes – social, welfare, health, education – with new rules and ways of getting things done. Going to the doctor, to the bank, to government offices. Learning English. Finding a home. Getting the kids into a school. Finding a job when your qualifications are not recognised, and work-ways are different to what you know.

The laws are new, the language is new, the way people dress and behave, talk, walk and eat is new. Many new things are fascinating, tempting. Others, confronting and insulting to your morality and values. Some are alien, even, beyond your comprehension. Codes of behaviour, dress, decorum, politeness, are new. Less formality, respect and deference; open displays of sexuality, affection, and rudeness that would not have been tolerated, permitted even, at home. You don’t understand what makes the locals tick – their mannerisms, their speech, their body language, their concept of time and space, even. And you are shocked and frightened by their hostility. Not all – just a noisy and troublesome few who talk quietly amongst themselves, or hurl abuse, or march through city streets with signs that scream, “go back to where you cane from!”, “go home!”

Home?

There is no home.

Home is far, far away.

So far away, it might as well be on the moon.

Just imagine…

This is the new. And you still bear the cross of the old. The world you left behind is still with you.  You miss your family, your friends, and the comfort and support you all gave each other. You miss your old life. The streets, the sounds, the smells. The weather and seasons. Your job, your status, your school, your neighbourhood. You yearn for signs you could read, voices you understood on the radio and television, on the street, and on the buses. You hate having to try and make yourself understood to officials and doctors, desk clerks and shop assistants, and even the supportive and ever helpful case worker whose mission is to help you get through all this.

You are homesick, and lonesome; you feel isolated, helpless, dependent. There is a terrible ache in your heart and a rift in your soul.

And then there are the scars that won’t and perhaps can never heal. The psychological and physical effects of the events and experiences that forced you to flee your homeland. Conflict and violence, intimidation and discrimination, torture and brutality, even. You have flashbacks, bad dreams, anxiety attacks, and actual physical and mental pain and anguish. That say that PTSD is endless.

Just imagine…

You are a stranger in a strange land, and there’s no going home

See also:  Hejira

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.   Psalm 107

Home

Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.

you only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well.

your neighbours running faster
than you, the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind
the old tin factory is
holding a gun bigger than his body,
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one would leave home unless home
chased you, fire under feet,
hot blood in your belly.

it’s not something you ever thought about
doing, and so when you did –
you carried the anthem under your breath,
waiting until the airport toilet
to tear up the passport and swallow,
each mouthful of paper making it clear that
you would not be going back.

you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.

who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles travelled
meant something more than journey.

no one would choose to crawl under fences,
be beaten until your shadow leaves you,
raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of
the boat because you are darker, be sold,
starved, shot at the border like a sick animal,
be pitied, lose your name, lose your family,
make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten,
stripped and searched, find prison everywhere
and if you survive
and you are greeted on the other side
with
go home blacks, refugees
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers
sucking our country dry of milk,
dark, with their hands out
smell strange, savage –
look what they’ve done to their own countries,
what will they do to ours?

the dirty looks in the street
softer than a limb torn off,
the indignity of everyday life
more tender than fourteen men who
look like your father, between
your legs, insults easier to swallow
than rubble, than your child’s body
in pieces – for now, forget about pride
your survival is more important.

i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home tells you to
leave what you could not behind,
even if it was human.

no one leaves home until home
is a damp voice in your ear saying
leave, run now, i don’t know what
i’ve become.

This Syrian mother and her child were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard.