About hiddencities

Freelance journalist and writer.

Playing chess in Damascus

This is a story I wrote from Damascus in 2009, during the year I lived in Syria. It originally appeared in Wunderkammer Magazine: http://www.wunderkammermag.com/politics-and-society/iraq-refugee-syria

They lived well in Baghdad; their eldest daughter had two cars. Six years later, the Iraqi couple moves their mattresses out of the bedroom each night to sleep on the living room floor. The only bedroom is left for their daughters while they live in this concrete refugee suburb of Damascus.

It was Friday and quiet on the balcony above the street. The fried fish lunch was over and the mother was reading fortunes in the bottom of coffee cups. The father skulked past the couch and flashed his pack of cigarettes. He didn’t smoke before the war. He was a chain-smoker by the time he arrived in Damascus. He shrugged when his wife explained his new habit—“he’s always with a cigarette, always, but he never smoked before.” She brought her index and middle finger to her mouth and mimed puff after puff.

The father talked of his construction company in Baghdad. “We sold huge pistons for Caterpillars and other large machines,” he explained. “I can know just by putting my ear to the gears or the engine if it’s working well or not,” he grinned behind his cigarette. “I’m very clever.”

A few weeks later in their living room, the table was cleared for a gorging of rice, grilled fish, kibbeh stuffed with egg, and salad eaten by plucking the cheese-draped lettuce from the bowl by hand. The family’s hospitality is typical of Syria, but their food is much better.

A wealthy Christian family, they became refugees when Shia militias began enforcing a fanaticism of piety in Baghdad’s streets and thieves started roaming their neighborhood. Their son’s fatal kidnapping and a younger daughter’s death drove them to Damascus.

“But we are here,” he said, as he always said in response to his wife’s war stories. “We are here, with new friends”— he calls us, two Americans, his children, extending an amount of kindness that circumstance should have blunted— “so thank God.”

Then he launched into jokes, spurred by the dessert of sugary cardamom tea and date cookies covered in sesame seeds. With the help of his wife, he explained Uday Hussein’s speech impediment and its lethal effect on the players of the Rashid Football Club. Saddam’s elder son meant to say “congratulations” to his players after a big win, but what came out was a command to line them all up to be shot. And we heard of the man from Ramadi, a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, who was asked to name the color of his wife’s underwear and needed a life-line: “Can I phone a friend?”

The last joke they told involved the church. A pauper goes to the alter every week, but instead of dropping a few coins in the donation box, he asks the Virgin Mary, the baby Jesus in her arms, if it’s alright if he takes the money. She always says yes. Eventually the priest grows suspicious, until one day he waits behind the statue for the pauper, who arrives and pleads his usual request, expecting the same silent consent.

“No!” comes a male voice in response.

“Shh!” the pauper replies. “I’m not stealing from you! Just your mother!”

They could joke about Iraq as they sat in their small one bedroom apartment, the television on in the background showing American cooking shows and Dr. Phil. They are another once-prosperous family from Iraq displaced in Syria.

The country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs counts 1.2 million Iraqis living here with valid visas, designating them “Arab guests and visitors.” The number of illegal residents is unknown but pushes the total number above 1.5 million, as Syria has hosted the bulk Iraq’s refugees. In the fall of 2007, the government effectively closed its borders, though many refugees still arrive, including a wave of hundreds of Christians who fled violence in Mosul last fall. There is a slow trickle of Iraqis returning home, mostly for financial reasons: they cannot legally work in Syria and, when the money runs out, going back is the only option.

The insistence on eating helping after helping of grilled fish – “Iraqi food combines all the spices of Indian, Persian, and Turkish food,” the eldest daughter said – and the seemingly endless amount of family jokes reveal what the fall of Baghdad, the occupation, sectarianism, and callous American adventurism cannot erase: a sense of humor, of food, of hospitality and humanity that go widely unreported in so many stories from Iraq and its new diaspora.

“When Saddam’s statue fell, I knew Iraq was finished,” the father said. Weeks earlier, on the balcony after the fish lunch talking about his pistons, he said emphatically that he was not a Ba’athist.

That same afternoon the mother talked about an old friend who was Sunni. “We were in university together,” she said. “Our children were schoolmates.” Then, after Saddam fell and the occupation worsened, “all of sudden, she was speaking of me as a Christian and she as a Muslim. She started scolding relatives – an uncle and his niece – for kissing when they greeted each other in an apartment. ‘A man and woman should not kiss like that,’ she would say.” The mother stirred her tea with force. “This is crazy.”

Before the table had been set for dinner and bowl after bowl of salad and rice and fish had been placed on the folding table before the couch, the father’s phone rang as we finished a game of chess. A friend had just gotten the call from the United Nations and was going be resettled in America. They all cheered congratulations, and the father blessed his friend on the phone.

Then he turned back to the chessboard. We were playing slowly, smoking cigarette after cigarette, barely speaking. His daughter sat next to him and was whispering strategies. “Come on Fredo, move!” he said. He told me he had loved playing chess in Baghdad, though it was hard for me to imagine him sitting in a café there, over a chessboard like this, and not smoking. But I easily imagined him playing with his son while his third and youngest daughter whispered her own strategies in his ear.

I looked through the haze and down at the ashtray and pictured their smoke-free house in Baghdad and unlimited games of chess. Then he took a long drag and, exhaling, made a move and put me in checkmate.

Life in the Ruins

deknatel_lifeintheruins_ba_img_0How the destruction of architectural treasures became a weapon in Syria’s ongoing civil war.

Assad’s staging of a soft-focus victory lap in Krak des Chevaliers represented more than a culture war unfolding in the civil war’s cross-fire. Targeting historic architecture for destruction or co-opting it for propaganda exercises are both regime tactics, to be added to an arsenal that also includes barrel bombs—metal drums filled with explosives and shrapnel and dropped from helicopters onto rebel-held territory. Many of the bombs fall on Aleppo, whose covered medieval markets were burned by regime forces in 2012. “That was totally punitive,” Amr al-Azm, an archaeologist and member of the Syrian opposition who teaches history at Shawnee State University in Ohio, told me. “When Aleppo rose up, the regime had constantly reminded and threatened the city’s merchant classes that if they did not control their local population—if they did not support suppressing any protest and the city was allowed to become a hotbed of demonstrations—there would be a great price to pay.”

As a warning in 2011, al-Azm said, the regime sent tanks into the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, on the Euphrates River, which has close commercial and cultural ties with Aleppo, and besieged it. “If you want to make a demonstration of force without destroying Aleppo itself, burning the commercial center of Deir ez-Zor would be a good way to remind the people of Aleppo: ‘This is what I will do to you if you also start protesting.’” When the protests finally took off there in 2012, “the regime burnt the souks down—wanton destruction just for the sake of destruction.”

It was only the start. When the eleventh-century minaret of Aleppo’s grand Umayyad Mosque collapsed from a mortar strike in April 2013, the Syrian government and the rebels traded accusations over who was to blame. Satellite images show that a corner of the mosque’s rectangular courtyard is missing. Where the minaret stood, there is only a pile of stones. But as Diana Darke states in her memoir, My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, much of the destruction of Aleppo’s mosque involved strategic terror tactics focused on symbolic and historic places. “Before leaving, the regime soldiers scrawled the same chilling graffiti on the mosque’s water dispenser that was starting to appear all over the country,” Darke writes, “Al-Assad aw nahriqhu, ‘Assad, or we will burn it.’”

Read the rest at The Nation.

Not just branches – on the Syrian and Egyptian Brotherhoods

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The irony of these parallel accounts is that, with Egypt’s current disorder and Lefèvre’s analysis, which privileges the Brotherhood’s early pragmatism and democratic participation over their violence in the 1970s and 1980s, the Syrian Brotherhood – long considered more radical – comes across as more of a political moderate than its Egyptian relative. Lefèvre insists that “today, there is little doubt left about the organisation’s commitment to ideas and concepts such as democracy and political pluralism,” even if it still remains doctrinally “embedded in the ideological substance of political Islam”. Its internal history is far more contentious, and reflective of the broad social and political wounds of decades of single Baath Party rule, than is often framed. In Egypt, meanwhile, where the Brotherhood’s history was never so violent, the group instead participated in what Wickham calls “a political process warped by authoritarian rule”. That didn’t liberalise the organisation so much as entrench hardliners who kept it as a closed coterie. Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood knew it couldn’t reasonably hold power, so it was free to advocate democracy while leaving major doctrines and policies vague. But political power changed all that, and exposed their doublespeak. It ran a presidential candidate after pledging it wouldn’t; it deflected criticisms with canards, and refused to admit mistakes.

Until the Syrian Brotherhood runs in elections and realises similar political aspirations, the organisation will be held up to its Egyptian counterparts and their penchant for saying one thing while pursuing only narrow group interests. The interviews Lefèvre cites give voice to his broad claims about the Syrian Brotherhood’s newfound restraint and accommodations. But if the Egyptian Brotherhood has proven anything after Mubarak, and after Morsi, it is that its words are hardly sacrosanct. Exiled Syrian Brothers such as Attar or Salem, whether they want to be, will be associated with Khairat Al Shater, the Egyptian Brotherhood’s senior strategist and chief financier, who told the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper last year: “There must be as much integration and cooperation as possible, with alliances and coalitions among the various political stakeholders … There is no possibility of a power monopoly. It simply is not part of our strategy or our culture.”

Read the whole story, on the cover of The Review, at The National.

Current Stories

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The Nile has no shortage of stories or storytellers, which might discourage most writers from undertaking “a biography of the world’s greatest river”. Not British travel writer and self-described adventurer Robert Twigger, who at the outset of his lively, zigzagging, often oddball tome, Red Nile: The Biography of the World’s Greatest River, declares his goal “to uncover the best stories, in all their light and darkness, the stories red in tooth and claw, the more bizarre the better, the blood and the guts of this river which spills into history”. If you’re going to write another book about the Nile – a river whose chronicles begin with the Pharaohs and whose history, whether ancient or modern, is always being rehashed and reiterated – how else could you do it? To his credit, Twigger brings some self-restraint and humility to this epic, acknowledging he is less an original storyteller than a curator, collecting and rearranging tales and characters in order to say something new.

Twigger’s Red Nile refers, initially, to the moment in early summer when, north of Khartoum, the sediment-rich Blue Nile, at the height of its flood, flows into the White Nile and clogs its clear waters, turning them briefly red. But this is only the most literal version of the Red Nile. As Twigger writes, “the stories that remain are always the most highly coloured, the most passion-filled or the most blood curdling. Naturally, their colour is red.” Often he leans on the latter; among the most bloody stories retold is that of the Delta town of Mansoura, where in 1250, Baibars, Egypt’s future Mamluk Sultan, slaughtered French Crusaders led by Louis IX, and their blood was said to clog the Nile south to the Mediterranean.

Read more at The National.

Egypt’s Conscience: The Genius of Sonallah Ibrahim

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From a prison camp in Egypt’s western desert in 1963, a young dissident, Sonallah Ibrahim, recorded in his diaries that he “must write about Cairo after studying her neighborhood by neighborhood, her classes, her evolution.” A year later he was out of prison, having served five years of a seven-year sentence for being a Communist. He smuggled his diaries back to Cairo by copying them onto cigarette rolling papers. But Egypt’s capital was its own kind of prison, as the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser kept him under house arrest from dusk until dawn. He tried working on a novel of his childhood, but focused instead on a bleak, honest record of his days in a city browbeaten by Nasser’s omnipresent police. “The new reality consumed me,” Ibrahim later wrote, and so his work had to engage “the struggle against imperialism, the effort to build socialism, and all the difficulties these efforts brought in their train: terror, torture, prison, death, personal misery.”

The outcome was his first novel, That Smell, published and quickly banned in 1966. Its nameless narrator is a recently released political prisoner and writer living under house arrest. He roams Cairo when he’s not checking in with a police officer every night, visits old friends and family, smokes, spies on his neighbors, and otherwise fails at writing and sleeping with a prostitute. The book, devoid of much plot, captures the debilitating effects of police repression under Nasser, but also anticipates a mood of decline and looming disaster brought by Egypt’s humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, followed by Nasser’s death in 1970. State censors decried Ibrahim’s portrait of a listless Egyptian society, singling out its few brief sexual scenes. At a Ministry of Information interrogation, a zealous officer demanded to know why Ibrahim’s narrator fails to sleep with a prostitute. “Is the hero impotent?” he asked, taking more offense to the perceived insult to Egyptian masculinity and, it seems, national prowess, than to the book’s portrayal of torture.

Read the rest at The Daily Beast.

Beirut, Alive but Dead

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“Beirut was, and is, a very real place,” journalist Samir Kassir wrote in his mammoth history of Lebanon’s capital, “whose playfulness and love of show and spectacle fail to conceal its inner seriousness.” Kassir was killed in a car bombing in June 2005, three and a half months after the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri’s own assassination, along with 22 others, in a massive blast along the city’s Corniche on Valentine’s Day. Uncertainty and terror followed Hariri’s death, as the United Nations launched a high-profile investigation while car bombs and assassinations persisted, and thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of Syrian soldiers and security forces – and thousands of others rallied around Hizbollah and its sponsor in Damascus. The mood and psychology of this moment in recent Lebanese history is the nominal plot of The Mehlis Report, the English-language debut of Rabee Jaber, the 2012 International Arabic Fiction Prize winner.

Architect Saman Yarid wanders Beirut, investing hopes for peace and answers to his city’s turmoil on the release of the UN investigation led by the German judge Detlev Mehlis. Saman is the last member of his family left in their sprawling home in Achrafieh; his sisters have moved abroad, save for Josephine, who was kidnapped in the civil war, and never found. But his story – late nights, long walks, and different girlfriends – leads into an imaginative excavation of the city’s brutal past and present, and the toll of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, with 150,000 dead and an estimated 17,000 missing. In Jaber’s novel, Kassir’s “inner seriousness” of Beirut is, in fact, a parallel city of the dead, where those lost in the war wander a nearly empty city, always thirsty, and sit down to write their memoirs. And the “real” Beirut in the months after Hariri’s assassination, as the translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid told an interviewer, is really that “Beirut of the dead superimposed on the Beirut of the living”.

Read the rest at The National

Distance Resistance

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Arwa works out of a walk-up office in Heliopolis, near Cairo’s international airport, amid the din of low-flying passenger jets overhead. The 27-year-old former state television producer, who declined to give his last name, left Damascus in late 2011 to avoid being drafted into the army. After months of inactivity in Egypt, he and another Syrian friend founded SouriaLi, an internet radio station focused not on news of the brutal government crackdown and uprising devastating his country, but Syrians’ common history and culture (the name means “Syria is mine”.)

“We try to remind people of our connections,” said Arwa, his cigarette nearly done. “We’re speaking about how to build our society, how we can live together tomorrow. Like Mahmoud Darwish wrote, ‘we love life’.”

The opening lines of that Darwish poem – “And we love life if we find a way to it. We dance in between martyrs and raise a minaret for violet or palm trees” – is an unlikely elegy for Syria today, where the death toll, according to the United Nations, exceeds 70,000. One million Syrians have fled abroad, most to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, bringing the realities of war across a region that has known too many refugee crises.

The trauma of displacement is often captured in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, home to some 146,000 people, or similarly squalid camps in the mountains and valleys of Lebanon and Turkey. Cairo has no refugee camps. But new Syrian communities, displaced by war, have formed in its urban sprawl, from the city centre to the desert satellites, just like the Sudanese and Iraqi ones before them. For many young Syrians who joined the earliest protests against Assad and then were forced to flee, Egypt’s capital has become both an activist base and a refuge.

Read the rest at The National. To read the piece as it appeared in print in The Review, click here. And check out more of Bridgette Auger’s great photographs here.