March 15, 2013

For my brother Omar, who asked me write about Syria. I apologize if it’s not what you were expecting.

I’ve spent the better part of the past two months with my head bent over documents — dry fingers sifting through piles of dust, rusty nails, and printed words. It burdens me to know that these words are waiting to be contextualized, historicized and narrativized by me — and so I conveniently put off truly building a relationship with them for as long as I possibly can. Such is my general attitude towards the more challenging things in life.

Yet, once in a while, I find that these vague and dreamlike figures of the past manage to evoke in me feelings. Feelings, and not just thoughts. At times they demand my admiration, at other times my anger and frustration. It surprises me. Ironically, they are able to do so because of my knowledge of the present, and as most historians in training come to realize, presentism can be a tricky problem.

I’m wondering, do the actions of Syrian and Lebanese diaspora activists around the time of the Syrian Revolt of 1925 only seem to be getting this much attention from me because they remind me so much of those of current emigre activists? Is it because the formation of diaspora aide committees in response to the events of 1925–1927 make me think of my friends and relatives in the United States who are now collecting donations for Syrian victims? Maybe it’s because the ruthless French bombardment of (historical sites in) Syria in 1925–26 eerily lend itself to some sort of crude genealogy of power? Or is it that the ignored petitions of Syrian and Lebanese to the League of Nations in 1925 are such an unsurprising reminder of of the tragically resilient expectations that many Syrians continue to have of international bodies and great powers alike? And don’t even get me started on the topic of sectarianism.

Or am I drawn to this subject because in some way I feel some sort of guilt about being a casual observer in the present? Somehow, if I can produce new knowledge of the transnational dynamics of the 1925 revolt, I won’t have to feel so bad about being an apathetic, grad student who sits behind a computer screen all day consuming news articles conveniently packaged in ways meant to push my thoughts into one direction or another.

It’s ironic because I have to admit that one of my qualms about entering the realm of academia was falling into apathy. Yet here I am asking myself the question: how can I not let my feelings dictate my construction of past events?

It’s been two years since the uprising in Syria started. In two years, I’ve managed to do not very much that’s important in my opinion. I travel around the world and look at documents, and my new experiences add mostly pleasant layers to my reality.

I could talk about what these two years have meant to the Syrian people, but I’d rather focus on my own personal connections. In only two years, my younger cousins went from being innocent, and somewhat annoyingly spoiled, Halabi kids to refugees in Egypt. My cousins’ realities have also been expanded not only by the fact of their having to deal with displacement and adjusting to the realities of a new country — they now know the distinct sound of gunfire, the image of collapsed walls and buildings, and the feeling of cold that comes with no electricity and gas during the winter. And they are the lucky ones. They are far from that now; at most they deal with their nightmares of the recent past by posting humorous “memes” on facebook? (What was life like before memes anyways?)

So to go back to the question of how not to let my feelings dictate my construction of the historical past? Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I want so badly to write a heroic story of the past (I know that is problematic). But it’s only because I am so inspired by the heroism of the everyday people who have taken to the streets throughout the Arab world over the past two years. They have expanded my reality by expanding my knowledge of the possible. And I can only hope that such heroism never dies.

Repeat after them: الشعب السوري ما بينذل

Historian of the Middle East, focusing on Syrian diaspora and migration. Assistant Professor at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA.