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Trying to be a storyteller in times of war and devastation in Syria



“War is primarily experienced through a body that walks and it is recounted as a bodily experience. It is the devastating, sudden interruption of ordinary temporalities, which propelled the daunting discovery of an unknown territory through long exhausting marches amidst death and life.” (Salih, 2016, p.750)


The revolution, then the war in Syria shifted my reality from 2011 onwards. I was living in Switzerland at the time, and there was a clash between my outer surrounding and my inner world, a clash similar to the one the recent Syrian diaspora is now experiencing. I was following every detail I could find on the revolution, watching every video. My childhood dream was to study acting, but my need to tell the stories I was following so avidly overcame it and I opted for filmmaking instead. When writing about Lebanese cinema, Rastegar describes its fixation on war as “an albatross hung around their necks, preventing them from exploring other subjects” (Rastegar, 2015, p.160) and I am wondering how much current Syrian cinema can get away from war. Due to the dictatorship and lack of alternative infrastructures, most of the recent films that have been made by Syrians since 2011 are documentaries or essays describing their experiences in the last decade. For now, there are few fictions, few alternative stories.


Something I find striking about war is the contrast between a devastation so gigantic it can barely be named, only experienced, and a need for everyday life to keep going as is. A need to celebrate birthdays, to keep a sense of connection and normalcy. As Salih writes quoting Das “Those who experienced violence—whether immediately or through a persistent and actualized “ecology of fear”—did not always feel compelled to tell stories of violence, or when they did, their words had a frozen quality to them, which showed their burned and numbed relation to life.” (Salih, 2016, p.749). Similarly, most people in my surrounding are very calm when talking about Syria. There’s a distance, because what happened is too painful, beyond imagination. Describing her father’s reaction to her mother’s death, Campt writes: “my father hummed in the face of the unsayability of words. Even now, the memory of my father’s quiet hum connects me to feelings of loss I cannot articulate in words, and it provokes in me a simultaneously overwhelming and unspeakable response. It is this exquisitely articulate modality of quiet— a sublimely expressive unsayability that exceeds both words, as well as what we associate with sound and utterance” (Campt, 2017, p.4).


Pain can find various ways to be expressed. A humming. Frantic gestures when words stay calm. Or in my aunt’s case, cooking. Small gestures she has control of. Through the repetition of casual, banal gestures, she carved a way back to life after leaving a mostly destroyed Homs for a foreign Switzerland, with her kids. Food was a known component, a feeling of safety, what she had left of “home”. Cooking was also a form of resistance in the face of the unpredictability of life. As Jackson describes quoting Mandela: “A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom” (Jackson 2002, p.14).


Instead of a journey outwards like the hero’s journey, it’s a journey inwards despite what is going on outside. A constant decision to stay alive, and to love. To be kind.

When I finally entered drama school, the main storytelling structure we were taught was the hero’s journey, where the hero leaves their routine to go face life and comes back changed to teach their loved ones, a structure in which high stakes are a must. I was never able to relate to it. The people I admire the most, the people whose stories I want to share are not heroes per se. They’re people who did their best despite terrible circumstances they did not choose. Instead of a journey outwards like the hero’s journey, it’s a journey inwards despite what is going on outside. A constant decision to stay alive, and to love. To be kind.


After the 06.02.23 earthquake in Turkey and Syria, Zayn Alarbi shared a picture on instagram of balloons hanging on the wall that read “I love you”, the living room visible through what was left of the building. Was it an interrupted birthday celebration? An engagement party cut short by the walls collapsing? On the picture, the following sentences were added in Arabic: “It’s not 30’000 dead” followed by “It’s 30’000 lives”, then “30’000 I love you”. That got to me. This post had found a way to go beyond the number of casualties, towards our shared humanity. It only hurts because we love. That’s what I try to remind myself after every event that throws the region further down, and I’m trying to keep my head above the water of my emotions in order to be helpful. It only hurts because we love, I tell myself before acting difficult scenes that remind me too much of Syria and what my family and friends went through and I try not to hurt myself more than necessary. This is the least I can do. Share the stories. “Stories are counterfactual or fictional, not because they aspire to mirror reality and fail, nor because they offer escapes from reality, but because they aid and abet our need to believe that we may discern and determine the meaning of our journey through life: where we came from and where we are going. In making and telling stories we rework reality in order to make it bearable” (Jackson, 2002, p.16).


Maybe complexity needs hope, and I didn’t have any at the time.

In 2017, after a few years of war in Syria and various difficult events, I stopped creating. I didn’t have any words left. We all knew what was happening and yet nothing was changing – it took years for me to be able to express my thoughts again. It’s not that I didn’t have anything left to say, but I felt helpless and bitter. What I wrote had lost its depth, its complexity. Maybe complexity needs hope, and I didn’t have any at the time. Looking back, I think it’s my sense of agency that I lost. Jackson describes storytelling as “a vital human strategy for sustaining a sense of agency in the face of disempowering circumstances. To reconstitute events in a story is no longer to live those events in passivity, but to actively rework them, both in dialogue with others and within one’s own imagination.” (Jackson, 2002, p.15) – but you need to have a vision towards a potential future in order to do this.


Abu-Lughod’s father described his experience of returning to Palestine in the following terms: “I do not feel bitterness at all. I feel, rather, that the Israeli presence is a challenge to us. And it is impossible to meet that challenge with bitterness… My coming here, a big part of it, was in order to change this reality. Because I cannot fight far away from the field of struggle.” (Hirsch et al., 2011, p.134). If, as Ramsay suggests, displacement has more to do with orientation and alignment in life, then “to be displaced is to live with the sense of a dispossessed future” (Ramsay, 2020, p.388). How can we tell stories from a place of dispossession, in a way that can allow for a different future to be built or for alignment to be regained? How can we avoid re-enacting violence on the same bodies and, in the case of Syria, re-enforcing the dictatorship through the stories we tell? And can we do so without further wounding people already directly affected by the situation? As Jackson writes, “It is in the very nature of an accident to break the connections between before and after, between ourselves and others, between inward and outward realities, and between stories and lives” (Jackson, 2002, p.107), so how do we go beyond the place where pain cries out to be heard?


Can we build a different reality through storytelling?


Salih writes, quoting Butler: “Arendt invokes Eichmann’s crimes to be judged by humankind—not by national institutions that speak the language of the nation-state, nor by legal procedures and courts which history has proven to be fallible and partial. Arendt’s speech act, Butler suggests, is entirely fictional, has no power, but operates performatively, producing an effect: it models fictionally “what a subject might look like, might sound like, [speaking] in the name of a diverse humanity and against those who seek to deny or destroy some part of that diversity”” (Salih, 2016, p.751). Can we, too, operate performatively to create the potentiality of a different state of things through a type of magical realism that can hold enough space for complex narratives?


Looking for ways to discuss Syria beyond the pain that I feel and don’t want to impose on others, beyond the current physical limitations that stop us from building alternative social fabrics and infrastructures, I stumbled upon Singh’s Speculative Manifesto. All these years, my creative energy was focused on discussing the horrors going on, so much so that I hadn’t fully taken into consideration the freedom and subversion that laughter and fantasy can carry. Only now do I have the space. “Imagination — that faculty that expands the human mind to the size of the universe, that makes empathy possible (you have to have some imagination to put yourself in another’s shoes) — also allows us to dream. Science fiction and fantasy posit other paths, alternative futures, different social arrangements as well as technologies, other ways that we could be. Before we do, we must dream.” (Singh, 2021).


With more than half the country displaced and a lot of people unable to go back, maybe monsters, alternative realities offer another way to address truths that are difficult to express in all their rawness. “Reality is such a complex beast that in order to begin to hold it, comprehend it, we need something larger than realist fiction. Enter speculative fiction, with its aliens and magic and warp drives, set against the backdrop of the universe itself. At its bedrock, despite the strangeness of the setting, we recognize familiar things: love, rage, struggle, wonder — our selves, disguised, but there. After all, the Mahabharata, for all the marvelous story-telling, is also the battle that rages within each one of us.” (Singh, 2021).


Julie-Yara Atz



References

Alarbi, Z. (2023) Zayn Alarbi: زين العربي on instagram: "ليسوا ثلاثين ألف قتيل! by yousef.aldomouky #syria #turkey #valentine", Instagram @thezaynalarbi. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/Coo8jO9NS1B/ (Accessed: February 19, 2023).

Campt, T. (2017) “An Exercise in Counterintuition,” in Listening to images. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hirsch, M. and Miller, N.K. (2011) “7 Return to Half-Ruins: Fathers and Daughters, Memory and History in Palestine, Lila Abu-Lughod,” in Rites of return: Diaspora poetics and the politics of memory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jackson, M. (2002) in The politics of storytelling. Copenhagen: Museum of Tusculanum, pp. 11–36.

Ramsay, G. (2020) “Time and the other in crisis: How anthropology makes its displaced object,” Anthropological Theory, 20(4)(Sage), pp. 385–413. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/1463499619840464.

Rastegar, K., 2015. Surviving Images: cinema, war, and cultural memory in the Middle East. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, pp.155-184.

Salih, R. (2016) “Bodies that walk, bodies that talk, Bodies that love: Palestinian women refugees, Affectivity, and the politics of the ordinary,” Antipode, 49(3), pp. 742–760. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12299.

Singh, V. (2021) A speculative manifesto, Antariksh Yatra. Available at: https://vandanasingh.wordpress.com/2021/10/20/a-speculative-manifesto/?fbclid=IwAR3yUUNbJlWyIFQ-SL7FpupvrRumnB6zIiEEv8DSYgbTGSTuvvbsGQQIi7o (Accessed: February 19, 2023).


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