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The Triumph and Irrelevance of Meta-Narratives Over Syria: “Rohna Dahiyyah”

[Roadside mural of Bashar al-Assad along the Damascus-Aleppo highway. Image from Wikimedia Commons] [Roadside mural of Bashar al-Assad along the Damascus-Aleppo highway. Image from Wikimedia Commons]

Do not try to simplify what is going on in Syria. You will fail.

We also cannot yield to complexity.

So many of the discussions on Syria—especially those occurring outside Syria—are simply detached from the tragedy, including perhaps my own writings. For instance, for the first time after fifteen years of extensively researching Syria’s politics and society, with multiple and often long visits per year, I spent the last two years writing (and agonizing) about Syria without having the opportunity to visit, mainly because I am told I am not welcome there. (My last visit was in January 2011, when, incidentally, I wrote this post on the Tunisian uprising.)

A case in point is the recent bombing of the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus by regime jets. The outside debate/discussion is raging endlessly and insignificantly:  is it an attack on Palestinians that demonstrates that they were merely a card in the past, or is it an attack on Jabhat al-Nusrah [really? is this what the uprising has come to?] (or other opposition groups) who infiltrated and must be rooted out at all costs? Or is it just another instance where the regime facilitates/conducts the bombing/ravaging of a Palestinian refugee camp as in Tall al-Za`tar? But wasn’t the regime the main defender and protector of various Palestinian resistance groups historically? . . . etc. The narrative about the role of Palestine and Palestinians as produced in meta-narratives becomes the lens through which an incident or a collection thereof are viewed and interpreted. Everything else about that camp, its diversity, and its varied history is relegated to the background.

Right and Wrong for the Wrong Reasons

The claims put forth by myself and the myriad of other Syrian analysts, including the “instant” and “sudden” analysts who keep popping up like popcorn from the oddest places (I found two in my bathroom closet), can be right or wrong, or conditionally so. But they might be on- or off-mark for the wrong reasons to the extent that one is divorced from the local context, and divorce comes in shades, from the cold calculating “methodist,” to the uninformed sympathizer, to gatekeepers of interests far removed from the well-being of Syria and Syrians. Yet, they all participate and play with equal enthusiasm. Syria is a game now, played by states, institutions, analysts, activists, journalists, bloggers, tweeters, and artists who are often only remotely connected to the real lives of real people enduring real conditions there. We produce snapshots of reality that are divorced from the cumulative history of pain and experience that have led to that reality. These snapshots become a reflection of observed people’s nature and eternal disposition, not their circumstances, pragmatism, and dignity. We then monolithicize and essentialize them, and coalesce them into a single body of thoughts, terms, narratives, and/or paradigms that have been conjured up by analysts and politicians from times gone by. We finish the article or our tweet, save, send, close, and turn away. We can do that. But those living in Syria do not have that luxury. 

The Irrelevance of Meta-Narratives

Those living in Syria look at things differently. When they are exposed to the terms of debate outside Syria, they smile helplessly, disappointingly, and critically all at once, as though those on both sides of the debate that is happening outside Syria are talking about an imaginary thing, not about realities on the ground. People outside Syria are literally at each other’s throats discursively and physically, arguing over the prioritization of resistance to imperialism or resistance to dictatorship while most local Syrians are wondering about personal security, food, electricity, the safety of their family, and the possibility of dying altogether during the next round of clashes in their neighborhood. Most importantly from an analytical point of view, we erroneously assume that their preferences are stable, but they are not. They too change with circumstances, a perfectly rational behavior.

Thanks to the armed groups who have now perfected—and sometimes surpassed on individual counts—the perennial brutality of the regime, one is hard-pressed in Syria to find a cause or a foreseeable scenario to cling to. Under such conditions, daily matters reign supreme over meta-narratives that are not necessarily unimportant, but have become thoroughly irrelevant for most Syrians. Hence, that smile that many local Syrians draw on their face in the face of meta-narratives spewed by all of us on the other side—to which people click “like,” or not.

This physical detachment, however, does not automatically privilege the analysis of all insiders equitably. Some of the cruder analysis has come from inside Syria. And though such analysis can be discarded as such, it cannot be dismissed as a real expression of real matters, however flawed.

Those of us who have family, friends, and colleagues in Syria with whom we are in touch on a daily basis, and those of us who read Syria news coming out of everywhere and nowhere, know that the discussions inside Syria are far more visceral and real, where positions often reflect immediately consequential action, and where political trade-offs are not academic or theoretical: people die as a result of certain positions. Political trade-offs can mean the difference between being able to provide for one’s family and not being able to put food on the table every night, or not being able to stay in one’s home that same night. 

The Triumph of Meta-Narratives

Yet, we continue to spar outside Syria. And we are winning, unfortunately. The meta-narratives produced by various states, institutions, and individuals have become more important than what is happening in Syria. They have become more precious than the people on whose behalf we are presumably fighting. They have also emptied out the content of principle. Abstract principles—usually good otherwise—have triumphed over reality anew, while being disconnected from it. Syria is now produced wholesale mainly in the media, social media, and in the positions of grand powers that can purchase positions, enforce their narrative, or influence events, often by doing nothing. 

This does not mean that there is no politics in all this. The biggest losers from the destruction of Syria are Syrians themselves, and what Syria could have been. This latter part is important because it is a window into who might be the biggest winners: conservative Arab states, the United States, and Israel, all of whom want to avoid the potential of what Syria could have been. Their preferred meta-narrative is winning inside Syria, but not yet in the region. This is the next battle, and it’s about resistance/imperialism, Islamist/secular, rich/poor, tyrant/opposition, patriarchy/feminism, but also about much more. One manifestation has already started in Egypt. That larger battle is inevitably coming, and the fall of the Syrian regime, and the other dictatorships to the east that are shielded externally, will be just the beginning. It will take time.

In the meantime, in Ziad Rahbani’s words, sung in part by Joseph Saqr in the early 1970s:

“ya nour `inayyah, rohna dahiyyah . . .
dahiyyati-l-harakah al-thawriyyah
ya nour ‘inayyah”

No truly representative translation possible except, “we have become the victims of the revolution.” Listen here or below.

To be continued.





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