[This is the second installment of Amal Hanano`s diary of her trip back to Aleppo. You can read the first installment here]
While “The people want to topple the regime” has become the anthem of the Arab Spring, “There is nothing” is the unofficial chant of the people of Aleppo. “Ma fi shi” is the must-use, “it” phrase of the season peppered into every conversation about the current events in Syria. Once upon a time in the 80’s, Aleppo was the capital of resistance against the regime, but now it has become the epicenter of nothingness, the place where nothing really happens; and if something does happen (like a “small demonstration” within the university walls that results in the arrest of hundreds of students) then it is quickly declared to be nothing, a fluke, an aberration; and if you dare to question the demonstration’s size or God forbid, its legitimacy, it is upgraded to a conspiracy, but don’t worry about it because it’s really nothing.
From my first day in Aleppo, I am greeted with the same two reactions: the first, unmasked shock that I am even here, “What brought you here?” and the second, in a slightly defensive, heavily persuasive tone, hastily follows: “See, there is nothing!” Why do most people imply that the country is not safe enough to visit from abroad, but also insist, in the same breath, that nothing is going on?
Amid the clichés, we have lost what hurts and what will set us free, as we spin the truth into sticky webs of contradiction and conspiracies, until it becomes conveniently vague and elusive. Facts as clear as the sun are molded into stretchy “notions” subject to subjectivity. This is how a corrupt regime has won the argument against the truth: by making it a concept open to debate. Or, as they call it, hiwar, “dialogue,” the other “it” word of the moment. They delegitimize the opposition by making the truth questionable, making the facts flexible, and making both sides equal. The government is willing to wipe the entire continent of Europe off school maps before admitting the truth or opening the country to “free-range” journalists or answering basic questions like “Who exactly are these “armed gangs” wreaking havoc across Syria?” Is this what they mean by hiwar? To practice brutality against their people while boasting about allowing open “democratic” exercises – like crowding 200 questionable “anti-regime” characters in a Damascus hotel conference room? They talk obsessively about dialogue, but the only dialogue they are interested is one with themselves.
So before I go out, I prepare a detached expression, carefully forming my facial movements, first, a slight smile in embarrassment that indeed I did dare to come from America, and then second, a small nod in agreement that indeed nothing is happening in Aleppo, life is normal. They act as if insisting softly but quickly, “ma fi shi, ma fi shi” then loudly and hysterically, “maaa fiii shiii!” convinces me (and themselves) that nothing is happening. The spirit of nothing starts to rub off on me as well. When I speak to my family in the U.S. I hear my voice rise, a tad more shrill, as I also insist that really, nothing is happening here in Aleppo. But doubt lingers, something may be happening, and if it isn’t, then maybe that is a truth we shouldn’t be so proud of.
You can repeat the three useless words over and over, and they will take you back to square one, wherever you are in the world and whatever your personal interest in nothingness: denial, denial. While the blood of innocent protesters flows on Syrian streets, there is nothing; while political dissidents are tortured, there is nothing; while the government creates refugees out of our own people, there is nothing. When will there ever be something to shake the city out of its denial? So, the government-led dialogue begins as opposition groups meet and loyalists discuss, and in Aleppo, we wait... Some wait for nothing to turn into something, and others wait for the truly rude, ruining-our-summer, out of control “something,” to finally get in line and evaporate into nothing once more... So life can go on as usual, as the people revert into empty shells of themselves. As if nothing happened at all.
[This text was written before the "Aleppo volcano" Syria`s activists called for, erupted earlier today. Stay tuned for the author`s third installment describing some of its lava]