“What are you getting out of this?” This is the question I have been asked over and over for the past ten months and three weeks by people in my real life. It is a legitimate question for all of us. What have all the hours we have spent tweeting and retweeting and Facebooking and blogging and writing and arguing and debating done for the Syrian people? Have they made a difference to the endless suffering of the Syrian people? Did they even minutely affect the tide of bloody events? Or were they merely words—empty and helpless—dedicated to Syria with the best of intentions to show solidarity, to give comfort and support but failing instead: falling flat and meaningless.
We speak to feel better, to feel like we are doing something. But what are we doing except speaking? What good have my words done for the people buried in the rubble of al-Khalidiyyeh tonight? What does our outrage do for Hama, once again sleepless, once again encircled with tanks, once again living the same terror it lived exactly thirty years ago to the day. What does our remote yet sincere concern do tonight for those parents who watched their fathers being killed in front them in 1982 and who wonder if their sleeping children may face the same fate tomorrow?
With what words can we respond to Abdul Baset Sarout as he asks us through the screen, in a room full of fresh corpses, “Where is the world?” Someone next to him starts naming the dead—men we will never know who were killed on the Friday that was named “We are sorry Hama. Forgive us.” Never again, we tweeted with defiant confidence, just this morning. A few hours later, the new tweets read, “We are sorry Homs. Forgive us.” How many times can we apologize and ask for forgiveness before those words are exposed as hollow utterances?
The video links began to appear on my Twitter timeline, each labeled “graphic content.” I clicked them open, one by one. Each clip introduced more names, more bodies wrapped in bloodied blankets, more bruised faces with open eyes, forever frozen in their shocked expressions. Haunting wails in the background while a commentator narrates death, never forgetting to authenticate the video with the details: the name, the time, the place, the date. Because even in these final, sacred moments, when they should be saying goodbye to their dead, they have to prove that this is real for the rest of the world. The timeline stretches longer as the death toll grows larger. Facebook pages are created; we dutifully “like” each martyr, and carefully read their “info.” But we have already “liked” too many, and in a few weeks, we will have forgotten the details.
Someone tweeted tonight in response to someone else who had announced the death of his cousin, “Congratulations on his martyrdom.” Those are the words we wrap like gifts to our youth, the ones who deserved a congratulations on your graduation, congratulations for your marriage, congratulations on your first job, congratulations for your first child. But instead, these youth are dead, and so we congratulate their families: Your son is a martyr, he died for his country. But all they hear is our empty words. Because we are not the ones who paid with blood. We pay with worthless, pixelated ink.
“What are you getting out of this?” I thought I knew the answer to that question. It was always clear in my mind. What I thought I got out of this was the ability to look myself in the mirror and know I was not silent. I did everything I could. I convinced myself if I just stood by one principle, telling the truth, it would be enough. But on nights like tonight, I remember what I wrote almost one year ago, “While you were sleeping, Daraa was slaughtered,” and find myself where I began, “While you were sleeping, Homs was slaughtered.” On nights like tonight, my words no longer grant me permission to look at my reflection without guilt.
Decisions are being made on the timeline now—quick and emotional. Occupy the embassies, declare your support for bearing arms, ask for foreign intervention, protest the United Nations Security Council resolution, boycott Russia, write a letter to someone, do something. Anything.
Nothing to offer but our words and voices. They seemed invincible only this morning when we did the unimaginable and mourned the massacre of Hama as a nation for the first time. Words that were like swords in the morning had dissolved into nothing by nightfall. Our words of memory for Hama drown in the fresh blood of Homs. Remembering the events is very different than living them.
Tonight, the souls of hundreds of men, women, and children in Homs who were murdered by the son, meet the souls of the thousands of people of Hama who were murdered in another February thirty years ago, by the father.
The dead are dead; the disappeared are gone forever. The tortured are being tortured as you read these lines. Mothers weep; orphans scream. Shrouds are delivered; bodies are wrapped. And the tyrant remains. He lives by his father’s rules—Hama Rules. He was taught to eat the egg and its shell, preferably while being seen enjoying himself in public at a Damascus restaurant, hours before his forces began to shell al-Khalediyyeh. Smiling when he imagined the blood that he knew would soon flow down the streets of Homs. The son fulfilled his destiny; his father would be proud. Confident that his bullets and tanks would destroy our spirits, silence our voices, and erase our words.
Though we have learned the era of silence is over, nights like tonight leave you speechless, without words. Or words that are not like words. Words that are physically felt, like a chest tightened with dread or burning eyes depleted of tears. Words that cannot express what the wailing minarets of Homs’ mosques sound like; the language of desperation is universal. When towers of stone scream and weep, we have reached the limit of words.
I am left where I started, with nothing but my words. And even I have to ask myself on this dark night, “What is the meaning of our words? Do they mean anything at all?” Unlike last March, though, I am no longer alone. You can find the right person to pose your questions to, not for sympathy, not to be soothed but for an honest answer. His elegant response was a quote, appropriately from V for Vendetta, “Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.”
Tomorrow, we will wake up, on another day of our revolution—the day after the Khalediyyeh Massacre. Though the future is unknown, certain facts are already known. The brave will rise up and crowd the streets, defying the rules; and some of them will not survive the day. The people will continue to offer their flesh for freedom. Despite the losses that leave us speechless, we will humbly offer our words, striving for the “means to meaning,” and we will add our voices to Syria’s voice, even if they fail to do anything.
But for tonight, silence prevails.