It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
When I was in secondary school in Aleppo, one of the required English texts was an abridged version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Back then, I sat at an old wooden bench with two girls — who were once my best friends, but now we barely speak — and together we read dusty words about a revolution steeped in blood and sacrifice in a place that seemed so far away in time and space from our isolated lives.
The story of two places, rich and poor, privileged and oppressed, was also the story of our Syria. When we read Dickens, we could not imagine similar scenes unfolding in Syria during our lifetime. In 2011, scenes of protests and funerals, torture and murder, international press conferences and presidential interviews, were recorded not on the pages of a novel but in videos and photographs, in tweets and Facebook statuses, transferred via Skype and YouTube. Over two centuries later we would write the same story: the story of a revolution.
Exactly one year ago, I was in an Aleppo that has since become another city, a city of dreams and nightmares. The revolution changed the city, the country and the people. I wrote about the Syria I knew, but the Syria I would grow to know was vaster — both more beautiful and more monstrous than I had ever imagined. More monstrous than what we had all imagined.
So much has changed since last year... when the word shabiha had not yet become a household term, when resistance was not “resistance” but Resistance, the Muse track that comes after Uprising, when the revolution’s anthem “Yalla irhal ya Bashar” made its debut on the streets of Hama, when thousands of Syrians were still alive.
It was a year of losses and a year of gains. I began by observing the revolution from the inside but I didn’t start living it until many months later while on the outside. I went from speaking of the dead I watched on YouTube to speaking to the dead before they died. I entered the month of February still intact and emerged with my own emotional revolutionary wounds. What we had gained the months before by breaking the walls of fear, we lost as we watched Homs being destroyed shell by shell. After the fateful February of 2012, neither the revolution nor the regime was winning or losing. It had become a battle of survival and everyone wondered, will we survive or not?
It was a land of clarity and confusion. When I began, I thought I had a simple task: to speak the truth, as you know it, as you see it, and nothing else mattered. In those early days, someone told me not to doubt my intuitive decisions because, “there won’t be a revolution every summer.” Another wise voice advised me to stay close that truth I sought. But along the way, the truth sometimes dissolved in the thick fog of contradiction that had found a permanent home over Syria.
A journalist told me, the truth was like a coin held in the middle of a crowded, divided room. One side only saw the head and the other only saw the tail, even though they were all looking at the same coin. Both sides were right and both were wrong. Sometimes, watching Syria was like standing directly in the middle of the room, looking at the coin’s side. Focus on this sliver of metal for too long and you will no longer know if what you were looking at was still a coin, or had it become something else?
Sometimes I wondered what it was that I was looking at as selfless masses sacrificed their lives while selfish egos offered empty words and false promises. There were moments of sheer exhilaration when I watched my defiant people chant with fearless determination against oppression and humiliation, when they demanded freedom and dignity above all else. But there were darker moments of disillusion and disappointment. A few activists’ burning tires for “special effects” and staging calls to CNN along with the over-dramatized US tour of a activist-turned-celebrity left a bad taste in my mouth. Endless international conferences with rows of expatriate Syrians smiling for cameras and posting their latest TV interviews did not make me proud of the opposition that was supposed to represent the people suffering inside. Rather it was shameful and embarrassing. It seemed everyone wanted to be a revo-celeb, everyone wanted to play the hero, and most importantly, everyone wanted to lead, but at what bloody cost? Several times, in despair, I wondered what exactly were we fighting, because it seemed that we had become enemies of ourselves.
The enemy was not one man or even his regime. As questionable motives emerged regionally and internationally, it became very clear that there were no real friends of Syria. As we fought each other, we fought a world that insisted on telling us who we were. Suddenly, everyone was an expert on Syria. Opportunistic pundits sucked the Syrian narrative like leeches, dispensing complex conspiracies, warning of the regional and global political interests at stake while belittling the people’s struggle. Opportunism seeped into the Syrian opposition as well: they splintered into rivaling groups, each betraying the other to prove itself worthy of the Syrian street’s loyalty but in the end, their divisiveness rendered the groups unworthy and incapable of defending those blood-soaked streets. The truth of Syria was lost somewhere in the middle of an axis between east and west, right and left, Sunnis and minorities, along fault lines we had never asked to define us, but they did.
There were other Syrian stories hidden from the stark black-and-white sectarianism and sweeping generalizations repeated over and over in the media — not just of Christian and Alawite revolutionaries, not just of the silent betrayal of Sunni business men in Damascus and Aleppo. Stories from Baba Amr of opposition families who delivered pots of home-cooked meals to sympathetic soldiers at checkpoints and received the pots later, filled with bullets. Or stories of guards who promised prisoners that they would not follow their orders of torture. Or stories of Alawite youth driving through regime checkpoints with bottles of alcohol on the dashboard as decoys only to unload trunks filled with medical supplies to field clinics. These slices of daily interactions between the Syrian people never made it into the “news.” They didn’t fit the narrative of hate we were supposed to follow.
A front row seat at the stage of revolution was not what I had bargained for when I began alone in my room in Aleppo last summer, but it is what I got. In a year, I’ve seen and heard it all: stories of the dead and stories of the survivors left behind; stories of families in exile for decades and others in exile for months; first-hand accounts of prison and torture; what it feels like to walk in a protest and what it feels like to no longer fear death. Each story was a lesson in survival.
What I learned hardened and softened me. There were things I will never recover from, like knowing that certain words I had told citizen journalist Rami al-Sayed were the same words he asked never to hear again in the final message he wrote hours before he was killed in Homs. Things I will never forget, like the emails I used to receive from the irreplaceable voice of truth that was silenced forever. Things that I will never get used to, like the sounds of weeping men I have never met, who told me, Amal, I miss my brother, my friend, my father. I learned how to talk about death without cringing and how to say goodbye without crying, how to soothe an activist as he mourned his dead friends while in my heart I was selfishly relieved that death had not claimed him. Not this time.
I began with Hope. But the definition of hope itself had become narrower and smaller. Hope in Syria had become relative. Hope, was that the number of dead today would be smaller than yesterday’s. Hope, was that the knife’s blade was so sharp that the child felt only fear but not pain when it sliced her neck open. Hope, was that a falling mortar ripped apart only stone but spared human flesh. Hope was that the young men whose charred bodies haunted me in my sleep were already dead from torture before they were set aflame.
And as March 15, 2012 rolled by, it seemed every few days brought yet another anniversary, death days instead of birthdays. We relived what had happened one year before as the day brought its fresh casualties — names we would carefully record to celebrate next year. The revolution is now caught between past and present — its recorded memory is written, photographed, and videotaped as if we now fear forgetting as much as we used to fear speaking.
And we knit, together, Syria’s bloody destiny, every murder intertwined with injustice, every revenge a setback, every chant a victory. Our revolution began in a moment of indignity and humiliation too great to bear, like Dickens’ French peasant child crushed under the wheels of nobility. But it also revealed what we had concealed as a people for decades. Our ultimate fear was not the fear of the unknown, or even the fear of tyranny. It was the fear of exposing what we had tried to hide, the universal truth that everyone tries to hide, but this time in history, it was Syria’s lot to rip itself apart and have its secrets revealed to a silently observing, judgmental world: that the best and the worst, wisdom and foolishness, belief and incredulity, light and darkness, the spring of hope and the winter of despair, exist together. Within us all.
Anthony Shadid knew this very well. He knew it is impossible to mend what was left of our country until we found a way to become greater than the sum of our battling contradictions. He knew we had nothing left but our limitless imaginations that were still in chains though we struggled to break free. Our Syria hovers between heaven and earth, oscillates between dreams and nightmares, it moves from revolution to war, from a once promising spring to yet another cruel summer, but despite it all, we hope.
The Syrian people have sacrificed everything for this hope. It is thin as the edge of a coin, sometimes disappearing in the fog and sometimes gleaming bright in the dark. But it exists. And it is true.