[The following excerpts are from Khalil Sweileh’s Barbarian’s Paradise (Jannat al-barabira) (Cairo: Dar Al-‘Ayn, 2014). The book is structured as a journal chronicling life in Damascus; the entries start in April 2012 and end in December 2013. The narrator moves through Damascus, both present day and past, describing scenes of daily life, both the mundane and the newsworthy, cataloguing the destruction and suffering of the country and its people, and recording the evolution of the conflict. Woven into the narrative are passages from historians who have described other periods in Syria’s history as well as the voices of writers and artists from around the world who have suffered similar hells. The entries give the sense of wandering about a country and city that is continually shrinking, as movement is increasingly restricted by checkpoints and blockades and as friends leave the country, are disappeared or killed, or whose fates are unknown, their phones “out of the coverage area.”
The book ends as the war in Syria approaches its 1000th day, with the awareness that unlike Scheherazade there will be no release on day 1001, rather a return to the beginning, more counting, cataloguing, and fear: “Crossing the 1000th day means you have entered into endless nights…all you can do is learn to start counting again: one day, two days, a month, one hundred days, five hundred days…” (p166)].
…While writing this journal, I was terrified I would lose it, or that it would suddenly go missing...by pressing the wrong key on the keyboard, or that the computer would stop and crash suddenly, or that a bomb would go off and I wouldn’t be able to finish. We live by chance and that is all. You might be a few meters from a car bomb, or a mortar shell, or a stray rocket. I am even more terrified by the possibility of a sniper on the roof of a neighboring building. From the window of my room on the top floor of an old building in a side street of the Salhiya neighborhood, I look out at the nearby roofs and imagine an invisible sniper lying in wait behind the satellite dishes, or the water tanks, or in a window directly opposite mine, with me right in its sights. And here I am imagining the way I die—how I will fall slowly from the chair, my body hitting the marble floor, my blood splattering across the computer screen, my last sentence unfinished….
September 1, 2012
September wasn’t like before.
The trauma of the third Spring and the destruction of the scorching Summer left Fall with the sins of all seasons: death and mass graves, bodies without names, planes bombarding distant targets.
Someone was finishing his coffee when the mortar was dropped. The cardamom scent of his coffee mixed with that of his blood, while his right arm flew out the window like a blind bird and minutes later bumped—and this is pure speculation— against the body of a woman who’d just lost her left arm. No matter, the dead have divine arrangements for the use of amputated limbs as needed, at least for souvenir photographs.
There’s also the boredom. Beginning your day, not knowing how it will end. A record of death repeating the same music on an imaginary gramophone—it would be better had it played Asmahan, for example. In the morning, as in the afternoon and late at night, the same record goes around and around and around, as if skipping forever.
What is hard to describe is metal. Iron, specifically. Iron mixed with steel and copper, and the dust of empty cartridges. Iron that used to be shaped into bedframes for families in the countryside, window frames, doors, water pumps, and railroads. Today iron has a singular application: the creation of instruments for killing. Iron that sinks deep into flesh in complicated chemical experiments whose results are hard to appreciate precisely, the moment the projectile makes contact with the terrified body.
Shortly before meeting their end, these terrified bodies recorded scenes no one will tell about, not the way they should be, how the building’s corridors crashed into the solid metal, fusing flesh with stone remains in the form of a mass grave for the souls of unknown human beings.
The bodies were hastily arranged in rows, in a mass trench at the edge of a field of corn, as tall as if it were an orchard of towering poplar trees, planted geometrically along a horizontal line of sight, each of them rising vertically toward the sky.
I say to myself in complete certainty, watching a video on YouTube of a man carrying his young daughter just killed under the debris: this country is surely going to hell. Because the events repeat themselves over and over, we can no longer listen to the stories of the dead with the same shock we felt only a few months ago. Without the narrators, the manner of death no longer matters. But let us suppose that by chance someone has just survived a massacre—he will not be able to describe exactly what happened. Each victim has their own way of telling the story, and their own jolt of adrenaline to contend with.
October 2, 2012
At the checkpoint with the sandbags and rifle butts, and the soldier eyeing you skeptically as he compares the face on your ID with your features behind the half-open car window. In war movies, the checkpoint is something we never pay attention to—they are fleeting, transitions from one scene to the next. There is something else that checkpoints call to mind, and it has to do with being abducted or captured, taken away to some unknown place, a last record of a living person before they show up on the lists of missing persons .
You have to learn the virtue patience at checkpoints. The long, boring waits call up old scenes that have nothing to do with the stream of everyday horror. The long line of cars under Al-Mahlaq Al-Janoubi Bridge, or at the Nahr Eshe–Al-Midan intersection, or at Bab Sharqi, will also bring to mind the thought of a car bomb somewhere. You think about that in spite of yourself, unable to imagine how you would find safety in this traffic. The only thing you can imagine is the chaos of bodies flying into the air in the most horrific ways.
In order to get where you want to go, with all the roads linking one neighborhood and another closed off by checkpoints, the car will need to make more than one detour. During this time you have only to inspect the scenes of destruction. A building about to collapse. Curtains without glass panes in the window frames. A hole in a wall made by a mortar shell. Tank tracks on the asphalt. Broken antennas. Flowerpots on a deserted balcony. Anti-Al-Jazeera slogans on the trash cans. A closed pharmacy (“open 24 HOURS”) and a wedding hall with shattered glass. A tea vendor on a bicycle at the demarcation line. The adventurous taxi driver will tell you his story too: “After several exhausting attempts, I made it to my house in Darayya. The electricity had been out for days. I emptied the refrigerator; there were just three apples that hadn’t gone bad. I took them and left. Here. Have one.”
Meadows of Gold
November 7, 2012
The stray shell hit the third floor of the building next door to where I work. From the facing window the home’s guts were exposed to the open air. A bookshelf resting against a wall. Rows of classical books that had been carefully arranged. An empty couch, a television. I wondered if Masoudi’s Meadows of Gold was sitting among those books, or Tabari’s History of Nations and Kings, or Jahiz’s Elegance of Expression and Clarity of Exposition. And who had been there sitting on the couch moments before the incident? Had he read the breaking news of his slow death or had the shell ended the broadcast with his last gasps?
January 7, 2013
A massacre in front of a bakery. A massacre in front of a gas station. A massacre in a remote town. A fire in a refugee camp. Displaced people in the public gardens. Heavy rains outside. I cannot talk about the rain. I cannot rif on Badr Shakr Al-Sayyab’s rhythm of “Rain, Rain, Rain.” I think about how the first rains will mix with the patches of dry blood still in the streets, without the cries of the victims.
The weather forecast says there will be heavy snow in Damascus the day after tomorrow, Wednesday, January 9. Will the snow the day after tomorrow be enough to erase images of a massacre in front of a bakery, or a massacre in front of a gas station, or a massacre in a remote town? Or a fire in a refugee camp? Or displaced people in the public gardens? Only the nonsense of the overall scene can inspire such linguistic games.
Report on the Disappeared
January 11, 2013
Many long years before us, others faced the brutality we live with today.
We entertain ourselves with an hourglass, to scatter the map of time, by counting the number of those killed, the missing, and the places that have been destroyed.
In his book, “Report on the disappeared during the era of military dictatorship in Argentina,” Nick Castro has already done part of the job: “One can only wonder about the stories of the brutality that took with it thousands of people to their unmarked graves.” Also, “I am the only one who was spared, in order to tell you the story.”
March 20, 2013
At the Syrian-Lebanese border crossing you get the impression that all Syrians are leaving the country. A long line of busses, crowds of people clustered in front of the Passports and Immigration Office. Pale faces dusted with pain await their fates at the exit visa window. The officer who circulates through the wide corridor shouts the way you might shout at a flock of sheep or goats. The parallel queues move forward slowly. Naturally, the fear of being wanted, or barred from leaving the country, is with you at all times. The moments of your encounter through the glass window before the soldier stamps your documents are heavy, like a boulder weighing on your chest. You devour the fresh air outside, smoking your cigarette anxiously. You say to your travel companion, just back from the crush, “This, what’s happening here, is extra training for how to dismantle an already destroyed human dignity.” A similar version of the scene will reoccur at the Lebanese Passport and Emigration Office: the intentional slowness in doing the job, as if the gendarme is listening to one of his colleague’s jokes, or as he rises from his chair for some reason then comes back a few minutes later to fiddle with your information on his computer overloaded with names, to confirm that you are not a dangerous person. Here too what is left of your battered dignity will be examined, as it melts slowly like an abandoned patch of snow.
Sample Wanted List
June 25, 2013
On April 14, 2013, the security agencies circulated a list of the names of people wanted for arrest to all checkpoints and border crossings. There were 600 names on the list of people living in Damascus and the surrounding suburbs. An activist managed to get a copy and published it online, so the necessary precaution and care could be taken. I won`t write out all the names here, just a sample, particularly those accompanied by notes that help us to easily identify these people and the types of crimes they committed:
– Hosam Ali Al-Bik, works in a grocery store next to the butcher, Al-Ghawas
– Hasan Ahmad Qaddah, Darayya, residing at Bustan Al-Dur
– Mustafa Satouf, Bustan Al-Dur, weapons accountant in Criminal Security,
– Hisham Abdelrazaq Nasr, El-Safr, has a thin moustache and beard, Kabr Aatkeh neighborhood next to Al-Thahabiya Mosque, for protesting and riotous acts
– Amin El-Zein, works at El-Zein barber shop, next to al-Barada mosque, Moroccan origin, armed
– Ahmad El-Sarouji, originally from Hama, residing at Al-Tayamna, Hawa Square, armed, also known as Abou Abdou
– Ahmad Salakh, Al-Tayamna, short with dark skin and a beard …
I do not know what happened to these people. Most likely they have been disappeared, or bad luck caught up with them. Maybe some have snuck across the border. In truth, there are no precise statistics on the numbers of those wanted, or detained, or missing. The country has been mortgaged to chaos, to free-for-all killing, and to kidnapping. Everything that can be sold has been contracted out. The houses of an entire street, once “cleansed” of armed groups, are offered to a contractor for a certain price. Or a gang kidnaps a wealthy person and demands a ransom. Or a woman crossing the street is grabbed then raped as a spoil of war. All you have to do is beat the others to it with a shout of “God is great!” for the spoils to become yours. The same goes for 4x4 vehicles.
July 1, 2013
But how am I to explain this smell, a pungent smell wafting from all directions, hard to place precisely. I went out on the balcony and touched the wilted basil plant, breathed the scent in deeply. It is not the same smell, something happened to it. Most likely it’s the scent of gunpowder, charred bodies, gases, garbage, the wails of the grieving, the convulsive breathing of the victims, and suppressed tears. Is this really Domuskus—the city’s old Latin name meaning “musk”? What would Yaqut al-Hamawi say were he rewriting his Encyclopedia of Countries? Wouldn’t he hesitate before saying, “In short, is there any thing described in the heavens the likes of which can not be found in Damascus?” And how would Ibn Jubayr react today if he visited? Would he, with the same confidence, write:
“Damascus…is the paradise of the Orient, the place where dawned her gracious and radiant beauty, the seal of the lands of Islam where we have sought hospitality, and the bride of the cities we have observed. She is decorated with the flowers of sweet-scented herbs, and bedecked in the brocaded vestments of gardens. In the palace of beauty she holds a sure position, and on her nuptial chair she is most richly adorned.” *
Today Damascus is a barbarian’s paradise, a land of ruin, a mine of pain. In Ghouta, under the roots of the apricot, apple and almond trees, you find the tunnels of armed groups, artillery stores, black flags. You smell Sarin gas instead of cherry blossoms. When you cross a street in Jobar, or Daryaa, or Maadamiya, you can’t even look at the corpses that have been left there for days, because the sniper won’t let you get that close. You’ll walk by as if you haven’t seen a thing. And at the checkpoint you’ll search for your ID card, afraid you might have lost it. You’ll look from the car window at the destroyed houses and not even wonder what happened to their owners, whether they have emigrated, or been killed, detained, or have become refugees on the other side of the borders. The walls of the houses that have been pillaged, once a place for family photographs, drawings, mirrors, have been transformed into plain open holes, holes that lead to holes opening onto another house, then another house, like an eternal hall of houses. There is a hole in a wall large enough for a gunman to prop his rifle in order to hunt his supposed enemy from the positions with the best vantage point. This morning I saw a documentary about the war in Kosovo, and there the same scene of an armed man firing from an opening in a wall was repeated, with one basic difference: this film was in black and white whereas we’re living the war in color, perhaps so that we may see the redness of the blood in the streets and on the TV screens, at the same time.
Towns Existing Only in Google Earth images
July 16, 2013
This expression was written in an email I received from a friend who had fled to a neighboring country. “Salim A.” looks at the map every day. He puts the cursor on Houla, the town where a mysterious massacre took place; the two parties exchanged accusations until there was another massacre, worse than all those that had come before. “Salim A.” tried to retrieve the street where his house was, as if the destruction had been just a nightmare. He tried to recover the plants on his balcony, the large eucalyptus tree at the building’s entrance, the voice of the vendor selling cylinders of cooking gas, the neighbor’s clothesline, and the dozens of faces of those lost in the massacre, before zooming out to other reaches of the country stained with blood. But wasn’t this country overdue for this kind of bloodshed? Salim answers in another letter, “Didn`t you tell me in one of your letters that the improvement in the conditions of our slavery over time just postpones the payment of the bill?" Then he adds, "There`s also the chronic fear."
* Quotation from Ibn Jubayr is taken from R.J.C. Broadhurst, trans., The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, (London: J. Cape, 1952), p.271