Elias Khoury

“The Syria that is Being Born”

By Elias Khoury, (13 December 2011)

Translated by Cathia Jenainati[i] (14 December 2011)

It is as if Syria is being born today, veiled by the blood of its children. Now, and for the past ten months, Syrian women and Syrian men have been re-creating their country. They face their glorious death with lifted brows and chants of freedom. Thus, words, language, come into being from the soil that is drenched with the blood of martyrs and the moans of victims and the shrieks of the detained.

The old discourses are no longer fruitful, the politics of politicians have lost meaning and value. Today, we witness a phenomenon greater than any petty policy or grand political view. For now is the time for establishing meaning and crafting a horizon.

Suffice it that we witness and observe how freedom is born on the lips to be  transformed to words and chants; Suffice it that we listen to a people standing shoulder to shoulder in protests for freedom under threat of death; Suffice it that we see how humans light their way to freedom through a defiance of death, and scream against the wall of oppression and repression which will eventually disintegrate under the horror of infanticide which fuelled the Syrian revolution.

Today, human history signifies human geography. Now, and for the past ten months, the names of places become loaded with historical meaning. Today, as in the past ten months, we learn the geography of freedom as we travel in spirit through cities, villages and hamlets. We discover Dar’a and its children, Hama and its martyred singer, Damascus with its vigour, its heroism and its defiant river[ii], and Idlib, and Deir el Zour, and Daraya and the Damascene Ghutat[iii] filled with the jasmine of martyrs.

A nation born from its children’s screams, transformed into a popular uprising dreaming of freedom; a country striving to regain its violated dignity from under the boot of despotism. The birth of this nation was announced through a handful of Dar’a children before it spread to the banks of the Assi, from one square to all squares, only to become fragranced with the scent of martyrs who make of Damascus an Epic of resistance.

A country, that has added a new memory to those of the Battle of Maysalun[iv] and the Syrian revolution against French colonialism; this memory is created by a continuous popular uprising that started ten months ago. An unprecedented revolution, where people destroy death by dying, no surrender to fear, no retreat in the face of oppression, murder, torture and destruction.

This is the story of sacrifice, patience and perseverance; a story the like of which we have not witnessed, and today it is announcing the birth of a new country, made by its people who struggle united by despair and unified by hope, with no expectation of help from anyone. A people who know that the road ahead has been charted, and there is no turning back because the road behind has been blocked by pain and blood.

In this monumental epic there is room only for dreams. An epic whose hero is mosaic-like, made up of thousands of minute pieces, each heading towards death in order to enter the epic, and there they unite in the imagination and in memory, and they sketch their new nation in the likeness of their great sacrifice.

For them and about them it is right to write. Because they bathe our vision[v] and our sight with hope that comes out of grief, and with anticipation that stems from the depth of despair.

Don’t be afraid, you have triumphed over death; and those who conquer and challenge death, die fearless and glorious. This is the moral on liberty in Syria’s cities and villages; each city’s story is made up of a thousand stories, and each life is a digest of Life, and each death is a beginning. We bow to pain and it reaches our eyes, we close them and we see you, we want to speak but words escape us; how to devise a language, embracing death, accommodating a despair that has reached its peak and, is at a crossroads with hope…

The political debates surrounding the Syrian revolution and its future regional impact seem off centre. The speech of the president of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun and the responses from the General Secretary of Hizbollah have posed issues that irrelevant and untimely. It would appear that Ghalioun’s declaration regarding the future relationship with Iran and Hizbollah has been misread, because it was not clear. Thus Riad Turk’s intervention has put things right, since Syria’s only enemy is the Israeli Occupation; as for its relationship with other countries in the region and with the militias, both Lebanese and non-Lebanese, this will be defined based on the latter’s reaction to the Syrian people’s revolution.

Simple and clear rhetoric avoids political abstractions that belie a latent support for the Syrian regime; there is no place for such confusion in the discourse of revolution and resistance. It is not contingent on the Syrian revolutionaries to reassure anyone; what is required is support for a people who are being subjected to the worst forms of oppression.

And herein is the test, which did not succeed in the Lebanese political system, with its multifaceted allegiances, and which I suspect will not succeed in the context of the Arab system[vi].

All fruitless and pointless debates should be halted when confronted with the memory of the martyred doctor of the Syrian revolution Dr. Ibrahim Othman[vii]; and the story starts again with the image of civil disobedience that paves the road to freedom.


[i] Elias Khoury’s original essay is written in Arabic. It is a moving piece of political prose, its narrative typical of the author’s unique style which blends prose and poetry effortlessly and which manages to turn every sentence to a call for action. My aim in offering this translation is to share its content with Anglophone speakers; I regret that I do not have the gift for writing prosaic masterpieces in order to convey the eloquence and the affective dimension of Mr Khoury’s text. I have provided annotations where I felt a short explication was needed. These notes are my own, not Mr Khoury’s.

[ii] The Assi River is a river of Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. It is unique in that, unlike all other rivers in the region, it flows from South to North. In this respect it “disobeys” the rules followed by other rivers. Its name is used here as a geographical marker but also as a signifier of rebellion.

[iii] The Damascene Ghutat is a collective noun referring to a group of farms in the eastern part of Damascus. This an area of agriculture but it is also considered as a sort of retreat, an oasis, for city dwellers.

[iv] The Battle of Maysalun Pass was fought between the Syrian and the French in 1920. The Syrian army fought to resist the dissolution of its monarchy to be replaced by a French mandate and to protest the creation of an independent Lebanon out of its coastal territories. Although King Faisal surrendered hastily and fled the country, the then Syrian defense minister General Al-Azmah fought with a small band of men against the mighty French army. He lost the battle but inscribed  his name in the memory of Syrians as a valiant resistor; a statue was erected in his memory in one of the largest squares in Damascus.

[v] The exact translation would read thus: “they wash our consciousness and our eyes”; but the Arabic Text is alliterative and plays on the relationship of seeing (with the eyes) and perceiving (by being aware, awake) hence my choice of juxtaposing vision and sight.

[vi] I believe that Mr Khoury is critiquing the lack of solidarity for the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised which has been symptomatic of the Arab world for centuries and which interferes with any attempts at creating a unified front against genuine inhuman oppression; in the case of Lebanon, religious affiliation is the determining factor in any political discussion and it exists over and above any other affiliation (gender, class, ideology etc…)

[vii] Dr Ibrahim Othman was murdered on the 12th of December 2011. According to a press release from the Ministère des Affaires Etrangères: “France strongly condemns the despicable murder of Dr. Ibrahim Nahel Othman by Syrian forces. A man of peace, Dr. Ibrahim Nahel Othman had, through his courage and action within the framework of coordinating Damascus Doctors, achieved recognition and universal respect, notably for his constant commitment to treating the injured without discrimination. Through him, his murderers sought to prevent free access to the victims and to treatment. While this crime arouses a strong sense of indignation and strong emotions in Syria, France reaffirms its determination to stand alongside the Syrian people in the face of the relentless crackdown to which they have been subjected for more than 9 months now. France, more than ever, is mobilizing its efforts in all international forums in order to bring an end to the crackdown in Syria”.

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