Refugees

“Everything There Is like a Horror Film Now”:
Young Refugees Talk about War, Fleeing Home, and Living in Russia

Filippo Valoti-Alebardi
Furfur
October 19, 2016

Armed conflicts in the Middle East and instability in parts of Africa and South Asia have led to one of the largest immigrant crises since the Second World War. According to Frontex, 1.82 million refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, and another 173,761 people arrived in Europe by sea in the first part of 2016. Russia has found itself on the sidelines in terms of most migrant flows. Only one route, which runs through Russia’s land borders with Norway and Finland, was used for the transit to Europe. According to RIA Novosti, around 6,000 people traversed this route between October and December 2015.

The Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS) claims there are very few people with refugee status in Russia, less than eight hundred. Basically, people who seek refuge here can count only on temporary refugee status, which is valid for one year. But if a person manages to obtain it, no one can guarantee it will be renewed in the future. Furfur met with four young refugees and wrote down their stories of fleeing their home countries and living in hiding in Russia.

hasan

Hasan, a 20-year-old refugee from Syria

I left Aleppo three years ago. In 2012, the civil war came to our city. All the state institutions closed, except for some hospitals. I stopped going to school and almost never left my house. Everything was topsy-turvy in Aleppo then: government troops might be in one district, while the opposition was in the next. Life was hard but bearable. The financial crisis was not as bad as now, and my family had some savings. We were bombed, but not like during the Islamic State’s offensive. The electricity didn’t work, but we had a generator. The water was severely rationed, but it was enough.

Almost as soon as fighting broke out, I was forbidden to leave the house. I was not yet threatened with conscription, but my parents feared I could be recruited, killed or kidnapped, since I was the oldest son in the family. The other members of the family also tried not to leave our flat without a very good reason. We just sat at home and waited for it to all be over.

In the summer of 2013, an acquaintance of my father’s helped me get a work visa to Russia, and I left Syria. The person worked here in a sewing factory where there were many Syrians. He met me at the airport and took me to Losino-Petrovsky, where I still live. I immediately started worked in the sewing workshop. My father had been a tailor, so I already had some skills.

During the fifth month of my stay in Russia, I applied for refugee status. The [UNHCR] helped me prepare the papers for the FMS, where I had to have an interview. I was asked about my family’s financial state, whether I had served in the army, and about my political stance. A few months later, I received temporary refugee status, but it lasted for only a year.

I lived in Moscow Region and worked in the workshop. I tried to keep in touch with my family and friends. One day, a friend called me and said our house had been bombed and everyone had been killed. So only two members of my family, which had consisted of eleven people, have survived: my sister, who got married and lives in Istanbul, and I.

When my refugee status ended, I went to the FMS and asked for an extension. This time round, my case was handled by a different officer. He also asked me questions about my origins, financial state, and political stance, but then he asked why I had not gone to Iran, Turkey or Europe. I said I liked it here. I also told him that, over the past year, my mother,  brother, and all my brothers and sisters had died, except one. I was given a certificate, valid for one month, and then I was turned down. I was told the situation in Syria had normalized, that I was in no danger and could return home safely. But I had nowhere to return: my home and family were gone.

I was given three months to appeal against the refusal. I made four attempts to appeal it, but to no avail. Finally, I went to a Syrian man who said he had friends with pull. He promised to help me for 70,000 rubles [approx. 1,000 euros]. Ultimately, however, I was turned down once more, and never saw the guy again. Now I am in Russian illegally, and for the time being I have managed to avoid problems.

The police often stop me under the pretext of checking my papers, but they have a pretty good attitude to Syrians. Previously, when my papers were in order, they would haul me down to the precinct and take my fingerprints before letting me go. The situation has now become more complicated, and I often have to bribe them. It is usually not in Moscow where the police check my papers, but in Losino-Petrovsky itself. The local police are well aware of where the migrants live and work. They know our routes and when we get off work. So at least one or twice a month they detain one of us.

I rarely leave my own neighborhood. I work six days a week, twelve hours a day, and have almost no free time. But when I have the time and energy, I go play football with my friends, either in Noginsk or Moscow. I speak almost no Russian. At work, I get by with Arabic and a few words in Russian, since I work with Syrians, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. I sometimes chat on the phone with my sister in Turkey and with friends who have left Syria and gone to Turkey and Europe. I used to really miss my family and my home in Syria, but not anymore. I have lost my family and simply see no point in life. I even think it would have been better had I been with my family the day the bomb fell on my house. It would have been better to die with them than to hear about their deaths over the telephone.

yasmin

Yasmin, an 18-year-old refugee from Yemen

This is the second war my parents have fled. My father is half Vietnamese, half Yemeni. My mother is a Vietnamese Muslim. When the war between the US and Vietnam ended, they found themselves in a refugee camp in Yemen, which is where they met. My mom was seventeen then, the same age I was when I came to Russia.

Life in Yemen had always been hard for our family. Because my father speaks Arabic poorly and cannot write it, he could never count on a good job. On the streets, people would always point at us and say, “Look! There go the Chinese.” Everything got complicated after the 2011 revolution. Some government offices ceased to function, and foreign companies gradually left the country. A year later, the German firm for which my father worked as a driver closed its office, and he lost his job. It was hard to find another job. Ultimately, my older brother had to quit school to support us. He spoke the best Arabic in our family.

War broke out in Yemen in 2014, but we were affected by it only in 2015, when the heavy bombardment began. We lived in the city of Taiz, but our house was not far from a rebel camp, so the planes targeted our neighborhood. We took our things and left for Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, to stay with relatives. It was much safer there, and we livef peacefully for two weeks or so, but then the bombing recommenced.

In Sanaa, we lived near the Russian Embassy. After one of the bombing raids, we went there to ask for help. The embassy officials told us a Russian Emergencies Ministry (MChS) plane would be leaving [soon]. They explained where to go and when, but they did not promise we would be taken aboard. On the right day, we arrived at the appointed time at the airport, where we saw a team of [Russian] rescuers. They put our family on the plane. We had no visas, but we had passports. All the others who wanted to go had no papers and were left behind.

There were lots of Russian citizens on the plane with us, but there were also Yemenis, Syrians, and even a few Americans. We made a stopover in Djibouti, and there we were given the right to choose: stay behind or fly on to Russia. Since we had no family in Djibouti or other countries, we decided to fly to Russia. First, we were taken to a military airport, and then to a civil airport, where we had to wait for a consul. He gave us ten-day entry visas and ran off.

We did not know a word of Russian or English, we had no money, and we were hungry.  I don’t know what we would have done if it had not been for the Syrian who was on the plane with us. He spoke Russian and interpreted for us. Then he gave us two hundred dollars and ordered us a taxi to the Yemeni embassy. For some reason, the taxi driver took us to the Egyptian embassy, not the Yemeni embassy, and on top of that he made us pay him fifty dollars, not thirty dollars, as we had agreed. But it was a good thing the guard at the embassy spoke Arabic, since it was cold and we had no idea where we were. He called us a cab to take us to our embassy, and the next driver, an Egyptian, did not even charge us.

At the embassy, we were given a room where we lived for approximately two months. During this time we put together papers for obtaining refugee status, which we applied for at the [UNHCR] offices and the FMS. Later, the Vietnamese ambassador came to see us. He helped us get a room at the Hanoi Moscow Hotel, where we have been living ever since.

Our application for refugee status has been turned down twice. We have appealed the decision and are now awaiting the outcome. We need the status in order to be able to work and somehow organize our lives in a new place, because for over a year we have been living solely due to support from the Vietnamese. We have nowhere else to go. The war and bombing are still going on in Yemen, and there is almost nothing left of our home and neighborhood in Taiz. Everything there is like a horror film now.

didie

Didier, a 23-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Before leaving Congo, I lived in Kinshasa, our country’s capital, and was studying psychology. I left not because I was starving, but because I feared for my life. When my father died, I could not even go home to mourn and bury him. Instead, I am here, but I don’t know how much time I have left in Russia.

In 2015, I attended a rally against changes to the electoral system that would have enabled the president to serve another term. It was a major protest rally, for which a thousand and a half students and staff from my university showed up. The authorities responded by sending in the army, police, and large army trucks to kettle the protesters. The police and soldiers shot to kill. At some point, we were herded into a corner where nothing was visible, everything was covered in flames. Twelve people were killed between January 19 and January 25. Two of them were my friends. We were at university together.

The best thing that happened to many people involved in the protests was that they simply disappeared. I managed to hide from the police at the place of some acquaintances. I could not go back home or to the university, because secret service officers were surveilling the demonstrators. They were especially interested in the people who had incited university students and staff to take part in the protests. I was a ringleader, and at the time I was already a member of Congo’s second largest opposition party.  I did not want to leave the country, but my parents insisted. They were worried about me, since a lot of people were disappearing at the time.

Why did I leave for Russia? I knew people who had friends with connections and helped me get the necessary papers. This took a while, but the situation got worse and I had to leave urgently. I left Congo on a night flight after convincing the police I was somewhere else. In Russia, I had the contacts of the people who had helped me get a student visa. The first six months, I lived in the place of a friend who had gone home, and then I lived at the People’s Friendship University, where I met a lot of people and was advised to go to the Civic Assistance Committee. They helped me obtain temporary refugee status, which is issued for a year, and now I am trying to extend it.

There is a small Congolese diaspora in Moscow, but I do not communicate with them. I do not want to disseminate information about myself. I deliberately limit my dealings with other people, and I do not maintain contact with people from the Congolese opposition movement. I know that people in the Russian opposition are also detained, and I am scared my country’s authorities might send an official extradition request. In Congo, I would definitely go to prison.

Russia is a “white” Africa. People here live in greater safety than back at home, but you are also unable to assemble and protest. You fear the police, who help implement the policy of dictatorship. Nevertheless, in Russia, you can find a job easily, you can buy a flat, and get a loan. The government thinks about its people at least a little, but not in Africa. The regime has complete forgotten about people. The president works only to benefity his own family. He stuffs his pockets and takes holidays in the States and Canada, while the populace suffers. Only officials, the people who stuff his pockets, live well. They should all be in prison. God needs to descend and free my people.

People in my country continue to protest, but they are few and the police arrest them, including members of our party, which they are trying to bleed to death. Some of my comrades have left the country, while many have been arrested.

I would like to go back to Congo to fight for human rights and give people back freedom of speech and the right to vote. I want to give them the ability to speak their own mind freely. I can tell you that right now in Congo women are being raped, people’s heads are being cut off in markets, and people are being shot at.

More than ten million people have been killed in my country to date. It is the most dangerous country in the world for women: there are a huge number of rapes, and war is going on almost all the time. But if you dare talk about it, you are lost. Most of the people who can talk about it are in Europe. They upload short videos to the Internet and talk about the atrocities occurring in Congo, but if they went home they would be detained immediately.

And that is why I would like to tell Mr. Putin personally what is actually going on there. Our situation resembles the one in Syria right now, if it is not worse, but everyone talks only about Syria, and not about Congo. You white people in Russia, Europe, and the States, you are well aware of what is happening in Africa, but your governments would rather not doing anything about it. They only support the criminal regimes that rule our countries, getting money from them or investing in them. The whole world buys our diamonds: France, Belgium, and the US. Even you Russians are involved in diamond mining in Congo, which is always accompanied by war. Many people are afraid to talk about it, because they are afraid of disappearing. But I am not one of those people. I like telling the truth.

muhamed

Muhammad, 28-year-old refugee from Syria

I am from the city of Kobanî, on the border with Turkey.  I am a Kurd, and I left Syria five years ago, in 2011. I had just finished my military service when opposition rallies took place in Syria. It was all quite peaceful, and the situation in Kobanî was calm, but I sensed something serious was going to happen and decided it would be better to leave the country. I worked in the clothing industry, and a friend of mine invited me to Russia. I got help getting a yearlong business visa: that was how I ended up at the fabric in Noginsk. Initially, I came just to sit things out, but it has dragged on for five years, and there is no telling how much longer it will last. The first year I lived on a visa, and then I went to Egypt  to extend it. Subsequently, Egypt changed the rules of entry for Syrians, and I was unable to do the same thing a second time.

‏Meanwhile, Syria has shifted into a state of war. One of my little brothers was captured by Islamic State when he was traveling with other schoolchildren to take exams. He was freed several days later, but I lost contact with my relatives when fighting broke out in the Kobanî area. There were heavy battles near the city, and my family were forced to flee to Turkey. Some of my second and third cousins stayed behind to fight Islamic State. Ten of them were killed, and my brother was seriously injured.

‏All this time, I was working and living in Russia, trying to formalizing my status as a refugee, but I was not having any luck. I would come somewhere with papers, but I would be sent first one place, and then another. An appointment would be made for me, but then it would be postponed: I would be told to come back in fifteen days, and then in ten days. I was once told to come at nine in the morning. I came half an hour early, but to no avail. I was told the queue was already too long and I had better come the next day. But they could not see me the next day, since I had been in the previous day’s queue and had not shown up, allegedly. They toyed with me like this for several months. I decided to ask the [UNHCR] for help, but nothing changed. During the nine months I was going to the FMS, I was unable to file an application for refugee status. Finally, I gave up and stayed on illegally. ‏

I met a Lebanese man who promised to help solve the problems with my papers if I went to work for him at a construction site. I went, but my problems were not solved. Instead, the police caught us. They beat us up right at the construction site. There were even some reporters with policemen, but they were told to turn their cameras off. We were thrown on the ground and beaten on the feet. They beat us so badly I could not walk normally for five days or so. They wanted us to sign some papers. We did not know what was in the papers, because they were in Russian, but we were forced to sign. After that, they stopped beating us and took us to court. We were not provided with an interpreter and so we did not understand most of the proceedings. I do remember, however, that the judge tried to find out what was up with us. He could see we were in a bad way. But we were unable to tell him what had happened, and the policemen told the judge that we were just tired from working.

‏After that, I returned to the factory and started working night shifts, since there are fewer chances the police will catch you. However, I am still sometimes detained on the streets anyway. I always try and have money with me to pay the police off. Usually, I take a five-hundred-ruble note with me: that way they cannot take too much. But I rarely go outside. I work almost seven days a week, and I have no energy to do anything else after a shift of twelve to fifteen hours. I only sleep and work, and the money I send to my family: they need it more. I would like to be near them, but we Syrians now need visas to get into Turkey, and I cannot get one anywhere. Nor can I return to Syria. I have no one in Kobanî, and there is almost nothing left of the city.

Furfur thanks the Civic Assistance Committee and translators Igor Farafonov, Alexander Khodunov, and Muhammad Haled for their help with this article. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the heads-up

Read more about the treatment of Syrian and other refugees in Russia:

How to Tell a Skunk

Skunks. Photo courtesy of National Geographic
Skunks. Photo courtesy of National Geographic

Here is how you tell a pro-Putin western leftist. If someone has not written word one of concern or anguish over the slaughter in Aleppo and Putin’s role in it, but suddenly expresses anxiety over NatWest’s closure of RT’s bank accounts, announced earlier today, they have outed themselves as a pro-Putin western leftist.

Apparently, the rest of the world should just watch as Putin and Co. lay waste to Aleppo and the rest of Syria that has not submitted to the mass murderer Bashar Assad.

And then, if Putin wants to move on from there, and stir up more needless trouble somewhere else, the rest of the world should just avert its gaze from his latest victims.

And so on.

After all, the world’s most enlightened white people, western leftists, have mostly been steadfastly ignoring Putin’s victimization of his own people for the past seventeen years—all those incinerated Chechens, murdered journalists, harassed, beaten, jailed, murdered, persecuted and exiled anti-fascists, leftists, environmentalists, opposition leaders, downtrodden truckers, farmers, factory workers and migrant workers, and on and on.

Here is a modest proposal. Since you feel so much anxiety every time Putin is criticized or mildly slapped on the wrist, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and move to Russia, where you can live the dream of dancing in ecstasy round the one true leftist leader left on earth.

Or is a dumb leftist tape, left over from Soviet times, spinning round and round in your head, keeping you from thinking straight?

I have a message for you: the Soviet Union is dead, and Putin is not a leftist. He is not trying to build socialism. He wants to stay in power for the rest of his natural life, enriching himself and his cronies, and making sure his other 142 million countrymen can never improve their own collective lot in life in any meaningful way, especially in a way that would involve his not being their supreme leader for life.

And just imagine this. When NatWest announced it was closing the bank accounts of the miserable Putinist propaganda channel RT, some of my actual Russian friends actually living in Russia actually rejoiced!

Why? Because their tax dollars pay the salaries of Margarita Simonyan and all the other well-coiffed liars at RT, and they would rather not have their hard-earned money wasted in such a flagrant, hostile manner.

Maybe they would rather that Russian doctors and teachers were paid better, or that pensioners had their pensions indexed for inflation (instead of frozen to pay for Putin’s war on Syria). Maybe they would want their country to stand for something else in the world than deceit, military showboating, corruption, and a hot and cold civil war against dissenters.

When are you godlike beings, ye western leftists, going to heed their mostly silent cries?

Or do you think some crap opinion polls “prove” that Putin is wildly popular in his country?

When are you going to wake up to the fact that your sheer stupidity, blindness, ignorance, and dogmatic stubbornness is destroying what remains of honest leftism? How can leftism pretend it represents a real alternative to capitalism when, time and again, it defends tyrants like Putin in the name of “anti-imperialism,” “stopping war,” or some other sheer nonsense?

The people of Aleppo know you are their enemies, because you vocally or tacitly support their destruction, and the people of Russia will also one day realize that you wish slavery and tyranny upon them as well, if they have not realized it already. TRR

The Testimonial Imperative

Alexei Kungurov. Photo courtesy of the New Chronicle of Current Events
Alexei Kungurov. Photo courtesy of the New Chronicle of Current Events

Amendment from “Yarovaya Package” Applied for First Time in Tyumen
FSB Asks Reporters to Help Prove Blogger Kungurov’s Guilt
Georgy Borodyansky
Novaya Gazeta
October 13, 2016

The FSB’s Tyumen Regional Office has asked a number of Urals region media to help it find evidence against blogger Alexei Kungurov, in particular, “to provide the investigation with articles of his that contain public insults to the authorities and other information worthy of the attention of law enforcement and regulatory authorities.”

The request could also be considered a demand. As Anton Yulayev, a reporter for Znak.com and one of the people who received the letter from the FSB, told Novaya Gazeta, the letter contains a reference to the legal norm obliging recipients to respond to it.

“Our lawyers are now trying to solve this dilemma: how to respond without harming Alexei, and in such a way that the FSB has no beef with us,” explained Yulayev.

The appeal made by the FSB’s Tyumen Region Office is a new legal norm [sic] introduced by the so-called Yarovaya package. Alexei Zyryanov, Kungurov’s attorney, explained the implications to Novaya Gazeta.

“Previously, you could ignore a letter like this, but now you can’t. Basically, the law has introduced criminal liability for the failure to inform,” said Zyryanov.

The liability is spelled out in Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 206.6, which entered into force on July 20, 2016. It says that “non-reporting of terrorist crimes” is punishable by a fine of 100,000 rubles or by up to one year in prison. If individuals know something about another individual who is planning to commit such a crime or has committed such a crime, but do not report their information to law enforcement agencies, they can be found guilty.

Blogger Alexei Kungurov has been held for five months in pre-trial detention facility on charges of “public justification of terrorism.” Investigators found evidence of such a crime in a post the blogger published on his LiveJournal page in October of last years. Entitled “Who Putin’s falcons are really bombing,” the post is still in the public domain.

On October 11, 2016, Tyumen’s Central District Court extended Kungurov’s arrest another two months, until December 15. Investigators motivated their request for the extension on the grounds that they had not managed “to carry all necessary [investigative] actions” over the previous four months. According to Zyryanov, they had not carried out any actions at all. They had been waiting the whole time for the outcome of the linguistic forensic investigation.

Why has the linguistic forensic investigation taken so long? Zyryanov surmises that the forensic experts were faced with a tough job: proving that Kungurov’s argument that Islamic State (an organization banned in Russia) “is hardly the most terrible and crazy [organization]” somehow justifies terrorism.

On October 13, the lead investigator informed the lawyer that the findings from the forensic examination had finally arrived.

“I haven’t examined them in detail yet,” said Zyryanov, “but the conclusion is predictable: there is evidence of a crime in Alexei’s article.”

It would have been difficult to hope for another outcome, because the forensic examination was performed by a bureau of the very same agency that has charged the blogger, the FSB’s Sverdlovsk Regional Office, rather than its Tyumen Regional Office.

The results of another forensic examination are still pending. It will determine the originality of Kungurov’s article that, allegedly, “justifies terrorism,” whether it was written wholly by Kungurov, or whether he borrowed it, wholly or partly, from someone else. Then the case will be sent to trial, apparently.

Why do the secret services need the media’s help? According to Zyryanov, investigators do not have conclusive proof of Kungurov’s guilt, and they are attempting the shore up their case. But it is also possible the FSB has decided to test the new law out on the journalistic community by forcing independent periodicals, which can be counted on one hand in the Urals (the others simply could not afford to publish Kungurov’s articles), into giving “testimony.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Alexander Verkhovsky for the heads-up

Facebook Is Fun! (Islamophobia in Russia)

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819. Oil on canvas, 491 cm x 716 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819. Oil on canvas, 491 cm x 716 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

My memories of kindergarten are fairly fuzzy by now, but I do seem to recall we did a lot of sharing. This, I think, explains why the dark satanic mill known as Facebook has become so indispensable and popular in our modern world. Like kindergarten, it’s all about sharing.

For instance, this morning I was feeling fairly glum about the ongoing slaughter in Aleppo, the apparently total indifference my Russian friends (and “friends”) feel about the role their armed forces have been playing in this massacre, and my inability to do anything about any of this, much less changing anyone’s mind.

Apparently, Facebook even has algorithms for detecting when you’re feeling blue, and like a cheery kindergarten minder in such circumstances, it gets you involved in some fun sharing to buck you up.

This was what Facebook decided to share with woebegone me this morning.

shared

“At Venice Film Festival, Sokurov Says European and Muslim Aesthetics Incompatible,” reads the headline on Newsru.com, an alarmist Russophone news website based in Israel.

When I clicked on it, the item turned out to be old news, an article, dated September 8, 2015, quoting controversial statements made at last year’s Venice Film Festival by the Petersburg auteur Alexander Sokurov, who was in Venice to debut his latest indisputable masterpiece, Francofonia.

Presenting his film Francofonia at the Venice Film Festival, Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov said the European and Muslim aesthetics were incompatible. Calling for an end to “the endless and pointless incursions,” to immigration by an alien culture, Sokurov thus polemicized with the chair of the festival jury, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, who earlier had suggested solving Europe’s rampant immigration crisis by organizing entry for the immigrants. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra reported on Francofonia and Sokurov’s statements.

Presenting what the newspaper called “a brilliant allegorical tale about the Old Continent through its museum symbol, the Louvre,” Sokurov said, “History teaches us nothing. Prudence and compassion are alien to history.”

“Europe, which has attained supreme achievements in art and philosophy, keeps making one mistake after another,” said the Russian maître, as quoted by InoPressa.

“What is happening, these endless and pointless incursions [or, invasions], seem like an indescribable nightmare, a humanitarian catastrophe in the face of which ordinary people are powerless, and politicians do nothing. And no one thinks to protect our culture, which will cease to exist quite soon,” the filmmaker continued.

[…]

The Italian periodical described the action of the film as follows: a ship that must bring European culture to a safe haven sails into a storm. If it sinks, its precious cargo will be irrevocably lost to all Europeans.

“Europe finds itself on The Raft of the Medusa, as in the famous painting by Théodore Géricault, exhibited in the Louvre. Just like the frightening boats, crowded with desperate people making their way to our shores.”

The article here refers to the numerous cases of the illegal delivery [sic] by sea (sometimes ending in tremendous loss of life) of thousands of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.

During the presentation of his film, Sokurov called for “a stop to these migrations.”

“To really help these people, it is necessary to intervene in the countries from which they are escaping and try to solve the problems there. Instead, we pile them up together here, where they have no prospects, and try and impose our TV lifestyle on them,” he argued.

“The outcome will be catastrophic for both parties,” the filmmaker warned.

Sokurov was certain that “our aesthetic and the Muslim aesthetic are incompatible.”

“With all due respect, we must maintain a distance and protect our culture from the iconoclastic fury that is destroying it,” said the filmmaker.

He reminded the audience of the total destruction of unique landmarks in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, by militants from the terrorist group Islamic State, which is banned in the Russian Federation.

Recently, the extremists blew up three tombs of local patricians in the captured city. Earlier, they demolished the Temple of Baalshamin (2nd century BC) and the Temple of Bel, consecrated to the supreme Semitic deity [sic].

“Even the Nazis would have not dared to do what has happened in Palmyra,” said Sokurov.

I have quoted at length the day brightener Facebook chose for me, because it amply demonstrates a sad but irrefutable fact. Islamophobia is a perfectly common attitude and a perfectly respectable political “stance” in Russia, adopted and bruited loudly and publicly by well-read, highly educated members of the “liberal” Russian intelligentsia, as evinced here by one of their darlings, Alexander Sokurov.

This, in turn, explains the near-total silence of “liberal” and even “leftist” Russians on the destruction of Aleppo.

Let me put it as crudely as possible. Despite the court judgement handed down on popular blogger Anton Nosik the other day, a really large number of educated “white” Russians think Muslims are subhumans whom, if push comes to shove or your “civilizational project” has got bogged down and you cannot think of anything better to do, can be slaughtered with impunity and without blinking. In fact, it is better for one’s digestion, state of mind, and personal pursuit of high culture (per Sokurov) to put a mental wall between yourself and whatever is happening to the Muslims in your midst, or to the Muslim Crimean Tatars in Crimea, or to the Muslims in Grozny (back in the first years of Putin’s perpetual reign), or to the Muslims in Aleppo.

If you think I am exaggerating, I invite you to come to the Motherland and have heart-to-heart chats with a sampling of members of the so-called intelligentsia. In some cases (but not, happily, all cases) you will come away thinking you’ve just spent time with Trump supporters, UKIP cacklers, BNP bruisers or clowns from the KKK.

But the funny thing about Facebook is that it is not the only satanic mill on the oppressively vast World Wide Web. Nowadays, you can also ask something called Google whatever question your wicked heart can conceive—for example, how many Muslims are there in Russia?

“In Europe overall, however, Russia’s population of 14 million Muslims (10%) is the largest on the continent.”

Yikes!

Where did all those Russian Muslims come from? Did they immigrate to the Motherland from Syria and other majority Muslim countries?

No, despite the recent heavy influx of migrant workers from the Muslim Central Asian republics (once also part of Russia, in its guise as the Soviet Union), which has even more recently been waning due to the bad economy, among other factors, most of Russia’s Muslims were born and bred in the Russian Federation. Thus, to the outside world, they are “Russians,” if not to many of their fellow Russian citizens, who probably cannot get their heavily bookish heads around such funny facts as Moscow’s being the largest Muslim city in Europe.

You would think that, with so many Russian Muslims and post-Soviet Muslims sharing (there is our keyword again!) your cities, towns, and villages with you, you would not want to go out of your way to antagonize Muslims for no reason at all.

(Not because they are touchier than your average bear, but just because no one in this world enjoys being kicked around for years on end just because they’re different.)

But that is what the Russian government has been doing in Syria, and that is what significant numbers of Russia’s best and brightest have been doing for a long time now, if only rhetorically, if only at the Venice Film Festival, on Facebook or in their kitchens.

The consequences, both now and in the future, could not be more miserable, especially for the alleged “European” culture that only Russian intelligenty and European neo-Nazis seem to get so exercised about.

Thanks, Facebook, for cheering me up! I knew I could count on you. TRR

Crazy Train (In Praise of Boris Johnson)

Except for riding a bike to work when he was mayor of London, calling on people to go to Russian embassies and protest Russia’s sickening, brutal behavior in Syria may have been the only sensible thing Boris Johnson has done in his life, especially given what it has revealed not about him and his alleged hypocrisy (nearly all powerful politicians, even the ones we adore, are horrible hypocrites) but about the psycho-tactical dimension of the Kremlin’s otherwise unmotivated bombing campaign. The properly “hysterical” reaction to Mr. Johnson’s modest proposal by the Russian MoD and the Kremlin is a mirror of the deafening silence on what is happening in Aleppo from the (nonexistent) Russian public. Actually, this deafening silence and meek acceptance are also how the Russian authorities expect, in their “logical” mode,” “the west” and “the international community” to react to their Borg-like crushing of all living life in Syria. So, “logically,” they throw a tantrum and snort fire when anyone has the temerity, like Mr. Johnson, to notice what they’re doing and call it what it is. On the other hand, in their “irrational” mode, whose ultimate expression is rebranding a country that is coming apart at the seams infrastructurally, intellectually, educationally, politically, economically, aesthetically, environmentally, demographically, morally, religiously, ethnically, industrially, socially, etc., into a “reemergent super power,” not for any higher purpose such as “communism” or anything nice sounding like that, but only in order to keep Putin and Co. in power for the rest of their natural lives, the Russian authorities really do want literally everyone in the world to pay attention to what they are doing in Syria and to be awed, to be impressed. That is, to remonstrate, throw fits, descend on their embassies, send them poison pen letters, whatever. Naturally, they don’t want them to go much farther than that, though that might be “fun” too, given that the “development program” they have sketched for their country amounts to suiciding it every which way possible.

This is the only time in my life I have genuinely felt a wan bit of liking for Boris Johnson. If only for exposing what the Stop the War Coalition really are (“Stalinist running dogs” is the proper term, I believe), he deserves a knighthood or a year of free lunches at Subway. TRR

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Hero for a day. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph

Lina Mouzner: Giving Voice to the Women of Syria

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Lina Mouzner. Photo courtesy of tiszatajonline.hu

War in Translation: Giving Voice to the Women of Syria
Lina Mouzner
Literary Hub
October 6, 2016

In the last few months, I’ve moved houses no less than 35 times.

I have been threatened, beaten, strip-searched, thrown in prison, tortured and made to watch as my mother knelt weeping at the dirty feet of tribal leaders to beg for any information about my kidnapped father. I have waited at countless checkpoints, praying that no one finds the bread, the money, the schoolbooks, the chocolates I have hidden in my bag, on my body, trying to smuggle them through to people on the other side. I have buried seven husbands, three fiancés, fifteen sons and a two-week old daughter I finally agreed to have at 42 for my husband’s sake, to bring life back to his tongue after we laid our two grown, handsome sons to rest, one after the other, and grief took all his words away. Our daughter did not die because of a bullet or mortar shell or carbomb, like my father, sister, brother, cousin, mother, neighbor, pharmacist, teacher. She died because the siege had cut off not only our food and electricity, but also our medicine and medical supplies. There were no child-size incubators to be found in our city. My husband rushed her slowly asphyxiating body from one hospital to another until he finally found one in the next town over. He left her with the nurses there and came home at dawn, exhausted but joyful in his relief. In the afternoon he went back to bring her home, and was led away from the small pediatric ward and down to the morgue, where her perfect blue body lay among countless others they had not yet found place enough to bury. Her name was Fatma.

In the last few months, I have watched my city, Maarrat al-Numan, burn, I have watched my city, Raqqa, burn, I have fled Aleppo from the increased fanaticism of the rebels, I have fled Aleppo from the chokehold of the regime, I have fled Aleppo to Turkey, I have fled Aleppo to Lebanon, I have fled Aleppo not knowing if I will ever return, or what I might find if I do.

All this I have watched from my living room in Beirut. Sitting on a worn gray couch with earplugs in, trying to block out the sounds of sheering metal from the construction site right under my window as I translate stories from Arabic to English for the Damascus Bureau, an under-project of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

I was tasked with translating mostly those dispatches sent in by women, first-person accounts of life under siege and war, written for the “women’s blog” section. Though they are as far from our understanding of “women’s blog” in marketing terms as Raqqa now is from Beirut, the degradation and exhaustion of waiting at borders and checkpoints factored into the physical distance.

The women, the writers, range in age from their teens to their sixties and seventies, come from all walks of life, all parts of Syria. They are teachers, activists, seamstresses, farmers, doctors, volunteer paramedics, housewives, writers, aspiring writers, students and revolutionaries.

My body vibrating, whether to the shattering of an earth drill or to the tension of what I read, I have witnessed them march in the streets calling for change, bury loved ones, resuscitate strangers, defy soldiers and snipers, wait in breadlines, pack their whole lives into vans and cars, undergo daily humiliation at checkpoints on their way to and from work, to and from university, which they have refused to leave or discontinue.

To witness, however, feels too passive a word. It is an action that is at its heart, inaction. Their writing is filled with crossings; they are constantly traversing borders both visible and invisible, and it makes me think about the one between these two languages, Arabic and English, each a landscape unto itself. I am also hoping that what I am allowed to smuggle through will survive the journey.

In Arabic, the root of the verb, to witness, is sh-h-d. Roots are important in Arabic. They are present, that is, known and recognizable, not obscure etymologies but immediate and close, giving life directly to all the words that bud and branch from them. From the three-letter root verb, you make the subject and the object, but also adjectives, adverbs and a whole host of other, more complex verbs, subjects and objects related to the first. Even these words—subject, verb, object—are more directly related in Arabic. Translated literally, the subject is the doer, the verb is the doing, the object the one it is done to. In English, a writer writes a book; a letter. In Arabic, al-katib yaktubu kitab; maktoob. All from the root k-t-b, to write.

From “to witness,” we get shahed, the one who witnesses; mashhad, the spectacle or the scene, but also shaheed, martyr; istishhad, to be martyred, to die for a cause.

As if the act of bearing witness, followed to the end of one of its branches, snaps under the weight of what is seen, and you fall to your death. As if to die for a cause in Arabic is to bear witness to something until it annihilates the self.

For the last few nights I have been glued to the news, unable to turn it off. Following the progress of the Kurdish forces as they fight the ISIS militants out of Kobane. Over coffees and drinks with friends in our local watering hole in Beirut, we go over headlines, possibilities, projections, trying to keep the quaver of hope out of our voices and words. Unable to allow ourselves to truly believe anymore, after all that we have lived and seen, that a people might be allowed to bear their fates in their own hands without outside interference bending the situation in favor of the hegemonic political agenda. And then it is confirmed: the battle has been won in our favor. The enemy has been driven out of our town. The town council invites us back to reclaim our homes. Immediately I pile into a bus with my mother and sisters for the long journey back to our village, singing and ululating all the way. All I can think of is my journal, with all the poems I have written over the years. Left behind in the rush to leave, I have mourned it every day since, cursing myself for forgetting it. We climb the hill together, a key buried in my mother’s pocket, that never once left my mother’s pocket, flying the last half kilometer over jagged rocks and dried clumps of earth that were once orchards and fields. I see my mother pull out the key, ready to open the door, only to find a pile of rubble where our house once was. My clothes my journal my needlework our photos shards of our treasured blue cups ground into the dirt. Everything everything gone.

I let out a sob then, breathless with anguish, standing on a hill in Tell Maarouf in a living room in Beirut.

* * * *

To translate a text is to enter into the most intimate relationship with it possible. It is the translator’s body, almost more so than the translator’s mind, that is the vessel of transfer. The mind equates words, expressions, deals with techniques and logistics; it is within the body that the real alchemy—mysterious, unnamed and inexplicable—takes place. That alchemy has to do with truth more than signification, that is, the animating force behind signification, which transforms it into meaning, into something that moves. Gayarti Spivak qualifies the act of translation as “erotic,” but there is something too gentle about that word to ring true for me. The word captures the act of surrender, and the abundantly physical communion with the text, but there is something messier and bloodier that is elided. More agonized and agonizing too. There is a violence in undoing someone’s words and reconstituting them in a vocabulary foreign to them, a vocabulary of your own choosing. There is a violence, too, in the way you are—for long moments—annihilated by the other; undone in return. Neither the translator nor the text emerges from the act unscathed.

I cry a lot while doing this work. It isn’t something I can control. Every time I think I have become hardened to these stories, a moment, an expression, a detail will throw me off the scaffolding of language, away from the structural safety of its grammar and rules and headlong into the wilderness beyond. There is always something unexpected, unimagined, no matter how used to the narrative of loss and displacement and violence I think I have become.

When I first receive one of these texts and sit down to read it, I can see her, the writer, clearly in my mind’s eye. She gets on the mini-bus. She emerges from a taxi. She calls the neighbors, asking when they last saw her brother. I am aware that this first-person voice is hers, and of how it conjures her up as vividly as the images she shows me through her eyes. And then I sit down to work, taking in her words, her voice, anew. And two contradictory things become true at once: that despite the fact I am attempting to reproduce her words as faithfully as I can, they must now re-emerge in words unavoidably my own. And that because of the fact that I am attempting to reproduce her voice as faithfully as I can, it must now re-emerge in a voice unavoidably my own.

“I get on the mini-bus,” I write. “I emerge from the taxi,” and then it is I calling the neighbors, and I am nearly hysterical with worry as I wait for their response. In the considered, deliberate act of translation, these I’s bump up into one another again and again until they are accidentally shattered, the various pieces of these commingled selves becoming, for long moments, indistinguishable from one another. Afterward, trying to pick them up and separate them out, I am left with a thousand cuts I can feel every time I move or breathe. Afterward I realize that there is a shard I have failed to remove, that it has entered my eyes and become lodged there, cutting into my vision always, digging into the form and content of my memories.

Translation is not just about transposing words from one language to another. But transplanting a feeling, a way of seeing the world, from one vocabulary of experience to another. I think of the verb, to transplant. A seedling from soil to soil. But also an organ from body to body. The procedure must be as delicate, as cognizant of the original conditions of creation in order to nurture and ensure a continuation of life.

In Arabic, the word for the action of transplantation is zare’. Simply to plant. There is no prefix implying movement from one place to another, an in-built warning of possible rejection. There is only the thing itself, planted, as if the process of its life begins all at once in this new soil, this new body. I prefer this way of thinking about translated words, and the possibility of their finding life. But the conditions of growth, for growth, remain the same. There are still no guarantees that anything will take root, or that the new body will not reject the new organ for being foreign.

* * * *

When my family and I washed up in Canada, carried out on the great wave of migration away from the civil war in Beirut, I found that I could no longer unlock the trunk in which I carried the words to explain where I had come from, what I had lived. When I did manage to force it open, what I found inside was soggy, useless. The words were all in another language, non-native to this new soil. I translated them as best as I could. Qazeefeh became shell. Msalaheen became militiamen, gunmen. Hajez became checkpoint. Malja’ became shelter. But the new words were strangely light. They carried none of the weight of what they truly meant. Qazeefeh was piercing and hot, abject terror, near-misses and direct hits. It was luck and unluck, it was what left the neighbor boy with melted clumps for hands and took away my grandmother’s hearing in one ear and what missed my father again and again as he crossed the border to Syria and back over four long years, on his way to the Canadian consulate, checking on the status of our visas. Msalaheen were those who held your life in their hands every time you passed through ahajez made of sandbags, militia flags and insignia fluttering above, the colors and shapes meaning the difference between friendly and unfriendly, sometimes life and death. Msalaheen scrutinized your papers and peered into the car with slitted, predatory eyes as you made yourself as small as possible, trying to pretend you couldn’t smell the stink of your parents’ fear. They were those who kept your neighborhood safe; those who made your neighborhood a target. Malja’ was long sleepless nights, the whole building crowded into one airless underground room, the dizzying smells of mold and other people’s bodies, listening to qazeefeh after qazeefeh fall all around you, the echoes booming in your chest as intimate and sure as heartbeat. But malja’ was also endless games of cards and forced sleepovers with friends caught at your place overnight, watching the way the old neighbor twitched as he snored and plotting to steal his dentures while he slept, your giggles luckily muffled by the sound of gunfire. Gunfire now the catch-all name for M16, Kalashnikov, 120, B7, Grad, Doshka, Katyusha, 155, Hawen; my skill in telling them apart by sound now rendered useless.

But once I had the words translated, I found that no one really wanted to hear them, be near them. They were light in English, yes, but also cumbersome and huge. Giant styrofoam shapes. When I carried them with me into the classroom or into the home of new friends, I had to struggle to fit them through the door. Their size dwarfed me, crowded me out; everyone stared. When I tried to put them down, they formed a barrier, setting me apart as so inconceivably other it became impossible to clamber over them, to find my way back to the world of school dances and mall outings, pop quizzes and notes passed back and forth about your crush this week.

In order to enter, then, to become one amongst the many individuals that made up my new world, I had to let go of that whole lexicon, repudiate it, as if it were a sort of shame.

For years I wrote stories about Jennies and Alexes and Melissas, about their suburban childhoods and private disappointments, about dreams and desires moved only by the eddies of a personal history, floating far above the undertow and tidal shifts of collective history. Trying to rewrite my past in an effort to not have to translate it.

I had become used to feeling light. I did not want my country hanging around my neck like a weight I must always carry; unable to take it off or put it down. I did not want to be buffeted about in the whirlpool resultant from the violent meeting of two currents, the personal and the historical, perpetually sucked down into the eye of the vortex along with the thousands upon thousands of other bodies carried there by the same riptide. And everyone around me drowning: how could I live with attempting to save myself alone?

It goes the other way, too. I remember how a student in one of my creative writing classes once handed in a story set in Beirut, about a college student like him pining over a girl who then rejected him in favor of another, richer and more muscular. A story he told us was based on personal experience. His characters were called Damien, Samantha and Brad. Not entirely unheard of here, but odd enough as a group to raise an eyebrow. While workshopping his story with the class, I asked him why he had not named them Salim or Dala or Bilal. His name, after all, was as Arab as they come.

“But Miss,” he replied, incredulous. “I’m not writing about war and bombs and tragedy. Why would I give them such names?”

* * * *

A bomb is a shocking experience. Even to one who feels they have become inured to it. Each heart-hollowing concussion is a redefinition of everything you ever thought you understood. It has nothing to do with fear. Fear is something you get used to, it becomes the new baseline from which your body operates. Quivering, animal, alert. You even come, in the dark malja’ of your consciousness, to accept the idea of your own death. But the breathless outrage of being reduced to utter insignificance—each bomb a punctuation of this idea—is not something you ever get used to. For it is not merely your interiority that is threatened with annihilation, but the entire surrounding world that grounds it in meaning. Parks, schools, streets, friends. Squares, alleys, journals, children. Rivers, parents, trees. Husbands, wives, orchards. Snatches of celebration and joy. Moments of silence and repose. The cat curled up on the garden wall. Stacks of old photographs, your grandmother standing ramrod-stiff for the cameraman in the first flush of her youth. The paintings carefully chosen and framed on the wall. The plants in powdered milk cans all in a row, their leaves tangled into one canopy. A brown egg on a blue plate one early morning. All the people, places and things of your life that you have stacked and shored up against nothingness, all flattened into a grainy, featureless landscape to the inhuman scope from above. All of them collateral damage.

English is the lingua franca of the media, and regardless of what I know of poetry or fiction, which has room enough to embrace foreignness, to break the audience-pleasing structure of introduction-crisis-resolution, I am aware always of the prevailing narrative of the media, because it is there that we, who are not of the predominant culture but who write in its language, who feel ourselves always implicated in two worlds, read about ourselves most. We know how language can be used to beat the rhythm of the war drum, mustering ranks upon ranks of public support. We know how language itself can wage war against us, by mimicking the same casual dehumanization of a bomb. Everyone you know and love: terrorists. Militants. Strategic targets. Collateral damage. The leveling of your neighborhood: an unfortunate mistake. The razing of your city: the birth pangs of a new Middle East. Seven dead, twenty wounded. Forty-one dead, ninety-three wounded. 1.2 million refugees. 2,000 migrants.

All the life squeezed out of them so that they fit into one headline. Sentences become coffins too small to contain all the multitudes of grief.

The trauma, recreated in words: countless particularities flattened and rubbled into one. In the mediatized narrative, your individuality, your personhood, is not a right you are granted by virtue of being human. To become a story worthy of unfolding in the small confines of the mass media, you must earn your individuality by lifting yourself up and out of collective circumstance, either by the exceptionalism of your life or the spectacle of your death. For the story to come to an end, you must serve the purpose of the story, not the other way around. As such, lessons are learned; resolutions are reached; audiences are comforted.

But there is no real resolution to the trauma of the collective. It lives on in all the stories you will ever tell from now on, in all the stories that will be passed down along the line of culture, even when they are about something else. It reshapes your vocabulary. It becomes part of your language. A barrel will no longer ever be a barrel again; shrapnel will always explode from it. The word mustard will forevermore carry a whiff of gas, rashing your skin, smarting your eyes. When you say Sabra, or Shatila, you are not referring to a place, but to a heap of dead bodies shot indiscriminately and tossed aside like worn rags. When you say the word catastrophe, no one need ever ask which one it is you mean. It is towns, cities in their entirety become past tense. These are things that can only ever be reproduced, retold, re-imagined, but never, never laid to rest or resolved. There is no end to the story, only the story.

When writing about war, I am often at a loss as to how to proceed. I want to make the writing as dissonant as I can, to recreate a sense of disruption, of an essential brokenness. I want to make the writing as unobtrusive as I can, to have it slip easily into the mind, mild-mannered and unassuming, before revealing that it has been wearing a vest of explosives all along. But these are theoretical questions, questions of technique, and ultimately ways of distancing myself somehow from a raw wound at the core that simply and only begs to be told, no matter how.

But told to whom? Who is the reader I’m addressing when I am writing in English? It is not my mother tongue, though I feel almost at home in it, though I love it as if it were my own. Like any language, I know it is a tool, as available to raw beauty as it is to hegemonic violence. And I know the only way to redeem it for all of us who it marginalizes is to fight our way out of those margins and insist on being part of the text. But my English is a war wound. It is a result of the roughshod amputation of my mother tongue. Because we were forced, or rather, allowed the privilege to flee at an age when I was first learning to use my voice on the page. But it is a wound from a war much older than that. Because even before we left, I read mostly in English, I was encouraged to read mostly in English, I was complimented on my English, I was told, in a thousand different ways, that it was superior to Arabic, more accomplished, more intelligent, more likely to be taken seriously. It has taken me a long time to allow myself permission to use it as I wish, to break it and retake it without the secret childhood hope that the highest compliment that should be paid to my writing is that I sound like a native speaker.

And I wonder, what is it that brings me to the page? What brings me back, again and again, to the war? To the site of that wound and the need to try and make sense of it through language? Is it the desire to know or the desire to be known?

* * * *

Now I am back inside my childhood, in the world of malja’ and qazeefeh and msalaheen. Stopping at hajez after hajez. Learning the names of the many hawajez that strike fear into the heart of the Syrians. The same way Hajez el Berbara was notorious among some Lebanese—spoken of like a dread portal with its own metaphysical logic, either allowing you through and past or swallowing you up and disappearing you—the Syrians have Hajez el Muqass, Hajez el-Conserwa, Hajez al-Khanaser and countless, countless others. These were once names of common places, squares or streets or bridges crossed without a second thought, now made otherworldly borders with that prelude. The word itself a portal into the uncanny.

I stop at these checkpoints every time with my heart carried in my mouth like contraband that might be dropped or crushed or lost at any moment, knowing I will pass through, because there is a story on the other side of that hajez, but not knowing in what shape; not knowing what distortions that portal might work upon my body.

I often wonder, while working, if I should add an asterisk, an explanation, context, use those translator’s tools at my disposal to broaden the world beyond the page. To drive home a certain urgency; to explain how everyday objects become sinister or meaningless or numinous during wartime.

Windows. Clocks. Mirrors.

A Note on the Translation: war changes the laws of physics, bending time and space to its will.

Sometimes I do add notes, small parenthetical asides that are no real elucidations at all, for words I am familiar with but whose permutations accumulate, and other, new words, their meaning created and destroyed in the same moment by the explosion of violence.

Hisbah, for example. Qualified as (ISIS religious police), other times as (ISIS morality police). Does the word strike the same fear in your heart as it does mine, reader; does it elicit the same disgust that such flesh-hungry men might dare invoke the name of God and his morals, the God I have spent my whole life serving in my heart and dressing modestly for? Does it ignite the same incandescent rage as I watch these blasphemers from Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan and sometimes Europe and America, snatch my revolution, my revolution from my hands and use it to whip my back? I, who was willing to alienate myself from my family to print pamphlets and distribute them, organize rallies and advise people on the best way to run from tear gas and live bullets, defying even the men in my cell who said that revolution is no place for women?

Shabbiha, for example. Sometimes left as is, but italicized, since they are so common to the landscape of the Syrian war, predating as they do the Syrian war. Sometimes qualified as (secret police), others as (regime thugs or collaborators). Have I described them well enough that you understand, reader, how they are a monstrous thing that haunts and shadows, even though I cannot explain the aural recall of the word shabah, ghost? How they are the hell-hounds of Bashar al-Assad, willing to rip your life apart for whatever scraps their master throws their way? How they are one of the reasons we revolted, and that shucking our fear of them to march in the streets with heads held high and sure was the first revolution we enacted upon ourselves?

When I tell you of how I smuggled in fancy chocolates and trendy shoes through the checkpoints at a risk to my life, are you disappointed in us for not being pristine in our victimhood, or must I add a note to explain how even in siege people might prioritize luxury over necessity to live as opposed to merely survive?

When you hear me exclaim, over and over, “Alhamdulillah!”—“Praise God!”—when I hear that my son or husband has been killed by a sniper or carbomb or left gutted on the side of the road by the shabbiha (though we now use the word martyred for all the war dead, including two-week old daughters who die because of a siege on medical supplies), do you think me so twisted into barbarism by my baffling religion that I might truly find joy in this news, or must I add a note to explain that submitting to God’s will is the only way I have not to go utterly mad with grief fighting it?

When I tell you how my nine-year-old cousin was martyred his first day fighting on the frontlines, do you think us monstrous to have let him go, or must I add a note to explain how we have come to accept that in war the desire to fight and its attendant risk of death is something that doesn’t respect childhood?

You understand at least that merely lifting my voice to tell you these things is an act of trust, of faith in your ability to understand. And that I, as a translator, must if nothing else respect and reproduce the faith inherent in those words. To excise my paranoia about the English-language reader’s judgment from all my work. In that way, I am learning too that even as I speak of death and destruction, my every word becomes a force shored up against them as soon as it is written

* * * *

Often I imagine these women one day waking up and realizing that this is it. The end of this chapter. One day they open their eyes after blinking away a sleepless night spent worrying over the future minutes, the future years, and decide that whatever gamble they will be taking to leave is better than the gamble of staying. And so, in the quiet dawn of a room, in the midnight roar of barrels falling from the sky, they pack up what they cannot imagine leaving behind. They gather their children close and call their husbands, they pick up elderly parents and arrange whatever bundles they have made, that they are able to make, tight. They leave in droves or as single families, they leave in worn-out slippers, in trendy, sparkling heels, on bare feet, leaning on canes, clutching infants to their breasts. They leave behind their houses, their streets, their cities, their countries, their dead. And they set off out into the unknown, carrying the memory of all that they leave behind in their hearts and on their tongues, even if they carry nothing else. These they will resurrect in stories, and these stories will be passed on, and so they will endure. This is what they carry, this is what they bear. They are bearing their witness.

And we who listen to their stories are also bearing witness. Carrying something whose significance cannot be described in language, but must nevertheless be contained within it.

A journalist friend tells me about being in Greece, reporting on the arrival of refugees in Lesvos, rising from the sea both resurrected and, like Lazarus, irrevocably transformed by death. On the backs of the trucks circling the town is the word “metaphoros.” A Greek acquaintance explains that this means transport, and she is struck by this, as I am too when she tells me about it. How going back to the roots of language can reveal something essential about a word’s purpose. How stories might be transformed and disguised to pass through the world more easily, but still smuggle with them the same truth. And how the perfect metaphor for the acts of reading and writing, and the witness you must bear to perform each, is translation, specifically its Latin root: to cross, to carry over. For they all require an active form of engagement that is at once, paradoxically, an active form of surrender. You must bear the words, no matter how heavy or foreign or grotesque or strange, you must bear them with their full weight and allow them to carry you where they will, carry you so far into yourself you finally emerge into an understanding beyond. Beyond the self, beyond language. A place where you might, for endless moments, imagine that you have become someone else entirely, and thus emerge transformed, bearing back with you into the world the knowledge that such a place exists, that such metamorphosis is possible. I am not entirely sure how one does this. There are no maps to these territories that lie beyond the borders of that which is explicitly voiced. But I do know that the only way to evaluate what must be carried over and how, what can be sacrificed or modified and what at all costs must not be lost, is to journey across that border

Translation is a symbiotic act. Between writer and translator, of course, but also between languages. In becoming its vessel, you carry over something of yourself but also something of the original language, because that is the way that language works. It is a communal heritage, but is also something entirely individual, entirely your own. And that is what gives it its transformative possibility: this inevitable commingling of self and other, of self and culture, of personal history and collective history. Language gives the individual the power and strength of the collective. And writing, speaking, telling stories—wielding language in narrative form—has the ability to transform the collective through the individual experience. To cross over from that which is felt, experienced, to that which is voiced—for the purpose of witness and being witnessed—is each and every time the declaration of a singular understanding of what it means to be alive in the world. This opens up new spaces, new imagined possibilities, and those, through language, become part of the collective heritage.

It is the best form of resistance I can imagine for a world scarred with forbidding, categorical borders. Between the self and other, between where you come from and where you end up, between the personal narrative and collective history, between genders and cultures and languages and countries and the similar calls for dignity and recognition contained in stories. The only way to make borders meaningless is to keep insisting on crossing them: like a refugee, without papers, without waiting to be given permission, without regard for what might be waiting on the other side. For when you cross a border, you are not only affirming its permeability, but also changing the landscape on both sides. You cross carrying what you can carry, you cross bearing your witness, you cross knowing that you are damageable, that you are mortal and finite, but that language is memory, and memory lives on.

Istishhad: to be martyred; to die for a cause.

It is an especially difficult word to translate, because it has been so marred by blood and violence, so disfigured by zealotry and malice. It is a word that has been ripped from its roots, those that connect it to something so emblematic of what it means to be human, to be driven always by the twin desires of wishing to know and wishing to be known.

Its root: sh-h-d, witness. In its most literal form, istishhad in fact means: to have been witnessed. Witnessed by God, who is nothing, symbolically, if not the omniscient reader—and writer—of the human condition. To be witnessed is what gives one’s life meaning; that is what gives death its cause.

* * * *

And yet, despite all this, there are times when I am wrung out. When I wonder if there can be any consolation in the exulting of our collective ability to use language to heal and bridge and repair in the face of such violent ruptures of meaning. What is the use of such abstract consolation in the face of the hard, physical realities of hunger, of fear, of being forced to flee home, of being unable to flee home, of being a teenage girl who goes down to the cellar to get her pyjamas and is then caught on the landing by a hail of sniper bullets as her father and I watch helplessly from above, unable to pull her out of harm’s way?

“In a few minutes,” she writes, “the bullets stopped falling and my father came down and carried me into the house. Two bullets had pierced my foot and I had shrapnel wounds all over my body. When I saw all the faces around me and all their falling tears, I tried to console them.

‘Don’t cry,’ I said. ‘I’m alive, alive, alive.’”

Lina Mounzer is a writer and translator living and working in Beirut. Her work has appeared in Bidoun, Warscapes, The Berlin Quarterly and Chimurenga, and her first short story was published as part of the anthology Hikayat: An Anthology of Lebanese Women’s Writing, published by Telegram Books. She has translated, from Arabic to English, short stories by Chaza Charafeddine and Mazen Maarouf and a novel by Hassan Daoud. Among other things, she is at work on her first novel.

Thanks to Sam Charles Hamad for the heads-up and everything else. TRR