art of resistance, Syria

The Book To Read: A Hand Full Of Stars.

Rafik_Schami/Rafik Schami, photo by Andreas Pohlmann/

First of all, I have to say that I am so happy I discovered Rafik Schami and Syria through his eyes. A Hand Full of Stars (published in 1987) is a book about a teenage boy who wants to be a journalist. The book is actually his diary, in which he describes daily life in his hometown of Damascus.

Inspired by his dearest friend, old Uncle Salim (a man whose great love for telling stories reminded me of another uncle – Uncle Jihad from Alameddine’s Hakawati), he begins to write down his thoughts and impressions of family, friends, life at school, political situation in Syria, working in his father’s bakery and his growing feelings for his girlfriend, Nadia.

With time, the diary becomes more than just a way to remember the daily adventures; on its pages he explores his frustration with the government injustices he witnesses. His courage and ingenuity finally find an outlet when he and his friends begin a subversive underground newspaper.

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Born in Syria in 1946, Schami is the son of a baker from a Syriac Christian family. Much of the story in A Hand Full of Stars seems autobiographical. From 1964 to 1970 he was the co-founder and editor of the wall news-sheet Al-Muntalak (The Starting-Point) in the old quarter of Damascus.

Like his main character in A Hand Full of Stars, he faced regime’s oppression on daily basis. In 1970, he left Syria for Lebanon to evade censorship and the military draft, and the following year he moved to Germany, where he still lives today.

Storytelling and writing books remain one of his biggest passions. A Hand Full of Stars is a simple and sweet book. In all its simplicity it manages to make you happy, angry, sad, but most of all – aware and hopeful.

I love that it’s an obligatory read in some elementary schools in Croatia (which was also a discovery to me, since I didn’t encounter it during my formal education years).

It is a great way to inform children and young people about other societies (in this case oppression and political instability in Syria), but also help them discover the beauty and diversity of different cultures – Schami’s Damascus is a great window into that.

And maybe the most important thing – it teaches children (and all of us adults – because everyone should read it) about compassion and solidarity, about the little ways we can help each other and help our society. It tells us that being kind and corageus in small, everyday situations, actually goes a long way.

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Previous The Book To Read:

Palestinian Walks: Notes On A Vanishing Landscape

Night Draws Near

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

Anti-Arab Racism in the USA

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art of resistance, Syria

(Interview) All That’s Left Is Women Wearing Black.

_alice_pasquini_syrian_protest-women/image © Alice Pasquini, Syrian Protest Women/

I met Aida Baghdadi* in Beirut, at a conference we were both attending. She was one of the first people I noticed, standing confident, with long beautiful hair and determined look in her eyes. Baghdadi is a feminist, a lawyer working with Syrian political prisoners and abused women in refugee camps and shelters. She is well educated, passionate and strong.

I can see it in her face, the way she talks, how excited she gets when we discuss the situation in Syria and possibilites for a change. It is not easy developing civil society under the regime’s ever-present watch, but she and her fellow activists already got used to it – they meet in private apartments, basements, and sometimes – in other countries, like here, in Lebanon.

I tried to catch her to take away some time from her busy schedule and managed to spend some hours talking to her last couple of days. She tells me she has been a lawyer since 2007, and is working for the Equal Citizenship Center in Damascus.

“We work on many things, like the projects with EFI Initiative, but also different workshops and trainings. We try to educate people in Syria, talk to them about international and human rights, and build a new base, a platform for civil society. I provide legal opinion and also defend people, primarily women, in courts, informing and empowering them, to know about their rights and ask and fight for their rights”, Aida tells me.

Her eyes are fixed on an inivisible point ahead of her, like she’s remembering all the people she works with and trying to bring them to life in our conversation. She tells me how it is particularly hard to work in refugee camps inside Syria, because there’s often wrong information from the regime about the number of camps and people in them.

Women have it really hard, they are not only exposed to violence, but also discrimination in laws and the constitution. For human rights organisations it is hard to do any activity at all, human rights and women’s rights remain unimportant issues under the regime’s control or/and under the control of armed Islamist groups.

“That is what we really want to change – our laws and our constitution, because they are the basis of our society. We are working on new, better laws, for men and for women. I hope we’ll get a chance to implement them one day”, Aida explains to me.

She describes how some places in Syria have left women totally deseperate: “Women are the biggest losers of this war, and all wars, I think. Young men die, or they fight or  leave the country, all that is left in some places now are women wearing black. These are women that lost their children, their husbands, women who try to do anything, work were they can and how they can – to survive and provide for themselves”.

She explains how these issues demand changes on all levels. Her association is focused on the separation of the religion from the state – secularism and democracy, and in relation to that they work hard to introduce the concept of citizenship to Syrian people. I aks her about cooperation with religious leaders, and her answer begins with a deep sigh. “Cooperation with the religious leaders is almost impossible, it doesn’t exist. It is because they don’t want to change the situation, this is good for them, it is an envinronment in which they prosper”, she tells me.

Regime already arrested some of the people from her team, but she was lucky so far. Still, there is a constant fear that haunts her. “I am scared every time I am giving a passport at the border control – I might get arrested and just disappear and nobody will know what happened to me”, she explains.

The situation is the same for a lot of activists in Syria, and many of them are in even worse situations – at risk of arrest and murder cover-ups, not just by the regime but by Islamist groups. Comparing life in Syria now and before, she insists that good life for all people was never a reality, good life was a reality only for people with special connections, religious background, or lots of money.

She asks how it is possible that during the last ten years of Assad’s rule there were outside impressions that the economic situation is good, when there were more than two milion people below the poverty line. Talking about economy, she reflects on the economic sanctions EU imposed on Syria.

“Those sanctions did nothing to hurt the regime, it was left standing strong, because it has found other resources. But sanctions did have an impact on regular people, the poverty spread out, people were suffering, in many hospitals there was no medicines. There was a big pressure on  people in their everyday life, it’s hard to even imagine how some of them managed to survive”, Aida tells me.

She tinks that the control and support of individuals, certain groups and privileged parts of society, is what saved the regime all these years. When mentioning Daesh, she says Assad is to blame because dictators bring problems, they allow the space in which terrorism is born, and that is when the money flows in and weapons flow in.

“Daesh is a complicated web, a lot of foreigners fight for Daesh, they have good financing and, among other things,  they control a substantial amount of oil. But, you know, I don’t think it is the main problem. Keep in mind that many of their supporters are recruited from the outside, so if there is a real intention to get rid of them, it could be done.

But why is that not happening? Let’s start from 2011, when the revolution started. People went out to the streets, and the regime sent the army on the streets. As time moved on, we realized that there are rebels and radicals provided with money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and citizens who really wanted changes found themselves between them and the regime, between two evils, two fires.

And now all of these countries joined in – Iran, Russia, Turkey, US, France – all of them with their particular interests in Syria. US and Russia mainly kill civilians with their strikes, they barely did any harm to Daesh. All of these interests are what frightens me. Even when the war ends, there is a possibility that Daesh will stay, less powerful but present, like a destabilizing factor many are counting on, like a match that can be lit up when necessary.

And all of this war, it’s all profit for the military–industrial complex, and it’s a profit many our counting on and will not be willing to let go of it. It’s also about showing off power and establishing power relations between countries, so – we have to consider so many things and not look at one thing isolated, like Daesh”, Aida explains.

She compares the situation with Iraq, saying both countries have a lot in common and might go through the same process – Syria could also have decades of instability and crippling conflicts, even after the war ends. She thinks political solutions might solve the war, but they will not heal the country, and the big question is – what will remain off the country after the war.

When talking about healing the country, she emphasizes on the issue of political prisoners Syria had  for many decades (and still has), and the massacre in Hama (1982) that is still unresolved. “Hama is important in the collective memory of the Syrian people, taking responsibility for the massacre is an important step in moving forward in our future”, she says.

In her work, she met many political prisoners. It made her realize that many people no longer find meaning in life in Syria, they feel completely helpless, and it pushes them to the edge.  “Some of them may have done some bad things, but you realize that in many cases they actually had no way out, their choice was total blackness, no matter where they turn. When you realize that, it just breaks you”, she tells me, her voice quavering. It’s hard for her to talk about all this without getting emotional.

She tells me about her friend’s husband, Bassel Safadi, a prisoner who was held captive for three years. His wife Noura knew where he was and she could visit him from time to time, but almost three months ago “somebody” came to the prison and took him away – nobody knows where he is now.  His wife was told only that he was deleted from the list of prisoners in the prison in which he was before.

waiting/Waiting by Noura Ghazi Safadi/

She and Bassel’s friends started a petition, wrote to the UN, made hashtag #freeBassel and a facebook page, in order to put pressure on the Syrian government to get an answer about his disappearance, but all efforts have so far been unsuccessful. Bassels’s wife Noura, human rights lawyer, is still relentlessly searching for answers. During the waiting period she has written a wonderful book of poetry Waiting, in which she writes, lifting her voice and recording their love story and the story of Syria.

Aida continues explaining the situation: “People get taken away and you don’t know where they are… People are leaving the country, this is like a big fire that is spreading out, all over the country, with every new country involved and fighting in Syria. You can take a couple of years of war maybe, but more than that, I don’t know.

With every new year, it gets harder and harder. There’s only as much one can take. Civil society is losing people every day, and that is why it is important to work with the young people, but you cannot insist or ask of anyone to stay in the country. People’s lives are at stake, their future is at stake. You have to understand when they say that  they want to leave. That is why it is so important to stop this war”.

Her complaint is that nobody deals with the main issue, with the source of the problem. If Europe really has issues with the refugees, she says,  if they want to stop refugees from coming to Europe, they need to do one thing  and one thing mainly – stop the war. Syrian people will stay in their country, Syrian people will come back to their country – if there is future, Aida is sure about that.

Her special hope are the women – a lot of women, strong women, women that still have some resources and are engaging in civil society efforts, but also women who are unprotected, poor women without anything and anybody – those barely surviving, but still fighting.

She wants to continue studying international law and will go for an exchange programme to Italy to study for five months, and then come back to Syria and continue her work. Finishing our conversation, she takes a deep breath. We both have tears in our eyes.

“Time goes by, with every new hour and day more people die, their lives are destroyed… I don’t want to see anyone die, not ‘regular’ people and not the regime people. I just want to work and live without the constant fear, without thinking of me or my family going to prison or dying, I want to be able to think and talk about Syrian future without sadness”, Aida concludes.

*Name changed due to security issues

• • •

This interview was also published in Croatian, on Libela.

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art of resistance, Syria

Time Travel Booth: 20th Century Syria.

1958 thrity million fruti treesThirty million fruit trees in al-Ghouta, 1958.

a delegation of women from alepo 1962A delegation of women from Aleppo visiting president al-Qudsi, 1962.

cinema 1950sDecorating the cinema billboards, Damascus, 1958.

1920sDamascus, 1920s.

house in Rankus, date unknownHouse in Rankus, date unknown

pioneer syrian director and anchorPioneer Syrian TV director and anchor Khaldun al-Maleh, 1960.

street scene damascus 1940Street scene, Damascus, 1940.

the faculty of law damascus university 1952The Faculty of Law at Damascus University, 1950.

the semiramis hotel 1970The Semiramis Hotel, Damascus, 1970s.

1383778_557253750996929_1628236270_nSyrian musician Farid al-Atrash with Egyptian actress Mariam Fakhr al-Din, 1962.

993044_516566785065626_2058114282_nDamascus, 1951.

All  photos found on the facebook page Syrian History 

(it’s a great page, so be sure to check it out for more).

 

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art of resistance, Syria, travel, Turkey

From Croatia to Syria (on a bicycle).

Three years ago, my friend Siniša Glogoški, photographer, traveler, a wanderer of the world, took his bike and rode it from Croatia to Syria (more than 4000 kilometers).

It was a journey of revelation – revelation of the unknown, of the beauty of the landscape, faces of the people, and everything that’s moving and vibrating around him, and – very important – it was a revelation of what’s inside, of the inner strength, of the will to continue (it was a hot summer, and being on a bike for a looong time can get exhausting).

Siniša did it. He moved his boundaries, went beyond. His stories about the journey are full of desert stars at night, children running, tranquility of morning silence… He brought it with him, and it seems so bittersweet remembering it now, when Syria faces such harsh times.

Be sure to watch his video, embark on a journey with him for five minutes.

And here are some of the photos.

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1962725_617223848332134_300289296_nall photos © Siniša Glogoški

For more of Siniša’s adventures and inspiring stories, visit his facebook page.

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