|Bisher Imam | Ph.D., Prof UC Irvine||California|
Re: ‘Syria is ...’
In my other persona, I deal with numbers, hard facts and computer codes. Yet, once in a while an untested, naïve and highly romantic child-poet finds its way out. These are becoming further apart, and your question of “Syria is” was so powerful and emotional that it awakened that irrational part of me.
Long ago, when I was in 7th grade, our Arabic teacher assigned to us the eternal composition about cooperation and solidarity. My classmates wrote classical solid definitions of the two words and their compositions were filled with historical anecdotes, quotes from Hadith, Quran, poetry, and other sources. That was the first time when my unrefined dreamer woke up. My composition spoke of wolves and villagers, of chickens, sheeps, dogs, and of battles in which both villains and heroes were victorious because they, each with their own, worked together. It suffices to say that I got my first ever F. This essay is written with the same naïve spirit. And an F may be warranted, but I had to get it out.
Syria is my grandmother’s narrow balcony overseeing the Mediterranean, a distant ship waiting to be loaded with Iraqi oil, and a colorless, but colorfully decorated taxi navigating the town’s only roundabout and heading towards the coastal road where it will soon pass the majestic crusader’s fortress as it continues a 5000 years journey that started an hour ago not far from the birthplace of the first alphabet.
She is my own home town, overseen by yet another magnificent fortress, which over the same 5000 years witnessed generals, kings and princes, whose armies gathered in all corners of the known world, and were joined across history with a common goal of acquiring power over this hard to keep jewel. She is where roads, some well cared for, and some in need of repairs, carry caravans that are moving people and goods from all imaginable places to countless destinations. In no other place it is so easy to imagine the modern metal beasts transformed into caravans of living beasts of burden that traveled the same paths for several millennia.
She is the bustling marketplaces, old and new, where languages intermix and tempers flare and subside as bargainers make agreements surrounded by modern and ancient vehicles which co-exist, miraculously, with daring, cautious, and outright risk taking pedestrians.
She is where fields, vineyards, groves, orchards, and hectares upon hectares of wheat, some of which witnessed the earliest successful attempts to cultivate wild grains, continue to do the same, uncaring if they were to be burnt by a foreign general, by lightning, or by their loving peasants to enrich their soil after harvest. It is as if these fields know that many a general and his soldiers have either left in defeat or were eventually absorbed into the ever expanding Syrian fabric as they joined the peasants, merchants, and artisans whom they subjugated, and built cities now cocooned under the hills which intersperse the semi-arid landscape. All is a day’s worth of making a living in a place where the calls to prayers emanating from nearby and distant minarets are as natural and as in place as the angelic harmonies of church bells, the sounds of ancient songs, and the shy taps of dancers.
Syria is a bridge between east and west, north and south, old and new. This is what many of us Syrians think of whatever each of us may chose to confine Syria to. Well, I no longer do, for I no longer confuse a living river with a passive inanimate structure. As a river does, Syria, forced by the gravity of human progress, flows within the confines of its historical landscape, but like the river waters, Syrians, ever since the dawn of civilization, have reshaped history into more fertile, lush, and diverse plains.
Some argue that Syria has never been a single country, and as such, any definition of Syria and Syrians is null and void. But we Syrians know who we are to the core of our being. And over the ages, we have coalesced under a set of overarching unifying traits, chief amongst them are: a deep awareness of the interconnectedness of our complex history, recognition of our ties to all races and creeds, a painfully earned sense of the transience of empires, and a hard earned right; to some a duty, to oppose hegemony, be it cultural, religious, racial, military or economical.
Long before parts of the new world were destined to become a melting pot, we in fact were, and continue to be, the products of the first true melting pot and of the longest cross cultural exchange in history. This is why we are at ease no matter where we settle and this is also why we may appear ambivalent to episodes of upheaval or stagnation. It is not carelessness but understanding that continues to shape us.
The nomad’s house is nowhere, ours is everywhere. We have been subjects as well as citizens of countless empires and by now nothing is new under the light of our collective consciousness. Our essence and role is to incubate, and like any fertile soil, we have, and we will continue to do so for a long time to come.
Roads will be built, forts will be erected, and armies will maneuver over the landscape and in the skies, but we, the peasants, artisans, merchants, and artists, we, the students and teachers of history will continue to hold the amber for the next campfire, around which the new will be molded out of the old, and we will do what we have always done, nurture infant civilizations until they reach adulthood and are ready to go on their own.