Syria, Nine Grueling Years

Sitting in silence on a red sofa, gaze transfixed to a muted tv.

January 2011.

I had hardly left that sofa just watching history unfold via al Jazeera, this time I was squeezed between Syrian friends with tears in their eyes.

We were in Syria and the revolution was in Egypt and of all the drama, the crowds and slogans, pepper spray and tanks, it was just one line that sticks in my memory, mine and no doubt most others watching or involved; the president has gone

Everybody was thinking the same thing; would a revolution happen in Syria, could it really happen? And everybody had different ideas and opinions.

I wanted to go to Egypt, I have an affinity with Cairo and many friends there, and, something quite momentous was happening. How could I leave now?

I had to stay.

Walking home one day from the modern center of Damascus to the Old city I received a telephone call, I changed my route to avoid the noise of Souk Hamadieh, I meandered through the narrow alleyways chatting, occasionally nodding to a familiar face as I passed, dusk in Damascus settles early, the city sitting in the lap of a mountain. Propped against the bonnet of a parked car I finished my phone call and tried to make a photograph of the moon reflected in an antique window pane. A typically warm day was suddenly cold.

That stroll and conversation had taken maybe thirty minutes and unbeknown to me my detour had avoided the beginning of the uprising, an event rarely mentioned, then, days later the news from the south would arrive, the people of Deraa had taken to the streets and nothing would ever be the same.486322_10152307687975179_1794775067_n

March 2011.

The beginning and the end.

Other than those of us who follow World or Middle East events have paid much attention to what was happening in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria at that time, probably even the bloody headlines of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan hardly registered, it had already been eight years since the illegal invasion of Iraq, the Middle East was always in turmoil, easy not to pay attention, it was somewhere else and there are always problems closer to home.

Then that all changed. The problem migrated.

 

Its nine years now. There are still bombs in Damascus.

In Syria we had so many conversations about how long things would last, the optimists said a couple of months and others said decades, actually ten years was often suggested, we drank endless cups of tea and cursed the checkpoints, rampant inflation and lack of power.

I hung as long as I could in Damascus, another two and half years but eventually, after a lengthy investigation and interrogation by the Syrian security services followed by bankruptcy had little choice but to leave, I left everything. I gave the keys to the house I had bought to a displaced family and crossed the border into Lebanon and then onto Turkey to start again.

Since leaving Syria I am constantly surprised at the complete lack of understanding of the situation, I get blank stares of incomprehension when I mention I lived there, nothing compared to the comments my Syrian friends have to deal with.

I think if we allow our democratically elected governments to wage wars on our behalf or exploit the natural resources we desire or profit from, or if we deem one despot more worthy than another or feel the need to oust them, or even if we feel so superior to preach to others how they should act or behave then surely we have at least a duty to be aware of the facts and reality surrounding these events, not just the simplistic headlines.

Would it be fair to say that wars in the Middle East and especially the Syrian conflict have affected the social political fabric of Europe?

If anyone interested in learning more about the reality of the Syrian conflict or the culture and history of Syria, I have compiled a reading list. This is not just a random selection of titles groomed from the web but books I have read and/or by authors I have worked with or know personally and so can vouch for their authenticity and, I have included well researched travel writing produced prior to 2011, since I feel they offer a more gentle approach to a subject that can get bogged down in geo political semantics.

I had intended adding the list in this post but it turned out more extensive than I first imagined, so tell me if you are interested and I will make a follow up post.

There is so much more to the Syrian story than war and refugees, there is so much more to the Middle East, and fortunately there are some quite brilliant writers out there who have gone to inordinate lengths to document this heritage or tell these stories.

Syrian refugee boy Atmeh camp Idlib Syria

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83 thoughts on “Syria, Nine Grueling Years

    1. Thank you.
      Yes Syria in 2009 was enjoying a degree of tourist popularity. Despite everything there still is a great deal intact, the cost to the population and its personality is something else though.

      1. Yes, I was very surprised by how many tourists there were in Syria in 2009. Although mostly Europeans, I think. I had trouble finding somewhere to stay in Aleppo, and while I had Qala’at Samaan pretty much to myself, there were eight tour buses lined up when I left. I had been in Georgia and Armenia before flying to Aleppo, and there were many fewer tourists there.

  1. This was a beautifully written post. Thank you for sharing your love of humanity and your photography. If we had half the love in the world as we do hate what a better world this would be. Stay safe and be blessed. Love Joni

  2. Thank you for all you do to educate, document and support those in the Middle East.

    I’ve been an activist most of my life. I worked off and on with Central American refugees and those from Mexico, along with Cuba. Even with those countries being closer to the US than the Middle East most Americans know nothing of what has really gone on there. Most Americans believe the propaganda that the US government uses to start and support these wars, topple democratically elected leaders, destroy economies and support vicious dictators that support the US economic agenda. It is very sad.

    I’ve devoted my last 5 1/2 years to do daily work to end the hidden governments and power brokers that run this entire dark system that harms humanity and the planet.

  3. Hi John. I was working in UAE in 2011 when it all started and happened to be working alongside a young Engineer from Daraa, whose wife and very young kids lived back home at that time. I remember well our daily chats about how things were descending in his region and later more extensively throughout Syria, following the kid’s protests that kick-started the whole thing. I guess if it wasn’t the kid’s protest, it would have been something else. Anyway, always enjoy reading your very authentic and very human posts. Feel free to contact me on email – michealdebarra@gmail.com Maybe we can catch up for a chat in Istanbul sometime I’m visiting, when all this virus business passes. Keep up the good work. Great post. And let’s be having that reading list! MB

    1. Thank you Micheal
      I think anyone who knows somebody from Syria understands much of what I mentioned, being in the region you would have a closer connection.
      Yes lets keep in touch-who knows when this awful COVID mess is over.
      Hope you are staying well

  4. John,

    We haven’t met and I don’t know as much as I should about the middle east, but I have always found your writing insightful and sincere. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and photographs. For some reason tragedy seems to hover around certain regions and populations. And the common man, woman and child in those areas seem to suffer the most. I would be interested in seeing your reading list. Keep writing, shooting, and be vigilant. Best wishes. Tom

    1. Thank you Tom
      I really appreciate your continued support.
      I think the more cynical among us may give some reasons why in some places the strife continues-and yes its usually the innocent that pay the price.
      Hope you are safe and healthy
      Cheers

  5. I would be interested in seeing that list of books. My current reading is a book on the crusades and the ‘issues’ of the Middle East don’t seem to have changed much. And, yes, folks outside of that part of the world have no clue including myself who recognizes I don’t know much about the area.

    1. I always find books on the Crusades hard work to read-but yes indeed, little seems to have changed.
      Interestingly for us this seems ancient history but many people in the middle east see much of what is happening now as some sort of continuation of the Crusades.
      Good luck with the book

      1. Have already seen it and thanked you! I a, currently in Fremantle WA. Just started reading a book that might interest you from an Aussie report Sophie McNeill – We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know. Also about Syria, Isis etc.

    1. List is up.
      History can of course teach us a lot. I do think its sad that often we really do have little consideration of people in the region, out of sight out of mind.

  6. Melancholic Blithe

    Hey John,
    I would very much appreciate if you upload the reading list. Being a student myself, we have had discussions about the situations in Middle East – gathering information from sites and all. But, having a firsthand account is always better. I would really like to have information about the history and happenings of The Middle East and Syria.

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  8. It would be great if you could post the list of readings. I’ve been meaning to gain a deeper understanding of Syria, but I honestly don’t know where to start. From the political punditry to the Western-centric voices many articles have, it would be great to hear from the people who it really affected.

    1. Hi Nat
      List posted-
      Yes it can be difficult, I noticed many bookshops with very little of anything to begin with and when you search from scratch it really is hard work on the net.
      The list I think provides a good starting point

  9. I look forward to reading your posts and seeing your photography and learning about a part of the world I’ve not had experience with. Please can you post the list.

  10. Amazing post! middle eastern political issues, its culture, people, life in fact over there is soo touching inspiring and very interesting! would love to read more on this topic.

    1. Thank you
      Yes one news story always takes the place of another as trends change, sadly. And Covid19 in Syria and the refugee camps likely to be even more devastating

  11. Middle East is always under skirmishes because of the exploitations of the developed countries for their economic benefits. And unless and until the ignorant people residing there recognise this fact or the developed countries stop their exploitations, peace in Middle East is not going to happen. Let us wish that the problems may be solved for the cause of humanity.

  12. I don’t know how you found me, John, but I am glad you did. An informative and balanced post and your paragraph about our democratically elected governments really struck home. I hope you are safe and well where you are. I will head on over to your list.

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