Last night I read an article, Yarmouk Miniatures, appearing in Issue 23 of n+1 magazine, which made the situation in Syria vivid for me in a way that the none of the news and articles I’ve read ever did. I visited Syria long ago, and spent a lot of time in particular in Aleppo, now all but destroyed. The people were kinder than any I had met in my travels, anywhere and it was a magical country, living under, even then, a harsh regime.
The article, written by English writer Matthew McNaught, tells the story of how he got to know many Syrians in Yarmouk when he was living there and learning Arabic. He tells of the teacher, Mazen, his parties, and the social circle surrounding him, and especially of the books Mazen had him read. One of these was Historical Miniatures by Sa’dallah Wannous, a playwright, who wrote political theatre. Mazen told McNaught that the miniatures of the title referred to detailed paintings celebrating legendary warriors and great battles and were meant to validate imperial rule and their domination of other peoples. Mazen explained:
Wannous…wanted to play with this convention. He chose a setting straight out of these victors’ narratives but passed over the buff men lopping off heads, the battles, the imperial pomp and ceremony. Instead, he portrayed the people usually left outside the frame of history. The quiet silk weaver and his wife. The refugee girl who cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy to escape exploitation. The trader finding ways to discreetly profit from war. The religious leaders, united in their pious public rhetoric, each picking out his own private compromise among convictions, self-interest, and fear.
The stories of those people that I met in the streets of Syria all those years ago are the people we care about, not the “people” who are abstracted away in the nightly news. The article was illuminating, and if you subscribe to n+1, in itself a great magazine, you can get access to all the digital versions. Here is one of the stories McNaught relates from Historical Miniatures, The Silk Weaver:
A small house within the city walls. A young couple, Marwan and Khadija, are arguing. They have heard the news of the approaching armies and are discussing the choice that lies ahead of them. Khadija wants to stay. “I’d rather be with our own people and meet our fate together than beg on some foreign street. We’ll lose everything if we go. The house, your workshop and loom.” But for Marwan, the uncertainty of flight is preferable to the certainty of violence and destruction if they stay. He has heard of the savagery in Aleppo. He is a silk weaver, not a soldier, and the prospect of taking up arms against Tamerlane’s armies seems absurd and suicidal. The argument goes back and forth until Khadija takes Marwan by the hand. ‘‘I’m tired of all this argument and hesitation,” she says. “Since dawn we’ve been torturing ourselves. If you’ve made your decision, let’s just leave. The bags are already packed. Go and pray. I’ll get dressed.”
Marwan holds on to Khadija, whispering words of adoration, pleading with her to come back to the bedroom: “Just let me taste your sweet honey before we leave.” Khadija wriggles out of his embrace: “Not now, Marwan!” She starts dragging bags to the front door. “Look, are we leaving or not?” Moments later, there is a knock at the door. It is Khadija’s brother Ahmed. He tells them that the city gates have been locked. All travel is forbidden. The palace guard has been ordered to fortify the citadel and arm all men of military age. They have missed their last chance to leave.
Syria Speaks, an anthology of recent writing from Syria, including the work of Ali Ferzat, Samar Yazbek, Khaled Khalifa and Robin Yassin-Kassab.