At the end of six days in Damascus last week, and on the eve of Ramadan, I finally found time to re-visit a Palestinian-run art gallery and shop with my wife; we had been there eight years earlier, and before this terrible war that we could never have imagined was begun.
At that time, in 2010, the sins of the West against the Palestinians were our concern, and doubtless the topic of conversation with the women in the gallery, who sold fabrics and embroidery made by Palestinian women in their adopted homes – in Yarmouk and other areas where they were resettled by the Syrian government following the Nakba and subsequent expulsions. The brightly coloured cushion cover we bought then, appropriately depicting houses in a Palestinian village, has been a reminder of “unfinished business” ever since, but events last week in Gaza made this visit obligatory.
With perverse irony, while IDF soldiers were gunning down innocent and unarmed protestors trapped behind electrified fences in their Gaza prison, using exploding bullets to inflict maximum permanent injury to those they didn’t kill, the Syrian air force was bombing the terrorists of Da’esh in Yarmouk – once home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. That very morning of May 16th, we had woken again to the sound of explosions and of Syria’s overworked fighter jets as they tried to force the last of Damascus’ Israel-friendly terrorist armies into submission and retreat.
Against this background, introducing ourselves as friends of Syria and of Palestine seemed shallow and insincere – we were inevitably representatives of our countries – Britain and Australia – that bear much so responsibility for seventy years of Palestinian grief and suffering, and now also for seven years of devastation and death in Syria. But our host was polite and generous as she explained how her pool of contributors had shrunk to a fraction as they had fled the advances and occupation of different extremist groups – while we tried to find words to express our anger and disgust at the actions of our governments.
But as we prepared to leave – and leave Damascus too so reluctantly, this Palestinian woman quietly asked “would you like to know what I think?” We hardly dared say yes, to allow this “confession” of so many years of grief and anger against a faceless and heartless oppressor, to be made to us. And her words were hard to bear, even though we knew her anger and resentment was not against us.
“What do you want from us?” she asked – “what is it that we have that you need?” – “why are you doing this to Syria, who has done nothing to hurt you?”
How could we answer such questions, when the answer and the truth is so vile? But she answered for us:
“It is like this chair” she said, gesturing at her seat behind the counter – “like you must sit in this chair, here inside my home, just to say “this is mine””. Putting herself in this seat of power, and with pent-up rage against the monster from which she and her whole family seemed unable to escape, she continued:
“And I don’t care how many people die, if it is millions, how much blood is spilt – it is nothing – I want this chair, just to sit in it.”
Somehow this brave and thoughtful person had encapsulated an idea that has escaped us – who think of captured territory with its oil and gas resources, or the challenge of fighting the West’s demonic arms industry and beating it at its own game. What she said was above that – it was about the whole idea of Syria as heart and home for all its people, and including their brothers and sisters driven from occupied Palestine, or from occupied Iraq.
What burned inside her now seemed beyond tears for so much unnecessary death and destruction – as she said “it was for nothing that you did this”- and had become a driving force stronger than Syria’s enemies.
We had already felt the power in Syria’s women, and determination born of pain at the deaths of their sons, brothers and husbands, martyred for their country. Despite the most terrible circumstances and causes of their needless deaths, many of these women seem determined to rise above resentment and hate, and see their community strengthened and unified by their common enemy. Our own experience – albeit of foreigners soon recognised as friends of friends, was of warmth and genuine friendliness from everyone we met, and a desire to restore and rebuild the community our governments have tried so hard to destroy.
Syria has for so long been a community of many different faiths and ethnicities, held together by shared interests and loyalties rather than divided by them, and in recent times perhaps also by its secular socialist government. As we heard from another Palestinian man, who had grown up in Syria and now taught English in Damascus, even Palestinians have equal access to social services and citizen’s rights, only lacking one thing – a passport.
We only had to wait a week in Beirut for our visas to enter Syria, while Palestinians have waited a lifetime for the opportunity to leave their adopted home, even to attend conferences or for business. They know only too well how it feels to have someone come into your home uninvited and sit in your chair, taking your country and your freedom for themselves.
But maybe this will change, and Syria will again lead the way. As the last of Damascus’ suburbs were liberated from terrorists just after we left Syria, a new dynamic was also created against Israel as it crossed Syria’s red line for the last time. Syrian missiles sent a message into the occupied Golan – you will no longer sit in our chair!
*(Images credit: David Macilwain/ American Herald Tribune)