“For a moment I was in a state of disbelief, thinking sleep had overtaken him,” wrote Mr. Ghassan Charbel about Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who died when a boat carrying Syrian migrants to the Greek island of Kos capsized near the Turkish city of Bodrum. “There are neither holes in his clothes, nor signs of torture and nothing appears unusual about this Syrian child lying on a Turkish shore,” continued Charbel, Al Hayat’s editor-in-chief. News of this tragic death dominated the front pages of the world's newspapers and exploded on television and social media. Many agree that the images of Aylan seared into our psyches, distinguishing themselves from those of other Syrian deaths to which Charbel and much of the world have sadly become habituated during the last four and a half years. Articles show photos of Aylan’s death which some have deceptively described as “peaceful” only because no one gassed, barrel-bombed, massacred, or tortured this little boy.
Charbel continues with his captivating prose, “I almost said be careful not to wake him. Try to stop, for a little bit, the pounding thunder of the guns, the roar of aircraft, the shrills of the barrel bombs and thermobaric missiles, the concussion of booby-trapped cars and explosive belts.” His words aptly describe the Syrian theater of war. While Aylan died in the sea, other Syrian children have died each day for the past four years, if not from aircraft bombing or from chemical attacks, then from the sheer fear of witnessing brutal, and indiscriminate bombings. “Perhaps he had bet that his brother Ghalib would wake him after a while, and that his mother Rihana would call him to continue the trip in case Ghalib overslept. Perhaps Aylan didn’t know that Ghalib had died before he could awaken him, and so his mother Rihana before she had a chance to call out to him... Perhaps the three-year old Aylan did not notice that the boat with the fleeing Syrians had capsized, and that Syria itself resembled a capsized boat. He didn’t know that his picture would dominate TV screens and front pages” (The words quoted, like all previous and subsequent quotes unless otherwise attributed, are from Mr. Ghassan Charbel.) Unquestionably, Aylan’s image mesmerized much of the world, even touching those who had closed their eyes and ears to dying Syrians.
Aylan Kurdi’s death has vividly called attention to the tragic transformation of Syrian lives since 2011. “How difficult to be Syrian in these days, how horrible to be Syrian-Kurd in all days, and how even more painful to be from Kobani, which we Arabs call ‘Eye of the Arabs.’”
Assad’s real-life reign of terror -- which culminated in 2011 with unprecedented atrocities - - fires the imagination of writers and ordinary citizens alike, allowing for language to stretch in order to grasp meaning. Charbel’s prose proves no exception. “I almost accused Aylan of deliberately committing suicide out of desperation [to escape] from a country that murders its children in its own territory and, frequently, in the oceans. It expels them and then throws them into the teeth of the dream sellers which deliver them to their graves. Perhaps he committed suicide to throw his corpse into the face of this predator world. He wanted to throw his corpse into the face of a clown called world conscience which has remained a bystander to the open Syrian wound.” He wanted to throw his corpse “into the face of the supermarket of the United Nations, and the shop of the Arab League, as well as the shops of the decision-making world capitals.”
At the dawn of the revolution, Syrians took most of the Arab world and the international community at their words, expecting rescue from an unrestrained, tyrannical regime, especially when the dead reached the hundreds of thousands and the displaced numbered in the millions. Still, no rescue came, neither from their neighboring brothers or from afar. This indifference has fostered a sense of helplessness, gradually paving the way for the rise of vicious, violent organizations that have damaged the revolution more than the regime. Thus, the notion of forgetfulness and abandonment has become a common mindset among many Syrians, and these sentiments echo in Charbel’s essay. “This monstrous world has a fickle memory; tomorrow it will get bored with the corpse of Aylan and will turn the page, and for this reason the corpse needs to be preserved and presented to the U.N. Security Council so that John Kerry is reminded of the “flowing river of corpses in the region, regardless of his frequent visits or his smiles….It should be sent also to his master, the hero of the “Red Line” series.” Charbel did not forget to add Sergey Lavrov and his master in the Kremlin to the list, two names which will inhabit a place of infamy in Syrian memory.
Al Hayat’s editor-in-chief shares a recent experience in Warsaw, when the tourist guide in the hotel said to him: “It is important to go to Auschwitz to view the effects of the holocaust, the gas chambers and the atrocities committed by the Nazis.” Mr. Charbel's answer proved telling, and predictable, given the current tragedy in Syria. “I listened to her words and was tempted by a desire to smile. There is no justification for me, an Arab, to go to Auschwitz. I have no right to examine history’s genocides while I am drowning in the holocausts of the present. I am from a region whose armies and militias do not hate the ‘final solution.’”
Mesmerized from by the corpse of Aylan lying on a Turkish shore, Charbel envisions it to be crying out “against the long season of shame, the season of the fleeing refugee convoys. I have heard them on TV praising the countries which received them with open arms” after their native homelands abandoned them. “It is a long season of shame. The foreign country is more merciful…How harsh these places which we call home.”
“Be careful not to wake [Aylan] up. He will tell of the horrors of his journey, and the horrors of his country,” warns Mr. Charbel at the conclusion of his painful meditation.
This essay appears in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid (Vol. 19, No. 69)
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