The sixth in a series of letters written by Yassin al-Haj Saleh to his missing wife, Samira al-Khalil, who was kidnapped in Douma in December 2013.
What have I done during your absence, Sammour? As with everything else, I cannot tell you all the details; I leave them until you come back.
The new thing, besides writing as you know and expect, is that I have been able to travel to several European countries. I still have no passport, Sammour, and for every trip there have been many rounds of correspondence between those who invite me, the consulate of their country and the Turkish Department of Immigration; it is exhausting. Travel between countries has become a political issue, or even one of sovereignty, embroiled in matters of danger and security, especially for Syrians. The consulates one must visit to obtain a travel document are reminiscent of Assad’s security headquarters. Our situation in the world, Sammour, is a continuation of our situation in "Assad’s Syria."
I am, however, of that fortunate minority of Syrians who are able to travel from time to time and return to their place of residence. I have been to several European countries, but not to Arab or other ones. I was invited to an Arab country about a year ago, but the mukhabarat (intelligence services) of that country promised a friend who tried to help that they would welcome me provided they “see” me when I first arrive in the country! I was invited to a university in another Arab country, but they expected me to solve the problem of not having a passport!
All the trips were to participate in cultural and intellectual activities related to the Syrian cause, which is one of the important global issues today, if not the most important one. It’s an issue that defies the foundations of thought, politics, and the international system; we, those who speak about it, are perceived with a mix of consideration, enmity, and confusion.
At the same time, in our country more than anywhere else, you see history running with your bare eyes; you see the state in its barbarism, vanity, and necessity, and you see religion in its madness and worldliness. You see the world in its narrowness, breadth, and corruption. You see how people and groups turn against themselves and others. You see a combination of masks of all kinds: slavery masked as liberation; hatred masked as love; sectarianism wearing the veil of the homeland; murder calling itself mercy; falsehood speaking on behalf of truth; selfishness impersonating altruism and sacrifice; and contempt claiming to be just. All you see and hear may be the opposite of what it claims to be. Were it not for the heart aching in your absence, reflecting on this world would have become a source of intellectual pleasure, and in fact it would be a special fortune, in spite of the public misfortune, to live in a historic moment like this. I believe that great struggles spur thinking about the history and destiny of humanity, and we are in such a situation today, Sammour. If only you were by my side.
Regarding the writing, what’s new is that I write about the four of you; about Razan; and about you especially. Writing about you is not just a new topic in my work, Sammour; it is what gives all my other work meaning. You are not my cause, Sammour; you are my identity.
Writing about you is therapy too, Sammour.
Like many Syrian refugees, I suffer from survivors’ guilt; that feeling that plagues those who survive a tragedy when others have not. In Al-Jumhuriya (of course you remember it, it's still working, and I mostly write there) a young writer who had likely never heard of survivors’ guilt described it with a beautiful and condensed expression: being “stricken with safety.” In my case, I’m doubly stricken with safety, because I survived this time when many others did not, and their number continues to increase; but especially because you were not among the survivors. I’m responsible for this alone, and this is what devastated me more than anything else, Sammour. This is also what I have been resisting through my work; many friends, each with their own degree of survivors’ guilt, have been of huge help as well. Even our Turkish friends have some degree of guilt which encourages them to show solidarity and participate with us in various cultural activities and protests. Their support has always been enormously helpful.
Sammour, what I tried to resist throughout nearly four years is surrendering to being stricken with safety, which I think has at least two damaging effects. First, it can push the survivor to stop time at the point of their survival—when they left the country in our situation—which can render them unable to realize the change in the situation and conditions of the struggle, as well as the need to reform the tools in order to continue the struggle and maintain a liberating position. I think I know survivors from our old struggle who do not stop fighting the previous war that they did not fight at the time. Now that everything has changed, their fight doesn’t have the same meaning and they don’t maintain the same liberating position. They give a feeling of antiquity and oldness; a fate I hope to avoid, Sammour.
The second effect of survivors’ syndrome is the inability to continue fighting in the new conditions of exile, and the wasting of energy on complaining and grumbling, or blaming oneself and others. I try to resist the guilt in order to continue fighting, Sammour. I believe that what really destroys our ability to fight is falling into the shackles of guilt, which is the least suitable state of mind to help those who have not been stricken with safety, like you, or those who are worse off than we are. It is not easy. I experienced it first-hand, Sammour: it is close to being an everlasting struggle that is renewed every day where we never win the battle, but we can continue to fight.
Sammour, perhaps what helps me navigate this unbearable situation is that I was once in the situation of the non-survivor—in prison—while some of my friends and colleagues were stricken with safety. At that time you were also in a similar situation to mine, and there’s no doubt that your friends and colleagues had similar feelings. What did we expect from those who survived when we were with most of our comrades in prison? Did we want them to continue the struggle from which we had been forced out? Not in every case; only as far as possible and according to their assessment of the situation. Did we want them to surrender to guilt, blame themselves for having survived, and only be relieved from guilt by being imprisoned with us? Of course not. I think what we expected from them was to keep safe, and by doing so to keep our cause safe. In the prisons of Hafez al-Assad we hoped our friends would protect their dignity, and ours.
That's what I'm trying to do, Sammour. I try not only to protect your dignity, and the dignity of our cause, and my own dignity too, but also to continue the struggle with tools that may be somewhat different from before, but can better protect our cause.
There is nothing that satisfies in a situation like ours, yours and mine, Sammour. You are disappeared behind narrow and dark borders, and I am thrown far away, outside the borders. I’m not satisfied with it. As I work to contribute to building more effective tools and a more appropriate position for us to continue the struggle after losing the revolutionary round, I try to do something that has a direct effect on your cause all the time. There haven’t been any breakthroughs yet, Sammour, but I will keep knocking on the door, and I hope it will be broken someday soon to free you, Razan, Wael, and Nazem.
Still fighting, first and last and always, because you need me, and because I need to be strong the day you return.
Waiting for you. Just take care of yourself, please.