Living in the temporary

For Syrians, the past is long gone, while the future—a homeland free of Assad—is forbidden, writes Yassin al-Haj Saleh in this reflection on exile, time, and revolution.

[Editor’s note: The below is an edited version of a talk given by the author at Berlin’s Thinking Together conference on 25 March 2018 (video available here). An Arabic version of the text was published by Al-Jumhuriya on 29 March 2018.]

The day I left Syria in the fall of 2013, I published a short essay titled, ‘On Bidding Syria Farwell… Temporarily.’ I could not leave my country for the first time without saying something, and without pledging that this was a temporary departure. Four years and five months have now passed without any end to the temporary in sight, nor does it seem that one will appear in the foreseeable future. While I personally have had the chance during these years to resume my work as a writer to a large extent, most refugees have not had the chance to resume their interrupted work and lives, especially those living in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, or various European countries, suffering from various forms of discrimination, including limitations on movement and appearance in public spaces.

To resume a life that has been put on hold, or to work to make exile an opportunity for a new beginning, is the most important challenge faced by the refugee. Like the extrajudicial detainee who, despite not knowing how long she will stay in jail, nonetheless does not spend her years in prison awaiting the moment of release, the refugee in turn works to place the experience of being uprooted and exiled within brackets, and to not spend the rest of her years waiting to return to her house and homeland.

In prison, one works to neutralize time with productive activities, or even try to get time on your side by going through a process I call “enjailment,”1 to make the prison into a home, a framework to change and free ourselves from other prisons. This is when the prison is not extremely brutal, such as in Tadmor, Saydnaya, and the new detention camps in Syria, in which enjailment is difficult or impossible. The refugee does the same as the prisoner, to the extent possible; trying to take control of her life in her new conditions. What does it mean to be in control of one’s life? At the very least, to have a base; a point of stability; “a room of one’s own;” a house, if possible, to allow for transformation from uprootedness, the status of someone who escaped with nothing but her “bare life,” to the more stable status of refugee, who is able to resume a life of her own, or give herself a new beginning. This too is when the conditions of refuge are not too brutal so as to make “exilification”2 similarly impossible. A base of this kind is a necessity in order to plan one’s life; to take some control over time and its subjugation.

In the time available, I will try to distinguish between different levels of the relationship of refugees to time according to their ability to have their own space, whether a private one or one for their family. I will distinguish between two types of self-awareness in refugees, the idealistic and the realistic.

The life of refugees who live in a tent, or with others in a crowded hangar, and cannot change their place of residence even if they want to, whether for security or economic reasons, is the closest thing to the life of waiting for a “return” that may never happen. Here, refuge constitutes a continuation of the experience of uprooting, which is not allowed to fade into obsolescence. This is a case of very literally living in the temporary, in a way that seldom allows one to make plans.

Today, there are refugee camps for Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and some European countries, the worst of which are in Lebanon, where they have been raided by the Lebanese security forces more than once, and where refugees have been dealt with in a humiliating manner. Since most of the refugees in Lebanon have come from areas under the control of the regime today and so cannot return out of fear for their lives, to live in shelter that lacks the basic necessities for a decent existence is to put their lives on hold permanently. I call this a suspended life.  

Most of the world’s six million Syrian refugees do not live in special camps. It is to their credit, especially those who have sought shelter in countries further away from Syria, particularly Europe, that they have invented something new in international politics: crossing multiple borders, that is, erasing borders in an unprecedented way that can be imitated by others. In fact, the Syrian refugee “crisis” (which also includes within it many non-Syrians: Iraqis, Iranians, Afghans, even Africans) is an example of the power of refugees’ agency; that refugees are not hapless victims; and that the status of refugee does not contradict the possession of agency and choice. It may even be the most important contemporary example of the ability of someone to turn a crisis into an opportunity to take her life and destiny into her own hands and transform it. We may define agency in this context as resistance to the tyranny of the temporary, and struggling against the suspended life. Despite the EU-Turkey agreement of March 2016, borders for once appear to be something porous and permeable and may remain so in some form. The relationship between borders or states and the agency of individuals or groups over themselves has, for once, changed to the advantage of the latter—at least temporarily. Temporarily, because states are vengeful entities, and the weakest and poorest among them are more powerful and resourceful than individuals (at least those who aren’t Bill Gates or Rami Makhlouf), let alone the stable states like those in Europe. And as we know from a great many examples, of which Syria is only the most recent, states can kill people, whereas people cannot kill states. The genocides committed by states are many in number, but we still do not know a single example of a “statocide.”

Realistically, (I will speak subsequently about the ideal), these refugees are not living a life suspended in the temporary in the same way as those forced to live in refugee camps. They live in temporary housing, their jobs may be temporary, but they are in charge of their lives (albeit to varying degrees) and can plan their futures. To plan means to overpower the temporary, even if this overpowering itself is temporary; the battle is ongoing. In the end, our opportunity to exist is temporary, but negotiation with life remains possible as long as we are not enslaved, and our lives are not suspended.  

This is the largest group of [Syrian] refugees; those who are neither in camps nor leading a suspended life, just awaiting return. It is made up of educated, middle class professionals, both individuals and families; often young ones. In most cases, these refugees are better-placed to negotiate the conditions of their new lives. We may say that the further refugees travel, the more they are “burning their ships,” as they are unlikely to return when the reasons for their migration no longer exist. This also applies to refugees in nearer countries such as Turkey, the longer their stay therein becomes. Şenay Özden, a Turkish anthropologist who specializes in refugee studies, conducted interviews as part of fieldwork with Syrian refugee women in the city of Izmir. One woman who’d been in Turkey for three and a half years told Özden that she doesn’t think of leaving to Europe, because she doesn’t want to start from scratch again; nor does she think of going back to Syria now that she’s got to know her neighbors, and her children are in school speaking Turkish, even though she herself can barely speak any.

In any case, it is a question of distance and time. With a greater distance, say somewhere like Germany, the shortest period of exile is enough to make a refugee stop thinking of return. She has expended significant resources and energy to get there, risking her life to imagine a world that is livable. To lose this investment might destroy her. In a closer country, a longer period of time is needed for exile to become an irreversible condition.

There are, finally, a minority of refugees who have faced fewer difficulties in their movement and are able to live in homes for longer and plan further ahead. They usually arrive at their European sanctuaries by plane and have not had to face the perils of traveling by land or sea. Some of them are well-off and possess monetary capital that is recognized everywhere, but some are also artists, academics and well-known political dissidents who possess symbolic capital that may be recognized, or at least whose recognition faces fewer obstacles. Some have chosen to live in the temporary and have become accustomed to a life of wandering, as their upbringing makes them capable of living almost anywhere, especially the younger ones among them. This group is not living the experience of being a refugee waiting to return, though this doesn’t mean they don’t think of returning, or wish to.

Those among them that possess symbolic capital are the ones whose constitution is significantly weighted towards the “idealist,” as is their self-awareness, and the way they form their expectations, and imagine the role they should play. By idealist, I mean the incorporation of aspects connected with the broader issue, of which exile only makes up one facet, and to aspire to universal conditions where there is no forced migration. The “idealists” want to return because returning is part of how they define themselves. They live in the temporary not because their lives in exile are suspended, whether at the personal or collective level, but because their idealistic conception of themselves is what is put on hold, should returning be ruled out. This is clearer today for Palestinians than it is for Syrians, to the extent that return is a formative element in the Palestinian’s consciousness, even if it does not inevitably mean that she will return should the opportunity arise. When it comes to Syrians today, return is not linked to a collective Syrian self-consciousness, or a shared Syrian identity, but rather with how Syrians imagine an ideal Syria and the role they should play in it.

This does not mean that the idea of return is one that solely concerns either the idealistic among the politically and intellectually engaged, or the poorest among the refugees. I would hazard that all refugees, in some part of themselves, dream of return. They may not exercise it should it become available, and may even resist it if imposed upon them. But they need an imagined return in order to rediscover their past and resume their interrupted lives. “The return” is a return to the past, our past, so that we may have a present.

When it comes to the “realistic” refugees, their ideal is to be able to remain in their places of refuge, where they have built a new life and gone past the temporary and precarious, while at the same time to be able to return to their places of origin to check on their homes (or what’s left of them) and meet their families and neighbors. Their ideal is to have two homes, and two homelands to belong to, not one. To be able to seek refuge from one in the other, or to move back and forth between the two for a change of scene, to enrich themselves… and to be freer.

The matter is not only about the preferences and decisions of refugees, however. Legally speaking, most Syrians in Europe are humanitarian refugees, and are supposed to return to their country when the “crisis” is over. On the social level, many of them are subject to harassment in their daily lives, or fail to secure a job and have to live off the modest aid of government agencies. In any case, they are part of that broad group sometimes called the precariat; wrestling with circumstances full of uncertainty and insecurity; able to overcome the precariousness of their situation only with the greatest difficulty. Many are unable to overcome it. This may be reflected in socially destructive behavior (engaging in harassment and delinquency) or working in illegal activities (drugs), or in extreme cases joining nihilistic or “terrorist” organizations.

The question “What’s next?” never leaves the refugee’s mind. Every time she thinks of it, the temporary re-imposes itself. She knows that she is not settled here, and needs to either return to what was before, or go to another place, or die far away, thus leaving both the political and existential temporaries at once. To be a refugee is not to live in a strange place, but to live in the time that separates what was before from what is after—that is, to live in the temporary. And to keep struggling with this extremely precarious situation, with no guarantees whatsoever of overcoming it.

This is connected with the fact that the essential condition of the refugee, the constitution of exiledom so to speak, is the formative separation from land; not residing on stable ground. The refugee is light, almost volatile, a person who lives “out of place” and in time. She is the complete opposite of the farmer who lives in “natural” time, cyclical and repetitive, with clearly defined beginnings and endings. For the refugee, time is linear, “progressive;” it has a beginning, but it does not repeat itself, and it has no known end. She is in the city without being an urbanite, separated from nature and non-integrated in culture, battling with strange cities unfamiliar to her.

I will conclude with some remarks on the politics of the temporary, in Syrian terms. The world of Syrian exile is complex, as it is made up of one temporariness on top of another. A return to the previous homeland remains infeasible, due to Assad’s war of extermination, and the fact that the force of repulsion is still far stronger than the force of attraction to return. The temporariness of exile has been continuing for seven years and constantly delays return, even if one wants to return. Under this temporariness lies another temporariness that has consumed the lifetimes of most living Syrians—I mean those living in a continuous state of emergency for the last fifty-five years up to the present day. Together, these two endless temporaries are a double wall to protect al-abad: the eternal, the forever.3 That which should be the rule—a stable life for residents within defined legal frameworks—has become an uninterrupted exception, while that which should be the exception—the reign of an individual or a family—has become a “norm” and permanent rule. The political meaning of forever is precisely: Assad or nobody! That is genocide. For more than two generations, we have been living in an eternal present, from which we could not return to a past most of us never knew and barely existed even in our memory, nor could we go to a future forbidden to us, which remained under continuous attack by the forever.

Revolution has been a collective effort to exit the “forever” and to enter history. As refugees, we have entered history, but back there, the wrecking-ball of the forever is still driven by blood.

The lesson that we might learn from Syria is that the forever cannot exist in this time of history and historicity other than in the form of a permanent state of exception; a temporary kept in place by the hands of forever. The forever over there is the wall preventing our “farewell to Syria” from being temporary here.

  • 1. Translation of the term istiḥbās; the belief that one’s imprisonment will be permanent; coined by the author from the word ḥabs (prison) in a previous essay. I am indebted to Dr. Rana Issa’s linguistic-intellectual genius for translating it in her translation of that essay.
  • 2. Translation of istiljāʾ, from the word lujūʾ (to take refuge), coined by Yassin in this essay in the same manner as his previous “enjailment.” Thanks again to Dr. Issa in helping me come up with a translation.
  • 3. A reference to the regime slogan: “our leader forever (ila-l-abad), the trustworthy (al-amin) Hafez al-Asad” that continued to be deployed after his death in 2000.