Just as Oedipus, an immigrant of Phoenician descent, had to solve the Sphinx's riddle to save his besieged people, so Syrians today—and, in fact, all of us—face a new set of perplexing, life-or-death questions.
A number of famous paintings (by Ingres, Moreau, and others) depict the meeting between Oedipus and the Sphinx on the road to Delphi; that fatal encounter between a doomed human and a mysterious creature who, in riddle form, held the keys to life and death.
If Oedipus failed to solve her riddle (“What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?”), he and all the people of Thebes would perish. In the event, he gave the correct answer (“Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs; and in old age, he uses a walking stick”), and the Sphinx was so astonished she threw herself to her death, freeing the besieged Thebans.
Intriguingly, Greek mythology holds that Thebes was founded by Cadmus, a Phoenician prince born to King Agenor of Tyre, in modern-day Lebanon. Cadmus was also the brother of Europa, the princess abducted by Zeus and taken to Crete, after whom the European continent is named. This makes the Theban King Oedipus—who was Cadmus’ great-great-grandson—a descendant of Phoenician, Levantine, some would say ‘Syrian’ migrants; an ancient antecedent to the Syrians fleeing under very different circumstances to Greece today.
For Syrians, such as myself, the whole road to our country has been, and always will be, filled with fatal riddles and dangerous words.
Among the most dangerous is “Syria” itself.
In our exchanges of names and heroes, the Greeks were the first to use the name “Suria” interchangeably with another historical and geographical term, “Assuria,” which collectively encompassed both the Levant and Mesopotamia, respectively.
The Romans later made the right (or wrong?) distinction between the two, and Syria, with its various provinces, became for them what Bilad al-Sham was for the Arabs (who took over the region from the Byzantine Romans), which is to say the area between Asia Minor and Egypt. The two terms encapsulate, among many things, two major historical, geographical, and religious entities.
These two names/concepts would become a great wound inside the Mediterranean world that produced Cadmus, Europa, and Oedipus, and helped paved the path of human civilization.
The region was given the name “Syria” once again during the colonial period in the nineteenth century, and this old/new name (which is subject to conflicting historical interpretations) was gradually adopted by many Syrians, in particular the nationalist ideologues who made the first attempts at solving the riddle of what Syria is and who Syrians are.
One of these nationalists, Antun Saadeh, established a party in 1932 in Mount Lebanon named the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. This ethno-nationalist, fascist-inspired group attempted a military coup in Lebanon on 1 July, 1949 (following the example of another coup in Syria on 31 March of the same year). The effort was quickly crushed and Saadeh hanged. Another failed attempt would follow in 1961. The group later fought in Lebanon’s civil war and continues to exist to this day, now a staunch ally of the Assad regime that has sent fighters to assist his counter-revolution.
Syria was, of course, under Ottoman rule for centuries, which is why its early immigrants to the United States and Latin America were called Syrians or Turks interchangeably. Many of them would wind up among the socioeconomic and political elite in various Latin American countries (the runner-up in Brazil’s recent presidential election, Fernando Haddad, is of Lebanese extraction), rather like their Phoenician ancestors who established the Punic empire at Carthage on the coast of modern Tunisia.
After falling into the hands of French and British forces during World War I, by the early years after World War II, “Natural” or “Greater” Syria ceased to exist.
It had a new riddle made up of two names: (British diplomat Mark) Sykes and (French counterpart François Georges-)Picot. (In fact there was also a third name, now largely forgotten; that of Sergey Sazonov, the Tsarist Russian foreign minister who consented to the British and French demands in exchange for Russian sovereignty over significant parts of modern Turkey, including Constantinople/Istanbul itself.)
These French, British, and Russian diplomats signed the secret Asia Minor Agreement in 1916, which was revealed to the public a year later when the Bolsheviks published it in the Russian newspapers Izvestia and Pravda, the Manchester Guardian soon following suit.
This time, the colonial Sphinx defeated the Syrian Oedipus, and with him the luckless Thebans. In addition, Syria, ironically enough, became a creature walking on four legs—the republics of Syria and Lebanon; the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; and the would-be Palestinian state that was taken over by the Israeli forces in 1948—establishing a new chapter of the great Syrian Oedipus complex.
These riddles inside riddles sowed the seeds of the apocalypse that we are witnessing now. The newly-created states became the causes and sites of numerous conflicts, civil wars, and continuous political, economic, social, and military turmoil, with enormously tragic consequences for the region and the entire world.
In the newly created Syrian Republic, the French occupying forces divided Syria on ethnic and sectarian bases into five states, leaving us a five-legged creature. The Syrian Republic’s citizens succeeded in re-uniting the country, but were then wounded by the separation of Lebanon and Jordan, and what would go down in Arab history as the Palestinian Nakba (“Catastrophe”).
These separations turned the majority of Syrians sympathetic to the nationalistic propaganda and military coups that occurred regularly between independence in 1946 and 1963, when a ruthless gang of officers took over in the name of socialism and Arab unity, while in reality opening the door to the extremely bloody tyranny of one man and his family. The name “Syria” now became, in common parlance, “Assad’s Syria.”
Were we asked, like Oedipus, to solve this modern-day Sphinx’s riddle, we might respond with the following observations:
- Humanity came from the same tree but we usually like to hide behind our differences.
- The Syrian riddle has become a global one. Syrians themselves have become a metaphor for the human race. We are all crossing deadly borders, and we all, to some degree, are in the boats trying to reach somewhere. Many of us will possibly die before completing the journey.
- Civilization began with open borders, and the first immigrants brought with them the alphabet (it was Cadmus himself who brought this from Phoenicia to Greece, in the legends), trade, and all sorts of knowledge; they were treated as heroes and made kings. An entire continent was named after one such immigrant.
- A new wave of immigration by force, which was called colonialism, sowed the seeds of a new chapter of civilization, along with new political disputes, despair, and destruction.
- The world as a whole is now facing a great riddle. Some of us are responding by becoming xenophobes and racists, some are building great walls to prevent others from coming, and some are even destroying the habitat of Mother Nature herself.
- We either answer the riddle correctly or we all, like the Thebans of old, will meet our doom.
[Editor’s note: The above was adapted from the author’s contribution to “The Danger of Words in the Age of Danger,” a one-day symposium organized by Exiled Writers Ink and SOAS University of London’s Centre for Cultural, Literary, and Postcolonial Studies.]