In 2015, to be Syrian is to be living in an absurdity. The world has not abandoned Syrians, as is often said. It has ganged up on them.
Borders that were thought to be done away with were rebuilt. The nation-state, supposedly in its dying days, has reemerged with revanchist ambitions. Old political alliances between states—remnants of the Cold War—that were thought to be dwindling have been solidified to an unprecedented historical extent, with catastrophic results. The forces of extreme Salafist reaction, weakened and without much popular appeal a mere five years ago, have set up shop in Syrian towns and cities, manifesting itself in its most brutal form to date as the Islamic State. The red line of chemical weapons —which killed hundreds in a suburb of Damascus in 2013 —has been been replaced with a green light for barrels filled with explosives, dropped from helicopters on civilian neighborhoods.
Being Syrian means being sentenced to death for being a free software developer. Being Syrian means being compared to “rabid dogs” by a US presidential candidate. It means being blamed for the attacks in Paris and having to deal with the subsequent backlash despite the fact that not a Syrian nor a refugee was involved in any of the attacks. Being Syrian means that you may be one of the thousands who have been killed by an “industrial scale” torture machine run by your government. In 2015, being Syrian means analogies can be drawn between your situation and the situation of Jewish refugees in 1938 or Japanese-Americans who were interned during WWII. Being Syrian means having to confront dictatorship, imperialism, racism, the nation-state system, and Islamist reactionaries.
Of course, we don’t all experience this. Apart from the vitriolic rhetoric against Syrians in the west, I am at a distance from all this, at least physically. I am not a refugee nor am I anywhere near the conflict. Usually, there is a benefit to being at a distance. In a letter from 1931, Walter Benjamin wrote that he was, “[l]ike one who keeps afloat on a shipwreck by climbing to the top of a mast that is already crumbling. But from there he has a chance to give a signal leading to his rescue.” That’s how I once imagined my situation. The distance gave me the ability to find ways out that others couldn’t see, I thought. But now I see no opportunities to give any signals that lead to rescue. This quote used to bring me solace in the darkest of times. Now I can’t help but read it and remember the manner in which Benjamin himself died, and how no one came to his rescue.
The world in its entirety has declared war on Syrians—and it is conjuring up every weapon it has at its disposal to use against them.