Syrian refugee Nather Henafe Alali

Part II: ″Why I am here″

″A German artist once asked me why some people leave their country, while others just stay there and die. The question was put in a friendly way, but there was something very bitter about it. As if he was asking why I didn’t dutifully stay in Syria and wait for my death,″ writes Nather Henafe Alali in his second column

As if the suffering my dying country burdens me with were not enough, I was now also unable to reply and philosophise about life and death in a language I have yet to master. In any case, questions of exile and home weigh on me all the time.

At one point, the protagonist in Ghassan Kanafani’s novel ″Returning to Haifa″ asks his wife what home means to her. ″Home is where all this is not happening,″ she replies. And the American writer Oliver Wendell Holmes defines home as a place that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.

I didn′t want to be dead body number 300,000

Some people may think it’s their beautiful country that lured me here. They think that giving up my homeland came easily to me, or that it is my fault if people ask me such tactless questions, when I was so rash as to leave my country. Or they believe I could simply dodge the intrusive looks of pity or amazement.

Perhaps they also think that being a refugee isn’t that bad. Or they suspect I simply ran away – and perhaps that’s true: I wanted to be more than just dead body number 300,000. But perhaps it was also courageous of me to go into exile and escape death by starvation in my own country. Or it was simply desperation that led me to experience a slow death of another kind here. In any case, here I  am faced with unrelenting questions.

Destruction in Aleppo (photo: Reuters/A. Ismail)
″Perhaps they also think that being a refugee isn’t that bad. Or they suspect I simply ran away – and perhaps that’s true: I wanted to be more than just dead body number 300,000,″ writes Nather Henafe Alali

What the people asking the questions don’t know, however, is that although my body may be here, my soul has not yet caught up. That I still recall the dreams of my childhood – and that the longing for my relatives refuses to leave my heart. On my mobile phone, I am always sending greetings to the people who stayed there in the rubble, to whom fate has not granted the opportunity to come to where I am now.

Restless as a nomad

All these thoughts and questions rip my soul apart like a hyena does its prey. As I move restlessly from one place to another like a nomad, I ask myself how a country can drive its population to flee, into exile and into the sea; why it doesn’t have room for us and why instead has it become a quagmire, a breeding ground for bacteria from all over the world.

Maybe my country will hear me, I think; maybe some day it will sweep all the dirt from its streets, which were so familiar to me and vomit out all the men so greedy for war and power who are making trouble there. Maybe one day it will welcome us back and let us raise our children there in peace.

Istanbul, a holiday destination for many of this world’s wealthier people, was just the first place of refuge for me before I had to move on. Just before my flight left, I took to the streets with my lonely shadow, longing to be among people once more. As I wandered along aimlessly, a Syrian boy came up to me. He had a very beautiful face, but you could see that he was being ruthlessly exploited. Did I have any money, he asked me. I said no – then he asked if I had anything else. Yes, I said, a cruel country and the bad luck to be where we both were. I walked on, feeling as if I were trailing a river of tears behind me, inwardly cursing this barbaric world.

An awful longing

If I could speak to Syria, I would say: to die in you was easier than to live in you, yet it would have been a blessing to me. But here on the banks of the Spree I still long for you. Although fighter bombers, not birds, circle your skies; although you allow people to die in you because a tyrant starves them or puts them in a torture chamber, I still love you. Bestiality has found a home in you and millions of your citizens have fled. And people ask me why I left you and yet still long for you.

Demonstration against the Assad regime in a suburb of Homs, 27.12.2011 (photo: AP)
″The revolution did not bode well for us. Everything turned out differently from how we wanted, despite our euphoria and the songs sung by the crowds about a life of peace and safety. Perhaps it wasn’t our revolution at all – we just whetted its appetite and became its fuel″

Here, far away, thoughts fly around my head like dust devils on the Syrian steppe. I fall down with exhaustion like an autumn leaf, weary of hanging on the branch. Unable to help you, I direct my prayers to God and think of your children sleeping in cold refugee camps, besieged by stray dogs, your women who are now homeless, sharing a blanket with ladies of the night and your citizens who go in search of hope and commit suicide on far-off beaches.

The revolution did not bode well for us

It is not their fault that major powers are hungry for our blood, that God has not granted us our own opposition and bestowed too little pity on Assad’s soldiers.

The revolution did not bode well for us. Everything turned out differently from how we wanted, despite our euphoria and the songs sung by the crowds about a life of peace and safety. Perhaps it wasn’t our revolution at all – we just whetted its appetite and became its fuel.

The French and the Algerians must know what I mean, when they think about their own history. We just talk about it differently today. About militias, for instance, recruiting children in order to create some kind of fragile state structure. And then there′s us, of course, the exiles, the foreigners, who are supposed to abide by integration laws – the object of enthusiastic sympathy.

Nather Henafe Alali

© Nather Henafe Alali 2016

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

This article was first published in ″Der Spiegel, 19/2016″.

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