Over five million Ukrainians have fled their country since Russia launched its invasion on February 24. This staggering tide, almost entirely women and children, may soon surpass what UNICEF had previously called “the largest displacement crisis in the world.” That would be the over 13 million Syrians—more than half the country’s population—who fled their homes starting in 2011, after the Assad regime’s repression of a popular uprising turned into a civil war. Today there are 5.7 million Syrian refugees living in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. In 2015 the flow of more than a million to Europe, largely across the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece, was seen in the West as a refugee crisis of extraordinary proportions.
Syrians have observed the war in Ukraine, the refugee crisis it has provoked, and the international response with a mixture of interest, sympathy, jadedness, and envy. In theory, international refugee law grants the same rights to asylum seekers regardless of where they come from. But Syrians can’t fail to notice how much more welcoming and supportive European countries have been to Ukrainian refugees than to those from their part of the world. Syrians nonetheless generally take pains to express their solidarity with Ukrainians. They note that they are both the victims of Russian aggression and that they are very familiar with the methods of the Russian army, which, in support of the Assad regime, bombarded civilians, targeted hospitals, and besieged and destroyed Aleppo, just as it has now destroyed Mariupol.
But as the Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh wrote, “I have noticed the differential distribution of solidarity, as well as the differential grievability of lives.” Western politicians and journalists have expressed dismay that the destruction in Ukraine targets what the Bulgarian prime minister called “Europeans, intelligent, educated people” (not to mention white and Christian ones). Al-Haj Saleh points out that when one says that “this should not happen to the Ukrainians because they are like us,” one is also saying that it is acceptable for it to happen to those who are not like us.
The confirmation of a double standard that Syrians have long suspected has been galling and painful. For years, those writing from and about Syria have in part done so in the hope that if only the world fully knew what was happening there, if only it understood and sympathized, it would respond to their plight. For the last decade, there has been an outpouring of testimony and reportage explaining the Syrian conflict and “humanizing” its victims. (Wendy Pearlman’s 2017 collection of interviews with Syrian refugees, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled, is perhaps the best known of such books.) Many writers have also turned to fiction to give accounts of the war and its aftermath, of the long journeys so many Syrians have undertaken and the dead ends they have sometimes reached. All of them have grappled with the question: What difference can telling this story make?
Very little, the Egyptian-Canadian writer Omar El Akkad’s novel What Strange Paradise seems to suggest. Its first line is: “The child lies on the shore.” This image, of course, evokes Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned with his mother and brother while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece in 2015. For days the world stared at photographs of his small body lying clothed on the shore.
El Akkad imagines a different boy, nine-year-old Amir, who after fleeing Syria and traveling through Jordan and Egypt, survives a crossing to a Greek island. There he is hunted by an obsessive Greek colonel, who wants to imprison him in the island’s processing center for refugees, and taken under the wing of a sympathetic local girl, Vänna.
The book shifts between two timelines. In the “Before” sections, it details Amir’s trip across the sea in a rickety boat crowded with anxious adults. In the “After” ones, it follows Amir and Vänna as they sneak across the island. El Akkad vividly conjures the setting: the saltflowers whose flame-shaped petals, hardened and fallen to the ground, explode like firecrackers under the feet of running children; the hidden footpaths through the gum tree forest; the fancy seaside hotel where tourists come for the spectacularly clear sea, the water that “makes of them children again.”
The tale of two children making their way across a beautiful, hostile land has the quality of a fairy tale. But the characters—the brave and innocent children, the bloodhound of a colonel—remain rather flat archetypes. The often evocative observations of the world around them are the author’s, not theirs. The novel’s ambiguous and devastating coda seems to further confirm that Amir was never more than a sweet narrative contrivance.
What Strange Paradise is El Akkad’s second novel, after a previous career as a journalist. His debut novel, American War, is set in an imagined future in which a declining America is devastated by climate change and civil war. It ripples with the joy of creating its own terrible world. What Strange Paradise, by contrast, is more cautious. It is as if the gravity of the subject inhibited the author’s imagination, as if he were fearful of showing disrespect or of trespassing. He is more comfortable condemning the West’s treatment of refugees than he is inhabiting their point of view.
The Greek colonel, Kethros, stands for a misguided vision of law and order, fueled by anger, guilt, and fear of change. “That we are in a position to be fled to and not fled from is because we have systems, rules, proper ways of doing things,” he tells Madame El Ward, who runs a facility for migrants. When he corners Amir, he expostulates on the hypocrisy of the liberal West’s concern for him:
You are the temporary object of their fraudulent outrage, their fraudulent grief. They will march the streets on your behalf, they will write to politicians on your behalf, they will cry on your behalf, but you are to them in the end nothing but a hook on which to hang the best possible image of themselves. Today you are the only boy in the world and tomorrow it will be as though you never existed.
This worldview is shared by Mohamed, the smuggler who remains on the boat to keep order during the crossing, and who has a similar habit of speechifying. Most of his dialogue consists of scolding his passengers for their delusions. When they almost mutiny, he pulls a gun and lectures them:
You sad, stupid people. Look what you’ve done to yourselves. The West you talk about doesn’t exist. It’s a fairy tale, a fantasy you sell yourself because the alternative is to admit that you’re the least important character in your own story…. Go ahead, change your country, change your name, change your accent, pull the skin right off your bones, but in their eyes they will always be engines and you will always, always be fuel.
There is plenty of reason to share in such cynicism. In 2015 the Eastern European countries that were being traversed by refugees panicked, holding them in squalid camps or bussing them elsewhere, closing their borders and squabbling with one another. Eventually, German chancellor Angela Merkel decided to bypass EU asylum procedures and grant virtually all Syrians refugee status in her country. There are over 800,000 Syrians living in Germany today (turning Berlin into the Arab capital of Europe, among other things).
Since then, the EU has tightened asylum procedures and its external borders. In 2016, after striking a deal with Turkey, Greece began repatriating migrants to its neighbor; the so-called Balkan route to Europe was effectively shut down. The EU has also made agreements with other states on its periphery, such as Libya, basically paying them to imprison migrants on their soil and prevent them from reaching European countries. Last year, Denmark announced that it would begin revoking Syrians’ residency permits because it was now safe for them to return home. This was just the latest of a series of punitive measures meant to discourage refugees. In 2016 the country passed the “jewelry law,” which forces refugees to hand over almost all their valuables as part of the asylum application process. One can hardly think of a more heartless thing to do to people who have already been almost completely dispossessed. (Denmark has decided not to apply the law to Ukrainian refugees.)
The protagonist of Layla AlAmmar’s Silence Is a Sense is a Syrian refugee who makes her way to the UK—another country that has gone to great lengths to make itself an unwelcoming destination. Its government has just proposed a widely decried scheme under which “those travelling to the UK through illegal, dangerous or unnecessary methods” can be packed off to Rwanda and forced to apply for asylum in that country.
AlAmmar’s narrator would qualify for such “relocation.” On her long and lonely crossing of Europe, she endures various terrifying experiences, including sexual violence. On the final leg of her trip, she is forced to lie on produce in a refrigerated truck for hours, nearly freezing and asphyxiating. Settled in the UK, the unnamed young woman refuses to speak and avoids human contact, spending her days reading, studying for an online degree, writing a column (signed “The Voiceless”) for a magazine, and observing her neighbors, who range from a student protester to a horny health nut to an anti-Muslim bigot who abuses his family.
Silence Is a Sense touches on many themes: Islamophobia, immigrant identity, women’s sexual freedom, and political engagement. One of its strongest elements is how it depicts the young woman’s mental distress and alienation. “They don’t want refugees clogging up London—that’s how the lady at the center phrased it, as though we were clumps of dirt or hair stopping up a drain,” she tells us. After speaking with a therapist who urges her to face her submerged fears, she says:
She was so wrong about the fears; they weren’t all the way down there, in that dismal blue. They were on my skin, crawling all over me, all the time, biting, like electric sparks….
What if there is no before or after? What if you live your life within the long pause of trauma, perpetually astride that line? What if the trauma is a place that time cannot penetrate?
AlAmmar incorporates her own misgivings about representing the refugee experience through her narrator’s online interactions with her editor, who is encouraging yet clueless. The editor pushes her to package her experience in ways that can elicit the sympathy and the trust of her Western audience. “She wants me to write of borders,” the narrator thinks, “simple pieces with titles like, My Border Memories, My Memory of Borders, All the Borders I’ve Gone Through.”
“Must I give them everything?” the narrator asks.
My own voice, my own story, stutters and falters in its way. All this time I’ve spent shifting and shaping myself into an entity that can function here, and now my memories too need to be molded into something easy to digest?… What could a story like that accomplish?
This is the question that all writers tackling the Syrian war and refugee crisis must face. And yet balanced against it is the need to not let the world forget, to not let what happened pass.
Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, has reestablished his control over most of the country he destroyed. Other Arab countries have reopened diplomatic and commercial channels with his regime. In Lebanon and Jordan, Syrian refugees are being pressured and harassed into returning home, despite the fact that, according to Human Rights Watch, repatriated Syrians face “persecution and abuses, such as arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, torture, extra-judicial killings, kidnappings, and widespread bribery and extortion, at the hands of the Syrian security agencies and government-affiliated militias.” The enormity of the catastrophe that has struck Syria and of the impunity of the Assad regime is mind-numbing. It defies words, yet demands them.
The protagonist of Samar Yazbek’s Planet of Clay is also a young woman who is mute, although in her case it is a condition she was born with, not a choice. Yazbek is a Syrian novelist, journalist, and dissident. She has written two firsthand accounts of the early years of the Syrian uprising, at great personal peril. Now she has turned back to fiction. Yazbek tells the harrowing story of Rima, a young woman who is displaced from her home in Damascus into a rebel-held zone from which she is unable to flee. Rima is a naif, a girl who is considered “crazy” by most but who observes the world around her with great sensitivity. She sees that world as a vivid story book inspired by her own favorites: The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, the classic collection of fables known in Arabic as Kalila wa Dimna.
Rima also experiences an irrepressible urge to walk (the novel’s original title in Arabic was “The Walker”). “My brain is in my feet,” Rima tells us, but her urge to roam is considered unacceptable and dangerous, so throughout the story she is kept tethered, with a rope tied to her wrist, by people who love and are trying to protect her. They all fail.
Rima observes her surroundings with interest and candor, trying to make sense of situations that are in fact senselessly cruel. On a routine trip across town, she and her mother witness a scene at a checkpoint:
The woman was kneeling at the feet of two of the men and screaming, and the other two were removing the cotton jacket of a young man nearby and covering his face with it. His body was showing, all the way down to his stomach. One of them hit him with the rifle butt, and do you know what? It was the first time I had seen something like that, and I didn’t look away, and neither did my mother. We were staring, and so was everyone else. We watched in silence as the skinny young man who had fallen to the ground turned into a ball under the feet of the two men.
The young man is stuffed into a car trunk. At the next checkpoint, another mêlée ensues, and Rima’s mother is accidentally shot and killed. Rima wakes up in a hospital where the wounded are handcuffed to their beds. In the room next door, injured men are being beaten. A nurse tells the women patients that this is the punishment they deserve for their treason. “I looked around me and found it odd that someone would say those words. What did they mean?” Rima wonders. A girl with a shaved head and wide eyes spends a night in the same bed with her: “She curled up until she was almost a ball and she said to me, I think I’m going to die.”
Rima’s brother finds her and smuggles them both into Ghouta, which for much of the war was a rebel stronghold under government siege:
The place was close to our house. My mother and I used to hear the roaring of the planes and the thunder of the bombs, and I used to think it was the rumbling of thunderstorms. Last summer, I learned the sounds were bombs, and my mother said to me that there was a war, and my brother said it wasn’t a war, and as usual I didn’t understand why they fought all the time. Now I understand. Here people are dying, and there they hear the sounds that people die from.
Rima’s story pours out of her, full of images and colors, digressions and explanations and memories, apologies and attempts to get back on track. She mistakes an airplane coming to drop bombs for “a distant star.” After a chemical attack in which “the planes and the sky rained smells,” she lies among a mass of bodies, “strange lumps [that] seemed like watercolours.” She says that “hunger is like a triangle. As for fear, it builds traps for you in your body, and becomes part of your organs in your belly; and it is the shape of a circle, with no beginning and no end.” Despite all this, Rima has moments of happiness, “some of the happiest days I have ever lived.” She teaches the children at a safe house to draw and falls in love with a fighter named Hassan.
Yet her world keeps being blasted apart and coming back together smaller and darker, until she is alone in a cellar, with no food or water, tied to the bar of a window, writing down her unspeakable story for an unknown reader. She used to have “a dream that they would let me walk and walk until I passed out. I just wanted to try it, so I would know where my feet would lead me.”
In the figure of Rima, Yazbek has created a stand-in for all those who are too vulnerable or unlucky even to have a chance at escape. (Rima’s gender is important here; because leaving one’s country can be such a dangerous and demanding venture, most migrants are young men.) Rima is a victim who doesn’t know it, who doesn’t realize how impossible her dream of moving freely through the world has always been.
“Even when we have a homeland, we travel, afraid, cold, in love, and searching. We travel because travel is part of our instinct for life,” writes Ramy Al-Asheq, a Palestinian-Syrian poet who does not have a homeland anymore. His slim book Ever Since I Did Not Die is neither poetry nor prose. In his introduction he writes, “I gathered these texts like someone collecting body parts. Here are the pieces of my body, haphazardly brought together in a paper bag.”
Al-Asheq grew up in Yarmouk, a neighborhood of Damascus that began in 1957 as a camp for Palestinian refugees and was eventually home to over 160,000 of them. During the war Yarmouk was the scene of intense fighting between Syrian and Palestinian militias and the Syrian army. In 2015 ISIS took over the area; government forces only retook it in 2018. For years the neighborhood was besieged, leading most of its residents to flee and those who remained to be starved, bombed, and killed.
“The sky did not stop performing the role of a murderer,” Al-Asheq writes in one of his short texts.
Earth fell in love with injustice. The river is a pre-confession that water can move. The walls are stones erected despite wanting to break their will. Glass is the attempt of a wall to reveal a secret. When blood speaks, everything goes silent.
Al-Asheq was imprisoned by the Assad regime in 2011. He fled to Jordan, where he was also jailed, then escaped and spent two years living under an assumed identity. He won a literary fellowship that allowed him to travel to Germany in 2014. Today he lives in Berlin.
In the text that gives the book its title, he writes, “Ever since I did not die, I started to taste beauty…. Ever since I did not die, I have lost my identity.” He recounts the happenstance that saved his life:
There’s a mistake in the calculation of gravity, wind speeds and weight of stones. There’s another mistake in the sniper’s lens, a third in the targeting of a bomb, a fourth in a city where a poet is not appropriately welcomed, a fifth in the walls of a prison the size of my head I’m trying to escape, a sixth in an unintended resemblance to my friend that allowed me to use his passport, a seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth. They led me to her bed along with the other mistakes that brought us together.
His is the voice of a survivor who knows he didn’t deserve to live more than anyone else, and who for that reason insists, passionately and with flashes of dark humor, on the value of life and love, of a naked humanity beyond any national affiliation. He rejects ideologies, identities, pieties, and the very idea of heroism. Over a heroic death, he chooses life and fear, “the most honest feeling I’ve known and a sincere friend.”
He also tries to lay to rest the traditional refugee narrative: a neat arc of suffering, survival, and salvation. For Al-Asheq and many others, living in Berlin is not a happy ending, or an ending at all. He is still trying to come to grips with his past without turning it into a sob story for Western consumption.
Another book that defies expectations, managing the rare feat of approaching the experience of refugees with tenderness, whimsy, and humor, is Rabih Alameddine’s The Wrong End of the Telescope. Alameddine is a Lebanese-American writer who emigrated to California as a teenager. He has written half a dozen novels, inventive, political, multilayered works whose topics range from the AIDS epidemic—Alameddine is gay—to the Lebanese civil war.
The narrator of The Wrong End of the Telescope, Mina, is a Lebanese-American trans woman and doctor who travels to Lesbos sometime in 2015. Alameddine has said that he had to invent the character of Mina because he could not figure out how to tell the story otherwise. Yet the author lurks in the pages of the book; Mina keeps bumping into and addressing his alter ego, a writer who has come to the island but is hopelessly overwhelmed by what he sees. (The real Alameddine spent time visiting Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, listening to and collecting stories there.) At one point, she asks the writer:
Did you believe that writing about the experience would help you understand what happened? You still cling to romantic notions about writing, that you’ll be able to figure things out, that you will understand life, as if life is understandable, as if art is understandable. When has writing explained anything to you? Writing does not force coherence onto a discordant narrative.
Instead of trying to force coherence, Alameddine offers a book that finds its meaning gradually, seemingly by chance. In short, digressive chapters—with playful titles such as “We Could All Use a Little Break,” “Doctors in Drag,” “How to Rob an Armenian Jewelry Store”—he shares stories about Mina’s time on the island, the people she encounters there, and the memories of her unhappy childhood, emigration, past lovers, and transformations.
The writing is full of silly jokes, flights of fancy, and memorable images. In an off-season hotel “the few chairs left outside looked miserable without their cushions; a few clung to each other, entwined, hugging and cuddling till spring.” A man “wrung his right hand with his left as if squeezing water from a cloth.” A girl “talked with her head down, her sand-colored straight hair covering most of her face, like a poppy preparing to fold her petals as evening descended—nyctinasty in human form.”
The volunteers on Lesbos are by turns generous, high-minded, insecure, and self-absorbed; they gossip and tease and sleep with each other. They wait awkwardly on the island’s beaches, worrying that there is not enough for them to do. They look askance at the students who are there for a few weeks over their Christmas break, taking selfies with boats and children in the background.
Alameddine dares to show Syrian refugees who are cranky, happy, resigned, dishonest, in love. A shivering grandmother turns out to be a formidable scold, berating her son, turning up her nose at the food offered by volunteers, and stealing a cell phone. A band of children have learned how to score chocolate bars and cookies all day long as they roam the camp, looking forward with touching confidence to their future. Near one of the refugee camps on the island, Mina observes this scene:
Newly arrived families trudged uphill carrying their belongings, pulling rolling suitcases, their voices submerged in the hullabaloo of conversations among the volunteers, the tap-tap of hard soles on harder concrete, the bustle of movement. A Syrian family ascended toward us, mother, father, three kids, the eldest a boy of perhaps twelve, his face a picture of glacial determination. A large group of young volunteers in neon-yellow vests walked next to them, boisterous and unselfconscious. One of them, a blond in her early twenties, screamed. Everyone stopped. She screamed again, pointing at the sky. “Oh my God, oh my God.” She screamed once more before she was able to form an actual sentence. “Look, it’s a rainbow,” she yelled…. As the Syrian family reached us, I was able to hear what they were talking about.
“She’s excited because she saw a rainbow,” the father said.
The mother shook her head. The twelve-year-old boy said in a quiet voice, not realizing that I spoke his language: “She should shove that rainbow up her ass.”
The father snickered. The mother smacked the back of his head, not violently, for they were both carrying heavy loads.
Alameddine often finds humor in scenes like this, which take place in English and Arabic simultaneously, and in which people talk past one another or behind one another’s backs.
He also circles around and around the idea of transitioning, in its largest sense. We meet people who cross many different kinds of boundaries and borders, who aren’t what they seem or what we expect, who leave everything behind because they want or need to or are forced to, who have identities thrust upon them or who choose to reinvent themselves. What these stories add up to is a portrayal of the refugee experience, in all its vulnerability and variety, its painful in-betweenness. It is an experience that is more universal than those of us who observe refugees from the supposed safety of our fixed selves, fascinated or repelled or commiserating, might imagine; and that can be honored simply by being told.
That’s not to say that Alameddine offers false hope. He makes it clear that what refugees face is senseless and horribly unfair. Of her time on the Greek island, Mina tells us:
We were in Moria before it morphed into a callous prison camp, before the riots and arson, before the refugees had to be forcibly returned to Turkey, returned to whatever home the authorities deemed was theirs….
Lesbos was a somewhat humane mess when we were there. Shortly thereafter it became an inhumane one.
And yet what stays with one is the humanness. This is a record of not just suffering and indifference but strength and kindness, which is both touching and never enough, because in our century refugee “crises” have become the norm. As a result of climate change, as many as 200 million people may be driven from their homes by 2050. The war in Ukraine has destabilized the international wheat markets, and most countries in the Middle East and North Africa depend on wheat imports and subsidized bread; instability, repression, and more people ready to take any risk for a better life are to be expected. Yet increasingly right-leaning Western governments seem prepared to treat those who aren’t “people like us” with ever greater harshness and arbitrariness.
When Mina and her other volunteer friends visit the port of the city of Mytilene, they find a crowd of mostly Afghan teenage boys who don’t have any money left to buy a ticket for the ferry to Athens. The boys don’t know how they will reach the relatives and acquaintances they have in various European cities. Yet they are friendly, high-spirited, eager to talk, “as noisy as starlings chattering as they settled at sundown.” One shows Mina and her friends a YouTube video of himself singing. All lie about their age. The adults end up buying tickets for the entire group. Then “we watched them run across the street, heading back into the port. Beyond the gate stood at least a dozen boys looking at us, and behind them more and more boys, and more, ad infinitum.”