Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa writes on th turmoil of being Syrian today

Khaled Khalifa

Khaled Khaifa:

The Refugee – Living in a Void


My sister, whom I haven’t seen for more than two years, told me she was going to cross the sea in a rubber dinghy. She hung up and didn’t want to hear what I thought. She just said something profound and sentimental and entrusted her three children to my care in the event that she drowns. A few minutes later I tried to call the unfamiliar Turkish number but the phone had been turned off. Hundreds of images from our childhood flooded my memory. It’s not easy to say goodbye to half a century of your life and wait for someone you love to drown. My fingers and toes felt cold and my head empty, and I didn’t feel able to argue anyway. What can one offer a woman who has lost her home and everything she owns and doesn’t want to lose her children, so she has carried them off into exile in Turkish towns in search of a safe haven? The situation in Turkey has not been easy for a woman like her. She looks like millions of other Syrian women and does not have any special skills. All that’s left is the hope of asylum, even if it requires crossing the sea in a rubber dinghy. It’s as if she’s trying to tell me something I know already – that the sea is Syrians’ only hope.

Maybe my sister was lucky. She didn’t drown and she found friends to help her in Greece and in the countries she went through. She certainly didn’t talk about her unpleasant experiences with traffickers who fleeced her of what little money she had and who left her destitute in airport waiting rooms. But in the end she finally reached her destination and in Denmark she found a group of friends who gave her a helping hand. Some of her fellow adventurers had drowned in scenes of unimaginable horror. Death may have many forms but the bleakest and blackest of them all is death by drowning, which is a complete denial of everything the human body stands for. The drowned body becomes food for the fishes of the sea and dissolves like salt in a bowl of water.

In the days to come I received similar messages from my younger brother, who had left his home in Aleppo and gone to Mersin, where he left his family and sailed alone on an arduous journey that extended from Greece to Italy and finally to Sweden. There were the same endless calls from friends and close relatives such as my cousins, in which they told me they were about to set sail. I no longer asked for details of the journey or discussed it with them. I wished them a safe trip and asked them to set our minds at ease when they arrived safely. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are thinking along the same lines. In coffee shops in Turkish towns and cities they exchange the telephone numbers of traffickers and information about the best routes. They post this kind of information on Facebook, sometimes even in open forums.

I remember travelling from Damascus to Istanbul through Beirut airport in the summer of 2015, and how I was struck by the profile of the passengers, who almost all conformed to the same types. There was a large group of young people no more than twenty years old and a group of women with only their children. To me they looked like childhood friends or relatives. It was clear from their questions that they were travelling abroad for the first time. After the plane left Damascus airport, they breathed a sigh of relief and started talking aloud about their plans for the future. They were travelling to Istanbul and then boarding another plane to the city closest to the Greek border. Most of these young people were avoiding military service and enjoying the luxury of flying by air for the first time. Their journey seemed to be pre-arranged. I noticed there was a man in his forties who gave them instructions after the plane took off from Damascus bound for Beirut, and in the transit lounge at Beirut airport the same thing happened. The women were receiving the same instructions. I thought of those youngsters, whose only hope now was to set sail across the sea. It wasn’t strange to me, but it was interesting, despite the anguish, that a group of friends should choose to emigrate as a group. I remembered our dreams when we were young and how we promised each other as a group of friends to be eternally faithful and how we planned our lives communally. These young people had decided to live or die together. Their eyes betrayed their fear, but together they managed to be braver. I watched them in their search for support in facing the monster to come.

No Knives in the Kitchens of this City by Khaled KhalifaMost of my friends have left the country and are now refugees. All I have left to do is look for the names of the missing and the drowned and track the new addresses of my friends. Whenever a boat sinks I find myself spinning like a madman and looking for any information, for lists of the drowned and any information about them – which towns or villages they were from, their family names, pictures of them. Again in 2015 I went through the same hysterical search for the faces of detained friends among the ‘Quaiser’ photographs of the dead leaked from the regime’s prisons, known after the codename of the photographer. I examined the absent faces, in case I might find among them any of the dozens of missing friends about whom we know nothing – no news, no messages passed on by word of mouth. No one has seen them or has any information about them. I examined the pictures and when I thought I recognised someone I tried to remember other details of the person – a mole on the cheek or a scar on the knee. But it was also pointless. Looking for drowned or dead people and waiting for detainees to return is an act of absurdity matched only by the act of living in towns that are awaiting their turn to be destroyed.

The throngs of people leaving continued, so much so that in 2013 and 2014 we held communal farewell parties for our friends who were departing for the unknown. We no longer debated the options or offered them our experience of cities we knew. Leaving the country became an epidemic that swept our lives. Places began to empty out of their usual customers. Everything was changing very rapidly. The streets of the city were deserted, the windows were dark and telephones didn’t answer. Everything suggested imminent disaster. Everyone sensed it. I started to suffer from a profound sense that I was losing my friends, but it was no use. Along with those left inside the country I was busy staying alive. We were no longer thinking about who would leave. The question had changed to ‘When are you going to leave?’ or ‘Are you still here?’ For the first time we had a taste of mass dispersion.

At first I didn’t believe they wouldn’t all come back. I thought their departure would be temporary. But after all these years I’ve arranged my life around their absence. The gap they left has been filled by another gap. I no longer think about the new way they look. People like me, who live with characters they invent on paper and who celebrate imagination, cannot feel impotent. So I’ve become more attached to my life here and started to worry about being infected by the plague of displacement that has proliferated with the despair I see in people’s faces every morning. I ask myself whether I would stay here if my house was destroyed. I don’t have an answer but recently I've begun to come to terms with the idea. Yes, I would remain, but why? I don’t know the answer, or I’m embarrassed by the knowledge that I want to cling to the place that has a smell I know well. In the end these are the delusions of a solitary writer, who no longer has anything to lose after observing at length what Syrians have lost by trying to win back their country and then losing it all. It’s as if the price for Syrians recovering their freedom and dignity includes every stone, every tree and every nook and cranny, so Syrians can’t in fact win back their country from the clutches of the dictatorship in whose shadow they have lived for fifty years. In the meantime they have invented endless ways to resist that dictatorship and coexist with its decay, at the very least by holding their tongues and waiting, defending a civic culture that is thousands of years old.

In Praise of Hatred by Khaled KhalifaIn recent years I have received many invitations, travelled across the world, and met Syrians who emigrated years ago. I have observed their lives and concluded that refugees lose their identity but do not acquire a new one. Abandoning a small set of habits that constitute personal contentment would be intolerable to me. I’m thinking of my morning coffee at home or coffee with my friends before going to work, chatting, of the city’s smells, dinners, the smell of rain in autumn. My refugee friends celebrated all these things but then they abandoned them. And in recent months our phones calls and our messages by Facebook and email have become less frequent. The fall of the first rain in Damascus is no longer the occasion for a festival of nostalgia in which hundreds of thousands of refugees across the world take part. Our moments together are now few and far between, and we haven’t spoken much about the problems of assimilating into an alien culture, about the idea of abandoning one’s original identity. I understand their frustrations and the extent of the difficulties they face, but at the same I understand their concern for us – we who have chosen to stay here where war lies in wait for us at every corner.

I have not abandoned emotions, and I don’t want to speak from a sociological perspective, because if you research the subject of Syrian refugees you come up with something that distinguishes them from other refugees, with the multiplicity of the refugees’ cultures and classes meaning it would take hundreds of pages to explain. Here I would like to convey the sense that the refugees we in Syria have lost are the world’s gain, but I am not certain of that. Abandoning one’s identity is like ripping a heart out of a body. I think of the families of friends who have migrated en masse. For example, I received a phone call from the father of a refugee friend, a man more than seventy years old, who spoke to me in tears. He just wanted to speak to someone who understood his language, who understood the secrets of the language, who would listen to a joke in his version of colloquial Syrian and who would have a hearty laugh with him. A hearty laugh – that’s a metaphor for the way people like to live, and refugees in general are not that lucky, especially in their first years in exile. But then the phones stopped ringing. Everyone had dropped into the black hole of exile. At first there were hundreds of them, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and now millions of refugees. I’m horrified by some of the pictures coming from countries that don’t welcome the refugees, by pictures of fascists threatening the refugees, by the posters put up in some Lebanese towns imposing a curfew on Syrians after six o’clock in the evening and by posters that openly insult refugees. I’m horrified by that Hungarian journalist who kicked a Syrian man carrying a child, running away from a war he did not choose. The same journalist was nevertheless recently awarded a prize. I’m horrified by these pictures when a prize is awarded to someone who kicks my countrymen. I think of those people with whom I claim to be acquainted. I think of their sufferings, but at the same time I’m overwhelmed and I can’t understand what’s happening. I don’t want to surrender to the idea that we will wake up one day to find the city deserted – no people, no houses with lights on, no cars. And if we ask what happened we’ll simply discover that everyone helped to turn us into a society of refugees.

The picture seems murky and incomprehensible to people who haven’t met Syrians before or who don’t know anything about the modern or ancient history of Syria. Over the past hundred years Syrians have taken in large numbers of refugees, displaced people, and people fleeing death. At the beginning of the last century the Syrians took in Armenians, Chechens and Albanians who were fleeing from massacres and wars, and they later received more than half a million Palestinians after the disaster of 1948 and the war of June 1973. The process reached its climax when Syria accepted more than three million displaced Iraqis in 2003 after Baghdad was occupied by the Americans. In the war of 2006 Syrians took in hundreds of thousands of Lebanese and they have not closed their borders to refugees for a single day since the beginning of the 20th century, not to speak of the ancient migrations that have made Syria a country that draws refugees. Many peoples have settled in the country, choosing it as their eternal home.

Throughout the last century Syria was also a place from which people emigrated, but not as refugees. The big migrations in the late 19th century and the early 20th century saw hundreds of thousands of Syrians leave for the United States and the countries of Latin America. These migrants achieved significant successes, and the latest statistics that were circulating in 2006 spoke of 20 million people of Syrian origin in the diaspora, most of them in Argentina and Brazil. The circumstances that forced these migrants to leave their country were completely different from those of today’s refugees, who will end up numbering more than seven million people. Most of them live in camps in Jordan and Lebanon in conditions of unimaginable misery and deprivation. Even if the refugees in the Turkish camps seem to be better off, the magnitude of the problems they face cannot be ignored, especially when it comes to children’s schooling, since a whole generation of Syrians will be deprived of education. The situation is better for the lucky ones whose boats have not sunk and who have managed to reach countries in Europe that are sympathetic towards refugees, such as Germany and France. But in general it’s impossible to imagine how bad conditions are for the great mass of refugees, such as those who live in the Zaatari camp in Jordan, and how deprived they are of their most basic human rights. On top of that there is the constant threat that the borders will be closed in the face of people fleeing the continuing war.

But one must also remember that for the past fifty years Syria has been a country that expels its own citizens. For the past fifty years violent repression by the regime and its denial of the most basic human rights have turned Syria under President Hafez al-Assad and his son into a kingdom of fear and dread, causing a constant outflow of talented Syrians. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians live in the Gulf states and millions of Syrians are acquiring their higher education in Europe and America and will live out their lives there. These statistics are horrifying for a small country such as Syria, which measures 185,000 square kilometres and had 24 million inhabitants in 2011. Some people say there are ten thousand Syrian doctors in France alone, and they talk about the same number in the United States and other countries. The regime has not only driven these talented people into exile: it has even pursued them in their places of refuge and prevented them from assembling. It has planted suspicion between them, threatened them through their family members still living in Syria and deprived them of the chance to visit their mother country, thwarting the constant efforts of Syrians to find out about each other, as well as their attempts to form pressure groups in the countries in which they live. Emigrant and exiled Syrians have always seemed to be in a sorry state compared to other peoples who have been through the same experience – but have held together, supported each other and helped to propagate their original culture. The experience of Argentines who fled their country in the 1970s, for example, can be compared with that of the Syrians to understand just how difficult their exile has been.

The thing that Syrians still cannot understand is how they have been transformed from a people that received refugees into refugees themselves, who suffer bitterly wherever they go. Borders are closed in their faces. Their clothing, their hearts and the lines on their hands are examined in detail. Anyone who watches this horrific ritual will see how the world, after abandoning the Syrians and even allowing them to be slaughtered, murdered and drowned, will suddenly find cause for sympathy in a single photograph – such as the picture of young Elan dead on the beach. The picture shook the world for days but was then filed away in the same way as the search for the reasons for the Syrian tragedy and for ways to bring it to an end. A similar picture will be found from time to time, through which the world can offer some sympathy to people living under bombing by the planes of the Russian and Syrian air forces. This has been going on for five years, without the world thinking seriously about how to stop this constant bloodshed. Syria is the victim of a public execution, and turning a whole people into refugees seems to be the hidden reason for not stopping this war, or rather for supporting its continuation through the creation of ready enemies in order to convince large segments of the public in Europe, America and other parts of the world that it is difficult to solve the issue. The formation of Islamic State/Daesh is only one horrible piece of evidence that the world has abandoned its moral duty to support peoples in their struggle for peace and democracy.

Although European culture and modernity are based on asking questions as a central principle, questioning is in this case now forbidden. No one is asking who created a fascistic, dreadful and criminal organisation such as Daesh, who has financed it, who enabled it to occupy whole cities and who turned a blind eye to the swarms of Daesh fighters who crossed the desert between the Syrian city of Raqqa and the Iraqi city of Mosul. This organisation’s vehicles move in a disciplined manner and in long convoys, behaving like a proper state with a sovereignty that the world respects. The fact that these questions are not seriously posed today will destroy all the values of civilisation that humanity has defended and paid a heavy price to establish. I mean the values of justice, accountability for war crimes, democracy and the right to self-determination. This is what has happened. Mankind has abandoned all its values. There is now a terrifying ghoul called Daesh, which people are always talking about destroying and saying how hard it will be. It is one of the reasons why millions of refugees have gone into exile and whole cities have been depopulated. In the very near future the idea of installing new ethnicities, nationalities and sects in place of other sects and ethnicities might become acceptable, or the price to pay for stopping the war and the bloodshed among innocent civilians, while no one speaks about the role of the regime and its allies.

The issue in Syria is not one of refugees but of a whole population that is being turned into either corpses or forced to flee while the world stands silently by. And of the lies circulated by heads of state, especially the Western ones, about the need to protect civilians and not forcing the original inhabitants out of their towns and villages, statements that sound much like the ones always issued to ease the conscience of those who make and promote them, but are ineffective in stopping the war and bringing the criminals to international justice.

Images can’t disappear easily, and it brings me little satisfaction to meet those friends I have lost touch with when I visit the cities where they now live. I remember when I was in Oslo in 2013, and a refugee friend of mine came to the place where we were having a seminar. She couldn’t take it and cried throughout the seminar, and I too couldn’t bear to see her in tears. The seminar came to a halt for some minutes, but it was difficult to explain the emotions that we shared or the bitterness of exile, which means uprooting a person from their place. Many people have not chosen their new lives but have been forced to live them. The majority will live on the social benefits provided by their countries of exile and many will live in order to bring up a new generation, one that is robust and acclimatised to their new life, a generation, however, who do not know the meaning of the old life that their fathers and mothers lived. Two lives, side by side, that will not merge however hard they try. And the story will not end till all the eyewitnesses have died, until the fathers and grandfathers are dead, so the children in refuge can live in peace in their new environment, enjoying their attachment to their acquired identity. But until these witnesses die we have to imagine a rope of hope that will stretch from Berlin and other German, French, Turkish and Scandinavian cities to the towns and villages of all Syria.

My brother has now obtained the right to reunite his family and he doesn’t hide his happiness that the pain of separation will come to an end. He is learning Swedish, which I doubt he will learn since he is almost fifty years old, and my sister is learning Danish and in the best of circumstances she will learn a few dozen phrases that will help her to buy bunches of parsley to make the tabouleh that she makes so well and to explain how to make it to her neighbours, who won’t visit her and won’t ask after her if she dies alone. Her death might cause no stir whereas in our culture the whole of the family would be shamed if they allowed one of its members to die alone.

The rest of my friends are trying by various means to assure us that they are happy in their new places of exile, while those who have stayed here are dropping one by one, family by family, so much so that the idea of an empty city could become a reality within a few years, although I am convinced that refugees lose their identity completely and will not be able to obtain a new identity or forget their old identity. To be a refugee is to live in a void – a life that is painful however hard we try to embellish it.


Khaled Khalifa
Damascus, 26 October 2016


This testimony was written for Berlin Literature Festival project Refugees Worldwide and published here with agreement of the Festival


Banipal 57 – Syria in the Heart will be launched at Waterstones Piccadilly on Tuesday 17 January 2017.
Download an invitation here

To download an invitation to attend the Banipal Book Club on 9 February, which will discuss No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, click here

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Published Date - 13/01/2017