‘He Didn’t Want to Lie in a Grave That Couldn’t Be Visited’
When my father died last April in Baltimore, he had finally given up the desire to be buried next to his parents in a cemetery in Damascus, Syria. That he had time to ponder where to be buried was the burden of knowing for several years that he was dying. It was also the luxury, especially for a Syrian, of still having some choice in the matter.
It is vulgar to even mention just one Syrian’s death and unfulfilled desires, when dying has become the Syrian way of life and unfulfilled desires have become life’s promise to Syrians. None have been shielded. Even the victors have lost.
As Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, aided by his Russian allies, nears his brutal if pyrrhic recapture of the entire country by closing in on Idlib, there is yet a new way of Syrian death. In the past month, the bitter chill of winter has killed displaced Syrian children in the buffer zone by the Turkish border. Somehow the certainty that a Syrian will die today, tomorrow and the day after has perhaps been the permission to look away.
My father’s diagnosis came in the spring of 2013 — before the chemical attacks, before Russian military involvement, before the siege and starvation of entire towns. Hope for Syria’s future didn’t yet seem foolish. His prognosis was so bleak that we didn’t expect Syria’s situation to change much in the time he had left. Burial there didn’t yet seem foolish.
But then, he outlived his prognosis — at first, by months, then a year, then years. As his illness metastasized, so did Syria. Mr. Assad’s government escalated its brutality. Syrians were displaced in the millions both inside and outside the country’s borders, and nightmares like the Islamic State came true.
My father’s calculations of where to be laid to rest were in constant revision, accounting for Syria’s changing (mis) fortunes. His desire for more time also began to include a hope that he might live long enough to die at a moment when his death could be followed with a burial in his native soil.
Long before Syria’s current catastrophe, my father was constantly downsizing his dreams of Syria. He left his country a year before Hafez al-Assad carried out the coup that ushered in the current regime, which has now been in power for nearly 50 years.
My father’s plan, though modified, remained to complete his medical training in the United States and move back to Syria to open a state-of-the-art clinic and teach. In his early years in America, he worked by day in Baltimore and by night moonlighted 100 miles away in rural Maryland, saving money to buy expensive surgical equipment.
Then the Assad regime survived, consolidating its power through vicious crackdowns. My father was close to securing a position in Aleppo when he was told he would have to join the Ba’ath Party, the only political party in Syria, if he wanted the job.
The new regime set out to engineer a population as submissive as possible and delegitimize any opposition as either religiously fanatic, foreign-funded, Zionist-backed or an imperialistic endeavor. No political parties, no free press and no independent civil society initiatives were allowed. An extensive internal security apparatus spied on and terrorized everyone. My mother, who had been in Syria for the early years of the Assad regime, eventually vetoed any idea of return.
So my father waited for something to give. When it didn’t, he planned to split his time between the United States and Syria once he would semi-retire and volunteer as a doctor if nothing else. That was at the end of 2010, right at the start of the so-called Arab Spring, when I instead was the one to move to Damascus.
In 2011, after Mr. Assad responded to peaceful protests with gunfire, arrests and torture, my father would visit me there and ask me, with a note of desperation, what I thought would happen. I would reassure him that the future had finally arrived in Syria, that the country’s long stagnation, its failure to harness the talents of its people and its existence merely to enrich a single family and its cronies was coming to an end. That optimism and naïveté do seem so quaint now. It didn’t go that way.
Diseases do metastasize and spawn new symptoms, but there is a reason medical vocabulary comprises both, cause and effect, and why curing the disease rids the body of the symptoms but curing the symptoms leaves the disease to fester. Similarly the audacious hopes and ambitions of Syrians for a new Syria did sprout tumors and mutations.
During the initial protests in 2011, when Syrians asked the regime to curb its wanton corruption and cronyism, it responded with bullets. Such state violence scared many people back into submission, especially as it became clear the international community was not interested in protecting them. And it led many other Syrians, not surprisingly, to pick up arms.
Concurrently, Mr. Assad released criminals from his prisons who were likely to embrace violence against his regime, while it targeted civil society activists and regular Syrians with mass arrests and forced disappearances. Nonviolence predictably gave way to violence. Al Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic State sought to replace the violent rule of Mr. Assad with their own tyranny.
Foreign fighters (and their brides) came from all over the world to force a dystopia on Syrians. Syrians who tried to fight the dictatorship militarily became beholden to fickle benefactors, who conditioned their support on Syrian fighters adopting their visions of what Syria should be.
The Syrian government bet on and abetted such outcomes. The civilized frown when a government shoots unarmed protesters. But Mr. Assad knew that the moral murkiness of an armed uprising, combined with a ready-made “war on terror” discourse that flattens nuance, delegitimizes dissent, dehumanizes people and taps into a global psyche that so fears violence committed by Islamists that all sense of proportionality and history is lost, would provide much desired cover to its brutality.
The regime wanted both domestic audiences and the international community to take its side, to stick with the clean-shaven, designer-suited devil it already knew well. Or at the very least, to look away. The world obliged. The global conscience was eased by the supporters of Mr. Assad, weary journalists and observers reminding anyone — especially lecturing Syrians — that the opposition had been at best incompetent and at worst really bad. As if the responsibilities of objectivity stop at describing the trees and need not account for the forest.
By the time my father’s illness was diagnosed, he had stage-four metastatic cancer. It had started in one organ and had already spread to two others. By the time he died, it was everywhere but the originating organ. Yet in medical terms, his cause of death was the original cancer. Under a microscope, the pathologist sees the tissue of the initially infiltrated organ — whether it was the lung or breast or liver — in all the other places it is metastasized.
Syria is not a tragedy of unknowable causes or equitable blame. It is intellectually dishonest to say so. It is pathologically untrue.
After my father outlived his prognosis and the West its patience, and transporting a body to Damascus began to seem like folly, he thought about going to Syria while still alive, to die there. But with no clarity on when that day would be, he chose not to be separated from us, a family that included his grandchildren. So again he asked that when the end did come we bury him back in Syria, next to his parents who he had spent a lifetime away from, in the cemetery beside the Chapel of St. Paul in Damascus.
Syria continued to collapse, never quite bottoming out. In what would be his last year, my father renounced the desire completely. He didn’t want to lie in a grave that couldn’t be visited. Looking at me with blame and admiration, he said: “You won’t be able to come. And there, who is left to visit me?” That mix of blame and admiration I imagine is familiar to other Syrians who also believed in possibility and hope when it all began, who never fathomed what Mr. Assad and his military would unleash on a place we all supposedly loved, rather than relinquish even a modicum of power.
Many such people are wanted by the regime. They were writers or attended protests or gathered humanitarian supplies for Syrians in need or simply said something on social media. Now they find themselves unable to return to their country and separated from their loved ones, including those they would want to call on at their graves. Even as our relatives admire the courage to have acted or just hoped, spoken or unspoken, the question hangs between us: Was the personal cost worth it?
It is easier to look at Syria’s unraveling and blame those who dreamed about a better future, who grossly miscalculated what Mr. Assad would do and the world would allow to happen. Confronting the real cause and holding it accountable, for now, seems impossible. Especially when the rest of the world is ready to normalize the regime’s methods and its impunity.
The equipment my father bought in the 1970s for a dream that never came into existence in Syria remains unpacked and unused in its original transportable cases, sitting in the back of a closet in Baltimore. They are brand-new, yet years ago obsolete.
In the early years of the uprising, I attended in Damascus (as an observer) meetings — some held in secret — with Syrians eager to prepare for a new tomorrow. They discussed citizenship and constitutions, thought hard about engendering solidarity across sects, about being inclusive, about building and strengthening civil society.
They were giddy about birthing a new and better Syria. A decade later, those preparations and ideas remain untested and unused. (Except in some pockets where self-rule briefly flourished before the regime or the extremists put an end to that.)
It is not so unpredictable that those who wanted to see that inclusive, democratic Syria would be drowned out by the elements who chose violence. It was the latter who had meaningful support from the United States, Turkey and the Gulf States in terms of money, arms, fighters and military strategists.
It was also not unforeseeable that regular Syrians would fail to defeat a dictatorship that had the military backing of two powerful states — Iran and Russia — and was willing to decimate the country to maintain power.
No great ideas advocating for meaningful citizenship and rights for all peoples in a democratic state with clean institutions can defeat that kind of brute militaristic power — at least not in the short term.
The almost complete territorial victory of Mr. Assad is not a statement on the worth, strength or ultimate potential of these ideas to triumph. These ideas should never be obsolete. But the tragedy in Syria surely is a statement on the commitment of the world to them.
A tenuous, fragile deal between Turkey and Russia has given a pause to the Syrian regime’s military offensive in the northwestern province of Idlib, where three million people face an uncertain fate. For several years, Mr. Assad’s regime has been corralling in Idlib the Syrians who object to its rule, who have nowhere else to go after multiple displacements and whom it suspects will not submit to its rule after what they have suffered. A long expected final push against Idlib could come anytime.
For all the global dismay at the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding there, the sigh of relief from the world is quite audible. This exhausting and supposedly difficult-to-understand conflict seems close to being finally over. Soon money will be made across many countries as the regime turns to reconstruction — which it will use to consolidate its gains, ensuring it remains in power.
In the end, my father was not laid to rest in his homeland. But Syria did become a graveyard, where an aspirational vision of the world and of who we are and what we will tolerate now lies. We should bury there as well any complacency that we are immune today, tomorrow or the day after to the consequences of our failures.