written by: Khaled Khalifa
When we were kids, we used to cross the distance between our family home in the village
of Maryamin and the ruins of the village of Brad on the back of mules in less than 15
minutes. Nothing was strange for us in Brad: ruins of ancient sites surrounded us
everywhere. The land where we were born did not care that much about the stones upon
which words were incised in old languages, many of which were dead languages anyway.
These stones used to block the peasants’ plows while they were tilling their fields. It often
ended up becoming troughs for animals to drink or doors for chicken’s coops. This was
not exactly negligence, but these stones were part of our lives, lying all around us. We did
not understand their importance because they were so many of them.
When I grew up, I began to understand that I was born in a land in whose depths my
ancestors live, with their spirits still hovering around me and sharing my language and my
perception of things. These ancestors did not sever their connection to us despite the
thousands of years that separate us from them. They wander in the air of my town and
village and my grandparents’ house. In my last visit to the village of Brad and the other
villages around it, which we today call the Dead Cities as an indication that we are unable
to imbue it with life again, I noticed that everything was as it always was: the solid stone
walls, the capitols of columns, the carved friezes, the signs, the roofs, the wine presses and
the sacred tombs. Everything was where it always was, but it was dead nonetheless. In
this last visit, I walked for more than 10 kilometers then I stopped. This land extends
infinitely. I though to myself that this is another life nearby, a life that lives underground.
All it needs from us to find it is to listen. One thing that I learned well since that visit is to
listen carefully to those ancestors.
An author like me cannot survive if the flow of the imaginary that has engulfed his life and
made him always think of the remains that his ancestors have left behind dried up. I
cannot stand in front of the temple of the Sun God from Homs or the hostel for the
pilgrims on the road to Antioch without wondering what happened? And why it did
Of course we cannot reduce Syria to either a grand humanistic idea or a small-size country.
Who dares do that? We also cannot stand proudly in this awful moment for an entire
people who considers whatever amazes others to be only its normal life, which does not
need to be moving. But this same people, when it finds itself defeated (and it was defeated
long time ago anyway), finds nothing other than the images of its forebears and history to
brandish in the face of the world. But what does it mean to be the heir to the first alphabet
in the history of the world and illiteracy among your people is increasing by the hour?
What does it mean to be the owner of the land that has offered the world innumerable
cultural treasures? And what does it mean to be the bearer of this long and heavy history?
Does history become a burden that needs to be thrown away so that we can advance
forward toward a contemporary life that respects knowledge? Will this people become a
part of the contemporary world? Or has fate dictated that the world should be divided into
people that possess great history and culture but have to remain defeated and live in the
past and people that have no history but are forcefully creating their present?
Let me tell you this story briefly: One day in 2006 I thought that I should take a trip from the house of my sufi grandmother in my village Maryamin to my place in Damascus. My friend, the wonderful photographer Nadim Ado came along. The itinerary was to start from the house of my grandmother to walk in the alleyways of Maryamin to get to Afrin then A‘zaz and then to Aleppo. Fromthere we were to cover the Syrian north. I crossed every village in this region with a group of cinematographers, most of whom were friends. We reached Derik then we went down
to Hasaka and from there to Deir al-Zor where we stopped after a month traveling and
filming for lack of funds. We were unable to continue our trip to Tell Tamr and then Deir
al-Zor and Tadmor (Palmyra) then Homs and from there to the Coastal Mountains then
Yabrud and the Qalamoun Mountains. From there the plan was to go to the Hawran and
Dar‘a and al-Sweida to get back to my home in Damascus.
I have to confess though that midway in our Syrian journey I felt truly satiated. We
recorded dozens of interviews with popular musicians who lived in the areas we visited in
various languages: Arabic, Syriac, and Kurdish. We filmed tens of dances and dabkes and
documented hundreds of costumes and sites and houses. People were very generous with
me wherever I went. I also did not hesitate from using my contacts among the artists and
authors of these areas to help me open closed doors. Consequently, I now have at my
home what I consider a treasure trove of what I would term popular art in addition to all
sorts of strange stories on cities and sites. But what was more important to me was my
dream, which came back to life. I planned with my friends to execute the dream. We will
one day have a extensive school and research center on Syriac and Kurdish music in the
city of Qamishli. We will have a fashion museum in Kobani. In Afrin we will restore the
open amphitheater of Nabi Houri, arranged like all Roman amphitheaters. In Deir al-Zor
we will have a center for Bedouin culture and for the great culture and music of the
I dreamed of something for every place we visited. I only dreamed because I can do
nothing but dream. But I still remember that I was saddened after that journey because I
realized that we have neglected that wonderful heritage, all that real life that lies next to us,
all that music. All I was left with were the stories, and one of them helped me write my
new novel, which was completed a few days ago and which will be titled, “no one prayed
for their souls.” I was feeling despondent and let down, like any other Syrian. I thought
that all my life I have not heard a single Kurdish or Syriac or Aramaic song played on the
Syrian TV. Syrians did not know their land. Their real and diverse Syria had to be
concealed, and during half a century the regime accomplished the task very efficiently.
But after the revolution, the giant that is Syria began to rumble again. And I think it will
be almost impossible to bury it again.
If anything will save Syria, it would be without doubt its astonishingly diverse culture. It
is impossible to go for more than 50 kilometers in any direction in Syria and not to
encounter a marvelous and different culture that goes back thousands of years. We live
with our forebears until this moment. But we have to work hard and systematically to
record and revive our past lives without any boasting. Bragging as I said is already half a
defeat. Our past is an essential part of our present. We still borrow Syriac words in our
spoken language today. We still dance the same way the dancers of our ancient temples
danced. We still unconsciously live with our forebears: I don’t have to give countless
examples on how these forebears still drink our coffee in the morning with us without us
paying attention to them. No doubt that your efforts as a working group, which I hope
will be methodical, will offer us a first attempt to not only uncover our forebears but to
also shed on them the light that they deserve. We need that to realize that we are not
rootless and that we are not a field of experimentation for other cultures. We need to just
feel that we are the children of this generous land and that we are humane and deserve to
be part of humanity.