Syrians, Camps, and a New Cosmopolis

by Hamid Dabashi

The last time I checked the UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency website in early April 2013, I read that there are 1,240,849 Syrian refugees in countries surrounding Syria, of which only 980,029 were registered. This number is divided almost 50% to 50% between male and female, the overwhelming majority of both men and women are between the ages of 18 and 59, but as young as newly born 0-4 and as old as 60+. This from the total population of some 20 million plus population, which means over the last two years, one out of every 20 Syrians has left his or her homeland for fear of their life. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent estimates 2.5 million people have been displaced within Syria, according to BBC, more than double of previous estimates, a number that the UN considers conservative.
Why are Syrians fleeing their own homeland and opting for the indignity of refugee life in the neighboring countries, as opposed to the security of their own homes? The answer is now public knowledge.
Beginning in March 2011, Syrians joined the rest of the Arab world in peacefully demanding democratic reform in their homeland. The response of the Bashar Assad’s regime was swift, vicious, and brutal. Demonstrators were shot dead, others were arrested and tortured, or else point blank executed. By May the Syrian army tanks had moved into Deraa, Banyas, Homs and the suburbs of Damascus crushing the protests. They were brutal. But they only exacerbated their troubles. Syrians wanted democratic changes in their homeland. By June 2011 thousands of Syrians had fled to Turkey. By the end of summer some Syrians had decided to organize and pick up arms to defend themselves.
By the fall of 2011, the UN and Arab League had condemned the Syrian regime, while the Syrian opposition was now actively organizing itself – as China, Russia, and Iran came together to save the Syrian regime. On the opposite side, the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia and their Persian Gulf allies came together to arm the uprising, and twist it their own ways, hoping to secure their post-Assad interests. Syria in effect became a battlefield for regional powers to scramble to position themselves in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions.
The Arab revolutions – in full swing in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain – had come to a critical knot in Syria. Syria was vital – for both revolutionary and counter- revolutionary forces. Syrian people, the real owners of their homeland, were caught in between two claims on their home and habitat: the brutality of the ruling regime and the machinations of the counter-revolutionary forces in the regime. They had become the bricks and mortars of history.
By Spring 2012, the UN sent Kofi Annan to act as mediator and sort out a plan to meet the opposition’s demands and Assad’s regime. He failed. By the end of summer the Syrian opposition had gained military grounds, while the regime had lost diplomatic standing in the Arab world and the world at large – while the aggressive militarization of the opposition by the US and its allies progressed apace.
Meanwhile UN appointed the veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as a new UN-Arab League envoy for Syria after resignation of Kofi Annan. By the end of 2012, the US and its regional allies officially recognized the Syrian opposition as the legitimate representative of Syrian people. By April 2013, during the Arab League conference in Doha, Qatar, the Syrian chair was officially given to the opposition representative Moaz al-Khatib – as the carnage of the Syrian civilians continued apace – as the Human Rights Watch charged Syrian regime with war crimes.
By late April 2013, Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque was reported destroyed. Built between the 8th and 13th centuries, the mosque is believed to be the site of John the Baptist’s father. From the ancient through the medieval down to modern history of Syria was now taken a hostage to self-destructive rampage of a thriving and rich urbanity — Syrians the primary victims of their quest for democracy.
Mario Rizzi is an Italian photographer, filmmaker, and video installation artist who is now based in Berlin. For more than a decade he has done some extraordinary work. Born and raised in Italy, Rizzi studied classics and psychology before turning his attention to photography at Ecole de la Photographie, Arles, France and the Slade School of Fine Arts, London, UK.
A quick look at his career shows his deeply caring and vastly cultivated camera work. Rizzi has a soft touch in his videography, his camera imperceptivity attending his subject with minimum of intrusion.
An accomplished, widely exhibited, and respected artist in his field, Rizzi has committed his art to investigating the consequences of globalized neo-liberalism on human life in its simplest and most immediate meanings. He patiently and judiciously attends to the daily lives of people he films and through their stories teaches us otherwise hidden consequences of the grand narratives of our history.
Mario Rizzi’s Al Intithar (Waiting) is the first in a projected trilogy Bayt/House, reflecting on the emergence of a new civic imagination as to how, as he puts it, “the narration of a revolutionary event can be closely entangled with the narration of simple everyday events in the lives of unknown people.” He says: “I worked several times in the Muslim world, mainly in Palestine and in Turkey, exploring the relationship between privacy and civil engagement and considering the notions of border and inequality, particularly in relation to issues of identity and presence.”
The Syrian refugee camp Zaatari lies seven kilometers to the south of the Syrian border inside Jordan. As Mario Rizzi reports at the time of his filming “there are already 45,000 refugees living here, and still more people arrive: 10,000 additional refugees every week. The capacity of the camp is 70.000 people. Many Syrians would like to go home: living conditions in the camp are by no means easy and they are often far away from their husbands and sons, many of whom have stayed behind to fight.” (1) Rizzi opts to personalize the politics of despair: “The film’s protagonist is a widow from Homs whose husband was killed in an attack by the Syrian army. Director Mario Rizzi followed this widow’s life at the camp for seven weeks. Life’s rhythms are dictated by the place, and life here is all about waiting.” (2) As Rizzi’s camera guides us through the camps, we see how the bared life of Syrians on these camps is the state of exception (Agamben) that awaits the future life. Agamben feared that camps revealed the nomos of the modern and that it signaled the rise of totalitarianism not against democracy but in fact through democracy. But here the Arab revolutions on these camps go back to the point zero of their history. What Agamben was theorizing was the condition of the camp as a state of exception, where sovereignty becomes absolute. On the site of these camps, the bared lives of the campers are the naked subjects of the sovereignty. Law has categorically lost its self-transcendence. Agamben takes the camp as that state of exception that does not prove the rule but in fact is the rule. Rizzi’s camera demonstrate and navigates the moment when the state of exception has become the rule, but not sustaining the rule — here that rule is being re-written.
In the same spirit that in his Remnants of Auschwitz (1998), (3) Agamben engages with the issue of the manner in which one can bear witness to the horrors of the camp, Rizzi’s camera becomes the witness that tries to overcome the gap between the abiding truth and the fractured facts.
For Agamben the central figure of Muselmann is what best represents the condition of the bare life, of the living dead, the dead person walking, both bearing witness and being witnessed at one and the same time. Agamben proposes the figure of the Muselmann as the apparition between the human and the inhuman. On the site of the Syrian camps the Agamben’s Muselmann has become a Muslim. The fact and the phenomenon have fused – and the fear of the Muslim – Islamophobe – has met with the fear of the Muselmann on the concentration a camp that is the promise of the future of the Arab and Muslim world – the camp as the building block of the future urbanity.
Syrian camps are the building blocks of their future – these are not death camps – they are life camps, where the children of the future Syria are born and raised, awaiting their return to their homeland. But contrary to Palestinians, these Syrians’ homeland is not occupied by European colonizers.
What is the difference between Zaatari and the Guantanamo Bay? The Guantanamo Bay is the ruin of this empire, the ruins that this empire leaves behind as it goes about trying to conquer a world that is increasingly unconquerable – precisely in the same manner that Sabra and Shatila and other Palestinian refugee camps are the ruins of European colonialism that calls itself Zionism. Zaatari is the camp where the future citizens of the emerging Arab republics, having exhausted their postcolonial promises are born. Zaatari is exactly the opposite of the Guantanamo Bay – it promise rebirth where Guantanamo delivers despair.
In his Al Intithar, Mario Rizzi has captured the historic moment when the new citizens of the new Arab republics are being born. This is a moment of pauses, a momentous pause, when the history of the Arabs is being re-written. It is a world historic moment, a moment no living human being has ever witnessed, lived, or experienced. On the site of the Zaatari camp, the liberation geography of all successive generations is being mapped out. People, Syrians, have left their cities and squares and homes, as the foot soldiers of history, whether they are fighting on the side of Bashar Assad or the side of his nemesis, are sorting out their differences. When the dust of their desperate wars are over, these Syrians will go back to reclaim their homeland, people it with steadfast determination – and no dictator, no fanatic, and a fortiori no colonial machination, can rule these people with despair anymore.
Al Intithar marks the end of the Middle East – and the beginning of a new cosmopolis: The evidently sudden rise of democratic revolutions from Morocco to Syria and from Iran to Yemen – extending far beyond the Arab and Muslim world – has placed a categorical hold on that most pernicious of all colonial inventions: The Middle East. Whether it was first used by the British colonial officers in the mid-Nineteenth century to refer to areas between Arabian Peninsula and India or by the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan to refer to the areas around the Persian Gulf, what we are witnessing unfold right in front of our eyes is the fading out of that colonial geography of damnation and domination into an open-ended geography of liberation. What ever the emerging contours of that geography, the Middle East is no more – for what is happening is the middle, or near, or far, to no East of any colonial officer who once sat in London or Washington DC and cast a long, lasting, and domineering gaze across the Mediterranean. The Egyptian Revolution, triggered by that of Tunisia, and while both have a long way to go to come to any meaningful results, has, already, re-centered the world. The post-American world, in earnest, has started, and the West is no more. Mario Rizzi’s camera in Zaatari camp has captured for the posterity that moment of birth.
To be sure the principal culprits of the old-fashioned Middle East seek to read the unfolding events from their old, tired, clichéd, glossary. The Israelis are at it again, using this occasion, to ask for additional billions of dollars in US security assistance “to help guard from the potential threats that could develop in light of recent changes occurring in the Middle East,” (4) as the Defense Minister Ehud Barak has put it. That is not all they have sought to do. Other delusional Israeli politicians have rushed to their American sponsors demanding that a “a universal code” (5) be established for democracy, as the former Israeli Prime Minister Zipi Livni has put it, in which “a set of core democratic principles” be fixated, among which is “the renunciation of violence and the acceptance of state monopoly over the use of force.” A universal code, no less, demanded by a settler colony that has been like a thorn on the side of the geopolitics of a region that has not seen peace ever since the Jewish state insisted on demanding and exacting an apartheid state on the broken back of Palestinians, as the price for the murderous deeds of Europeans during the Holocaust. If Livni’s own settler colony were to be judged by the universal code she proposes, if she or her clientele in Washington DC were in a position to decide for the rest of the world what universal is, she and her entire cabal would be arrested and put on trial for crimes against humanity at the Hague. But that proposition now fades in the face of a larger and more promising frame of reference when Arabs and Muslims at large are raising their future citizens in the refugee camps caused by the carnage of the old guards refusing to see the emerging light.
Business as usual is also the delusional pastime of American lawmakers, where the reincarnation of Joseph McCarthy, a certain Representative Peter King, a Republican, has yet again raised the color code of Islamophobic banality (6) — himself the very picture of a terrorist intimidating millions of human beings in the sanctity of their own home and country for the crime of being Muslims. The obscenity of this particular distraction by Representative Peter King marks the fact that he will hold no hearing on Jewish synagogues as “a breeding ground for radical attitudes” in sustaining a militant Jewish apartheid state with records of crimes against humanity. Peter King’s Islamophobia is yet another feeble attempt to sustain the politics of despair that Arab Spring has already overcome.
To achieve that postcolonial geography of liberation the battle we need to wage against counter-revolutionary narratives (pulling the world back into status quo ante) is no less urgent than the heroic battles that Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, Syrians and others are waging against political despotism that have ruled over them for too long. Neither pan-Arabism nor indeed pan-Islamism – which are only the mirror images of the Islamophobia that is now plaguing Europe and North America – will do. These revolutions fortunately have no charismatic leader – and they are headed towards no pre-destined conclusion. Their commencement is the end of Nasserism, Musaddeqism, Nehruism, and NOT their regurgitation. These revolutions are not against the West, for the the West – as the imaginative geography of our domination, and in the fabrication of which we ourselves have been co-conspirators – no longer exist. This round of uprising is no longer between an abstract modernity and a belligerent tradition. All these tired old clichés are now in the dustbin of history. The new history is beginning at the site of camp Zaatari, where Syrians have gone to give birth to their future. When the carnage of Bashar Assad and his militant nemesis is over, the Syrians will go back from Camp Zaatari to build their democracy.
The West – the delusion – stands to loose in that liberated geography. In so many words, Sayf al-Islam Gaddafi made a point (7) assuring Europeans that his vision of Libya is that of a gatekeeper for Europe, for without him and his father “pirates and millions of illegal immigrants” will be “in Sicily, Crete, Lampedusa.” That is the kind of corrupt servitude that the would-be future leader of Libya had imagined for his country. “While millions in the world are celebrating the popular uprisings in North Africa,” notes Behzad Yaghmaian in The Specter of a Black Europe, (8) “Europe is watching with skepticism and fear. The fall of the African dictators will deprive Europe of valuable allies in the fight against irregular migration. The political vacuum and the social and economic instability that follows will create a new wave of desperate migrants daring the high seas to reach the coats of Europe. This will deepen the immigration crisis Europe has been trying hard to manage in recent years. Europe is responding with an increased use of force. A new humanitarian crisis is looming.”
From European intellectuals to American generals, left and right is offering to explain, advise, help, or else provide moral or at least military (aka humanitarian) aid to the budding Arab Spring. The corrupt and undemocratic Security Council of the United Nations offered resolutions denouncing Gaddafi, as if his war crimes were any worse than Bush and Cheney’s. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times hit a new plateau of utter inanity trying to explain the events in North Africa via his usual banalities of the Google and flat earth. Be that as it may, the alphabet of an entirely new political culture is being devised right in front of our eyes. The grammatology of world altering movements are unfolding, and these are not to be marred by follies of our own or the designs that lurk from the upper echelons of the Egyptian to the lowest denominators of our own racialized prejudices.
One word – arhil (go away) – summarized the Egyptian revolution, when addressed by masses of Egyptian revolutionaries against Hosni Mubarak. The word was cathartic – with the power to rupture, puncture, dismantle, discard. The corrupt and corrupting power of a state apparatus was dismantled by the sheer democratic will of a people. The Pandora Box of possibilities was then opened. One suicide set two massive revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt ablaze. One internet announcement that people were coming out to challenge the mendacity of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the whole capital city was turned into a garrison, flooded by military and security forces. This is the power of the people. This is the banality of the evil that passes for state from Morocco to Iran, from Syria to Yemen. The bizarre arrogance of the thing that still insists in calling itself the West is punctured by the fact that the word democracy is no longer sufficient to call and claim these revolutions. At camp Zaatari, the terms of a new political emancipation are being articulated in a language that only the future generations can fathom and conjugate.
The direction of these revolutionary movements is ultimately Tel Aviv, when this generation of Israelis will have to recognize that they too want to join this rendezvous with history. But for the young generation of Israelis to tear down those apartheid walls and the even thicker walls that Zionism has constructed in their minds and hearts, they must feel welcome in the magnificent block party we are having from Morocco to Iran, from Bahrain to Yemen. Arabs and Muslims at large must recognize the pain of the Jewish Holocaust in the sufferings of Palestinians right in front of their eyes. The Israelis must feel and be welcomed to this block party.
The world at large, and the ethnographic gaze of Euro-American anthropology in particular, must learn humility from these revolutions, now extended from the euphoria of Tahrir Square to the quiet sufferings of Syrians in Camp Zaatari – as both anticipate, in tandem, the future of the Arab and Muslim world. This is a post-imperial world, when globalization has imploded, neoliberalism catastrophically failed, when the center of the latest empire cannot hold and when we no anger know where the West is, nor the East. We are facing an open-ended geography of liberation – that begins at Camp Zaatari. The wretched of the earth are grabbing the bastards who have used and abused them by the throat. The world has been mapped out multiple times over. The colonial mapping of the world, with the Middle East as its normative epicenter and Israel as the last colonial flag still casting its European look on the regional history, is now witness to the shadow of their own demise. Afghanistan is the current site of imperial hubris, the Islamic republic the last aftertaste of colonized minds that crafted an Islamic ideology, looking askance at the very last Arab potentate ruling de facto postcolonial nation-states, now rising to reclaim historical agency to remap their world – and on that emerging map Camp Zaatari is the new cosmopolis.

(1) Al Intithar, 63. Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin 2013, catalogue, p.57.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz – The Witness and the Archive, Zone Books, New York, 1999

(4) The Jerusalem Post, 3 August 2011, www.jpost.com/Defence/Article.aspx?id=211231

(5) Tzipi Livni, For the Mideast a code for rising democracies, The Washington Post, 24 February 2011, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/23/AR2011022305364.html

(6) Peter King warns al-Qaeda recruiting US Muslims, BBC News, 10 March 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-12703100

(7) Gadda’s son warns of “terror and pirates”, BBC News, 7 March 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12666311

(8) Behzad Yaghmaian, The Spectre of Black Europe, Counterpunch, 23 February 2011, www.counterpunch.org/2011/02/23/the-spectre-of-a-black-europe/