an Essay by Diane Glancy
“Her Film Camera,” Trinh Sari Nguyen
February, 2015— 210,000 dead, 6,783 of whom were women and 10,664 of whom were children, verified by name, photos, and documents or videos. 3.73 million officially registered as refugees.
Part One: A Trip to Syria
almost twenty years ago, I went to Syria as an Arts America speaker for the United States Information Agency, when it was still in operation. I gave readings and answered questions about America. They asked about violence. Was I afraid to leave my house?
I remember the square in Damascus where the guide pointed and said, that’s where they hold public executions.
In Syria, I visited Aleppo University, the University of Damascus, Tishrin University in Lattakia, and Bath University in Homs, sometimes traveling a hundred miles between cities in an American Embassy van. We stopped at checkpoints run by armed soldiers along the road.
I stood at the ruins of Ebla in Syria, where there was an older old than any of the history I knew in America.
I wanted to make use of the disconnected sights jotted down during travel, the stops and intrusions, the interrupted fragments, the unrest of students in the universities. I don’t want to be told what to believe, they said. I heard their lack of possibility, their frustration, their anger. What did I find on the USIA trip, but a glimpse of something I was a stranger to? A subtle and diminutive cultural shock wave—the clearing of smoke afterwards—the rubble. I wanted to record the quick look into a volatile place because it was all I was offered. I left with a sense that our words were something like tissue paper held over a flame, quickly dispersed on the wind.
The Whole of What Story
For a moment there was air to talk—to share the human fabric—in that brief space, the U.S. spent its money to send people to other countries. Writers who spoke of America said how it was before the military would send the whole of the story, and then the looming conflict and unleashing of pent-up frustrations. The softer words are shoveled under their endless march and what missiles of words follow.
There were times alone in my room when I felt the low point of travel. The weariness of understanding the fright of the world. So much larger than anything I had touched, but saw nonetheless, and could only express sometimes in discordant images rolling against each other.
One afternoon, I cried and had trouble stopping. A distinct withdrawal from the enormity of what was below and maybe above. What was the earth but a speeding story that maybe could not stop before it was too late? Other baggage, what I brought with me, would not stay packed.
This summit of one’s self, speaking before an assembly about the ordinariness of one’s life because they thought all of America was rich. And to read one’s work and have it interrupted by a professor telling his students the Arabic language was what poetry was, not the plainness of the language I was bringing, and yes, yes, that was true, but poetry also carried the plainness of one’s experienced life, and I continued my reading. When it was over, students shuffled by my table leaving mementos and thanks for what I brought.
Later in my room, I put my hand to my burning forehead, not with sickness, but with recognition of the desert. Maybe more than once, I had the urge to fall on my knees and beg, once more, for what had passed.
You stand in a country not your own. The ruins of the oldest city in Syria. The excavations opened in a country whose cravings you are beginning to understand. How a people stay with you. How your attempts are a varmint in the way things work. Your tactics are not as solid as these digs, but you feel the blue glassware as you pack the plane that lifts it from the land.
Somewhere the engines were running. I could not hear them. But I felt a vibration somewhere deep in the days ahead. Sometimes when I woke, I felt we were already in the van, moving over the road to the next place on the itinerary, with a slice of unrest waiting to make its way like a strong wind across the world.
Long afterwards, I dreamed of spending the return trip somewhere inside the plane’s wing. I had to crawl through a narrow passage where I had to lie flat, immobile for the 22-hour flight across the Atlantic.
Part Two: The Watch
When I returned from Syria, I put my notes in a drawer and left them there until the civil war. Once in a while, I heard the eruptions of unrest on the evening news. I watched Charlie Rose interview Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and felt the pages of that old notebook turn. Maybe it was just the leaves I still had to rake from my yard. Or the wind across the plastic cover on a neighbor’s boat at night.
I wore that journey, like the tick bite on my foot where the small insect burrowed into my skin and resided there briefly. But there was no match to burn out a memory. Not even the opening of a drawer one evening— the pulling out of words. I looked at them—swollen, sore—and wasn’t sure what was there, or what exactly the relationship was between the memories of Syria, a wad of news, and some words in a drawer.
I went on the USIA trip with a commitment to the co-existence of differences. I flew on the hope for diversity. I returned with a departure from that. Not a departure from the people, but from the regime that held them in check. But what are regimes made of, after all, if not people?
While watching the news of the political uprisings in Syria, I went over the words in my notebook, unfolding them from the memories I thought wouldn’t last—storing the dusty roads and mountains of a foreign land, the evening breeze off the Mediterranean. The students, much older now, are caught in the upheaval in the streets of Damascus and Homs, Aleppo and Lattakia, who left their marks in my notebook like the tick’s still-swollen mound on my foot.
The Storm Wind Engulfing
A funeral meant for mourning turned into a protest against government forces. A U.N. monitor truck destroyed. A little trip to Syria long ago—people caught between Sunni and Shiite—no room for those who wanted neither—forced out and into Afghani refugee camps. To destroy everything is in line with a cruel regime and the Free Syrian Army. It’s like any disaster zone that never strikes the whole place, but where it hits it hits. I can still walk around parts of Damascus, a reporter remarks—but Homs, especially. Incoming blurbs across the bottom of the screen—Iraq sending weapons for the totality of chaos and war.
The scorched earth is not drought or brushfire, but a government’s attack on its own cities and people. The opposition asks for guns to destroy the destroyers, but America already overstepped in the rest of the world. In Syria, it’s one group against another, until the ground is cleared of the other. Meanwhile, a dead child passes by, laid in the back of an open truck, rocking over the gutted road as if on an afternoon nap.
Now Homs Again
Now Aleppo and Lattakia, on the evening news, against a regime imploding like a dying star taking the sky around it. Wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico, California, Utah. Possible hurricanes on the east coast. The hostile politics under one’s own feet. The images on a flat-screen TV, at the table where you eat, watching war crimes served with the meat and potatoes: your involvement is so not involved.
The Collector of Bodies in Houla, May 25th 2012
What is happening in the varied stories and different versions that come? What can be trusted to be true in the complexities of a country at war with itself? There’s a Syrian regime and a Syrian army against that regime. There are people in between. But there’s an outside force there too. Artillery that only government forces have is used in massacres—or it comes from the outside. The Syrian government accuses terrorists of giving weapons to protestors. Each has truth on their side. The truth of the regime. The truth of the Free Syrian Army. The truth of jihad and the moral code of Sharia. The truth of the people on the street. O cover that with your little poetries and its spider legs that crawl into crevices. You who hide in your own country with sympathy, yes—but what does that do? Jihadists do not like the Free Syrian Army and their cry for democracy. Jihadists do not like the regime. Nor the people they want to overrule. The children ravaged, women raped, men burned in front of their families. Outgunned. What can the people do? What of the threaded versions that come into view? Where exactly are the lines of embattlement? O review it with your words one more time to understand the regime, the Free Syrian Army who fights for democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood who fights for their own brand of Islam. Iran, Russia, China, the Saudis—the countries wanting their side of things aiding the different factions of who knows who? Then the Al-Qaeda forces that maybe come from the desert or the Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, when all the people want is the freedom to buy and sell and go about with their own little spiderings.
A refugee camp is a fleet of tents in the cold.
….and when, then, the imagination is transmogrified—
“Syria,” Lawrence Joseph
…and mobilized with desperation and anger, a war-machine rises. I have a friend who dreamed a snake crossed a river and became a dinosaur on the other side. It is Terrorism, we agreed, returning to its primitive state. She, a pastor’s wife, I, a Christian believer, both believe in dreams—or the interpretation of them. What else do we have in the wake of the awful happenings? The children, reports say, are beheaded. Their heads placed on sticks. Is it fabrication? Even Hitler did not do that—did he? Though we are now in an age that has been one-upped. I have seen online photos—residents in Syria who stayed behind when others fled, standing by the rubble of their buildings. I printed out photos of refugees— a four-year-old boy found by relief workers, walking by himself in the desert. This worm in the center of the pistachio, eating the core. It was supposed to be a people’s revolution, cracking open an oppressive regime. But it turned into fire. What is the heart after all? What is the brutality in the desert? They are horrific, Christians said of the fundamentalists, as they were airlifted to France. Convert to Islam or die. It was later that evening on television that I heard a man—someone—a US General maybe—I didn’t get his name—talking about ISIS. They will know who they are up against if they come against us, he said. What was the man thinking? As if our resistance meant anything, when planes flew into buildings, and we entered a misguided war—or at least went to the wrong place with our own war machines. The Terrorist gained force in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. They divided, evolved. Took different shapes in the Syrian Civil War. They continued to morph into more gruesome terrorists. Hyper-violent. They murder dissidents. They have a cause, a mission, a reason to be that gives them pacing. They want to rid it of everything not them. Now the beheading of an American journalist, apparently by a hand knife. Mark this day.
Look at the ministers writing books. Traveling to the Holy Land. Preparing sermons for the winter series that have nothing to do with events in Syria. As the days before the flood—eating and drinking—marrying and giving in marriage until Noah entered the ark. ISIS is a direct threat, someone said on NPR during an interview. The US is behind on the ball. Trained fighters return home to cause havoc. They are a plane ticket away. They are crossing the border, former Governor Perry said in Texas. You won’t have to go to Syria. You will be able to fight wherever you are.
The Loneliest Road
Highway 50 across Utah and Nevada: land and a road into the distance, spinifex bushes and small round clumps of sagebrush that will blossom yellow in September.
I listen to books on CD as I travel. Now it is The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, about his 2004-05 deployment to Iraq, which the wide valleys and stark mountains also must resemble.
What I am struck by is that the land also has seen war. The upturned layers of rock in the little passes between the hills and small mountains.
The strata pointing up to the sky after some old shifting of the earth. The buttes and broken gorges weathered and lichened. Yet the land remains.
Here it is the salt field of Sevier lake bed. A basin that doesn’t drain, but evaporates in the desert sun.
Between CDs, I hear reports on the news that ISIS is entering the US across the border of Mexico. I imagine new action comic books or video games. The battle of ISIS against the Mexican cartels.
Maybe both will be endorheic salt pans with no outlet but evaporation.
A few herds of cows graze the open range with warning signs, cows on the road. At various points, the car makes a quick zipping sound as it crosses cattle guards across the highway.
I want to pass on this narrow ledge—elevation 7,722 at Connor’s Pass. Beyond, the wide plain. A heavy cloud. The spit of rain.
Until Nothing Is Left
As of May, 2015, in Syria
220,000 dead. 4 million fled.
Diane Glancy is professor emerita at Macalester College. Her 2014-15 books are Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education, nonfiction, University of Nebraska Press, Report to the Department of the Interior, poetry, University of New Mexico Press, and three novels, Uprising of Goats, One of Us, and Ironic Witness, Wipf & Stock. “The Collector of Bodies” is part of a manuscript-in-progress. She also is editing an anthology of Native Writers on the Middle East, BkMk Press, University of Missouri–Kansas City. She lives in Kansas and Texas. Her publications and awards are on her website: www.dianeglancy.com.