Creation and Destruction

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Jordi Bernabeu Syrian girls on their way home from school

 

After my interview last week with a Syrian refugee, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books I could find on Syria. One of the books I borrowed was The morning they came for us by Janine Di Giovanni.

A seasoned war correspondent, Di Giovanni, first visited Syria in May 2012, as the country teetered on a precipice. Having described the hotel Dama Rose where she and many other  UN workers lived, she moves on, in Chapter Two, to the story of young Nada, who used Facebook and Twitter to broadcast messages from the opposition. One morning, the police came for her. Her parents watch on, horrified.

Nada’s prison experience, and more broadly, the sexual violation of women in the Syrian war, is heart-rending to read. I feel my body bracing itself for the next sentence, and the next. It is as if I am holding my breath. It is as if I cannot breathe normally. What are the men going to do next?

It is so nauseating that I stop reading after Chapter Two and try to forget what I have read. I try to focus instead on onions sizzling in the pot.  I look out of my kitchen window and admire the vegetable garden I have planted. I take pleasure in the way the tomatoes have been staked, the way the beans peep out from beneath heart-shaped leaves, and the bright orange marigolds in this riot of green.

It is human to create, and the work of creation takes skill, effort, concentration, time. What has been created takes only an instant to destroy. War destroys, decimates, dehumanises.

Di Giovanni writes, ‘The lowest depth that a human being can reach is to perform or to receive torture. The goal of the torturer is to inflict horrific pain and dehumanise another being…How does someone return to the human race after having been so brutalised?’

What is it like to try to return from that place of war, to try to rebuild a life? That is the question I am trying to answer. After three years interviewing refugees and writing their stories, I am not even sure it is ethical to ask about war experiences because the question so often causes pain. My focus is increasingly on how refugees rebuild their lives and on the people who help them. I hope it is a gentler and more productive approach.

Di Giovanni will be speaking at the Adelaide Writers’ Week on 8 March 2017.

 

 

The American invasion and chess

photo Sumon
photo Sumon

“The circumstances in our country are very difficult; this difficulty comes from the Americans invading my country because everything was destroyed after the invasion. Contrary to what America said (that they came to give peace and freedom a better chance and to improve living conditions), the militia increased in our country. One of the militia is called Al-Qaeda. In agreement with men from the old government, the Ba’athist party, al-Qaeda threatened my father to kill him, after killing his friend Muayad Sami,” translates Iba.

“When did America invade Iraq?” I ask.

“America invaded Iraq in 2003,” answers Iba.

“Who was Muayad?” I ask.

“Muayad was the head of a newspaper called Parliament and my father was the second in the newspaper,” explains Iba.

I ask for the date of Muayad’s death. Iba and his parents find it hard to give me an exact date, but tell me that it was in 2005.

Lamia continues in Arabic where Sabah had left off.

“My mum says, my younger sister, Ranin, was threatened not to go to the chess club anymore and as my father said, my family in general was under threat of being killed,” said Iba.

The interview settles into a rhythm, with Iba translating for his father, Sabah, the playwright, and his mother, Lamia, the actress. Sabah describes the family’s journey from Iraq to Australia using world events as reference points, while Lamia puts me right in the scene, sometimes with a single word. When she recalls the terrible house in Jordan where they lived for a year, she raises her hands in despair, scrunches up her face in disgust, and laments in English: “Rats!” And I can almost see the rats scurrying by their feet.

When I leave 90 minutes later, I know that there is much more to discover, and make a date and time to return.