Weekend read: Yarmouk miniatures

Do sit down with this enlightening, thoughtful, of course heartbreaking essay by a former English teacher -- and Arabic student -- in Damascus. It brought back memories of my own extraordinary tutor in Cairo, a similarly cultured and impassioned and generous man who know a language class could be so much more. 

It was the surreal highlight of a happy day. Looking back, the whole day seems like a scaled-down model of the three years to come: a charmed wandering across the surface of Syrian life, nourished by great food and chance encounters, tutored by countless small embarrassments, cushioned by the privilege of a British passport and an expat salary. The signs of a dictatorship—the presidential portraits, the leather-jacketed security men, the off-limits areas of conversation—were impossible to ignore. But my Syrian friends seemed bright, open-minded, and irreverent. None of them resembled cowed, brainwashed subjects of a totalitarian state. “The regime can be cruel,” a Syrian colleague once told me, “but as long as people stay out of politics, they are left to get on with their lives.” Most days this line was not difficult to believe.
Watching the referendum debke, though, was one of the moments when I realized how little I understood. I could comprehend people voting “Yes,” grudgingly or even wholeheartedly: the president was, on the face of it, widely admired. But this dance of gratitude seemed so undignified. Not even the most devoted supporter could have been in any doubt that the referendum was a farce: the maniacal repetition of the theme song, the ridiculous slogans, the conspicuous absence of a “No” campaign. What led intelligent men and women to dance debke in honor of a president who forced such absurdities on his people?

A video from the Radd Fa'al Crew in Yarmouk camp

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Thousands starving on outskirts of Damascus; situation ‘unprecedented in living memory,’ U.N. says

Starvation in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee neighborhood in Damascus. Enough to make you hate the world and yourself. 

And then, 12 days ago, after the Syrian authorities cut off food shipments into the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk, everything became more dire. More than 48 hours have now passed since the United Nations says food ran out for nearly 20,000 people dependent on aid in Yarmouk, which has suffered some of the worst fighting in the Syrian war. Today the community, which sits on the outskirts of Damascus, is little more than a warren of bombed-out buildings long on rubble and short on everything else.

 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.