Two days after my arrival in Damascus, I woke up depressed, unable to imagine that I had to spend three more weeks in this zombie city. I did my bed, and sat on it for a moment, unmotivated to do anything. And then I saw my reflection in my mother’s big dusty mirror. The miserable way I looked inspired me to snap a picture. That experience somehow energized me to get up and have a busy week.
I was desperate to speak to a fellow European. It had been five years since I moved out of Damascus. I had disintegrated from the city at least a decade before that. I reached out to one of the most famous Europeans in town, Vanessa Beeley. She’s a British independent journalist who’s spent years covering the war in Syria. She has battled almost every major western corporate media. Vanessa and I had a long Skype conversation several years ago, after which we lost contact. I didn’t even expect her to be in the city, but I decided to take a chance.
She was in town indeed. On January 17th Vanessa and her friend Wissam, a kind vegetarian math teacher, invited me to join them for coffee in Old Damascus. Meeting her made me feel home again and lifted my spirits.
The woman I met was completely different from the one I saw on the news. I had always known Vanessa to be a warrior; the kind of who fought ferociously in the battle of words. On the personal level, however, Vanessa is warm, kind, passionate and lighthearted. She isn’t argumentative and is incredibly polite and humble. Her kind smile is so genuine it makes you doubt the clergyman’s one. She told me about the reasons why she had joined the whole Middle Eastern mess. Her father was one of the few British diplomats entrusted by Egypt’s Nasser. His legacy had eventually driven her to go on defending the Arabs. She seemed to believe that they had suffered great historical injustices.
Vanessa told me that she was an Arabist.
Vanessa is one of the most controversial journalistic figures in Syria. On the one hand, she’s accused of promoting conspiracy theories and spreading false information in favor of President Bashar al-Assad. She and her North American friend Eva Bartlett have defended Syria’s leader against Oscar-winning groups like the White Helmets. The White Helmets is a Western-backed civil defense organization that claims to have sacrificed dozens of its members in order to save tens of thousands of lives in insurgent territories. Vanessa refuses to acknowledge these declarations, though, and considers this organization to be criminal and terrorist.
On the other hand, both Ms. Beeley and Ms. Bartlett are heroines in a battle against a corrupted Western establishment that is in the business of producing systematic falsehood. Western activists ranging from politicians like Ron Paul and George Galloway to small groups of young university students cite Vanessa’s work in discrediting the corporate news media. They place her in the same category as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. They believe that she’s fighting for nothing but the truth.
To me, personally, Vanessa is neither one of the two extremes. As a Syrian-born who’s always felt oppressed by the country’s hegemony, I have a big problem with people like Vanessa defending Syria’s political establishment. Yet, I don’t think that Vanessa has ever promoted conspiracy theories or falsehood. She’s quite factual, and always willing to work with bullet points. She’s quite effective because she cares for the people whom she writes about. I disagree with her on many issues, with my own set of facts and incentives. Yet, I admire that she has the courage to pursue what she truly believes in. She’s one of the very few trusted journalists in a land that is paranoid of journalism. She lives to defend those who can’t defend themselves. This seems to be her purpose. It’s also her dilemma.
Defending the defenseless keeps Vanessa busy. Though, it doesn’t stop Syria from crumbling.
When we left the coffeehouse, Vanessa comfortably walked through the crowded and narrow Damascene ancient alleys, as if she owned the city. I saw the light in her eyes, as she embraced it. Though, I’m not sure that she saw the defeat in my eyes, despite everything she had done for this country. I don’t know whether she knew how inferior I felt in a place that was no longer mine. The simple truth is that Syria seems to trust Vanessa more than it trusts me. Vanessa is one person, with a purpose. I’m an entire generation whom this country has failed to give purpose.
I’m one of the defenseless.
This country is at war against countless enemies. Today, it’s facing an economic war that is even more brutal. It has responded to the first war by drafting hundreds of thousands of young men to fight and die for the land of cotton, wheat and oil. Now, it’s no longer possible for Syria to export these things, so it’s losing the second war. It imports expensive cars and smartphones. Yet, it fails to export knowledge in an information-driven century. People here are expected to know how to shoot a machinegun, which is another expensive import. However, they don’t seem to know how to use a keyboard or a camera lens, nor are they encouraged to do so.
The only narratives that come out of Syria are the bad news. The only face you’ll find on this country is either of a president – regardless of what you think of the president – or a terrorist. This is because people here are unable to get to you, dear surfer, despite their decent internet services and fancy smartphones.
I don’t know how to stress this enough. Syria is a country that trusts its people with bullets but not with words. Therefore, it’s losing the information war, despite all that Vanessa has done with her furious keyboard. In fact, part of Vanessa’s job is to defend the Syrian Arab Army, which appears to be as vulnerable as the Ottoman army during the Great War. If Syria ever could put together an army with less canons and more keyboards, Vanessa’s job would be a lot easier.
If people here could speak directly to you, they would probably explain to you how your government is punishing them not because they’re wrong (which they sure are) but because they’re weak. They would tell you that they’re suffering not because they have enemies (which they do), but because they’re unable to fight back. They can’t tell you any of this because they don’t know how to get to you. As a result, you google the word ‘Syria’ and all you see is violence. It’s not what the Syrians are, but how their rivals want you to see them. The Syrians are so beaten down that this is how they now see themselves.
Syria has long lost its sense of agency. If you ask anyone here, or any group, what it is that they stand for, they won’t be able to give you an answer. They don’t know who they are. All they know is whom they’re up against. Some Syrians, especially the ones you meet in Europe, present themselves as those who stand against a tyrant. Other Syrians, especially here in Damascus, stand against western-sponsored terrorism. Between the two exists a third group that condemns both sides, yet all this group does is complain instead of acting. This leaves you with no choice but to conclude that the Syrians are a whole bunch of tyrants, terrorists and meek prey.
Of course, this is not who they are. This is just how they see each other. If they could try to gaze a little into a mirror, they would find out they’re just people like all people. They’re my father, and my mother. They’re complex and have problems. They made mistakes in the past but did a few good things too.
They’re not that different from you, and neither is Vanessa.
There I was sitting right in front of the brave woman who had been to Syria’s most violent frontlines. She’s met some of the most influential people in the country. I personally never got the chance to meet any of those people. They’re not as approachable as Vanessa – although in fairness, I have never tried to text the president or any of his advisors through their Facebook pages. I wouldn’t do that because I don’t value them the way I value Ms. Beeley. I told her about my interest in new media, which allows for intimate global friendships on a user-to-user basis. I told her that I was more interested in her story, than the story she’s trying to tell about the whole Middle East.
Vanessa reminds me of my father, who once lost a long battle against the windmills. She’s done quite well on a crusade to discredit what is undoubtedly a dishonest news media. Yet, she may have shot herself in the foot, too.
When I asked her about the alternatives that could fill the vacuum that mainstream media is leaving, she merely suggested where I should get my news from. I told her that I no longer cared for the news in general. I’m not a passivist or an isolationist. I want to learn about the world, even more than I’m allowed to. Yet, I think that the whole news genre has discursively expired and can no longer inform, even when it truly wants to.
If Shakespeare was alive in this age of bankrupted journalism, he’d probably say, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the journalists”. He would’ve probably made an exception for Vanessa, though, for playing a role in discrediting the journalistic narrative. Yet, pointing out the falsehood of a story is a lot easier than claiming to hold the truth. The truth is sometimes not achieved by correcting an untrue story but writing a new one with more relevant characters. Assad, Obama and Erdogan are not remotely as relevant as Eva, Vanessa and Wissam, the vegetarian math teacher.
This is the alternative which I hope Vanessa will someday pursue because hers is quite the story; one that deserves to be told and remembered. I don’t know whether I’ll get the chance to see her again. Though, I won’t forget the time when I met the last Damascene with a keyboard.