At the time of writing, Syria has been in a state of civil emergency for nearly two years. Many Westerners will be familiar with it only from scenes of destruction on the television news. Others will know something of its historic background, of its marvellous architecture and multi-layered religious traditions. In 2010, documentary maker Yasmin Fedda set out to produce a portrait focused on its ordinary citizens. The result is an opportunity to listen to the voices most often lost in conflict – those of the peaceful people others claim to be fighting for.
Botrous is a Christian monk. He recalls an incident from childhood where a teacher slapped him for asking what happened to the poor people who went to the mosque. The slap woke him up, he says. It snapped him out of his utopian understanding of the world and brought him into reality. Whilst Botrous works to organise interfaith conferences and bring people together, his brother espouses a simpler form of patriotism, singing the praises of the governing regime. There are two Syrias here – the utopian, with valuable things to say about the nation’s potential, and the real, where positive results require hard work. Two also in the military – the bombs we hear in the distance, the aids spoken of in whispers – and the civilian, the civic, the product of thousands of years of civilisation. Two more in the two stories we focus on here.
Living in an ancient monastery with a complex religious heritage, Botrous is a man whose life has been structured around intellectual and spiritual endeavour, manifesting in care for others. He welcomes tourists and holds discussion groups on ethics with assorted locals. He is also a lifelong fan of football team Al Jazera, with all their songs on his USB stick. On match days, he anxiously clutches his radio, carrying it around to try and keep the signal. Desite his awareness of the troubles around him, he is full of warmth and joy.
Salem came to Syria seeking asylum from the conflict in Iraq. His legal status is about to run out. He is harassed by the locals, even blackmailed, and without a work permit he struggles to support himself; his homes are a succession of rooms rented in other people’s names. In Iraq his hair was pulled out by torturers so now he wears it long and has it bleached in streaks, like a Nineties footballer. A trained tailor, he sews beautiful clothes. He misses his old workmates and his family. He is lonely and afraid. He sees the dark underbelly of a country on the brink, even before the real fighting starts.
Through these glimpses into two very different lives, Fedda illustrates a nation built from interwoven narratives that defy the simple categorisations placed on it by outside observers. The hopes, needs and emotional depth of her subjects remind us how many more stories there are still to be told. They will make your heart break over the country’s current suffering but inspire you with hope for its future. Though we see hints of the brutality to come, we also see landscapes of breathtaking beauty, and the score, largely composed of traditional songs, is full of yearning.