“We live between great countries and superpowers. We laugh and cry, fear and suffer.” In recounting seven punches in the face, Avo Kaprealian's essay tells the story of Armenians in Syria that begins and ends with an exodus.
These days, when I hear words like “freedom” or “justice,” “rights” or “dignity,” I wonder whether I’m hearing them as a Syrian, an Armenian, or simply as a human being. For the impact of such terms - more’s the pity! - varies accordingly. My freedom as a Syrian is distinct from my freedom as an Armenian, and my dignity as a Circassian differs from my dignity as a Kurd. My rights as a human being vary according to the nationality, residence permit, or documents I have.
O cruel life! But this is the reality in a world of major countries and superpowers - and yes, that is an accurate label for them.
In amongst the major countries and superpowers are also some little dictatorships - but their size in no way diminishes the extent of the violence they practice, nor the harm they cause. These dictatorships rule over our “unimportant” countries, and hundreds of thousands fall victim to them: they die, are displaced, or become migrants before the eyes of a world that loves to watch.
In amongst the major countries and the superpowers we were born - in narrow streets that were still pleasant places to be, in divided neighborhoods that were still coexisting. At least that was the impression we got of them, in our innocence. We were born and lived cheek by jowl, but not necessarily hand in hand. Some of us were separated into sections as clearly defined as sardine tins. We used to hear references to “the Jews’ quarter,” “the Armenian quarter,” “the Sunni quarter,” “the Alawite quarter,” “the Kurdish quarter,” and so on. And we would speak of one another in generalizations and use freighted adjectives, firing them off like bullets from our side at all the other sides, and receiving the equivalent back—“stuck-up,” “dirty,” “stinky,” “shoe-shiners”, “desert tramps,” “freaks.”
In amongst the major countries and the superpowers I am wandering, I who was never a citizen of any major country. I take something with me from each place I wander, leave something in every place I pass through. I was an Armenian in Syria, a Syrian-Armenian in Lebanon, then a Syrian-Armenian-Lebanese in Germany, and thus, identities multiply on the way to the Sleeping International.
I have often been asked if I am an Armenian or a Syrian, then asked why we Armenians even care about Armenia, given that we were born in Syria, and doesn’t that make us Syrians? This is akin to asking a Syrian in Germany or anywhere else in the diaspora, today or in a few years’ time: “Why do you think about Syria? Why do you still speak your language? Why do you remember, lament, bottle up your feelings, dream, follow the news… Why are you so angry?”
This is how the question of identity wrestles with the question of integration - yesterday, today, and perhaps even tomorrow.
With all this in mind, I do not like to speak as “I,” since the “I” has become distant in time and space, and I do not like to write as “we,” because the “we” changes in each country in which we arrive and settle down. But one must speak.
I: was born an Armenian in my country, Syria. That’s not sloganeering, or nursery rhyme - it’s the truth. I was born in a homeland in which I recognized myself, but there was a second homeland inside of me, one that knew me and that I got to know. It was a homeland that lived on through a spiritual, psychological, and material narrative: a narrative of sweat on the brow, and the spirit of continuity; a narrative of blood; a narrative of tears of sadness and joy mingling in the memory of massacres, survival, and excavations back into time. A narrative extending from the solidity of history to the spontaneity of daily movements, the body’s memory and the eye’s memory. An Armenian narrative was born with me in Syria, the cradle of civilization: my language, my friends, my experiences, and all those accretions that time has built up along the way.
But while we were growing up in a homeland, that homeland was closing in on us.
While we were dreaming of a homeland, the homeland was our nightmare. We were learning how to protect it and love it in military camps and compulsory military service, where the first things we learned were submission, breaking ourselves down, and readying ourselves for taming.
While we were walking in a homeland, time was betraying place, and snowed-on brains were freezing over.
While we were preserving the memory of a homeland, the memory of the homeland was putting us into a black file filled with blood, intimidation, terrorization, bombing, and kidnapping
While we, as Armenians, were building a lost and betrayed homeland on the inside, we were also getting to know a homeland outside of us, one that embraced us. A second skin was growing over the first skin.
The Syrian-Armenian relationship is an ancient one, a knot embedded in the roots of history.
Historians tell of how the Syrians, when they tired of fighting the Seleucid dynasties, presented king Tigranes the Great with their crown in 83 BC. Tigranes the Great, nicknamed the King of Kings, was one of the most famous and imposing kings in the history of the Armenians and Armenia.
Tigranes the Great passed through Aleppo two thousand years ago.
Tigranes the Great was born again in Syria in the form of the displacement, deportation, and mutilation of corpses, in the year 1915 and thereafter.
The question of integration: Armenians from older generations tell me that Armenians had their own special schools in which they learned science and other academic subjects, all in their own language. They also tell me stories of simple, kind people living according to values and principles founded on the concept of respect. Of course all this was before the advent of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party - because from that point on there was only one narrator, telling one story, and values and principles were replaced by the law of the jungle.
Generations of Armenians raised in Syria were brought up reeling from a trauma handed down from generation to generation that became permanently lodged deep within every Armenian. This trauma, passed down through daily narratives, collective memory, books, pictures, and all kinds of activities, was the genocide they were subjected to by the Ottoman Turks. The trauma drove Armenians to construct a small empire of their own within their beloved Syria, with their own churches, workshops, laboratories, stores, clubs, and their many and varied community organizations. In these places they exercised their right to survive, to preserve heritage, language, and social contact, their right to remember, and their right to protect the pain that had not yet dulled. But they did not necessarily exercise their right to struggle and take political action: neither domestically, for Syria; nor abroad, for Armenia. Thus a medium that contained the Armenians was formed, as well as a protective membrane which had the appearance, from the outside, of a shell - a shell reinforced by the great difference in language, religion, and culture between them and others.
In several Syrian cities the Armenians received special treatment, both from the government and the people. This discrimination was positive, kind, and sometimes even affectionate. It was discrimination based on respect and appreciation, but it was still discrimination, the effects of which would become evident only later.
Thus, a stranger in one’s homeland - as close to it as the grave is to the earth.
The First Punch: School
I remember skipping school one day in the year 2000, as my peers and I often did, going off in search of amusement within the city. We ran away that day to wander around Aleppo - to watch, to eat, to find stuff out, to have some adventures and get a sense of our existence and our presence, and to burn off some of our boundless energy. Then it occurred to us that we could return to school in time for dismissal. We made it back just a few minutes before the end of the school day and waited for our friends who were still inside, looking out for the pretty girls we all wanted to catch a glimpse of. While we were waiting, a happy adrenaline buzz coursing through our lively, lithe young bodies, along came the patrol known as “the Moral car.” This was the squad tasked with monitoring and maintaining society’s morals - especially those associated with physical closeness. It was a gruesome, ugly vehicle that had obviously rusted and been daubed over with a new coat of reddish paint. Everything about it was grotesque, formidable, and colossal.
We had hardly registered its approach when some agents jumped out of the moving car and one of them punched me. It was a blow that rocked the fabric of my very being, shook me to the core. The positive adrenaline rush I had been feeling was instantly replaced with a negative one. In that moment I learned that I exist on this earth in this particular homeland, a place that can turn frightening when it wants to, and at lightning speed.
I was able to dodge the agents and get away. My brother, on the other hand, who was three years older than me, tried to fight them. His resistance eventually led to him being dragged away into the car, along with a friend of ours. The story ended when I was able to borrow someone’s phone and call my father, and he in turn made a quick call that brought the car to an abrupt halt in the middle of the road, releasing my brother. Using your connections to pull strings in this way is known in Arabic as wasta, or “head-breaking” - in the land of “one phone call solves everything.”
Shock, shame, tremors… “I am afraid, therefore I am…”
Shock, shame, tremors… “I have connections, therefore I am…”
The Second Punch: Theater
In 2005, I was working on a play titled Eternal Flames. It was to be performed on the occasion of the ninetieth anniversary of the Armenians’ greatest-ever tragedy: their genocidal deportation, displacement, and systematic killing at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. The genocide was carried out under the leadership of the Committee of Union and Progress, also known as the Young Turks.
A few days before the performance, during our final rehearsals, news reached us that the play had been banned. This was a joint move by the Theater Directorate and other authorities responsible for licensing performances and providing them with political and security approval; the root cause of the ban was the close relationship between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad at that time. Assad had visited Turkey repeatedly, and Erdogan had visited Aleppo. (Erdogan went on to participate in the opening ceremony of the Aleppo International Stadium in Al-Hamadaniah in 2007. One of the largest stadiums in the Arab world, its construction took twenty-seven years; that is, approximately 9700 days - having originally been supposed to be ready for the Mediterranean Games hosted by the Syrian Arab Republic in 1987!)
I remember the expression on the face of the play’s director, Krikor Kalash - one of the foremost academic directors in Syria, perhaps even the best ever. He sat quietly, keeping his anger contained, his shame buried, his despair concealed. He allowed himself to let fly a little expletive, a small expression of the colossal sense of claustrophobia that he kept hidden, and then he gulped. He stared for a little while into thin air and then down at the ground, tried to regain his equilibrium by taking a deep breath, swiftly packed his bag, and left the hall. The rest of us looked at one another, making sure this was all real, trying to work out if it was normal. We left the hall. And by leaving it we betrayed it, and we learned. We learned how we were silenced and the pain in us was silenced; we learned how to gulp, how to get a grip on ourselves, let fly a small expletive, and leave.
The last time I met the director Krikor Kalash, he was working in one of the Armenian clubs, handling food and beverage stock control.
Krikor Kalash died in Aleppo, after refusing to go to Canada because he considered the procedures for submitting papers and queuing at the gates of embassies as immoral, an affront on human dignity and a mockery of the most basic of human rights. He insisted on staying there where he was, as he was.
The Third Punch: Cinema
My obsession with cinema was growing inside me to the point of making me ill. Meanwhile, I was getting to know the country better. Aleppo is far from all the other provinces, and Aleppo is far from itself. Aleppo is great - its history and its present are brothers.
I wanted to study cinema. I wanted to make movies. Where should I go? There was nowhere specialized in cinema and filmmaking - neither a college, nor an institute, nor a school in the whole of Syria!
To study, I would have to go abroad. But lacking the financial means, I would have to stay put. Watch more movies instead of making them. A huge gap separated the image from the reality.
My father’s movie library was my salvation, before satellite dishes became widespread in the country.
I knew there was only one institute in Syria where theater theory and practice were taught. There was no choice but to leave, then, because this institute was located in Damascus.
I dodge another punch, saying: Let me study theater, so that I can find my way from that to the cinema!
It is common knowledge that after the early 1980s the Syrian regime earned itself a new name: “The Iron Fist.” This fist brought about equality, since it threatened everyone - except for the rich and those with wasta. Hell was born, calm from the outside, but gradually increasing in temperature with each passing year. And so our daily lives became chaotic, despite the strict regime. And this chaos was interacting with the awaited hell.
And every hell is bound to spawn freaks, and seed other hells. Metamorphosis brings about metamorphosis. Death begets death. Murder breeds murder.
Perhaps we who were born in Assadist Baathist Syria, especially after the ‘80s, came to earth as unfinished unpolished corpses. We had to wait a while, a few decades, to become fresh new corpses: some of us alive, some of us dead and martyrs.
The Fourth Punch: Security
Early 2011: demonstrations and revolution, hope and fear.
During the years I spent in Damascus I was fortunate enough to meet conscious people, people who knew and understood. Dreamers and poets; thinkers and artists; those who had tasted the bitter tang of the cruel government that dominated the length and breadth of the country. The heart of the capital city was pounding with revolutionary thought and opposition more than anywhere else, both before and after 2011 - because all those beautiful colors and differences gathered together there, as one.
Almost all of my friends, male and female both, were at the center of those decisive events, right from the first day of the first demonstrations.
That’s when I decided to return to Aleppo, to carry out my struggle and do whatever I could do in my own hometown. My gut feeling was that photography and documentation are important in periods such as this - the image is our signal, our guide and our (only) signification.
In Syria the camera is more frightening than any weapon. I wielded it; I photographed. In early 2012 I escaped arrest once, twice, three times. The fourth time they arrested me with my camera in hand. The two friends arrested with me had forgotten to erase their photos of the demonstrations from their mobiles. We were one Armenian and two Christians, and our crime was a major one.
Here came the fourth punch, and other bigger and more painful ones. The security agents were astonished that Armenians and Christians could be against the regime: they were almost certain that minorities had long been tamed! They imprisoned us long enough for the scars from the wounds all over our bodies to disappear. Then they sent us back to our friends and relatives, our bodies externally intact even if they were dirty, inflamed and skinnier.
They confiscated my digital memory. I lost everything I photographed. A great void formed inside me.
Late 2012 brought the first fatality of an Armenian civilian in Aleppo: a young woman in her early twenties, killed by a mortar shell. The funeral service was held in our neighborhood church, in an area where the majority of the population was Armenian. I remember her coffin passing in front of us, and her picture on the hearse. I was out on the balcony, smoking. My right eye was trained on the funeral procession, while my left followed the thick smoke rising from over there: there, where our distant neighbor was dying at that very moment, the Muslim, Sunni neighbor.
The battles began, everyone a side in them.
The enemy is at the door. But who is the enemy? There are two types: the hidden enemy and the obvious enemy.
The hidden enemy, Turkey, was there at the door, threatening minorities in general. And the obvious enemy - the Baathist regime with all its backwardness, violence, and malice, the agent of Russia and Iran - threatened the majority, remaining camouflaged in the shadow of the hidden enemy.
But the hidden and the obvious always swap roles.
I remember what the lieutenant told me when I was in detention in 2012: “You Armenians, if it wasn’t for us they would have trampled on you, those monsters, they would have raped your women. Now you come and make trouble? Fuck you!” And from that point on we were made to read racist rhetoric targeting the Armenians, sowing hatred and sedition, over and again. This discourse came from opposition figures such as Ghassan Aboud, the owner of one of the opposition television channels, and others who started making speeches full of hatred and malice against the Armenians.
Incidents like these prompt you to see that your obvious enemy is your neighbor’s hidden enemy, and your neighbor’s obvious enemy is your hidden enemy. But fatigue and fear can sometimes blind one’s eyes.
From 2012 onwards, the Armenians of Syria, especially the Armenians of Aleppo, lost hundreds of innocent civilian victims to internal battles, victims that included women, children, and the elderly.
Infernal years were to come for both east and west Aleppo. The flames were growing higher and the fires were multiplying. Years without hope, without a horizon, without a sound mind that thinks or a resilient soul that feels. Years without water and without electricity. Years in which people grew familiar with the sounds of bombing and shelling, with murder and death and devastation, with the putrid stench, and the pitch-black darkness.
One morning in 2014 in the Armenian-Christian neighborhood, we awoke early to the sound of voices shouting, “Allahu akbar, God is great.” Some armed opposition factions had reached the Armenian area. Non-stop shooting continued for hours. Hit and run, and a large number of dead. I recall being flooded with an overwhelming rage during this time, asking myself, “Why are they chanting Allahu akbar in an area that is known to be mostly Christian Armenians?” I would have expected them to shout “freedom” or “dignity,” “sympathy” or “fraternity,” or to give a short speech that would move the residents of this particular neighborhood to positive emotions. “Why do they act with the logic of imposition? They are imposing religion, and placing it above all else, instead of winning the Armenians over to their side!”
This religious dimension was nothing like the one that had prevailed when people gathered in mosques, using them as meeting points for the demonstrations at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. At that time they were a relatively safe place for demonstrators to gather, as their sanctity, symbolism, and history made it difficult for the regime to crush uprisings occurring on the premises. In another way, this chanting in the Armenian neighborhood was the result of the enmity and hatred that had begun to grow, the desire to exclude the other that had by this point formed a major rift between the various constituents of the Syrian people.
A few months later, heavy shells began to fall on the neighborhood. My father and mother escaped death by a matter of seconds, and the house was badly damaged. Some of our neighbors died. One of them was decapitated by a missile and left in that state in the lobby of his new home.
In the midst of all this, while I adhered to my anti-regime position with heart and soul in my thoughts and deeds, the number of Armenian civilian victims was increasing, especially in the Midan district of the city, which was mainly Armenian. These people fell victim to the shells coming from the armed opposition.
One day during that period I came home and headed up the stairs to our apartment. A strange, bleak, sad atmosphere hung over the whole building. The neighbors’ open doors, whispering voices, the sound of weeping, and the glare of the energy-saving lights added a great strangeness and sadness to the air.
When I got home my mother told me that our neighbor had lost both of his sisters at the same time, killed by the shells that had rained down on the Midan district square a little earlier. Suddenly I saw a little girl in our lounge. She was the daughter of one of the victims, but she had not yet learned that her mother was dead. I couldn’t stand it! I fled, and for two weeks I did not dare return home lest I bump into our neighbor, who knew I was pro-opposition. What could I say to him? How would I justify myself, how would he see it, how would I see it? Should I say to him, “May God have mercy on them”? Was that supposed to be enough? Should I say, “The regime started it - it’s all their fault”? Everyone thinks that you, as an opponent of the regime, will try to justify what the armed and non-armed opposition is doing. They don’t know that you are against all of them and everything that has happened and everything that is happening.
I want to not think. To not feel. I am unable to keep my balance within all this pressure, this madness, these events fluctuating at such tremendous speed, and this distorted media that controls minds and steers events.
I left Aleppo at the beginning of 2015, and I don’t know if I left the city because it betrayed me, or if I betrayed it by leaving.
In the period between 2011 and 2016, more than 70 percent of the Armenian community of Aleppo emigrated, having provided victims for battles that began for reasons we have now forgotten.
Back to the punches.
The Fifth Punch: Before the Diaspora
2016 – 2019
In Lebanon I was able to really get to know the Syrians. I found out what Syria means today, and what Syria was before. I felt that my identity - accumulated over many years between Aleppo and Damascus only - was being reconstructed.
In Lebanon, in those tents thrown up sloppily along roads leading to remote areas that are very cold in winter and very hot in summer, I met a large number of Syrians. They came from various parts of Syrian cities, from remote villages and neglected countryside - places about which I previously knew nothing worth mentioning.
A tragic nightmare loomed over them at all times, namely deportation into the bosom of hell. They were affiliated with the Syrian revolution, which meant their unresolved files were jammed in the system. They were pawns: first being maneuvered for fundraising, and second for applying mutual pressure between Syria and Lebanon.
There, in Lebanon, I saw how all these people were capable of laughing, and of working to nurture hope, in spite of everything. There, I learned that when life narrows, souls expand - and that fairness has just one name: unfairness!
Where’s the punch in that?
The Sixth Punch: the Diaspora
I follow the news remotely, on my mobile screen. Sometimes I use my laptop to see images and video footage more clearly. I read the news: “Erdogan’s government uses Syrian fighters in its support for Azerbaijan’s war against Armenian Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh).” I search for more confirmation of this news, and the more sure I become of it, the more I search.
The Seventh Punch: Just after Six
The war in Armenia ended in a cheap scenario, after forty-five days of fierce battles, internationally banned weapons, and noble struggle and resistance. The war is over and I’m sitting in Germany. I don’t know geography, but I do know history. The sixth punch taught me that when you lose geography, you win history. Thus, we become used to being part of the history of the defeated, the history of tyranny, oppression, and injustice.
The war waged by Azerbaijan on Armenian Artsakh ended with individual agreements signed by personalities who lead entire nations. The war, which caused thousands of tears to be shed and exploded thousands of bodies, ended with international silence. It ended with the elimination of existence and hope. It ended with force and coercion. It ended in the context of the armies’ and superpowers’ game: the game of who has the most money and power. This game took me right back, as a Syrian - back to memories I had tried to forget, into a waking dream that was nightmarish in its drab and dingy colors.
I remembered that injustice is the supreme leader, and that issues are complex; that accounts are old, and public opinion does not matter; that freedom-loving democratic countries are not always attentive and caring. I remembered that agendas always win, and the people always lose, and that people, especially those who have no might or clout, die without aiming for anything - and without even being directly aimed at. They die as numbers, as statistics in breaking news and old news, circulated by the media and then passed on by us, ourselves, behind our screens in our distant exiles. I remembered that we are numbers, and that a number cannot die.
At the end of 2020, on a new day, in a new country - a country hundreds of thousands of Syrians reached on foot, wandering through cold, lost nights of oppression to get here.
The body exhausted, with memories of two homelands: one of them so disfigured that it has become difficult to recognize, and the other ripped apart once again, the guillotine poised above its head.
Russia and Turkey are trying to divide the new prey (Armenian Artsakh) and take advantage of it for their own interests. I can see how this geographical slice - together with its inhabitants, its history, and its present - is turning into a Joker card in their pack.
The internet transports me swiftly from here to Syria, from there to Armenia, and back again. Any news for us to follow? Let’s turn it off then! I don’t hesitate to try and make myself forget. But I cannot forget.
We live between great countries and superpowers. We laugh and cry, fear and suffer, grieve and despair. We leave, we rise up; we light candles, plant roses, and dream; we call for war, we pray for peace. We call for attack, we call for revenge - but those major countries, those superpowers, they have the last word.
Between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, between America and Europe, I have not survived as an Armenian, nor as a Syrian - I can say that, in my name. And of course I can generalize to a great extent, with a magnanimous heart that does not despair.
Today we stand bewildered before our wounds, our lost causes, our shattered dreams, and ask where we should start. Should we start with Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Lebanon, Armenia? Or should we zoom out further, and start from Africa?
Today, we’re learning how to pack. We’re learning to put our luggage where we can see it, ready and waiting to start over. There’s nothing for it but to start again, and to try again, over and over. It’s not the outcome that matters, so long as the first step can always be taken.
Translation from Arabic: Alice Guthrie is a freelance translator, writer, editor, and researcher. Her translations have appeared in a broad range of international venues and publications since 2008, recognized with various grants and honors—most recently the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize 2019. Among her ongoing projects is the translation of Moroccan feminist Malika Moustadraf’s complete works. As a commissioning editor she is currently compiling the first ever anthology of queer Arabic writing, set to appear in parallel Arabic and English editions in 2021.
Curation: Sandra Hetzl (born 1980 in Munich) translates literary texts from Arabic, among others by Rasha Abbas, Mohammad Al Attar, Kadhem Khanjar, Bushra al-Maktari, Aref Hamza, Aboud Saeed, Assaf Alassaf and Raif Badawi, and sometimes she writes too. She holds a Masters in Visual Culture Studies from the University of the Arts in Berlin, is the founder of the literary collective 10/11 for contemporary Arabic literature and the mini literature festival Downtown Spandau Medina.
This essay is part of our series "Reminiscence of the future". To commemorate ten years of revolution in North Africa and West Asia, the authors share their hopes, dreams, questions and doubts. The essays indicate how important such personal engagement is in developing political alternatives and what has been achieved despite the violent setbacks.
In addition to the series we also address the ongoing struggle against authoritarian regimes, for human dignity and political reforms in various multimedia projects: For example, our digital scroll story "Giving up has no future" presents three activists from Egypt, Tunisia and Syria who show that the revolutions are going on.