Cry, beloved Syria
I don’t know about those in Brussels and Paris but many of the refugees I met in Vienna last December long to be back in their country. They might be grateful to be alive and away from the horrors of a civil war raging in their respective countries but they agree that there is no home like one’s place of birth.
It was the constant bombing of his city that finally forced a 50-year-old Syrian dentist to flee his practice in Al-Raqqa, a glittering capital in the early ninth century during the historic rule of Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Once the navel of the universe, Raqqa is now in ruins. Life expectancy has fallen in recent times from 80 years to 55 years.
The dentist tried to turn his back on this personal tragedy. He hosted a post-Christmas dinner in a town neighbouring the Austrian capital where he was allowed by local authorities to use a private home for a few weeks. “Austrian friends are helping my family to find yet another home,” he said. His wife and five children had already moved homes six times in the past three months. His youngest child was two years old. But the family was happy because it was together. Many refugees have lost too many loved ones and some have been separated from family members and friends in the rush to get out of the country.
The dentist has applied for asylum in Austria for the sake of his children who obviously see no future in the Syria of today. While his young children go to school in Austria, he spends his time attending German language classes although he knows that he will never be allowed to practise dentistry in Europe without first overcoming examinations all over again.
Offering plates full of Syrian delicacies that his wife and two teenaged daughters had prepared, the dentist asked one of his sons to play Bollywood music. Then he insisted on feeding his guests kebab halabi and hummus which was enjoyed with French fries!
Generous portions of tabbouleh, shawarma and flat bread found in every Arab home made the rounds. There was chicken cooked in spinach. And mutton. In between bites of cheese made from yogurt, virgin olive oil and sesame seed-based halwa, stories were shared about the injustice of having reduced not just Al-Raqqa but much of Syria to rubble. Seven million Syrians within the country have been uprooted. Children are deprived of schooling and already labelled as the lost generation.
More than 270,000 people are dead and four million have fled the country, mostly crowding into Europe and raising fears on the continent about a serious clash of societies.
Similar fears perhaps had made Europeans chop off a once Greater Syria into four nation-states in the early 20th century, putting Syria and Lebanon under French rule between 1918 and 1946. During 100 years of colonialism, until the mid-20th century, France wrung its colonies cruelly dry, making the colonised people dislike their rulers.
After independence from colonial rule, immigration into France at first proved most beneficial to all but now is the cause of much anger and resentment, leading to terrible violence.
There is anger especially at seeing parents and other loved ones being huddled into urban slums in chic European capital cities like Paris and Brussels. There is anger at not being educated enough or enjoying plum professions. Combine all this anger with new-found technology and continuing interference by former colonial powers in those parts of the world that are rich in natural resources.
Hateful, hypocritical and rapacious is how some slumdwellers of Brussels’ Molenbeek neighbourhood perceive their more privileged countrymen. There is a population explosion in Molenbeek, home mostly to Moroccan immigrants, some of whom came generations ago to work in textile factories. Today the factories no longer exist. One in every three citizens is without Belgian nationality. Unemployment figures are high here and so is the number of young people.
Caught between an open, liberal environment that is also indifferent to them and a loving but orthodox way of life of family elders, confusion makes some of these youngsters find solace in hate and destruction.
Unlike the teenaged sons of this Syrian dentist, though, who spent one very climatically cold evening indulging in feasting and in much grooving to “Badtameez dil, badtameez dil”, the very foot-tapping popular song from box-office bonanza Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani.